Roadtrip Part 5: Reunions and Reinvigoration at Joshua Tree National Park

November 9—Joshua Tree National Park, CA

The last and only other time I’ve been to Joshua Tree was a week after graduating college in the spring of 2007. Nine other climbers and myself piled into three cars and drove 18-hours without stopping, going 90 mph through the California night. We arrived at Ryan Campground at 11am, exhausted and ecstatic. Clean boulders, sharp and bulbous, surrounded camp. The enticing angles of the rock burst through our sleep-deprived haze, begging us to climb. We unleashed three crashpads from Eric’s truck, toted them to the base of an innocuous, egg-shaped stone and, harnessing the verve of youth, attacked the coarse granite.

During the next ten days, we cut our teeth on Joshua Tree’s world-renowned crags. I spent most of the trip with Eric and Dana, the only guys beside myself who were really interested in crack climbing. It was a blast. Every day without fail, we would drive into camp late in the afternoon, beating the roof of the car with our bloodied hands, The Rolling Stones turned up as loud as the radio could handle, and all three of us singing along at the top of our lungs. Without a doubt, those were the best ten days of rock climbing I had ever experienced, not only because the climbing was so good, but also because the people with whom I shared those climbs were so generous, forgiving, energetic and hilarious.

Preparing to lead the Headstone on our first day of climbing.


Bouldering near Ryan Campground.


Joshua Tree and formation.


Evening light behind a Joshua Tree.


Raven enjoying the warm air.


Rappelling off the Headstone.

One of those people in particular, Pablo, was not even a part of our original group, but he fit in like we had known him for years, which in fact, Dana had. It was a random connection the likes of which make the world feel small. One lazy morning in camp, as Eric and I made peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for breakfast, Dana overheard someone talking about Tonasket, the small eastern Washington town where he grew up. Poking his head around the corner, Dana came face to face with his long time friend and occasional climbing partner, Pablo, who was camped in the site next to ours. Throughout the remainder of the trip, Pablo climbed, ate, slept and partied along with us. He was a strong climber and it was a luxury to follow him up classic routes that would have been far too hard for us to lead. He was an excellent teacher with a child’s soul who could show you how to build a bombproof climbing anchor one morning and then drink you under the table that same night. We liked him immediately.

Ten days passed in a blink. None of us wanted to leave, but we knew we couldn’t stay. Most of the guys had to return for the spring quarter of college. I had to move out of my apartment and decide what the hell I was going to do with my life. These were not easy tasks, nor were they appealing, especially in comparison to the moment-by-moment life we’d been living. Still, we had to say goodbye.

I knew I would see most of my cohorts again, in the climbing gym or wandering the red brick pathways of campus, but I wasn’t sure about Pablo or about Joshua Tree. Driving away from the knobby rocks and forked trees, a melancholy sadness flavored my emotions. My stomach knotted up and my throat became parched. It passed in a moment, once we hit the freeway and turned the music up, but it could have been much worse. It would have been much worse if I had known that I wouldn’t see Joshua Tree until four years later and that I wouldn’t climb with Pablo again, at least not until today.

Early this morning Freya and I were driving the dusty roads of Hidden Valley Campground in search of an unoccupied campsite. Even on a Tuesday, everything was full. It was disappointing and I was ready to give up hope when, suddenly, everything changed. As we drove the last dusty finger of road in the campground, we passed three climbers standing next to a white truck. Creeping by, I glanced out the window and immediately recognized Pablo. I couldn’t quite believe it. I stuck my head out the window and yelled, “Is that Pablo?”

“Yeah man! Who’s that?”
“It’s Leif. Dana’s friend. We climbed together here…”
He cut me off before I could finish, “Of course! Whoa! Good to see you man. It’s been forever.”
We shook hands, smiling.
“So, are you guys looking for a site?” he asked, “You can share ours. We’ve got plenty of room.”

Moonrise through Joshua.


Mike Pond leads in Outer Mongolia area.


A place unlike anywhere else.


Climber leads the Pinched Rib (5.10b)


Sharp stuff is abundant in the desert.


Someone told us that Joshua Trees evolved from underwater plants.


The lap of luxury.

Two hours later we were high fiving at the top of a two-pitch crack called “The Swift.” Pablo’s girlfriend, Kim, followed his lead and I led my own rope with Freya tied to the other end. Climbing with Pablo, I felt like only seconds had passed since I saw him last. He hasn’t changed. He’s still energetic, outgoing, and positive. He’s still a great teacher and he still lives like a kid.

On our first climb of the day, we led separate routes right next to each other. As we simultaneously neared the end, Pablo realized that he didn’t have any gear to fit the crack and that we was 20 feet above his last piece of protection. He asked if I had a #4 Camalot. I did. I unclipped the cam from my harness, made sure my left hand and foot were sticking solidly to the rock, and fully extended my right arm, cam clenched tightly. Pablo performed the mirror image of my move, grabbing the cam with his outstretched fingers.

“Sweet! Thanks man. I was getting a little worried there,” he says, chuckling.
“No problem. I’ve never done that before.”
“Me neither. It’s a good thing you guys showed up.”

I can’t wait for the week of climbing ahead. Joshua Tree is filled with special connections. It turns out that Pablo isn’t the only climber I know here. David Farkas, an AAI guide who spent the summer on Mount Baker and assisted Brandon and I in a rescue, was kind enough to let Freya and I set up our enormous tent in his campsite (it turned out that Pablo’s site was not nearly big enough). David will be leaving for Red Rocks in a few days and we will take over his campsite after that. Mike Pond, another AAI guide from Mount Baker, and his girlfriend, Lauren, are camped a few hundred yards away. We’re all planning to climb together tomorrow. I can’t imagine who we’ll run into next.

