Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

Illoydson Dweller

Lloyd Petrungaro on Illusion Dweller


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?


Greg Davis on Bebop Tango, photo credit Jerry Chen

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.

Grey Cell

Rich Magner on Grey Cell Green, photo credit Jerry Chen

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.


22 year old Me slaying (or sewing up) 5.6 in Joshua Tree

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 (L) and Tyler (R)

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.


what is this I don’t even

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.


I’ll get up this. Some day.

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.

I think.

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.

Heavenly Path

Lloyd refusing to pose on Heavenly Path in Bishop

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).


Woodson Training

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.

Under roof

Just before the crux, 2012

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.

Top Out ID

On top, for the first time without falls

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.


Logging frequent flyer miles

“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.

Back on solid ground and ready for Round 2

Back on solid ground and ready for Round 2


Warm Days, Cool Crags


An article of mine was featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Escondido City Magazine, and I’ve included the piece below for those that missed it the first time ’round!  It’s written for non-climbers, so please excuse the pedantic jargon ;D

Photo credits: Tehara Tweed

It isn’t often in April that the sun shines like it has been all day, and though only partway through my shift I can’t help but think I could make some afternoon climbing plans. Unfortunately, the local resources have been tapped and I couldn’t scrounge out a partner to hold the other end of the rope.

Just as I was resigning myself to an afternoon of laundry and grocery shopping a familiar face walks into the climbing store I work at off of Grand Avenue.

“Hi, Mom. Looks like you got the afternoon off?”

It looks like I found a climbing partner!

My Mom, Kit, and I started climbing together quite some time ago and are 100% climbing addicts – who else could I expect to have a harness and rock shoes in their trunk on a Tuesday?

A short while later we are parking at the Trout Cove parking lot at Dixon Lake. Ten minutes from Nomad Ventures, Daley Ranch and Dixon Lake are a great resource for anyone local looking to squeeze an adventure in remaining daylight.

I’ve been visiting this crag for years, and many of my first climbing adventures were here – coming back again, for the first time in a few months, I got to replay in my head what it was like the first time I put a rope on and clawed up (somewhat clumsily) these steep rock faces. My family started climbing 11 years ago, and this could be the fiftieth time that this Mother/Son combo are out at this local cliff.


There isn’t much light so first up is a hard one – The Shoulder. A thin crack that weaves back and forth across a dead vertical buttress of rock, down below the Aeries that are visible from El Norte. At one point I had hoped to just get up it, hanging on the rope if need be, but after hundreds of laps it gets reduced to muscle memory. Every hold I grab feels familiar, every placement of my sticky rubber shoes exactly as it was the last time. Soon I am on top, having started from the ground and using the rope only to catch me in the event of a fall and placing temporary anchors that the rope gets clipped to. In this style of climbing, Leading, I am more susceptible to a longer fall but is a very pure way of climbing, that is starting at the bottom and ending on top without a safety line from above.


Anchoring a top belay, I tell Mom to tie in to the rope and start when ready.

“I may not finish, this one is still hard to me.” She warns.

“You’ve done it before, you can do it again!”

I know she is very capable and, despite the warm sun causing slick sweat on the hands, shouldn’t have much trouble. Even still, with the rope anchored from above instead of being held behind her, a slip will not result in a fall any longer than available slack in the system, which I am very adament about keepign taught!

From my vantage there isn’t much to see, but the periodical stop-and-go movement of the rope through my locking belay carabiner tells me when she is in a tough spot.

“I might come off here!”

“Jam your hands, thumbs down, just above the little constriction in the crack!”

By offering advice (or what climbers call ‘beta’) another climber can assist… if it is warranted! Some prefer the on-sight, bottom-to-top adventure into the unknown…. I, however, don’t mind a little help, and soon Kit finds the hidden hand-hold and is up on top.


Summit high fives were exchanged, and I could tell she too has reconnected to the elation of what that first time up The Shoulder was like, all those years ago. We gather our rope and gear and head out to the next objective.

This small cliff, next to Dixon Lake off La Honda, has on it about 20 (worthwhile) climbs, all documented in a Guidebook to San Diego Rock Climbing. Along with Mount Woodson and Mission Gorge it is one of the more traveled East County locations, and despite the occasional beer can or spray paint is a great afternoon getaway into a pristine area. Whether a rock climber or just a hiker, scrambling to the tip of the escarpment with care can afford great views – just practice leave-no-trace tactics and clean up behind you!

