Tag Archives: National Park

Snakes & Ladders

September – 2013

The road sign for Bridgeport, California appears from the darkness in the headlights of Diana’s little Toyota, as we cross the township line and breathe a sigh of relief. At the first set of traffic lights we take a left and head to the Twin Lakes campsite, the gateway to the mountains we seek. Navigating the maze of trailers until we find a spot on the outskirts, the clock ticks over to midnight and our four wheeled marathon runner groans to a tired halt. We sit for a moment in the dark, rubbing our bleary eyes inside the fog of fatigue until we muster the energy to cook some food and set up the tent.

I’m both exhausted and excited to finally be here. Knackered yet knowing that the silent watchtowers of the High Sierra mountains were looming in the wilderness above kept me wired. Naturally, lots of outdoor enthusiasts are attracted to this place but it’s climbers in particular who come with the desire to ascend an iconic chunk of stone called the ‘Incredible Hulk’. 1500ft of immaculate, steep granite, with panoramic vistas from it’s summit, an awesome vertical adventure basically. 

Previously at the Banff Mountain Film Festival in 2010, I saw a video of two legendary climbers Peter Croft and Lisa Rands climbing ‘Venturi Effect’ , one of the mountains hardest lines, which got me inspired to get out and climb for years and after my trip to the Bugaboos last year, I felt better prepared. Now we were here to climb it too!

Unpacking and repacking Diana’s car after dinner is like playing Tetris and at this hour we’re too shattered to bear proof all the food, we just want to sleep. Besides, “we didn’t see any signs in the park about bears did we?” queries Diana. “No I don’t even see any bears proof bins in the campsite, maybe they all migrated to Yosemite.” I retort. So shuffling with glee, we head to the tent and slip into our cocooning sleeping bags and immediately go catatonic.

The next day, we awake to the sound of chirping songbirds reverberating out of the morning silence. Crawling out of the tent, I relieve myself against a giant cedar, drinking in the fresh and vibrant smells of the pine forest. Today’s the day we hike to the Hulk!

Only this well of excitement drains from me completely like my morning salutation to the tree as I look over at Diana’s car in horror to see the passenger side window smashed to pieces with all…ALL the food torn to shreds and scattered across the campsite. A complete display of annihilation by bear. The evidence made clear by the claw marks on the interior. Damn..it ate all the pistachios too. Moments go by as we survey the wreckage, salvaging the few scraps that made it.

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You should have seen my face, I was so upset. Looking back I can laugh though, not many people can tell this kind of story. But no doubt about it, I was mad, especially as the park warden gave us a what-you-going-to-do shrug when we clearly needed help, condolence…something. Thank goodness Diana’s always cool in the face of calamity and soon we are cleaning up the car, cello-taping the window and restocking for tomorrow’s next try. That evening we bear proof all the food and lock it in the trunk before bed.

*

The next day dawns again, with no sign of bear burglary. We lay out all of our gear for the three days we will be on the move; Rope, climbing equipment, food and tent. Dee takes the former, I take the latter. Ready, set, go time!

We walk westward through a dense birch forest away from Twin Lakes, into a wide valley with tumbling shattered mountain peaks at it’s end, maybe two miles away. Before reaching this end you turn left (south west), cross a stream and navigate a winding path through a field of boulders, always going up and up into this side canyon until you enter the snowy chamber of the High Sierra, the abode of the Incredible Hulk.

Two weeks ago I was up in Nevada attending Burning Man (The Year of the Snake) and hitch hiked back to Las Vegas for a healthy dose of duality, where I met up with Diana. Now, I was stretching out and drinking in the mountain air, sweating hard and loving it. To be grounded back into nature, on a new adventure with an amazing friend felt exquisitely perfect.

Arrival pose at the base of the Hulk

 

We reach base camp (a sheltered slab of rock) at the top of the canyon five hours later and Diana sets up the tent while I go fetch some water. It’s so quiet up here, the trees have thinned out just below the campsite too so it’s nothing but rock pinnacles, snow and boulders up here. The colossal jagged tooth of the Hulk dominates the skyline like a brooding ogre that personifies the silence and majesty of the place. It’s awesome, inspiring and kinda nerve racking at the same time to imagine our puny bodies making our way up it’s 1500ft flanks tomorrow morning like determined ants. Later on after some delicious chow and revered silence I take one last look and set the alarm for 5 am.