From the picnic table in our campsite, I can glance across Hidden Valley and see Pablo frying a quesadilla. He’s close enough that I can smell the oil and cheese. Maybe if I ask real nice, he’ll pass one over. I’m sure he’d be happy to return the favor. A song by The Rolling Stones plays through my head. You can’t always giiiit what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you nee-eed! Oh Yeah!

November 16—Joshua Tree National Park, CA

We’ve been trying to leave for a while now, but this place just keeps getting better and better. We haven’t climbed alone or eaten alone for the past week. We’ve made new friends and reunited with old ones. We’ve felt bold and been humbled. The weather is turning warm again. The campground is full of smiles. The rangers supply free coffee on weekend mornings. Why leave?

Whereas the other climbing areas that Freya and I have visited on this trip have felt somewhat antisocial, Joshua Tree is a buzzing hub of conversation and camaraderie. Our next-door neighbors, Manny and Gloria, an elderly couple with an RV, start a fire every night and encourage us to add fresh logs even after they’ve gone to bed. An eclectic group of climbers ceaselessly surrounds the fire. Steve, a grey-bearded ex-Marine who’s been a dirtbag for most of his life, tells raunchy stories about prostitutes, climbing accidents, and Yosemite. His voice is deep and gravely from too many cigarettes; his stories are both hilarious and offensive. He’ll be your best friend instantly if you offer him a beer. I wouldn’t want to be his enemy; he says he’s killed 14 people. Then there’s Flo, a 19 year-old Bavarian kid who shares our campsite. He’s been traveling the US for three months, climbing at all the best crags and walking highlines in aesthetic places. A German slackline company sponsors him and his next stop is Fiji, then New Zealand. He climbs harder than I probably ever will. He says food in the US is too expensive. He pours creamy ranch dressing on his cabbage salad. We offer him a burrito and he gladly accepts.

Wonderland of Rocks.


Chimney through the Hall of Horrors.


Bouldering near Cyclops.


Lost most of my finger skin on that move.


Slacklining under the stars.

Besides random campground acquaintances there are also old friends. One afternoon Freya and I drove into town to fill our water jugs and I received a message from Jeff, a childhood friend who lives in Los Angeles. As it turned out, Jeff and two other Port Townsendites, Charlie and Clay, were headed to Joshua Tree for the weekend. Their mutual friend, Ringo, drove from Phoenix to meet up with the crew. On Saturday we all took a hike into the Wonderland of Rocks. Pablo and Kim came along too. Charlie jumped from boulder to boulder while Jeff and Clay snapped photos and Ringo quipped one-liners that brought us all to tears. It started raining and we scrambled off the slippery rock and headed back to camp. We invited everyone into our enormous tent that night for a feast. Five stoves were set on the sandy floor with eight bodies huddled inside. On Sunday we visited the Hall of Horrors and I let the boys borrow my shoes and harness so they could top rope a climb called “Lazy Day.” They grunted and sweated their way up and I followed suit. Their visit ended with hugs and high fives. Our campsite felt empty when they left, but another group of friendly climbers soon occupied the void.

When we’re not socializing, we’re climbing and we’ve been climbing hard. One morning I decided to lead every sandbagged classic in Hidden Valley. We walked from crag to crag, never more than five minutes from our tent, and climbed routes that are notoriously difficult for their grade. Each one was more challenging and fulfilling than the last. The next day I was feeling bold and attempted to lead a 5.10b route called “Pinched Rib,” which is located directly behind our tent. I took five ten-foot lead falls, scraping my hip in the process, before letting Pablo tie into the sharp end. On his first try he found a key hold that I had been missing. I tied back into the rope, took one more lead fall and then finally sent the route clean. I was exhausted, mentally and physically. The rest of the day was a crapshoot and I’m still sore from the effort.

Freya’s first trad lead. The route is called The Bong.


Kim sends a boulder problem.


Ideal campsite.


Small plants, big rocks.


The crew. Left to right: Jeff, Ringo, Leif, Freya, Clay, Charlie, Kim, Pablo.

We’re running out of time on this trip. We have to be in Indian Creek for Thanksgiving and it would be nice to find a place to live in Salt Lake City before that. I think we’ll have to skip Red Rocks, save it for next time. There are so many wonderful places to visit and so little time. Without a doubt, Joshua Tree is my all time favorite. Just like last time I was here, I don’t want to say goodbye. I know how it will feel to hug Pablo and Kim, to drive through the gates heading north; a melancholy sadness will fill the car; it might even bring me close to tears. Maybe it won’t hurt quite so bad if I promise to come back. I promise…I promise…


  1. Hey Leif, it's Dana. What a great piece of writing! It was fun remembering that amazing trip we had down there. That's crazy that you just happened to run into Pablo and Kim. It seems like Joshua Tree has its own gravitational pull that just attracts cool people to it. I hope that you and Freya were able to find a place in Salt Lake to live for the winter. Have a great time in the mountains down there and keep in touch!


  2. Leif, sick ass literature there, my friend! The feelings are mutual, can't wait to hang out again.
    We are back in Washington for the time, not sure how long, depends if we get the hospital jobs we want. otherwise, back on the road for a few more months… have to hook up!!


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