Almost two hundred feet of rope satisfyingly spirals cleanly to the deck below. I hope they heard me underneath, but either way Lloyd should be wearing a helmet. I warned him he might need one.
A minute later and I’m rigged for rappel off of anchor bolts atop a nearby climb. Below Lloyd and Keith are fumbling with hard wear below in a narrow shaded canyon. The climb is called Illusion Dweller and is on the Sentinal formation in Joshua Tree National Park. Or, maybe NOW it’s called illusion dweller. Due to a mix-up in first ascent history, the climb was originally done by a 15 year-old Matt Cox 40 years before Lloyd tied in to give it a go. As the story goes he merely walked up and climbed it, with the archaic equipment of the day and no knowledge of what the climb had to offer.
Bounding down the blank rock next to the 120 foot curving crack climb it’s hard not to be humbled by the beauty of the Hidden Valley. A few generations ago cattle rustlers likely stood atop this large rock formation to watch their herd graze. Likely too Matt Cox stood on this ledge having passed the crucible of one of the most continuous splitter cracks of it’s grade in the park. For whatever reason he and his party named the route after a book of short essays by Tom Wolfe, and though a second party a few years later would unknowingly come upon the route and climb it (while adding an expansion bolt in the process), and the more well-known crew of Stonemasters named the route Illusion Dweller rather than the original – Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby.
Lowering into the shaded canyon from the large ledge drenched in afternoon sunlight was like walking into a dark refrigerator. As soon as the eyes adjusted a snag came into view below, just in time to avoid an accidental Colonoscopy as I kicked the wall and reached clean dirt and my buddies about to cast off.
Lloyd was quiet, likely nervous yet always positive. It was tough getting a bead on the guy.
“Hey man looks pretty nice up there.” He looked like a little kid on Christmas morning in front of a tree full of presents as he chattered through nervous teeth.
“It is, it is. It’s all there.” I keep repeating this phrase when talking about climbs and hear it all the time. I don’t think it actually means anything and I’ve never been comforted in hearing it when pleading for any clues to succeeding at a hard route. Here I was, looking for a way to describe that the climb is, indeed, a climb. “it’s all there…” I mumble again to his turned back as Keith checks his tie-in knot. At least, I think it’s all there.
“Save that green camalot for the roof, underneath. And a few finger sized pieces for the top!” I felt like his mom dropping him off for his first day of school.
Keith’s always quiet. I just assume he’s fine.
The two prepare for their respective responsibilities as the Jumars are slapped onto my rappel line. I’ve got my mom’s camera around my neck and am ready to capture Lloyd’s first attempt at climbing Illusion Dweller, a wannabe photographer ascending a fixed line into a nice position. I’m up in the sun and can hear nervous laughter in the darkness below, the kind of chuckle to blurt out when the crash pad is six inches underfoot and you’re trying to edge on dimes. A moment later my suspicion was confirmed as the jingle jangle of a rack of climbing gear flying through space cued me in that he took a quick slide down low. Taking off sunglasses and squinting hard into that dank slot I could see his red shirt, standing and chalking up again after having slipped off very low and being caught on his first gear placement. He always placed good protection, that at least I could tell myself to avoid any heart attacks as I goaded him into new territories and grades.
There was time to think while dangling in a harness in the middle of a 150 foot rock wall. What was he getting into?
One of the keys to being an active climber is to have terrible short-term memory. We’ve even classified “Fun” into three types, because having “Fun” in the moment isn’t always likely if one makes a habit out of sleeping in ice caves or crawling through Manzanita on the way to a sun baked crag in August. Looking back and saying “I think that was fun” is a delightful form of deceit to make return trips possible.
Thinking back, I did have fun my last time on Illusion Dweller. A friend and professional photographer Jerry came out to take pictures as I climbed with a local partner on several classics in good position. His stunning photo’s (and many more) can be seen on his website and blog and I loved the way capturing moments on camera add to the art of the climb. Taking pictures of inspiring lines and climbers having adventures on them has become an interest of it’s own on some of my trips, and as I arrived for New Years with Keith and Lloyd in the high desert of Joshua Tree there was hope that they would have their own epic experiences on the rock.
The stunning crack climb up The Sentinel West Face was a saga in my Joshua Tree climbing career. It sure felt easy last winter with Jerry and my local friend Rich, but thinking back and jostling my memory bank a few experiences fell out. I wondered after remembering past attempts at the climb that in hoping to give Lloyd a good experience perhaps he was given a bigger bite than he could chew. He started to pull back up to the first low crux and I had a vivid memory in my head of being dragged up that very section on top-rope six years earlier.
In 2007 the climbing world was as new to me as it was to Lloyd. Being overweight and timid didn’t stop me as I bravely hacked my way up front country 5.6’s and trekked out a couple miles to the easiest mountain routes. Experiences were what drove me, doing anything and everything even if anything isn’t much. My guidebooks were scoured for the easiest classics to lead – which I’d managed to tick off from the bottom grades up – yet a chance to climb with a rope gun was never turned down.
