A couple days before he flew in there was rumor of a freak spring storm and “possible” snow in the high country. Great! That would mean we might actually get to ski in powder. That was as far as I let the information go in both my head and in relation to planning. Maybe I ought to have thought on it a little more… Instead, I busied myself with getting all the gear, food, and supplies ready so that all Ross would have to do was show up with one tiny bag and the adventure would begin. An adventure supported by a go-anywhere camping and climbing machine - bristling with snowboards, packs, snowshoes, a huge climbing rack, ropes, and all the comforts of a woodland home.
A mutual friend, Brauning, had to fly out on a Tuesday for business, but he was planning to meet us in Joshua Tree for the first weekend of climbing. On past trips, whenever Ross comes into town, Brauning has gone full out with a giant BBQ, beer, hot tub, ladies - the whole works. Ross was really looking forward to the food part of that memory/hope. So much so that he was offered $400 to give up his seat for a later flight and he turned it down for want of hot burgers and cold beer. He arrived in Orange County around 10:00 PM absolutely starving. He hadn’t really eaten that day to make room for the coming feast. Brauning’s fiancé had taken up the task of cooking for Ross. She was incredibly sweet and well meaning, but after we set down to dinner, Ross surveyed the meal set upon the floor and glared into my black soul with death-ray eyes. The meal that he had waited for all day and gave up cash for consisted of vegan spinach quiche, soy bean salad and cold raw tofu. As an added joy for him, before we were served food, we got to enjoy Fijian Kava. Brauning had just returned from that island chain and brought some of the drink mixture back with him and thought it would be nice for us to enjoy. Kava has a mild relaxing effect, is an appetite suppressant, and it also tastes like muddy, luke-warm ditch water. One full coconut shell cup was all Ross could stand before he started grumbling about the location of a Taco Bell. We got a really late start from Brauning’s house (12:30 AM) and after kissing our respective ladies goodbye, we hit the road for a 2 hour drive to Joshua Tree National Park. Ross talked shit about tofu the whole way.
One of Brauning’s roommates, Jebousek, was our advance man in the park. He had ridden his motorcycle up there a couple of days in advance and had staked out our camp site. Good to his word, he called, before we left Brauning’s, from a bar near the park and told us where the campsite was. By the time we got to the bar to meet him, Ross had been up for something like 25 hours, after taking a mid-term that morning and I was slipping into drooling unconsciousness in the passenger seat of my truck. I love Jebousek, but he has some issues… We arrived just as the bar was closing and everyone in the placed seemed to know him. He had apparently spent almost all of his two days in Joshua Tree sitting in that bar, winning friends, and influencing people. He had even hooked up with a “lady” that was old enough to be looking forward to receiving her monthly social security checks. For his own sake we got him out of there before they named the bar after him. As we drove into the park proper, I got the feeling that something wasn’t right – there was snow on the ground. Usually I am a weather prediction device for my buddies. If I wear flip-flops, it will snow and if I wear boots and bring gaiters it will be ninth-level-of-Hell hot. Something was wrong, I left the flip-flops and it was still snowing in the desert… Crap. We figured that it would get better by the next morning and Ross and I climbed in the back of the truck and passed out. Brauning and Jebousek pilled into Brauning’s truck and did the same.
