Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby

Illoydson Dweller

Lloyd Petrungaro on Illusion Dweller

“ROPE!”

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?


Bebop

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.


DSCN1340

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.

DSCN1343

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.

DSCN1364

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.

DSCN1392

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).

IMG_1077

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.

DSC00681

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.

Capture

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

Advertisements

Virtual Tour: Mount Woodson Classic Cracks

Virtual Tour: Mount Woodson

Classic Cracks

Ah, Mount Woodson.  Home to so many pea-sized boulders you’ll think  you are a giant in Yosemite.  Though the high walls hidden in the Sierra might make El Cap and Half Dome seem a more grand objective, wee little adventures can be had tromping among the oak and manzanita high in the San Diego front country.

To Get There

Take Hwy 67 East out of Poway via the I-15.  I come from North County and exit Camino Del Norte, taking it to Espola and Poway Road.  If coming from the South, you can take Poway Road from the 15, just outside of Mira Mesa.  Either way, once your off the freeway the rolling hills offer awesome views not far from The Gaslamp and Oceanside Pier.  Ah, the glorious East County…

Warm up boulders

Park along the West Side of the 67 on the Shoulder.  This highway in particular is (or was, before renovations) the 6th deadliest highway in the nation.

In addition to having to play Frogger if the left side of the pavement is packed on a weekend, arriving very early or very late in the day can lead to desperate passers-by looking on your seat for a cell phone or wallet.  I’ve been fortunate enough in dozens of visits to avoid either problem, but I make sure to leave my car devoid of valuables, taking anything I like up the hill with me.  Take care as well pulling out into traffic, as cars careening past the Golf Course on Sunday Night might as well be Patriot Missiles.

The Warm-Up

Warm Ups Close Up

The first three problems in this video are on the “Practice Boulders” – aptly named.

IMG_2346

The lieback flake is about 5.7*, and has a mantel move off of a good sloping bread loaf just at the top.  Get a spot if you are uncomfortable, as with any mantel it can put you off-balance and a fall may not be controlled.

There is no ‘easy’ way off, so I would suggest climbing these double cracks up-and-down first, as they are my favorite downclimb:

IMG_2347

Or, consider downclimbing this wide crack on the back, which has a very low crux and can be squirmed pretty easily:IMG_2348

The boulder with the other two problems has an easy walk off. The second problem is a 5.10A mantel problem – getting established up on it can be a bit tricky, and trust the friction for the press.  It isn’t too high and isn’t too difficult.  The final problem is a 5.6 flake that feels easy, though the slick texture might make the feet pop unexpectedly (while filming, I came off the first time I hopped on!)

Mantels are a great way to warm-up as they work the antagonistic ‘pressing’ muscle groups, getting the blood warm without taxing the shoulders/fingers/forearms for harder problems later in the day.  As with any exercise in climbing, a pushup is better done as part of a rock climb to learn technique simultaneously, so try to incorporate strength and conditioning on the rock for better (and more enjoyable) results!

There are a handful of other problems in this area** to try and I’ve highlighted them in “yellow” on the maps above and below – except for the “Baby Robbins Area” (there’s just too much to bother color coding!).

The “5.10B/C Face” and “5.10D Thin Crack” are CLASSIC Woodson problems – they might feel impossible at first if unfamiliar with the subtle techniques hard, thin granite problems require.  Impossible one day and a warm-up the next – that’s the magic of technical climbing.  Learn to trust rubber on small edges and keep body tension for these guys!

Further up the road, take the first Left up a steep faint trail just after the Gate to reach the Sunday Afternoon Boulder.

Sunday Afternoon Boulder 

Sunday Afternoon Boulder

The Sunday Afternoon Boulder is comprised of two large, toprope-sized blocks with a handful of problems ranging in difficulty from 5.7 to 5.12.

Sunday Afternoon Close Up

The Sunday Afternoon boulder is shown in the video, via a popular top-rope problem.  The yellow text are problems not covered in the video.