Already tapping into nostalgia gets me excited for a climb, or route, I hadn’t tried for a while – Overhanging Buckets. It is a good deal more physical than The Shoulder, consisting of long reaches on an overhanging bulge just around the corner from the trail. The holds are small, the rock is sharp and it packs a punch in just 6 climbing moves – a veritable 100 yard dash as opposed to the calm, methodical techniques a vertical crack climb requires.

Owing to a nagging shoulder injury Kit opts out of the climb, and being that Overhanging Buckets is devoid of cracks or crevices to place temporary anchors I choose to top rope the climb with the rope anchored above me. Attempting to climb it without a rope is out of the question, as a fall from even the first move would put one tumbling down a rocky hill.

So instead of starting from the bottom, I start from the top, and anchor the rope and toss it to the start of the climb. Using rappel devices we slide down the rope from above and I tie a knot around crucial points of my harness and a fist-bump sees me off. The moves right away are steep – and hard, for me. I realize as I reach for a pocket in the rock that can only accept 3 fingers that the last time I put my hand in that hold George Bush was still on his first term as president and Friends was still on the air.


Another climb, another memory. Light was beginning to fade as the rope was put away and there was time left to squeeze in some bouldering.

Not requireing any gear, bouldering is my usual option for climbing when I can’t scrounge up a partner. All one needs is shoes, chalk and strong fingers – though portable gymnastic pads designed for absorbing impact from short climbing falls are often recommended. One of the great things about Bouldering is the ability to focus on doing the most difficult moves possible, because there is no consequence to most falls and a difficult section can be worked over and over again if it is right off the ground.


Crimping fingers over an edge, smearing feet on tiny nubbins of rock, all techniques used by climbers to ascend blank looking granite slabs. If I look close I can see my home from on top of one of these boulders, and I look back and reflect in this fading light. How lucky I am to have this in my veritable back yard, I wonder, and more so I am reminded that I needn’t travel to Yosemite, Joshua Tree or the Grand Canyon to have a quick adventure. All you need is motivation, and sometimes, your mom.


Conservation or Blame Shifting: The Tahoe Tree Story


Hiking up to the Happies at Moonlight on a busy weekend is a surreal experience, but not because the euphoria of an ethereal landscape setting the imagination wild.  Everywhere around is evidence of human presence – piss puddles right in the middle of the trail, bright white toilet paper glinting in the dim light, giant tick marks on features so obvious I saw them 50 yards away in the dark.

Climbers are a strange bunch.  Like any user group in the outdoors self-preservation at all costs is paramount.  We refuse to own up to our own mistakes while hurredly chasting others.  Among other hobbyists, like fishermen and hunters, it might seem as though climbers keep their impact substantially lower.  A few months ago I spent a night at a popular hunting camp site, and had difficulty finding a place to pitch my tent amidst spent shells and shattered domestic beer bottles.

In reality there is no such thing as being absolved for setting the curve.

I am one of six kids, and sat squarely in the middle in almost every facet – decent grades, decent catastrophies, decently messy room.  I kept my nose clean just enough to stay off the radar of the parents, hoping one of the other Davis kids would screw up worse than I did.

I found a boulder to warm-up on and chalked up, caking my hands with the precious send-dust in hopes that I might maximize my own experience at the expense of the aesthetics of the boulder in front of me.  It wasn’t a very popular boulder, but still bore the regular scars of heavy use – lichen-free foot and hand holds, an occasional ticked chalk mark, and a wide sandy base with a lone bush struggling for survival right below the crux.

The poor bush. Later that evening, looking through a guidebook, I found an old picture of the route.  A few Bishop Old School dudes were running laps on the Problem I was working on, complete with short shorts and a chalk bag on a shoulder sling.  Missing was the large crash pad, the kind that climbers like myself are prone to drag across delicate landscapes because picking it up can be a real pain in the ass sometimes – or so we tell ourselves.

Before I saw that picture, as I was working the problem, I put a real beating on the little shrub.  After trying to avoid the lone dried snag and falling a few times square on top of it, I shrugged and did what everyone else did – plunked the pad right on top and sent.  After picking it up, the bush looked no worse for wear, as the few larger stems were thick and hearty enough to have survived this far.  A few more days of being stomped on was hardly noteworthy in his long life.

Back to that photo from the late 80’s, I noticed the bush wasn’t alone – he had buddies.  A lot of them.  In fact, the photo gave a glimpse into what the little wash we love so much used to look like – funny enough, it used to look like the rest of the landscape around Bishop.  Green and vibrant, full of budding flora hiding fauna as one might expect to see in any other wash in the Eastern Sierra.