*

The next morning I’m hiking back from fetching the morning water, the sky all rosy and pink when out of the silence comes the sound of falling boulders, thundering their way down the gully to the Hulks right, smashing and grinding their way downward until they come to a precarious stop and silence returns. That gully, is the way we come down from the Hulk. Better be careful…

I join Diana again who’s lighting up the stove and we’re soon firing our bellies with oatmeal and coffee. After slugging the second, I’m turbo tying my shoe laces together and running after Diana who started out a little before me, to find the base of our route. Today we’re going to climb a route called ‘Red Dihedral’, so called after it’s obvious said feature that looks like an open book. Relative to this wall it’s one of the easier climbs, a good way to get familiar with the rock, the descent and the weather. 

And off we go, the first few hundred feet flow beautifully, the cold granite sticking to my fingers like glue, the body warming up as sun creeps around the corner, painting the wall with light. The mosaics of passing orange and green lichen that splashes across the ocean of grey gives a sense of vitality on this lifeless giant. It’s funny how you connect with a mountain though, you get to know it so intimately. Your fingers searching for tiny edges, your face so close you feel it’s tough uncaring skin grind against yours, you’re spitting out grit, fear and excitement whilst feeling the omnipresence of gravity as you dance up the wall. You feel so alive, right there in that present moment.

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Dee climbing the Red Dihedral

 I could go on above the moves, the exposure, the sweeping vistas, adrenaline, joy and fears, laced with climbing jargon but I won’t this time. Suffice to say it was an awesome journey up a stoned titan. Diana was the perfect person to enjoy this escapade with, it’s such a blessing to share these rare and unique experiences with such special souls.

*

It wasn’t until we reached the summit however, that our ordeal in wait was revealing itself by the way of black bruiser thunder clouds. Boom! It claps as Diana and I reach the summit ridge ‘Thought you’d get off this mountain easy huh? It seemed to bellow.

All climbers know to look out for signs of storms because it is a truly miserable experience being caught out halfway up a mountain. In our defense, the clouds were streaming in from behind the mountain which made it hard to detect. Either way, we found out. Not even time for a summit photo. The sun begins to wane and the clouds start spitting rain.

Now, the descent off this thing is supposed to be a couple of rappels that lead down into the gully to lookers right of the Hulk (remember the morning rockfall) where you walk down and around back to basecamp. But at this point, as I’m crawling on my hands and knees right on the shoulder tip of the Hulk and I can’t find them. I become aware that a slippery wet shark fin of rock with a yawning abyss of air all around isn’t where I want to be in a thunderstorm, so I retreat back to the safety of the ledge where Dee is waiting.

She’s noticed that there’s a rope anchor 100ft down to the right. The guidebook states something like “Don’t go right, this only leads to a maze of ledges that won’t get you down to the ground”. But as I can’t find the rappel points straight ahead and things are feeling a little desperate with thunderclaps and an absence of any other ideas, we go down to take a look.

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Heading downward….

The freezing rain continues, some of it is lumpy with ice. My hands are cold as we down climb slowly. I pray this tat of rope is going to be worth our while. I wouldn’t recommend down climbing without a rope, 900ft up in a thunderstorm at dusk but circumstances dictate. Diana could have belayed me but we didn’t want to waste a second.

I go nice and slow, breathing consciously as I figure out a way and try not to let the scary thoughts in my mind get to me. Helping Diana to way points like ledges and big holds, I can hear her crying quietly behind me and I turn to watch her down climbing carefully and keeping it together on this now sodden rock wall. I admire her strength in this moment. I want to hug her but we need to get down fast without plummeting to our deaths. We carry on inching our way down the soaking tiers of rock as the orange glow of sunset lights up the underbelly of the dark storm cloud above.

Finally we reach the rope anchor and clip into it with relief and thread the rope through. I go first again, watching Dee’s headlight float away as I slide down the rope, scanning for the next anchor. We are really committed once we go past this point. No going back up. Reaching the next ledge, I spot the next anchor. Yes! 700ft to go. Another anchor is found. 600ft. Down we go, the echoes of thunder begins to dissipate. 500ft to go, it’s getting dark but the rain persists. Searching for the next anchor is harder with just a head light and I panic about being lost until I find it hidden in an alcove. With 400ft to the bottom, the gully looks close just two more raps and we walk the rest.

We touch down into the gully a little while later, completely soaked. The rain stops as we pull our rope down one more time. What a harsh mistress. We sit under a rock a cuddle for a moment, burying our faces into each others necks for warmth and take a selfie.

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The moon shines as it rises in the now clear sky, the two of us slipping and sliding as we make our way down the flanks of the gully, littered with loose rocks waiting to be released. We take our time and are just happy to get down in one piece. Back at base we take shelter in ‘The Rock Kitchen’ and make dinner. Inside the walls of the cave, we warm up against the pot of cooking food, the smell of pasta sauce reigniting my appetite.

And it’s here, sipping tea and eating a hot meal with a beautiful, intelligent, adventurous soul with the night sky above illuminating the mountains that I feel so blessed to be alive, right here right now.