SAB

The 5.7 Flakes/5.9 Jam/Flare can be reached by hiking up around to the right to reach the SECOND pair of toprope bolts – the first are above a 5.12 tips crack.  On the opposite side of the boulder, around to the left of the ‘5.7 flakes,’ is a 5.8 wide crack.  This can be top-roped via long slings and a directional from the bolts, thought it is an awkward angle.  Beware if bouldering out any of these routes, as there is a somewhat-tricky mantel move after the climb to get on top of the formation – it is only about 5.7, but feels insecure, though easier than the climbs to get to it.

I Hear My Train A Comin‘ is a world class finger crack, made famous by its first ascentionist John Bachar who (in the 1980’s) onsight-soloed the route.  Even if the climb is above your level, walk up to it and imagine in the days before crash pads hiking the route first try.  That should give a good impression of the standards those who developed this area held themselves to. PROUD!  To the right of the boulder is an awesome 10D lieback flake that can be toproped called “Razors Edge” – a great consolation prize, and with a good spot not a bad boulder problem as well.

Heading back to the road and going uphill some more, one encounters a water tower shortly on the right – Just BEFORE the water tower is a short trail heading ~30 yards to the Blackfinger boulder (10A toprope or boulder problem, fingercrack), which isn’t covered, but worth checking out.  At the water tower, turn and look right (like in the video) and you’ll see the obvious hand crack on the Elephants Trunk.

Elephants Trunk/Butt

Elephants Trunk Boulder

This pint-sized boulder offers a lot of bang for it’s short stature.  The obvious hand crack is a fairly highball 5.10, the face to the left a fun 5.6-7 problem.  Multiple warm-ups or downclimbs can be found on the Southwest side of the boulder, and look carefully to the left of the elephants trunk for a really cool face climb.  It’s mid-5.10, dynamic, and a real blast.

IMG_2434

Robbins Crack

Robbins Crack Approach

We’ll skip straight ahead to the best 5.10 splitter in the area – Robbins Crack!  It’s about a 10 minute walk past the water tower, past the Seminar Wall/Lizards area (tall blocks on the first major switchback past the water tower), the playground (flat spot with a spray painted boulder when the road opens up and looks South towards Downtown San Diego) and underneath the mighty Uncertainty Principle (link).

Robbins Close Up

This problem shouldn’t be difficult to see from the road.  From the cracked rock you can see the problem at there is a path going around to the left to reach it – the cracks right on the road as well are good warm-ups, if you’d like to head straight to this area and skip the bottom stuff.  The giant overhanging face is Don’t Rock The Boat, more groped than any other 5.13 on the hill.  Missing hangers and epoxied holds make it seem a bit less enticing than other testpeices in the area, and modern crashpad/spotter technology might relegate it to a new-age boulder problem.  For now, it attracts the eye of the gym rat who sees steep crimps and big moves with bolts – not something too common at Woodson.

IMG_2819

The crux of bouldering Robbins is, of course, down-climbing it.  I suggest trying the problem first on a rope to make sure you are comfortable.  If you’ve got a good spotter (and, perhaps, a crash pad) it can be lead with a #1 camalot – place it while standing on the good edge about head-high and cruise the final 5.8-5.7 moves to the top.  Toprope bolts on the left make a directional useful for doing laps and are conveniantly right on top of an awesome 5.11 thin-face climb, Eric’s Face.  A common toprope problem, this isn’t to be missed!  Check out the top half of Lie Detector, which is only about 5.9 – the bottom is hard, thin, old school pin scar jams and pretty damn difficult!

This problem is named after the climbing legend Royal Robbins, who famously onsight-soloed this route for it’s first ascent in hiking boots – the locals had told him it was the best route in the area, just not that it hadn’t been done yet!

Baby Robbins

Baby Robbins Approach

Quite possibly my favorite area for a quick circuit is the Baby Robbins/Jaws area.  There is so much packed in so close, almost all short enough to be considered boulder problems, and in a cool little grove to boot.  Take the faint trail JUST BEFORE the sharp switchback that overlooks San Diego a second time – inside the bend of the road is a group of boulders making a cave-like feature hiding a popular 5.10 toprope and the V-Hard testpeice False Eppulator (or Rails Problem – the real ‘eppulator,’ named after Greg Epperson, is around the back on the West side, facing the road, up a short and fierce 5.12 dike).