I’m sure the climbers in the old picture thought they were being as low impact as possible.  Historically, they were likely the cleanest bouldering user group bishop had ever seen.  However the minute their hands touched the rock and found the problem, the little oasis at its based was doomed, just as Columbus noticed a gold chain around the neck of a native in the bahamas.  The treasures were too good to be passed up, and as word got out fleets of boulderers would come to experience the wonderful stone as well, bringing with them chalk and psyche and cameras and TP and dogs and all the things that us humans need to maximize their own experiences.

A few days ago news broke about a famous professional climber cutting down some very old, very rare trees.  A quick perusal of the reddit style comments on any blogs give the impression that the average rock climber feels the same way about conservation as Che Guevara felt about independence.  Amidst death threats and publicly sharing the guilty climbers’ personal info, including home address and phone number, was the reality of our situation – we are no better than the hunters or the fisherman, who don’t see their shells and excess line draped about reeds as an issue.

The crag in question that had it’s Juniper gardened was an “underground” crag, whatever that means, hidden from the riff raff of the populace.  I had been to a few of these “secret” locations over the years, and usually the experience is about the same as anything else – lots of rock, lots of hiking, not great routes.  Perhaps this one crag is different, but who knows – you have to be a member of the treehouse club to gain access to the precious map to the hideout anyway, and I’m not about to go to the bluegrass festivals to make the kinds of friends to be invited to these areas.  Unfortunately the Pro climber wasn’t vetted quite deeply enough, as his questionable ethics destroyed an old tree much to the ire of the internet community.  Professional athletes are people too, the same people that leave TP or use chalk, all with a sliding scale of personal responsibility and understanding of ethical impacts.

If a secret crag is to be mostly free of the mess a horde of visiting climbers brings, two well-known and published locations might be the antithesis.  The Alabama Hills and New Jack City are rough, desert sport climbing locations a few hours drive from the populations of Los Angeles, Riverside and San Diego.  Though their innate beauty can’t be denied the experience is tainted by Off Highway Vehicle scars, bullet holes in the rock, outdoor latrines and buckets upon buckets of trash from everyone and anyone.  Their proximity to the highway and the accessibility of the well-protected moderates brings EVERYONE to enjoy it, and the more people you bring the more spectrums of humanity exercise their understanding of the outdoors.

I don’t mean to condone anyone’s actions, least of which my own or that of Joe Kinder.  No impact should be excused, or even need be.  It is an inevitability that people will raze the landscape of that which is in front of them, as we always had.  Instead I hope to be a voice of reason, because any impact can be mitigated and we can all take steps for ourselves to keep the areas we love clean for others to enjoy.  In hindsight, I shouldn’t have dragged my pad over the frail bush, just as a hunter should’ve picked up his shells and Joe should’ve left the saw at home.  By pointing fingers other directions we pretend to absolve our own guilt at the expense of our Brothers and Sisters, but in the end it isn’t about getting by being ‘decent.’

We should all aim to hold OURSELVES to the high standard we hold the rest of the world.  It might not ever happen, because we are human, and all humans are flawed – like Joe and I.

The Big Mountains

I wish I was as motivated at 4 AM as I am at 3 PM.



Fading light on Mount Laurel, because who needs an alpine start?


Highway 395 runs North-South tucked below the massive Eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada.  I remember the first time I saw these peaks, in the middle of a long road trip home from Lake Tahoe in Junior High.  Sitting in the back seat, bummed that the batteries to my gameboy were toast, I stared quizzically out West. 

The range was obscured by afternoon shadows as the sun fell behind the highest mountain range in California.  Perhaps everyone in the car was tired, or I sat too far back int he van to hear any conversations up front, because I only remember the sweeping massif of Mount Williamson from that drive – maybe that’s when the AA’s died in my game boy.

There was no understanding then of just how huge that peak was.  My feeble ‘tween brain could do little more than trace the winding ridges from the Owens Valley all the way to the white capped summit.  There was no yardstick, no football fields nearby to give a laymen a frame of reference.   Only shadows and rock, a mysterious maze of gulleys without scale.  15 years later, when I sit below these peaks with an intent to climb them, I am still clueless.


