We were then instructed to write in the present tense about the place in question. I did, from my eight-year-old vantage point. It ended up being an interesting journey, with me scampering around the rocks at the camp, taking a brief detour (in past tense—oops) to Cochise Stronghold in Arizona, then back (that same morning) to Joshua Tree, but this time communing with the spirits of people—cattle rustlers, the law, the Native Americans who left their mark on the rocks with pictographs—long dead.
I love Joshua Tree and have been there many times. I am fortunate enough to have a couple of friends (brothers of my good friend Kathi) who own small houses—cabins—very near the northern entrance station. I've gone there on retreat with artist friends, writing friends, photography friends. The place, including those cabins and their exquisite setting, always makes me happy.
|Eschar, Trashcan Rock, 5.4|
In those days (the 1950s), the hardest rated climb, one called "Open Book" at a place called Tahquitz/Suicide Rock, was rated 5.9 (with the easiest, "The Trough," also at Tahquitz, rated 5.0). The 5 stands for "fifth class," an evolution of Sierra Club assessments of terrain difficulty.
At Joshua Tree, though, many climbs are rated 5.8+. What's that about?
As people started climbing more and more, at Joshua Tree and elsewhere, and as equipment improved, it became increasingly clear that there were plenty of routes that were plenty harder than "Open Book." But the rating system only went to 5.9. So anything that was pretty darn hard but not humanly impossible? It got rated 5.8+.
That all changed in the 1960s, when new ratings were added—not just 5.10, 5.11, etc., but 5.10a,b,c,d; 5.11a,b,c,d; etc. As of 2013, the hardest climbs in the world were 5.15c: "Change," in a cave in Flatanger, Norway; and "La Dura Dura," in Oliana, Spain.
If you think about it, from 5.0 to 5.9 is ten steps; from 5.10 to 5.15c is
. . . one, two, three, four . . . twenty-three steps.
So since the day in 1952 that "Open Book" had its first ascent by Royal Robbins and was rated the hardest climb in the world, climbs many, many, many times more challenging have been put up. The 5.15c's don't get climbed often, but they've been climbed more than once.
I can't imagine.
Which brings me back to Joshua Tree and "sandbagging," as it's called when routes are actually harder (sometimes much harder) than their rating suggests. You can't really trust the ratings of any routes in JT that were put up back in the heyday—and that's an awful lot of routes.
So you always look at the guidebook to see when the first ascent was made. And anything that's rated 5.8+? Just forget it. (Once a rating is assigned, it never gets revised. Even if it's a total sandbag.)
Probably the hardest climb I've followed at JT was the three-pitch Bird on a Wire (5.10a; first ascent 1977), on Lost Horse Wall. The hardest I've led was the neighboring Dappled Mare (5.8; FA 1973), four nice pitches.
|Walk on the Wild Side|
I haven't been climbing at Joshua Tree in years. Writing about it now—and having had my spirit encounters this morning—makes me want to go back and give it another go. But will I? Are my rock climbing days behind me?
God, I hope not.
I've moaned in these posts a few times about wanting more adventure. But at my age, perhaps my adventuring should be more sedate?
That is not a thought I am willing to entertain. Not just yet.