Baby Robbins Close Up

Too Much Stuff!  Baby robbins is a great toprope, if you can keep the rope out of the crack (hint – run it over a shoe or a pack), and Jaws is the real gem of the area though the landing make it more of a solo than a boulder problem.  Other topropes include Girls Climb (10D) and Corn Flake (5.7) – Corn Flake can be started all the way down and right to add some mileage.

perfect slab area

DSC00502

With an open mind you can find more than a dozen climbs in this short area and the Perfect slab area above.  The Perfect Slab spot has a handful of awesome rails, mantels, highballs, friction climbs and knob-presses to round out Granite Technique, all doable with a single crash pad.  The face climb in the Virtual Tour Video is the “5.9” to the left of Baby Robbins, and just to the left of the “5.9” is another cool problem starting with a hop to a heart shaped hold.  Spend time here and learn the circuit, it will be a favorite spot to hit on the way up or down the hill.

The Cave

Cave Approach

The most obvious feature when hiking past this popular area is going to be the giant, overhanging Cave (11a).  This spot has a large grouping of problems to warm up on or work out.

Cave Area

The Cave is a gnarly highball or a toprope, but an easy escape off to the right at about half-height make it a reasonable boulder problem.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dBJXD0adKw

The first problem I cover is Fisticuffs, a 5.8 fist crack/offwidth that has some face holds to mitigate the jamming needed. At this point in filming the video I was pretty beat.  Wearing socks and sweating hard in the heat I used some of those face holds instead of jamming – cheater!  Not really cheating, as it’s all climbing, but again – a great problem to try different techniques.  The “Aguille De Woodson” is a pair of featured fins that have a handful of fun warm-up face climbs.  If comign to work on this part of the hill consider jumping on these first.  To the left (East) of the Cave is an arching hand-to-fist crack called Bat Crack.  It feels insanely physical and is a problem worth bringing a few rolls of tape on.

1IMG_2813

The last problem climbed in the video is Johns Crack, not to be confused with Long’s crack (named after climbing legend John Long).  John’s crack feels easier than Robbins, but harder than baby Robbins.  A hard pull off the ground gets you established in the deeper, easier jams, so though it is tall and over a weird landing it’s not a very dangerous boulder problem.

Heading down hill you will find Alcoa and Stairway to Heaven, two test piece highballs/solos that see few ascents.

DSC00530

Up the road a tiny bit, at the sharp switchback, leave for a trail heading towards San Diego and head to the obvious giant overhanging block of Big Horn.  This boulder has toprope bolts to work out the myriad face climbs and variations, a great place to get a pump on granite.

So there it is, my first installment of Virtual Tours.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and more so I hope it has inspired you to explore more and have more fun.  That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

A Note About Grades*

I spent some time thinking about how best to provide information about grading these climbs – for the most part I used what Dave Kennedy called routes in his guidebook, but sometimes I took the liberty to give my own interpretation.  There is no real consensus, just personal interpretation, and I suggest climbing them and letting me know what you think – the climbing is the fun part, anyway!

A Note About Other Problems**

I know, I know.  There are a LOT of problems I missed, even right by the spots I covered.  I know, they are your very very favorite-ist climbs in the world.  This was just a sampling, and be sure that future posts will cover more areas and more classics, but feel free to let me know which you prefer – might add them into my next post!

5 Reasons Why You Suck at Crack Climbing

Matt upside down

Hang in there, this post will get you through it!

“I don’t like crack.”

I’ll avoid the pedantic analogy to Crack Cocaine except to say that, like any drug, you just don’t know if you like it ’till you try.  Of course ‘trying’ to learn crack climbing often leaves the newbie in a bruised pile of humility.  That’s where the failure part comes in – the road you are taking sucks, your car is fine.

This article aims to deflate some preconceived notions of The Way to crack climb in place of easier, more bite-sized steps for success.  Just like any approach to training, one should check the ego at the door and keep in mind the word “Objective” when it comes to adding things to the plate (or scrapping all-together).

