Monday, July 20, 2009

Stop 5: Tuolumne Meadows, CA

Within Yosemite National Park, Tuolumne Meadows is at higher elevation than Yosemite Valley and therefore cooler in the summer. It is also supposedly less crowded than The Valley...and maybe it is, but not this week. There is only one campground within this area of the park, and it is full. Every other campground just outside the park is full as well, and we spend several hours trying to find a site.

It's already the second day since my friend Angelina and I left Los Angeles, and we still have yet to climb. We had gotten off to a late start from LA, and then spent time trying to find wireless access along the highway to study a map and see if we should drive together or separately. We decide to take separate vehicles, since I am nursing an injury and don't know how long I can climb.

After checking out several roadside camping signs, we find an area that has free camping, just half an hour south of Mammoth Lakes. It's a perfect little site, complete with babbling brook, though we are both too tired to care too much about the amenities. The next morning we stop in Mammoth Lakes at Mammoth Mountaineering to continue my search for the perfect shoe, and we are able to leave Angelina's car at a park and ride, saving on park entrance fees.

From Mammoth it's less than an hour to the park entrance, assuming you don't miss the only turn required. We of course miss it and, engrossed in conversation, don't notice our mistake for 20 minutes or so. Turning around, we make it to the park, only to find the campground full—we backtrack from the entrance only to find all the other campgrounds full as well. Finally we find a site about ½ hour from the park entrance, not too far from the small town of Lee Vining, and get in a few quick climbs near Elliot Lake.

We sleep with our heads full of dreams of bears and climbing. We awake ready to pound out a couple of routes, but once again our climbing plans are temporarily foiled, this time by a flat tire! It's almost a good thing we are so close to Lee Vining, where for $20 at the garage behind the Chevron station the Subaru is once again good to go.

Finally we arrive at Daff Dome and its relatively short approach. Though several parties are both on and waiting for West Crack, no one is on the dihedral of the somewhat shaded Cooke Book, our goal for the day. We gear up and head straight to the first pitch, which begins just left of West Crack.

The first pitch goes up a short distance before detouring around an underclinging block, and the rope drag turns out to be horrendous. The topo mentions a need for long slings, but even double lengths are insufficient to clear a rope-eating crack at the far left of the block. Upward progress is a struggle, made even worse by injury, and I have to admit that I am just not having any fun. My mistake for not routing the rope better, either straight over the block by back-cleaning the gear on the left side of the block, or by using longer slings. I have no choice but to lower and clean the gear below the block before batmanning back up the rope to continue. After that, however, the beauty of the line becomes clear and the moves are effortless, and the rest of the pitch is an absolute blast.

View across the Meadows from the climb

Angelina leads the crux pitch, and I can not remove one of her nuts. It's been a long time since I couldn't clean a piece of gear, and this one is especially frustrating as it moves freely in a small pod. Pulling up, pulling down, twisting all around...I just can't unlock the Chinese puzzle of the pod, and leave it and continue to the belay. Though clouds are building, we take a chance and Angelina raps back down to see if she can clean it. Of course, it takes her about three seconds! She returns to the belay, and on the gear changeover I promptly drop my belay device and carabiner (Doh!). Again, it's been years since I dropped anything, but dropped gear seems to be consistent with the theme of this trip. With a few rolls of thunder in the distance, we decide it's not worth it to rap down and grab it, even though in plain sight.

Looking pretty haggard at the top

The rest of the climb is devoid of any more drama, and on the descent I try and climb my way back up to the ledge with the dropped gear, but just can't seem to get to it. Perhaps a good samaritan will find it, so I post a note at the message board at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill.

I decide to rest on Saturday, and in the morning we set out in search of Angelina's friend who should be climbing in the area. Even though we don't find him, Angelina finds another climber in search of a partner and off they go, while I spend the day catching up on phone calls and e-mail. AT&T seems to have the best service in the area, with an especially strong signal starting just off the turn-off to Tuolumne Meadows Lodge. I find a stream to sit next to, which is on the John Muir and Pacific Crest Trails, and peck away on the computer and chat on the phone while watching the hikers traipse past.

