The Oral History of Rock Climbing

Three people in harnesses on a rock wall with ropes.

NPS Photos

The transcripts on this page result from a rock climbing oral history project. For this study, researchers spoke with Joshua Tree climbers who provided a picture of the park's rock climbing from the mid-1900s into the present day. Topics include free soloing, bolting, and the development of traditional ethics in the park. Overall, the interviews highlight the historical and cultural significance of recreational rock climbing in the park.

The project's official name is the Joshua Tree National Park Historic Resource Study of Recreational Rock Climbing. This research was made possible thanks to a collaboration between the Anthropology Department of the University of California, Riverside, and the National Park Service.


Sandy Esque

Interview Date: 18/02/2020

Biographical Information: Sandy Esque first visited Joshua Tree in the 1980s working as an instructor and guide for Boojum Institute and Outward Bound. She has continued to visit the park up until the present time. She was an eyewitness to the early era of guide development in the park, gender relations evident in guiding practices of that era, and the park’s transition from a quiet secluded monument to a popular destination for many.

Content Summary: Sandy describes her experience working as an instructor for Boojum Institute and Outward Bound and her visits to Joshua Tree, which is identified as the prime winter destination for climbers. She has frequented the park for many years, and can comment on the transition of Joshua Tree’s identity from a secluded natural retreat to a popular climbing destination, developments with gear and ratings, and the commercial aspect of climbing.

  • Outward Bound
  • Boojum Institute
  • Echo Rock (Area)
  • Hidden Valley (Area)
  • Indian Cove (Area)
  • Lost Horse (Area)
  • Ryan Mountain (Area)
  • Sheep Pass (Area)
  • Wonderland of Rocks (Area)

DA: Hi. I'm David Asplund and I'm here with Sandy Esque on the 18th of February, 2020, and this is a short interview about Sandy's climbing experience at Joshua Tree. Thank you, Sandy, for participating in this study.
SE: You're welcome.
DA: When did you first visit Joshua Tree?
SE: Generally, if my memory serves me well, it was in 1982, and that was not necessarily for climbing at that time, but going with a program; I worked in the outdoor education field, and I worked for Boojum Institute, and we would take kids for five days, school kids, for this outdoor experience.
And we were in Indian Cove, more specifically, and hiked over to Hidden Valley, but one of those days during the activities was a day of rock climbing for the kids. So I had skills as a climber, but we were setting up top ropes for the kids to have a day of climbing there. That's the very first time I went to Joshua Tree.
DA: And was Joshua Tree –because you had experience prior to it, because you were doing climbing elsewhere?
SE: Climbing elsewhere; I went to Prescott College, which was in Arizona. Prescott, Arizona, and that's where I got introduced to rock climbing. So I did climbing there for four years, going to school there. But I hadn't gone to Joshua Tree yet. I was climbing mostly in Arizona (Granite Mountain, Oak Creek Canyon (Sedona), Cochise Stronghold, Mt Lemmon).
DA: So who got you into–? Was there someone specifically that–?
SE: Who got me into climbing? It was Prescott College. They had an outdoor program and it was my motivation of looking at climbing in magazines –I was a surfer before, and grew up in San Diego– and just seeing climbing pictures motivated me to then go and figure it out and then thus finding a college that taught it basically.
DA: And did the kids that you brought, did they fall in love with Joshua Tree as well? Or was that a sort of one or two kids that were like, "Yes, I really enjoyed this."
SE: The kids were seventh grade to 10th grade, as I remember. Private school kids, because they were the only ones, of course, who could afford to go out for five days in school. It wasn't a very selective group of people or kids. That's a big question, because the dynamics of climbing; everyone loves and hates it, because it scares them but it also thrills them. And they're happy when they accomplish a goal of whatever that goal was.
Actually, more people have a difficulty rappelling, more typically than climbing of what I experienced and did they love Joshua Tree? Was that your question? Because then they also had to hike through it and have an experience of the outdoors. And so it seemed like working with those kids at that time, yes, they did love Joshua Tree just being out there and camping and being able to climb for a day. It was very exciting and thrilling for them.
DA: But there wasn't one person that stood–
SE: Stood out in my mind? No.
DA: But then you also got your daughter to start climbing as well, correct? So did she also climb very early or is that something that happened later?
SE: Well, she doesn't really climb now. My husband and I took her when she was... five or six. And I don't think we did a very good job, we were trying to find a very simple climb for her to do, but more typically what happens again, no matter who they are, is you're trying to find a climb that they can get up and not struggle with. So they have a more positive experience but she was still scared. We got her up the climb, but then we had to rappel her down; she couldn't walk off the cliff. And that was our mistake, because rappelling is more scary for people than the climbing because they're backing off the cliff. So she's not per say a climber. From that experience.
DA: But she has climbed.
SE: She has. But she’s going out now to be with her boyfriend and friends.
DA: The whole gang was out.
SE: The whole gang was out. She loves being outdoors, and she loved Joshua Tree, whether she climbs or not.
DA: OK. That's really good. Because you mentioned your husband and you brought her to climb. But have you had any other like climbing partners?
SE: Oh, yes. Yes. Yes. I first went to Joshua Tree to work for Boojum, and then I moved to Colorado, and I started working for Outward Bound, Colorado Outward Bound School.
But that I was in their climbing and mountaineering program and met other instructors who climbed. And we would go to Joshua Tree for our break in the spring, in the fall, or more specifically, the fall. The very first time I went to “climb” for pleasure at Joshua tree was in the spring of 1984. It was a national monument then, it wasn't a park. And that was a big difference of what's today, being a national monument.
DA: How do you see it different?
SE: It was free. You could stay there as long as you wanted. So we would drive there and camp. I think they did have a sign saying that you're allowed only 14 days to stay at a campsite, which we could always find campsites. Not true today. So you drove in there, plopped yourself down and lived there. And if you wanted to stay more than two weeks, that just meant you moved to another campsite. So it's wonderful because 'specially in the fall or even spring, compared to today, but it was virtually pretty empty. There were a lot of climbers, per say, doing what we did, but there were a lot of drive-through people. But there weren't a lot of campers like there are today. If that makes sense. They were more family, one-day kind of drive-through is what I remember.
DA: But you may have visited the park for climbing, or would you go for other reasons?
SE: No. It was strictly climbing.
DA: Strictly climbing.
SE: Yeah, I wouldn't just hike. Now I do.
DA: Well, you mentioned one of the places that you went to when you brought the kids.
SE: Yes. Indian Cove.
DA: Indian Cove. But is that the place that you would revisit now or no?
SE: Visit now or when we were climbing, we’d be in Hidden Valley.
DA: I want to ask both, but let's start with when you go now and you visit Joshua Tree; is that at the same place that you go to?
SE: If I was really going, I mean, I've been following my daughter, but if I am a free will, I'd be going to Hidden Valley.
DA: Why is that?
SE: I just love it there. There is more climbing that's there, and you have Echo Rock, Ryan Mountain, Sheep Pass, Wonderland of Rocks, Lost Horse, etc. It has numerous nice campsites.
DA: OK. Yeah, but those are the two places that –the one that you would visit now because of the memories and one of them with the kids, but when you were the most active as a climber, those were the same two places that you would visit or–?
SE: No, it would only be Hidden Valley. Is where we would gravitate to.
DA: Is there a specific route that you would take that is...
SE: No, there's so many different routes.
DA: You couldn't pick out like a favorite or you tend to gravitate whenever you visit.
SE: Back in the day, no, because it was how much –for a climber, or at least for us, yes, there are certain routes. I don't know if I can even remember the name, quite honestly, of all of the various climbs without looking at a book again. But you're going for what your ability is with a route. So for example, if you climb or what I was climbing 5.9, 5.10, then you're looking at what are those climbs that are going to support your ability.
DA: OK. So is the way that you climb now then is different from when you were very active in the climbing–?
SE: You're saying now as today?
DA: Yes.
SE: Yes, very different. I don't really climb like I used to. When you met me in Joshua Tree and I was setting up top ropes. And that's just a situation where I don't even have to climb at all. I can go around and drop ropes down and have the systems in place for people to climb. Opposed to in a day when I was a climber, you wouldn't have a top rope; you'd be the one leading up from the ground. And so that takes a skill that I don't do anymore. Generally speaking, I haven’t for a while.
DA: OK. Sorry, I'm jumping back and forth between... yeah. I wanted to ask them because when you when you were active climber and you said that Joshua Tree was a place that you would revisit, but from the college that you got inspired to do climbing, I'm guessing, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but there were also other parks and also outdoor climbing spots that you ordered. So what were some of the, I guess, other climbing spots that you would visit?
SE: Yosemite.
DA: Yosemite?
SE: Of course. For any climber, one goes to Yosemite, Rocky Mountain National Park, Eldorado Springs. Again, those are in Colorado. And Joshua Tree. Those were kind of the bulk. And Joshua Tree was a jewel, especially for people in Colorado. It's very enjoyable climbing and very easy camping other than bringing your water in. And like I was saying, back in that day in the 80s, it was quiet and you could always find a route that wasn't crowded back in the day.
Joshua Tree is warm. So seasonally, it's like we’d be skiing in the winter, and then as the snow gets bad, you're thinking about going somewhere else. And that's where you want to go. It's Joshua Tree, where it's warming up. So it was heaven sent. I went on my honeymoon there. So there you go.
DA: So you were born in Colorado.
SE: I was born in San Diego.
DA: In San Diego. And then you moved to Colorado?
SE: Yes.
DA: OK. When was that?
SE: 1985, officially. I think.
DA: And then you moved to California when?
SE: 2000.
DA: 2000. OK. But do you go back sometimes and visit your old, like, areas. Do you ever go back to Colorado, to San Diego and visit or–
SE: Sure.
DA: Yeah, OK. I was just wondering if there are like places that you would just revisit old friends that were still in the climbing community, or you might just visit family and friends because it's fun to visit family and friends.
SE: Both. Yeah. The majority of people that I climbed with in my twenties and thirties, like again... there is maybe one person I can think of who still climbs readily. And my husband and I, Andy and I, again, our lives have gone different ways and we're doing different sports but the only reason we're going back to Joshua Tree is one, we love it there. And two, now that Lela and her friends are interested in climbing so we want to share it with them.
DA: Yeah. Well that must be a pretty special place; I'm thinking if you have your honeymoon at Joshua Tree, it must be more than just your every, like your everyday place that you go and visit.
SE: It was a perfect place back in the time.
DA: Did you have any other like celebratory, like reasons to visit or any like special moments that happened in the park?
SE: No, it was all motivation for climbing. Of why we would be returning. And then through that experiences, then you have the emotion based on the activity that you're doing. So it's kind of a yes or no answer, but try to get clear on it. I mean, I'm so happy now going back to Joshua Tree because it brings up all the memories and all the successes in that sense of that particular sport of climbing. To relive it or rethink it.
The only difficulty I have at Joshua Tree, like so many of our situations of getting older and the outdoors is that it's hard to go back as it's so crowded. It's hard to go back. You can't even get camping. You can't just be like we were. It's like, "OK, it's October. Let's go to Joshua Tree." Now you have to look –you guys, your generation has to Google and hit it and see if there's camping. Can't be as sporadic as we were. It seems like. So that's unfortunate for your generation and the outdoors. I'm happy it's still there, at least.
DA: Right. And is that is there a specific sort of –because you were talking about how it has changed in terms of, like, just it's more crowded now or it's more dense than what it used to be. But are there other major changes that you've seen in the past that you feel like–?
SE: I don't know about major, but it's more crowded, as we said. But it's not because of climbers is what I noticed is that, you know, again, it's just people wanting to get out and about and being in the outdoors. And that wasn't like that in the 80s, like I said. I mean, there were always campers and families and having a good time, but there were more climbers camping when it was a monument.
And you would look around in Hidden Valley in these regions and you would see people climbing, traditionally climbing with ropes. And I see less of that now. It is happening still, but there's a lot less. And I see more people walking out in the desert with their crash pads bouldering, which we'd never saw before. And I know that's kind of a new, relatively new thing compared to how it was in the 80s or 90s.
But I don't see traditional climbers as much as I did in the past. So that's what's changed. So it's good for the traditional climber coming now because those routes are gonna be open to them. They don't have to wait in line as much. Unless I just didn't hit it at a busy time, I don't know. My husband and I visited Joshua Tree for the last five years on either our road bikes or motorcycles and blaze through the park. And looking at it is what I'm basing that on. More than my climbing.
DA: Was there a specific season that–
SE: In the fall, typically.
DA: In the fall?
SE: Yeah.
DA: Is there reason why fall is just –it's just the best?
SE: Fall is generally best for the outdoors, cause the weather is pretty stable and it's not cold yet, and it's not rainy, and it's not hot.
DA: It's not hot. Right.
SE: At least for Joshua Tree.
DA: Well, I was going to ask, because when it comes to the weather conditions, I'm assuming that plays a major role in your climbing. But in terms of the gear and the equipment, does that change as well a lot based on the season, or has it changed, I guess from when you started climbing?
SE: Climbing has gone through a huge evolution of change with gear.
DA: How so?
SE: Changes evolved in the type of protection used when setting up anchors and lead climbing. From pitons to hex’s and stoppers to camming devices (TCU’s, friends). The gear is now more user-friendly. It is lighter, easier to place, and safer.
DA: Which is very important.
SE: Yeah.
DA: So even though the equipment itself has changed, has the education for climbers, like climbers become smarter? If that's the right word to use. But does the knowledge of climbers increase as the equipment increase or do you think they might think less of how they climb because the equipment's safety has increased?
SE: Are they thinking more or less when they're climbing, is what you're asking. Because of the gear being easier to place? I think it's probably –well, again, this is just me. I think that it has made it –I mean, it's a huge, tremendous relief to not worry about your gear and your safety, relatively speaking. That yes, then the climber can only have more time to think about their ability and their surroundings. So it's been advantageous for that, if that's what you're asking.
DA: Yeah, a little bit. Because I was thinking when you were teaching, for example, kids how to climb. I'm sure you had things that you thought were more important than others. And I'm guessing safety being the number one priority. And so the way that you were teaching climbing, if that may have changed how people are being taught climbing now if they are just starting off.
SE: That's a hard question. And yes, that's a simple answer, yes.
DA: But then how? And so forth, I'm guessing is a more... is a bigger question where we would include a lot of other people that might be teaching as well. Who was that person when you were teaching or if you were to bring someone out to Joshua Tree for any climb, what are some of the basic things you would tell a rookie climber to think about?
SE: I would think that, one thing we wouldn't talk about the gear. OK. And because that wasn't important for the climber. So we as instructors, we would set up a climb and just talk about the knots. I mean, the only gear that the students really had to focus on was the knot that they were tying into their harness. And that's why it's safe and why, you know. So that's the only thing that we wanted them to notice, because they weren't placing gear and that wasn't the part of it. We wanted them to focus on the experience of climbing. I'm rambling. What was your question again?
DA: I was just wondering if when you are taking someone to climb for the very first time, what would you be–?
SE: We would just be telling them tips on how to climb. What to be looking for, what you do with your body and how to strategize how you get up. You know, again, it's like a puzzle and you're telling somebody, "OK, well, you got to have at least three points to contact, whether that's your two feet or your hands or you're trying to –don't move, unless you plan your moves. And put your hand in here and turn it,” and just kind of just pointers.
DA: And [inaudible] climbing. So it's almost like learning, when they're doing it.
SE: Yes, absolutely.
DA: You tell them on the ground that if they forget that, it's their fault.
SE: Well, but you're there with them and they're not that far away; they could just be, you know, they could be climbing up to that ceiling there, right. Or usually you're taking a place where it's very controllable, so you can be with them and helping them either from the top or the bottom and giving them pointers if they're having a hard time. That's why it's so dynamic, I think it's –and we did this at Outward Bound, of course. We took students climbing in the mountains and set up top ropes or took them up peaks or whatever.
And it's so impactful. It's such a wonderful experience because people are generally scared or excited. You have a whole range of abilities and emotion. And to achieve that, to have a goal of getting up from A to B and then helping somebody with that. It's just so it's so worthwhile for everyone involved. You know, it's a wonderful situation. So it was nice to have Joshua Tree there. And when I went back the other week and my daughter and setting up top ropes, we were working around the Boy Scouts or whatever group it was, you know. So that's still being incorporated in the park. Of a commercial venture out there. Which is nice to see. Not as a climber, because you want that climb, but anyway.
SN: To work around the group.
DA: So when you were doing this with the college, and learning and climbing with them, did you have someone similar to what you're doing for your daughter to sort of guide you? And then who was teaching you the ins and outs?
SE: You want their name?
DA: Well, if you want to share. But if there was like a person or a few, that you remember like, "Yeah, when I was climbing with them..."
SE: When I was learning how to climb and set up all the systems at Prescott College, Mike Goff and David Lovejoy were the instructors. And then when I worked for Boojum and Outward Bound, I got exposed to many other instructors’ methods and skills. The pluses and minuses of their techniques. Through the years my own style and skill level developed and changed. Like any teaching experience.
DA: Yeah. So in the beginning it was kind of just mimic the stuff.
SE: That's the best way to say it. Absolutely.
DA: Do you see a lot of climbing techniques that you're doing that now your daughter or your husband are doing? Or do you feel like it's sort of a mutual adaptation or maybe you and your husband, since you seem to climb more together, do you catch yourself replacing your own style by using some of his techniques and vice versa?
SE: Well, like with any sport, you share what works for you. And if you can do it or not, then yeah, sure. And so it's you're watching each other, or you're talking about it or... and that's another thing with climbing, which again, I don't know if you're of interest picking this all apart, but that's to me is what's so dynamic, is when you have a partner, when there's two people climbing, somebody is leading, somebody's belaying and you're both experiencing that particular climb, whether you're leading or following them. But it's dynamic and you're both going through it together.
SE: And it's important, especially the belayer is holding, if that person falls and they place their gear accurately and you've got them. I mean, it is so dynamic emotionally to have that experience with people. So it tends to build very good relationships between –or if it doesn't, you don't have them as a partner. So you keep your partnership with that person and you form a close relationship with them.
DA: So was it you or your husband that started climbing first and then got the other one to–?
SE: No, no. We both coincidentally just met at Outward Bound and had that sport.
DA: OK. Because I'm thinking that it must be difficult to pick a climbing partner and pick someone that you have that connection with. And I'm guessing when you pick someone, is it just chemistry when you talk to someone or do you say, "OK, let's go on a small climb? But if I'm jumping that way and you catch me, I know you're the real deal." Or how do you pick a climbing partner?
SE: Everyone's different. I would think. But I guess if I could speak in a general sense, first you're looking for if you can trust them. Because they have your life as they're belaying you, or whatever or the "what ifs" of what happens. So you're seeing what level of ability they have. Or I would be. And then how hard you climb; if you're a good match with the ability of climbing and that is really easy to assess because all the climbs being in Joshua Tree, an established climbing area like that, they have guidebooks, all the routes have been done mostly. And so, you know, the range of ability. And so you throw yourself on the 5.9 or 5.14 and you see how well each of you is climbing. So it's pretty much a done deal of figuring that out pretty easily.
DA: So you don't have to go in blind and just guess. Who looks the nicest?
SE: Yeah, you either get better or you don't. And then how they're placing gear and then how they're working with the system. So it's pretty easy to assess people and find your partners that you guys mirror each other and feel confident, and then sure, personalities and having a good time and all that other stuff.
DA: Right. But that's less important when it comes to safety.
SE: I would hope so.
DA: They know how to joke–
SE: Are guys chasing girls just for the sake of –you know what I mean.
DA: It's very cool. Thank you so much. And I think that that will sort of be... I'm glad that you're sharing them. I'm guessing that's why I'm thanking you. Because sharing, I guess, personal things, especially when it comes to this sort of bond, but then having that bond, then broken because, you know, people move and people might not work out. That must be an emotional thing or emotional turmoil, especially if you climb with someone for so long. Did you have any like that sort of intimate climbing partners before?
SE: Well, my husband.
DA: Before, I was gonna say, before your husband.
SE: Sure. And that's what forms that dynamic. It was women initially, when I think back of a few women through my experience that you go again. I mean we went to the Tetons and then climbed anyway. It's a huge world out there of where you want to climb. But yes, it's so dynamic that it forms such a more heartfelt relationship when you share those kind of experiences with people. It doesn't have to be climbing. You could be traveling. It could be anything that's adventurous or... and I don't want to say adventurous because we could have it in a car sitting with somebody and sharing your life with them. But anyway, you're having an experience, an intense experience with them. And for me, it was the outdoors and adventuring. And then you form better relations –or, form more intimate relationships going through that. So I'm so happy that (this is my pitch for national parks and all) so happy America has wild space that even at 60, I can still go out in the natural world and have those kind of experiences.
I had experienced a comparison of an outdoor experience I had in Europe, in the Dolomites in Italy, and doing the Via Ferrata versus, you know, going to the Tetons in America. While I appreciated being in the Dolomites and experience Europe and their outdoors, it felt more like Disneyland to me. I followed the dots. It wasn't a wilderness. And I'm so appreciative that this country is trying to save what wild country we have still, because it's a night/day emotional experience. If that makes sense. At least it was for me.
DA: All right. Thank you so much, Sandy.
SE: You're welcome.
DA: I very much appreciate it. And there anything else you would like to say while it's on the record?
SN: I do have a couple of questions. Because you did mention, Sandy, that I know your previous partners were women and the time that you were climbing the 80s, 90s, what was it like to be a woman climber? Were you aware of that being that you were a minority in any way? Did it really not factor in significantly, or did it?
SE: I was primarily in the eighties. Climbing was a very interesting sport compared to surfing. I surfed before I climbed, and that I felt a minority and more isolated and more judged. Climbing is somewhat a little different because, for example, while, yes, there weren't as many women climbing out there, compared to today, there were still magazines. Rock and Ice was one, and you'd open it up and you would see women climbing. Never saw that surfing. Very rarely. Or if anything, or surf movies where the girls are on the beach, you know, half naked or whatever in bikinis. So in the climbing world, I knew I was a minority, but it seemed more opened and accepting. And then in Prescott College and Outward Bound, there were women like me that had the same interests, so I never felt I was alone.
SN: And you said you were leading climbs?
SE: Yes.
SN: And you were setting anchors and replacing gear?
SE: Yes.
SN: So you were basically always doing the same things that your male counterpart would do.
SE: And like with any sport you may be good at, you might be the best at it with one group or you might not be. It just depends on the circles [inaudible] and the gender as much as just your ability.
SN: And did you have a specialization, like were you a good face climber, were you good at overhangs, or did you have any particular skills that you felt that you had a particular–?
SE: Probably face climbing. As they say, women tend to be better face climbers.
SN: So was Joshua Tree, if you compared the rock to other places that you climbed, did Joshua Tree have anything special to offer for you?
SE: Face climbing.
SN: What was it about? Can you describe the rock at Joshua Tree?
SE: Well, it's quartz monzonite if I'm remembering correctly. And so it's not like Yosemite where it's very smooth granite, as it's –you guys probably know if you've been out there, it's pretty rough. But that's an advantage to climbing because then especially in the face climbing, there's a lot of stuff going on on that cliff. There's a lot of edges and holds and smearing techniques that you can learn to how you can get up. So that's the beauty of Joshua Tree and the type of rock that's there. They have pretty dynamic, or I felt, face climbing. And then the crack climbs, actually are beautiful, too. But I think the face climbs and the very thin crack climbs are what it's known for. So that's why all their bolts are there.
SN: Right. There were certain skills that you could acquire and work on there that you could then transfer to other places.
SE: Sure.
SN: And in Yosemite, can you tell us what were some of the climbs that you did in Yosemite?
SE: Tapping my sixty-year-old brain and having a concussion. My memory is not very good, but OK. Let me think for a minute –there was a lot of climbs on the Apron, but I don't remember their names…
SN: On the Glacier Point Apron?
SE: Yeah, and east buttress of El Cap. Boy, and what is that one over by the Ahwahnee which is no longer–
SN: Washington Column? Royal Arches?
SE: Yes. And that one, that whole face over there. I can't tell you the name anymore. And Cathedral Buttes, but I have to get a guidebook.
SN: That's fine. Just wanted to get a sense of what kind of climbs you were working on there so we can relate it back to Joshua Tree.
SE: So I was not one of –so I was a mediocre climber back in the day. And that would mean that... I mean, climbing has gotten real extreme, right? I mean, 5.14, 5.15. And back in my day in the 80s, 5.11 was considered, or even 5.12 was like… like what 5.15 is now. And so I was mediocre climber in that I would go as far as 5.10. But more [inaudible] really kinda 5.9. So that compared to the Lynn Hills of the day or the real substantial climbers are just you know, "Means you're recreational."
SN: Well, I think you have to give yourself some credit too for the ethics of the kind of climbing that you did. I mean, you weren't rappelling from the top to start the climb. You know, you were working from the ground up, right? So now that makes a big difference of what can be accomplished?
SE: Absolutely. But I'm appreciative of those bolts. [Laughs]
Instead of being the one having to place the bolts. And is Joshua Tree keeping their bolts?
SN: Yes and no. I mean, there is a program now for bolt replacement, but it's a kind of permitting process that they have to do climb by climb. So the park rangers aren't actually the people to be replacing the bolts, at least not most of the time. Most of the time there are climbers that will come back in and apply for permits and then they'll go through a review process. Right. And then they'll go ahead and clean the climb and reset it or not, as they decide.
SE: Yeah, back in the 80s, they didn't care. Right? I mean, people were chopping or replacing them. When they felt like it was needed and not going through the bureaucracy of…
SN: Yeah. I think your comments have been really helpful that way, just to get a sense of the freedom of that time and the sort of spontaneity that people could enjoy there.
SE: Yes. And you know, it makes me think of, I worked in Canyonlands National Park with Outward Bound and we did little bit of climbing there, or we were canyoneering. And it makes me think, the only thing that the Park Service wanted us to do, which made complete sense at that time, is that we'd be scrambling, we'd be going over these sandstone passes, I guess you could call it, and our students would be roped up, going down, for example. And so we place an anchor around a boulder or whatnot.
But the Park Service said (and I wonder if Joshua Trees sort of similar in some situations) but they said it wasn't a climbing place. And they said, "You can't leave those anchors there. Yeah. You can temporarily put those webbing around the boulders, but somebody is going to have to go down without a rope. So you guys figure that out, you know?" But that's I mean, I'm happy that the national park did that. That required us to pick up our pieces, basically, and not leave the anchors there. Sure, it puts that instructor in sort of a little risk, but we wouldn't do it unless we could do it. But still, you know.
SN: That is the tension, isn't it? Yeah. Between how do you really support the recreational use and how do you leave the park and natural resources for others to enjoy?
SE: Exactly.
SN: How do you balance that–?
SE: I know. And that's the same, as you know, in Joshua Tree or climbing there using the chalk. I don't know if that's a big issue still for the parks or not. And how they regulate or not or encourage people not to use chalk. Yeah, which you need to do. Or you don't need to do it. But that was a big deal in Joshua Tree, to have chalk.
SN: Definitely.
SE: Yeah. So I'm happy that Joshua Tree hasn't –it seems like on the surface, Joshua Tree National Park hasn't kept climbers at bay. It's nice that it seems like it's trying to be reasonable in allowing people to march out with their crash pads and boulder, but I hope that the kids today are conscious of the impact that they're having on the desert environment. I hope they are, but does anyone –I don't know. I just don't know. Were we in 1980 concerned about the desert tortoises? No, we didn't think about it, but now there's more of us. So that matters just that much more.
SN: That's another something that your comments have brought out; how much visitor usage has increased and the issues that that raises.
SE: Oh, it's huge, don't you think?
SN: Absolutely.
SE: And under-staffed and... right.
SN: That's very interesting to me, too, to learn that you were doing the kind of work you were as early as you were.
SE: Right. That Joshua Tree allowed it too.
SN: Was your group from Prescott one of the first –were you among the first people to be taking people out to the park? I mean, 1980s, going back a ways. Or were there lots of other groups that have been doing it for a while?
SE: I have no idea. I don't think so, because it wasn't our concern that we would run across a commercial group in our spot. 1982 is when I was with Boojum... this is not related to Prescott College, but anyway, that's officially when I worked commercially in the park. I think the park is now managing that commercial use and how that gets all coordinated. Between 1995 to 2000, I managed Colorado Outward Bound School semester program, a three month program where we would take the students in different environments. And one of the environments for three weeks was to go to Joshua Tree to have a climbing experience. I was required to get the permits for Joshua Tree, which was easy to do back then, as well as the camp site. I can't imagine how it is now. I guess one has to be really good at the phone waiting for that magic button to hit for the group campsites, compared to how it was back then.
SN: Were you –just one last question– were you relying on guidebooks at all when you were taking–?
SE: Yeah.
SN: OK. So there were guidebooks that were identifying which climbs at Hidden Valley that would be the most appropriate.
SE: Absolutely. And they've all been developed to harder climbs. You know, I was just out there, what the heck, two weeks ago or something with my daughter and Marvin and his brother. And we still have our old 1980s guidebook, right? Climbing guide, compared to what's out there now. But it doesn't matter, rock doesn't change too much.
SN: No.
DA: All right. Good. All right. Well, thank you so very much.
SE: My pleasure. And glad I could help.
DA: Yeah, we're very happy. We're signing out.


David Evans

Interview Date: 30/06/2020

Biographical Information: Dave Evans has been climbing in Joshua Tree for over 45 years and was a part of the early Joshua Tree climbing scene cultured by the Stonemasters. Dave’s impressive climbing repertoire includes over 170 recorded first ascents in the park. His experience allows him to describe various climbs that are significant to the climbing culture of Joshua Tree as well as local climbers who left their mark on the sport.

Content Summary: Dave shares stories of the early Joshua Tree climbing scene in the 1970s as the Stonemasters began to take climbing to the next level, both with impressive personal accomplishments and a budding climbing community. Due to his considerable time spent in the park, Dave is also able to comment on the development of routes in Joshua Tree since the 1970s, specifying certain areas and routes that were remarkable, the introduction of controversial ethics, and contrasting elements between Joshua Tree and Yosemite National Park.