Started at Dixon

19 Year Old Greg

I started climbing in a gym in 2001, as a sophomore in high school, at Solid Rock Climbing Gym.  Unlike those before me I had the advent of Climbing Gyms to train and learn the craft, and back when I began that was exactly what one did – gyms were little more than steep concrete walls with bolt-on resin holds arranged by high school kids to give weekend warriors a way to get pumped on a Tuesday.  Posters all over of heroes on heroic routes – Chris Sharma on Realization, Tommy Caldwell on the Salathe, Fred Nicole on Slashface – lined the locker rooms, a reminder of ‘the real thing’ and why we were there .  The gyms were uncomfortable, dirty, and run amok by birthday parties for 11 year olds, a patron that was a necessary evil to keep the bay doors open for the handful of broke climbers in the area.  Real rock climbing was the point, and most everyone who shivered in the few abandoned all winter knew that.

Before my time there wasn’t a culture of gym climbing, and not long after the appearance of high-tech facilities there arose whole scores of climbers happily enjoying entire careers on plastic rock.  Granted, as a form of exercise a climbing gym is a bit more rad than blandly hefting  weights at 24-hour fitness or thudding on a treadmill watching TLC.  The idea, however, that one must attain a certain proficiency on indoor climbs before venturing outside seems silly and a bit too progressive a thought for my taste.  In the bright light and softly padded floors of a 70,000 square foot mega-gym the realities of rock climbing can seem harsh and unfriendly, and that feeling only grows the longer an expedition to the local crag is put off.

Climbers today do have tics on their side of the scoreboard, as all the steep terrain that is easily accessed in a gym makes them freakishly strong. More and more climbers are capable of climbing the BEST routes in the area, as the old-school hippies who trained by toproping laps on finger cracks don’t have the power-endurance for the relentless jug-hauls of the Red River Gorge.  Grades once thought elite are being climbed by children, and there in lies the problem – grades.

Wrecked on whitney

Beat and Altitude Sick at 14,000 feet

My first time outdoors, my first time to Joshua Tree, my first big wall, were all horrible failures and soul-crushing realizations of what I really was as a climber.  At Dixon Lake, my first day crack climbing, I huffed and gasped my way up a 5.7 wide crack despite climbing mid-5.10 at the local gym.   Later on, a 5.8 slab told me I really didn’t know that much about rock climbing.  The idea then was to climb the fun climbs, and walking up to a crag one wouldn’t scan a guidebook and toss aside anything naturally protected because “I’m a sport climber, not a trad climber.”  You were a “Climber” and climbed rock climbs, and California is a Granite state – that means that our 500-mile long Sierra Nevada Batholith is split easily by cracks and flakes as volcanic activity echoes onto the cold rock and exfoliates itself.  By looking very, very carefully one might find rock climbs that resemble the moves typically found on gymnastic rock climbs, but to do so would be to look through a vary narrow telescope and ignore the real quality and unique formations our state has to offer.

That long stretch of Granite, those hundreds of miles of splitter cracks offering the best rock climbing in the state by popular consensus, they are a drug worth toking.  Trust me on that one.

I hope to shed some lights on the Do Nots and give an alternative approach – with the usual amount of callous humor and some ridicule for good measure.

Heart of Darkness

Rope-Harness, Ideal for belaying a buddy on a 5.11

So, why do you suck at crack climbing?

1.  You aren’t conditioned

Illusion Dweller

A chubbier version of myself losing a war of attrition on Illusion Dweller

Would it be wise to walk into a martial arts dojo, up to a stack of thick concrete cinder blocks, and smash your forehead against them with all your might?  What if a guy on Youtube did it? What if your core muscles are even stronger than his because of intense abdominal training?  After you are revived and told why there is a hematoma sticking on your forehead, I’d hope the Sensei would say that the man on the video had spent years slamming his dome into a number of increasingly dull objects.

You don’t do this, so don’t expect to climb cracks at your grade and not get hurt.

The idea of Conditioning shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who spent more than a few months learning to climb in a gym. When we started our skin would quickly rot on our palms with blisters and a few short toprope laps would leave us completely gassed.  It hurt, then, to learn.  It hurt to learn how not to pendulum into the wall, how to wear snug climbing shoes, and it seemed as though getting tougher was an accepted facet of the game.  Just the same, crack climbing puts wear and tear on your body in another unique way, one that I can attest after enough practice is hardly noticable.