At this point I know I need an extended rest—I am really in too much pain to enjoy the climbing—and I plan to head to Las Vegas to surf the couch of my friends Sam and Brie, who have just moved to Sin City for school and work. We fortunately find Angelina's friend, and Sunday morning we drive back into Mammoth Lakes so she can retrieve her car and head back to Tuolumne, while I head north for some R&R.

Tuolumne Clouds

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Stop Four, Tuscon, Mt. Lemmon

Friday, July 10th

I am driving into the maw of hell. Black clouds prematurely blot out the setting sun, and lightning and thunder punctuate the senses with a manic assault of percussive sound and strobe lights. The top of some distant peak is illuminated in the flashes, along with the ghost like figures of suguaro standing alongside the road, arms uplifted to the heavens collecting the moisture. Rain and wind beat sideways against my car; the drops are so big they sound like rocks against the window by my head, while the wind is so fierce the rain merely pings off the front windshield. The display is all the more impressive considering the size of the horizon—not enclosed like that of Washington, but an expansive horizon that begs you to take a deep breath and let your spirit soar to the ends of the earth. Or at least be blown west with the whipping wind!

This is my introduction to Tuscon, and adds to the wealth of experiences I've so far collected in Arizona. I like Arizona.

On Saturday morning we meet up with a large group of climbers at The Buzz coffee shop at the foot of Mt. Lemmon, while Stephanie heads out for a class taught by a local guide. The Buzz is, well, abuzz with activity—the dozen climbers are easily outnumbered by the cyclist, ready to pit themselves against thousands of feet of climbing in temperatures that are already into the high 90s.

Our group heads to the Munchkinland area, a stretch of granite wall with a number of face climbs, with many first ascents and much hardware supplied by local climber Scott Ayers. He has invested well over a thousand dollars in hardware alone, all of it first class and bomber. This wall was meant to be used and enjoyed for years to come. Thank you, Scott!

The 30 minute hike has some ups and downs, but goes quickly. Michelle, who is in the lead, suddenly makes a short jump to one side. She has spotted a good-sized rattlesnake sunning himself just off the trail. We make a wide berth while the snake slowly crawls over a log and curls up under a small bush. Much darker than rattlesnakes I've seen in Florida, the almost black snake is perfectly camouflaged and the rest of the group can barely make him out under the shade of the foliage.

Can you spot the rattler?

Large groups can be difficult, but this one works out well. There are just enough ropes and leaders to keep everyone busy and satisfied climbing at whatever level they choose. There is a 5.6 stemming route (Miss Gultch) that is incredibly fun (so much fun we repeat it the next day), and some mildly overhanging workouts at the end of the day as we all warm up to the wall. As the sun appears over the cliff just past mid-day, the clouds mercifully roll in and we spend the whole day in the shade.

Me on Miss Gultch

Brigette leads Miss Gultch

Sunday, July 12th

The next day sees us back at the same area, considering our success in keeping out of the sun on the previous day. We're a little slower today with just the three of us, a pace that suits us all just fine. I'm nursing a number of niggling injuries by now, and am content to lead at a moderate level.

We met a couple of friends of Brigette's, Tanya and Dave. Tanya's fiance is Scott, who put up many of the bolts. While talking, I mention I have friends who have just moved to Las Vegas. Tanya shouts out, “You're Brie's friend!”. As it turns out, I met Tanya and Scott in the Needles where they had camped next to Sam and Brie for a number of days. It's a small climbing world!

Back at Brigette's house, we settle down for a late dinner and a movie. It's been a great trip, all too short, and I absolutely can not wait to get back to Tuscon and see the rest of Mt. Lemmon. I've only been to one of the numerous areas, and haven't even seen the top of the peak itself!

It may be a small climbing world, but it's going to take years to see even a fraction of everything and everyplace. My goal is to take more pictures—I have no picture of the storm, of the suguaro, or of the incredibly beautiful sunset that accompanies me on the drive out of Arizona. I realize that, six weeks through this journey, my eyes are just beginning to see.