  • Free soloing
  • John Bachar
  • Randy Vogel
  • Scott Cosgrove
  • Stonemasters
  • Traditional ethics
  • Wolfgang Güllich
  • Yosemite National Park
  • Hidden Valley Campground (Area)
  • The Wonderland (Area)
  • Dogleg (5.8)
  • Double Cross (5.7)
  • Figures On a Landscape (5.10)
  • Gunsmoke (V3)
  • Left Ski Track (5.11)
  • Mike’s Books (5.6)
  • More Monkey Than Funky (5.11)
  • The Cutting Edge (5.13)
  • X Rated T*** (5.9)

SN: So are you hearing “This is a recording?” I'm seeing “recording”. I'm hoping that's happening. Yup. Emilio?
ET: Yes.
SN: OK. All right, let me get this one going. This is just my backup. OK. All right. So we're on. So, again, welcome, everybody. This is Sally Ness from the University of California, Riverside, Department of Anthropology. And I'm here today, June 30th at approximately 1:00 p.m., recording on Zoom with my assistant Emilio Triguero, and National Park Service Ranger Bernadette Reagan, and our interview guest today, David Evans. So thank you so much, David, for agreeing to participate in this study.
DE: You’re welcome.
SN: And again, just to reiterate that I have gone over the informed consent process with you and that you are agreeing to participate voluntarily, both to be audio and video recorded. All right.
DE: It's voluntary.
SN: [Laughs] Thank you. OK, terrific. So let me jump right in. And I know you've had a chance to look at this schedule of questions that I tend to use as a kind of guide through the process. So I'm going to start right out with the life history information and ask you a little bit to talk a little bit about your own personal history as a climber; how you got started and when you got started. And if you'd be willing to give us your date of birth and your place of birth and tell us a little bit about how you came to Joshua Tree and to California; that’d be great too.
DE: Well, I'm David Evans. Born September 6th, 1957 in Santa Monica. I started climbing because my father was a climber, an outdoorsman, and had me climbing probably by… somewhere around five years old. So it's been a lifetime activity for me. I don't—occupational history?
SN: Oh, actually, no, I want to hear a little bit more about your experiences with your father. So he was your first climbing partner, and was he the person who taught you how to set anchors and use protection, and I assume you were doing traditional climbing with him in the 50s?
DE: Yeah, it was. There was nothing but traditional climbing back then. He and his best friend were sort of climbers; they weren't hardcore rock climbers like we are, but they were guys who climbed peaks and did mountaineering and did a little bit of rock climbing so that they could use those skills on mountains and stuff or technical mountain climbing. So yeah, through my youth, elementary school, I would go to Stoney Point with him, and we would boulder and they would set up top ropes. And I think about the time I was 10 years old, we did a route at Tahquitz, it was my first multi-pitch climb.
BR: What was the name of that route?
DE: The route’s called Angel’s Fright, and we just climbed it about two weeks ago again. So yeah, I continued to make plans with my father to do stuff; we had planned to do Whitney and all these other things, but he died in a climbing accident when I was about 12, in junior high.
SN: Oh wow. I’m so sorry.
DE: So, that was kind of a setback. So yeah, in the following years, I climbed a few times with his friends; they’d take me out to Stoney Point. I went to the Sierras with one of his other friends and climbed some peaks.
But it wasn’t until I was about 14, I started getting interested in the Sierra Club and I started looking at their Sierra Peaks schedule of peaks to climb. Got super excited, started writing letters to the trip leaders to see if they’d take a 14 year old along. [Laughs] And they—well, they all said, “Yes”, actually; my mother would write her own letter explaining that I wasn’t overly gregarious or anything, I wouldn't talk their ear off on the drive and I wouldn’t be super annoying and all that. I could cook for myself.
So I started doing Sierra Peaks with the Sierra Club. And they have a program called the BMTC, which is the Basic Mountaineering Training Course, and we went through that so that we could get certified to do the harder peaks on the outings. And one of their trips was to Joshua Tree, that was the technical rock climbing aspect. Actually there were two; one day it was technical rock climbing, the other day was map reading, map and compass. So I think that was probably—I had actually climbed here one time before that, but that was kind of the start for Josh, but it was probably the same year, actually, my aunt drove my cousin and I out here, turned us loose one day, and climbed all day one day, we climbed Mike’s Books. It's the first climb I ever did out here.
And it was probably…. let’s see… 1972 or something? Something like that. I don't know. And then once I got my driver's license, that was it. You know you're a climber, you're hooked. You just start going every frickin’ moment, every hour, every holiday, every weekend. And that led up to where we are now.
SN: So that very first time when your aunt drove you out to Joshua Tree, it already for you had a reputation as a place you wanted to visit?
DE: Yeah, you know, the guidebook—the first guidebook—was out already, the John Wolfe, the first John Wolfe guidebook. Think that was the only one out at that point in the early 70s. So we had the book, and we're already reading every page and trying to figure out what we might be able to get up when we finally got out there.
SN: And what kind of equipment were you using at that point?
DE: Oh, we had a super rudimentary rack of Hexentrics that were made by this British company, Clog. And they were very primitive, but they worked.
Or even after that, Chouinard came out with his Hexentrics that were the best, they had the perfect spread of sizes and all that. And we got those as well soon after, but the Clog nuts were like... they weren't much better than the machine nuts picked up off the railroad tracks, really. Which is what the British guys did back in the day.
SN: Yeah, so when you say “we”, was this a group of people that were members of the Sierra Club with you? And that's how you met them or—?
DE: At that point, it was just my cousin Ken and I, and this other—actually was just the two of us. We're obsessed with climbing at that point and we had no way to get there, and we would go into my aunt's attic. It was an unfinished giant room, and we'd practice aid climbing around the ceiling. We’d climb up in the ceiling and climb around and set up belays and rappel down to the floor. A 10-foot rappel to the floor. And then jumar back up to the hanging belay. That was fun for us. [Laughs]
SN: You know, if you were to say that about yourself and you had been born 20 years ago, you'd probably have a lot of company in terms of that, but at that time, did you see yourselves as unusual in this, you know, in pursuing this interest or not?
DE: I was already hooked. I mean, there were two other guys in my high school who climbed; they were older, who I eventually hooked up with, but… yeah man, I knew, when I was ten, my dad's best friend gave me an issue of Ascent magazine (1968) for my birthday. He knew that's what I wanted. He knew I was obsessed about climbing. That was the best possible gift he could have given me for inspiration.
SN: So would you tell us a little bit more about your father's history, how he got involved with climbing and what he did? Because it sounds like that was a real, you know, important start for you.
DE: Yeah. Yeah, he came from a quasi-Mormon family, so we had a lot of vacations to Utah and stuff. But as a boy, he was a Boy Scout. My grandparents encouraged that. So he went through all that Boy Scout stuff and eventually started doing it on his own when he was old enough. He was a PhD mathematician who worked on (reluctantly worked on) missile guidance systems in the 60s. He was a computer programmer back in the day when there weren't very many. He was a pacifist and did not like working for the military, but that was where the good, you know, high level, [inaudible] work was.
SN: So is that what brought him to Southern California? Did he work for TRW or some company here or—?
DE: Yeah, he grew up out here too; my grandparents lived in LA., they grew up in LA. —or, he grew up in LA. Yeah, he worked for a number of companies, Aeronutronics, Planning Research Corporation and… McDonnell Douglass, of course, aerospace.
SN: And so did you follow in his footsteps, in a sense with your occupational history, or—?
DE: I did not have his math aptitude. [Laughs] I was pretty bad at math and because I was a climber, I never had career aspirations for anything other than climbing. So, unlike most people, they're working towards being “successful”, I was working towards being poor as a climber. And that's where I am now.
SN: You've achieved your goals. All right, well, tell us about your career in climbing, then. What have been the, for you, the high points along the way, just to kind of give us, you know, an overview. We'll get into more detail on a bit, but just kind of give us the overview.
DE: Well, you know, early on, I wanted to climb everywhere, you know, I wanted to climb Yosemite, Alaska, Europe, etc. and when I went to Yosemite, I set an early goal. I wanted to climb a route on every formation in Yosemite. I never quite realized that, but I came pretty close.
But, you know, as a beginner, you aspire to get better. You find yourself climbing 5.9, you wanna climb 5.10. You know, some people train for it, other people just climb all the time, and that's what I did. I never really trained, but I bouldered and I climbed.
And you know, your goals always change. If you're climbing at a certain level, you're looking at all the classic routes at that range. Whatever the range is. And in my case, I was more interested in the big stuff like El Cap and all the mountains; I wanted to climb mountains. So I was always trying to climb multi-pitch stuff and longer climbs and be fast and be good, and super efficient and safe. And it's kind of the direction I went in most of my… I can't use that word “career”, that's not....
Could you start it again here? [Laughs]
SN: So it sounds like in that we can call it maybe your practice, your lifetime practice as a climber that Joshua Tree played a certain role in relation to these—what you're talking about—like these major climbing projects that you were your top priority. So can you say a little bit about for you in your own personal history as a climber, what did Joshua Tree mean to you at different points along the way?
DE: Well. It's hard to say what it meant to me at the beginning. Was it the venue for climbing? But of course, it's one of those beautiful places in the world, so it's like the more time you spend here, you know, the more it attaches to you, so…
A lot of my friends in the early days didn't really consider Joshua Tree that serious of a climbing area because nothing’s that big, but that was kind of the one thing that occurred during the 70s and 80s was how the rest of the world started to see Joshua Tree as a real climbing area, as a world class place with goals for people at every level.
And for me, it's always… it's where my heart is, really. I mean, this place just means… it means way more than the climbing; the climbing is secondary at this point.
SN: OK. Let me make sure…. I'm sensing we might have a technical difficulty here, David, can you still hear me?
DE: Yes.
SN: OK, good. Because you were kind of fading out. So I wasn't sure if that was the equipment or not, but it sounds like we're still good. Well, you've given us the perfect segue way there into talking a little bit about Joshua Tree in and of itself and what kind of a place it is.
And so I'd like to ask you—and how it's changed over the years, of course, which is one of our major interests in the study. So can you say a little bit about what it was like for you and who you climbed with in your earliest—in what you might describe as the earliest phase—of your relationship with the park? What kinds of routes you were climbing so to give us a sense of what it was like to come out here in the 70s.
DE: Yeah, like I said, I started with my cousin and Jim Angione. But as soon as we started coming out here, you know, you start meeting all the other climbers and there weren’t very many back then. But there were fewer and it was easier to get to know people. You see people all the time. So early on, I met these folks who’ve become known as the Stonemasters.
My cousin and I were walking by a climb called the Dogleg and we saw these guys climbing it. And we started watching and they invited us to climb it with them. And so I did, and it turned out it was these guys, it was Richard Harrison and Rick Accomazzo. I don't think John Long was there, but those two guys. And so it was like we were, you know, we were beginners. We were the noobs and practically at the get-go we met the guys who were the best climbers in the world at the time and were super friendly and encouraging. And so they just kind of swept us up in their energy.
Within a couple years, that was my posse. Really, it was those people. The other up-and-comers like us; Mike and Mari and Randy Vogel and Spencer Lennard and Matt Cox. I knew the people from Orange County and we gradually got to know other people from Los Angeles who were going to Josh.
Eventually the people from San Diego, who were kind of on another continent back then; it felt like it was in Mexico or something. I didn't know any San Diego climbers, but I eventually got to know them all too.
SN: There's really a local scene in that regard, very specific to Orange County and in Los Angeles.
DE: It was. You know, we drive out—we always camped at Hidden Valley, and you could always get in because there were no car limits back then; you could put six cars at a site. And so we could always fit in somewhere. And it was just the most amazing social scene, we’d go climbing in groups, we’d go bouldering at night together. Twenty people. We'd sit around a campfire, drinking and smoking and yelling and cussing and all that. Bragging, lots of bragging.
And the scene was so cool back then and we would… and it was super localized. Each campsite would have kind of a regional group. And there were times when we'd be in Hidden Valley, walk around, “campfire hop” on a Saturday night. And we'd go to ten different campfires and we’d know somebody at every fire. It was just super social fun.
Yeah, and it was about that time when the rest of the world started taking note of Josh. Some of the famous people from around the world started showing up. Like Wolfgang Güllich showed up; he was one of the early visitors and he was, at the time, one of the best climbers in the world. He put up the route called Action Directe, and it's 5.14 or something back in the early 80s.
SE: Early 80s, okay.
DE: So he came to Josh. But how we ended up meeting him; it was he and Mike and Mari and Roy McClanahan and I went over and climbed More Monkey Than Funky, that was the roof thing. And that for me that was like such a memorable day because he was one of the most famous climber's in the world, and he was over here because he was interested in checking out our place.
SN: Uh-huh. [Understanding]
DE: And that was kind of the beginning. You know, [inaudible] the French posse showed up. We had a funny incident with them. At one point, we were climbing around Hidden Valley and somebody noticed there were French guys trying to free the Asteroid Crack. And that they were using rosin. And that's one of the things the French guys, back then, they would rub rosin on their shoes like you know that you put on a violin bow?
SN: Yeah.
DE: And it makes the shoe rubber stickier. But it leaves a residue on the rock. It's slippery unless you have rosin on your shoes. So it screws up the rock for everybody else except the people who are using rosin. So we went over to give them s*** because that was unacceptable. And plus, they were hangdogging, which was before sport climbing, before you’d just hang there and work a move for days, where you would lower down and try from the ground or whatever.
So they had multiple violations going on. So we went over and started harassing them. And it was good natured, it was fun and everything, but there was a seriousness to it. And the thing was, they wanted to buy pot and we had pot, so we were telling them, “Yeah, if you guys give us your rosin, you give us all the rosin you have, we'll sell you pot. So if you stop using the rosin right this minute.” And they refused. They wouldn't give up the rosin. but I think we ended up giving them pot anyway.
SN: So they just continued to climb or did that ever get stopped?
DE: No, I mean, the rosin thing did—thankfully, that didn't take off. I think it was pretty short lived, even in France, maybe. I don’t know the history on that, but it didn't take off here. And the other French people didn't do it. So it was not an issue, really.
SN: I'm so sorry, but I can—I don't know if you can hear my dog, but I think she's interfering with the recording, so I'm going to have to take a really quick break and deal with that. I'll be back in 10 seconds, I hope. Sorry.
ET: Dogs, you know?
BR: Do you have some?
ET: Yeah, I have three. So I'm, like, praying that the mailman doesn't come right now, and, like, screw up the entire operation we have going here because I know I have to go out there and, like, physically calm them down, but we'll be all right.
SN: Sorry about that. Yeah. So I told Emilio I had a feeling we're going to be getting some bumps in the road with this recording today. But hopefully she'll quiet down now. So yes, thank you so much. That really gives us the good flavor of what the scene was like in the earliest experiences that you have. Yeah, yeah.
DE: I wanted to mention Hidetaka Suzuki, too. He was one of the first non-Americans who came over here and stayed for a long time. And he became an ex-patriot. He was one of the best climbers of the day. And he ended up staying at Josh for months and months, every winter, and he would stay at Todd Gordon's house for the most part and just, you know, camp out there and everything. He was projecting some of the hardest climbs out here at the time, one of which was called Stingray.
And it's horrendously overhanging fingertip crack. Like 5.13 or something like that. He was working that thing and there was another American guy, friend of mine, Mike Paul, who is also working at the same time. And I think at some point, Mike resorted to using pitons to try and widen up the fingertip locks a little bit, because that's something they did in Yosemite back in the day, inadvertently and on purpose to make it free-climbable. And that was kind of a big controversy, especially when Hidetaka got the thing before Mike did. Got the first ascent and did it cleanly.
SN: So it was sort of cloud over that achievement because—
DE: Just on Mike's side, because Hidetaka was perfect style, but he went everywhere in the United States. He did all the hardest climbs of the day. Everywhere, every area. He loved Josh. He spent more time in Josh than probably anywhere.
SN: Uh-huh. [Understanding] Is he still alive, do you know, or is he—?
DE:I have no idea. I asked somebody recently and I think they said he retired from climbing and was doing something completely different now. I have no idea though.
DE: And the actual date—I'm sorry [inaudible] —the actual date of that incident; you said it was in the 70s?
DE: I think most of the… not sure what the date was on that. I think. Let me check here. Here it is. 5.13D... 1988. OK. So that was a bit later in the 80s. Yeah.
SN: I notice that you're referring to your journal.
DE: Oh, that actually, I was doing Mountain Project there but I do keep journals.
SN: I was going to ask you about that aspect of your climbing practice; when did you start keeping journals? Was it when you were really young or did you start that later?
DE: In 1973.
BR: What, were you 15-ish in ‘73?
DE: What’s that?
BR: Were you 15ish?
DE: Yes. And there's Angel’s Fright, right there on the first page. October 1973.
SN: Do you remember what your motivation was at that point, or was that something that most of your friends were doing who were climbing too?
DE: I wanted to do it because that was the route that my dad took me up when I was 10 years old. Right. So I wanted to repeat it, you know, as on my own.
SN: Did your dad keep a journal?
DE: No.
SN: Yeah, I was just curious, because I know that, you know, not all climbers do that, and it sounds like you've been really consistent with that practice.
DE: Yeah, I had some periods where I wasn't diligent, but it's pretty it's pretty accurate overall.
SN: What kinds of things did you want to record?
DE: Mostly just the total number of routes. I wanted to keep what—actually, I'm a data guy; I like keeping track of numbers, everything. [inaudible] The records of all the climbs; I wanna be able to go back and see where I was on a certain date, here or whatever. But I don't know. I'm a mountain biker and I use Strava all the time. So I love data. That's it. I get home, and I went to see the numbers, whatever it might be.
SN: So what do you think the numbers show from your data, from your journals about Joshua Tree?
DE: Well, I climb more routes here than anywhere else, that's for sure. By a long shot, I think.
SN: Have you documented your first ascents?
DE: Oh yeah, especially that, yeah. Yeah. Ratings, dates, names, who was there, and sometimes other details, but usually just the date, and the ratings, the name, if we came up with the name—
SN: Uh-uh. [In understanding] I wonder if you'd be willing to compile a list of those for the project. Would that be possible or is it too big a list?
DE: It wouldn't be that hard. I mean, I just did a total list of all the routes I’ve done in my entire life it’s fewer than 600 routes.
BR: In Josh?
DE: In Joshua Tree.
SN: Yeah, that would be great. We're trying to develop a timeline with important dates on it. And so one of the things we'd like to get a little bit more accurate on than has been documented thus far in climbing guidebooks and various things is, you know, what routes were developed at what point in time. And so that information would be really helpful. Just to give us a sense of where you were doing the first ascents in the park, at what point in time, what your progression was. We've learned a bit about Hidden Valley being the earliest spot, so it sounds like when you're talking about these early memories of camping and so on, that you are probably focused on Hidden Valley climbs or were you going further afield then already?
DE: No, from the get go, we were heading into the Wonderland. Yeah, I mean Hidden Valley is this big [indicates with his hands], Joshua Tree’s this big [much bigger hand spread]. There were no trails, there were no footprints. Literally no footprints. When we hiked out to the Superdome, we were the only people there. If you saw somebody out there that was really weird, that would be unusual. And then after that, you know, we started heading up Queen Mountain because it just kind of ranging further afield, and always looking for the best rock, the best features. Beautiful rocks.
SN: And I take it that getting lost wasn't much of a concern given the visibility, right?
DE: No, I have a very good sense of direction so…
SN: [Laughs] So the terrain, the ascent has a very different—the approach or whatever—has a very different character than, say, a place like Yosemite or places in Europe, right. But it was still part of the experience; is that the case?
DE: For us, the experience was more about the adventure and the wilderness aspect. And you know, climbing is important, but it was never just climbing. Like for me, it was always bit more about the adventure and seeing something new, doing something new, going somewhere new.
SN: And I take it with this exploration, you are still doing trad climbing, right? Because there were no bolts at this point.
DE: No, there were bolts, but there—
SN: Oh there were! OK.
DE: Yeah. Trad-bolted face routes which are run out and, you know, little tiny quarter inch [inaudible] inch bolts, which seemed safe at the time. Now we know they're not that great. But no, there are tons of face routes, and that was kind of—there were a million crack routes left in those days, too, so we basically… it was wide open, so we could go anywhere—we were guaranteed we could go in any direction and find something really great and have a great day.
SN: It sounds like paradise.
DE: And no crowds, so...
SN: Yeah. So do you have any particularly memorable experiences from that period of out in the Wonderland area?
DE: Yeah. I mean, I only have a few routes, maybe, in Josh, that would be considered historically significant or anything, but…
BR: Only a few?
DE: Well, one for sure. And that's Figures On a Landscape. That was something we found in the early days, we put that in—finished it in 1978. And the whole story behind that thing is pretty funny because Randy Vogel and Craig Fry and Spencer Lennard started it. And they only got one bolt in on the first day and then we came back; Randy and Craig and I came back later. And Randy placed one more bolt, and then I placed the next two, the third and fourth bolts on the pitch.
And Craig belayed, but Craig never even touched the rock. And this was late in the season. So we made plans, you know, we basically said, “Okay, we're going have to wait till after the summer to finish this thing.” So in the next fall, here's Randy and I chomping at the bits to climb this thing and Craig's gone off to college—but it’s Santa Barbara so he could show up.
And we were telling him, “ You know, we need to climb this thing.” He said, “Oh, just wait for me. Wait for me.” Finally, we did it. We just went and did it. Finished the route. And it's turned out to be probably the most iconic climb at Joshua Tree. I dare say that.
And so twenty, thirty years later, it's funny because Craig is super, super bitter about basically accused us of stealing the route and all this stuff. He's been one of my best friends my whole life. And we got in this big thing on SuperTopo on a thread, and it just got absurd.
SN: I'm sorry, what was that? What was it on?
DE: Figures On a Landscape.
SN: No, but I mean, you said it got on a thread.
DE: SuperTopo was the—
SN: Oh, SuperTopo. OK, sorry.
DE: Website that's kind of defunct now. Like it was basically the climbing website, for years.
SN: Yeah, I remember it.
DE: But that was kind of funny. And then just this guy, an author, saw that thread and decided he was going to write an article about it. And he did, he interviewed all four of us in the article for Ascent magazine. It's a beautiful article and I loved it. But it did not exonerate Craig. Much to his grim.
BR: Was it the article that was in Alpinist?
DE: Oh, Alpinist, not Ascent, yeah. What was that? I can’t remember the author's name.
BR: I don’t remember the name.
SN: I'm sorry, did we get that, Emilio? It was Alpinist.
ET: Yeah, Alpinist and I got SuperTopo too.
SN: Yeah, good. So I want to follow up on something you said about Figures On a Landscape. You called it the most iconic climb in the park, arguably. So can you describe for us, what is it about that climb? What are the things that it has in it that would make it that?
DE: Well, it's proud, it's steep, it's bold. The rock color is freakin’ amazing; it's all red and brown and black. It's some of the best rock at Josh. And basically, it was just about the limits of how steep a climb you could put up traditionally, which means, you know, you climb up and you have to stand there and let go, take the drill out and the hammer and start drilling a hole.
So if it's too steep, you're just going to fall over backwards. There's no way you can do it. But if it's low angle, then it's easy; you’re just like this. But if it’s close to vertical, it's super hard to drill. But it can't be done. And that, I'd say, pushes the limits of the angle of rock that it's actually possible to place a bolt on. I got up there and I'm like, “I can't let go.”
I was like, “Randy, what am I gonna do, I can't drill, I can't drill!” And he’s like, “Try and grip the edge and hold the drill with one hand and then…” he goes. If you can start drilling right by the hole, you know, once you get the hole an eighth of an inch deep, it gives you enough support. You can kind of bear up, bear down on it while you're drilling so that you won't fall over backwards.
But it’s that initial like, quarter inch where you could just, you know, [makes whooshing sound]. But that's not what makes it iconic. I don't know, what makes something iconic? It's—an icon of something that's symbolic of something else or something bigger, right. I don't know. I don't know how things become iconic.
SN: I was asking because we've talked in some other interviews about something called “The Josh Factor”. And I don't think what you're saying is quite the same, actually, as what that term has been sometimes used to mean.
DE: What’s that?
SN: The Josh factor; we've learned it's kind of like describing how the long run-outs at Joshua Tree create these sort of unnerving scenarios for younger climbers. So there's a sort of mental challenge sort of embodied in a lot of the Joshua Tree climbs for people who maybe trained in the gyms, who are coming with a lot of ability, but not with the experience of taking that kind of risk. And that the Josh factor sometimes refers to that, to that risk, that extra risk. But that doesn't sound like what you're talking about, actually.
DE: Well, that route has the Josh factor, that’s for sure.
SN: [Laughs] Oh it does! Alright.
DE: The hardest move; you're about 10 feet from the bolt if you take a big fall; I've taken the fall the last time I did the climb. No, the time before that, I was leading it and I pitched off. And it's like a 30 footer, you just— [makes whooshing noise to simulate falling]. But I got it on my second try.
SN: You know, this is another case where you've mentioned climbing a climb multiple times. You know, you mentioned Angel's Fright; what it's like to do that over the years and how many times you climbed Figures On a Landscape, an estimate?
DE: Four times. But, you know, I've always made a habit of not repeating things. You know, it's not adventurous to repeat things. You already know the whole story. So that's one thing I'm proud about is that I have very little repeating. And that's why I've done so much, because we've always gone to different things. I mean, I know guys who've made a career of climbing five routes and getting them wired and then they just take their friends there every time and show them how easy it is.
SN: What would you say about the group that you were climbing with initially back in the 70s, that they shared that interest in going on to new things?
DE: Yeah, I mean, yeah, even John Long told me one time after I did a slide show, he said, “Dave I had no idea you’ve been to so many places.” And I said, “Yeah, what do you think we've been doing?” And he’s all, “I didn't do that enough.” He said, “I tended to do the same things, you know, comfort zone type things.” But that's coming from somebody who was one of the best climbers in the world, did the first one day ascent of El Cap, you know, it's B.S. He was doing the wildest stuff too.
SN: Well, if we kind of look again at the 70s and the routes that were—were there other routes at that time that you'd say were iconic at Joshua Tree, aside from Figures On a Landscape?
DE: That's kind of when they were all being done; the ones that are famous today kind of came from that period and after that. Even, you know, the Desert Rats, the guys that preceded us, John Wolfe posse, some of their routes were iconic.
I'd say the Dogleg’s iconic. It's like the perfect hand crag. You know, stuff like that.
SN: Thank you. That's a climb that has been mentioned many times in our interviews so far.
DE: Double Cross. Double Cross!
BR: Double Cross?
DE: Yeah, that could be one of the most iconic climbs of Josh. It could even be the most.
SN: Can I just get you to say a little bit more about Dogleg? What makes it iconic? You mentioned a few things.
DE: Oh, I don't know, probably Double Cross would have been a better example, but just in the sense that it's like front and center. You drive into the Hidden Valley, there's always people on it. It's right there. It's a perfect hand crack. It’s…
SN: Those are the elements that matter.
DE: The rock’s great, yeah.
SN: Yeah, that's really helpful. We're trying to, like, get a really clear understanding of what makes the routes at Joshua Tree distinctive. So it's great you can focus in on specific ones for us and talk a little bit more about those features in detail. So that's very helpful. I was going to ask you something else about those slipping my mind... oh, ethics! So, in this period, it sounds like obviously everything you did was a ground up traditional ethics, correct?
DE: Always.
SN: For the record, he's nodding his head very strongly.
ET: Yes, I’ll note that.
DE: [Laughs] Up to a certain point. Now I’ve slowed down, I’m a total sport climber now.
SN: [Laughs] Up to a certain point, but at this point, I mean, you were talking about these conflicts with rosin. So there were kind of conflicts during that period. But this was still an era for you that was about ground up ethics.
DE: Yeah. Up until the early 80s, everybody was a trad climber and then sport climbing started to become popular in Europe and spread to the US. A lot of us resisted it because it was not ground up, it was top down and that violates the basic rule in our area. You walk up to a mountain and you climb it and you don't helicopter to the top, you know.
So that, you know, that started to become more and more popular, to take over and everybody was upset. We were so much better than them because we had ethics. They were just—they had already sold out. They didn't care about doing it the “right” way. And, you know, we thought that forever. And Joshua Tree and Yosemite were the last holdouts of the trad tradition.
SN: Really? The last holdouts?
DE: Yeah, absolutely, I would say, and that was, you know, largely because of the Stonemasters and John Bachar more than anybody. And that was how everybody climbed at that point. And all of a sudden, these people were just like thumping us because they weren't following the rules..
So the whole period of the 80s and into the 90s were the ethic wars. That's what climbing—that's what everybody was talking about. Everybody's angry. People were fighting, literally, you know, fist fighting over things. It was nasty, it was really nasty for a while, but we had the higher moral ground. So we were OK. But and then, you know, eventually in the, I guess in the early 90s, sport climbing was pretty well established. Even the rest of us started doing it.
SN: It's a very complicated period for Joshua Tree, isn't it? I mean, I'm sure that that conflict was everywhere in the world of climbing.
DE: Yeah.
SN: Do you think it played itself out in a particularly contested way at Joshua Tree or not?
DE: Yeah. Because we were the last, you know, we were the last ones. The rest of the world had already sold out. You know, we dragged it out to the bitter end. But even when I started, I started climbing at this place called Margaritaville with Charles Cole in the late 80s or so, and he'd already decided that sport climbing was the way to go. He was a staunch traditionalist, too. But then he started climbing at Margaritaville and it really suited sport climbing because you couldn’t ground up a lot of stuff. So he just started rap bolting left and right, and I started climbing there with him. And I let him do all the dirty work. I didn't do any rap bolting. I would just belay, and then I would climb the thing. He did all the dirty work for a few years, I could tell people, “Nope, I’m still clinging to—” [Laughs] I knew I wasn’t. And then, you know, then I went full hog and now I’m rap bolting all the time.
SN: That's kind of an interesting contrast that you just bring up that at sites where there perhaps wasn't any traditional history. And so there wasn't the practice established, like there was at Joshua Tree, to come in with the rap built approach didn't carry the same meaning; was just an unclimbable site that became climbable.
DE: Right. But, you know, that’s the flip side of the same coin, is that, yeah, we couldn’t do those. We couldn’t climb there before. Sorry, I lost my train of thought.
SN: Well I just think, at Joshua Tree, I mean, you already had invested so much time, so much energy, so many memories in the traditional style that to convert—even though it wasn't a question, if I’m understanding you correctly, it wasn't a question of you not being able to rap bolt, you all had the ability to do it, correct? It wasn't like you had to acquire new techniques, really. So it was a choice.
DE: It was easier.
SN: Yeah, yeah. So it seems like that you had already invested so much in maintaining the traditional style that it was much harder to just at that point just say, “Oh, I'll just give up on everything I've done for the last how many years,” right?
DE: I remember I was at one of the outdoor retail trade shows working for Five Ten at the time, I was going out to the truck to get something and I ran it to John Bachar sitting on the loading dock at the convention center. He’s smoking a cigarette. He's all, “So Dave,” I’m like, “Hey, John.” He’s like, “You're still ground up, right?” And I’m all, “Yes, John, I am.” But it was soon enough when I converted and I went to the dark side.
SN: That's a fabulous story. Can you tell me what year that happened?
DE: Let’s see, it was… hard to say. I could probably pinpoint it if I thought about it. Can’t remember if it was Reno or Salt Lake City that they had—they moved the outdoor retail trade show a number of times. But the early days, it was Reno. Then it went to Salt Lake.
SN: OK. Maybe we'll find it in one of your books. Who knows? You brought up John Bachar a couple of times, who obviously would be somebody very high on our interview list if he were still alive today. But since he's not, is there anything you can tell us about him as a climber and his climbing practice in Joshua Tree?
DE: Well, Bachar was an inspiration to everybody. When he came on the scene in the valley, the hardcore guys were already working out like maniacs all the time. Thousands of pull ups and sit ups and were just getting stronger doing whatever. But he kind of took it to a new level where they started doing the campus ladder and stuff, you know, free-hanging with your body, just dangling and working on one-arm pull ups and assisted one-arm pull ups and stuff like that. So from a training aspect, he really, you know, took it up a notch.
It kind of amped everybody up on training, but at the same time, it was his ethical approach that was really amazing. He had so much control, so much mental control that, you know, you could see him climbing un-roped and he was you know, he was completely solid. If he hadn't been completely solid, he wouldn't have been there. But he had the mental game right. And he was so strong.
And ethically, there was nobody better, you know, if he got scared, he would just down-climb or if he couldn't get a rope, if he was working something really hard, and he didn't get it, he would lower to the ground and start from the ground again and go from the ground every time. He would not just hang there and keep trying that one move over and over like everybody does now.
SN: Are there any particular formations or areas of the park that you think are particularly memorable with regard to his climbing practice?
DE: Gunsmoke, the bouldering traverse. He basically.... I don't know who found that originally, but that was part of his daily routine. He would do the Gunsmoke 50 times or whatever. I can picture him soloing around Hidden Valley. Left Ski Track, which is something I would never free solo; he would do that every day. It's like 5.11A or so. It was easy, you know, it was totally easy for him. But he was inspirational and he was also a musician.
He took up the saxophone in those early days and tortured everybody for years. He’d go off into the forest and just, you know, make horrible sounds. But eventually he got really good, got really good. And he ended up realizing the dream of playing with Maceo Parker, who was one of the most famous sax players. Was James Brown's sax player for years. So he was not just a climber.
SN: We've also heard quite a bit about Scott Cosgrove, someone else who is no longer with us to be an interviewee. Did you have any interactions with Scott Cosgrove?
DE: Yeah, I knew Scott pretty well, he was a great guy. I remember the first day I ran into him, we were climbing over… at that place [laughs]. And anyways, he came up and there was this 5.10C route and the crux had a really loose hold, and you had to use the hold. And I did it with a rope and stuff earlier in the day, and we were climbing and then he came up and he started to free solo the thing.
And I didn’t know who he was, you know, I’m like, “Hey, watch out for that loose hold up there!” And he’s all, “Oh. Oh okay.” But he was totally solid, and I got to know him after that.
But yeah, he ended up being one of the best in Josh… as far as hard climbs go, he put up several of the hardest climbs in Josh that become ultra-famous, like The Cutting Edge on Headstone and those routes on Cyclops. I think those are….
And later, a few years ago, I put on a benefit for our friends out there, the Gordon family. Their house was leaking, it was a really rainy year. They couldn't afford a new roof. So we decided to throw a big party and raise a bunch of money and put a new roof on their house. So we get that, and I started this whole thing where I was taking donations of money and climbing gear, selling stuff, you know, getting new stuff from manufacturers and selling that and we raised all this money. But, Scott, early in the thing, you know, if anybody donated one hundred bucks, I thought that was a pretty big—
[Alarm goes off on phone]
BR: An emergency?
SN: Yeah, some kind of emergency warning. Don’t know what it is. No fire outside, so I'm not gonna worry about it.
DE: Good. Good.
SN: Sorry about that.
DE: But you know, anybody who donated one hundred dollars, I thought that was huge. But Scott gave me five hundred dollars. And then, two months later, he gave me another five hundred dollars for them. He turned out to be the single biggest cash contributor to the whole thing. A few years later, he had his gnarly accident and almost died, then he did die. And we had a mutual friend who was his physical therapist after his accident for a long time.
SN: So his ethics were ground up or was he a rap bolter or what was his—?
DE: No, I think he was rap bolting that stuff. Pretty sure Scott went to the rap bolting early. But I don't know for sure.
SN: OK. He didn't have a strong reputation as a leader in that regard or anything like that.
DE: I don't know. He kind of came out of nowhere for me. I didn't know him at that time. And then all of a sudden, there he was, he was already a pretty famous guy.
SN: Did this conflict that you're describing between the traditionalists and the people who were moving on to rap bolting or top down style, were there acknowledged sort of leaders of these factions or was it just sort of a free-for-all, chaotic, “I do this, you do that”—?
DE: Oh no, every region had leaders. In the beginning of the sport climbing wars, there was certain areas where they jumped on it right away and up in the Pacific Northwest—that's Smith Rock and stuff; Alan Watts and Todd Skinner, and some of those guys, really great climbers, they jumped on the sport climbing thing right away. And they kind of showed the Stonemasters that that was a really good way to get better.
And, you know, Todd Skinner was a very vocal, high profile climber. He did slideshows. He was a professional. One of the first professional climbers.And he made money with slide shows and endorsements, mostly slide shows. Back then, that was kind of the only venue for making money as a climber. Other than guiding. So if those two guys emerged in the Northwest, you know, every region had people pop out like that, you know, in our area it was Bachar and us.
SN: And in terms of sort of on the other side, were there other—I mean, you and Bachar were traditionalists, I assume, so were there any—
DE: Those guys were sport climbers, Todd Skinner.
SN: Who?
DE: Todd Skinner and Alan Watts.
SN: And he was down in Joshua Tree? He was climbing down in Josh?
DE: Yeah, they would come down here, you know, sport climbing here. And people would always harass each other in a good natured way. We had this thing we used to call them “mobile harassment units”, the MHU, and it didn't matter what people were doing or who it was. You just go somewhere and start hassling people like, “Hey, you might not make it. Maybe I should lead that for you.” You know, like just anything to get under somebody's skin, especially if it was somebody who you knew. You could really bug ‘em. It's so much fun.
SN: So was this an actual vehicle, the mobile harass-
DE: No, it was just loose groupings of people who were annoying other people.
SN: And most of the time, it was all in good fun?
DE: Yeah, but sometimes it wasn't. Like I said, there was lots of bad vibes and lots of nastiness through that period as well, so.
SN: Well, let me ask you this, we haven't talked about this at all, but, you know, this is not the only period where there was behavior that might be considered sort of transgressive from the standpoint of the law or the park management, right. Fist fights or something like that. But also earlier selling pot, obviously, it was illegal. So what was the relationship between the climbers and the Park Service during these different periods?
DE: In the 70s, we had a couple of super Nazi rangers that were really aggressively anti-climber.
SN: In Joshua Tree?
DE: Yeah. Jan Dick and Jim Boone. Jim Boone was a climber initially and then got hired as a ranger and went total fascist.
SN: Went rogue?
DE: [Laughs] Yeah. But yeah, we battled those guys, you know, they were always trying to bust us for doing something.
SN: So they were really a presence, an active presence in your experience?
DE: Yeah. Oh yeah. At night, you know, they tried to sneak up on the campfire and catch somebody with a bong in their hand or something. Or a minor drinking beer, you know, anything, anything they that could get.
SN: And how much of an impact did they have on your experience?
DE: Not very much. It was easy to get away from them. You know, it was just a matter of—Joshua Tree is so big, it's just easy to, you know, do your own thing, create your own scene no matter what.
SN: But in general, it wasn't really a positive relationship, would you say?
DE: It was not. They were strictly law enforcement. And like I said, you know, they were trying—you know, I saw those things as minor transgressions, minor violations, you know, serious crimes going on all over the place. They you know, they could have focused on those things maybe, but....
SN: But it sounds like the issues were focused on things other than like the natural environment and the impact you are having on it. Like they weren't so worried about the rosin or—
DE: No, nothing to do with that, no.
SN: And then in this later period where there was more conflict as the ethics were changing, were they a presence at all at that point too or—?
DE: Not that I not that I could say, really. I always did my best to stay away from them, so.
SN: And sounds like you were successful for most of time.
DE: Never got arrested at Joshua Tree.
SN: Yeah. So, I mean, of all the other places that you climbed, obviously you climbed a lot in Yosemite and other sites as well. Would you say that the situation at Joshua Tree in terms of the Ranger climber relations were similar to other places? Or was there anything that was unusual?
DE: No, it was similar in Yosemite as well in the really early days. Yosemite Rangers weren't required to be law enforcement officers, but there was a certain point, probably around 1976 or 77, where it became a new policy where all rangers had to be—most rangers in Yosemite had to be law enforcement, because I had a friend who was a naturalist ranger. He refused to be law enforcement. So he ended up having to leave Yosemite.
It was the same kind of vibe in Yosemite. They were trying to bust the climbers, but mostly for sleeping out of bound, you know, drug violations mostly. Oh, and shoplifting and theft, of course, because there was a lot of that going on as well.
SN: Can you say a little bit more about that, what period that was going on and what kind of form it took? Who got shoplifted from whom or whatever?
DE: Oh, just, mostly just, you know, climbers trying to stay in Yosemite when they don't have any money, so they—
SN: Oh, OK. In Yosemite.
DE: —to the market and steal a packet of tamales or something.
SN: Right. And was that similar in Joshua Tree or was there anybody to shoplift from?
DE: No, Joshua Tree didn't have that.
SN: Yeah. Not much opportunity in that regard. Yeah. But I was kind of wondering about that; in your experience were the climbers who were down here similar throughout these periods to the climbers in Yosemite in terms of their sort of, you know, dirtbag identity, if you want to go with that. I mean, where there are a lot of “dirtbag” climbers in Joshua Tree as well? Or was it a different kind of crowd?
DE: You saw the same people. It was seasonal. Seasonal more than anything. Yosemite in the summer, Josh in winter, somewhere else in between. It’s all the same people.
SN: And was that true once the ethics started to change? Was it still all the same people or was there a point where there were more different kinds of people coming in and they weren't all on the same circuit?
DE: Yeah, as sport climbing took off, climbers got more interested in traveling to other areas kind of at the same time. Climbers were branching out more, I don't know. I was at that age, I was going new places and it all kind of happened at once. And the crowds got bigger and people came from other places and then there was no place to camp anymore.
SN: And we're talking about the 90s?
DE: Yeah. Here's the curve: the 70s, it started to go, 80s, 90s, and then, [whooshing sound] you know, the 2000s, of course, totally crazy.
SN: Yeah, so it’s just been on and on and on, more sort of a steady increase. Yeah. So with regard to that, I'm just wondering about the more recent years. Do you still see—I mean, you mentioned it before, do you still see Joshua Tree as attracting this very high level climber?
DE: Oh, yeah. Yeah. I mean, during the season, you could run into anybody. Any world famous climber here. And I have, that’s how I met—you know, I’ve climbed with all sorts of people around the world, from around the world, that I’ve met here. You know, people from Europe, Asia, East Coast, South.
SN: And I take it it works both ways. You've met them here and you've met them there and seen them here, right? It isn't just meeting them here. Yeah.
So in this present era, aside from there being more people, is there any other significant difference between the way climbing is now happening in Joshua Tree and these earlier years that we've been talking about?
DE: Oh, yes, completely different. The other thing that happened historically was the climbing gym explosion in the United States. That brought all these—in the early years, the climbers were by and large kind of outcasts and outdoors-y people. But that's no longer the case; with the climbing gyms, it's brought all sorts of people with purely urban backgrounds, you know, city folk who have no appreciation. Some of them have no appreciation for the wilderness or wildness. You know, they just see it as like a gym. It's a climbing gym. A rock is just like the inside of a climbing gym. They litter, they play loud music and stuff.
But yeah, now when we're climbing out here, it seems like the old ethics are completely invisible. You know, people are only sport climbing—yeah, you know, most people have an appreciation for the beauty of the place. But now the demographic includes everybody, whereas before it was a small fringe, an outcast. Now it's the entire world. People from every background, they're climbing.
SN: Does that strike you as something that is regrettable on the whole or is it something you celebrate or what's your institute? What's your opinion on that?
DE: Well, the more people you get out here, the more people will learn to appreciate the wilderness, will vote to protect the wilderness in the future. So that's good. But at the same time, we're getting you know, we're getting swamped. Everything is getting trampled everywhere. From Josh to MOAB to Yosemite, it's just lots of impact.
SN: Yeah. So that seems like it's kind of the major issue for management at this point is managing that impact.
DE: Mhmm. [Indicating agreement]
SN: Yeah. I haven't asked you—I know we're kind of getting to the end of the hour, so I want to make sure I do touch on this—but I haven't asked you explicitly about the networks to which Joshua Tree has been connected in climbing and how they may have changed over the years. So I'm going to hopefully get you to mention some other places.
That’s my goal, you know, you mentioned Yosemite and other sort of big wall sites early on in your career; how has the network of sites changed with the introduction of sport climbing and gym climbing and competitive climbing and bringing this wider group of people in? So just a little bit about that.
DE: Mental block here.
SN: I'm just thinking, like, if I could put maps in front of you, that would say like a world map, you know, connect Joshua Tree to the spots that were visiting in the 70s and in the 80s and in the 90s, have they changed significantly? Let me just say: has the number of places that Joshua Tree relates to grown with all of this increase—?
DE: Yes. Oh, yeah. There's been so much route, you know, development in the last 30 years. All of these little tiny places that nobody even looked at have been bolted up and are climbing areas now. You know, when I'm walking around Josh now, I'll see a new route. And I’ll think, “Wow, you know, why didn't we look at that?” And then I’ll realize, “Oh, yeah, because we had a million other things that were twice as big to look at.”
But now, you know, everybody’s sites are getting a little smaller. But, you know, as far as connecting Joshua Tree to other climbing areas, it's like a spider's web. We're all connected. The community is worldwide now. That's the difference. You know, before, like I said, we were islands, L.A., Orange County, and San Diego. Now it's the world community. Everything's connected because they have the Interweb thing now LOL.
SN: And the Web's getting more and more and more complicated, more and more intersections. OK. So I just want to ask you some—oh, one thing I really have to touch on is Search and Rescue, something that I'm trying to document for the park. And I see your smile, smile noted, in your experience, were there any techniques or any developments in Search and Rescue that happened at Joshua Tree that have been influential with regard to the rest of the climbing world?
DE: I wouldn't know. But I'm sure they're happy because a lot of the climbers who have gone on to be like movie riggers and stuff, you know, a lot of the stuff that they took into the movie industry, they developed out here. I'm sure the same thing's true with Search and Rescue; I’m just not in touch with that.
SN: OK. All right. I'll keep following up on that. Thank you. And kind of the big question that we haven't touched on yet, sort of a summary question, would be with regard to the development of the sport of climbing worldwide, when you look at that, what's been going on, the history, you know, around the world, do you have a sense that there are things about the Joshua Tree landscape and the kinds of routes that it has and the kinds of practices that it has supported over the years, that there are things that were developed or that happened at Joshua Tree that really made a contribution to the way the sport has evolved?
Because I like, in contrast, say to Yosemite, I mean, we know that El Capitan has made a contribution in that regard. But is there anything comparable at Joshua Tree? You know, if Joshua Tree weren’t here, climbing wouldn't be the way it is today, right?
DE: Yeah, well, in the sense that you know, climbers have goals and El Cap is a goal, it was an important goal for me. And at the same time, you know, a little first ascent at Joshua Tree was a big thing, a big goal for me too. I think every climber has that. People, when they come here from Colorado, you know, they've got goals. And so for them, they want to climb More Monkey than Funky or something, to them that's as important as climbing the El Cap or something. So in that sense, Joshua Tree contributed as much as any place in the world because it's inspired people to travel and to realize their dreams. And so, you know, a little 50 foot quartz monzonite route at Josh could be just as important as El Cap to somebody.
SN: What about the rock? You mentioned that, you know, Figures On a Landscape has beautiful rock. When you compare it to other climbing sites, is there something about the rock at Joshua Tree that you would say was special?
DE: Well, the best rock is the varnish, the desert varnish; it’s that plated surface that forms. And if you can climb on desert varnish, it's just the best rock. And Josh doesn't own it, you know, other desert areas have desert varnish too, I climb at Fairview all the time. And our varnish is very beautiful too.
You know, people talk about the friction, the high friction coefficient. That's true. That's fairly unique to Josh. And not that many places have [inaudible] rock that’s this rough. It’s somewhat unique in that regard.
SN: Great. OK. I think I've covered the ground that we were supposed to cover today, but I want to ask Bernadette if she has any—is there anything that you'd like to hear David talk about that we haven't to look better or focused on.
BR: Sure. Like when you're choosing a name for it, how do you decide what to call it?
DE: Yeah. That's a fun process. Usually routes name themselves. You know, something happens during the day and everybody knows that's the name of the route. But a lot of times it comes down to a discussion at the end. Everybody has—a lot of times, we have different ideas and we're throwing them around. And it comes into wordplay. Someone might have an idea and then someone else improves it by changing, you know, changing the wording to some degree.
There’s a million different ways that routes get named. Sometimes it’s about—somebody names it after their dog or their family members, you know. But I like the ones that brings something to light that happened in the course of doing the climb, it's something that took place that day that made it… the routes name themselves often, I really like when they do.
SN: Any examples come to mind?
DE: Oh, boy. Well, Figures on a Landscape. The original name was Monkey on My Back, because when we were working on it, we came out here and I had some cocaine and my friend Randy and I were looking for a place to do the cocaine. So this other guy had a van and we asked him if we could sit in his van but he was very straight. He was an engineer from L.A. and he begrudgingly let us use the van. And so we went in there, did our little thing, and then he came in and he goes, “My God, you guys have such a monkey on your back!”
And we were like, “That's it!” The next thing we're like, “That's it. That's the route name.” You know, after we finished the route a year after that, Randy just randomly changed the name to Figures On a Landscape. And I got kind of pissed off, because it was random, and it had nothing to do with what happened in the course of putting up the route.
But he had seen this Malcolm McDowell movie called Figures on the Landscape or Figure on the Landscape or something slightly different. And it inspired him and made him think of the climb. So he just took executive control and changed the name.
SN: Is there a best name? Is there a best route name, in your view?
DE: There's so many good ones.
SN: [Laughs] We should go through a guide book with you sometime and you can weigh in.
DE: Well Bernadette just asked me about this climb called “X Rated T***.” But this was when I was in high school, we were in Idyllwild going to the movie theater and it was the year Flesh Gordon came out (1974), it was kind of a campy sci-fi movie, comedy thing. Had a little nudity. And so we snuck into the theater, it was R rated, we were 16, we snuck into the theater and watched this movie. And in the middle of the scene where the breasts are revealed, my friend Matt blurted out, “Those are the first R-rated t*** I’ve ever seen!” And everybody in the theater started laughing. And so, a week later, we were putting up this other route, and we changed it and it became X Rated T***.
SN: Why am I not surprised you were in high school?
DE: Juvenile.
SN: I'm so glad you asked that question, Bernadette, because I think Emilio has commented actually on the naming of routes. And did you have a follow up, Emilio, did you want to ask a little more about that?
ET: Well, yeah. I mean, she kind of took the best one, but I was thinking about another one. It was called like, How's Your Mama? or something? I think maybe it’s in Joshua Tree too, but I remember I was on Mountain Project too, scrolling through all the names, I'm like, who comes up with these names? Only climbers could have these kind of names where there's so—like you said, you know, climbers tend to be outdoorsy people, kind of outcasts, so they had like this sense of humor about climbing and about being in a place where it seems like it seems to be very evident when they name the place. It seems to be like an inside joke, like you said, or like a memory or something that's very specific to that group of people who climb that route the first time.
And while I have you real quick and I have the moderator board, I wanted to clarify something with you, David, if that's OK. You talked about Figures On a Landscape with the Josh factor, and we kind of talked about how it dealt with, you know, the mental capacity of being able to climb these very steep and sometimes scary climbs. Would you say that Figures On a Landscape was like one of the first kind of routes that had this very prominent Josh factor in it?
DE: Yeah, I think so. Although I never really thought of it as being early on, but yeah, I think perhaps... for 1978, for sure. Yeah.
ET: Because when we were talking a little more, I had the idea that maybe a reason why it's so iconic, and we can't really put our finger on it besides its beauty and its location, I was thinking that perhaps it's the Josh factor that really started sparking the sense of adventure and danger in climbers that led into other climbs later wherever they may be.
DE: Well, you know, actually, because we all came from the trad background, all the people who were doing bolted routes in those days were doing—a lot of them were run out, a lot of them were scary because everybody was really, really on their game. And having that background, you know, we're prepared to hang it out and so, you know. Yeah. Figures On a Landscape had that, but a lot of other climbs did, too.But a lot of other people were putting up scary climbs. Everybody. All those people.
ET: Well, that's all I had. Thank you.
SN: Thanks Emilio. Anything you want to add, David, we've been pummeling you with questions; did we miss something? Would you like to elaborate on something we didn't cover?
DE: Oh, I don't—oh. Are you going to talk to a woman?
SN: [Laughs] Bernadette does count, you know. I guess, I hope, we have a number of—if you have any suggestions, please let us know. We do have some people on the list, so please let us know.
DE: I would suggest Mari Gingery.
SN: Yes. She's on the list. We're hoping we're hoping that she will consent, in fact, I think Bernadette is already talking to her. Is that correct?
BR: Yeah, [inaudible] she said she’s interested.
DE: Well, she's really the only woman who's been there the whole time. And she's the kind of person who would remember a lot more than I would, she’s a scientist as well. But I think she's a little bit sharper than I am. She might have even kept records. I'm not sure though.
SN: Well, if at some point we are able to meet in person, I'm hoping that we can come back to you if there's any information in your journals that we could use as sort of to verify statements that have been made in the oral history.
DE: Oh, yeah, sure. Well, I was thinking of Lynnie, but Lynnie was not really that Josh-centric.
BR: Lynn Hill. Okay.
DE: Although I don’t know who else—
SN: Are you thinking of Lynn Hill?
DE: Yeah, but Lynnie was never really that Josh-centric.
SN: And she has written about her experiences in Joshua Tree, so we do have that record to fall back on.
DE: Not that she wouldn’t be worthwhile to talk to, she’s the greatest but…
SN: Yeah. Well she could provide the perspective on the relationship, what Joshua Tree gave her that might have enabled her to go on and do the things she's done, right.
DE: Right.
SN: All right, then. Well, if no one has anything additional, we can bring this session to a close. Again, David Evans, I want to thank you so much for joining us for this Joshua Tree Historic Resource Study.
DE: Thanks Sally, thanks, Emilio.
SN: Of course, you’re welcome. Thank you.


