Boarding the plane seemed unbelievable to me. There had been so many opportunities for the trip to get cancelled that I couldn’t quite believe that it hadn’t. Given the fact UK citizens were still banned from entering the US, I’d needed a special Presidential Waiver to be allowed to attend the Los Angeles Paraclimbing World Cup, the last in a series of 3 World Cups organised by the IFSC, but the only one that was possible to attend due to COVID travel bans on the GB team. I imagined President Biden sitting down to sign my paperwork personally, but the reality was much more mundane, a quick and uneventful passage through US border control.
The competition took place over two days at the Sender One climbing gym. Fortunately, we’d realised in time that due to an inexplicable logic failure there are 2 climbing walls called Sender One in the same city and we’d originally booked to stay near the wrong one… Why not call the second gym Sender Two!?!? Anyway, our initial mistake rectified, we arrived at the correct gym in plenty of time for the competition and hoping to back-up my performance from the World Championships in Moscow only 2 weeks before.
The qualification round didn’t go that well if I’m honest. I don’t think I was really in the right frame of mind and on the first route I dropped it reaching for the final hold. I had reached past the finishing jug, didn’t feel it and so reached higher. Thinking that I hadn’t reached far enough and not realising that I was in fact way past the finishing jug. I stretched too far and peeled off, doh. The second qualification route was going well until the smallest lapse in my concentration meant my foot slipped, I hadn’t expected it and failed to control the ensuing barn door. As I waited for the results, I was quite disheartened, some silly and ultimately avoidable mistakes had meant I’d not given a performance I was happy with. But to my surprise it was enough and I’d be progressing to the final.
Final’s routes are always contested “on-sight”, the ironic juxtaposition of this label with my disability still brings me a wry smile. The result is competitors are held in isolation before it is your time to climb. Plenty of athletes loath “iso” as they are stuck in there for hours with nothing to do other than stress about the upcoming route. Fortunately for me it’s customary for my category (B1) to be up first so I don’t spend that long in iso. I only have just enough time to complete my warm-up before I am called and I’m lucky enough to have something to keep me entertained, Molly and her sardonic wit.
Finals routes are often on the steepest section of the wall, and this one was no exception, ploughing straight through the 50-degree overhang. Overhanging terrain like this isn’t my strong suit, coming from a trad climbing background with lots of time on grit it’s not a style I’ve spent that much time on, proportionally. The wait for the route setters to give me a good jamming section goes on…
Despite my trepidations, I got to grips with the finals route really well. I found a good knee-bar my competitors missed and milked a restful position from 2 good footholds. I charged through the next section before coming unstuck on a move I couldn’t work out how to latch statically. It turned out I’d taken the bronze medal, and had only been a few moves from Silver, a repeat of the result from the Moscow World Championships weeks before. While clearly, I would have liked to have won taking another World medal is a great result and a fair reflection of my current indoor climbing ability. It’s especially gratifying to do so well in a style I don’t regard as my strongest.
After the competition concluded it was time to sample some Californian rock. We spent a day with the Boston contingent of the US team, cragging North of LA in the Malibu Creek area. It was great to be on real rock in the warm sun. Max, one of the US sight-guides a.k.a. “callers”, was intrigued to find out how Molly guides me for leading trad outside and came over to listen to her as I led up one of the routes. Unfortunately, I was in cruise mode and as we were still trying to understand American grades, Molly had pointed me at something she thought would be fairly straightforward. I made short work of it and I don’t think Molly said a word for the entire route, other than ‘follow the crack’ sorry Max, it wasn’t intentional! Waving goodbye to the Boston crew with promises to head to the Red River Gorge with them sometime, we headed out to Joshua Tree.
Joshua Tree is an amazing place with a landscape totally unlike anything found in the UK. Molly was blown away by the stunning desert vistas with the hot sun, bathing the huge granite blobs and boulder gardens, interspersed with the eponymous Joshua Trees themselves. Even without the visuals, I could tell that it is a very special place indeed. Finding a pitch nestled in the Hidden Valley campground we were ensconced in the heart of the park, with all its climbing history from the time of Jerry Moffat et al.