I love it, I love you, thank you, thank you, may it last forever.

Snake, Rattle & Roll

*†*

After the initial snake bite at Burning Man, the impending transformation lay dormant for a couple of months, mainly because I was enjoying the thrill, fun and amazing adventures on and off the rock during my recent reunion with my girlfriend Diana. The first tremor of major insight was surrounding intense fear. Below I describe my revelation after a thrilling climb on a tower of rock and a heartstopping car ride the next day.

* – Indicates a climbing term. If you want an explanation, see below

*†*

November 2013, Joshua Tree, California;

We stride in the fading light through this familiar labyrinth that we have come to love but happen to be lost in. This place goes by the name ‘The Wonderland’ for the reason none other than to describe the feeling you possess when you’re playing in this maze, climbing over gigantic sugar cubes like a victorious ant or walking up enormous slabs of granite the size of London’s ‘Millenium Dome’ or maybe you’re a giant looking upon a vista of breadcrumbs…either way it’s a pretty nutty landscape. Precious and beautiful. One of a kind. That being said, Diana and I weren’t focused on this aspect as we trampled through the tenements of orange rock, dodging spikes of cactus and other such plants that grow out of inconceivable crevices.

The reason for this excursion in the dimming daylight? We were looking for a climb. A rather famous one actually but one with a reputation for it’s seemingly immense exposure or sense of…well, a massive fall should your fingers peel off the match box edges, dotted all over this intimidating shield of rock. I have to admit at this stage, that it was largely to do with my crusade to climb all the best 5.10’s* in the area. With the ecstatic onsight* of ‘Clean & Jerk’, ‘Run for your Life’ (Yes, kinda scary too) and the redpoint* of ‘O’Kelley’s Crack’ in my arsenal, I felt that this would be the proverbial icing on the cake to end our session in Joshua Tree, California before heading to Asia for the winter. I agreed when Diana suggested we climb it. We were in for quite the climax. (I say, with an element of sarcasm).

Approaching the bottom of the formation known as Astrodome which hosts the climb, we take off our packs to cool down. Another couple is just finishing the first pitch* of three, about 250ft. (We did it in two). It’s nice to catch our breath but when it’s time to climb we note that we have an hour or so until the sun sets. “Let’s get on it then”

To be honest, I love climbs that require complete focus or shall we say, presence but this just looked plain scary to me at the time. I knew it had a big reputation and my hard man friends say the old line of “Oh you’ll be fine, it’s not that bad”..Well, that was not helpful to me…Derek! (I laugh in hindsight). Since the wall is north facing it’s almost always in the shade, so in the gathering darkness it was hard to locate the bolts*, adding to my already brimming apprehension but the first one is seen. Let’s start with that. Off we go!

From the base, the first twenty feet is completely blank so you walk up a slope to the left and traverse straight right on a ledge, half the width of your foot, sometimes larger. The exposure feels pretty immediate. I was already scared of ‘that fall’ looming up ahead. Funny how we have such fearful thoughts for something that hasn’t even appeared yet. I reach up on my tippie toes to clip the rope into the first bolt, 25 ft of open rope leading all the way to the bone crushing ground and I’m in. Only, my adrenaline is juiced already. Where’s that run out* again?, Where’s the next bolt? I can’t see it!

The futility of minds quest for security in such times. That’s why we are here though isn’t it, to focus on Now.

Ok let’s climb! Upward upon the shield of orange rock there really is a trail of positive edges to latch your fingers around and stick your big toes onto. (Thanks be to my ‘Indian big toe and my climbing shoes) The dance is quite spectacular! Stretching up one delicious, athletic move after another until I’m four spacious bolts up the vertical. My heart mind you, is still beating ferociously as I force my shallow breathes to delve deeper into my lungs, my tense muscles drinking in oxygen with relief as I rest on a bucket size hold.

Now, the climb traverses straight right, on good holds, but still, a good fifteen – twenty feet. Waaa..Diana’s words of encouragement waft upward into whispers that barely permeate my frightened and exhilarated brain. Next, is another good rest by the bolt. I can see the anchor! Don’t look down too long and don’t think it’s over yet, the couple before us made it sound like it’s exciting at the end…

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Fantastic shot of Derek Bloomshadt on the traverse. Photo: Miramontes.