Bob Gaines

Interview Date: 05/11/2020

Biographical Summary: Biographical: Bob has been climbing in Joshua Tree for over 40 years and has over 350 recorded first ascents in the park. He founded the Joshua Tree climbing school Vertical Adventures in 1983, which became one of the highest ranked climbing schools in America. In addition to being certified by the AMGA as a rock climbing instructor, Bob has contributed to the AMGA Single Pitch Manual for the single pitch instructor program. He is also the author of a guidebook to the area, titled Best Climbs Joshua Tree National Park.

Content Summary: Bob recounts his time spent climbing with the group known as the Stonemasters. Important Joshua Tree climbers who pushed the envelope of the upper echelon of climbing are discussed. Various forms of climbing are seen in Joshua Tree, such as toproping and free soloing. Bob’s work with the guiding business, Hollywood, the military, and various climbing associations are discussed as well.

  • AMGA (American Mountain Guides Association)
  • Free soloing
  • John Bachar
  • Stonemasters
  • Toproping
  • Vertical Adventures
  • Figures On a Landscape (5.10)
  • Groundhog Day (5.11)
  • Leave It to Beaver [The Beaver] (5.12)
  • Mission Impossible (5.11)
  • Run For Your Life (5.10)
  • Trapeze (5.11)
  • Walk on the Wild Side (5.8)
SN: Alright, thank you. So today is November 5th, and this is Sally Ann Ness from UC Riverside, professor of Anthropology. I’m here today with Emilio Triguero, also from UC Riverside. Bernadette Regan from the National Park Service, Joshua Tree headquarters. And our guest today for the historic resource study of recreational rock climbing for the National Park Service is Mr. Bob Gaines, also known as “Burger Bob,” as I understand it.
BG: [Laughs] Well, that’s one of my nicknames, I guess.
SN: So thank you so much for joining us today.
BG: You’re welcome.
SN: Good. So I’m just going to, you know, follow very straightforwardly the list of questions that we’ve talked about previously and go through it with you, and then if there’s anything in addition that you’d like to add for the record, please let us know or at any point if you want to interject, please feel free.
And also, just to reiterate from the consent form, if there’s any question for any reason you’d prefer not to answer, just let us know, and we move right on.
BG: Okay, no problem, thank you.
SN: Good, alright. So would you state for the record your --this may be a question you don't want to answer [laughs]-- if you wouldn’t mind stating your place of birth and date of birth for us?
BG: I was born in Santa Monica, California, September 10th, 1959.
SN: Okay, thank you. And let’s then move right on to the individual climbing history. So tell us a little bit about when you first got into climbing and why, and what your motivations were.
BG: Okay, well I first got into climbing when I was fairly young, probably around 14 years old. And what got me into climbing really was when my parents would take myself and my three other brothers on camping trips to the Sierra Nevada, and in particular Yosemite. And I think it was more just seeing the climbers up on the walls, the visual aspect of it, it just seemed like such a grand adventure. And when I was that, it kind of instilled in me that that’s something I wanna do. So it was more just being exposed to the outdoors at a very young age, and then seeing the aesthetic challenge of rock climbing, and the beauty of it that got me interested.
SN: Wonderful. So tell us a little bit about --do you happen to know, by the way, any of the climbers that might’ve been up the big walls in Yosemite that you might’ve seen at that time?
BG: No. You know, they were distant, little tiny dots so it wasn't really anyone I knew, but it was just the famed Yosemite climbers I was observing.
SN: Okay. Alright good, well then tell us, when did you actually start climbing yourself? How old were you, and what was your pathway into gaining expertise and becoming a rock climber yourself?
BG: Mhmm. [In understanding] Like I said, I started when I was about 14, pretty much self-taught. So at the time, you know, my parents really supported the family in camping and fishing and backpacking and those type of activities. But they really didn’t want me to get into climbing, it was something I wanted to do. And so I went about it by finding other kids in school and through the Boy Scouts, so I slowly got into it, but it was a slow progress because I was essentially self-taught.
I think I took a course maybe when I was 16 at Yosemite Mountaineering School. And I think that was the first professional instruction I had. But by then I was already out climbing on my own. So it took a while for my parents to really endorse the climbing, and at first they were kind of against it ‘cause they thought it was pretty risky.
SN: Mhmm. [In understanding] When did Joshua Tree come into the picture as a place for you to go climbing?
BG: I first climbed in Joshua Tree in the late 1970s, so I would’ve been in college, and probably around ‘79 was when I first started climbing in Joshua Tree. 1979.
SN: So is it fair then to say that you really got your start not at Joshua Tree, but at other places?
BG: Yeah, the first places I climbed at would be Stoney Point in Chatsworth, in the LA area. Yosemite probably in ‘77, and up at Idyllwild in the same period of time, around 1977.
SN: So is there any reason why Joshua Tree wasn’t sooner on the list?
BG: Back then, Joshua Tree really wasn't on the map as a destination area like Yosemite or Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks in Idyllwild; it wasn’t as popular as it was now back in those days when it was a monument. Which was kind of nice, because it wasn't very crowded and you know, took a while for climbers to discover it, but back in the 1970s, it really wasn't the destination climbing area that it is today.
SN: Great, thank you, that’s very helpful. That’s exactly the kind of information that we’re really looking for, is very clear time boundaries about what Joshua Tree was like at different periods of time. So that’s very helpful.
BG: But even the climbers, you know, in the 1960s and the 1970s, some of the famous Yosemite climbers before they went to Yosemite, a lot of them would go up to Idyllwild to train at Tahquitz Rock, to get in shape before they went up to Yosemite, but Joshua Tree was a place they might go in the wintertime and nail some pitons and cracks and do some aid climbs, but it wasn’t really on their radar as a place to go as a destination. There were bigger things, like Yosemite Valley and places like that, and Joshua Tree was considered more of a practice area.
SN: Are there any particular climbers you have in mind, talking about that strategy?
BG: Yeah, guys like Royal Robbins and his buddies who climbed in Southern California in the 1960s.
SN: Great, thank you. So, as you know, one of the big goals of this study is to try to get clearer on the different eras of climbing in Joshua Tree to get a more concrete understanding of what was happening at different time periods in the park. And that’s a big part of the project, but we also want to take a little step back and talk about or identify things that were happening in the park that had an impact on the sport more broadly, so we’re trying to figure out both what happened inside the park and what happened in the park that was important for outside the park in different ways.
So with that kind of bigger picture in mind, can you tell us about your experiences climbing in Joshua Tree, from 1979 kind of moving forward, what you’ve observed about what happened in the park during different eras and how change happened, and what you witnessed or what you yourself accomplished that you would say had a kind of historic significance that’s bigger than the park.
BG: Mhmm. [Understanding] Well I would say when I first started climbing in Joshua Tree in the late 70s, I came in at the tail end of what I would characterize as the “Stonemaster Period,” it was a group of climbers in Southern California known as the Stonemasters. And it was primarily John Bachar, John Long, Lynn Hill, John Yablonski, Mari Gingery, Mike Lechlinski, and it was a pretty tight-knit group. So in those days, when I would show up to Joshua Tree on a Friday night, they would all be camping in Hidden Valley Campground, so as a group, we’d just find where they were camping and that was like the “tribe” of climbers. And everybody knew each other and we would make plans on where to go and where to climb, and so we would-- when I would show up to Joshua Tree, I’d find the climbers. And so it was kind of a tight-knit group.
I started climbing a lot with John Long, who’s a very well-known climber, back around 1980 when we were regular partners from 1980 till about 1985. So we did a lot of climbing together. One of the most outstanding climbers of that period was John Bachar, and he was doing a lot of free solo climbing at Joshua Tree, which at the time, no one really knew about it. And he took that to its zenith back in the early 1980s, and a lot of people don't realize John Bachar was free soloing, which means climbing without a rope. And you’ve probably seen the movie Free Solo, right?
SN: Yes.
BG: Yeah, so you know what free soloing is. So back then, he was free soloing at this 5.12 level regularly at Joshua Tree all the time. And it wasn't like today where a lot of the notable climbers that do free soloing have camera crews and entourages and their videos and everybody’s watching; he would just go out and do it. And there were a couple years where I was sharing a house with him and we’d eat breakfast together, he’d have a big breakfast, usually like eggs and chorizo and toast. And I’d go, “Well, what are you going to do today?” And he’d say like, “I’m gonna do an El Capitan day.” Or he’d say, “I'm gonna do a Half Dome day.”
An El Capitan day would be about thirty different climbs. And he was doing them all free solo. So if you compare him to climbers today, at that time, say 1982 when he was free soloing 5.12b or 5.12c, that would be parallel to someone today free soloing 5.13 or 5.14. So he was really ahead of his time. And I think a lot of people don't really understand how good he was way back then.
SN: Mhmm. [Understanding] Thank you. I really appreciate your comment that he was “ahead of his time.”
BG: Way ahead of his time. Yeah.
SN: Can you say a little more, from your own point of view, about why you think he was able to be ahead of his time? Was it his innate ability, was it something beyond that?
BG: It was a combination of things. One was his natural athleticism, and his physique, and genetics and those sort of things. But more than anything else, he trained harder than any climber I’ve ever seen. He trained like a professional athlete or an Olympic athlete. And his training sessions were notorious. He would set up like training apparatus in the campgrounds and stuff in Yosemite, and he was known as the innovator and the inventor of a contraption called the “Bachar ladder.” Which is essentially a rope ladder with little rungs that you could grab onto and spring it up in a tree and he’d go up and down it with weights strapped to his belt. He’d do endless pullup workouts. So not only was he very fit and very strong and trained and dedicated himself, but he was just naturally talented and gifted climber too.
So what he would do at Joshua Tree, you know, he wouldn’t just go out and free solo a climb without checking it out first, so he’d typically do it on a top rope and rehearse it and do it to the point where he was comfortable with it, and then after that he would never use a rope on it again; he would just free solo the climb. So he looked at Joshua Tree as like a big bouldering area, and the boulders were a hundred feet high. [Chuckles]
So I think that was it; the combination of natural talent but also the dedication he had, and the training ethic he had that few climbers really trained that hard in that period. It was more --you know, they did it for fun and for the challenge, but they didn't dedicate themselves like an Olympic athlete.
SN: He was in that league of the Olympic athlete?
BG: At that time, he was probably the best rock climber in the world and he was setting world-class standards. And he dedicated his life to it. So he would go from Joshua Tree in the wintertime, and in the springtime he’d go up to Yosemite Valley. And then when it got too hot in Yosemite Valley, he’d go to Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park, and when it got too cold he’d go back to Joshua Tree. So he did that for years and years and years, and he lived that lifestyle; he just climbed, basically. He was like a professional climber before there was sponsored climbers and companies that would sponsor climbers. He just loved it that much that he dedicated his life to it.
SN: Mhmm. [Understanding] Thank you for identifying the network of places that Joshua Tree was fitting into in his practice.
BG: Yeah, it was the winter place. It was the winter place. So Yosemite really was a magnet for climbers in the springtime and the fall. But in the summer, it’s pretty hot in Yosemite Valley so a lot of the climbers would go up to Tuolumne Meadows which is 9,000-foot elevation; it’s a lot cooler.
And that was kind of the circuit for the Stonemasters. The people that lived the climbing lifestyle full time. And there was a lot of guys that I knew that they lived in a van for 15 years.
SN: Wow. But he [Bachar] shared a house with you, you were saying?
BG: Yeah, Joshua Tree-- he lived in his van a lot, but he also, you know, rented places at Joshua Tree, but a lot of times in Yosemite he was living out of his van.
SN: Mhmm. [Understanding] There’s a lot of lore related to Yosemite and people living out of their vans or even--
BG: Yeah, we had smaller vans back then, it was the Volkswagen van. Now they have the big sprinter vans but back then, I had a Westfalia, you know, the little Volkswagen van, and that was kind of the climber van back then; it was a little different.
SN: Yes. So was there anything in particular that happened in Joshua Tree in his practice that you would call really historic for the sport as a whole? In Joshua Tree.
BG: For Bachar, it was really the mastery of technique and the mastery of free solo rock climbing, which today, you know, a lot of people know about it from Alex Honnold and Free Solo. But back then, it was something that climbers really didn't do. So he elevated free solo climbing to a high art form back then, and Joshua Tree kinda became popular as an area where a lot of guys free solo because it’s kind of a less intimidating environment and the climbs are very accessible and approachable.
And he was very ethically pure; in a way it held him back, because he was against placing bolts on rappel and against sport climbing ethics where people rehearsed climbs a lot by hanging on the rope and that sort of thing, so in that sense, it held him back because he didn’t fully adopt sport climbing ethics, which were imported from Europe in around 1985, the mid-1980s.
And Joshua Tree is --it was-- one of the most traditional climbing areas in the world where a bolt placed on rappel was really frowned upon and using sport climbing ethics on climbs where you’re hanging on the rope a lot and rehearsing the moves, that was frowned upon. So the local ethics at Joshua Tree back in the 80s were really strict, and if someone placed the bolt on rappel, generally it was chopped by someone who was against that. So Bachar was kind of a… term I use is “a prophet of purism.” [Laughs] A self-appointed prophet of purism, so somebody would have to enforce the bolting rules and the rule was, in Joshua Tree, if you were going to lead a climb, you had to place the bolt on the lead. And you couldn't place it on rappel.
And those ethics were very strict. Other parts of the country, when sport climbing was imported from Europe, particularly from France in the mid-1980s, in areas like Smith Rocks, there was a guy named Alan Watts who put up hundreds of sport climbs on rappel. And throughout America, sport climbing areas started to become developed, where people would rappel down and put in the bolts, rehearse the climbs before they led, the protection was good, the bolts were closely spaced together. And that was mainly imported from France.
But in Joshua Tree, it was one of the last traditional bastions as far as the ethics in America, and it was the slowest to change to where rappel bolts were accepted. Even into the 90s. I call that era “the Bolt Wars.”
SN: That is perfect. Thank you so much, that is such an important statement for our project. And I want to talk to you about the Bolt Wars, but before we leave John Bachar, there’s something you said that really made me curious about his style, because if he was “pure,” yet he rehearsed his free solos, so like wouldn’t a real purist on-sight do a free solo? So what was going with that process, that kind of compelled him to perhaps --did he really sort of adopt a hybrid style there or not, would you say?
BG: Well I would say no, because when he was rehearsing it on a toprope, it wouldn't be like, you know, he’s doing it a hundred times or anything like that, but I see kind of the hypocrisy there now that you mention it, but he was very strict in his ethics and when it came to leading a climb, you know, he wasn't even hangdogging on the rope; he would like lower himself down and pull the rope down. So the toproping ethic was another thing that’s a little peculiar for Joshua Tree in that some areas, they don't consider a climb valid until it’s been led for a first ascent. But Joshua Tree always had a tradition of a toprope being a valid form of ascent where it was called a route, and you could name the route or rate it, and that would be a valid form of a first ascent because if you look at it from a purity standpoint, toproping is fairly pure.
Especially on face climbs, because you don't have to drill into the rock, you’re just climbing. And in that sense, you're not leaving any trace of your ascent other than maybe chalk. And when you're done there’s no fixed hardware. So toproping is actually a fairly pure form of climbing, in that you're not fiddling around with a lot of gear, you're not interrupting the flow of the climb by stopping and clipping into the bolts every five or six feet. So in that sense, toproping to me, and I’ve written some books on climbing and one of the titles is Toproping, talks about toproping. If you think about it, when you're free soloing, you can get pretty nervous. Because if you fall you're gonna die. When you're toproping, you can relax. You can enjoy it more, and you can really get focused on having good technique and enjoying the climb.
So in my mind, toproping is one of the purest forms of climbing because you're not dealing with the equipment as much, you're not worried about taking a leader fall if you were leading a climb with protection, and you're not worried about dying if it’s, you know, when you're free soloing it’s something you gotta really think about. Like you can’t relax as much, so in that sense, toproping is a fairly pure form of climbing technique.
SN: Great, we got a little ahead of ourselves, so for the listeners who won’t know what you mean when you say “toproping,” can you just give us a brief description and what that is?
BG: Sure. Toproping is rope climbing and the anchor is at the top of the rock. So when you begin your ascent, you are tied into the rope, the rope’s tied into your harness, and the rope goes up to the top of the cliff to an anchor, and then back down to a belayer who’s on the ground. So as you climb up, the rope’s taken up, so if you fall you're not taking a big fall, it’s just onto the rope. Maybe the rope stretches a little bit.
As opposed to a leader fall, when you're leading a climb and you're clipping the rope into points of protection as you climb up, and if you fall when you're leading, you're always going to fall twice the distance above the last point of protection and a little more ‘cause the rope stretches. Free soloing is climbing without a rope. And if you fall free soloing, you hit the ground.
SN: Thank you. So is toproping --I should say, is the Joshua Tree landscape particularly good for toproping, do you think?
BG: Yeah, exactly. The Joshua Tree rock formations are particularly suited to toproping because many of them you can access by scrambling up to the top, so you don't have to lead a climb to actually climb. You just go to the top and set up a toprope. And most of the cliffs are relatively small, less than a hundred feet, so the standard length of a rope is two hundred feet, and that allows you to, you know, with a standard rope, toprope just about any climb in Joshua Tree if you know how to rig anchors.
[Bob, Sally, and Emilio speak over one another]
SN: Go ahead.
ET: You talk a lot about the height and the distance of a rope, and when you were talking about Bachar, you talk about “El Capitan” days or “Half Dome” days. How do you think Joshua Tree --and the landscape of Joshua Tree-- applies itself to be able to practice like what John Bachar was doing, to practice for Half Dome or to practice for El Capitan?
BG: It’s a great place to practice because, you know, there are nine thousand different climbs and each pitch has a different rating. So if you wanted to, let’s say you were gonna practice for a climb on El Capitan, you could break it down pitch-by-pitch into the rating of the pitch and the type of climbing that you were able to experience on that pitch, so you could say, “Okay on this climb on El Capitan, I have ten pitches that are rated 5.9 and they’re all hand cracks. And then I have a couple pitches that are 5.11 laybacks.”
You’d go out to Joshua Tree if you were free soloing or leading or toproping or whatever, and you could do exactly that. You could do a bunch of 5.9 hand cracks, you could practice 5.11 laybacks. So the variety and the accessibility of Joshua Tree make it amenable to people that want to go out during the course of the day and do a bunch of different climbs, even though it’s not a multipitch area per say, you could string all these different climbs together.
ET: And that’s what allows Joshua Tree to be like that perfect practicing area?
BG: Exactly.
ET: Great, thank you.
BG: Yeah, the good weather, the accessibility, and it’s just the amount of climbs and the variety of the climbs is very helpful for that.
SN: You’ve just put something together for us as well about free soloing. It seems to me that Joshua Tree has both the landscape to allow the toproping for people who have these pure ethics, right? So they can still do the practice without violating their ethics, without having to rappel down and place a bolt. So yeah, it was that combination perhaps, that enabled the development of free soloing at Joshua Tree.
BG: Yeah. And I think it was that unique combination, and I think right at the beginning, Bachar just really elevated it to this high level, which has rarely been seen since. I mean, there are a lot of guys that free solo now, but nothing like --I mean, he did it regularly at the highest level when he would go climbing and it was something to see.
I mean, it was kinda crazy. And usually in the morning, you know, a bunch of the climbers would be getting together in the parking lot at Hidden Valley and just kinda chit-chatting. And then there’s Bachar, he’s going up one, and then come down, and then, “Oh there’s Bachar! He’s going up another one.” So in like half an hour, he’d pick off like five different 5.11 climbs as we were talking, getting ready to go climbing.
SN: And you wonder --I mean, a person like me wonders, [Laughs] probably not a serious climber, but a person like me would wonder why there was a kind of a gap in a way between Bachar’s practice and somebody like Alex Honnold. Why there wasn't a more continuous train of people that developed the same kind of “practice, rehearse, and then do it” sort of mentality, normalizing it in a way.
BG: It’s a good question. It’s really not for everyone, and I think a lot of people free solo for the wrong reasons, but if you're up there and it happened to me one time where it’s like you're having a good climb and everything’s great, and it’s like all of a sudden a dark cloud just blots out the sun. And in that one moment, you can have a lot of terror where you could die as a direct result of being afraid to die. And that fear can creep in so quickly, so it’s definitely not something that a lot of people can embrace, and it usually --if someone’s doing it and they’re not really doing it for the right reason, they’re gonna find out pretty quick that it’s just so scary that it’s something they don't want to do.
SN: Yeah. Do you have any particular memorable experiences of free soloing in Joshua Tree that you could tell us about? Specific examples.
BG: You know, I didn't really do a lot at the highest levels. Probably one of my favorites was a climb called Walk on the Wild Side on Saddle Rock. But I generally stuck to climbs that were 5.7 or 5.8, and I had a circuit I could do that I could do the same ones over more as a warm-up for a day’s climbing, and just for the fun and the pure fun of the movement, rather than the challenge of difficulty. And I didn't really do any super high-level free soloing; I preferred to climb on a toprope or lead rope.
SN: Okay. Well okay, you've mentioned the Bolt Wars, can we talk a bit about that next?
BG: Sure.
SN: What did you witness; how would you describe the Bolt Wars at Joshua Tree, and key events and key people and that sort of thing?
BG: Yeah. For me, I would say, in my world, it really revolved around a lot of the climbing partners that I knew. And in 1983, I started my climbing school in Joshua Tree, it’s called “Vertical Adventures,” and most of my climbing partners at that time were people that worked with me as guides. Like Michael Paul and Roy McClanahan, Scott Cosgrove, John Bachar actually worked with me a little bit, Peter Croft, Tony Sartin, Dave Mayville, guys like that.
So one of the guys who was one of the top climbers in America at the time was Scott Cosgrove, and he started working with me as a guide in the 1980s. And he started to place bolts on rappel on some of his test pieces that he was putting up in Joshua Tree, which were, at the time, some of the most difficult climbs in the country, if not the most difficult. In 1988, he did the first ascent of a climb called the New Deal, which is rated 5.14a now. So at that time, it puts it as maybe one of the first 5.14s done in America.
And Bachar, like I said, he was the purist, and he actually chopped a few of Scott’s bolts, so it was a little awkward because they're both guiding with me and there was a time where they wouldn't even talk to each other. Eventually, by the end of the 80s and into the 90s, things started to work out, but like I said, Joshua Tree was one of the areas in the country that was the slowest to embrace rap bolting.
SN: Can you say why that was, Bob?
BG: It was probably because of the Stonemasters and their traditional ethics that they had and developed in Southern California. And the same with Idyllwild; Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks was the same way. And the ethics were enforced by local climbers. And it was a pretty tight-knit group and their feeling was they didn't want to see it progress to sport climbing with rappel-placed bolts. So that’s just the way it was; it was peer pressure, essentially, that kept things in check.
Back then, it was before the internet, so you didn't have social media pressures. There was no Instagram. But it was just a tight-knit group of people that were enforcing it by ostracizing people from the group, or chopping their bolts, or actions like that.
SN: Yeah, thank you. So tell us a little bit more about how you got the inspiration to start Vertical Adventures. Why did you want to go into the guiding business, and how did you end up being the one who was the kind of the lead person on that?
BG: I can remember a moment where we were camped in Hidden Valley campground. At the time, I guess 1982, there was actually an old Desert Rat sort of guy in Joshua Tree that had a climbing school; it was the first climbing school in Joshua Tree. And I can remember, he would drive up in his convertible Cadillac to the campsite and he wouldn't even get out of the car. Then he’d just yell over to the Stonemasters who were camping there, “Who wants to be a guide today?” And then somebody would raise their hand, and they would be signed up as the guide, and I’m like, “Hmm.”
And I’d gone to school, I had a degree in marketing and business, and I took one look at that and I said, “You know, I think I can do a better job at this.” [Chuckles] And, you know, it was a little slow at first, it was before the Internet, so you would get business by magazine advertisements like in the climbing magazines, brochures at climbing shops, doing slideshows and talks, things like that; it was a lot different.
But at the time, when I started in ‘83 and for a few years, I was the only climbing school really operating in Joshua Tree National Park. Everybody worked for me, I was the manager, so worked out pretty good. And for many years, there was only… three climbing schools for about fifteen years? And now guiding has just exploded because the business has really changed.
Back when I started, people really wanted to learn all the techniques of climbing; how to use the equipment, how to be safe, climbing technique, multipitch, the whole thing. And now the business is shifted where most of the clients or large majority are a mom and a dad and two kids that just want to come out to Joshua Tree and have a fun day. And they don't really want to learn anything, they just want to have some fun climbing. There’s a lot of that.
SN: So in a way, it’s kind of a lighter commitment, lighter level of commitment than in the older days. Does that sound right or not really?
BG: Well you’re talking about the clients?
SN: Yeah, the clients, in terms of--
BG: Yeah, they want to have fun, they don't want to take on the responsibility; they might have climbed before they had kids, and then they want to go out and just have fun and you know, you can have a lot more fun if you go out with someone who knows the climbs and can set it up and make it safe. And so the business has evolved over the years and the majority of the clients are kind of in that demographic.
SN: And so is it fair to say that your main motivation for getting the guide business going was an economic one then?
BG: Not really. It was more the lifestyle. You know, there’s not a ton of money in guiding. But what it did for me, and I feel pretty lucky because I’ve done it all these years and I’ve been able to do something I love, and it also has offered me opportunities to do things that were related to guiding. For example, I’ve worked a lot in the film business. And I got lucky there, because I had some friends who were doing climbing movies and then they hired me as a rigger for the climbing films. And then as their career evolved, they started doing commercials in Hollywood and then they took the same group with them, so I ended up as a stunt coordinator on over 40 television commercials as either stunt coordinator or key rigger. And I worked on a bunch of feature films, so that was fun. And the lifestyle and the freedom of having my own business allowed me to do that. And I’ve also worked a lot with military, special forces. And I’ve had a lot of great memories climbing all over the country, particularly with SEAL Team Six. I started in 1985, and from 1985 to around 2000, I did at least one ten-day trip a year with SEAL Team Six.
SN: So I wanted to get a clearer picture, I had read about this work which is really unusual in terms of the interviewees that we’ve worked with so far; you're the first one who’s talking about SEAL Team Six. And is there any kind of specific connection that you would draw between your work at Joshua Tree and being able to be a stuntman or working with the military? Or is that something you really could have done if you had the guiding business pretty much anywhere in Southern California?
BG: Well, I think Joshua Tree was very helpful because I am one of the only schools, and if you work in Southern California, you're one of the only schools you can actually do it year-round. Where a lot of the other parts of the country, you can’t really teach rock climbing all year, especially on the East Coast; just too cold in the wintertime. So here in Southern California, I was able to do it full time and for all those years. And just having the flexibility, you know, one thing is just being ready when an opportunity arises and having the flexibility. You know, obviously having the expertise, but having the flexibility to go do something like that, like take ten days off and go do some training with military guys.
SN: Thank you, that’s very helpful. So, this isn’t really on topic, but I’ve heard that you actually were the double for Captain Kirk at one time, is that true?
BG: That is true. That was the movie Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and it was 1987, I believe. And in the opening sequence of that, Captain Kirk actually free solos El Capitan. So if you wanna see a funny video, just go to YouTube or Google “El Capitan Kirk.” And it’s kind of a little juxtaposition between the Star Trek and the Alex Honnold Free Solo thing, so.
SN: What was it like working on that for you? Did you enjoy it, or was it tedious or--?
BG: I did. I mean, at the time, I remember driving into Paramount Studios, into the lot to meet William Shatner for the first time because he was gonna check me out and make sure I was a good double for him. And I remember looking up, it was a nice, beautiful day in LA, and seeing the Hollywood sign, I’m driving through the gates thinking, “Yeah, I’m working in Hollywood,” you know?
But I was so nervous when I met him because as a kid, I had watched all the Star Trek TV episodes. So I remember he asked me a question and I couldn't even talk because my tongue was like glued to the roof of my mouth. He’d say, “So I hear you're climbing at Joshua Tree,” I was going, [imitates stammering]; I was so nervous, but it all worked out good. And he actually came up to Yosemite and did some climbing.
But my role was mainly doubling him on a variety of climbs, but we actually went up on El Capitan on the nose route; there was one shot, it was 1700 feet up El Cap. So when that was done, I spent a couple nights up there. When the shot was done, I got to rappel all the way to the ground, almost 1800 feet, which was the longest rappel I’ve ever done, that was pretty cool.
SN: Wow. That’s a wonderful story. So you actually shot that in Yosemite, I didn't realize; I thought they had sort of faked it.
BG: On El Capitan; some of the scenes were actually on El Capitan.
SN: Oh wow.
BG: So if you look at it, it’s just the --there’s about two minutes, it’s the opening montage of the movie. So, you don’t even have to watch the whole movie, and you could probably just Google it and it’ll come up, but it’s just the opening sequence, and you’ll see him free soloing. So he was ahead of his time too.[Both laugh]
SN: Terrific. So was any of the Hollywood work done at Joshua Tree? Or any of the military work done at Joshua Tree?
BG: Yes. We definitely did a lot of training in Joshua Tree.
SN: Can you say a little bit about more about that, or… I don't want to get into anything classified, but… [Laughs]
BG: Well, basically the Team Six guys, they’re an anti-terrorist group. And they're all really good at shooting. But as far as the climbing skills… basically the way it works in the SEAL teams is they have electives that they could take. So you could become a language expert, you could become like a stunt car driving expert, you could become an expert at marksmanship, or all these types of --rock climbing is one of them.
So it was an elective that the guys could take, and basically what they would want to develop is a group of assault climbers so they could go in there and climb like a oil derrick or a building or a rock face and just have those skills, so they really wanted to learn state-of-the-art climbing techniques and small team rescue techniques and rope-ascending techniques. Because if one guy could climb up then fix a line, then the other guys could ascend the rope. So a lot of it was technical stuff, but a lot of it was just climbing rock and learning how to climb.
And I’ve taught a lot of climbers over the years in my climbing school, but I can say this: particularly SEAL Team Six, which is like the cream of the crop because you have all these SEAL teams, and to get to SEAL Team Six, (which is famous now because they’re the guys that killed Bin Laden) back then, they were kind of more secretive. They were called the Naval Special Warfare Development Group. And you weren't supposed to call them SEAL Team Six, but now everybody calls them SEAL Team Six. To get to that level, you had to be invited. So the Team Six guys were the elite guys amongst all the SEALs. So it was a real privilege to even get invited to be part of the SEAL Team Six group. And they usually were tremendous athletes and good --and as far as being well-rounded at just about everything they would do, and as far as rock climbing goes, I saw guys who had never climbed before, by the end of the week they could lead 5.9. Which, if you're a climber, you kind of know that level. It’s pretty tremendous. But they’re a pretty elite group, and you don't get there easily; there’s a lot of training involved and a lot of people get weeded out and just to become a SEAL is pretty tough, ‘cause you have to go through basic underwater demolition school, which is a real tough, like “hell week” kind of two weeks. Just to get into the SEAL Teams, and to get to SEAL Team Six, that’s the highest level and you have to get invited to join that team.
SN: And so, remind me, when were you working with them in Joshua Tree, what was the time period?
BG: 1985 to about 2000. I did generally one or two trips a year with those guys all over the country. Sometimes at Joshua Tree; we went all over the place.
SN: Thank you. So I know Emilio wanted to jump in and ask some questions about your various books. Books that you've developed on climbing; you have a series of several different books, you mentioned the Toproping, but there are a number of others. Emilio, would this be a good time for you to approach that subject?
ET: Yes, perfect. Great, so like Sally was saying, I know you have a lot of toproping books --or books generally on different subjects of climbing. That kind of speaks to the standard of climbing being developed over time. So would you say from about 1970 to now, you’ve witnessed a development of a standard of rock climbing?
BG: Oh, definitely. The equipment has changed, the technical standards, the techniques have changed. So for me, part of it was just wanting to be current on all the state-of-the-art methods. So like I said, I was primarily self-taught when I started. And then I worked as a guide for years without any formal training. And then, around the early 1990s, the American Mountain Guides Association started to certify guides and accredit schools and a lot of the clients would ask, “Hey, are you certified?” And I would have to say, “Well no, I’m not certified but…” and then give some explanation about how I’m so experienced and so knowledgeable.
So I thought, “You know what, I want to get certified just so I can answer ‘Yes’ to that question.” So I went to the American Mountain Guides Association, I challenged one of their guide certification exams, and it wasn't easy, but I got certified as a rock instructor. And then I realized that if I opened myself up to peer review and peer training, I could really learn a lot from experienced, professional guides. So then I started training with the American Mountain Guides Association in toprope site management, which Joshua Tree really is a toprope site for a guiding company, and I just wanted to learn all the state of the art methods. But it turned out that, you know, I thought, “Joshua Tree is really the perfect place to teach this course,” so I ended up becoming an instructor for the American Mountain Guides Association for the Single Pitch Instructor program and I also offer certification exams through the American Mountain Guides Association, so I do courses and certifications of other guides. So it’s basically guide training.
ET: So you’ve been at least learning the standard as it’s been developed over time. And also, something that also speaks to the development of a standard in Joshua Tree is a little tidbit I found in the old John Wolfe Joshua Tree Monument Guidebook a long, long time ago. It lists Leave It to Beaver as a toproping rating of F14; that’s how it rates it in that guidebook, but now I think it’s more known as a 5.12a trad route, which kind of speaks to the development over time between the two eras, would you say?
BG: Mhmm. Yeah, the F rating system was very peculiar and obscure and it was probably the only --only used in that one book. So F10 is 5.10a/b, F11 is 10c/d, F12 is 5.11a/b, F13, 5.11c/d, so it goes like that. So it was just some arcane rating that he used in that book that never saw popularity anywhere else. So F14 is a 5.12, but Leave It to Beaver was led pretty shortly after it was first toproped in the 70s. I think the first ascent was 1978, and I think it was led either that year or the next year by Bachar. So toproped first and then led pretty quickly.
ET: I see. Do you feel like a lot of climbs are being recategorized or like --similar to how Leave It to Beaver was, even though the rating is similar across the grades; do you feel like some climbs are being, let’s say transformed, or like I said, recategorized as things change and the standard progresses?
BG: Well, a lot of ratings from the old days, from the Stonemaster era, they’ve gotten upgraded, so for example, a lot of climbs that Bachar rated 11c are now 5.12 in a lot of the guidebooks, so I think the ratings… you know, it’s more democratic now because you can go on Mountain Project and everybody can vote on the rating of the climb. But a lot of times people come out of a gym environment where they’ve been climbing on artificial wall in the gym, and a lot of the ratings can be “soft,” in other words, we get a lot of clients who come to us and when we ask them about their previous climbing experience, lot of them will say like, “Oh I can boulder V5 in the gym.”
So V5 as an outdoor rating is like 5.12b/c if you’re bouldering at Joshua Tree, a V5 boulder rating. And then they come out and they can climb about 5.8, 5.9 on the rocks. [Laughs] A lot of the gym ratings are really soft, but as far as the climbs go, the test pieces from the old days are still there. A lot of them, the ratings have been upgraded.
ET: Just simply as people get better over time and things like that?
BG: Well, I think in the old days, they were a little underrated. And now there’s more of a consensus on the ratings. And like I said, it’s become more democratic ‘cause everybody votes on the Internet about what a climb should be rated.
ET: Yeah. And that kind of changes the culture of rock climbing; as you said, the clients you get nowadays are more people who are taking a simpler approach to rock climbing as opposed to maybe how you were and the rock climbing group you were a part of in the 1970s.
BG: Yeah, I mean Joshua Tree is still a pretty traditional area, even though it has hundreds of sport climbs. And the big change, you know, five, six, seven years ago was that a lot of climbers learned to climb in climbing gyms. And then they go outside. So Joshua Tree to them was a real scary place because it is so traditional, and on a lot of the climbs you have to set anchors, you know, you have to lead with protection instead of anchors. And the sport climbs even from the old days, the bolts can far apart so that’s scary.
So in that sense, Joshua Tree is still known as a traditional area; like I said, it has a lot of sport climbs, so it kind of has a reputation as an area where you really need to know how to use the equipment for protection and for anchors. And even the bolted face climbs, not every one of them is bolted like a sport climb; you have to be careful of what you’re getting into. And you know, with COVID, it’s changed a little bit, because now people don't want to go climbing in a gym either, so a lot of people are just starting out by going outdoors. So we’ll see how that goes.
ET: That’s all the questions that I had; Sally, did you want to jump back in?
SN: Oh yeah, yeah. So on the topic of guiding, Bob, is there anything you could identify in particular that would count as a kind of contribution of historic proportions that Joshua Tree has made to the development of guiding, or the things that were done at Joshua Tree for the first time or in the best possible way that we could talk about the history of guiding in relation to the park?
BG: Yeah, I think as far as national parks go, I would say Joshua Tree probably has more commercial-use permits for rock climbing guiding than any national park in the United States. So in that sense, the park service really hasn't put limits on it, it’s just kept it open-ended. So there are probably more working guides in Joshua Tree National Park than any other national park in the country.
Part of that too, is popularity. And three years ago, it went from (you know the statistics), visitation went from a million to two million, now it’s three million. So it’s really exploded, and the clients that want to go rock climbing, that’s exploded too to support all these thirty different climbing schools and guide services. From my perspective, I look at it like Joshua Tree was really the perfect place for me to perfect a toprope outdoor rock climbing program, because when people are being taught and they're learning, you're in a toprope environment and generally you're setting up topropes.
So what happened in my case was I was pretty much self-taught and then I realized, “Hey, if I got some formal training, I could learn these state of the art methods.” And we developed certain methods for Joshua Tree, there’s one in particular that I refer to in some of my instructional books, it’s called the “Joshua Tree method” for rigging topropes. And we really brought that to its fruition at Joshua Tree just out of necessity because there aren’t a lot of bolt anchors on a lot of the rock formations, so we developed this rigging method that was efficient and safe and easy to teach, and it just made it so that you could go out during the course of the day if you knew how to rig topropes with the Joshua Tree system and get a lot more climbing in; be more efficient and be safer.
SN: Can you describe the Joshua Tree system for us?
BG: Yeah, so the Joshua Tree system is widely used now and it’s in --I co-wrote a textbook of the American Mountain Guides Association Single Pitch Instructor program, and it was first introduced there. So basically, it’s using a length of low-stretch rope or static rope and just envision a “V” configuration. So at each end of the “V” you have an anchor or two, and then at the tip of the “V”, you have a masterpoint where you tie a double loop knot, and that’s where your carabiners go to clip into your climbing rope. So you have two anchor points.
So the rope goes from one anchor point over the edge, you tie a masterpoint knot, and it goes back to another anchor or two. So you have anchor points, and the rope goes in a “V” configuration over the edge with a double loop knot, and that’s where your rope is attached. And generally, we use three oval carabiners at the masterpoint.
SN: And you say that’s now being used widely outside of Joshua Tree?
BG: Widely used, all over the place.
SN: And you developed it at what point in time?
BG: Probably myself and Scott Cosgrove developed that in the early 1980s. We just started doing it because a lot of the anchors at Joshua Tree are set back from the cliff edge, so to use regular slings and cord or webbing, it just was complicated. But if you use a rigging rope, you could do it all with the rigging rope, one piece of equipment.
SN: Are there any other examples of teaching techniques, perhaps for certain kinds of climbing? Face climbing or whatever, that you know of that were also developed first at Joshua Tree and then became relevant more widely as guides used them elsewhere?
BG: Not necessarily, although Joshua Tree has got a great collection of face climbing, so it’s a really good place to teach people slab climbing techniques, but also crack climbing too.
SN: But there’s no clear, like, “Oh, this we invented at Joshua Tree and taught it here for the first time,” kind of record?
BG: I think the Joshua Tree system of rope rigging, that’s the one thing I can think of.
SN: Okay great. That’s very helpful, thank you. Bernadette, did you have some questions that you wanted to make sure we didn't forget to ask?
BG: Hey, there she is.
BR: Hi. Bob, you've put up over five hundred routes in Joshua Tree alone, can you just describe to us what you see when you look at a rock?
BG: Wow, that’s a good question Bernadette. You know, I think most people when they go out climbing, they're looking for what’s been done. So they have their guidebook, and they're going out there and they're just trying to find the climb they want to do, and my perspective was always different. I was always looking for what hasn't been done. So even today when I go out, I wanna know where the routes are, but I’m always looking for what hasn't been climbed. And my favorite thing was always just hiking around and discovering a new rock formation or a new climb and I did it for a long time; there’s a lot of new routes that were done in Joshua Tree.
And part of it too is, you know, seeing it and then getting on it, and then it’s usually that moment of discovery or that moment of truth where you realize that it’s all gonna come together. And sometimes it boils down to just like, one little handhold here and if that wasn't there, the whole thing wouldn't go. So that part of it, the act of discovery and the surprise like, “Okay, yeah I found a good one here and it’s all coming together,” that was part of the adventure and part of the fun for me.
BR: And of those five hundred names, which is the most memorable name to you?
BG: Boy, most memorable climb… you know, I wrote down some notes, kind of just a basic sort of history of kind of the first ascents, and to me, it’s more the experience and who I was with. And kind of the quality of the climb, but some of the most memorable ones, one of my first ascents in Joshua Tree was in 1980 with Charles Cole, the guy that developed the stealth rubber and the C4 rubber, Five Ten company. And this climb called Mission Impossible on the King Dome, and that was a fun one.
The first moves involve like a leap onto the rock to grab this knob, and we did it ground-up, drilling the bolts on the lead. And the memory of it, you know, ‘cause I was climbing with Charles and that’s what does it for me, like what makes a climb memorable is who I did it with, and kind of things that happened on the climb, or how much quality it was --the quality of the rock. Things like that.
We saw John Long the other day, and we talked about The Trapeze when I saw John, ‘cause that was a memorable climb that I did with John in 1987, so just the memories and putting up a classic that other people really enjoy. And I always get satisfaction if someone comes up to me and says, “Hey Bob, I did this-and-this, this so-and-so climb and I really liked that, that was a good one,” that makes me feel good.
So I try to put up routes that other --if I know it’s a good one, I want to make it safe so that other people can enjoy it.
BR: You once told me a story about Groundhog Day, and I feel like that’s one of the safest bolted harder climbs in this park; could you tell us about that day?
BG: Well, the reason why it’s called Groundhog Day is ‘cause I did the first ascent on Groundhog Day in February, but also, I was climbing with my wife Yvonne and she wasn't feeling well, she was sick and I think she threw up, and so she stayed on the ground, so it named it sort of a double entendre after her [laughs] and the day. She was the groundhog. But actually, my main climbing partner from about 1986 to 2005, for all the first ascents and all the climbing I did, was my wife Yvonne. So she was definitely my number one partner all those years. And we did a lot of great first ascents together, so. Although she would always say, “Well, it’s not a first ascent for me, ‘cause you went first, so you already did it, so that was the first ascent.”
BR: Do you think there are many unclimbed climbs left in this park?
BG: Yeah, there really are. The trick is finding the good ones, I mean, they could go out pretty much every day and toprope a first ascent. So the key, it’s like finding that little gold nugget. And there’s some good ones out there, and over the years I’ve hiked all over the place in non-wilderness, and I made a list. So it’s probably over a hundred first ascents to do in non-wilderness, so that’s enough for the rest of my life, so I’m good.
BR: That’s all my questions for now, thank you very much.
SN: I just have one follow-up on Bernadette’s questions, Bob, because I know you have written a book on the best climbs or classic climbs at Joshua Tree. And I wonder if you could say for the record, what are the ingredients that make it a classic or that make it the best? What kinds of things have to be present in the climb for it to really make that list, and can you give us some specific examples that would illustrate it?
BG: Sure. One of the things is just the general feng shui of the cliff and the approach, and you don't want it to be encroaching on any vegetation in a negative way. So the base of the climb, I think to be a real classic, you have to have a nice base, a rock base, and then kind of a comfortable place to hang out. And that’s important. And then on the climb itself, you have to have good quality rock, high quality rock. You don't want loose rock or rotten rock or grainy rocks; you need good quality rock.
And you also need an aesthetic position on the climb. So it’s not squeezed in between other climbs or you know, it has to be an aesthetic line up the cliff so it’s pleasing to climb and pleasing to the eye. So there’s that part of it, the aesthetics. And then also being user-friendly, so, you know, you can have a classic climb that’s a little scary, but most people, they don't want a death defying experience. They want to have fun.
So the most popular, classic routes are gonna be relatively safe too with good bolts and good anchors if it’s a face climb. And those are pretty much the qualities that I look for in a classic.
SN: So for an example, something from your book that you would say really fulfills all those criteria so well?
BG: Sure, I would say some of the great classics of Joshua Tree, going back to the 70s even, Figures On a Landscape, which is on the North Astrodome. Leave It to Beaver, he mentioned. Run For Your Life in the Real Hidden Valley. And that one’s a little scary, but it’s still --it’s classic. So those climbs have all those attributes; it’s a beautiful spot to hang out, usually a nice view, it’s got high quality rock, aesthetic moves, and good protection and good anchors.
SN: Great, thank you. Yeah, one of my dreams, [Laughs] if this project were funded infinitely to the tune I would like, would be to be able to go out to some of the more famous climbs and just put little plaques by them saying, “Here’s what happened here. This is an important place. So-and-so climbed this, and these various events took place here.” With a climb like the New Deal or climbs that got chopped, or things like that, do you have any--
BG: I like that idea.
SN: If we were going to do that, would you have any climbs you’d say, “Oh, you gotta put this one on that list, this deserves a plaque, this one.”
BG: Yeah, I mean those are good ones you just mentioned. There’s so much history in Joshua Tree --what would be nice is if you had a plaque that maybe explained the history, like period, who did it, kind of that sort of thing. Like when people go up to Headstone Rock, like, “The first ascent was done in this year and by this guy,” and little stories like that are interesting.
SN: Yeah, that’s part of our mission is to sort of elicit stories that would someday go on a plaque, perhaps. Yeah, so I just have two more topics if you have time. This has been kind of a “tip of the iceberg” interview, there’s so much more we could do on so many things we’ve talked about, so I hope you’ll be OK with us coming back to you at a later time for additional--
BG: Sure.
SN: One of the foci for the project is search and rescue. So is there anything that you know of personally in terms of search and rescue techniques that was developed at Joshua Tree that’s used more broadly outside the park now?
BG: I haven’t really worked too much with JOSAR [Joshua Tree Search and Rescue], I did spend a couple seasons in Yosemite when I was in college. Trying to think if anything in particular… you know, I can’t really come up with anything, I’m just not really familiar with the techniques they used; I haven’t worked that much with JOSAR, Bernadette would probably know.
SN: Great. Second question is with regard to park management. Can you comment on the relations that climbers and guides (in particular, probably would be good to focus on that given your expertise) have had with park personnel over the course of Joshua Tree’s history? Does that compare or contrast with, say Yosemite or other places where climbing has been an important part of the visitor experience? In terms of just relations between climbers, guides, and park personnel.
BG: I think it kind of paralleled the same relationship that climbers had with the Park Service in Yosemite. So there was some conflict, particularly in the 70s in Yosemite because basically, going back to the early-to-mid 70s and the Stonemaster group, basically they were dirtbaggers that just wanted to hang out and climb. So in Yosemite, they were kind of always under scrutiny by the Park Service because they were overstaying the limits for camping, so they wanted to kick them out of there. And the same with Joshua Tree, same thing happened where back in the Monument days, there were people that set up camp in Hidden Valley Campground for the season. [Laughs] You know, and they just wanted to stay there, so there was that antagonism. And so the whole dirtbag climber lifestyle, you know, that’s a thing of the past. And there are guys that live in their sprinter vans, but it’s a little different nowadays.
So the relationship has gotten a lot better over the years, and now I think there’s a really good relationship between --particularly at Joshua Tree, between the Park Service and the guides and the climbing community. And a lot of it has to do with people like Bernadette becoming involved, and the outreach to the recreational community and the guiding community. And I’ve worked with Bernadette on bolt replacement, and she’s really active in teaching climbers the ethics of Joshua Tree and how to behave outdoors.
And that’s one thing I’ve done in my school too over the years; my contribution, I think, has been taking people that didn't have a lot of experience in the outdoors. Maybe they're coming outdoors for the first time; they learned at a climbing gym. So I wanted to teach them safe climbing techniques, but also “Leave No Trace” ethics, and how to behave outdoors in a place like Joshua Tree, because the new visitors in the last five years, you know, the whole crowd of tourists, lot of ‘em don’t know how to behave in a semi-wilderness or even frontcountry-type environment and you see it all the time.
And so that’s the contribution that I think I’ve made over the years, is just teaching people the basics of “Leave No Trace” ethics.
SN: And that’s been acknowledged by the park personnel, you feel.
BG: Yeah, and I’ve worked a lot with Park Service personnel over the years, you know, dating back to the 90s; I was on the climbing advisory committee for the climbing management plan. And you know, dealing, even back then, with bolts in wilderness and issues like that. And as far as national parks are concerned, I think Joshua Tree, the Parks Service has done a good job in preserving it with the huge, huge increases in visitation. But a lot of that new visitation is roadside, so even on the most crowded days you can hike in the Wonderland of Rocks and have it all to yourself. So it’s really protected itself by being roadless.
SN: So since you’ve had some interaction with park personnel more than sort of the average visitor, have you seen attitudes and ethics or values change over the years on the management side in relation to climbing?
BG: Yeah, I have. And I think it was because climbers became more involved, and the big issue in the early 90s was that there was a ban on bolts in wilderness, and at the time, the park superintendent also banned the replacement of bolts in wilderness. And that was a big issue that climbers rallied around. And that was the one thing, because bolts are controversial, so when it comes to the topic of bolting, not all climbers agree on how that should be managed. But that one issue on replacing unsafe bolts in wilderness, pretty much all climbers agree that we should be able to do that. So there was a big meeting of like hundreds of people that showed up, and the Park Service changed to allow replacement of bolts with hand-drilling in wilderness, so that was a big win for climbers. And I think at that time, the Park Service started to realize, “Hey, Joshua Tree is a world-class destination and we’re going to have to come up with more management for climbing in Joshua Tree.”
SN: So this was 1990…
BG: About 1993, ‘94.
SN: Sometimes I think I should have a chapter on the study just on bolts. [Laughs]
BG: Yeah, that’s always been kind of controversial. But yeah, that was a big one, because people could agree that, “Hey we just can’t let these --the old bolts rust to the point to where they're unsafe; there’s going to be accidents.” And the one issue that I’ve tried to lobby for, and Bernadette knows about this is, you know, if people are going to replace bolts, the proper tool is a not a hand drill. And so far, the Park Service really hasn't allowed the use with a permit of a power drill in wilderness to replace bolts, so that’s a big issue in my book ‘cause the work’s not gonna get done.
And it’s the wrong tool; to do it by hand, it just doesn't make sense. You could get a permit to use the power drill in non-wilderness, which is great and that’s another thing that I think the Park Service has really come through in a big way to help climbers with the permit process, and Bernadette has helped a lot on this issue. There are a lot of guys that go out there now and replace the anchors and the bolts with power drills with a permit from the Park Service, and it’s a just a service to the climbing community, ‘cause it’s a lot of hard work and being able to do that, you know, the climbing is so much safer now because a lot of these routes from the ‘70s, those bolts were ticking time bombs. Little quarter-inch bolts that were all rusty. And on all the popular routes, most of the bolts have been replaced, and we couldn't have really done that without the assistance of the Park Service, “Hey, get a permit for you to use a power drill,” so that was huge, that’s huge.
So the one issue in my mind is well, we need to be able to do that in wilderness, otherwise, you know, who’s gonna wanna do that by hand? And it’s difficult to take a bolt out of a hole and then put a bigger drill bit in the same hole by hand; it just gets stuck in there, it doesn't work.
SN: It’s always been something I’ve had a bit of a problem understanding, maybe you can clarify it for me, why the wilderness would not be an appropriate context for using the appropriate tool. What’s the stigma about a power drill when it’s obviously the right tool to use; can you explain that? I’m just wondering what the mindset is.
BG: Well, I’m with you on that. The sticking point is the definition, because in wilderness you can’t use motorized equipment. But a power drill is battery operated, it’s like having a motor drive on your camera. It’s a battery. So yeah, I don't really see why that’s the sticking point, especially if it’s under permit. It would be controlled, and I think if we’re gonna be able to replace the aging anchors in wilderness on some of those great classics like on the Astrodomes and so forth, the power drill’s the right tool.
And it doesn't necessarily lead to more noise pollution, because you drill the hole in thirty seconds whereas if you do it by hand, you’re gonna hear a guy tapping up there for half an hour. Tap, tap, tap. So from that standpoint, it’s less noise, less impacts on wildlife or visitors from a noise standpoint, and you're gonna get better bolts, because you’re going to able to use the same hole so you can do less damage to the environment because you're going to be able to take the bolt out of the old hole and then bore out the old hole to a larger diameter and put a bigger bolt in. So it’s more efficient and it’s less damaging to the rock.
SN: Thank you. I wonder if the whole idea of the motor being “bad” in the wilderness is connected to some notion of recreation that really isn’t appropriate when you're talking about repairing climbs; it’s not like that’s a recreational activity, right, it’s more of a--
BG: You’re preaching to the choir. [Laughs] I’m a hundred percent with you on that one.
SN: It’s interesting. Anyway, thank you for those comments, I appreciate your clarification; it’s very helpful. Yeah, so I think we’re close, if not at the end of our list. Bob, have we missed anything? Is there anything that you’d like to have said for the record that we haven't covered in the interview so far?
BG: I would just say that I feel like, you know, my legacy (’cause I’m getting old now) in Joshua Tree has really been two things. One is teaching people through my climbing school safe climbing techniques and safe fundamentals to make it more enjoyable and safer for them when they went out rock climbing. And on the other hand, teaching people “Leave No Trace” ethics for dealing with --you know, how to behave outdoors. And I’ve done a lot of that and I feel that’s a good contribution.
SN: Yes. Well, if Joshua Tree --if the park had an award for outstanding service, I have a feeling you would have a plaque on your wall by now, given all the contributions that you have made to maintaining the standard, as Emilio said earlier. Maintaining a higher standard for conduct on so many levels in the park. So it’s really an honor to be able to talk to you today, thank you so much. And I feel a little bit frustrated because as I say, we’ve only touched the surface of so many things that we should be exploring in much more detail. But if you’re willing, we may come back to you later on in the project and ask for some additional conversation on it. But this has been wonderful.
BG: Thank you.
SN: Great, thanks so much. Okay, Emilio, I think we’re ready to go off record unless you or Bernadette have some final-- no? Okay great, so we’ll say thank you and end the recording.


Mari Gingery

Interview Date: 08/10/2020

Biographical Information: Mari Gingery is a well-known Joshua Tree climber who has climbed in the area for over 40 years. She has written the guidebook titled Joshua Tree Bouldering, which was first published in 1993 and was one of the first guidebooks to focus primarily on bouldering problems. Mari has climbed with many partners such as Lynn Hill, who together with Mari, completed the first female-only ascent of The Shield in Yosemite.

Content Summary: Mari discusses the techniques used by the climbers to improve, which included bouldering, top roping, and repeating routes. Joshua Tree is compared to other climbing areas and is described as being the perfect practicing ground for groups of climbers. The park was a bastion of traditional climbing ethics and was not conducive to the ethics change in the 1980s.