Sunrise at Upper Boy Scout lake

Commuting to the Eastern Sierra from my home in San Diego takes a minimum of a half-day sitting in an uncomfortable sedan crammed full of gear.  Gas prices and opportunity costs put only big objectives into my radar in the range.  Odds were that if I drove as far as the Southern Sierra town of Lone Pine I was heading in to the back country – front country objectives and ‘half day’ climbs would have to wait for another day.


Heading towards Temple Crag, a long way from traffic on highway 78 back home

Some climbers get by without guidebooks, instead flying by the seat of their pants while gleaning beta from crusty clerks at the local climbing shops.  Not only do I use them prolifically but I rest proudly on the crutches of Mountainproject and Summitpost for up-to-the-minute trail and anchor conditions.

Often I would buy a guide that was redundant with information I already had.  By the time I purchased Peter Croft’s “The Good, the Great and the Awesome” there were already four high sierra climbing books in my library.  I guess I’m a sucker for a good story.


Catching some Z’s near Big Pine

Climbing big peaks leaves ample down time for studying or telecommuting.  It isn’t rare to find laptops popped open at local Cafés or campgrounds near high country classics, as it would appear most Alpinists play hooky for glory.

With neither responsibilities nor aspirations for higher learning I would fire up the gameboy.  Sometimes, when the batteries died and my pack was already stuffed for the next day’s adventure, I would crack open a guidebook.  I was still curious after all these years to grasp the size of these peaks, to understand not just what they were but how to get up ’em.

One story in particular that I loved was in “The Good, the Great and the Awesome.” Peter Croft, after a day guiding in Tuolumne meadows, got an itch to head out for a change of scenery late in the afternoon.  Hauling down Tioga Pass and on past Mammoth, our intrepid adventurer sprinted up the North east gulley of Laurel, returning from the massive scramble to his car in a scant 3 hours.

The story fascinated me for many reasons, but mainly that it could be done – that an easy, long sierra scramble could be finished in an afternoon on a whim.  The route itself is not quite proud enough to warrant the seven hour car ride from San Diego, but maybe one day if I found myself with a free afternoon on the East Side I might too get an itch.


The Convict Lake trailhead, below Mount Laurel

It took some time to dig my gear out of the Chevy Cavalier I’d been living out of for the past 2 months.  My method of throwing everything into a pile on the back seat was not the most efficient way to prepare for heading out at a moments notice, but eventually I got my pack and headlamp out from underneath what is best described as my pantry/hamper.

“Three hours?” I asked myself, looking at the daunting face across the lake.  Mount Laurel is guarded by one of the tamest approaches in the range, but I figured getting to it wasn’t the problem.  Rather, it was after 3pm and the summit was almost a vertical mile overhead.

I had read the route description a hundred times over the last few years but checked once more before heading out.

“At the 300 foot red band 2/3rds of the way up, head left. Got it.”


Three Lady Gaga songs went by and I was at the short scree field that leads to the main gulley.  All of the supposed cruxes were down low, and as the opening section came into view I could just about see the actual climbing.  The route was set deep in the catchment basin of the peak, and all the while as you stem and scum up disconnected chimneys there is a feeling of being inside the mountain.

Somewhere down low, I’m sure, was the crux.  Chris McNamera in his guidebook “The High Sierra” recommended sticky approach shoes over snug rock slippers, which was more than adequate as I pasted the soles onto scoops and into wide cracks. The moves over the first half of the gulley were fantastic, choose-your-adventure style scrambling at its best.  The cross country runner in me was focused on heart rate and electrolytes, but the 13-year old felt privileged to look down at the terrain spilling away below – “I climbed that!” I would marvel as the vertical gain fell through the hourglass.

Inevitably, as with all sierra scrambles, the dues are paid in the form of funky loose rock somewhere along the way.  The gulley system opened up into gorgeous broken red rock perched like a house of cards, the wonderful amber of iron deposits ready to rocket down the chasm below like little time bombs. 

“Time to head left” I told myself.  So long as you step on top of the choss it holds in place and the moves, though loose, were fairly enjoyable.  I was even rewarded mid climb with a beautiful mountain thistle, a lonely reminder of the flora that finds a way to thrive in such wild places.


There seemed to be a lot of red rock – like, more than 300 feet.  A lot more.  No matter, as all roads lead to Rome on mountains, and the summit I was sure could be reached by just about any route that goes ‘up.’

Thirty minutes of vertical dominoes and I joined up with a ridge.  Large gendarmes blocked the views ahead, but until there was no more ‘up’ left I wasn’t finished.