Me leading at the Munchkinland Area

Stephanie on her first rappel!

Stephanie's first time ascending on prussiks!

Stop Three, Flagstaff Part Three

Fourth of July weekend saw an influx of caravans into the forest. Gypsies from the surrounding areas, some local and some escaping the heat from southern Arizona, set up camps and campfires to enjoy the long holiday weekend. Every type of vehicle and tent was represented, from buses larger than my old house to decrepit trailers evidently dusted off for just this occasion.

My friend Brigette and her daughter Stephanie came up from Tuscon to climb with me, this time at The Overlook, just south of Flagstaff on the way to Sedona. The Overlook is a popular stop with travelers, and has not only a terrific view of the surrounding cliffs but also a number of local native crafts for sale at about a dozen tables. Although the necklaces and bracelets are assembled by natives, the beads and other materials themselves mostly come from China, Taiwan, and other SouthEast Asian countries. I noticed the same thing when in Alaska trying to buy a small jade bear trinket...everything was completely made in Taiwan.

Now I'll support a democratic Taiwan most any day, but I would at least like to have the option of buying objects made in the U.S. I know the economic issues are complex, but I'll support someone like Ryan at in his quest for American sourced and American made products.

Back to the climbing. More basalt awaited, a little more featured and quite a bit shorter than at Paradise Forks. The climbing and company was great, and later included Brigette's father who was in the middle of a several-state motorcycle tour.

We were rained out one morning, and so drove down to Sedona in quest of drier weather. As we emerged from Oak Creek Canyon, the spires of the West of my imagination suddenly appeared...awesome! Sedona is located in the midst of spectacular scenery and numerous vortexes, of which I have yet to form an opinion. New-agers, cowboys, and tourists explore the west exist side by side in Sedona, making for an interesting mix of craft shops, horse-drawn wagon tours, and jeep off-road tours.

Sedona is also hot, about twenty degrees hotter than Flagstaff on this day, and we quickly decide to head back to The Overlook to see if the weather has cleared up. It has, and we spend the next days climbing and seeing the sights of Flagstaff.

After Brigette and Stephanie leave, I head back north of Flagstaff for a few more days of crack school at Paradise Forks. It is easy to set up top ropes there, and I can knock off six or seven routes quickly, running as many laps on each as my fists and fingers can stand. I climb my pain into oblivion, scars and callouses and aches accumulating slowly but surely. I'm soon ready for a day of rest, and take up Brigette's offer to visit Tuscon and climb at Mt. Lemmon for a few days.

Marcus leading a crack
Me following a crack. When it's the wrong size, it's just wrong. But when it's right, it truly is Paradise!

A rare featured overhanging flake

Every climber in Flagstaff knows that Paradise is down below

Monday, July 13, 2009

Stop Three, Flagstaff Part Two, Canyoneering

Tuesday, June 30th

Throwing my climbing bag on purpose into a water filled, who-knows-how-deep sinkhole is a move that doesn't come naturally. I block off my rappel, take off my backpack, hesitate, then toss it into the water, praying it doesn't sink straight to the bottom. After watching it bob around for a few seconds, I take myself off the rappel and, with a quick jump, bracing mid-flight against the coming cold, follow my bag into the deep. Or maybe it's shallow, but for the sake of this story I'll assume its icy depths extend untold fathoms below.

Ryan, Marcus, Martin, and myself—the four canyoneers—are in Brady Canyon, which itself will lead into the north fork of the Oak Creek Canyon from which we hope to emerge from sometime tomorrow. We came at Ryan's suggestion, who had read an online account of this particular canyoneering trip from a few months ago and thought it sounded like fun.

It is fun, except that I have belatedly remembered one aspect of my physical personality. I don't like to get wet. I don't mind being wet, but I don't like the process of becoming wet. When I fairly serious cyclist in Japan, getting wet was a slow process that happened up to 23 times in one month, and yet I never got used to it. Once thoroughly soaked, I was okay—even happy—but that whole process was just miserable for me. Canyoneering involves lots of getting wet, but fortunately the process is over quite quickly.