Getting stuck into some of the classics mere meters from our tent, I began adjusting to the feel of the Joshua Tree granite. The virgin sections of rock are incredibly rough and sharp and can draw blood with the subtlest graze, but the passage of innumerable climbers on the famous easier routes has mellowed the rock’s innate ferocity. The same cannot be said of the flora, all of which is festooned with barbs and spines as sharp as razors many of which made their presence felt, a searing stab of unexpected pain as I stumbled into them.
Braving the unfriendly plant life is worth it though, as the climbs are stunning. With complex featured cracks, whose widths vary subtly and sport a myriad of complex features, it was interesting for me to explore them by touch as I climbed. A puzzle to seek out the optimum placements for hands, feet and gear. Sometimes as I climbed, the features in the rock cast my mind back to how it formed, imagining the newly minted granite cooling and splintering to give the cracks and the plate-like flakes that break up the walls and bulges, each with that distinctive rough surface that must often be smeared upon. The complexity of the features forcing my subconscious to adjust my movement patterns in an effort to decode the route’s distinctive enigma.
As the day wore on, I sensed myself getting to grips with the style and felt the heat of the sun sinking towards the horizon, imagining the orange light, running over the rocks in the final moments before the on-rushing twilight and the precipitous drop in temperature that accompanies it.
There is no running water in the park, and the contrast between the park’s rugged and remote feel with the consumerist modernity of LA only hours earlier, rattled around my mind as we decanted water from the bladders we’d brought with us and prepared dinner. Molly marvelling at the star-spangled sky and near full moon which illuminated the jumbled boulders as we ate, and I soaked in the soundscape of unfamiliar insects and the whistle of the gentle breeze between the rocks. Later, as I lay in my sleeping bag I was roused by the yipping and howling of a coyote pack, as they saluted the waxing moon that lit their domain, this rare bastion of western wilderness. Sinking back into my cocoon I hid from the cold night air and marvelled at this place’s distinctive soul.
Rising early, I chose a route, currently shaded that would be in the sun later and therefore too hot to climb. I hastened to get stuck into this 5.8 warm-up route before the sun blew away the early morning cool. The route started with an awkward chimney that was the antithesis of the competition climbing I had been doing such a short time ago. After negotiating the first 15m I got into “The Flake” which gives the route its name and made short work of it. The flake runs out before the top and I had thought I’d done the crux. I was wrong.
Molly had spotted from the ground that there are 2 bolts to protect the final slab. I found the first of these without issue, clipped it, and stood up onto the start of the slab. There were no holds. But, rather than being totally uniform the rock’s surface was covered in small sloping depressions and protrusions. Much as if someone had taken a sheet of tissue paper, scrunched it up into a ball, then without tearing, unfurled it and wrapped it over an egg. The result was no positive holds, just sections that had a shallower angle as I attempted to find a way on top of this oversized egg. Footwork was going to be crucial, but as I can’t see where the depressions and lumps are in order to position my feet, this was going to be insanely hard. I thought back to childhood trips to Fontainebleau, remembering the often savagely polished slabs that had honed my footwork and taught me to trust the feeling through my toes for what will, and will not, stick. Gingerly I felt around with my hands as best as balance would allow. Identified several sections of the rock that were less steep and began working out how to move my feet between them. Slowly, tentatively, I padded upwards. Up and up I went, always searching for the second bolt that I knew was there but neither Molly or I could see. I still hadn’t found it. Another move. I’m scared now, these moves are hard if you can’t see, and I know I am way above my last clip on the first bolt now. The next move will be harder still. I’ve found a smear to move to, but it’s a really high foothold, it would be better if I could use an intermediate, so it wasn’t such a stretch. There