Scanning over the last section, there looks to be a round dish, smooth but impressed into the rock like a depressed disk. Not much for feet but to press and pray for friction. Ugh, tired. After some hesitant and increasingly frantic glances later, I realise that an amazing hidden hold will not show up and this is it, the scary part! Only time for action! Right hand goes in the left side of the disk, left hand crossed over to the other side..Transfer of balance and my right hand flies out to the round bulbous ledge below the anchor. Oh God, I can’t feel my right hand..it’s sliding!..Must be this solidified bird crap that littered and pressed into the rock. Not helping my swollen arms at all…

In this moment, I fear that I will fall and take the big whip into the yawning abyss. You’ll be fine, people have taken the air time plenty of times and lived. Go for it! Focusing on where my left hand has got to go I let go and slap the hold with all the precision I can muster. Got it! Mantle! Still nothing for feet at this point, so it’s time to climb out of that swimming pool like you’ve never done before. Heaving upward, I try to move, abs trembling, triceps failing. A mental image of the void wrapping around my legs and dragging me downward becomes more and more vivid. Still can’t feel my hands. Heave! No thoughts anymore though, gone like a switch just pure presence and focus. Do It. Slowly, face to the rock, my gasping breath blowing microscopic pebbles into the back of my throat, I slowly rock over the point of balance required. Nice!

Feet follow afterwards as I stand up gingerly on the ledge, carefully rigging the anchor, feeling tender as hell, like a feather could knock me off balance, sending me into space like a catapult. Anchor set, clipped in. ‘Oooffff’. A sunken slouch of relief allows the residual adrenaline to surge and explode into a ‘Yeeewww!’ against the canyon walls that echo my screams of triumph for miles around. Poor Diana, witnessing this display of complete terror from me probably did not fill her with the kind of stoke a more confident leader would perhaps emanate. But I speculate. Having climbing it without falling, I am happy to have done this legendary climb but am surprised the fear was so strong. Just the very idea of ‘that fall’ was enough to feed that petulant child called fear. Just a thought, that’s all yet it’s enough to make you do silly things and serve it with fries.

Diana does a great job following but isn’t up for leading the next pitch in the now dark. The next pitch has bigger holds to my utter joy and after ten feet the first bolt is clipped. I charge on, Diana’s faithful headlamp glows in the dim as I climb on ten, twenty, thirty feet. Fuck sake, am I off route? there’s no protection around. The fatigue of the first pitch still lingers as I go 40 feet above my last piece to a ledge. It’s an easier mantle but still an 80 foot fall would not be appreciated in our current situation and condition.

A few cams* go into the corner on the ledge and shortly after we are both at the top. The stars are out and I take one last look at this magic realm I’ve come to love so much, even if the climbs demand so much effort, maybe becuase of that actually. We both rappel to the ground safely, still a little shaken from the fright fest and begin to manoeuvre our way through the nocturnal jumble of chaotic rocks, leaving behind the brooding hulk, darker than the night sky itself and exit The Wonderland an hour or so later, thanks to Diana who knows it like the back of her hand.

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Another beautiful day amoung the rocks. Photo: Drew Smith

The next day, we’re having breakfast with friends, recuperating from last nights adventure and after a belly full of seasoned potatoes and eggs with tortilla wraps, we head to L.A so I can catch my flight to Bangkok.

Somewhere around halfway we are cruising in the relaxing morning air, enjoying each others company until BAM! A car bumper or something to that effect blows across the road and under the car. A couple of seconds later the undesirable occurs… ‘duh duh duh duh duh duh’ “Yup, we got a flat tire”. Shit my flight is in two and a half hours…

Again, thanks to Diana, her insurance can send a tow truck that will meet us on the shoulder of the road in twenty minutes. I sit twiddling my thumbs, jerking my feet, chewing on the thought of ‘I could miss my flight’. Diana’s perspective of ‘well this is happening, let’s do our best with what we’ve got’ is of course a healthier view but it doesn’t help my worried mind. She’s right though, so I sit with it. The guy shows up right on time and puts a dummy tire on the car and we’re off like a bullet.

90 minutes to go as we approach east L.A. The whole time my heart is back to the thumping state. Two details concern me. First is the flight, which wasn’t that cheap and my visa. This day is the last day allotted before it expires, so I’m back to being worried. Which, I note, is a shame because it’s the end of my road trip with Diana which has been a blast. A wonder filled adventure with brush strokes of beauty that paint the tapestry of our road trip. I go in and out of focus from inane worry for something that hasn’t even happened yet to appreciating the purity of the moment here, in the car that I’ve come to know so well, travelling with her, a special being in my life.

Somehow she navigates the traffic and finds roads less packed then the others as we approach LAX. At departures, I only have time for a quick kiss, goodbye and see you soon as I run to the check in, which is in the process of closing. The attendant, thank goodness checks me in and I walk straight onto the plane for Thailand.

Sitting on the plane, I think back in hindsight about these two electric scenarios. So intense. And it occurs to me, that the fear is so much worse than the actuality itself. How profound.

Chillin in Joshua Tree, California
Chillin in Joshua Tree, California