The canyoneering is not the perfectly polished three foot wide slot canyons of Utah, but rather narrow gorges with towering walls on either side. We all estimate the size of the walls differently; Ryan thinks they are about 1,000 feet high, while Martin insists they are 80 meters.

After about seven or eight rappels, we emerge into the north fork of Oak Creek Canyon, stop for some refreshments, and then soon after find a nice camping spot for the evening. A campfire lights the walls behind and above us, and an evening long session of bouldering begins. Ryan, Marcus, and Margin almost succeed in linking the whole traverse of the wall—no two goes are rarely alike, as small flakes constantly pull out, erasing some holds while uncovering others.

The second day begins slowly, but soon everyone finds their pace and we are finished in about three hours. The walls we pass beg to be climbed, but by a more resolute climber than myself. The walk in is long, the sandstone obviously crumbly in spots and never obviously solid, at least to a neophyte backcountry sandstone climber like me.

Canyoneering proved to be a cool break from climbing, and opened up a new avenue for adventure.

Stop Three, Flagstaff Part One

Arriving in Paradise Forks late Friday night, I found Ryan, Marcus, and Martin sitting around a blazing campfire. Camping is free in this area and downed, dry wood abounds—two requirements for a perfect stay!

On Saturday we drove to Volunteer Canyon, but unfortunately Ryan developed slight van trouble and we all decided to head back into town and get it fixed without delay. We drove to the town of Williams, where Ryan had had a previous good garage experience, and once again he received a fair shake on tightening up a loose wheel bearing ($10, from the garage on the east side of the highway on the very north end of town).

Marcus and Martin decided to treat us all to an all-American dinner of hamburgers grilled over an open flame, replete with Milwaukee's best. We broke out my slack line for the first time; Ryan and myself were lucky to come away with only minor injuries, while Marcus and Martin had obviously spent some time on the line before.

Sunday saw us once again trying to skirt the crowds at Paradise Forks proper and drove out to Sycamore point. It was my first view of a Grand Canyon-type vista, with a sedimentary layer sandwiched between a basalt layer on top and limestone below. From ancient seabed to ancient river to relatively recent volcanic plain, all in one sweeping vista!

The view was much better than the climbing, which was bushy at the bottom, loose in the middle, and extremely loose at the top. After a few climbs, we gave up and drove to the Forks for my first views of Paradise.

The only basalt I've experienced is Vantage (Frenchmen's Coulee) and the Tieton River area, both in Washington. Vantage rock is somewhat suspect, at least in my book. The Tieton River is a definite step up in quality. But Paradise Forks takes basalt climbing to a whole new level. Perfect cracks on perfect rock, for the most part very easily protectable. There are precious few face climbs here, and only two bolted routes among the 160+ climbs packed into a very small area. If there is no crack, then there is no climb. The column faces are slick and relatively devoid of hand and footholds. Stemming is possible on some climbs, but the margin of error for the feet is small—the stem goes from marginal to non-existent in milliseconds and without warning, at least to the newcomer. And if the crack is off-size for hands or fingers, well then, it's just off-size and you'd better get used to it! It's not that there are no constrictions for the hands, just that there are often none when you most need one. It's pure jamming technique, and I feel like I am in a giant crack climbing classroom.

After three climbs the sun is quickly disappearing and we head back to our campsite for more food and slackline fun. The next day is more climbing in Paradise followed by a dip in a nearby lake, and the time passes unnoticed. It is a measure of how quickly one can make friends on the road. I've known these three fellow travelers for a week, and yet somehow we've thrown our lot together and share in the camaraderie of the climber.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Stop Two, Joshua Tree Part Two

My plans were to leave Joshua Tree, meet and stay with my friend Angelina in San Diego for a day, then drive to Tahquitz for a few days. The best laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley...sometimes by mice.

As I filled up the gas tank in Joshua Tree, the gasoline poured out onto the ground. A local garage told me I had a leak somewhere in the filler hose; fortunately I had enough gas to drive to a Subaru dealership in Palm Springs that could hopefully fix the problem under warranty. The verdict: a rodent had chewed through the gas line, and it would take a few days to get the part. Rodent wear is unfortunately not covered by the warranty!