probably is an intermediate, but I can’t find it. I’m not sure I can make the move without falling and I’m high above my last clip, I do not want to slip, I could easily break something if I do. Indecision grips me as the battle between motivation and self-preservation plays out in my mind. This is silly, starting to spiral out of control. I begin to down climb. Reversing the tenuous slab moves from the memory of where my feet had been before. Swearing to myself and not loving this experience, I brush past the second bolt on the way down. Found it! I’d inadvertently climbed past it and despite my searching hadn’t found it to clip. No wonder I had felt run-out and exposed. Relief as the snap of the quickdraw going in and getting clipped hits my ears. No excuses now, time to start going back up. Up I pad to my high-point and the high step. The move is no easier, I still can’t find an intermediate, but at least I probably won’t break my ankles if I mess this up. The sun is up now, it’s hot already, there is no shade up here near the top of this accursed egg. My hands are seeping sweat profusely, try to chalk, to no avail. “Commit”, my inner monologue screams. I go, attempting the move. My soaking hands slide down the rock, I imagine them leaving slug-trails of sweat behind, 2 streaks at least a foot long down the rock. “This is it”, “I’m taking the ride” I think. But, to my amazement my left foot sticks on the high foothold. I imagine the contact area between the rubber of my shoe and the rock, it must be tiny. Thank f**k for sticky rubber, it’s the only thing keeping me on right now. “Stand up” screams the monologue, with a tirade of internal invective it’s clear my body wants outta here. I stand up, blessedly the angle begins to ease, and I reach the top of the egg. Phew, it’s over. Well kind of, because of course I can’t find the bolted anchor. I know there is one up here somewhere, it’s marked on the topo. But despite prolific searching by scrabbling around at the top I can’t find it. I don’t want to go too far and fall off of the far side of this sodding egg. I built a trad anchor and made myself safe. I’m sat belaying less than 2m from the bolts…arrrg it would be so much simpler if I could see them. While I was climbing, I didn’t particularly enjoy this route, but with hindsight there are some huge positives for me. I hadn’t soiled my favourite pair of climbing trousers! And I’d been mentally tough enough to go back up to the crux once I had a modicum of protection.
Rising again I collected our radios that had been charging overnight. As there is no electricity in the park we used a solar panel to charge a power bank during the day and then recharged our radios from the power bank overnight. The sun’s rays had already sneaked into the valley and I connected up the solar panel before we headed out. It was already obvious that the day was going to be hot, and we hid in one of the many canyon-like clefts to escape the sun’s fiery glare. We soon realised our mistake as the cold wind coursed between the high rock walls, it was strange to feel so cold on such a hot day. We toughed it out for several routes before relocating to The Isles in the Sky, an impressive clean wall sitting high on a jumbled outcrop that rises high above the desert floor. The climbing starts from a platform about 20m up the outcrop. The objective was Bird of Fire, an amazing 5.10a which follows a thin crack through the centre of the imposing wall. A bouldery start let to a section with a series of patina flakes, a feature I’ve not come across that often. The incredibly thin plates of rock whose continued attachment to the main face seemed implausible, reminded me of pastry, until I tapped one and it rang with a hollow bong akin to a bell toll. I moved swiftly on and got stuck into the upper crack, which steepens as you ascend. I pulled over the top pumped and panting. The exertion told as I set up my belay, I attempted to place the largest cam I had left, a size 4 dragon, too small. As I attempted to return it to the back of my harness my fatigued fingers fumbled and I heard the plink, plink, plink of the dragon dropping down deep within the crack, bugger. I found alternate gear and brought Molly up, before directing her to fish for my lost cam by using a nut key on the end of a sling as an impromptu hook to catch my errant dragon. With spirits high and energy low we trudged back to the car, passing the imposing block of Rubicon as the sun set and the moon rose, one for another day.