The next morning I awoke to my breath frozen on the windows of my camper shell and there were three additional inches of snow on the ground. Time to rethink our agenda… We drove into town and had a long late Breakfast at Denny’s, While watching the snow driven at angles reminiscent of Van Gogh brush strokes. We decide not to fight mother nature, but to embrace her and board/ski while the powder was flying. Jebousek opted out and rode his bike back to Orange County in the snow – poor bastard. Brauning, Ross and I loaded up and headed for Big Bear, which is normally an hour from Joshua Tree. Our trip along frozen roads took more like three hours, but we made it to the mountain by 1:30. Ross lucked out and rented the sweetest pair of rental skis ever. They were brand new and he was the first one to unleash them on the slopes. They cost something like $900 and the shop owner was quick to make the point that if they came back beat up and gouged from rocks and off-piste action, Ross would get to buy them and carry them back to Arkansas. We were on the snow by 2:15 and from the very first run, we were in white fluffy cold heaven!! The snow was crazy dry and it just kept coming. We got to lay some of the first track on a few of the side runs and just hammered the lifts until well after dark. We spent our first day at Snow Summit, which has 3 main runs open at night. It was really eerie boarding at night with the features of the slopes popping up at us at the last moment due to the odd haze the artificial lights cast in the blowing gale, but there was almost no one left on the slopes when we finally called it a day. We had it almost all to ourselves for most of the afternoon. After a steak dinner and a movie in the cab of Brauning’s eco-killer monster-super cab truck, we parked in the resort parking area and settled down for some well earned sleep or at least that was the plan… In all the time I have spent with Ross in tents and in the woods, I had never known him to snore. He must have been holding out on me. That night was the start of his snoring opus that lasted for the rest of the trip. There was no escaping it – he got louder as the night progressed and no amount of prodding or waking him up or him rolling over would quiet the evil horn in his head. He snored so loud a couple of times that he woke himself up and I started thinking alternately about how worried I was that he had sleep apnea and about smothering him with a sweaty sock - I cat-napped between his fits most of the night.
We got up early the next morning and after a serious coffee infusion were on the snow again by 8:30. Day two of boarding was just as magical as the first day. There was powder EVERYWHERE. The season, up until that point, had really left us all wanting and praying for snow and it was as if some great Norse god of sunny snow storms had heard us and decided to grant our pitiful mortal pleas. We hit it hard for most of the day with little rest. I was utterly spent around 2:00 as were my other two partners in crime. The plan that we had formulated in Denny’s the day before was to spend three days on the slopes, but none of us had the stamina for that, probably due to our limited access to powder that year. We decided we needed a break from the cold and wet. My place and the beach was just the spot to warm up and rest. We took off around 3:00, figuring we would get a head start on the traffic down the mountain – just like every one else on the mountain. The drive out SUCKED! It took us almost 6 hours to get down in the bumper to bumper traffic. Ross LOVES traffic and he, being from heavily industrialized and urban Arkansas...
The day and a half at the house was great. We slept late, grubbed and caught a movie before ditching all the snow sports gear and repacking Wink for strictly climbing business. Learning my lesson from the week before, I checked the 10 day forecast for all the available climbing areas in California. They were all going to be cold and wet, so we opted for Red Rocks, Nevada. We had both been there the year before for Mountain Gear’s Red Rocks Rendezvous and had been rained out the entire weekend. This was a good time as any to settle some unfinished business with that outcrop of Nevada stone.
The trip there was fairly uneventful and we were out of the truck gearing up for climbing by 2:00 that afternoon. About a quarter of a mile hike from the truck Ross and I both discovered that neither of us had brought our camera. No manly burly climbing pictures?! That just wouldn’t do. Someone had to go back for a camera. The matter was decided by a match of rock-paper-scissors. Ross cheated so severely that he would have been shot down in the street of an old west town a century ago. I took my loss with grace and didn’t realize the depth of his deceit until I was almost back to the truck. I would have left him there in the desert to fend off the snakes, coyotes, drag queens, and wild burros for doing such a dirty underhanded thing, but he had my new 10.2mm rope and I’m stingy. Also, I was the one who was gullible enough to close my eyes… Know that I didn’t make the same mistake twice and I decided then and there to write him out of my will.
We knocked out four single-pitch routes in a couple of hours. The rock there is sandstone and wasn’t too tough on our fingers and hands. While doing our last route we met a couple of guys from Denmark who were in the US for a month-long climbing road trip. They were pretty cool and invited us to share their fire that night after I volunteered some information on sport routes in Joshua Tree – their next destination. Ross and I had gone into town that night, grabbed some groceries and discussed the game plan for the week. He had been on a route called Prince of Darkness (5.10c) the year before and had to bail due to the sustained rating and because he was dragging someone else up the wall, leading every pitch. He wanted to knock that route off, but agreed that for the first full day we should aim for something less ambitious. We decided on Crimson Chrysalis (5.8+), a thousand foot crack with mixed protection that went straight up the right side of Rainbow Mountain. After that decision was made and we gathered all of our provisions, I drove to the campground to join our new friends for dinner. Climbers are such a breed apart. You can go almost anywhere, find a climber, whether he speaks your language or not, and you get info on route, a campsite, free food, water, etc… just like that guy has been your buddy since elementary school. After hooking them up with beta on Joshua Tree, we sat at their table, fired up the stove and shared some laughs and fried bison summer sausage with them. After the food was gone and a few beers were consumed, Ross and I took off for our free campsite south of the park. It hurts my soul to pay for camping, and anyplace free, facilities or not, is an obvious choice. The site was situated in a small, secluded valley away from the main road and offered an unspoiled view of the mountain landscape.