2.  You really aren’t that great at rock climbing

Split Finger

Huh. All that time spent in the Gym after High School didn’t get me ready for sharp Joshua Tree rock

Now, there are two problems going on with that last statement.  One, people try to climb the same grades on varying crack sizes as on top ropes in the gym.  A difficult reality, two, is that the perceived skill is actually much lower on even non-crack climbs because of the propensity of climbing gyms to inflate the ego’s of their patrons by inflating the grades on their climbs.

To put it simply, someone who climbs solely in a gym, who thinks they should climb a 5.11, should really climb a 5.9 crack – and may only climb 5.10 at best on any terrain.  Just like I was shut down just as handily on an offwidth as a climb with actual holds on it at Dixon Lake all those years ago, you can’t pick a route too easy. There is just too much to learn and mileage on real rock should trump it’s difficulty for the transition stages.  All forms of climbing should be practiced and a useful tool in a climbers quiver of techniques.  A few trips here and there can round out a skillset, much faster than re-learning how to climb all together.

3.  You dork around too much with tape gloves

Big Bobs

Big Bob’s Big Wedge – upside-down fist jams in an Iron Maiden, one of the few times I’ll tape up

It’s a classic sight, the 7am Campground Tape-Up at Joshua Tree.  In fear of losing skin (likely because of reason #1 and #2) hordes of weekend warriors from the nearby cities slap ounces of sticky restrictive tape at breakfast, only to be seen all over the park climbing the flared awkward face holds that appeared from a distance like jam cracks.  Buying tape, making the gloves, pulling them off carefully, discarding trash properly, are all things that get in the way of doing rock climbing – something I like to do the most of possible.

Now, before this is taken to the extreme by the Tape Religious out there, I don’t mean to say NEVER tape.  I tape on hard cracks, ones at my limit where I will lose skin going for the move or forcing myself on lead, as well as roof cracks.  However when top roping, running laps on classics, or getting mileage in on cold days, I prefer to leave the tape at home and learn to use my feet and finesse the route instead of bear down.  Sometimes, at least on toprope, that means I’m falling – but falling and learning is much better than cleanly climbing a route wrong.

4.  You don’t climb enough of them

elsas crack

Running laps on a Woodson 5.6

This one should be self explanatory, but there is a short bit of information that I’d like to share.  The sad reality of Trad Climbing is that it is a double edged sword, in that it takes a TON of mileage to become proficiant yet the logistics of all the gear and preparation for each route make it damn near impossible to fill a day at Joshua Tree with anything less than a handful of crowded classics.   By climbing with less, and learning the craft to a quick and efficient level, there is ample opportunity to climb 3 times as much terrain in a calender year with the same amount of climbing days.

5.  Your ego needs to be checked

DSC00705

Five 5.10 pitches down, five more to go. Whose idea was this anyway? Oh, mine. Oops….

People hate to look at their own faults.  Our ego will do anything and everything to protect itself, to compartmentalize what should and shouldn’t matter into boxes of familiarity and comfort zones.  The first breakup, the first job you lost – all those things likely gave you the tools to survive the next ones.  If they didn’t, then you’re likely learning them to this day.  The 5.14 climber who lives in San Francisco yet won’t climb The Astroman because “it’s a trad climb” is scared to fail.  The rock is oblivious to how it is protected, and I’ve long held the belief that a climber should be able to do the same moves above a crash pad as a quickdraw as a well-placed Camming device.  Refusing to run laps on easier routes in order to learn will hurt his chances of success, as some 5.14 climbers wouldn’t be caught dead spending time on a 5.8 hand crack.

Chris Sharma has done multiple trad climbs up to 5.13 and Daniel Woods can be seen on a North Face special learning to hand jam on a river rafting trip.  Try it out, and try it out with the same open mind you used getting into the sport – you just might like it.

So, how can I get better?