Having acclimatised to the desert’s atmosphere and climbing style it was time to get on a route that had been recommended to me, Illusion Dweller (5.10b). Heading to it first thing to catch the shade and morning cool Molly described the route to me, a soaring crack whose width fluctuates between fingers and hands as it trends rightwards on a diagonal slant before the crack turns vertical at a small niche, and then passes straight up through a final overhanging bulge. Sorting ropes and kit in the small gravelly bay at the base of the route I was excited and keen to get going so as not to be caught by the rapidly rising sun that was already sending rays shimmering through the palm leaves just out from the crag’s base. Leaving the ground and getting established in the crack, I appreciated the sensation of the cool rock as I slotted in jams and cams. Moving higher the crack slants more to the right, making it awkward as both hands and feet must use the crack, there is nothing else. I jammed my hand high and skirted my feet up, leaning my body leftwards in a layback type move. Unnervingly the rock bulges on the left and I felt it pressing against my left shoulder, threatening to push me out of balance and to unwind my layback in spectacular fashion. Carefully, I inched higher weaving my shoulder past the bulge as if trying to sneak past a sleeping giant in a Tolkien-esque folk tale. The giant slumbered on as I edged higher and the crack narrowed. “Don’t stop”, “Keep going” the internal monologue insisted, “get the gear and move on, don’t get bogged down”. I obeyed and pressed on into the final niche. One last puzzle to unlock before the anchor. I pulled up and explored, before returning to rest. Mapping out the features of the crack above with questing fingers, I adjusted tactics. High left side pull, high left smear to keep in balance, bridge out, move the hands up and go over with the right. Executing my right hand’s fingers snaked over and back, searching. No jugs here, only a sloping divot. “It’ll have to do” I thought, the texture of the hold casting my mind back to many a Fontainebleau top out pulling on shallow slopey dishes. I scampered my feet up and heaved over, grinning.
Our days in the desert were numbered, time was running out. With some trepidation I decided to go back to Rubicon. The route follows an impressive Z-shaped series of cracks up the side of a huge freestanding boulder marooned in the sea of sand. It’s graded 5.10c/d depending on where you look, which put it right at the top end of my ability, hence the trepidation. As we Stood between the shrubs at the flat base, Molly described the crack system to me. It starts with a vertical section of wide hand jams before traversing left along a horizontal break for 15m to reach the base of a narrow finger crack that starts almost vertical, before curving an arc rightwards to the top of the boulder. We were using double ropes and discussed how to arrange these with my gear to minimise the rope drag as I geared up and pulled my shoes on. The first crack and the traverse along the break were easier than expected, I had feared the traverse would have no footholds and be a pumpy swing fest, but the crux was yet to come. I reached the base of the curving thin crack and paused. This was the Rubicon, once I started up it, I wasn’t going to be able to reverse the moves. It was going to be simple, climb to the top or fall off, retreat wasn’t possible. I smiled at how aptly named the route was, with its reference to Caesar. Like the Roman general over 2 millenia ago I was at the point of no return. Alea iacta est I thought as I torqued my fingers to lock and pulled up into the thin crack. It was strenuous, and I knew I couldn’t afford to mess around, “push!” my mind screamed at me, as I worked higher in the crack. Initially, I had been able to jam my toes in the crack, but as it arced over to the right I was forced to begin smearing on the blank wall. My fingers probed the thin fissure, searching out wider sections where I could sink in more than ½ my first pad. It was uneven and sharp inside the crack and it hurt as I twisted my fingers against the unyielding and implacable stone. Feeling insecure, I placed my last dragonfly, it wasn’t an ideal placement for the small cam, I just hoped it would be enough. Desperate to make the most of any footholds, I felt a small protrusion which jutted out from the left side of the crack. It was small, slopey and not in an ideal place as I was moving rightwards, but it was the only actual foothold, the alternative was smearing on nothing. I shifted my left foot up to it and twisted to move higher and to the right in the crack. My foot slipped and I dropped like a stone. To my great relief the dragonfly held, calculating how far I’d have gone if it hadn’t, wasn’t comforting. Taking a moment to refocus after the fall I pulled back on, committed to smearing my feet and climbed through the crux to the top. On-sight climbing is so unforgiving. The smallest of mistakes can be irrecoverable. I sat on top with mixed emotions swirling in my head. Initially disappointment at my mistake, but then slowly, as rationality returned, satisfaction at my physical effort and my commitment, positives to take with me to the next battle. It occurred to me that if climbing Rubicon clean had been a certainty, the experience would have been denuded and hollow, why roll the dice if the result is already known? My motivation for climbing is multifarious, but a large component is about what I learn about myself and how I handle challenge and uncertainty. Let’s face it, I don’t just climb in these amazing places to see the view, even if it is incredible.