  • Bouldering
  • Free soloing
  • John Bachar
  • John Gill
  • John Sherman
  • John Yablonski
  • Lynn Hill
  • Mike Lechlinski
  • Russ Walling
  • Sport climbing
  • Stonemasters
  • Intersection Rock (Area)
  • Big Moe (5.11)
  • Illusion Dweller [Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby] (5.10)
  • Leave It to Beaver [The Beaver] (5.12)
  • Left Ski Track (5.11)
  • Slashface (V3)
ET: –go ahead and start recording.
SN: Okay, I see it now. Good. OK, so, Mari, can I just ask you for oral consent at this point then, do you consent to being audio recorded today for the purposes of the historic research study?
MG: Yes.
SN: Thank you. And just to remind you that any question for any reason, if you're not wanting to answer it, just tell us and we will move right on, okay?
MG: Okay.
SN: Okay, thanks. All right. So greetings, everyone. We're now on record. This is Sally Ness from University of California, Riverside. And today is October 8th and we're at 2:07pm, and I'm here today with Emilio Triguero, my research assistant, and National Park Service Ranger Bernadette Regan, and our interviewee for today is Mari Gingery [pronounced with a soft initial “G”]. Did I say that correctly, Mari?
MG: It's actually Gingery [pronounced with a hard “G”], but you did pretty good.
SN: Gingery. Thank you. Okay, Mari Gingery. And one of a small number of climbers who's had extensive experience, both climbing in Joshua Tree and also writing about Joshua Tree and in particular, bouldering in Joshua Tree. So, Mari, we're just thrilled that you could spend this hour or so with us talking about Joshua Tree’s climbing history. Thank you so much for joining us.
MG: You're welcome.
SN: Okay so, to just start right out, we usually ask our interviewees to give us just a little bit of individual life history information so we can kind of put your experiences in a historical frame. So could you tell us for the record where and when you were born?
MG: I was born in Virginia, in 1956.
SN: OK, and when did you first come to California?
MG: Probably in 1960. So I was just a small thing.
SN: All right. And when was your first visit to Joshua Tree?
MG: Oh, 1975 maybe? Something like that.
SN: OK, so we're going back. Can you give us –so that's actually all we need along with personal history information, check. Let's shift now to talking about individual climbing history. So can you give us sort of a bird's eye view of your experiences? I know this is a huge question, but it's just a kind of overview of your experiences with climbing, how you got started, where you got started, what your motivations were for getting into climbing. And just take us through the highlights of your decades with the sport.
MG: Well that is a big question.
SN: [Laughs] I know.
MG: I started climbing in, I think the first time I went climbing was in 1973, ‘72 or ‘73. And it was at the height of the Birkenstock backpacking craze and –climbing was just a little bit more exciting than backpacking, and it just happened to be some friends of mine were climbing, learning to climb on a nearby rock, Mount Williamson in the San Gabriel Mountains north of Los Angeles.
And I went along with them and was smitten by climbing, too; it was very exciting. So from there, I was only 16, so I didn't have a car, I was limited by transportation. But eventually I found friends, and we would go to farther places, meaning places like Stoney Point in Chatsworth, California, and eventually to Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks in Idyllwild, California, and eventually to Joshua Tree.
The first time I went to Joshua Tree, I rode out in the middle of the night on the back of a motorcycle, a very small motorcycle with a friend of mine who was eager to go there. We left at about midnight and arrived at about four in the morning. And proceeded to do a wide crack, something that took all day, but eventually I hooked up with Mike Lechlinski and we did a lot of climbing from 1973 on. And we met climbers at Joshua Tree that were like-minded in probably the late 70s. And from there, proceeded to expand beyond Joshua Tree and into places like Yosemite, and eventually to many places in the western US, and eventually to even international destinations. And I guess that's kind of where it started, I don't know where to go from there, exactly. It really expands from there.
SN: Yeah, that's very helpful. So just to kind of pursue it a little bit, can you name some of the other places that you climbed in the US and internationally for us? We're trying to actually get a sense of how Joshua Tree kind of fits into an international scene, so that would be helpful.
MG: So, after Joshua Tree, the place to go –Joshua Tree was a winter climbing place, but Yosemite was really the summer destination; spring, summer and fall. So Yosemite was a major destination. And then when… sport climbing came about and started to be popular, places like Smith Rock, the City of Rock in Idaho, American Fork in Utah, Hueco Tanks in Texas, Red Rocks, Nevada. And other places like that started to be developed –and each year, as more and more sport climbing became developed, it would attract more people to these particular areas that had been developed in that particular year.
And then to mention European climbing, there was a significant event in 1981, in which there were two climbers, John Bachar and Mike Lechlinski, who went to a festival in Germany, in Munich I think it was, the Konstein festival which was put on by a German outdoor equipment manufacturer and invited a whole slew of internationally well-known climbers of the time. And that was actually a very momentous event where a few Joshua Tree climbers met with German, European, French, English climbers, mostly European, and kind of exchanged ideas about sport climbing. Climbing in general was really not even sport climbing yet, it was just about free climbing. So that was sort of a major European event where there was some exchange.
SN: Uh-huh. [In understanding] Great. Did you think of yourself as a Joshua Tree climber along the way?
MG: No, no, I think people thought of it as more of a universal thing. You weren't localized or attached or any particular type of climbing. You tried to climb everywhere and every thing to be a well-rounded climber.
SN: And how did you –we talked to people who learned climbing at different periods in this history, and they got to be good climbers in very different ways, depending on when they got started with climbing. Can you say a little bit about how you worked to improve your skills and what was really critical for you as you were getting to be a better and better climber?
MG: I would say that just climbing was a critical skill, and you just practiced. From the time I started climbing, there were always people who were into applying training techniques to climbing, but they were always very primitive and, you know, of seat of the pants, outdoor gyms and things like that without a whole lot of structure behind it other than like watching and taking inspiration from a Bruce Lee video or something or the film Pumping Iron with Arnold Schwarzenegger, which was sort of timely then.
But I'd say people spent a lot of time just practicing climbing, you know, in every imaginable way from bouldering, top roping, repeating routes and sort of preparing, always being prepared to climb something hard. But constantly climbing.
SN: And you had the ability to do that as frequently as you did, because why?
MG: Well, I had a job, I worked five days a week, but we had two very intense days of climbing usually every week, and most everybody in Southern California either was going to school or had a job or had some other distraction. Very few people were full-time climbers. In fact, at one point there was only two that I know of. And they would often search around the park during the weekdays to find things that were of interest to climb and then wait for the weekend people to show up.So we could all sort of approach it together –there was a lot of camaraderie.
SN: Do you know the names of those two that you're thinking of?
MG: John Bachar and John Yablonski.
SN: OK, good. Thank you.
MG: Yeah, John Bachar had a van, John Yablonski had a sleeping bag.
SN: [Laughs] So tell us about some of the highlights of your, say, the 1970 and 80s for you personally, what were some of the really great moments in your climbing history?
MG: The 1970s and 80s. Well, let's see. There was a couple of years in Joshua Tree that were really full of excitement and adventure, probably in the late 70s to the early 80s. It was the climbing with the people there, there was such a range of characters, it's hard to even describe, but it was a very interesting time. Never boring.
Later on in the 80s, climbing at the Needles in California was magnificent. In between there was climbing on El Cap with anybody, actually, but did a couple of routes with Lynn Hill and –those were remarkable.
SN: In Yosemite.
MG: Yeah, on El Capitan.
SN: Can you tell us a little bit more about those? What your memories are of doing that? Just for people who don't know what that's like, to do that kind of climbing?
MG: Yes, so the first thing we did together was the nose on El Capitan and we –myself, Lynn Hill and Dean Fidelman climbed it in probably three days. We had primitive equipment, by today's standards, a very awkward haulbag that was really difficult to work with. And we had no headlamps, so certain pitches were led with a book of matches and things like that.
The food was dropped on the last day, so we went a day without food; we were met on the top and that was an exciting thing. Back then, you often got met on the top by your friends, who would bring you snacks and help you carry all your stuff down. So that was always nice, to be on top and see friends.
And then Lynn and I did The Shield together a year or two later. And that was exciting. We were a little better prepared for that one. And it took us I think six days. And yeah, it was a learning experience. I think both of us did a lot of first-time aid climbing techniques while we were on the cliff. So, yeah, it was one of those, you know, trial-by-fire into the deep end, and we swam, so it was good.
SN: Can you say, just for people who aren't familiar with The Shield, what's exciting about that particular route? What's the real challenge?
MG: Yeah, it's a fairly long route. And the first part of it is on other routes and lesser angle. But about midway up the cliff, you go out a long traverse, and then out a roof, which puts you on to an overhanging headwall, and after that it's very difficult to retreat because of the overhanging nature. So you're basically committed to very, very thin cracks. But it just happened to connect together in a remarkable way on this steep overhanging head wall. So, yeah, it's a very exposed place to be and fairly exciting.
SN: Yeah, and do you have any, like, really vivid memories of moments on that wall of being exposed or, you know, things that you thought, “Wow, I want to remember this forever” kind of situation? Or what was it like to get through that?
MG: Yeah, about a couple of pitches into the middle of the headwall, looking down and watching Lynn clean the gear behind us, thinking, “You know, I’d better remember this because this is one of these places I'll probably never be again and boy, is it remarkable.” So, yeah, I have a very vivid memory of that.
SN: Would you say that in your experience climbing that the most memorable times have been on big walls like that and really exposed places really high up? That –is that where you feel like you've really made the most meaningful kind of climbs in your life?
MG: Not at all.
SN: No, okay.
MG: The height is not the important bit of the meaningful climbing. How high you are is not important. It's just a factor to deal with in order to do what you have to do. It’s exciting but you can be in more danger close to the ground without a rope than you are a thousand feet off the ground with rope.
SN: Right, what they call the coffin zone [1]. That's what that brings to mind for me.
MG: Well, yeah, I guess, you know, I mean, people have died falling over standing up. But generally, if you're within about 20 feet of the ground, you'll probably walk away. After that, chance has a lot to do with it, probably.
SN: Yeah, so what is the most –if it's not being high up, what kinds of things do you find most meaningful in your own experiences with climbing in terms of what makes a route really a meaningful climb?
MG: Well, I'd say on a very… sort of the superficial level, just succeeding on something that has been eluding you for a while. For what, for example? I'll give you an example. Well, there was one climb, I tried it for a long time. I could never do it. I’d get right to the top of the thing and I couldn't do the like the last two moves or something. And you know, you get really high off the ground. So you thump thump thump a lot of times on the ground.
So I tried this thing for probably ten years and never succeeded. And somebody told me something that they had seen somebody try, was like a third-hand experience. And he said, ‘When you get up to this top of the thing, instead of trying to hold on, slip your hand upside-down and undercling.” And so I climbed up there, flipped my hand upside down and underclung, and it was like the most simple, the most minor of moves, and it made all the difference, and I made it for the first time in 10 years.
SN: Wow. So is that in Joshua Tree or someplace else?
MG: It's actually in Joshua Tree.
SN: You remember the name of the climbing and who it was that was advising you?
MG: I have no idea who was advising me thirdhand. The name is… it'll come up in a second. It's in the Cap Rock area, in that little wash –All Washed Up. Called All Washed Up.
SN: Okay. Great. Yeah, the reason I'm bringing up some of these questions now is just trying to figure out kind of the relationship between what Joshua Tree as a site has to offer, and what climbers who lived through different periods of climbing find meaningful. Right, so trying to put those things together about “Does Joshua Tree have meaningful things to do?” And if it were only big walls and high heights that was attractive, then the answer obviously would be yes. But as you're saying, there's more factors that can make a climbing experience really meaningful, so…
MG: So to elaborate a little, I'd say that part of the appeal of Joshua Tree is the space. And what you do when you go off with a small group of people in a very large space and you look for things that you call problems, and you do problem-solving together. Very small group of people, large space out there to solve problems, whether it be a boulder problem, how to get up a particular cliff, how to handle your gear, whatever you’re gonna do.
And I think the bonding between people is what is really strong about Joshua Tree. You're with your people there. And the relationships are one of the most important things about climbing, I think.
SN: And somehow that can happen more at Joshua Tree than other places, you think?
MG: Somehow it can. There's something about the space and the environment, it's just conducive to that, I don't know why.
SN: Interesting, we should try to figure it out a little more about why that is; that would be a really important thing to understand better, because the kind of bigger picture of our goal, this project, is really that. We're always thinking about what is Josh Tree’s special contribution to the whole of climbing and its history, and what makes it a little different, but also how does it relate to other places? And so that's a really helpful insight. The idea of the way it can facilitate the relationships that form in the problem-solving of climbing.
MG: Yeah, it's always been something about the social interactions at Joshua Tree that were incredibly compelling. For me anyway, and I suspect for many other people who have been here as well.
SN: Well, can you talk to us a little bit about some of the other people that you climbed with? I mean, you mentioned Lynn Hill and climbing with her in Yosemite. Did you also climb with her quite a bit in Joshua Tree or mainly other places?
MG: There was a period of time, probably in the late 70s, for a few years when we probably climbed every weekend in the wintertime in Joshua Tree. And then in the summertime, we would meet up in Yosemite and hang out for a few weeks in between traveling to other places frequently. But she went and moved to the East Coast early in the 80s. And so we interacted with a lot of other people. And that's the thing, climbers are always moving around, so it's a constant ebb and flow of people interacting, coming and going.
SN: Yeah, but I think it's fair to say you had a lot of experience climbing with her during the time period that you were climbing together, right?
MG: Yeah, like it’s a relationship that exists to this day because it was such a powerful experience for both of us, I think.
SN: Yeah. And a lot of that did happen at Joshua Tree. Correct?
MG: The roots of it all came from Joshua Tree, actually. That's where we all met.
SN: Thank you. That's the solid gold statement we're looking for here. Can you talk a little bit about why you think –or how you saw climbing develop between the two of you at Joshua Tree over the time period that you were active? What did the site give to your climbing expertise or development? Sorry, maybe–
MG: Oh, I think you –actually, reframe that question again, could you?
SN: Sorry, that was –I was kind of garbling it as it came out of my mouth, but so if you are going to put yourself as a witness to the development of Lynn Hill as a climber (and yourself too, I don't mean to overstate her significance here) but if you were watching how you both changed and grew as climbers from the kinds of problem-solving you were doing at Joshua Tree, does anything come to mind as sort of a specific way you saw growth or way you saw change happen with two of you?
MG: Yeah, I mean, when we first met she was probably 16 years old and had a limited amount of climbing experience, but an endless amount of enthusiasm and energy. And there's certain people that you could tell from the very first time they touched rock that they were going to be great climbers and Lynn was one of those people. She had, you know, probably climbed for two, maybe a couple of years before I ran into her. But she was already clearly going to be one of those great climbers.
She already had these ridiculous skills, even though she wasn't highly experienced. But, clearly she developed those skills later to be greatly successful in climbing. We all learned to try really hard, I guess. It was a group effort. Everybody was focused and they were really putting a hundred and ten percent effort into what was going on.
And it was a contagious thing. You saw somebody else doing one hundred and ten percent effort and it seemed like the thing to do. So it drew a lot of heartfelt effort out of people, I suppose, to really try to solve these abstract climbing problems. Which were just, you know, fun and games really, it was recreational. There was no reward for it other than you got to climb it.
SN: Yeah. So I'm thinking back here just that some of the comments that you made about climbing in Yosemite and I mean, certainly on the climbs that you mentioned, being able to try really hard was important. That's something that you would need to draw on to be able to successfully complete those big wall climbs as well.
MG: Right. So I guess there was a certain amount of mental training that went on in Joshua Tree, because it was a lot of free soloing that went on, there was a lot of bouldering high off the ground. There was that John Gill ethic of climbing up and down –you don't fall. There was no crash pad. So if you did fall, you would land on the ground, and you didn't want to do that a lot. So people would try and climb with a certain amount of control going up and down and not really falling, which leads to this whole ethical debate which grew out of Joshua Tree and other places later. But there was an effort to be very open and clean and very simple with your approach to climbing.
SN: Uh-huh. [In understanding] Open and clean and simple. Those are really important words; do you have any specific stories you could tell us that illustrate that, from the things that you witnessed happen or that you did yourself at Joshua Tree? If you give us kind of a concrete example of that. That's really, really clear language.
MG: Well, just for example, when there was top roping that would go on, where we’d try very difficult routes that were hard to protect; if you fell off, you didn't get to hang there and touch the rock and figure out why you fell off and solve the problem like that –you were immediately lowered to the ground.
And that was just the epic of the day, which was that if you're going to do this, you're going to have to do it pretending the rope really isn’t there. And if you happen to use the rope, you don't get to use it as a tool to advance or to learn. It's just there to save your tail and you get to go back to the ground and start over again. So that was one kind of approach, where you had to climb without any assistance from the rope.
SN: Interesting. Were there any particular routes that were better than others for developing that kind of ability, mental ability, in your experience?
MG: Well, people frequently free soloed all over the place, which was always good for mental ability. Usually at a very moderate level, but nevertheless, you know, it doesn't matter. You still have to be perfect, so that was like the mental exercise of, you know, always being in control of your position and never getting yourself into anything you can't get yourself out of.
SN: Yeah. Tell us about free soloing, since you brought that up a couple of times. How did that emerge among you and the people that you climbed with? Did that come about gradually or suddenly, or was it sort of –can you just tell us a little bit about what free soloing was like when it first started and how it evolved in Joshua Tree?
MG: I am not absolutely certain, but I think John Long was the first one to start soloing difficult, you know, at that time more difficult routes; 5.9, maybe 5.10s.
And John Bachar kind of caught the bug from him and took it to a higher level. At some point, other people caught the bug too; Mike Lechlinski, Russ Walling, a number of people. And every morning you’d wake up and look out at Intersection Rock and there'd be like four or five people free soloing the Left Ski Track or the Right Ski Track or Half Track. At some point it was like a breakfast for people, to go run to Intersection Rock and solo a route to the top. And everybody would go up different routes and you'd end up on the top and say, “Hey, nice day,” go back down, and then proceed to go for a climbing day.
SN: And just to confirm, this was in the 70s, in the mid 70s, this was happening? Is that the right time frame?
MG: It was probably the late 70s.
SN: Late 70s, okay. Yeah, did you have, in your own experience, a free soloing practice? a way that you would also warm up for the day?
MG: Oh, yeah, I would never take the Left Ski Track because that was difficult for me. Other people would do it routinely, like, no problem. It was just a big boulder problem. There's a big jug [2] up there, and occasionally someone would go up there and cut their feet loose on purpose to try to scare the tourists or something like that, while securely holding on to this big jug. So there were antics, even. I would free solo up other routes on the back side. It was equally as fun. It was mostly for fun, to not to do anything difficult, just to be free and roaming around on those slabs with no rope.
SN: But yet, at the same time, in a sense, you're learning how to focus mentally, right, and be perfect, as you said before.
MG: Right, you're learning how to not fall. And, you know you're not going to fall –when people are free soloing, they know they're not going to fall most of the time. It's rare when they're stepping out in areas where they think they might. It happens, I’m sure, because people do fall, but you’ve really got to be perfect. You can't make any mistakes.
SN: And in the group that you were climbing with that were practicing this, would you say that serious accidents were very rare or not very rare? What was your understanding of that?
MG: Very rare. Yeah, people got away with amazing things. Like you can't believe how close it was at times. And [Sally and Mari speak over one another] people were just magnificently trained and they could get away with doing things that were just, you know, gob-smacking. But yeah–
SN: Do you have any specific example of that?
MG: A specific example of free soloing?
SN: Of somebody really pushing the limits that you saw, that you thought, “Wow, they really got away with that,” so that we have a concrete example of that on a certain route or by a person?
MG: Yeah, there was a time when John Yablonski went to solo the Leave it to Beaver. And he succeeded on his first pass and then for some reason, he decided to do it again. Immediately after he got down. And on his second pass, he made a little error at the top with his hand sequence and ended up in a position that was really compromised. And people were wondering if he was going to be able to pull it off. And he did. So that was one event.
SN: And was that –but you say, that was kind of unusual. More often than not, people would just be able to do it, no problem.
MG: Right. Yeah, most of the time, it just went off without a hitch.
SN: Bernadette, did you have something you wanted to jump in and ask here, I see you moving around, are you trying to–? Yeah.
BR: No, I didn't have anything specific right then.
SN: Oh, okay. Sorry.
MG: Hi Bernadette.
BR: Hi.
SN: So tell us a little bit more about the kind of –you mentioned previously, the sort of social scene at Joshua Tree during this time period. Can you tell us a little bit more about what it was like socially to be part of this group and what kinds of things might sort of be characteristic of this group in terms of practices or events that happened that you remember?
MG: Well, I think the very earliest memory I have was that at that time there was no limits on the number of cars that could be in a parking lot or in a single campsite, and all the climbers would fit into one campsite. There could be 10 cars there maybe, but basically all the climbers would show up in about 10 cars. And the rest of the park was full of Winnebagos and other types of campers. But yeah, –the climbers tended to gather together and, during the days, wander off in different directions to do different climbs, many of them new routes at that time; most of the park had no routes in it. And at night, they gathered together around a fire and talked about what they did that day.
SN: Uh-huh. [In understanding] And how long did people tend to stay once they were at the park, was it days or weeks or–?
MG: It was a few people, some of them I mentioned earlier, that would stay through the winter. And the park was mostly empty during the weekdays then. And on the weekends, climbers would show up from Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Fernando Valley, San Diego, Arizona, Las Vegas, and sort of converge on Joshua Tree. And it was mostly a weekend climbing area initially. And later, as people were more enamored with Joshua Tree and there was more routes, people would come for longer stretches of time, you know, Christmas vacations, spring breaks. There were no real traveling climbers back then. A very, very few at least.
SN: So that sort of scene –I'm interested in the –both the similarities and the differences between Joshua Tree’s social scene at this time with climbing and say, Yosemite’s, because a lot of the same people, yourself included, were at both places. Did you notice that there was a lot of like a similar kind of culture in the Yosemite climbing scene as there was a Joshua Tree, or was it distinctly different, would you say?
MG: I think that they're basically the same at the baseline, but Joshua Tree has a much more lighthearted feel than Yosemite. Yosemite is a more serious place to climb. And people would go there with a more serious approach because it demanded it. Joshua Tree was more enjoyable. It was more fun. It was more… more discovery and less implementation.
SN: Well, that's a really great contrast. Seeing Joshua Tree as more of an area where new sorts of understanding could emerge. Would that be fair to say?
MG: Well, I mean, it's because there's so much of it, and it's so close to the ground, you can experiment and perfect.
SN: Yes, thank you. That's a very important point. I don't think we've heard that before.
MG: And another –I'll point out one more thing, too, is that at many climbing areas, the rock has patterns to it. It’s everywhere, of course, but the patterns that emerge in other kinds of rocks are sometimes very predictable. They'll be horizontal holds, for example, or vertical cracks. But Joshua Tree has a very diverse rock surface, and you'll find that there's no clear pattern to the rock surface. And I think that demands more out of climbers to think about what they're doing because they can't rely on a pattern they've seen before.
SN: Thank you. Can you give us an example of, say, two climbs that have (at Joshua Tree) that have very, very different patterns that would illustrate that?
MG: Very different what?
SN: Patterns, as you were saying.
MG: Let's see here. OK, there's a boulder problem called Slashface. And it's an unusual piece of rock because it has horizontal, shallow cracks that are slightly diagonally in some places, but mostly horizontal. And you climb these horizontal, very shallow cracks of this ‘bout 20, 25 foot vertical face.
And then, for example, a climb, the Illusion Dweller, is a straight-in crack that leans to the right, and it's pretty much crack the entire way from the bottom to the top. Completely different. So, crack climbing in one event and the horizontal holds in another case. And those are just two extremes, in the middle, you have all these weird curlicues, combinations of cracks and horizontal holds, vertical holds, upside down holds. There's just no clear pattern to any of it other than the extremes of like a clear face climb and a clear crack climb.
And most of it's kind of a mixture. And unpredictable in how the holds go together.
SN: And you'll find this mixture on the same route or on the same formation or in certain areas? How does it distribute itself?
MG: Everywhere. Everywhere, yeah. Every single boulder problem is different from other boulder problems –unless they’re like straight-in cracks, or slabs with friction holds on them, which are like two extremes of the type of climbing here. The style in between can be, a friction slab that leads to an overhanging jug wall, or it could be, you know, a jump to a giant hole that's undercut, and then you have to crimp little tiny holds to get off. It could be so many different things that I think if you can climb at Joshua Tree, I think, you have the ability to put things together really well.
SN: Uh-huh. [In understanding] So that's one thing that Joshua Tree is kind of a benefit of coming to climb at Joshua tree that could be used elsewhere. Is that right?
MG: You know, there's plenty of other places that are equally as challenging, but, you know, for me climbing here a lot, I'd say that it has a unique combination of different types of climbing.
SN: Great. I want to shift a little bit to talk about something you mentioned earlier about ethics. You had sort of indicated that Joshua Tree was the site of some important ethical practices and change. Maybe I'm putting –I don't mean to put words in your mouth, but can you talk a little bit about what ethics were like at Joshua Tree and maybe how they changed over different periods of time? In your experience?
MG: [Laughs] That's such a long story. Where do you even start on that one? Ethics of Joshua Tree. Hm. Well, initially, it was a very rigorous ethic. Like I mentioned, like if you fell, you were lowered to ground on the rope, but the rope was not there to do anything other than keep you from falling to the ground. You didn't get to use it in any other way. You didn't get to pull on the equipment, you didn't preview the holds, you just got to try to climb as though you were approaching something for the very first time and using your innate skills to climb it. And you didn't get any… shortcuts. It was the high road or nothing.
So that was the initial approach to climbing, of course, eventually somebody decided that it would be easier if you could, for example, hang on the rope or preview the holds, pre-place equipment. Place bolts.
SN: Right.
MG: So there was conflict between people because of differing opinions about what the right approach to climbing is and if it should remain rigorous or if it should be allowed to progress, which was the excuse, that if you allow new techniques, climbing will progress to higher levels, people will be able to do more difficult climbs.
And eventually, of course, the ethic of using any technique, really, to learn how to free climb something and then eventually coming back to free climb in a redpoint effort prevailed over the more rigorous techniques. And that's probably where we stand now, is that anything goes in order to eventually come back and free climb a free route without using any aid in your final attempt. So there’s, like I said, there was a lot of debate and difficulties in the mid 80s, probably, that were actually kind of extreme and almost had international impact.
SN: Really.
MG: Yeah, because other places they’re –it turns out that –it's such a long, difficult story to tell in a few words, but there were holdout areas for people who wanted to maintain these rigorous approaches to how to climb, but they were few and far between. Places like East Germany have always been that way and is still that way, probably more rigorous than anywhere.
And for the most part, I think that ethic faded in America and Europe. And the “whatever it takes” ethic took over.
SN: So with Joshua Tree, do you see it as kind of following the trends in this changeover elsewhere, or did things happen at Joshua Tree that didn't happen anywhere else? Was it unusual in the way that it moved through this transition in any way, would you say?
MG: Well, I don't know if it was unusual. It had its own path through it, which is that when climbing became more free in its approach, it opened up new territory, things that weren’t climbed in the rigorous approach because they were too steep to hang on and place bolts for protection. Later, bolts were place on lead with hooks. Eventually what happened is people just rappelled from above, placed the bolts and then came back to free climb past them.
So… I'm not sure exactly. Okay, rephrase that question again.
SN: So I just –I'm thinking, like, again, where this is kind of like what’s in the background always is, was Joshua Tree a historic location in this regard somehow? Is that’s kind what's driving my question and I'm thinking, were there ways –like did Joshua Tree hold on to these rigorous ethics much longer than other places? Or did it fight for them more strongly, certain climbers here anyway, than in other places, or was it–? Yeah, so that's –I'm just trying to get like a sense of the character of the site in that regard. Does that makes sense?
MG: Yeah, right. So I think when the ethical change overcame climbing style, Joshua Tree was abandoned and it became the backwater of climbing and it was not a popular place to climb because people were really smitten by this new way of climbing. And everybody went to the new areas where they could practice it. And Joshua Tree was kind of abandoned for a while.
SN: Uh-huh, [in understanding] interesting. Yeah so it–
MG: And it was –it was not a forefront of climbing for a long, long time. So it’s still not considered to be a place where the highest end climbing goes on, the rock is just not conducive to it. It's just not steep enough or solid enough or featured enough.
SN: So it sounds like this ethics transition really changed the character of who came to Joshua Tree a lot then, is that fair to say?
MG: I would say it did, and I'd say for almost a generation.
SN: Wow. So from –can we put dates around that, just ballpark, from that generation–
MG: Oh, I'd say… call it the later 80s to probably the turn of the century.
SN: Wow. OK. Do you have any sense of like why it was that it was extreme in that way here? Because you said there's so much variety and so many different ways to climb. Why did it have that kind impact at Joshua Tree?
MG: There was just many other climbing areas that were opening up, which were previously, probably unclimbable because of the lack of bolts, essentially. And without bolts in blank rock, nobody could climb on these big formations in other places. But then people started to realize that if you put bolts in, you could open up vast amounts of climbing and so many climbing areas opened, that they became more in the eye of people because they were new, and they had new types of climbing, and it was just the direction that the excitement of climbing led at that time.
SN: OK, would you say that Joshua Tree’s heyday then (if we're going to say there was a heyday) was before that happened?
MG: Yeah, so it's like a little golden era, for Joshua Tree. You’re probably familiar with the Stonemasters, and their early experience in Joshua Tree, probably right up through the beginning of these “ethical debates,” and then when things like sport climbing developed and competition climbing began, I think that really drew attention away from Joshua Tree and the style of climbing that’s here.
SN: Has there been another golden era since then or was that really the main one, in your experience?
MG: Well, for high-end climbing, and at the time, what was here in the ‘80s was pretty high-end for its time –people were doing difficult, very difficult things. And in terms of difficulty, no I can’t say that Joshua Tree has had another heyday, but there seems to be some other attraction too for Joshua Tree. Other than simply the difficulty of the climbs.So it's having some kind of heyday, but it's not related to difficulty.
SN: [Laughs] Yes, it's kind of hard to put your finger on what exactly is going on there, but that does seem to be the situation, right?
MG: Yeah, and I think it's more of a… an imagery thing. The imagery of Joshua Tree is what attracts people. Like they’re all here on a vision–
SN: Can you say–
MG: Say again?
SN: I'm just wondering what you mean by “imagery,” that's really interesting.
MG: Well, you know, if you look at pretty much any magazine these days or any media source for any length of time, you'll probably see an image of Joshua Tree pop up. Whether it be in a car ad, fashion ad, a music video. I mean, you can go back to the Doors, driving through Joshua Tree back in the 1960s. And there's a certain mystique associated with Joshua Tree that has been taken by the media and used to sell products all over the place, probably, but there's a certain feel to Joshua Tree, I think, that's been portrayed in advertising and media that attracts people.
SN: Uh-huh. [In understanding] I see, okay, great, thank you. I notice we're coming up on three o'clock. Do you have a few more minutes to spend with us, Mari, or can we–?
MG: A few.
SN: Right, I don’t want to… yeah I don’t want to–
MG: Do you have a lot more questions, or?
SN: Well, I know Bernadette has a couple that she really wanted to ask as well. So I'd like to let her come in and take over for a few minutes here. Is that okay?
MG: Sure.
SN: OK, great.
BR: I was talking with Kevin Powell and he recommended that I ask you about Jan Dick, the ranger that used to work out at Hidden Valley.
MG: [Chuckle] Wow. Well, Kevin! Yeah, he was the ranger in the 1970s that had a really difficult relationship with climbers. And I don't think there were very many rangers back then; he didn't have much backup, but he liked to approach climbers and question what they were doing. Yeah, he was always trying to catch us doing things, I think, but never quite did, so it was a little bit of a cat and mouse game. Pretty funny, actually. I'm not sure if he enjoyed it as much as we did, though.
BR: And did he ever catch you guys riding on the back of the Winnebagos?
MG: Not that I know of. He probably saw it happening, but he could never catch the Winnebagos, and the people would scatter like mice in the desert; you'd never find them. So, yeah, no, I think he probably saw it or heard about it anyway, but no, it was one of those things that they never got caught. But it was loads of fun.
BR: And can tell us more about riding on the back of Winnebagos? Not the particulars, but just like the habit that you guys got into?
MG: Well, there was a lot of Winnebagos back then, it was like before the energy crisis thing, I guess, so the people didn't care about spending a lot of money on –well, you didn't have to spend a lot of money on gas. It was cheap. So there's a lot of Winnebagos, and they were always pulling into the parking lot and going around the loop of Hidden Valley campground, looking for a campsite.
So there was always opportunities to jump on the back on their ladder, and take a loop around the campsite. And maybe if you were going to the far end, you could get off. If not, you could just take a loop around for fun. And frequently there'd be, you know, one person would jump on and like everybody would get into the spirit of things and there'd be like five or six people in the back of some Winnebago. And the driver couldn’t see them in his rear view, so he had no idea. And occasionally people would actually take off on the highway and someone would be stuck on the back because they didn't drop off in time and they’d end up in another campground.
But, yeah, it was definitely a –quite an event. People would run for Winnebagos at some point.
BR: Excellent. And then my last question is, in 1980, when you and Bachar and Lechlinski put up Big Moe, did you have any idea that that’d be one of the most repeated routes in this park?
MG: No idea. It was just –it was another route, it was a pretty good one, but it was just another route then, and it's surprising that it ended up that way. Could’ve been any other one. I guess that one is the perfect position and difficulty, though.
BR: Great, thank you very much. Those are the last of my questions.
SN: Okay.
MG: Okay.
SN: I have just two other questions, Mari.
MG: Okay.
SN: Is that okay?
MG: That is fine.
SN: Good, I wanted to ask you about your bouldering guidebook. And just to get on record, why you chose to focus on that bouldering book, to produce that? What was your kind of guiding inspiration for that?
MG: I had just, over the years, just had a personal collection of bouldering information, you know, the bouldering that we'd done over the years, and also things that people have told me that they did when on their own, and when I wasn't around.
And so I figured at some point, if I don't do something with this information, it would just all disappear, so I should probably put it in a format where people could see what was available.
SN: Is there anything that, when you were putting that book together, that you did a little differently from other people who had come up with guidebooks at that time, or even since?
MG: Okay I gotta say one thing that we did differently –I went with Mike Lechlinski, and he climbed almost every problem in the book, and we measured the height of them with a rope that was marked off with footmarks. So pretty much we did (he did) every single problem –we had real-time info, it wasn’t a description from someone else. Real time, actually went to the problems. I think we used a different –initially a different rating system, but it went eventually to the standard system. I just don't know what’s incredibly different about it.
SN: Well I was struck by that when I was looking through it, that there’s actually four different ratings systems that you compiled for the climbs. Because it clearly –that was a period where rating –the V… I’m trying to remember the name for it; what is the V?
MG: It’s called the V rating.
SN: Right. Exactly, the V system. Was just coming into use, so you used the old Joshua Tree system, the new Joshua Tree System, which was like an A B sort of thing, and the Yosemite decimal system, and also the V system, and they were all –just seemed like you were right at this period that was kind of complicated for trying to…
MG: Yeah there was no Gingery system at that time; I think John Sherman, when he wrote his Hueco guidebook
[3], invented it. So that was its first use. And it really wasn't in common use, and it wasn't clear it was going to become the standard.
SN: Yeah. So that seemed to be something you had to kind of work out for your own in putting that book together, how to deal with the rating.
MG: Yeah, it was –before that it was the John Gill rating[4], which is so vague, it's basically, it's “doable,” it's “really, really hard,” or “only one person can do it,” or “it can't be done at all.” And that was pretty much the rating system. So it definitely needed some expansion.
SN: Yeah, another thing I also found kind of distinctive about that book is that you had a quality rating, too, with the star system that you were using. That was pretty much your own, as I understand it. Is that true?
MG: Other guidebooks had a quality rating previously. I didn't invent it. But yeah, I would just try to give an indication of where to put your effort if you didn't have much time, go here first.
SN: Right. And I was noticing when I was looking through it, there were not that many climbs that you gave the highest quality rating to. Maybe a dozen or…
MG: That’s the nature of quality. You gotta measure up. [Both MG and SN laugh]
SN: And so those were sort of what you called the “classic routes,” those –and I think Slashface was one of them, actually.
MG: Yeah. That's probably, in my humble opinion, probably the best boulder problem in Joshua Tree. It's not startlingly difficult. It's just magnificent.
SN: So I just wanted to ask you to say a little bit more about that route and what makes it magnificent in your experience. Just to get a sense of what the park has to offer.
MG: It's a twenty five foot boulder that's almost cubic. There's really very few other ways up it that are of note or easy, but there's this west-facing face with these slashes in it and it's just the right height and the holds are in just the right places that you can do some pretty difficult moves down lower. And as you get higher on the thing, it gets steeper, but the holds get bigger. And then you get to the top and you get the biggest hold on the whole thing, and you have to do a fairly delicate press over the top. So –and you're doing this on this isolated boulder in the middle of this vast, magnificent area of wilderness. In the setting sun, it has beautiful light.
SN: That's wonderful, thank you. Anything else you want to say about the guidebook for the record?
MG: No, not really. I hope people enjoy it.
SN: OK then, the last question I have, and it comes from the fact that many of our interviewees have asked me, “Are you going to interview women for this study?” There's been kind of a concern about creating a gender balance because climbing has the –(sometimes) has been characterized as a kind of a masculine or male-dominated sport.
Is there anything that comes to mind about your experiences that would –that you would say your perspective is at all different or distinctive because you are involved as a woman in climbing? Or anything you’d like to say along those lines?
MG: I mean, clearly, it had to be different. There's this… yeah, I don't know if I can really come up with anything that makes any sense about how it impacts –I mean, it was kind of like it was just about the climbing, the gender thing was not so important back then, maybe.
There were rarely females climbing, but they were just as engaged and just as integrated into the climbing world, I think. And there wasn't so much focus on it as an issue. It was just sort of like, “Oh, yeah, well, another person that, you know, is female.” And there were quite a few hidden females back then, too. It wasn't like it was only a few.
SN: That's good to know.
MG: There's always been women in climbing. There's always been good women in climbing, probably. They just don't make a lot of noise.
SN: So it sounds like you didn't feel actively excluded from–
MG: Absolutely not. No. Always included. Never excluded.
SN: And do you think there's anything about the sport of climbing that made it perhaps more progressive in that sense, or open or inclusive? Or was that pretty much the standard in your experience of other sports too?
MG: You know, I haven't experienced a whole lot of other sports, so I have to say, I don't know. For some reason, climbing is just… it's equally –I mean, I think any body size, any shape, size; you don't have to be particularly strong. Everybody can climb something. And the female body is just as capable as male bodies. And you know, you put it to the test and it works.So I think when it comes right down to the climbing, like I said, you know, there's always been good female climbers. Climbing is just conducive to all body types.
SN: And it sounds like all body types were recognized. You know, some other contexts, people documented that women were good at something, they were never acknowledged for that. But that was that your experience, that you were acknowledged by the people around you and encouraged and… ?
MG: I wouldn't call it encouraged so much as just integrated into it. It's like if you were, you know, achieving –if you were sticking your neck out and doing things, you were a climber. So there was no… you know, I'm sure there was, actually, in the background people second-guessing success of certain efforts or something like that. But I think in the end, everybody had to kind of accept what was happening, which was that women were climbing things that were incredibly difficult, and they had skills.
SN: So it was demonstrable, and those skills made it –made them useful and potential partners. Is that fair to say?
MG: Right, you just can't argue with success. You know, when somebody's doing something and they can do it repeatedly, they have the skills. You know, whatever is demonstrable, like you were saying, that's what you have to accept. That's the nature of climbing, is that whatever works is what works.
SN: Right. And in terms of the social scene when you weren't actually climbing, were there any kind of comments you’d say about what the –how gendered the social scene was and in your experience or describing that in any way?
MG: You know, there wasn't a huge social scene other than standing around campfires or potentially going into the local grocery store and reading magazines off the shelf just to kill time at night. Maybe hanging out in a Mexican restaurant. So the social scene was pretty much limited to the time between you were sleeping and climbing. And in Joshua Tree in the 70s, it was pretty limited to a Mexican restaurant or hanging out in a 7-Eleven playing video games.
SN: Right.
MG: Right. So but, yeah, it was a little quieter back then in terms of things to do.
SN: Right. So it sounds from what you're saying, like your experiences weren't traumatic or like you were there struggling to survive and do your climbing, that it was –that that was not what your experience was, is that correct?
MG: No, not at all. It was a joyous time. Everybody was always having a good time. It was very fun, everybody was having a good time.
SN: Great. Okay, thank you. Appreciate your explicitness on that one. So I was just writing today about gender, there's always a lot of assumptions, and usually they're negative assumptions about how women were treated in previous times, previous decades and so on. So I just want it clear for the record what your actual experience was in that regard. Great. So good.All right. Well, we always end the interview –Emilio, did you –did we miss anything major? [Emilio indicates no] No, we're good, okay. We always end the interview by asking the interviewee if there's anything you'd like to add that we didn't cover about the importance of Joshua Tree as a place to climb.
MG: I would say in some ways, in those golden years, it was a mixing ground of ideas and people came from all different parts of the US and Europe and other places. And these ethical debates that were going on were picked up by people all over the world, probably, and taken back to their home crags and debated, and they figured out what they wanted to do. So, you know, California being what it is, between Joshua Tree in the winter visits and Yosemite and the summer visits, the ideas that were developing back then about how to climb, I think, spread from those nexus points, Joshua Tree and Yosemite. Uh-oh, I'm going to run out of batteries. Yeah, that was my run out of battery 10 percent sign. Okay, so I’m on limited time here. I got to go back inside to plug in. I’m actually outdoors.So any more questions?
SN: No, thank you, that was a really important statement, Mari, I really appreciate your being with us and thank you for taking the little bit of extra time. And I hope that if we have some follow-up off the record, that we can come back to you and pursue a couple of these questions in a little bit more depth, if that's all right with you.
MG: Sure. Yeah, no problem.
SN: We had some tip of the iceberg moments, clearly. [Laughs] So…
MG: Like I said, I think I mentioned this to you earlier, the actual evolution of climbing from what it was to what it is today is a fascinating story that no one has ever fully reported.
SN: Yes.
MG: And good luck. [SN and MG laugh]
SN: Well, I'm hoping that we can touch on some of that, at least make it clear that that story is there, and hopefully foreground a little bit about how Joshua Tree factors into it. So, and you've been really helpful today in that regard, so thank you so much. I think we should probably let you go, before your phone decides for us, but we'll be back in touch. Emilio is actually going to be in touch with you on email to explain how the transcription process works so that you'll know when –he's going to turn this recording into a document and then he'll send it to you for editing and correction and whatever kind of changes you want to make to it. So he'll be in touch with you.
MG: Okay. Alright, well sounds good, and it’s been good talking to you.
SN: Good, thanks so much, we’ll be in touch.
ET: Take care, Mari.
BR: Bye Mari.
MG: Bye Emilio, bye Bernadette. Talk to you later, bye.