The next morning, I scrambled eggs, fried some salami slices, made coffee for me and cocoa for Ross. We got up fairly early, but the big breakfast slowed us down somewhat and we didn’t get to the parking area for our route until after 10:00. The guide stated that the trail to our proposed route was 1.5-ish miles long and it sounded as it route finding would be no problem. They didn’t factor my presence into that equation. I don’t really get people lost. It just seems that every time I am with someone, they get utterly baffled by direction and place. It is like an involuntary subliminal evil super power. Anyway, Ross took a wrong turn about half a mile into the hike and we ended up bushwhacking our way up a frozen slope through thick stunted holly and manzanita. We trekked past a cold sleeping rattlesnake (I really hate snakes!!), over twenty foot drop offs, and up an overgrown rock strewn gully to the base of Crimson Chrysalis. Our little hike took us three hours and by the time we got to the route there were four groups already on and one was repelling down from the forth (of nine) pitch because they were too cold and there was not enough time for them to summit before dark. Rappels SUCK in the dark. There was no way we could finish the route before dark either. It left us pissed off and demoralized. We rallied from our slump while still at the base of the climb and decided to hike down a bit and stash our gear for a quick and light assault the next morning. I found a hidden crevice out of the weather and away from the trail enough that our cache wouldn’t accidentally be stumbled upon. We put all the cams, slings, draws, our harnesses, climbing shoes, and both ropes into that nook and prayed that it would still be there in the morning. Aside from the two grand worth of gear, the loss of that stash would have ended our climbing trip and made me a surly, bitter little man for weeks or possibly months! The risk was worth it though to make sure that we had a fighting chance to get on the route before the sun left its face around noon.
We hiked back to the parking area taking careful note of the trail, direction, intersections, and rock formations on the way out. We ate an early dinner in town, checked out a couple of new truck options for me, and made a run down the Las Vegas Strip after dark. The amount of fossil fuel burned to light that one street for one night would power some African countries for a year. It was gaudy, and touristy, and dirty, but it is something to experience at least once. We got lost trying to find Red Rocks after our tour of Sin City – imagine that. After driving for an hour WAY out of our way we got our bearings again and drove to a couple of different possible camp sites. I didn’t want to be too far from the front gate that led to the Red Rocks Visitor Center and the climbing, because I wanted to be the first in line at 6:00 AM when they opened. Ross was tired, we were both cranky and it looked for as if neither of us was going to be happy about camping for a while. We rolled into the guys from Denmark’s camp site (five minutes from the gate), told them our tale of woe and begged them to let us just park there for the night so we could haul ass in the morning. They said ‘of course’ and refused both money and beer for their generosity. I was so tired that I can’t tell you for sure if Ross did his snoring buzz saw imitation or not, but I guarantee if you ask any of the other 300 campers in that campground, any of them could describe it by volume and intensity.
I set the alarm for 5:30 and knew that when it went off, Ross would drag me out of the truck. I was counting on him to lead the charge. When the alarm went off the first time I waited for Ross. He didn’t move. Not a peep five minutes later when it went off again. When it started up for the third go ‘round, I grumbled out of my sack and started getting dressed. Ross followed suit. After a Clif bar, a shot of GU, and a swig of water we were off and were #5 in line when the gate opened. In route to the parking area I told him about my plan for him waking me up that morning to which he replied something about having decided the same thing about me and out of principle wasn’t moving until I did. The fresh memory of his deceit at rock-paper-scissors flashed in my mind and I would have put him out there at the gate, but I needed him to both climb the route and to help carry all the gear out. Don’t worry, I filed it away for future retaliation….