I don’t claim to be a master crack climber, yet in my time spent I’ve learned some tricks that allowed personal growth for my own game.  Whether it was planned or inadvertent I came into the habits I have because they WORK, objectively – I don’t care how I look or what route I’m caught on, I just want to have the most fun possible!

1.  Climb easier cracks

Climbing easy cracks, preferably of lower angle, can allow you to feel out the friction on the jams and understand how much pressure should be placed on the backs of the hands.  A jug can be gripped with all your might without discomfort, yet a flared jam will only tear skin and bruise bone.  It is important to learn how to hold on with jams just enough to stay in it but not too much to unnecessarily pinch nerves and, more importantly, not get too pumped.  In addition the movement will help condition an athlete’s skin – and bones – to deal with the rigors of hand and foot jams.

Some of the best times I’d had climbing so far have been on cruiser splitters high in the mountains, where I wasn’t thinking “Left hand-Jug, right foot-edge, right hand-undercling” but moving thoughtfullly along a line cut across stone.  Protection can be thrown in whenever and on those easy big climbs you can get the full-mountain adventure at a fraction of the cost, left skipping back to the car with energy to do it again tomorrow.

IMG_1388

5.7 Offwidth for Breakfast!

2.  Toprope quality cracks of different sizes 

The key word here is quality, and I have a theory on that.

Awkward crack sizes are VERY important, and being able to stuff various body parts into differing fissures with the full bag of imagination is vital to success trad climbing.  However, that kind of movement isn’t conducive for learning repeatable technique.  A quality crack shouldn’t be too grainy, should be fairly paralell to force real jamming skills, and should be fun – so you enjoy doing it and will do it again.  Even offwidths and chimneys can be rewarding when viewed as breakthroughs in technique. Getting stuck, having the climb feel impossible, only to make a small adjustment and breeze up the route is the heart of Crack Climbing.

corase

Gloves, a jacket and a beanie at the ready!

3.  Climb when it’s colder

Slimy, slippery jams are no fun, and neither is losing skin to them.  Sweat can act as a lubricant for crack climbing, sometimes much worse than steep routes with big holds.  While you can go though gallons of chalk and buckets of tape to stay in the crack, it’s a better idea to walk around to the other side of the formation to climb in the shade.  Crack climbing is often very physical, especially in the learning phases and in wider cracks, and the staccato, conservative movements that make progression possible favor heavy layers.  Just make sure to hike up the sleeves past the wrists, lest they get in the way of a deep hand jam.

Where can I practice this?

For those in Southern California, you are in luck.  We are in a bastion of crack climbs and have to our disposal a plethora of options across a wide swath of San Diego and Riverside counties.  With a light rack of cams and a patient partner there is ample opportunity to get your skills up to where you’d like them.

IMG_1276

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree – A great place to camp and lead classic climbs

B2/B3 5.3 – Toprope or lead.  Trash Can Rock has a handful of great easy cracks to start out on.

The Bong 5.5 – Lead or TR.  One of the absolute best routes in the park for easy jamming.

Granny Goose 5.7 – Lead.  Hand cracks, offwidths, and a bit of liebacking to boot.

Sail Away 5.8 – Lead. one of the more clean splitters at the grade.  Great protection and movement, an ideal first lead for the grade as well.

The Flake 5.8 – Lead. Offwidth, hands, a chimney and face climbing.  This is the graduation ceremony to 5.8 in Joshua Tree.

Dogleg 5.9 – Lead. Yes, it’s 5.9 not 5.8. Physical, long, warm – a great option for a winter day.

Popes Crack 5.9 – Lead. If you are a 5.10 sport climber as well consider the direct finish – it’s bolted and fairly easy for the grade.

Exercist 10a – Lead or TR after leading Nuurns romp.  An excellent finger crack.

Left Banana Crack 5.10B – Lead or TR. A great steep hand crack through a weird flare.  An easy first lead at the grade because of the awesome protection.

Illusion Dweller 5.10B – Lead.  An amazing testpeice of leaning fist jams, steep hands and finger-jam layback.  Worth every star the book gives it.

Tax Man 5.10B – Lead or TR. Glorious finger and hand crack with face holds to an awkward wide crack at the top.