[1] A height usually considered at above 50 fifty feet off the ground. An unaided fall from this climb would be fatal.

[2] A jug is a big, open hold, often looks a bit like half of a cup. A jug is typically easy to grab onto while climbing.

[3] Hueco Tanks: A Climber’s and Boulderer’s Guide by John Sherman was published in 1991.

[4] According to John Gill’s archived website, Gill developed the “first American bouldering rating system” in 1958, ordering problems into three categories: B1, B2, and B3. B1 represented the “highest level of difficulty in traditional roped-climbing,” B2 was “a broad category of more difficult or ‘bouldering level’ problems,” and B3 categorized “climbs that were unrepeated, though attempted.” Gill’s idea was to “promote this new sport [of climbing] by challenging climbers to improve their technical skills… but discourage the degeneration of bouldering itself into a numbers-chase.”


Todd Gordon

Interview Dates: 08/09/2021 and 05/02/2021

Biographical Information: Todd Gordon is known as “the Mayor” of Joshua Tree. He began climbing in 1972 and came to Joshua Tree to climb in 1976. The nickname “the Mayor” comes from Todd’s longtime residence in the city of Joshua Tree, working as a schoolteacher since the early 1980s. He has over 600 recorded first ascents in the park, some of which include Sexy Grandma (5.9), Cleopatra (5.11), and Bonfire (5.12). Todd also has written a sport climbing guidebook to the area titled Joshua Tree Sport Climbs & Top Ropes Sites (2018).

Content Summary [1]: In this first interview, Todd describes his beginnings with climbing in his youth and the various climbing areas he has visited. Todd discusses the dirtbag climber culture as well as the climbing community that frequented his home in Joshua Tree. He also explains the changes at the park over the years as it relates to climbing ethics, popularity, and other climbing locations.

