Before the age of the Internet and smart phones it wasn't easy to find a climbing partner every single time you got the itch to get on the rocks. Although I had many climbing partners, on many occasions I found myself alone in Joshua Tree looking for someone willing to do what I wanted to do, to do the routes I wanted to climb. All I needed was a belayer. My wife filled that role beautifully, but she had her own sports and passions and couldn't always go with me. Meeting new people has never been easy for me, but some of the events that took place have stuck with me for a long time. The purpose of this page is to share two of my stories during the years I was most active in Joshua Tree National Park.
Steve from Alaska and North Overhang
Intersection Rock is probably the most prominent rock formation in Joshua Tree National Park. It sits at the cross roads to several points of interests as well as a very large parking lot, in short a great meeting place. Many mega classic routes are located on this formation. One of these mega classics is North Overhang. It was during the afternoon hours and I was bouldering the first few moves of another route called Waterchute. I noticed a rugged looking guy was also interested to try the same moves. After a while and some chit chats, we introduced ourselves. He asked me what I was up to in Joshua Tree and I told him that I had been walking around hoping to meet another climber to climb with. Then he asked me if I could lead a 5.9. My answer was, "I think so." He asked me if I would be interested to lead North Overhang so he could follow. I asked if he had a harness and knew how to belay. The answer to both questions was yes.
North Overhang is usually done in two pitches. The first pitch is very easy and it ends in an alcove with a fantastic view. We made it to the alcove with no problem. The start of the second pitch is an entirely different story. It consists of climbing under a roof/overhang with a crack. You can jam your hands in the crack but for your feet you have only a dead vertical face with absolutely no features. The only recognizable feature on this face are the dead rubber streaks from previous climbers' shoes sliding. At that time, the overhang was protected by two rusty 1/4 inch bolts that were both half way pulled out of the holes and bent from catching repeated falls. I knew I had to place my own protection. To make matters even more interesting, if the exposure hasn't unnerved you yet, the left hand jam above the overhang is completely blind. You are feeling your way up. You might as well close your eyes. In fact, that might be a good idea since it's better not to see the exposure below your feet.
I knew that I had to be brave for my newly found friend and just go for it, and I did. After the crux the route becomes much easier, in the 5.8 range. After a few hard pants I continued to the top of the crack and set up an anchor where I could see the troublesome corner. I yelled down "Steve, you are on belay. Climb when you're ready." No answer, and no slack in the rope for me to take. I waited for a while and yelled down again, "Steve, you can climb any time." No answer. My shouts got louder and louder to no avail. Steve seemed to have melted and gone into the ground. But, there was no slack in the rope, so surely, he was still there, somewhere! This went on for what seemed like half an hour with no results. It was getting late, and I had to do something. I began to pull the rope with all my might. Low and behold, the rope began to move. I kept pulling with my whole body. Then, I saw a hand come around the scary corner, then a head. Steve was climbing, and it was getting dark.
Steve had finally reached the easier part of the route and was climbing fast. Then, no more than a few seconds later I saw another hand come around the corner, then a head and a whole body. Had we held up another party? I wondered! No, this guy was all alone. No ropes, no partners, no gear, no nothing! He was soloing the same route. Walking fast past our awe-struck gazes he just smiled and murmured "hey" and disappeared.
Yves from Argentina and The Flake
His name was Yves. We talked about climbing, and he said that he had done some. I told him that I wanted to do The Flake, 5.8, early the next morning before it gets too hot. It was about the end of May, and Joshua Tree gets very hot by mid-day. Yves told me that I would have to lead. I had no problem with that. I was going to be climbing with someone with lower ability than myself, and may be I could teach him a thing or two, I thought to myself. It was going to be my pick of the route, my gear and my lead. Life couldn't get better. That night in the camp Yves told me that he was working on his Phd in mathematics and his doctoral thesis was on "good numbers." Having had college level math and physics, I convinced him to tell me more, and he did, patiently.
Early in the morning, Yves and I headed for Intersection Rock and quickly sorted gear and tied in. I checked his harness knot and his belay device. I wanted to be sure he knew how to thread the rope through the device. He did well. I started to lead the first pitch to the top of a very large flake. There was nobody else there and I didn't want to be too far from my belayer with questionable abilities. I set up the belay and asked him to climb. He came up very quickly. Wow! "If he gets into climbing, he'll do very well," I told him. I was very slow leading the friction face of the second pitch, but Yves was fast again. After reaching the top we rapped twice to get down the formation and I showed him how to coil the rope, how to throw the rope and how to yell "rope" before throwing. He did very well with a smile. On the bottom, I wanted to leave Joshua Tree before the temps got super hot. I shook his hand, thanked him for the belay, and drove away.
A month later, I got my "Climbing" magazine in the mail. Flipping through the pages, I came across a face that I had seen before. The caption read "Yves M, leading a route rated 5.13." This route was one of the highest grades of the time in Joshua Tree being established on some remote formation in the Wonderland of Rocks.
Every time I remember this story, I'm either embarrassed about my foolish assumptions, or I shake my head in disbelief and chuckle.