Three of the four cars in front of us went to the same parking lot. After asking the assembled mass what their plans were, there was only one pair that was going to attempt “OUR” route - two girls from Ft. Collins, CO. We grabbed everything for the climb (water, packs, Clif and Tiger’s Milk bars, and warm layers) and ran down the trail passing the other pair and putting some space between us and them. We were going to be the first ones on the rock that day even if the hike up killed Ross! I can’t stress having a plan “B” enough. I figured if he expired at the base of the route I could either use him for a counter weight while I led each pitch or one of the girls would go back for help while I convinced her partner that we had to do the climb as a “tribute” to him.
Our gear was where we left it and we were just about ready to start leading when the girls walked up. I won rock-paper-scissors for the first lead (Ross doesn’t fair as well when it is an honest game…) and started climbing around 8:00 that morning. He and I are really comfortable on the rock with one another and we moved up, swapping leads, fairly quickly. There is something about long tall climbing routes that makes my body need to show another human being my willy. It happened on a wall in Switzerland and on a cold wall in Wyoming. It also happened around pitch five of Crimson Chrysalis. I couldn’t pee on the rock, because the team of girls was below us and no one wants to climb though pee.. I didn’t have a bottle, but I found an old Ziploc in my pocket that had months old remnants of trail mix in it. I had to go and it just had to do. We hung at the belay station, Ross looking away in disgust as I filed my little bag. Note: bags that have contained trail mix and have been in one’s pocket for over two months invariably leak. At the first sight of a escaping drop Ross starting saying cruel hateful things and I had to dispose of the bag. My intent was to put it in my pack and dispose of it later, but littering for the first time in ten years was a better option at the time than being covered in pee with the temperature hovering around fifty degrees Fahrenheit... I yelled “ROCK!!” and let ‘er fly. Not my proudest moment, but I felt SO much better after the deed was done.
Around six Ross was starting to drag and it had gotten really cold. I put on my down vest and we chowed down on a couple of Tiger’s Milk bars. While they aren’t the greatest sports bar in the world they taste great and don’t get so cold that you break teeth trying to eat on a really cold route. I took a few shots of Ross eating one and planned to send it into the company. Maybe Ross’s first sponsor would be Tiger’s Milk?!
Ross led pitch eight. The rock there is a deep, deep red and is the reason for the route’s name. The features are slick and there is very little place to put in protection. It was the longest run out and the scariest pitch of the route. Ross handled it like a champ! I got to the hanging belay and had to man-up, and become hyper aware that I was the proud owner of a set of balls before I started up the last pitch. It was the same type of slick rock that pitch eight was composed of with the additional advantage of having a few rusty ¼ drive-in pin bolts (wholly unsafe and scary!) and again absolutely no place to put any gear in. I talked myself through the moves and was crazy-happy to top out and see the final set of anchors. I was also greeted at the top by warm, bright rays of sunshine. It was the first time I had felt its warmth during the whole route and it was comforting, luxurious, and welcome.
We didn’t spend much time at the top because of the cold, wind, and the parties coming up below us - there wasn’t much room to share. Before starting the rappel we added a screw-link to the chains to make our decent safer and to reduce wear on the one rap ring that had been installed. Ross took some pictures of the two other groups on route (two guys from Boulder got on around 10:00) as we made our way down. We made the descent in seven full rappels – linking the last two and the first two pitches - tying a 50m and 60m rope together. Thankfully, our rope never got tangled and we got down in great time. I was stripping off gear and clothes almost before I hit the ground, running for the bushes. My little girl bladder and colon had signed a mutual evacuation pact around pitch 5 of the decent. I was all better by the time Ross unclipped from the rope at the bottom of the route. We coiled our ropes and packed the gear just before dusk. The walk out was mostly in the dark, we were tired and were carrying a bunch of weight, but we were ecstatic about on-sighting the route and making it down in one piece. We went into town that night and had steak, chicken, and cheesecake to celebrate the hard fight. Neither of us had any problem at all sleeping through the night.