  • Alan Bartlett
  • Dave Evans
  • Dirtbag climbers
  • John Long
  • Randy Vogel
  • Sport climbing
  • “The Mayor”
  • Hidden Valley (Area)
  • Mental Physics (5.7)
  • Right On (5.6)
  • Sail Away (5.8)
ET: Okay. Recording now.
SN: Yeah, so the university requires me, Todd, to make sure that I have your official consent for the interview. So you okay with that?
TG: You have my official consent for the interview.
SN: OK, so Emilio’s sending you the form that just spells that out. And all it does is tell you how to reach us, how to reach the office that monitors our research and asks you to give your official consent, and lets you know that no matter what question we might ask you, you can tell us you don't want to answer it and we'll move on right away, that’s it.
TG: Okay, sounds good!
SN: Alright. So let me just for the record, state that this is Sally Ness. Today is September 8th. And I'm at Riverside, California, and I'm here today with my assistant, Emilio Triguero, who is in Los Angeles, California, and we are interviewing Todd Gordon, who is otherwise known as “the Mayor of Joshua Tree,” for the Joshua Tree Recreational Rock-climbing Study. So thank you so much, Todd. We always start off the interview with just a couple of questions about your own life history, so we have that down for the record.
TG: Okay, also, who else is participating in this, just you and Emilio, or–?
SN: In terms of researchers?
TG: No, who else is in this conversation, because you said some of the other ones, that other people were invited too.
SN: Oh, well, today it’s just going to be Emilio and me.
TG: Oh okay.
SN: Sometimes we have Bernadette Reagan from the Park Service with us.
TG: Think she's on vacation right now.
SN: Exactly, so she's not with us today.
TG: Right.
SN: Sometimes she joins us, but it's the three of us. Usually. Sometimes I have research assistants from the university or volunteers, but with the COVID thing, they've kind of fallen by the wayside because they aren't able to–
TG: Yeah, I understand that; everybody's hiding.
SN: [Laughing] Yeah. Exactly. Okay, so, yeah, so could I get you to tell us where you were born and when? Are you a Californian?
TG: No, no, I was born in New York in March 10th, 1955. And I lived there for –’til I was four years old, and then I moved to Los Angeles when I was five, and I lived in Los Angeles ‘til I was 16. And then I moved to northern San Diego, to Fallbrook and lived on an avocado ranch. And then I went away to different colleges and stuff like that. And then I started my career as a schoolteacher. And I worked in different climbing areas as a teacher, but then I settled into Joshua Tree.
SN: Perfect. All right, thank you, you covered all the bases very succinctly!
TG: Right? Next question –next five questions.
SN: So we can move right on then to your– the next thing we do is ask people about their individual climbing history before we get started on the park.
TG: Okay. Now is this interesting or fun for you? [Laughing] I’m just wondering.
SN: Love it.
TG: Alright great. You’re on a mission and on task.[Sally and Todd speak over one another]
TG: When I started climbing, is that what you’re talking about?
SN: How you got started and why you were interested, and what happened?
TG: Well, I wasn't really interested in –but my father, when I was 17, he wanted me to –he wanted to instill leadership and responsibility in the 17 year old teenager, so he signed me up for an Outward Bound course in Colorado and I didn't want to go. It was in 1972 and climbing wasn't big, backpacking was just starting, I wanted to, you know, more just kind of hang out with my friends and go to the beach or do something else. I was into long distance running and stuff, like running marathons and stuff like that. So I was in pretty good shape, but I was real skinny and everything. And so I went on that trip and it was… it wasn’t through Outward Bound, but it was through Prescott College and it was about a twenty-five day course and it was backpacking, and they had five days –or a week of kayaking; they had like a week of rock climbing. And it was in 1972, and it was right when they were switching over from pitons to hexes and stoppers.And we climbed along the –outside of Gunnison, Colorado, in Taylor Canyon, and we did some mountaineering… I don't know what area of Colorado it was. And I really liked it. And I remember I liked the climbing and I liked the rappelling, I remember I’d hike to the top and rappel down, and hike to the top and rappel down, and hike to the top, rappel down, and we’d all had like Swami belts and… I think I had climbing shoes, too. And the instructors used stoppers and hexes, and then at the end of the thing, they picked a couple of people to do a multi-pitch one. And I did the multi-pitch one and I remember they had pitons with them too. So it was a long time ago. And my instructors weren't that much older than me. They were probably in their early, very early 20s.
In fact, one of them I’ve looked up on Facebook, and I’ve –he’s like my friend, and he was the first person to take me climbing and it was a guy named Kent Maiden, and he works –he started Boojum Expeditions, but I don't think he does that anymore. He's probably like me. I'm retired from my career, which was the schoolteacher.
SN: So that's how you got your start. Tell us why you stayed in the game and what happened after you sort of…
TG: After that, I was 17, and when you're 17, you know, you don't even have a car that works very good, you never have any money; but I wanted to go climbing some more, so I... when I was 17, I started climbing just locally around Fallbrook, just on local crags and stuff. And I got a job at a golf course and a gas station and stuff and raised some money to go again with Prescott College on a climbing trip to Scotland.
And that was, I think, in 1975 and… and then it was –I went there for a month and it was really fun and the weather was pretty good that year, and it was like my first real climbing trip, hanging out with real, real climbers just on a climbing trip. And we climbed the whole time, and I really liked it. And I did my first leads. And the guys that ran the trip were real hardcore seasoned ice climbers and rock climbers and mountaineers.And that was in 1975 when I was 20 years old. Which, you know, some people say is really young, but a lot of people, you know, they start climbing in gyms when they're 12 and 13 and by the time they're 20, they're old and climbing 5.14s and stuff. But I was kind of just getting my –getting things going by the time I was 20. But I went on that trip and when I came back, that was it; after that, it was, you know, starting to go out to Joshua Tree and to Idyllwild and just a little bit more than my local crags around my house.
SN: So would you say climbing really took precedence over other kinds of recreation at that point for you?
TG: Well, I didn't really –yeah, I didn't really have any money, and I was going to college and I was still running cross-country and track at –I went to Palomar Junior College and ran cross-country and track and I went to UC Irvine and ran cross-country and track there. And then and then by time my senior year, I switched over to climbing and didn't have time to do all the running anymore.And then my senior year, I was probably twenty-one as I went on my first, you know, road trip with my friends, that wasn't, you know, through a group or something. I was on my own with one of my climbing buddies and that was my first road trip. And we went to Idyllwild for a week and climbed at Tahquitz for a week. Then we went to the Tetons for two weeks and climbed in the Tetons and we were in like a Volkswagen Beetle. And then we went to the... The Wind River Range. No, no, no, I'm sorry, that was another trip. It was Tahquitz for a week then the Tetons for two weeks and then Yosemite for three weeks. And then I was like –I felt like a real climber then. I wasn't being guided by anybody, I wasn't being watched over; we were totally on our own and we were, you know, leading multi-pitch climbs. And it was always stoppers and hexes.
So we led, you know, a bunch of long climbs on Tahquitz. And we climbed in the Tetons, and we did mountaineering and we had our crampons and our ice axes, too. And then in Yosemite, we did, you know, like Nutcracker and climbed on the Apron and did the –hung out in Camp Four. It was… you know. You had two t-shirts and two pairs of shorts and 50 bucks and you could stay there for weeks.
SN: So it sounds like you had a pretty serious thing going with your running and your competitive sports; you were running for Irvine. What was it about climbing that shifted you into climbing?
TG: I don't know, it's probably the same reasons why a lot of people like it, you know, you get to travel around a lot and you get to meet new people, you get to challenge yourself, you get to belong to part of a community. If you like all the little gadgets, people like the little technical side.
And you know, when you're young, you're more –you'd like to do something a little bit more daring than jogging around the track or running in a race. I like that too, but it seemed like the climbing I liked a lot more. And, you know, we were fit, so we just –you know, it's not like we really exercise and there was no gym, so you just stay fit by being a young person and by climbing a lot.
But we never really worked out or anything like that. Not for specifically for climbing or anything.
SN: Was the competitive aspect of it somewhat different?
TG: No, there was no competitiveness; you just compete with your friends, and it was all just for fun.
SN: Yeah.
TG: And, you know, if they’re a lot better than you, you can't compete with them because they can kick your ass. And if they're a lot less experienced, you can't compete with them, because that's no fun, because you're just a lot better.
So you compete with your buddies, but it's always real friendly and, you know, sometimes you do better than them. But it was all of my friends and it wasn't with people I didn't know. Yeah, it was all –and like most of my friends that I climbed with, you know, I guess we were all, you know, I didn't compete with the guys that were way better than me, because you can't.
My other friends, I just encouraged them to do their best, and then with my friends, you know, I think a lot of times –like some of my friends that were heavier, like if we’d do aid climbs, you know, I’d the hard aid pitches because I weighed less. And when I stood on the pieces, they wouldn't fall out. And if they were bigger, they probably had more muscles, so they would get the harder free pitches when we did mixed things. And then we shared things and sometimes, you know, if someone's feeling better or better at something, you know, you’d switch things up and do the things that you were best for your strength.
Yeah, we never really competed with each other and we worked together on everything and we always tried to be really safe.
SN: Did you meet them through your track and field?
TG: I met some of the guys that were… I don't know how I met them, they were just in the dorms and stuff at UC Irvine, and I met those guys and they were my climbing partners. And then one of my friends, he was –he taught a climbing class at Orange Coast College.
And then there were students in there and then some of the students after they were done with the class. You know, we offered little trips and we had like got movies from the library and showed climbing movies. And then we talked about knots and stuff like that, and then we had our own little slideshows and then we… God I forgot about all this. And there was people that were in the class, we did it a couple of times, two or three times, and then some of the people afterwards ended up climbing more. And then some of them got really into climbing and they ended up being our climbing partners.
SN: So you kind of brought –you cultivated with you...
TG: Yeah, it's pretty easy, you take someone climbing; like a lot of people –my friend, he just did that now, you know, friends he works with he says, “Hey, I go climbing all the time, wanna go?” And then they go and then they like it. So, you know, who knows how long they're going to like it and how much they're going to like it.
But it just seems like a lot of people… you know, young people, they like certain things, you know, they like going to the beach, they like riding bicycles and drinking beer and going to parties and going to concerts. And you can kind of throw climbing in there with that, too, or traveling or, you know, ziplining.
SN: So the original group of you, at the very beginning of this, you all kind of learned together, is that right?
TG: Yeah. And we kind of, I guess, got, you know, got each other fired up for everything and we went climbing every single weekend, it wasn't unusual to… go a year without missing a weekend. I think I went 10 years without missing a weekend. I went at least once a week for 10 years, and I remember what it was, It was Randy Vogel’s wedding. That was the weekend that I missed. But by that time, I didn't really care. And now that I have kids, I can miss a weekend at any time; I can miss… you know.
SN: Well, tell us about some of the more outstanding experiences you had as a climber over the course of your climbing career. Think of like the highlights, what were the major things that you were able to–
TG: Yeah, I think when you first start out, you know, you're all eager about everything, so of course, your first lead is kind of like your first job or your first kiss or your first whatever.
And so your first lead’s a big one; my first lead was in Scotland and it was probably like a 5.5 one, but it didn't seem like that big of a deal because I followed a bunch of climbs before that. And then your first… my first multi-pitch, that wasn't a big deal, because I multi-pitched right when I first started climbing and that wasn't a big deal. We all wanted to do like a big wall, so we practiced aid climbing at Joshua Tree and then Idyllwild and then Yosemite on short climbs. And by the time we were ready to do –we picked Half Dome for our first one– by the time we went there, the climbing... we were really good aid climbers already. And the climbing wasn't that hard, but little things like jumaring and hauling the haul bag and being up on a climb. But we were right for it, and we were ready for it and... and it wasn't that big of a deal to go climb Half Dome, and we spent a couple of nights on it, we did it all with hexes and stoppers.
SN: Do you remember what year that was?
TG: And that one after that, we wanted to do El Capitan. And then that was a really big deal. And I did it in 1980, which was, you know, 40 years ago, but it's still, you know, a big turning point for me. What’s that?
SN: Half Dome?
TG: Well, Half Dome was a big deal because it was my first one, but El Cap was a big deal because it's El Cap.
SN: The year was 1980, El Cap?
TG: 1980, yeah. Now we did the Dihedral Wall, and at the time of camming devices had just come out; we only had like five I think. But you did it with a lot of pitons, and there wasn't portaledges[1] or anything like that, so we had a little homemade hammocks and we were up there for five days and it was a big life turning event; I remember for a couple of weeks after that, I was just feeling pretty out of it. But again, once again, we were totally ready for it and it wasn't that big of a deal, and I've tried a couple of routes after that and I was unsuccessful, maybe two more times in El Cap for various reasons.
But… yeah, doing El Cap once; for me, it's a big deal, but, you know, there's people who have done El Cap 130 times. And there's people –you know, I talked to one of my friends the other day, he was –I asked him, he said he wanted to do El Cap. I said, “How many routes have you done on El Cap?” And he was embarrassed to tell me that he had only done like 28, because he thought that that was just way off the mark. And I was saying, “Hey, it's nothing to be embarrassed about,” but yeah, it was a big deal for me and one was good. And now I probably missed my window of opportunity to do any more, but that's okay. I'm very grateful that I'm here and I'm still going climbing and I'm grateful for the opportunities, and I don't have any sour grapes for things that I was unable to do, I'm just happy for all the things that I was able to do and I'm not crying about the things that I –was on my bucket list that I never got around to.
SN: So is there anything inside Joshua Tree that you considered to be an outstanding experience in your climbing?
TG: Oh, yeah, Joshua Tree is not my favorite place to climb at all. Oh, I like living in Joshua Tree because I want to live somewhere where there's lots of climbs and I can never run out of climbing and it's a… you can always explore, and always go to places where you've never been in Joshua Tree. It's just really that vast. And but as far as the climbing, my favorite climbing is like –I got a job on an Indian reservation in about 1983… and well, first of all, I got a job at an Indian reservation in South Dakota with the Sioux Indians.
So I could climb in the Black Hills in the Devil's Tower, and I did that for a year, and then I got a job on another Indian reservation in their Four Corners in Arizona. And I started climbing at Desert Sandstone Towers[2], and I really liked that a lot. And I lived there for two years and climbed every single weekend out there. And then when I moved away, I –then I moved to Kernville near Bakersfield for a year and climbed up in the Needles a bunch, and a bunch in Joshua Tree. And then I moved to Joshua Tree and I worked at the same school for 27 years. And I kind of told myself about every four or five years I'd move to a different climbing area. But once I got to Joshua Tree, and once I was in one school –and then I bought a house and, you know, then you're not going anywhere. But even when I was living in Joshua Tree, I like the Sandstone Towers so much that we would go every spring break out to Moab and to the Navajo Indian Reservation and climb out there. And we did it for like 23 spring breaks in a row.
[Audio cuts off]–a bunch, and I don't know, at the time, there wasn't that many people, like when we went to Canyonlands or Arches or any of these places, when I lived out there, I climbed every weekend and I saw climbers only one time. And that was just some people practicing on a little dirty cliff that didn't even have any climbs on in it in Farmington, New Mexico. But now if you go to places like Moab, there's climbers all over there, but I climbed all around Moab and all these other places, and we didn't see any climbers. And when we’d do these climbs, they seemed really loose and dangerous and you know, I just said, “Well, I see why people don't like this, because it's loose and dangerous, but I really like it.”
And the few people that had climbed before me really liked it, too. So I said, “Somebody likes it, but I don't think anybody is really going to like this.” But then it did catch on. And people really like climbing the Desert Towers now. But that was some of my favorite climbs, some of my best climbs, some of my best experiences. And… yeah, there are things that I treasure forever, and I like it, too, and as far as like sport climbing, I've been going to Kalymnos to Greece, to go climb on the limestone in Greece, and I've made like seven trips there. I was supposed to go on in about a week from now, but because we're not allowed to travel right now because the COVID thing, but I think next year we'll have to go twice. And last year I went twice because I like it so much. It seems like it’s an appropriate thing for someone my age. It's real safe and it's real fun and athletic and it’s beautiful, and I go with the same group and we have a good time, and you rent scooters and drive the scooters around the island and they're as fun as the climbing. And we've done about 500 climbs on this island so far, so it's kind of a lot. And we have a lot of friends that live there now, so… I could –if I didn't have a family and stuff, I could see moving there for at least half a year, every year.
SN: Are you doing first ascents or is this well-established?
TG: No, when you go to places like that, they already have a big group of people that already do first ascents over there, and I'm just to trying to get my wa– to know my way around the island. But I'm starting to meet people who do first ascents out there.
And I could see joining up with them and maybe, you know, you know. If they had a new thing going down, I could maybe pick a route or something that I wanted to do, but no first descents really there.
SN: So I wanted to just backtrack real briefly to the Moab site and ask you to say a little bit more about why you like that climbing so much; is it the kind of rock or the landscape or what is it that you –or the danger that’s involved? Or all of the above?
TG: I think there's a lot of things and I don't really –they're all kind of subconscious. When I lived out there, you know, it was lonely. I was away from my family and my friends. And I was really, you know, I was like twenty-five years old. And I missed my parents and my brothers and sisters and my climbing friends and my… well, all my friends. And I lived in government housing the first year, but it was like three-hundred fifty a month and I was only making a thousand dollars a month.
And so that [inaudible] into it a lot, and people were always breaking into my house in the government housing, and I didn't like that. When I’d go away on the weekends; they’d break in every single time. They wouldn't really steal anything, because I didn't have anything to steal, but they’d eat all my food and make a mess. And then the next year, I rented a little –just from a family that I knew– one of those little mud Hogans[3] that the Navajos live in, and they charged me fifteen dollars a month rent and it didn't have any running water or windows or anything.
And it had an outhouse, but it was fifteen dollars and it was fine for me. It was kind of like living in a car or camping. And I had extra money to spend then. And nobody broke into my hogan because it was part of a little compound of Navajos families that live there. And it suited me fine, and it was all made out of wood and dirt; there was no metal in it really, except for the fireplace was a big metal drum that was in the middle, and it had a dirt floor and the walls were wood with dirt packed into it. And the ceiling was pieces of plywood with dirt over it. It was really cool.
But what I like about it… I think living out there, it was really a harsh environment and I was lonely and everything too. But on the weekends and after work, sometimes we go climbing after work if the days were really long, I just had something to look forward to and it was really exciting and... you know, like a lot of people, I'm a very social person. Some people say, “Oh, I like to be around people;” I like to be around people, but I was totally fine out there where there wasn't any people.But I just needed a few of my friends and I met this one –they had every Thursday, they had a party where all the professionals would get together. It was kind of like the non-Navajos would get together because they were all lonesome and they wanted to commiserate with everybody that they missed, you know, in their hometowns and stuff. And so each week you'd go to somebody else's different house, it would be like a doctor or a dentist or an engineer or a nurse. Or a principal, and the lowest people were the teachers.
And at one of those meetings, I met someone who was also a climber, and I talked to him and he had climbed a bunch of –he was from Seattle, and he was a dentist. And he got to be my main climbing partner, and then there was also a schoolteacher who had climbed a few times in Colorado, and I started climbing with her a bunch, too. And they got to be my main climbing partners.
And if not, I was just going I would go with my Navajo friends. They weren't into climbing, but they could –I taught them how to belay and I taught them how to jumar and stuff. And they would get up some climbs sometimes too. But I don't know, the climbing was really exciting and you got to mess with a bunch of gear and it's really challenging, and we did a bunch of new routes out there because there was routes right by my house that hadn't been done before.
And some of my friends would come out and visit me and climb out there, too. And it was just… it's really beautiful out there. And there's –you know, I didn't have any TV, there was…. you had to drive a couple hours to go even to a restaurant or, you know, a liquor store or drive-in movie or something. So we just climbed all the time. And it was super fun and by that time, I was really into climbing anyway, so it was super cool.
SN: That's quite an experience.
TG: Yeah, it was fun. Then we went back and climbed down the Indian reservation a bunch more there. And I'm done climbing out there, but I had a really super good time and there was, you know, I was part of that community; the people who climbed on the reservation or the people who climbed Sandstone Towers, and it was a really small group there. And even though some of the people I didn’t know, when I met them later, I knew a bunch of the stuff that they did and they knew a bunch of the stuff that I had done too. And it was a really, really small group of people who climbs Desert Sandstone Towers, and I was part of that group and that was pretty cool, too. So even when I met Fred Becky, the first time, I was really stoked to meet him and I said, “Guy, I’ve climbed a bunch of your routes before and, you know, I really wanted to meet you,” and he says, “Oh, yeah,” he goes, “oh, I know which ones you did; you did this one of my routes and this one and this one…”
Somehow, he had known about the routes of his that I had done on the Indian reservation and around the Southwest, and I didn't even know if he even knew what my name was. So I was really surprised. Out of all the people that he knows and you know, he's like the world famous climber and everything and I was just someone who –you know, we did these climbs and we didn't really, you know…Nobody even knew that you did them, and didn't seem like anybody cared, didn't seem like anybody even wanted to do them and... you know, I think with the –things changed with the Internet. You know, before that the only time you, you know, was either around a campfire or in a climbing magazine is the only way that –or in a guidebook– is the only way you got information. It was from individuals, climbing magazine; Rock and Ice wasn't even around and stuff. American Alpine Journal. Or you just called somebody up on the phone or wrote him a letter and got information that way. But as soon as the Internet came out, you know, things totally changed, you know?
SN: Yeah, you're really describing a bygone era in many respects.
TG: Yeah, that's what happens when you're old, huh? You know, you just remember before the Internet. I don't know if you can't find your phone, you just start cussing and just, you know, “Where's my phone?” People feel naked without their phone. You know, I was really late on the phone and on the computers and stuff. I didn't really want to get involved with all that kind of stuff, and I think it was from days when I was out, you know, camping all the time or living on the Indian reservation, really isolated that, you know, this technology, I'm just saying, “Well, I didn't really need that stuff.” And, you know, I just remember, people would always talk about Saturday Night Live, the TV show, and you know, it had been out for 10 years and I never watched it.And I'm saying, I've never been around a TV on a Saturday night. And, you know, we’d never really even stay in hotels because that costs money and we never –nobody really even had any money and… yeah, I grew up as a kid watching cartoons, but you didn't have cartoons 24 hours; you watched them on Saturday morning, and that was the only time that cartoons were on. And, you know, you watched the news in the morning and in the evening or mainly just in the evening, you watched Ed Sullivan and Mr. Ed and, you know, those kind of things. But now you can watch anything on TV or –and I think TV is on its way out, you know, now you turn it on, it's exercise videos or My Pillow Guy. And I think, you know, things are rapidly changing and, you know, before you bought an album and it was three dollars and you listen to the songs on it; now, you know, nobody buys. It's all on your phone.
SN: Exactly.
TG: So things really changed a lot.
SN: Well, thank you, Todd. Really gives us a wonderful overview of your history of climbing and you brought up something that's really surprising actually, in your comments, which is that Joshua Tree was not the epicenter or the favorite spot or your –at least for your early or for your outstanding moments in climbing. And so let's talk about Joshua Tree, and how you came to, you know, the identity that you have there today, which is definitely as a leading figure, as somebody who is extremely knowledgeable about the park and climbing in the park and who is “the Mayor” of Joshua Tree right now; tell us how that evolved.
TG: Right. “The Mayor” has a good nickname because some other people have nicknames and they say, “I don't like that nickname,” but when you get a name like The Mayor, it's, you know, it's a nice nickname. So you're going, “I'm going to go with that one. And just glad I didn't get ‘Psycho so-and-so’ or whatever.” The Mayor is a good, a good nickname. The first time I climbed Joshua was December 1976, and I came out there for 10 days, and I saw maybe about four other climbers. One of them was Randy Vogel, so that was cool, and one of them was Dave Evans, and those guys turned out to be two of my really best friends. And I met Steve West, who ended up being the one who... he was the first one to import the sticky rubber with John Bachar from Spain and he started the Boreal Shoe Company and he was from Newport Beach. And these guys were all –you know, I was… 1976, so I was twenty one; Randy was probably twenty two. Dave was probably 19. Steve West is probably my age. He was probably 20. And we camped in Hidden Valley, and it was freezing-ass cold in December and... we climbed a bunch and had campfires and it was really cool. And then we just started –we climbed a lot in Idyllwild. That was kind of the place where we were more into climbing than Joshua Tree. And we go to Tahquitz and Suicide. And we would never do any repeats, we'd always do this different routes. It didn't matter if they sucked, it didn't matter if they were dangerous. If they were dangerous and we thought we could do it, we'd try them. If they were too dangerous or too hard for us, we'd get somebody that was braver or better than us or stupider to go lead ‘em and from where I lived in Fallbrook in northern San Diego, it was a couple hours away, but if I didn't have a car, I could hitchhike up there and we would hitchhike up there all the time and we would hitchhike out to Joshua Tree and we would hitchhike up to Yosemite. You didn't need much money because you just steal a bunch of food from your parents. You wouldn’t steal it, you just take it. And then 20 bucks, that's all you need. And you never paid for camping and it was –and then if you go out, you'd carpool a lot of times and we always had beat up cars and we'd always have firewood in the cars, just keep it in there and we'd always keep it –we just keep our climbing gear in our cars.
And then we just started going to Joshua Tree during the wintertime. And then Tahquitz when it got warmer in the spring and the fall and during the summer, but in the summer, we’d try and go away. And I thought about it because my dad was an airline pilot, so even though I didn't have a lot of money, I could get a ticket anywhere. So it was easy for me to go anywhere in the world. And instead of –like a lot of my friends would go to the Sierras or even to Yosemite; I went to Yosemite a bunch, I liked it. But I just wanted to go to other places.When I was 18, we went over to Europe. Me and my older brother bought bicycles; we had three hundred dollars, so we bought bicycles for a hundred and then we had 200 left. And we biked from Amsterdam to Switzerland, and they were just hundred dollar bikes. And we didn't have bike shorts and we didn't have helmets. And we just had like little racks that you would put books on, like kids would put books on, and we’d just tie a sleeping bag to it. And then… I don't know, we just wanted to go overseas and stuff like that, but I like climbing around here, but as soon as I started teaching, I got a little bit more money and I wanted to set my sights a little bit further away. So we went to Peru for a couple of months. I went to Ecuador for six weeks. I went to Colombia for a couple of weeks. I got invited on a trip to Pakistan. I went to Pakistan for two months.
SN: This is in the 1980s, Todd?
TG: This is in the 80s and the 90s, yeah. And I went to Australia for a couple of weeks –a couple of months. And then I took a year off… I took a year off teaching. To just do a bunch of stuff that I wanted to do; I wanted to bike across the United States, so I did that. I wanted to go on a really long Europe trip. So I went five months on a five month climbing trip to Europe.
And I ran out of money, so I had to substitute teach a little. And I wanted to go like to Wyoming again and Montana and some other places like that. So I had a whole 12 months off and then an extra summer for the teachers. So you got a summer, then a year off and then another summer before you go back again. So that was a really big year, that big trip to Europe and the biking across America. And then, so I went from California to North Carolina, that took thirty-three days. And I missed the climbing a lot and I missed my friends, but it was still a good trip.
And then a couple of years later, I wanted to bike again. So I went from Seattle to San Diego on my bicycle. And that took 17 days. And as soon as, you know, as soon as mountain bikes came out, we got the first mountain bikes, but they didn't have shocks or anything. So we would bring our bikes with us every time we went climbing and we would always bike around too. If it wasn't for –just for fun, we would do it for transportation, you know, if you're biking around to go see someone at a different campsite or go to the store in Yosemite, or you know. And we started incorporating the biking and the climbing just to give it a little dimension.And it's fast and it's fun. And some of the trips, like when we’d go to Moab, we’d ride our mountain bikes a lot. And we did the White Rim Trail, that was three days. We just carried our stuff with us and the rest of the time we just climbed. But we'd always, you know, bike in the morning, climb in the afternoon, or climb a day, bike a day, climb a day, bike a day –it was mostly climbing though. The climbing was always the most important thing, but…
And I think about it all the time now, I think one of my main things in my climbing career was I've always been a conservative and safe climber. There was a period when I was younger, I wasn't very conservative or safe, and nobody really was. When you’re, you know, that 20 to 25 year old, we just really want to push it and it's really dangerous. But, you know, you're really good and you're really confident and you done your homework and, you know, it's not conservative climbing and it's not all that safe. But if you've prepared for it, it's as safe as you can possibly make it. And I was prepared for it, like a lot of the run-out climbs at Suicide and the run-out climbs all over the place, you know. I didn't mind doing it when I was 20 to 25. And, you know, I was good at it, but there was people that were way better than me; they could do harder, more run-out climbs and that's just the way it was.
It wasn’t sport climbs that were well protected. Climbing was a dirty, dangerous thing, and you had to get good at it. And I did. But as I get older, it didn't seem as attractive. And once I had kids and got older, no way. You know, you couldn’t pay me to do that crap I did when I was 20 to 25. It was fun at the time, but now it just seems really terrifying.
And yeah, there're climbs that, you know, if you fell on ‘em, you'd fall really far and hit the ground and just –but, you know, you didn't fall on them and you knew you weren't going to fall. You're pretty sure. And you were willing to go for it anyways, but… and I think at 65 now… you know, like right now I have to work out or I couldn't even climb. If I don't work out, I can't even hike. At 65 years old, you just –you have to work out.
You can't just fake it. So, you know, I work out every single day. I go bike riding every day and I try and lose some weight and I try and climb a lot now just so I can go climbing. But, you know, every time I feel an ache or a pain, I get really scared on a climb. I just say, “You know, I want to start biking more and climbing less.” And it seems like something that's more appropriate for a gentleman of my age. And I still like the bike, and my son, he just got a new mountain bike. And we've already been talking about overnight trips that we want to go on and stuff. And I'm excited about that. And I'm okay if I don't do scary, dangerous climbs. I don't have to do that stuff anymore. And as soon as –like I go climbing with guys, they're really old and they can't hear, and they fall over on the approach and they take 20 minutes to put on one shoe and they're a pain in the ass. I don't want to be that guy. You know, I want to be the guy that, you know… the boxer who, you know, doesn't have to get knocked out his last, you know, 10 fights to finally quit. You know, I want to be the boxer who goes out with a good record and does things that are –I just wanna do things that are safe. And as you get older, climbing is not safe for old people; you can see it, you know. You gotta work out more and you don't want to get hurt. And also, if you break your leg when you're 20 years old, four months later, you're back climbing again. You break your leg when you're 60 or 70, you better get a real sturdy cane because that's going to be your best buddy to the last day.
SN: I want to bring you back to the question of the mayor. Why do you think they named you “the mayor?”
TG: I think because I climbed out here from ‘76 and then I climbed a bunch in ‘76, ‘77, ‘78, ‘79, ‘80. And then by –in the early 80s, I moved out here and got a teaching job out here. I guess it was in ‘84 or ‘85. But before I just climbed a bunch, I wasn't the mayor then. I was just a guy that climbed, and there wasn't that many people that climbed. Like you would go to Joshua Tree, and you’d go to Hidden Valley and you'd walk around; if you saw climbers, there was at least 50 percent or higher chance that you knew who they were. The climbing community was really small, there wasn't gyms and there wasn't Internet. So you knew him from around the campfire, and if you came out here every weekend like I did and like all my friends did, we all came out here every weekend. You knew the other people that came out here a lot.