One October day I found myself standing in the shade below Illusion Dweller drawing straws for the sharp end. It felt like Russian Roulette as our group of three decided me, the tubby guy with a haircut from The Hobbit, was the last resort to lead the route. My friends Trevor and Tyler would go first and second, respectively, and I would be the hail Mary if one of them failed in getting the rope up to the top.
Trevor was lean and mean, 140 pounds of tall sinew with impeccable trad climbing skills from his father’s tutelage. In the warm noon heat he took off fully loaded with our pooled climbing rack hesitantly as we nervously and silently watched below. That first crux, the one where Lloyd slipped and was caught by a cam, was as far as he got. Hanging on a big flake and looking at another 110 feet of greasy hot hand jams he remembered that the bigger man walks away from the fight. In the macho world of one-upmanship sometimes found among groups of men we were unarmed living in glass houses. No one said a word, secretly hoping the same mercy would be paid back.
Tyler was up next, a phenom Boulderer and freak athlete, six foot six with a positive Ape Index. He was the horse I put all my chips on and after swapping the gear lazily onto his shoulder the lad took off like he was running away from bees, palming and lie-backing sweaty hand-cracks and running the rope out high above questionably-placed gear. My head shook in disbelief at the moves I was having to prepare to do watching Tyler hand-over-hand miles of steep cracks.
Trevor and I watched nervously like supportive parents as Tyler pulled over the final bulge and finished the climb. We were spared, and though one of us would have to tie into the other end and follow Tyler’s lead to the bolted ledge, at least we wouldn’t be leading the climb or placing protection that we would definitely have fallen on.
The next hour and change is a grey memory, part of the bad stuff you forget about. Without a few pictures snapped by Trevor I might not have remembered taking multiple breaks standing on a small ledge partway up or my complete lack of proper crack climbing technique. I know it was tough, and I remembered having to be hauled past Trevor’s high point. Part of me thought the top was easy, somehow, and the supposed crux of the whole climb might have been the only part I did clean.
The lens of my camera retracted; the batteries were dead. Hanging in space and retrieving a backpack felt a lot more like aid climbing than photography. I was glad to have tried out big walls in summer 2008 with Tyler five years ago as the exposure of a sweeping wall like the Sentinel didn’t hold a candle to the Leaning Tower or Half Dome.
Lloyd wouldn’t pose. I have a bad habit of being overly aware of people taking pictures and perhaps having the opposite inclination is a better trait, as he moves in disregard of framing and the rule of thirds and I end up looking like I’m auditioning for Black Swan when I’m out with Jerry. This long section of rock first in the sunlight, about one-third of the way up, was part of a long continuing hand crack after a rest ledge (the one I’d milked for a good 30 minutes in 2007 with Tyler).
All our trips training at Woodson, I had hoped, would prepare Lloyd yet nerves or greasy hand jams made him try harder than necessary on the moderate section. He was a great crack climber, having climbed Robbins Crack as a boulder problem ground-up (and down-soloing after) and making quick work of a handful of classic splitters. That memory of mine likes to forget he is barely 20, that at his point in my own climbing career I was still firmly locked at the gym with an occasional trip top-roping at Dixon or scrambling in Joshua Tree. Keith as well was a talented and strong climber but the mileage just wasn’t up to par with either to see enough situations climbing can throw out.
A pause to chalk up and assess meant that I could dork out and snap some fun photo’s of Lloyd in the midst of it.
“A bit greasy, huh?” He was dipping into his chalk bag like a fiend in the heat.
“Naw, not too bad man. It’s pretty comfy so far. Just tryin’ to trust my feet and stuff.”
Being strong, and being able to rely on being strong, isn’t the best for learning subtle technique – and Lloyd knew it. He actively worked to improve the gentler arts of slab and thin face in hopes climbs like Illusion Dweller could end up on his radar.
Having to do something difficult isn’t just OK, it’s necessary. Making changes and overcoming difficulty gives life meaning as growth and experience a well rounded person make. The climb I put Lloyd on was safe, straightforward and something that inspired him. The best things to be offered in climbing is to rise to a challenge head-on, without shortcuts or distractions. Hopefully a floating chatty photographer wouldn’t disrupt Lloyd’s Chi.
The pump of lactic acid drained from forearms meant it was time to go. My ascender chewed up rope as I raced to beat Lloyd to the overlapping roof, as his route traversed slightly to the right until just overhead the arc passes underneath my rigged rappel rope. The rope itself would be in his way if I couldn’t get above and past him, onto the ledge straight above.
“Hey Lloyd are you in a good spot? Do you got gear in?”
“Hey dude, yeah I’m comfy. What’s up?” He hadn’t noticed my roadblock just ahead.
“Lemme get past you real quick, hold on.”
Click-click, click-click, click-click went my rigging system as boots kicked against the wall to get momentum. As I crept up on the lad I kicked hard to the left one time to move off to the side of him so I could make the passing maneuver in the left lane.
“You good? I kick ya?”
“Ha ha, no man, I’m good man.”