The first view over the ridgeline wasn’t what I expected – another gulley.  Where was the summit? I was picking my way across steeper and steeper terrain, stopping often to look around – a gulley to the left, a gulley to the right, and a sun fast fading below the skyline.

A last obstacle came into view.  A tower stained green with lichen was jsut above the ridge, and peeking over its shoulder was the little summit bump.

Despite a decade in the mountains I still failed to realize the scale of the peak, but the false summits were now behind me.  The hardest moves were on the final tower, climbing up and over good hand jams and reverse manteling a boulder to drop myself onto the final sloping talus field that ends abruptly at 11,800 feet, all out of ‘up.’  Running hard on the stable stacked rocks of the summit ridge, heart racing and the sun finally warming my face – this was what Croft was looking for that afternoon.


Summit tagged, register signed.  The circuitous descent past rubble and down sage-infested troughs did little to wipe the grin spreading from ear to ear.


Despite modern gear and better beta, Peter was still faster.  Of course, he’s a superman.  I’d like to be a superman one day too, to soar across the speckled granite buttresses and smell the hidden flowers.




2:07 from car to summit

3:20 round-trip


Dorks in the Meadows part 2



For Part 1 click HERE


Sandbagging has many forms – sometimes it can be seen a mile away, others the climber has to come home after bailing and read online forum boards to find out just  how badly he was lied to by the guy at the gear shop.


While in the car I had convinced Keith of many things.  It was a good idea to start hiking towards Cathedral at 2.  There wouldn’t be crowds this late in the day. The climbing is not exposed and will not be difficult for him.

Classic sandbagging.

A quick mantle and I was on top of the last few summit boulders with the rest of the horde.  I had sandbagged myself and was dragging a really tired dude up to a cramped tiny summit.

I had to get him up and off, but with several parties on top of the dinner-table sized summit I had to invent something else beside the classic strategy of building an anchor and bringing him up to me on top.  

Just below the leaning blocks that make the tippy-top was a small ledge.  My partner was surprisingly slow, despite moving quickly lower on the route and on the approach hike.  I casually brought in slack as other parties began Queuing up above.  There are many variations that all lead to the inevitable bottle neck, and here our intrepid adventurer’s who had been out of sight gathered tightly along the little blocks.  Armed with armloads of slack and a furrowed brow they stared at each other, hoping to scorn themselves ahead of the traffic jam to join the glorious summit disco.

It was a fun thing to watch, just out of peripheral but within earshot. The slack started to build up below me and stacking it on my foot in a crack wasn’t cutting it.  A slight stance adjustment and I could lean out and talk to the rest of the group above.

Now, before I discuss why my advice was not appreciably received, let me explain something about classic easy routes in Yosemite on a Saturday.  Every important life-altering event a climber has to go through, each major epic that gets shared on Facebook and earns a book deal – these events all happen on Cathedral Peak on weekends.  The shell-shocked look on the faces of the summit crowd as they noticed me perched below wasn’t unlike the look I had myself, six years earlier.  Later in the day, losing sunlight with my Mom on my very first alpine route… I had that look myself.  I am not casting judgement so much as wondering at the weirdness it is, the Cathedral Peak Epic.  The CPE fears no one.

Needless to say not a single Alpinist agreed to rappel a single line to the trail, below the talus and fourth class and exposed slabs.  Despite my re-assurance that it would expedite the log jam if people rode my 10 millimeter line down 180 feet to 2nd class talus and armed with the information that they each had been leading on thinner ropes all day there were no takers.  No matter, we’ll take the ride ourselves. 

Besides, it’s common to get your rope stuck on a flake on loose 5th on alpine rappels, and Keith fixed it before I down-climbed to him anyway.  Totally a safe method, right?

We hiked casually back to the car in the beautiful fading daylight to hollers of “Off Belay” and “WHAT?”  That whole time I couldn’t help but remember the last time I had hiked this trail while it was dark.  Back in 2007, with my Mom in tow, I felt real stress.  Like those other parties, not wanting to make the decisions they knew they had to make.  I hadn’t felt that up in Tuolumne for a little while, and wondered if I might get some of that humbling tomorrow, on Crescent Arch.

Sandbagged again.


I’ll walk  you with me, bulging eyeballs and all, in Part 3.  The Library is closing… 🙂

Dorks in Meadows



I don’t know why Keith thinks I can’t hear him, 20 feet below stuffed in a tight flare.