Spiderman 5.10B – Lead or TR. everything from fingers to offwidth.  This one is a dousy.

Meteorite Crack 5.10C – Lead or TR. A steep burly hand crack.

Clean and Jerk 5.10C – Lead or TR.  Be careful running laps on this ultra-classic, as the sandbagged route is a popular one and it sucks to walk up to a conga line on the thing (trust me).

Jumpin’ Jack Crack 11A/B – Lead or TR.  Chimney and a hand crack through a roof.  Glorious and tough.

Hobbit Hole Offwidte V0 – a damn difficult proposition for your average boulderer!

IMG_2783

Mount Woodson

Mount Woodson – The best place to learn harder cracks, offwidths, and climb with only a crash pad

Elsa’s crack 5.6 – Lead/Solo/TR. A toprope often gets stuck, so if you are planning to use a rope take care.

Corn Flake 5.7 – Solo/TR.  Don’t place gear behind the awesome hand/fist sized flake! Multiple crack boulder problems nearby.

Sunday Afternoon Boulder 5.7-5.9 – several topropes available, bring long slings.

Milkbar 5.8 – TR/Lead. think finger jams and layback around a roof. Sweet.

Baby Robbins Crack 5.9 –  Boulder/TR.  Often the scene of broken hearts.

Big Grunt 5.9 – Solo/TR.  An awkward start leads to spooky chimneying…

Johns Crack 5.9+ – Boulder/Lead/TR. not to be confused with Longs crack. Low crux and flat landing make it a great boulder problem.

Robbins Crack 5.10a – Lead/TR/Boulder.  A MUST do.

Blackfinger 5.10a – TR/Boulder.  I actually led this the first time I got on it.  I don’t recommend bothering to.

The Crucible 5.10C – TR/Lead. A good place to start using tape.  An ass kicker.

Jaws 5.11A – TR/Solo.  One of the best splitters at the grade in the area.

Drivin’ South 5.11D – TR/Boulder.  A killer finger crack and the first of many 5.12-ish in the area.

IMG_1154

Tahquitz Rock

Idyllwild – A great place for mileage on easy routes and to climb the best stone in So Cal.

The Trough 5.4 – A great first longer route.

White Maidens Walkway 5.4-5.7 – good luck staying on route, a glorious cruise up an awesome buttress.  Varied, fun.

Angels Fright 5.6 – The best 5.6, but heads up – the slab at the end spooks people out, but its 5.5.

Coffin Nail 5.8 – The best 5.8 pitch in Idyllwild.  Combine with Traitor Horn for an all-time classic.

Long Climb 5.8 – a great 5-pitch jaunt with offwidth, chimney, hand cracks, and even some face climbing.

Daves Deviation 5.9 – Technical fingers with a slick, thin crux.

Flower of High Rank 5.9 – Splitter crack through a roof.  Climb as one pitch, or else!

Whodunnit 5.9 – So Cal’s Nutcracker, this route has it all – a chimney and thin crack crux, 5.8 roof, all on clean north-facing rock.

Consolation 5.9+ – the twin-handcrack crux will sap you, almost as much as the loose awkward 5.8 moves just below it.

El Camino Real 5.10a – The crux pitch can be reached via Coffin Nail with some trickery, and toproped.   A worthy lieback.

Human Fright pitch 1 5.10a – a great warm-up for harder climbs or thing to do laps on after reaching the anchor via Angels Fright.

Y-Crack 5.10B – An awesome, steep, upside-down Y on the North Face of Tahquitz.  A warm route, great for afternoons or shoulder seasons.

Johnny Quest 5.10B – more like a boulder problem on a rope, a classic none-the-less.

Super Pooper 5.10B – An awesome, long, sustained 5.10 pitch. Consider finishing on Price of Fear for an all-time classic link.

The Vampire 5.11a – Often considered the best route in So Cal, and attainable by most mortals.

Etude 5.11a – Sometimes it’s important to learn to climb things that appear impossible and hold-less…

Insomnia 5.11C – Arguably the best single-pitch in Idyllwild.  Go see for yourself ;D

Remember – it isn’t what you can climb, but what people on Facebook think of you.