Renting a car through the dealership turned out to be painless and inexpensive, and I was soon on my way to San Diego. Since Palm Springs is closer to Joshua Tree than to Tahquitz, we decided to head back to J-Tree and climb for a few days while the car was being fixed. We met up with Ryan and two German climbers on holiday, Marcus and Martin, and though we didn't climb with them we did spend a great evening around a blazing campfire.

After a few days of climbing, the car was fixed and we headed back to San Diego for a day of R&R for me, along with two—yes, TWO!—showers in one day.

Ryan, Marcus, and Martin were headed to Paradise Forks just outside of Flagstaff, AZ, a place that was on my must-visit list. I jumped at the opportunity to join them, especially as Ryan considered that one of his home crags and was a walking guidebook of the area. My next stop was decided, and after a lazy day in San Diego I headed to Paradise.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Stop Two, Joshua Tree Part One

Joshua Tree: the name conjures up a Dr. Seuss tree, waving its arms in the desert; an album that speaks to the spirit; and a climbing area famed for hard granite and even harder bouldering.

It is my first sojourn into the desert, and the second stop on my journey. The boulders appear suddenly—the desert holds many surprises—and are surely the original inspiration for the town of Bedrock. The climbers main camping destination is Intersection Rock, but even arriving on a Thursday finds all the spots taken. Sam, Brie, and I drive on to Jumbo Rocks where we spend the next three days sampling the climbing at Jumbo Rocks, with its HUGE crystals waiting to shred your skin at the first opportunity, and at the nearby Hall of Horrors.

Run-out slab climbing At the Hall of Horrors    Turning the roof

Climbing and preparing to climb; eating and preparing to eat; chatting, sleeping, reading, relating the past and planning the future—these are the activities which take up our days. The desert has a way of simplifying life, of stripping away all the unnecessary baggage of a complicated life and forcing a focus on the immediate needs of existence. Water—or rather the lack of—is immediately noticeable and ensuring an adequate supply becomes an important part of the day's plans.

The sand in this part of the desert is large-grained and we stay relatively clean. No sand blowing into the tents or griming up gear makes for happy campers and climbers! As in The Needles, the temperature is about 15 to 20° degrees cooler than average—75 instead of the normal 90° at this time of year, though the temperature rises by a little less than a degree per day. The climbing is awesome, as could only be expected of one of the premier climbing destinations in North America. There is run out slab, boulder problems ten yards from our tents, and clean cracks aplenty.

One day we hike out to The Big Horn Mating Grotto to hopefully find some climbs out of the sun. After a bit of scrambling, we enter into the grotto, and immediately the name becomes clear—relatively lush and surrounded by low cliffs on every side, this is clearly the place the Big Horn come to party! Though the sun beat us to all but one climb, the hike in to find one more desert surprise was a worthwhile outing.

People come and go, we hang out with several different groups of people and the time passes all too quickly. Sam and Brie leave one day to continue on to Las Vegas and a new chapter in their lives, and I continue on bouldering and climbing a few more days.

I've got a few days to kill until I meet up with a friend in San Diego, and I head to the local climbing store to check out guides of other nearby areas to see whether I stay in J-Tree or head to new grounds. By chance I strike up a conversation with a lone fellow traveler/climber just arriving, and the decision is made. I'll climb a few more days in J-Tree.

Ryan turns out to be a great climbing partner and new friend. He is in the process of setting up a non-profit clothing company,, and as part of his mission is putting on a climbing demo day free to anyone who would like to come and learn a little. We ended up setting up some ropes for a group of climbers and spending the day with them. As a show of gratitude, they invited us to join them for their cookout. I can say without exaggeration these were some of the most genuinely nice people I have ever met. I have never heard “Thank you” so many times in one day. There were only words of encouragement and support among them. I would like to meet their parents one day to tell them what wonderful children they have, though I suspect they are already aware of that fact!

Joshua Tree is a place apart, and I know I will it turns out, even sooner than expected!