And then when I finally got a place out here, you know, I was single and everything. And you got a house out here, of course, the climate community is really small and everybody knows you and you have a place out here. Are you kidding me? You know, it's like free beer or something. You know, it's –and I'm not going to say, “Oh, I'm a private person.” I'm not a private person. My friends, you know, whatever you have, you share with all your friends. And it's not like I have that many friends, but when I had a house out here, I had more friends.
But they're always welcome. But it was a little bit different, like a lot of people, you know, they’ll say, “Oh, you know, Todd Gordon, dirtbag climber.” Well, I'm not a dirtbag climber because I own a house and I have a job. I bathe, I put on a tie. I go to work every single day and I have a college degree and I always have money coming in, I have a retirement, I have health insurance. I always had really crappy cars; I was just thinking about that today, you know it was not unusual to have a car for five years that didn't have a heater in it or was missing a window or something…
But, you know, that wasn't important. Important was going on climbing trips and going climbing and everything. But once you had a house out here, you know, and, you know, people could stay here and they could stay here as long as they wanted to. And there was no real rules other than, you know, a couple of people got kicked out. The only rule was you had to be a climber; you couldn't just be like a drifter or a hobo. And –but if you're a climber and you came here like a girl with their boyfriend or some guy with this girlfriend or something, or a little brother or dad or somebody. You know, they didn't have to be a climber, but you couldn’t just come and stay here.
And people could here and stay as long as they want, and I've gotten letters from people, a lot of them, they're saying, “Hey, this is a time where my parents kicked me out of my house; I didn't have any money, I didn't have anywhere to go. And I just came to your house and stayed there. And I didn't have any money to chip in, and I appreciate it because, you know, now I have a family and a job and I'm –but, you know, it was the time of my life where I didn’t have anywhere to go. But I went there and I had a home and I had a community and I had people that cared about me and knew my name and…”
And they got to live the life and climb, but, you know, they weren't in the campground where, you know, it was cold and lonely. I mean, it was at my house. I mean, I had like a cable TV, I mean, satellite TV. And I had the movie channel and I had a washing machine and a fireplace and… but you know what, I wasn't there all the time, though. Like a lot of these guys, you know, they would stay up late and get up in the morning, but I had to get up at 5:30 and go to work and put a tie on and go to work. And, you know, they could slack line and drink beer or go climbing every single day, and I could only go climbing on the weekends.
Sometimes I would go after school. And all these kind of things would always go on at the house, and they'd always tell me about it and I go, “Oh, that's nice, but I wasn't a part of–” A lot of stuff I wasn't a part of. So a lot of the times, for 20 years, I had a house out here and all kinds of antics go on; I've even read about it in climbing magazines and stories and stuff. But I wasn't there for a lot of that, those kind of shenanigans.
SN: You weren't the ringleader.
TG: The only time –yeah, I wasn't. The only time that people got kicked out; there was one person that stayed there for about eight months and he didn't climb and I said, “You got to leave.” And he says, “Why?” I said, well, “You're not a climber.” He goes, “Well, I'll go do a climb.” I go, “Nah that doesn't –that's not how it works. You know, you just don't go do one climb, then you stay eight months.” I said, “You gotta go,” and he’s goin’, “In two weeks?” And I’m going, “Ten days.” “Twelve days?” You know, that kind of crap. And then another time, there was a friend who was there, and he was kind of mentally ill and he had like a crossbow or a bow and arrow, and he put an arrow in and pointed at someone. Now I don't think he was –he wasn't mad or malicious or anything like that, but you can't do that kind of stuff, especially if you have some mental issues.
And so I said, “You had to go.” And –but you know what, like a lot of people didn't have any food, you know, if you did the dishes, you know, then you would get fed, and everybody would chip in: “Oh, I have…” You know, it was like, “Oh, I have potatoes. I'll get carrots, I'll get beer, I got chips.” And, you know, they'd have these community dinners. It's usually stuff that I didn't want to eat. And the guys cooking it, they're not –their hands aren't clean and stuff a lot of times. But, you know, people live that way. I didn't. But I have. But I didn't do it all day, every day.
And it's really exciting ‘cause I met people from all over the world too, you know, and then they would invite me to their place and I had free airfare, so I’d just go and, you know, if someone stays at your house for, you know, two or three months, you know, they want you to come for a week and they'll show you a really good time. But they don't want you to come for four months. A lot of people can't pull that off. But, you know, I met people from Czechoslovakia and they invited me to Czechoslovakia when it was still a communist country. And we went over there and it was kind of a big deal because we were some of the first Westerners to climb over there and they showed us a really good time. And they came then they came over here and stayed here, and some of them –one of the guys stayed about five months at my house, and then he stayed a year at my parents’ house and learned to speak English, went back to Czechoslovakia and got a good job and now he's like a multimillionaire. But when I knew him, he was living on a thousand dollars a year. When I first met him. And then, you know, a lot of people that, you know, they get out of college and what are they going to do? You know, just become climbing bums and –nobody wants to be on the December night up in the campground by yourself, freezing ass when they can come down here and have the movie channel on HBO, a bunch of people, a community dinner.
And then my garage turned into a climbing gym; these climbers built a really extensive climbing gym down there and everybody donated holds. But you know what? It wasn't like they're all bums, like I’d come home from work and they say, “Oh, the water heater blew up and was leaking all over and everybody chipped in and bought you a new one and we installed it.” And other times when I was gone for a couple of months and a fire came really close to my house. A bunch of people without even asking, without even telling me, they came up and started boxing up all my (I have eight hundred and fifty climbing guidebooks) they boxed them all up and went through a bunch of my sh** and got valuables and put it in boxes in case the fire came down here.
And I didn't find out about it until like a month after this stuff even happened. And people have been really, really kind to me, it's been… for every time it was a pain in the ass, there was 300 times where it was a totally awesome thing to meet people from all over the world that are motivated and fit and funny and want to share stuff and… I don't know, it was… I look back at it very fondly. And you know, a lot of these people I'm still really, really good friends with, you know.Some of them are still like –still live that way. And they're like, you know, 60 years old. They're still sleeping on people's sofas and, you know, living by the seat of their pants, and not many of them though. The era of the climbing bum is really gone, because a lot of places like Joshua Tree, you could stay for three or four months and it was free. But then they started paying to get in the park. Then they started paying for the campgrounds and they started putting limits on everything. And, you know, there's still places where you can go, but most places… the climbing boom has to live on zero. You know, it's three dollars a day. And if you have a car, you're not a climbing bum really. You know, because you're not a bum. You've got a car. And to have a car, you have to have insurance, and you've got to have gasoline, and you've got to pay for repairs.
The two climbing bums are guys like Tucker Tech and Dick Cilley, who don't own cars and they can climb every single day and live on three dollars a day. So –there used to be hundreds of them. And now there's only a dozen or so that I know of.
SN: A vanishing breed.
TG: What's that?
SN: A vanishing breed.
TG: It's a vanishing breed, yeah.
SN: Yeah, so you were not a climbing bum, but it sounds like you had an extraordinary tolerance and the kind of ability to welcome them into your life, even though it wasn't your life.
TG: Yeah, but it's really, really easy because every single day I would go to school and there'd be like thirty-five fourth graders, or thirty kindergartners or sixth graders. And you have to be really patient and kind and tolerant. And if there's a problem, you got to troubleshoot it and you gotta keep it cool, and you got to be organized and you got to… you can't … and some of these guys, these little kids, they have so many problems, you know, this isn’t an area of really affluent persons; it's a poor area where there's a lot of domestic violence and there's a lot of drug abuse and there's a lot of, you know, uneducated people and there's a lot of people that run out here to hide. And the kids have a lot of problems, but you got to be really kind and understanding and patient with them. And then you come home and here’s these same kids, but they're adults now. And, you know, I'm a very, very tolerant, kind, patient person that, you know, and everybody's got an interesting story and… And everybody wants to be part of a group, and everybody wants to have friends and everybody wants to eat and everybody wants to have fun and, you know, those are our little common grounds. And, you know, everybody's welcome. Everybody was always welcome here and everybody’s still always welcome in my life. You know, no matter where they're coming from. All my students, you know, they're my students, but, you know, they can call me up any time; “Hey, I need a ride,” or, you know, “I need twenty dollars,” or whatever, just… You know, just because someone's in your life for part of your time, they’re in your life forever, ‘specially anybody that needs anything, you know. People have needs and the climbing community is a very small community where people really take care of each other. And, you know, even in a small town like Joshua Tree, there's people they have their little tiffs and they don't talk to each other for a couple of years. But if somebody breaks a leg, the guy who didn't talk to you for two years; he’s the first guy that’ll come there and, you know, bringing your dinner, you know, something like that. I think when people, you know, when they don't get along with each other, they have some problems, they really want to get together, but their egos and their stubbornness doesn't get them together. And then when they finally have an excuse to make amends, they're going to jump on that chance to make amends. You know, it's a lot of people, you know, why wait ‘til you're old to say you're sorry or to make things right, you know, do it so you're not on your deathbed and then you have a big list of people you want to say you're sorry to, or say “I love you,” or say “Hello” or something like that. You know, just do it during your life and it's really easy in the climbing community because you see everybody, especially in Joshua Tree, you see a lot of people; I think in Joshua Tree, I think there's a lot of climbers that live here right now, but a lot of them aren’t really active. I think a lot of people, they live in Orange County or L.A. or San Diego and they can't wait to come out to Joshua Tree, because it's so different from their city and it's exciting and that's what they want to spend their time and free time and money on, and they love it so much. And then they say, “Oh, I'm just going to move out to Joshua Tree.” And then they move out here and they're really busy with their laundry and their jobs and everything. And it's not that big of a deal anymore. And they don't climb as much. They climbed before when they lived in L.A. or San Diego or Orange County than they did when they move out here. And, you know, a lot of times people get lazy out here. You know, there's the TV and there's the beer, there's the pizza and it's hot or it's cold or, you know. There's a million excuses not to climb, but if you go all the time, you know, you get used to your routine and a lot of people, you know, they think the climbing is about the climbing, but a lot of it, people are really familiar with the routine. And, you know, it can be –your routine could be, you know, watching American football and pizza and beer. But you don't take that away from them because that's part of their routine. Or it could be a cup of coffee at Starbucks, and it could be climbing. But, you know, their routine makes them feel safe. It makes them feel OK and it makes their life take the bumps out of it, the ups and downs. And for people that live in here, if you climb a lot, that's part of your routine. And it might not be the climbing, but it has all to do with the security and the whole thing about the psychology behind the routine, and I think also, you know, climbing, it's more about the human interaction, you know, I mean, there's some people that aren't so good with humans and then they're the ones that solo things, or they have some demons they have to squelch somehow so they'll go up and punish themselves on some big wall solo.
But you know what? I'd rather go up there with a friend and, you know, a lot of times if you work and have a family, the only times you can really see your friends is during your free time. And if you don't have a lot of free time and you like to rock climb, you gotta double and triple up on stuff. Like, you know, “OK, I like to climb and I like to see my friends, but I don't have a lot of free time, so the only time I can see my friends is the climbing.”
So the climbing is the time that when you see your friends. Climbing’s the time when you get exercise; the climbing is also the time where it takes your mind to another place. You're not thinking about your finances or your relationship, your broken down car, your taxes, it's one of those things where it demands a kind of, you know, here-and-now focus that's really good.And unfortunately, a lot of people who work really hard and they like to drink, and they only have a free time; they like to climb, they like to see their friends and they like to drink. So then they do those three things together, and fortunately, I don't drink any alcohol, so I didn't fall into that thing. But, you know, time is precious. And as we get older, you know, we find out that, you know, when you're young, you say, “Oh, you know, what about this? What about ... ?” What about it? You know, I got lots of time to do whatever I want to do. Now, you can kind of just map things out. “Alright, in five years, I'm going to be 70.” And then when you think in 15 years, I'm going to be 80, and then you're just saying, “Let's not let's not even go there,” because a lot of your favorite things that you like to do, they're over. But you know what? Hopefully by that time you've assimilated into a new, different lifestyle where you have your needs met, you know, through playing music or writing poetry or yoga or… pickleball or whatever, shuffleboard, I don't know.
SN: I'm going to jump in here because we’ve run over time and we’ve had you talking to us for an hour. Are sure you're good to talk a little longer or shall we…?
TG: No, I'm good for –like I said, I have nothing but free time. But I know I haven't talked a lot about Joshua Tree. And this is about the history of Joshua Tree.
SN: Well, this is only our first pass with you, Todd. This is not the end of our story. But I do want to bring Emilio in at this point and let him take over and talk to you a bit about your guidebook and your collection of guidebooks that you mentioned a few minutes ago. And [audio interference] with that as we need that and then we're going to wrap it up for this segment and we'll come back and talk more, and I am freezing?
TG: You were fading there a little bit. I just want to know, is this the kind of interview that you guys want? I don't even really know. I mean, you know.
SN: Yep, no, you're right on target. You're giving us exactly what we needed. But as you say, there's just so much to talk about. So I do want to turn it over to Emilio for that focus, and then and then we'll wrap it up for this time and we'll talk about what's going to happen next, okay?
TG: Yeah, anything you want. Like I said, I've nothing –I got lots of free time. I don't work right now. So… although my kids are going through this, the online school, and I have two 14-year-olds and a 16-year-old and they're adjusting to the new sitting in front of the computer instead of in the classroom. So we're working really hard to make that adjustment smoother. My wife's a teacher, so she has to go teach in front of a camera and have all her students online now. So it's challenging now, but we're doing the best we can with what we got, so that's the best we can do.
ET: Yeah, we're having that problem, too, trying to transition from using recorders directly, to trying to use Google Hangout, Zoom, what have you.
TG: This is the first time I've ever been on a Zoom meeting, so it's –my wife does it all the time as a person who works. But yeah, it works, but I've seen Zoom meetings where they have like ten people on it. I'm just like, “No way.” You know, it just seems too much feedback; with the three, it's okay.
ET: Yeah, well, I wanted to ask you or just get into some questions about your guidebook, which I had a chance to review, and specifically when you mentioned the words or the phrase “dirty and dangerous” when describing the climbs you were doing in your junior. And that kind of reminded me of a climb that you described in your book, Papa Woolsey. And you mentioned that it represented the future of climbing at Joshua Tree in that point in time. Why do you think that was?
TG: Well, it was a climb where you –it was all bolted and you didn't need to bring a lot of gear with you and, you know, also doing a sport climbing guide, like, I would say 99.9% of people who write sport guides are really good sport climbers. I'm not a good sport climber. I suck, out of all the people that written sports climbing guides, I am positive I am the worst sport climber out of all of them. But, living in Joshua Tree, I loved it and I climbed a bunch, and then when I got married, me and my wife traveled all over and climbed a bunch. But then as soon as I had a child, I couldn't go anywhere and I had to stay here, and then a year and a half later, I had twins. And that was all she wrote. You know, we didn't have any money, we didn't have any time, and I couldn't go anywhere, so I was destined to stay in Joshua Tree to the end of time. And it's a booby prize, so it's not that big of a deal because I want to live in an area that had unlimited climbing and that was Joshua Tree.
But that's one reason why I wrote the sport guide and one reason why I climbed so much in Joshua Tree and one reason why I’m The Mayor is because I had absolutely no opportunity that I could see to go anywhere. I had a job and I was getting paid, my wife had to take off four years because we had three babies at once, so she couldn't work. So we got really poor. But you know what? I could still always go climbing; that was one of my saving graces.But even like 15 or 20 years ago, I was going, “God, I’ve climbed so much in Joshua Tree, I need to move away from this place, man.” It just didn't seem like there was anybody who climbed as much as me, and that was 20 years ago. And 20 years ago, compared to now, I hadn't even climbed out here that much. But I think it's just it's not like I even really planned it out that way. But you know what? Sometimes, you know, when you get married and have a family, and you stay in one place and you stay with something, you can really take it to the next level a bunch of different times. And I just think I did that and everything, and a lot of people say, “Oh, you know, you're really lucky you get to climb out of Joshua Tree a lot.” Well, there was a lot of sacrifices made. You know, I had to get a job and I couldn't travel anywhere else. And I was broke-assed and, you know, we had sh**** cars and just, you know, what it's like to be a school teacher and have a family, a single income and… but, you know, I've never gotten tired of it. During the summer, it's really hot, during the winter, people that know how cold and windy it gets out here; you do [indicates to Sally], ‘cause you live around here and you probably come out here a bunch, but, you know, it's harsh out here. And the climbs are dinky. And like some people think, “Oh, yeah, you must love Joshua Tree.” I love Joshua Tree, but I love rock climbing. I could go to another area that has as much climbing and love it just as much. Joshua Tree is not my favorite climbing area, but you know what? It's probably one of my favorite places; it’s a really safe place for me. I feel right at home here. I like all the people, I like having a house where I can share, but I don't share so much anymore. As soon as I had kids and a family, I had to boot all the hobos out.
But my friends come and visit, and we have a little campgrounds here that my friends can kind of stay in. But, you know, they're self-contained. They don't come in the house or anything and… yeah, before when I lived here, the guys that lived here, it was their house, you know, it was their house as much as my house, even though I paid the rent and everything like that. It's where they lived and it's where they had their stuff. That's where they cooked and where they showered, and it was their house as much as my house.
ET: So you’ve really seen the development of the history of climbing at Joshua Tree really develop over time with your experience; do you see like a path that climbing is taking at Joshua Tree?
TG: I don't think it's changed here anymore than anywhere else. It was, you know, the big turning points where, you know, back in the old days when they went from stoppers to pitons to stoppers and hexes; that was good because it saved the rock, but there weren't many climbers here. There's a couple hundred. Then when cams came out, it made things safer and bumped things up, then when sports climbers came, people started climbing more. Then when gyms came out, people started exercising, but they didn't climb as much outside. So they were really strong, but they didn't have the experiences of outdoors. Then when the Internet came out, people could communicate better and differently. Those were the big changes. But they weren't big changes, they were big changes that just happened everywhere in the world, not in climbing, but in every single sport and every single aspects of our life. Except for like sticky rubber and stuff like that. But, you know, as far as –and then, the Instagram and selfies have really brought a bunch of people out now. And I think the need for people to be as, you know, things get more stressful, people need to be out in the wilderness more. But, you know, Joshua Tree’s a funny place, because you know what? As far as seeing things change, I don't really think things change other than when you drive in and there's a long line at the kiosk and they're taking care of that right now. But Joshua Tree for me hasn't really changed because some people say, “Oh, Joshua is really crowded.” It's only crowded for –you know, there's thirteen thousand climbs out here. It's crowded for about two hundred of them. And people just go to those two hundred and then complain about it. It’s like, you know, the kitchen's too hot, go in another room. I would say the majority of time that I go out climbing, I don't see anybody. And that's what Joshua Tree is for me, and for a lot of people, the locals that live out here, you know, you climb after work and go do something obscure; they're not going to do, you know, Sail Away and Right On and Mental Physics. We did those a long time ago and we've done ‘em many, many times. And we don't do those climbs anymore, unless somebody really wants to, then we'll go do it again. Then we got to stand in line like everybody else, or go there when we know the people aren't going to be there. But for me, climbing in Joshua Tree, it's like 90 percent of the time, I don't see anybody. I see people driving out there and I see people in the parking lot. But as soon as you walk five or ten minutes, you don't see anybody. And it's just like it was for 40 years ago; I've been climbing here for almost 40 years now.
ET: Yeah. So you kind of mentioned how these people, these [climbs] really are not being sought out as much as they were in previous years. And that kind of reminds me of a quote that John Long wrote in the foreword to your book where he says, “few know where the trad routes are, and fewer still know anything per quality [about trad routes].” Do you think that's pretty much true to today?
TG: Well, quality is a really interesting thing, though; it seems like quality –everybody has their own version of quality, and I really think that it's an individual thing. Like, you know, there's certain rules you do and you'll get a consensus that everybody really loves it. But for me, it's not about the climb, it's about the experience. Like, I can go on a really good climb, and if I'm with someone who's complaining or I didn't want to do the climb with or anything, I had a sh**** experience. But if I'm with someone who I just was dying to see and I'm –we can go to the crappiest climb, and be like one of the greatest days of my life. So you know what, the quality experience is up to the climber, to have that quality experience. And the more you go, you know, the safer you are and the more you feel at home in that world and the more you can share things in a place where you feel really, really comfortable, just like the guys at the Cheers Bar. They seem like they're nice and comfortable there and they're having a good time and they're there for a reason.
Hopefully it's a good one. But for me, just, you know, going out, climbing with my friends, I'm going out there and have a good time. I'm not going out there to have a bad time. I'm not going out there to exercise any exorcists, any demons or anything like that. And I have a really good time. Now, if it's a really super good climb, it seems like it's easier to have a good time. But we have a really, really, really good time. And I believe it's our responsibility to have the quality experience, which makes, you know... it mixes things up, ‘cause sometimes you’ll say, “Oh, that climb’s really good!” “Oh, that climb really sucks.” But you remember back to that day where you were with your friends, and it was just such an awesome day because it had to do with the quality of the people and the way you were feeling and everything. And you get a little bit mixed up when you start putting stars on climbs. Sometimes you can kind of kind of overrate that just because of the experience and vice versa. You know, if it's sh**** and you're not having a good time and your friend’s not in the right spot and place, you know, mentally or emotionally and spiritually or something, you know, then you say, “Oh, that climb’s not really not that good.” So you got to be able to decipher that. And it's a hard thing to do, though, you know.And as far as John Long writing that, like I've known John Long since we were teenagers and everything like that. And, you know, I've seen him evolve from this world class climber to, you know, a dad, to an injured person, to a senior, to, you know, through all of this, you know, I've kind of watched him. It's not like we're best buddies or anything but, you know, I see him all the time. I climb with him now more than when we were younger, like, I'd see him sometimes and we’d share a rope and there was a bunch of people, you know, top roping something.
But, you know, I go out climbing with him now, because this he’s my good buddy now, because we're you know, we're old geezers and, you know, we want to go out and do things that we like to do. And, you know, he is –you know, his foot's messed up now from a climbing accident he had, so… but you know what? He wrote that thing, and that was really kind of him to do it and he likes to write and it was really flowery and, you know, I gave him a free copy of the book. And, you know, I wanted him to write it because, you know, he’s a big famous climber. And I knew he'd write something really good. And, you know, as far as writing the guidebook, I've never written a book before. That book took me like ten years to write. And it's not like I'm really dumb, but I'm not all that smart. But I'm smart enough to do it in less than ten years. But it started out, there was like two hundred routes in it. And then each year, you know, there's like, I don't know, 50… 50, 70 new sport climbs done. So you just kind of, you know, you're not done with ‘em, you gotta put those in and you’ve gotta change the index and you gotta fit ‘em in, and then you gotta put new pictures in there, and then you show it to someone and then you gotta take some out and then you add some more. And each year it just kept on –I could never finish it, because there was always so much new information going on. And then things going on in my life too. And I didn't know if it would ever get done. But then it did get done and, you know, I don't know if people really like it. I just know I'm a little bit different than other guidebook authors because like I said, I'm not much of a sport climber. I'm like a 5.10 sport climber, and 5.10 sport climbers, a lot of real sports climbers, they say there's no such thing, because sport climbing starts at 5.11 or 5.12, you know, but it's different. And also, I'm not, you know, even being a school teacher, I'm not a big academic or anything like that. But what I wanted to do, I did have information that a lot of other people didn't have. And also I really, really wanted to be accurate. So I gave it to –the copies of it– to all my friends before I put it out. And I thought, “Oh, there can't be that many mistakes.” Guys would find like fifty or a hundred mistakes in it, and [inaudible] find fifty or a hundred; I'm just going, “You gotta be kidding me.” And then people would, you know, they –I know so many people that I was able to talk to so many people to get the information really accurate. And I also wanted to –some of my favorite guidebooks are the Al Bartlett’s series of Joshua Tree, Randy Vogel’s original Joshua Tree Guide Book, Donny Reid’s Yosemite Guidebook, Alan Watts’ Smith Rock Guide and Eric Bjornstad’s Desert Rock ones, and then some of those ones for like the Gunks and stuff, and some of those European ones, they're just so good.
And, you know, I knew I couldn't do one that good, but I kind of tried to model myself to do the best I could after those guys. And one of the things that you have to do is you have to go out and climb the damn climbs. And I went out and I did every single one of the climbs in my sport guide that I possibly could do, and some that I couldn't do, and the ones that I couldn't do I talked to people who had done it or who did the first ascent of the climbs. And, you know, Joshua Tree’s such a vast area, and there's a lot of rules about new routes. So a lot of people do new routes, they don't tell anybody. But, you know, I went and snuck and got information from everybody because I'm part of an underground network of, you know, getting information in new routes and stuff. And so it's different than other areas, like a lot of people, they just go out and see like, you know, Index or some places, Tahquitz. You see bolts. What's that route? You find out what it is. But, Joshua Tree, there's so many climbs all over, you'd never know where they were if you didn't have a guidebook. And, you know, a lot of people, they don't give a crap anyways, because they don't come out here so much, because people climb ten days in the gym and one day outside, ten days in the gym, one day outside, ten days in gym, one day outside. So, you know, the generation of people coming out and doing a thousand routes at Joshua Tree, they don't do that anymore. They don't want to know where these oddball ones that are hard to find out in the middle of nowhere. Nobody's even interested in those things. So they'll be like cassette players or books or something really soon. They'll be obsolete and they'll just turn into museum things. And that's okay. They probably should. But climbing’s evolving that way from the gyms, although with this COVID thing, people have been forced to do something else. Like actually go rock climbing or, you know, do something different. Who knows what the long term effect of that is. As far as my guide book, I think the good selling points –like I don't have to say, “Hey, buy my guidebook, it's really bitchin’.” First of all, I'm not in charge of selling it at all. You know, I –the publisher, that’s his job. I screwed up the index and I got fined, so I haven't really made any money off that thing; I'm just starting to make a little bit but then COVID hit. I didn't do it to make money, I'll never make money off the thing. But you know what, here's the strong points: it has John Long’s intro. That's a strong point. It has really awesome pictures in there of really awesome climbs and really cool people. And it has information that you can't get in other places.
And, you know, if you don't like John Long's intro or you don't like really cool pictures or you don't like information you can't get anywhere else about really cool climbs –that's kind of like on a really hot day, “Hey, you want a beer? Or you want an ice cream?” If somebody says no, you don't gotta twist their arm, you know? I mean, are there better guidebooks? Robert Miramontes’ guide book is awesome. I would never tell anybody not to buy it. It's really, really good. Randy Vogel’s guidebook’s really good; Bob Gaines’ is really good. And those guys know a lot more about putting out guidebooks. And that's why Randy's 1993 guidebook, when it came out, it had so much information that no one knew about it. It was just like a… we were just thinking, we're going to come here every single weekend for the next 10 years and do these routes because we are so excited about it. When my guidebook book come out, you know, if people didn't have gyms, I think they'd feel the same way about it. I mean, there's locals in here that they say, “Oh, I know so much about Joshua Tree.” When my guidebook came out, they looked at it and they said, “I didn't know about this. I didn't know about this. I've never heard about this.” All the people that said, “There's no sport climbs at Joshua Tree,” they found that there were a lot more, but like I said, you know, there's a lot of rules in here and a lot of people, you know, they put up new routes and don't tell anybody because there's a lot of rules and… You know, that's a whole ‘nother thing, but if you're a sport climber and you like to climb a lot, and you want to do a bunch of things –but see now that once the guidebook’s out, then people’ll get those things and they start putting them on Mountain Project [4]. So you're kind of giving it away for free there. There's nothing you can do about that. And I put stuff on Mountain Project too, but I tried really hard not to put any of my sport climbs on there, ‘cause you know. Then –I know people; why would they buy my guidebook when they can get it for free?
But, I don't know. You have a copy. The pictures are cool, aren’t they? Greg Epperson gave me like –he didn't give it to me. He sold ‘em to me. He's like one of my best friends. But you know what? I still got ‘em at a really super, super bro deal. And they’re awesome you know, I mean, how many times have you looked at a guidebook and saw a picture and you're going, “I want to do that climb,” then you go do it because of a picture that you saw? You know, it happens all the time. But, yeah, I'm proud of it, and you know, I wrote a book. Hey, man, I don't know. It’s an amazing thing.
ET: Truly impressive, yeah. Well, that's all the questions I had, unless, Sally, you other questions?
TG: So any time you want to go climbing, let's go, too.
ET: Oh, definitely. Well, I'm going to Joshua Tree twice, in October and then November, so I'll definitely let you know when I'm there.
TG: Just hit me up and we have an Airbnb campgrounds here. But, you know, just tell me when you want, and we’ll just reserve a site for you, you don’t have to pay anything. You just come out and we'll go rope it up, and I think that's one of the really hard things about Joshua Tree now, you know, people that can't come here because they can't get a campsite; it's really, really, really, really, really hard to get a campsite. And if you come out here on a Friday night, you gotta drive around for two or three hours, you're tired, you're going to get pissed. You're never going to want to come here again. But if you have friends that live out here or get Airbnb house with some people or do Airbnb camping or go camp out on the dry lake bed, which, you know, that's not my style. But, you know, you set up tent up there, someone can steal it, you know, who knows? I don't know. But you've got to get a place to stay, or your weekend can really unravel. But anyways, let me know if you need a place to stay, or if you want to want to go climbing. I'd love to rope up with you, it’d be super fun. Sally too.
SN: We'll definitely be back in touch with you when they're out there, I know Emilio’s planning a trip already. So we'll be back in touch about that.
TG: OK. I hope some of my information is kind of crossed over to what other people are saying too.
SN: Absolutely. And a lot of it actually is information, as with your guidebook, that we couldn’t get anywhere else.
TG: It was what?
SN: So it was an extremely helpful –Emilio, I'm going to say thank you, we could take it off record right now–

[1] A portaledge is a hanging tent system that is used during the ascent of a big wall.

[2] This is not a specific climbing site, but actually a larger network of sandstone towers in Southern Utah located across various national parks, centered in Moab.

[3] A mud Hogan is the traditional home in the Diné (Navajo) culture. They are constructed out of mud, wooden poles, and tree bark. For more information see:

[4] Mountain Project is a climbing website used to discuss and share routes.

Content Summary (2): In this second interview, Todd discusses the sport climbs in Joshua Tree National Park, from their initial reception to their contemporary resurgence in popularity. The fame of classic climbs in the park are described to be influenced by the individuals who put them up, difficulty, and physical characteristics. The Snake Pit’s routes are examined as they fit into the larger character of Joshua Tree.

[1] Todd participated in two interviews with the study. They are represented by (1) and (2).