“Gotcha, Bud.”  I make sure to verbally reassure him as I cinch up a few more inches.  “Just, like, stuff your feet in and stand up. Or something.”

I hadn’t a clue how to get past that section, either, yet somehow I made it to the top of the third pitch of Crescent Arch in Tuolumne. The route, a right-leaning corner system on Daff dome, stares you in the face as you round a corner on highway 120 – “why haven’t you climbed me yet?”

The climb is considered “old school” 5.9+.  “Old School” is a little oversaturated in our modern vernacular and can be used to describe old hip hop or a tweed coat.  In climbing, “Old School” means an ass kicking, and we were in the thick of it.

Present-day climbers have advantages pioneers of the sport couldn’t dream of, like sticky rubber and internet beta.  If these tools give old-timers yearning for the golden era of the 1960’s it should be noted that no matter how sophisticated climbing gyms and new fangled protection get there’s no replicating the funk that real rock can come up with.

Halfway up a 5.9 hand crack a few minutes ago I was squirming and squeaking so violently through a bulge that a party waiting at the base thought I must have diarrhea.  A rack of shiny new cams were hardly a consoling shoulder to cry on.

Arriving at the belay I was kicking myself for dragging poor Keith up behind.  Twelve years into my climbing career and I had barely scratched up the last few pitches. With only a handful of crack climbs under his belt, and I had to guess very few in a flaring corner, my accomplice was having a hell of a time getting up the thing.

I wanted Keith the best start in climbing.  Our first few times roping up together were on Tahquitz Rock in Southern California, an area with a notoriously steep learning curve and “Old School” routes with deep flaring cracks and featureless slabs.  At 23 years old he didn’t know when to turn down my half-baked ideas.  He might have to start incorporating that into his routine.

We met the day before in the town of Bishop, an hour and change South of the rolling meadows of Yosemite’s high country. He met me cooking a potato stir-fry breakfast in the Von’s parking lot, driving all the way from San Diego.  I was in the middle of summer unemployment and had eschewed any sort of responsibility to be Peter Pan looking for Lost Boys to join in adventures.

Jumping in my cavalier and playing human Tetris at the crowded gas station on the Indian Reservation saw us on our way. One thing that really drew me to Keith is his brutal honesty.  Nothing is off the table.  On the short drive up we covered family, girlfriends, growing up a little shit… it was one of those conversations where a lack of barriers allowed unfiltered subconscious to leak out into the open.  That type of kinship makes it easy to see what is slowing life down or where to let go.

Inevitably I would change the subject to food or pubic hair.  I guess that’s where my subconscious was dwelling, but we hit some good points along the way.

Driving along highway 120 as it branched off the Old 395 towards the entrance to Yosemite ignited memories with light bouncing off ridges and scents filling the car.  I was pointing out ridges as Keith told stories of rafting the Kern with his grandpa and we felt a bit like giddy children on the way to Disneyland, remembering the thrilling rides and tasty churros.

Speaking of Disneyland, for some reason I landed on CathedralPeak as a good introduction.  On a Friday afternoon mid-season.  At noon.  The reason I chose the peak – location, aesthetics, rock quality – were the same reasons hundreds of other budding mountaineers trudged up the slabs to it’s base every week.  No matter, as I’d done the route enough times to feel confident that variations could get us past the bottle necks.  A little unprotected climbing and loose rock never hurt anyone, right?

Speed is about efficiency, not strength. Leaving the car at 2pm without headlamps or food made us ‘speed climbers’ by default – either that, or hungry and cold climbers.  I had convinced him it would be under 5 hours round-trip.

I put off things like “Keith has never simul climbed” and “Keith drove from Sea Level” as we marched upward to glory. The gear was draped about our shoulders and dinner, a pack of gum, stuffed into my pocket along with a camera and the car keys.

Ignoring the little things has always been a bit of a downfall of mine, at least when it came to realizing goals.  It might even be a weird skill-set that puts me back in the fray again and again, making the same mistakes but loving every minute of it.

As soon as the face came into view I realized there was no ignoring the problems – no less than six teams were strewn about the Southeast Buttress route, creating a virtual topo map of our intended climb.

Once we hit the base I went into overdrive – rack, rope, run.  Stringing the pitches together, putting in protection once keith reached a crux simul-climbing below, the beautiful rock gave us passage to the summit.  Threading past Weekenders from San Francisco and grumpy guides begrudgingly hauling up clients allotted little more than a “Hi! Bye!”, and before too long we were on top of the formations tiny summit – along with a half dozen other people.