With my feet firmly planted on the ledge it was time for some video. There seemed to be a constant when I climbed with Lloyd, the one big whipper of the day. If it were to be any time today, it would be now on the top finger-crack crux section.
Below and underneath the roof, just out of sight, there was a moment of quiet.
“Hey man this green cam doesn’t fit, it’s too small!”
Whoops. That memory of mine. There was gear in the crack above, thinner stuff but should be good. I think.
A black Metolius cam, not a green black diamond cam. In my head I’m standing under the roof, on a tiny ledge before the finger-crack crux. The vision of a black Metolius cam stands out vividly now, just in between a green and red black diamond cam in size. It protects a crack jut a bit larger than the one Lloyd was currently fiddling with. I know I took it up with me the first time I tried to lead Illusion Dweller in fall 2012.
Years had gone by since my first attempt at following Tyler on this route. Smarter training and a better attitude towards attempting harder climbs had made me able to think that leading it might be possible. A handful of other climbs of similar difficulty ticked earlier that month let me know I was ready, yet standing under the roof with my last hand sized peice slung up underneath the crux I thought maybe I should have waited another month.
Below my partner Lucas belayed as my girlfriend and family watched, taking a day off to hang out with Greg in Joshua Tree. It felt like the first spelling bee I ever had, where I got to the finals and failed with everyone watching on a 7-letter word. I’d just hauled triplicates of rock protection up the last 110 feet of cracks, leaving almost all of them save a couple of tiny stoppers for the top moves. It was definitely a black cam, not green. The same one I left at home every day I climbed after finally getting up Illusion Dweller that first time.
Of course, I didn’t get up it successfully last season on my first try. A blind throw psyched me out and I rested on a sketchy stopper and pulled the moves after a few minutes of rest and a few attempts at working them. The climb that had beaten me 5 years ago beat me again, this time when I knew my opponent well.
I would hike out to that climb a total of 5 times the previous season. Hidden in a tight corridor it is impossible to see if the popular route is clogged with crowds until you are standing nearly below it, and after failing to lead it clean in early fall Lucas and I made that trek twice more, on a four-day trip during Thanksgiving break. Two timeswe were met with nervous eyes on shivering heads standing at the base, all casting lots to see who would grapple with the sweaty jams above. Thursday and Friday the crowds shut us down, and Sunday paired with a lighter and more efficient double rack of cams I again came to the last move to fall onto thin protection, feet from the bolted ledge.
Finally on Sunday, the fourth day of our trip in November 2012 and sixth time standing at its base I finished Illusion Dweller. The heartache of climbing 110 feet of sparingly protected rock only to blow it at the end was too much and I held on tight, finding the hidden holds just out of my feeble reach. It was such an inspiring thing to overcome and was such a milestone achievement for little old me that I road the coat tails for the rest of the season, taking Rich up behind me for a repeat with Jerry in winter and dragging Keith up the thing in Spring.
It really wasn’t that bad, if you’ve been on it 6 times. It’s all there.
In the viewfinder of my tiny video camera I could still see the holds and sequences I used in March when Keith visited from College up in Humboldt. 9 months later and it all came back to me, the sloping sidepull and secret pocket.
“Watch me Keith, I’m going for it man!” Lloyd pulled into the steep corner and finger crack with an attentive belay from Keith, well familiar with the hard moves he was setting himself up to do.
As soon as he is established in the crack he throws in a quick peice of protection. I lean over, camera in hand, and see it is well-placed. He wouldn’t be needing that helmet as much as if he had skipped the gear and risked flipping upside-down onto the ledge, as Rich had shown me on Facebook. A lazy heel behind the rope and Whoosh! Ass over tea kettle and a camera to catch Rich’s plummet and for all of social media to see. Lloyd was on track.
Unfortunately Lloyd came off. Abruptly, due to a foot slip. Also unfortunately is I missed the good-sized whipper he took after with my camera as I adjusted position.
“Shit.” I know that feeling all too well. Just like Trevor, 7 years earlier and 100 feet below, a miss is a miss. The chance to climb it first-time is blown, and though there are so many climbs to do in the park the hopeful always hold out until the very end. Whether the first move or the last the box still needs to be checked another day, another time that Lloyd will be hiking into the canyon hoping to find a lonely crack to test his mettle on.
Again he fell. And again. And again. The hot and slippery rock drained his energy down low and up high where it was needed there was none to be found. With a belay from above I helped get Lloyd onto the ledge, beaten but bright and hopeful – as always.
“Yeah man sorry. This sucks I should’a gotten it.”
“Don’t worry about it, it’s a hard climb. Just gotta come back to it you know?”
“Oh for sure! It’s super good, I’ll do this any time. It’s really fun, super good jams man. All the way.”
The game isn’t success, the game is the game. The game is finding a partner and tossing the ball, not how well you catch it. Lloyds first go at Illusion Dweller had been miles more successful than my own, as leading the damn thing is far more proud than failing to get up even under your own power as I had in 2007. More importantly he knew he could do it, and whether or not he needed to he would be back to flay himself on the stone and live a full life of experiences, a roller coaster up and down the rock.