We slept in a little the next morning and after Sir Snore-a-lot cooked breakfast, we loaded up the truck and started off towards Joshua Tree NP for another try at climbing in the park. Ross was driving and as the navigator for this leg I chose a short cut that would knock a couple of hours off of our drive. The only catch was that it was straight through the Mojave Desert and a breakdown or running out of gas would have been a major problem. About half way through the Mojave we started seeing mound after mound of coned shaped dirt piles, one over lapping another and going on for hundreds of yards in straight lines. They looked like the sand piles in the bottom of an hourglass. The landscape was completely barren, no houses, no roads, nothing for mile after mile. About four miles after seeing the first cone we came to an industrial site that listed the area as the Amboy National Chloride Company. The cones were from their mining process. Long deep ditches are dug, filled with sea water and left for the sun to do all the work. After some time all that is left of the water is a vast thick crust of calcium chloride that is mostly used on roads in the winter as a deicing agent. One of the trenches was a good way through this process. The water was azure blue like one would imagine the waters of the South Pacific would be and it looked inviting for a little swim. We didn’t partake, but the color of that water set against the white salt and the desolate terrain was beautiful.
We rolled into Ryan Campground in Joshua Tree around 3:00 and took the last camping spot available. As stated before, I find it vile and loathsome to pay for a camping spot, so I do it as seldom as possible and only then when I am made to. This was one of those times. The five dollars for that night was all we spent on camping fees for the entire trip. The snow had melted from the previous weekend but the temperature hovered around fifty and the wind howled. We tried to set up camp out of the wind, but it was no use – there was no hiding from it. I cooked dinner and after getting chased from the fire by wind blown smoke, made my way toward the truck. Ross was already there, staring at a picture of his girlfriend. He had been talking about her and his feeling for her nonstop for the whole trip and had put that picture up where every we stopped for the night. Know that I teased him mercilessly for it. It is not that I’m unhappy for him, I even like her, it is just something guys do. It is how we show affection for one another without actually touching. He got all cranky, rolled over and said goodnight to “her” before we finished the night reading in the back of the truck. He was so cute and the whole thing with him looking longingly at the picture was so sweet that it made my teeth hurt.
The wind was no better the next morning and it was still really cold. We looked for a route or two in the sun and finally decided on Headstone, both because of the sun exposure, it is only a 5.6 – easy on tired cut fingers, and because it is a J-Tree ultra-classic. There was already a group of ten people babysitting the route when we walked up. Ross somehow finagled our way in and they let us jump on while they were resting. Ross chose to do a 5.8 on the right of Headstone Wall instead of the Headstone Route. I followed him up and stared in disbelief at the anchor that the other group was using – they had used two non-equalized runners, placing all the weight of the climber onto one anchor bolt and a ‘biner that was being triple loaded on a sharp edge. I rappelled off and asked them if Ross could fix it. After explaining the problem to their “leader,” he agreed and Ross took care of it, probably saving someone in their group from a painful day and a couple of nights in the hospital. After everything was already fixed, one of the guys for the group came up and asked me again what was wrong, I told him and he commenced to tell me that “there was nothing wrong with that anchor. You don’t know what you are talking about…” I let him rant a little, considered that he had just smoked a bowl of something illegal, and chalked it up to him being a dumb-ass that would eventually do something really stupid, have an accident, and be too scared to ever climb again. Ross came down and we took off – neither of us could handle the level of stupidity that was erupting from the guy.
We were officially done with climbing after that. We were cold, tired and just wanted to get warm and sleep in a real bed. We pilled all of out gear and junk into the back of the truck and high-tailed it to Orange County. After a long shower for each of us, we went out to a hot and very welcome dinner with Laurel and two of her girlfriends. It was just me and Ross and Three pretty girls drinking beer – not a bad way to end a day! My bed felt so good that night.
Ross left California for Arkansas early the next day and flew home to cold weather and rain – poor guy. Mother Nature didn’t really cooperate with our plans for the trip, but Ross was cool with just letting the wind take us here and there, leading to some good times and to stories that will be retold and laughed about for years within our group of friends. The vibrant colors of stone in the Red Rock desert, the clear blue water in the Mojave, Ross’s laughing, and the deep popcorn snow in the mountains all contributed to making our little road trip a Spring Break to remember. I need to admit that I may has given Ross too much grief about how in love he was and I my have teased him unfairly about his fictional love of leather clad and ball-gag accessorized men, but that is how I show I care… I also feel that we should have gotten more climbing in and done less driving, although Crimson Chrysalis was one of my two favorite routes that I have ever been on. This trip will serve as both a blueprint and as a lesson for future adventures.