Rocks and Sands

After visiting the Anza-Borrego, I was pretty excited about the desert scene. Crazy mountain weather meant that we would go from the comfortable arid atmosphere of the California lowlands to wild, blowing snow and ice once we returned home. The transitions we would witness while climbing the Rim of the World Highway were at turns startling, beautiful, unnerving, and fascinating.

The Anza-Borrego Desert. Pretty neat.

The white particulate matter covering the ground in this photo is markedly different than that in the previous photo.

While the unpredictable mountain conditions makes commuting a challenge at times, it certainly encourages weekend travel. The month of March saw several more trips to warmer, silica-filled locales. The first was to Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree had been on my radar since my days in Utah, where I had purchased a climbing guide to the park. Sick of staring wistfully of the pictures in the book, a quartet of us loaded up my crash pads and tobogganed to the Southeast, riding the prevailing winds down to the desert. At this point, the van was still running roughly, even after its multiple fortnight stay in the shop. Fortunately, it was all downhill to get there, and my mechanic was right off the highway on the way back. I figured – worst case – I could idle my rig into his garage if I had misgivings about getting back up the mountain.

Joshua Tree National Park is a gorgeous, weird place. Piles of boulders are scattered throughout the landscape, cracked and slanted like they were air-dropped a million years ago with various degrees of precision. It’s an adventurous place, with as many opportunities to scramble around the mini-mountains of monzogranite as there are to do more formal climbing.

This is a Joshua Tree, the park's namesake. Apparently they were named by Mormon settlers, because they reminded them of the Biblical Joshua. Not the most flattering thing of which to be eponymous, if you ask me.

It was the first time I had climbed on granite, and this style was completely foreign to me. I’m used to pulling down hard on tiny edges with little friction, crimping and grunting my way to the top of rocks. The rounded marbles that dominate this place require a different touch. Granite has a ton of friction, and a standard technique is to “gecko” your way up: placing a hand or foot flat against the stone, maximizing the surface area that is making contact and easing up, balancing carefully and trusting gravity to turn a blind eye for a moment. Having cut my teeth on the glass-like quartzite of Devil’s Lake, WI, where friction is fiction and rocks are climbed with the tips of the fingers and toes, this was a learning curve for me.

I call this technique the "smear and scootch." I hate it, but it works.

During this trip, I completed my first "free solo," a ropeless ascent of a gorgeous, committing crack up a perfectly cloven boulder. False Up 20. Photo courtesy of Rachael Payer.

The van battled the wind back up the mountain, performing with mediocrity. It was still giving me problems; causing no small amount of unease to myself and my passengers, who were graciously quiet about it.

But life goes on. And we took the next opportunity that we had to head back down the mountain, this time to the West. I still had not made it to the coast, so we legged it to Laguna Beach. The morning was spent at the Holi Color Festival, where I absorbed enough colored dye to make me sweat purple for the next two weeks. We didn’t get to our “beachside” campsite until after sunset, at which point I made the executive decision that my first dip into the Pacific would be as nature intended, under the merciful cover of darkness. It was exhilarating, mostly because I realized that in my haste to skinny-dip, I hadn’t noticed the line of campsites about 30 feet away from us. Fortunately, I don’t think anyone was scandalized, except perhaps for my travel mates.

The next day was spent tide-pooling and exploring Crystal Cove in Laguna. I had been a bit dismissive of the beach worship that many Californians seem to practice, but I have to admit – it’s pretty great to spend a day sitting in the sand and being transfixed by the sea creatures that get trapped by the rocky shores. Looking into a tide pool is a bit like staring into the night sky. You first see a few big stars, but as you stare, more and more points of light appear in front of you. In the tide pools, they first seem relatively barren, with perhaps a fish or two. But as you gaze into the shallows, the ground comes alive with hermit crabs, snails, anemones, and other even stranger creatures.

An ochre sea star, about the size of a hand.

We're getting closer to being caught up with the present. Stay tuned for more!




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