  • Bob Gaines
  • Randy Leavitt
  • Snake Pit (Formation)
  • Headstone Rock (Formation)
  • Ivory Tower Climbs (Area)
  • Bikini Whale [Chasing the Concord] (5.12)
  • Cactus Flower (5.11)
  • Cryptic (5.8)
  • Iconoclast (5.13)
  • Illusion Dweller [Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby] (5.10)
  • Figures On a Landscape (5.10)
  • Loose Lady (5.10)
  • Physical Graffiti (5.10)
  • Sexy Grandma (5.9)
  • Spanish Bombs [Stand and Deliver] (5.12)
  • SW Corner (5.6)
SN: Okay, good morning, today is Friday, February 5th. This is Sally Ness for the Historic Resource Study of Recreational Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. I'm here today with my assistant, Emilio Triguero. And our second-time interviewee today is Todd Gordon. Thank you Todd for coming back and talking with us a second time today.
TG: Thanks for inviting me.
SN: Great. So just to remind you, our informed consent process always emphasizes that if for any reason there's any question that you prefer not to answer, just let us know and we will move right on, okay?
TG: Yeah, I got no problem with that.
SN: Great. So last interview, our first interview, we got a really good sense of your individual climbing history, your individual relationship to Joshua Tree, and we talked about your role as “the mayor” of Joshua Tree and why that nickname was applied and so on. And what I'd really like to focus right in on today is a discussion of the actual climbing in the park, which we didn't really talk about so much in the last interview and your impressions and your observations of what happened in the park that really was –from the standpoint of the history of climbing worldwide and the history of climbing in the United States– what was really historic that happened in the park? So that's kind of where I'm going to be focusing today and I'm going to try to get as concrete as possible with you. So just be prepared if I seem to be kind of picking your brains. [Laughs]
TG: Okay, that's fine. That's fine.
SN: I was looking at your guide book again this morning when I was getting ready for this interview and I was struck looking through it about the star rating, not the difficulty rating, but the star rating that you're using for different climbs in different areas of the park. And what really stands out about certain climbs as being “classic”, the three star rating as opposed to two or one stars, is something that I'm thinking maybe I can start to use myself, not in relation to the quality of the climb or as somebody who's about to do it might want to know. But really, in relation to how historic or how important it is in the history of climbing at the park, what would actually be a three star route? Does that make sense?
TG: Yeah, it does, and there's lots of reasons why these climbs become classic. A lot of it has to do with accessibility. I mean, if there's a climb and it's really, really good and you have to hike five miles to get to it, and it's really hard to find, it has to be really, really, really, really, really, really, really good if you have to go to long measures to get to it. A lot of times things that –if it's a really, really good climb and it's in the campground, then it'll get kind of a classic reputation and it'll get, you know, the maximum amount of three stars. A lot of people don't like the three stars one because you have to be more specific. If you go to five stars, you have a little bit more wiggle room to give it one star, no stars, one star, two stars, three stars, four stars or five stars. But if you go by one, two and three, you know… there's some guidebooks [inaudible] and you look at them and they have all these five-star ones [inaudible] not all that good, then it waters things down a little bit. [Inaudible], you know, it should be really good. It should be consensus; if a hundred people did it, you know, ninety of them said [inaudible] of stars. My guidebook [inaudible].
SN: The last several sentences were not audible, unfortunately.
TG: Oh okay, sorry. I was just saying in my guide book, I give almost everything one star because I think climbs are all really good, and you can have a good time on any kind of climb. And there are things that the three stars or four star, five stars and people have a bad time on it. But that's their problem. Either they just have a bit –they're grouchy or they're not with a good partner for the day or are they [inaudible] climbing or something, so that's why I think every climb, if you're gonna go do it, it should have at least one star. Two stars is a great, great, awesome climb. And the three star ones are the best in the park. And you don't want to give too many of the maximum stars out because then it waters down the classic-ness of the climb. That's my theory–
TG: Do I keep on getting disconnected?
SN: Yeah, what you just said was totally clear and then at the very end you got disconnected, so we got it, so that was–
TG: I was just saying that you don't give out too many of the maximum amount of stars, because then people, they’ll say, “Well, there sure are a lot of classic climbs,” and they go do them. You know, make them real, real special. If they're going to have the maximum, they should be really, really special.
SN: Yeah. So Todd, here's my question for you, if you were going to be using the star rating to talk about which of the climbs that are sport climbs, let's just focus on that, are really historically important, like something really significant happened when that climb was first put up. Or throughout its use, important things happened on it that were –things that were memorable from the standpoint of the history of climbing in the park.
TG: Yeah, I’m trying to think about it, you know, Joshua Tree, it's mostly a trad area, obviously, you know that. But I would say that, you know, only like one tenth of the climbs in the park are sport climbs. And so as far as their significance… boy, I don't really even know. I think some of the climbs like the Headstone climbs on the Headstone Rock in Ryan campground; those are considered classic climbs. And they are, you could put them in Yosemite and they'd be really popular there. And they are bolted sport climbs, even though when they were first done, they were done with less bolts and they wouldn't be considered sport climbs. But over the years, they've acquired more bolts and they’re sport climbs. It's just really good climbing on good rock and a very awesome, exposed, beautiful setting with a fantastic summit. So the Headstone climbs, and they were done a long, long time ago because, you know, even in the ‘60s or something, when people drove out here and it was all dirt roads, you could see that thing; it was a big landmark. And the first ascent of that was a historic moment for Joshua Tree. You know, it's an awesome formation; the climbing’s really good, the summit’s really good and it's a must-do climb for climbers to come visit is the Headstone climbs. I'm trying to think of any other ones that are really classic. You know, nowadays–
SN: Todd, before you go on, just to be clear that I know what you’re talking about, are these the climbs Cryptic and the Southwest [SW] Corner?
TG: Yes. Yeah, Cryptic and Southwest Corner.
SN: Okay, great. Yeah no, you're right on track. That's the kind of route that I'm trying to identify, routes that are really important in the history of the park. And it could be for a variety of reasons. And with regard to sport climbing, I think that one of the things that we've learned since we talked to you the last time is how important the transition from trad climbing to sport climbing is in the history of the park, because it was such a contested transition in many cases.
TG: Well, it never really transitioned.
SN: Exactly.
TG: Because, yeah, sport climbers, a lot of sport climbers don't like coming here. And even though there's a sport climbing guide and there's over a thousand sport climbs here, people still say –you can go on the Internet and they'll say, “Joshua Tree’s not a sport climbing area. It's not a sport climber-friendly place. The sport climbs aren't real sport climbs.” And a lot of times they are because they have –the bolts are close enough that sport climbers can do them and they have a sport anchor on, so you don't have to bring any trad gear and you have don't know how to place it, you don't have to own it or bring it. But Joshua Tree is funny because a lot of the climbs, the holds are really small here. When a lot of areas, the climbs are steeper with bigger holds. And that's what most people think of when sport climbing, when at Joshua Tree the sport climbs, the bolts are close so you don't have to bring any trad gear, but a lot of times they’re slabby, and the climbs don't have very many holds on them or they’re really, really small. So the climbers that are trained in the gym for actually grabbing something with their fingers and standing on something with their feet, they come out here and they just have to smear with their feet and just use their fingertips or their fingernails on the very, very small holds on some of the sport climbs here, like a lot of them, actually. And so that's why Joshua Tree is not considered a sport climbing area and also sport climbing areas, you go to the area and like there's a sport climb here and then five feet away, there's another one, and five feet away there's another one, and five feet away and they're all lined up. But here they're kind of some here, some there. And there's a few places where there's, you know, five or six in a row. And those areas are really popular. But a lot of times, there's one sport climb here and then if you’re a sport climber, you got to drive or walk somewhere else to get to another sport climb. And you know what, I'm not even really that good of a sport climber, I'm like a 5.10 sport climber. So I have to be one of the only persons in the world who wrote a sport climbing guide and I'm not a very good sport climber, but I know a lot about the sport climbs in Joshua Tree. And Joshua Tree does have a lot of moderate sport climbers, too. And I know a lot about them just because I've lived here a long time and I've done those moderate sport climbs. I've done some of the 5.11 ones, but for real sport climbers, those are still considered moderate ones.
SN: And you’ve also written in your guidebook about this period when sport climbing and the rap-bolting practices that went along with it was first introduced and that there was this period where there was a lot of conflict related to that, right?
TG: Yeah, but if you look at it in the big picture, it was very… it was a time where there weren't that many climbers, and it’s not like nowadays where something [inaudible] of people find out about it on the Internet.
SN: I'm sorry you're breaking up, that last sentence–
TG: Is that better now?
SN: Yeah.
TG: Okay. It was just such a small group of climbers, that there was no Internet that even the thing with the rap-bolting and this supposedly, you know, bolting wars and stuff. In the big picture, it was such a small little thing; like today, if anything happens, you know, thousands of people find out about it on the Internet. But back then, it's just around the campfire. Most people didn’t even know about it and don't even care about it. It's part of Joshua Tree’s history, but as time marches on, it seems pretty small and pretty insignificant at the time.
SN: Okay, so just for the standpoint of corroborating the internal historical chronicle, can you tell us which were some of the oldest or some of the first rap-bolted sport climbs that were put up in the park?
TG: Yeah, let me see what they were. There’s one on Hall of Horrors called the Cactus Flower. That was –no, that wasn't even a rap-bolted one. That one, that was when electric drills, it was legal to use electric drills, and you would have to climb up and then bring up the electric drill or carry the electric drill. But this one, somebody lowered it from above and that was considered cheating. So that one caused a little controversy, but you know, there wasn't probably more than twenty or thirty people that even knew that that was even happening. Yeah, I think the general population didn't even know it, it was just the kind of the people that really climbed a lot and really established a lot of the first ascents. And it was kind of a trend that was going around all over the United States where people were going from, you know, doing things ground up to rap-bolting. And there was a little four or five year period where the first ascension-ists were kind of going from one style to another. And then had a little bumps where some of the other small community members didn't like it, but you know what, sport climbing and gyms came around and now people look back at it as, you know, something that was really silly. But it was a little game that was being played and it made things really, you know, adventuresome, but it did make things, you know, more dangerous. But climbing was more dangerous in the ‘60s, ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. You know, as soon as the sticky rubber came out and the cams came out and sport climbing where the bolts were a little bit closer, and then the bigger bolts instead of the quarter-inch bolts came about; the things were a little bit safer, but, yeah looking back at it, it almost seems like ancient history right now.
SN: Well, that's exactly what we're trying to get down on paper, though. So [inaudible] for us today, Todd.
TG: Right, yeah.
SN: Are there any other climbs, aside from Cactus Flower that come to mind that we could flag, because what we’re doing now is–
TG: Yeah, I'm trying to think with some of the –there were some climbs that some people thought that the –a lot of times, there was a climb –like the whole thing was it was to minimize the amount of bolts. And they had to be put in from the ground to the top, and once you got to the top, the only time you put bolts in there is if there wasn't a way to get a natural anchor in. And if there was ever a crack, you never put a bolt next to a crack. And so a lot of times, I think it started out there was –somebody would put some bolts on the top of a formation as a convenience. Now, if it was a spire like Headstone, you had to have bolts on the top or else you couldn't get down from the summit. But sometimes they just put them up there for a convenience, and a lot of times other climbers didn't like that and they would come and they would undo the bolt, or they would take a chisel and just, you know, chop the bolt out. And a lot of times they’d just unscrew it if it had a nut on the end of it, they would unscrew it from the threaded bolt and just remove the hanger.
SN: Can you think of any particular routes where that happened?
TG: That happened on a bunch of climbs.
SN: Or any particular area? Like did it happen in Hidden Valley or did it happen more in the Wonderland of Rocks or…?
TG: No, it happened in the campground. I'm trying to think of some specifics. And then there were other –and you know what, sometimes when bolts got removed, it wasn't for a very good reason. It was for like an egotistical reason. Like if you didn't like that person and whether it was because they said something about you, they stole your girlfriend, you know, they were from another state, or they were too young or too old, you didn't like the way they dressed or something, you know, some kind of petty ego thing, then that would almost inspire someone to remove the bolts of their climb. And when that happens, that's really a sad day because… you know, you have somebody else's creation and then somebody else is destroying that creation, and it's more an out of ethical thing, but it's more of a personal attack on someone. And that happened a few times, and when that happened, you know, that's a really, really sad day.
SN: Are there any climbs that you connect that with? [Inaudible] sport climbs, did that happen too?
TG: Yeah, there was one where –you know, these climbs, they just disappear. But, you know, they always come back later. There was one, I think it was called Spanish Bombs; someone from Spain put it up, and the locals didn't like it.[1] They thought the bolts were too close or something like that. And then the bolts disappeared, but they reappeared later.
SN: [Inaudible]
TG: You know, I think it had something to do with outsider or something. It's hard for me to remember, but it happened a number of times where the bolts were removed on climbs. But like I said, most of the time they reappear, but sometimes if somebody puts in bolts and then somebody else takes them out and then the person goes back and puts them in right away, they just get removed again. And that's not good at all. But if you wait about five years, it seems like a lot of times the person who chopped the routes or removed the routes, they move, they die, they grow up, they get over themselves, they change their attitude about things. And so, it seems like the best policy for that is if you did a route and someone removes the bolts, it's best to just kind of have a cool-off period of a number of years. But you know what? Routes get removed for a lot of different reasons. Sometimes, you know, the bolts are too close or it's too close to another route. So it steals some of the awesomeness of –if there's a really cool route and somebody puts a bolted route really close to it, a classic crack climb or another bolted route, or if somebody put too many bolts or… I don't know. Different reasons.
SN: Yeah, that’s really helpful [inaudible].
TG: Yeah there's different reasons why things get removed; but you know what? A lot of them aren't for good reasons. But, you know, if there's a really classic climb and someone puts a bolted route five feet away from it, it will get removed. That even goes for today or ten years from now or a hundred years from now. That will always happen. But I think right now, you know, hardly anybody does new routes in the park. In order to do a new route in the park, you have to use a hand drill, and a lot of sport climbing areas, they like to use the electric drill because it's quicker and you can put in a bigger bolt. And when you do a hand drill, the hole gets a little bit wobbly sometime and electric drill just makes a cleaner hole and bigger bolt; it’s a safer thing, but it's a national park and you're not allowed to use motorized things. And also, people don't want to hear that brrr of the electric drill, even though it only lasts less than a minute. When you're hand drilling, it could be forty five minutes of bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. But you know how it is, just rules are rules. And that's where we're at right now. I'm sure a hundred years from now, things could change.
SN: I don't want to stay on this much longer, but just so I understand, make sure that I've got the sort of sequence, this period during which bolting could get chopped, so to speak, you're saying it was there was a period where it was more common early on and now it's less common?
TG: Yeah, now it's almost it's now it's almost unheard of. Yeah. There’s a lot –when the sport climbing first came up, they… before, you started at the bottom and climbed to the top and you just stood there and took out a little tiny drill and a hammer and hammered in the bolts, and then you tried to go really far in between the bolts to minimize the number of bolts. But obviously, the climbs can't be that hard because it has to be easy enough where you can stand there and drill a bolt, and if you want to put the bolts really far away, it can't be that hard because if it's really hard, you're going to be falling a bunch, and every time you fall you don't want to fall thirty feet or something. So the climbs started getting harder and the bolts started getting closer together, obviously. And the reason things started getting harder is because more people were climbing, so you have more of a gene pool to pick. So obviously the standards are going to go up. And then when the gyms came around, that was the type of climbing that people wanted to do. They wanted to do harder climbs with bolts closer together. And a lot of the old guys, they just liked it their old way because they were you know, they weren't climbing as hard and change was hard for them to go around. So when I say chopped, a lot of times it's not like chopping or damaging, a lot of times they just went up with a wrench and took the nut off and pulled the bolt right off. So it wasn't damaging. But sometimes, you know, they went in there and, you know, with a hammer and a claw hammer and pulled the bolt out of the hole and patched up the hole with some epoxy and sand. A lot of times you can't even see if people are really good at it. You know, it's almost returned back to its natural state and unless you stuck your face right up in it. From the ground you know, it's almost undetectable if someone did a good job of removing a bolt and patching it up. But sometimes they just remove the hanger and then that's really hard to see from the ground anyways; if it's a little tiny bolt stud sticking out without a hanger on it, you can't even really see it. But yeah, that was that was probably about twenty-five years ago and it lasted for about five years and it didn't happen that much. Is it significant? I guess it is in the history of climbing, the progression of climbing throughout the nation and throughout the world and throughout Joshua Tree, but in the big scope of things, you know, there was not many players and not many people that were involved and not many people that even gave a damn.
SN: Great. Thank you, I really appreciate your going into detail on that topic for us. That's very helpful.
TG: Yeah, some people find it interesting, some people don't. [Laughs]
SN: Another thing that I wanted to bring up from a historical point of view is try to, again, to try to identify particular routes and events as much as we can. Something that you said in your guidebook, which I totally agree with about the history of Joshua Tree, is that it's really about the climbers and the various characters who created the climbs. And I think that's one of the wonderful things about your book, that it has so many vignettes and it recognizes so many individuals. And so I just wanted to ask you, you've climbed with so many different people who have done a lot of first ascents and who were some of these more memorable characters. And some of them are in your guide book mentioned. And I'm thinking of course from the last interview you talked about David Evans and Randy Vogel, and I think you mentioned Tucker Tech and Steve West. Can you identify for us any really memorable first ascents with any particular individuals that you climbed with that you think really stand out in the history of Joshua Tree, either for the kind of climb that they put up or for the way they did it or anything that makes it really extraordinary.
TG: You know, in my guidebook, I have all those little pictures of all those little climbers. And I’ve probably climbed with most of those people because, you know, it seems like a lot, but, you know, I've climbed for like forty years or so, almost fifty years now. And at Joshua Tree since 1976, so 45 years. So I climbed with a bunch of them, but, you know, I think people –they live in the city and they look forward to seeing their friends and sleeping out under the stars and having these big adventures and, you know, that kind of stuff. And I think that's the thing that people really love about that and I think, you know, climbing something that's never been climbed before, you know, a lot of times it's romanticized, but a lot of times it's scary and it's dangerous and it's a lot of work if you have to drill bolts. But, you know, people love hardships. And that's what they remind that thing, and I think you know, a lot of times, you know, it's really exciting to do a route that hasn't been done before. And then all of a sudden you wonder if it's going to go and are you going to make it? And then, you know, somebody does something that's heroic and exciting and scary, and those are the things that people remember the most, I think.
SN: Any particular examples of that? Any particular routes that come to mind?
TG: Oh, you know, if you Google Figures On a Landscape, there's like a twenty-page article just about the first ascent of one climb. And so I guess it is kind of a big deal, but you should look that up and read it; it was in Ascent magazine, the Figures On a Landscape. I have to take about a two minute break, is that okay? Hold on one sec.[interview is suspended for a brief period]
ET [to Sally]: I think something he's talking about right now too, you know, he's talking about romanticizing first ascents and but when they go there, it's dangerous, and a lot of stuff has already been done. So I kind of want to ask (or maybe you can ask) what makes a route desirable or what kind of routes are desirable, even though it's already been done? What makes people come out and want to do them even though they've already been done?
SN: Yeah.
TG: All right. I heard you say that.
ET: Oh. There you go. [Sally and Emilio laugh]
TG: Okay yeah, that's a really good question and that’s one I’d love to answer. We have AirBnB camping and some AirBnB campers came and they couldn't find their campsite; we have three campsites here. So Emilio, that's a really good question. What makes a route classic or something that somebody wants to climb or it makes it really, really good? There's a lot of things. First of all, the quality of the rock. [Inaudible] the rock’s really, really good. People like that, that’s one of the classic routes. If you're looking at the climb and it looks really stunning, like a soaring crack that goes straight up on really beautiful rock, people like that, and they kind of like, you know, steeper climbs that have holds, that'll make it a classic climb. And it can't have a really hard section and then the easy section, a big easy section, then another hard section, it has to be kind of consistent for the whole grade. So it has to be consistent for the whole grade, and it has to have like really exciting moves or exciting little passes. “Oh remember that one roof part, that part where you gotta lean to the left and put your foot up really high,” or some improbable section or something –or and other times, if it's really, really exposed, like you're right on the edge and in a [inaudible] and you're looking way down and you’re, “Woah, this is really rad,” you're up really high or something, that makes it really, really classic, too. And of course, it has to have some length too, it can't be some dinky little thing. So, all those things, and if it's in a really beautiful setting, like if it's up really high or in a real cool little valley or next to a waterfall or something like that. So if it's beautiful to look at, and also if it has a really nice movement, kind of like a dance. Like, you know, if you're doing a certain kind of –even like a folk dance or another dance, just the way that your body's moving in and it has a nice flow to it, and that kind of stuff was one reason why people really like a climb and make it really classic. And if it's close to the road that helps, too.
ET: Yeah, I think it's interesting too, that you talk a lot about the nature in your answer here, but also the article that you mentioned with the Figures On a Landscape, I think that also brings in the idea of not only just how pretty and the certain characteristics, the natural physical characteristics of a climb, but also the people behind it and the story that they either encountered or they made when they were doing this climb. Are there any climbs that are like Figures On a Landscape that had the kind of character of their own that was made by the people–
TG: There are a bunch, but that one really had everything. So it's in a beautiful area, when you look at it it's beautiful, the rocks are orange color, the line’s really, really improbable; you're wondering, “Oh, is that even climbable?” You got to stare at it a bunch to even see if there's enough features. Is it going to go left? Is it going to go right? Where are the places where you can even stop and put a bolt, drill a bolt, because they were doing it all hand drilling on the lead without any previous knowledge, like today, someone would just go to the top, throw a rope down and toprope it and put the bolts in like in a regular sport climb area; they’d go to the top, put in an anchor and rappel down and put the bolts in, and it wouldn't have that deep history. It might still be a classic climb, but anyways, so with that climb, they hiked out there, they saw this thing, nobody else wanted to try it because it looked terrifying actually. It looked improbable, it looked impossible. And, you know, these guys were all like in their early 20s and they weren't, you know… in today's standards, they would be crappy climbers because they were like 5.11-minus climbers. But and, you know, every single gym has thirty of them that are under 14 years old that can climb way harder than these guys. But back then in 1978, when this was going all down, you know, these guys went there and they went up on something that everybody else –nobody else had climbed it. And they had the vision and they were there during the right time before somebody else snagged it. And then there's a little controversy. Well, these guys started it and then one guy went away to college and then they promised that they'd wait for him, but they didn't, and then it got finished and it turned out to be one of the –it is probably one of the best climbs in Southern California. And Southern California, there's a lot of people that climb in Southern California so it's a very, very famous climb. And also it's really run out, meaning it's a long ways between the bolts. And there's times where, you know, the hardest section of the whole climb, if you fail there, you end up falling like thirty or forty feet. You usually don't get hurt, it's really steep there; I've fallen there, actually, and taken a long swinging fall. It wasn't fun at all for me. But you know what? It's kind of –that's what you got to do. If you want to do the climb, you gotta be good enough to go out there and you know, do the climb and risk taking a long fall at the hardest section of the whole climb. And a lot of people are afraid of the climb and a lot of people that's like a big goal for them. Is to, you know, get good enough and brave enough and confident enough and experienced enough to do one of the most beautiful climbs, and it's not all that hard, like there's so many climbers that are capable of doing it, but they might not have the bravery or the experience or– [Interference]
TG: Okay, now what were you saying again, can you ask that question again?
ET: Yeah, of course. You were mentioning the difficulty of a climb, especially like Figures On a Landscape and that reminded me of the Josh Factor. Do you think that's something that separates a classic climb that's at Joshua Tree from other climbs that are in Southern California like, let's say at Tahquitz or even in Yosemite?
TG: No, some of the climbs, you know, that's part of their classic thing is their whole mysterious and mystique about it. Just to be a classic climb, it doesn't have to be safe; there are some classic climbs that aren't very safe. But like I said, it has to have all those characteristics. And some of them, like if you went to Figures On a Landscape and added a bolt to make it so it wasn't quite so scary and it was more accessible to more people, it would get chopped within hours, because that's all the mystique of the thing. It's kind of the –you know, if you ride your bike across the United States, that's an awesome thing. But if you ride your electric bike across the United States, it's not such an awesome thing. You know, they want to have these things that, you know, they have some characteristics and some of them have teeth to them, and some of them you got to sack up for it. And that's one of the ones. But there are classic climbs, a lot of crack climbs that are classic climbs. You know, they're really, really safe because you can put in pieces whenever you want to. But some of the ones that are bolted face climbs or sport climbs; there's some classic sport climbs here that are really, really popular, there’s one called the Sexy Grandma that I did the first ascent of and it's considered a classic climb. It's right in the campground, it's a very safe climb, the movement on it’s good, it's just a really awesome climb. It gets done daily a number of times. It's been done maybe a thousand times or something. But that one has a lot of the characteristics; it's beautiful to look at, it's easy to get to, it's right in the campground. It has some exciting sections on it. It's accessible to a lot of people. The rock quality’s good, the movement on it's fantastic. It's a great climb. It's a classic climb. It's one that, in my guidebook, if you look at my guidebook, I didn't give very many of them three stars. So that's one that I did give three stars to.
SN: Could you tell us a little bit about your experience of doing the first ascent of that? How you–?
TG: Yeah, it was me and Bob Gaines, and you know, Bob Gaines, he's at Vertical Adventures, he's a big player in Joshua Tree with first ascents, and he has a climbing school and he's written a bunch of books. So me and him had spied the line a long time ago and we thought it was going to be really hard and we were just going, “Boy, it must be really hard if no one's climbed it before.” And it was me and my wife actually when we just first met and she was really young, and then it was another guy, Bill Russell, who was a Yosemite guide. And we went over there and we had a bunch of like, you know, a bunch of things, like a little arsenal of things that we might need to put up a first ascent of a difficult climb. We weren't even sure we were able to do it. And I went first, and after I hand-drilled a couple of bolts on it and placed maybe two pitons and two bolts. Let me see; one, two, three bolts. And I didn't put an anchor on it because I was tired from placing three bolts, and after two hours it was done and we all did it, and it wasn't that hard and we knew that we did a really good climb and we were really excited about it. And soon after the first ascent, within probably a couple of months, it had already had a bunch of ascents and it was like big news around locally and now if you go to Joshua Tree and you say, “Oh, what did you do today?” “Oh, I did the Sexy Grandma.” ‘Cause it's on a formation called The Old Woman, and my friend Donny Reid (who you maybe know that name too) he had a bumper sticker that said “Sexy Grandpa” on it. So we thought that was funny on his car, so we said it's on the Old Woman and the climb was really awesome, so we called it the Sexy Grandma. And that was the name of it, and we all did it and it wasn't that hard, and we were just really totally –first of all, we were really surprised that we did a climb that we thought was going to be really hard and other people thought was too hard to even climb. It just looked really improbable. And nobody had done it before and we did it probably like it was only like twenty years ago, which had been sitting right –a lot of people were probably kicking themselves in the butt saying, “Oh, this climb’s been around –you know, why didn't I do it? It was right under our noses, and then that damn Todd Gordon and Bob Gaines, Bill Russell and Andrea Gordon got the first ascent of that thing.” So–
SN: [Inaudible], because it's one where the story is actually easier than the anticipation of the–
TG: Yeah. I was thinking that we might not even be able to do it, or it’d be too hard for us. And as it turned out, it went real fast and we were just like, “Woah.” And we knew that we got a good one. We were like, “Wow.” You know, a lot of times if you do a route, that's classic –you know what, I did one climb called the Iconoclast. Me, Dave Evans, Tom Burke and some other people, [inaudible] brothers, did it on Queen Mountain and we did the climb; it has some loose rock on it. I mean, we went to an area where I don't think there was anything that had been climbed before, or maybe one thing. And so [inaudible] was the first ascent. It just takes a couple hours to hike out there and nobody goes there, and these are the first people that were exploring the area. So we did this crack and somebody else was doing another first ascent and– [Interference]
TG: –I’ll do the thing. And then we did it, and then all of a sudden, people would go out there and they’d do it, and they’d go, “Oh it’s classic, it’s really good,” I'm like, “Really?” And they go, “Have you done it?” And I said, “I did the first ascent, I thought it was okay.” But it wasn't one of the one that as soon as we did it we're going, “Oh, this is so cool.” But you know what? A lot of times [inaudible] some people just say, “Oh, it's really good,” and I'm not going to say, “Oh, I didn't like it,” ‘cause then it's like [inaudible]. If three or four people say it's really good, then [inaudible] is really good. Or some people say, “Oh, that's–”
SN: We’re starting to hear you. [Interference]
TG: Okay, maybe it’s just fading in and out, who knows though, but like I said, you know, some people's classic climbs –you know, you can have a hundred out of a hundred say it’s classic, then other people, you know, you'll get eighty [people] out of a hundred, but you better get at least eighty out of a hundred or it's not really a classic climb. Come on.
SN: [Laughs] Thanks, that's really helpful. That's exactly the kind of information about routes that we're trying to document actually, so if you have any other particular routes that come to mind that are comparable to Figures On a Landscape or Sexy Grandma that, you know, that come to mind, please don't hesitate to identify them for us and we can talk more about them.
TG: They're the ones in the guidebook that have all the stars, so.
SN: Yeah, yeah, good.
TG: You know which ones they are, you just gotta open up a guidebook.
SN: Yeah, I'm looking at –like for Hidden Valley I'm looking at Loose Lady and Satanic Mechanic and Bikini Whale actually has been mentioned many times by various people, but nobody's really told us the story of how it was first developed. So–
TG: Yeah, I can tell you the story about all of those things. Well, the Bikini Whale, I think people had tried it before, but you know what? If you throw a toprope on it, you've cheated. That was back in the day where that's kind of like, you know, you looked at the test before you took the test and that was kind of cheating. So you just had to kind of do it from the ground up. And it was a really –it's a super hard climb, so there weren't too many people at the time of the first ascent that were even capable of doing it. So you got to be strong and you got to be brave and you got to know how to put in bolts and you got to find the climb, and all of those things; the stars were right for a guy named Kurt Smith. I'm pretty sure he did the first ascent and he did it on the lead and it's a classic climb, but even to this day, not many people can do it.[2] And the bolts aren’t really, really close for today's modern climbers. They like them a little bit closer than that. So that makes it even a smaller number of the people can climb it. And it's kind of in a little corridor, there's another classic climb over there called Illusion Dweller. It had another name, the Super Fantastic Tangerine Dream or something, I can't remember.[3] But then they shortened the name; that's another story in itself, I don't really know the story behind that one. But so people have looked at it for a while, but it looked improbable and it just didn't get done until Kurt Smith had the experience, and the motivation, the drive, the talent and the bravery enough to piece it all together to do it and, you know, it was a big day for him. I'm sure if you talked to Kurt Smith, he'd tell you all about it, that it was a big day and it was an exciting day. And as far as Loose Lady, Loose Lady, people climbed only in the campground for a long, long time during the ‘60s, and all of a sudden people started venturing away. And Loose Lady is not very far from the campground, but it's this soaring buttress, you can see it from all –you can see it from the road, you can see it from the real Hidden Valley parking lot, you can see it from Hidden Valley. And nobody went over there to do it. And finally, this guy, Herb Laeger, who's, you know, he has a bunch of classic climbs in Joshua Tree, he went and did the thing, but the rock was horrible on it. And that's why they called it Loose Lady. So he had to climb up there a ways, and every time he grabbed the handle it was peeling off and there were hollow sections and he went up there and he had to stand there and drill the bolts and he eventually did it, and I'm sure when he did it, he wasn't going, “Oh, we got a classic climb.” He was going, “Well, that climb kind of sucked,” probably.
SN: [Laughs] Wow. Thank you. Another climb I'm interested in from the central area is Physical Graffiti, which you call the “Bob Gaines” climb in the guidebook, I was kind of wondering why you identified it that way.
TG: Well, let me finish about the Loose Lady. So the Loose Lady was really, really loose, and when they first did it, they probably said, “Oh, well, too bad the rock sucks on it.” But you know what? I went over there to do it a couple–
TG: So the thing about the Loose Lady, but then people started climbing it and they got better and better and better, but when I first went to do it, I got up on it about fifteen feet and I'm going, “I'm not going to even climb this thing, this thing sucks.” And now it's one of the best climbs there so, you know that that one evolved. It just had to be cleaned up. But the Physical Graffiti, the reason I said it was a Bob Gaines climb is because, you know, like a lot of them, if you say, “Oh, that's a Grateful Dead song, or that's a Led Zeppelin song,” you know, you kind of know what you're getting into. And if it's a Bob Gaines climb, he picks certain climbs. He picks climbs; they're not too easy, and they're not really, really hard but some are really, really hard. But he goes up there and he has a really good eye for picking a route [inaudible]. And the Physical Graffiti, like if I say it's a Bob Gaines climb, people love Bob Gaines climbs; he has a bunch of classic climbs, and he goes up there and if there's loose rock, you know, he kind of cleans the loose rock off a little bit and he'll pick a real aesthetic line. And like I said, people like Led Zeppelin songs, people like Grateful Dead songs, and people like Bob Gaines routes. You know, and then there's other people, oh, if it's a so-and-so route, that means it could be –maybe they usually put in the bolts really far or they do [inaudible].
You know, that kind of stuff. So I would just designate it as a Bob Gaines climb because it's one of his better climbs, and it's another one that was sitting there for years, people would walk by it and then they just didn't see it or they thought it was going to be too hard or they didn't like the way it looked or something. But he had the vision. And most people do it in two pitches. So it traverses on this little thin dike up to kind this cave. And then you sit in the cave, and then from the cave, you exit the cave and then you go sideways left and then straight up. It's a really good climb, but it's a pretty hard climb. It's not like The Sexy Grandma, because The Sexy Grandma is easier and it's right in the campground. This one's harder, so less people are going to probably do it and you've got to walk a little ways. It probably gets done about once or twice a month when The Sexy Grandma gets done a bunch of times every single day, so.
SN: Good. And I'm wondering from the Pinto Basin area about –I think there are several climbs on this feature called the Snake Pit. That's something we've heard mentioned a number of times, the Snake Pit area. Do you know anything about the history of the–
TG: Yeah, I do. Yeah, the Snake Pit; Randy Leavitt was one of the most visionary climbers in the history of climbing in the world, actually. And he lived in San Diego and he came out and at the time, there was only a few people that were doing 5.14 climbs and even 5.13 climbs, and he was one of them and he was super driven and super motivated and super creative and super strong and super brave. And he found this place –he would go searching all over, he’d hiking for an hour or two to find the hardest and the best climbs in Joshua Tree. And they were actually the hardest and best climbs that were being done in the world at the time. And he found this little place out in the Wonderland called the Snake Pit, and there was –it was an overhanging wall that had holds on it and there was just enough holds to make it some of the hardest climbs that were done anywhere in the world at the time, and especially in the United States. And he started establishing climbs there. And by that time, rap-bolting was already established in the park, so he rappelled the bolts in. But the thing that he did that was controversy, he some of the holes were really, really thin and it looked like they might snap off and if they snapped off, the climb wouldn't go. So he reinforced them with glue. Like epoxy glue, and, you know, that's illegal and I guess at the time it wasn't, because hardly anybody was even doing it and the Park Service didn't have any –you know, they didn't say no gluing because nobody’d even really thought of it much. But he reinforced some of the holds with glue, and some people didn't like that and they went in and they removed some of his bolts. And that was the controversial thing, and also someone even started a little fire at the base and burnt a little Joshua tree, and that was really a bad thing and, –you know, it’s really hard to find. I would say there's only a few people that had ever even been there. And just recently, these climbs that they had the bolts taken off, the bolts have been replaced just recently in the last couple of years, and a few climbers have been back there, but the climbs are still to this day really, really hard and hardly anybody goes there. But, yeah, Randy Leavitt, that was an area that he has established. And it wasn't because he wanted to be famous. It wasn't because he wanted to have other people even enjoy the climbs. He just liked climbing really hard and challenging himself and was super driven to the point of obsession. And he finally found a place. But the flaw was that some of the holds are really thin and he reinforced them with glue and somebody else didn't like it and they removed them and they even started a little fire down there. So that was you know, it was a controversial thing, but it was also a sad thing because, you know, there was –somebody destroyed his climbs that he really liked. He did something that was probably a little bit sketchy, and then the destruction of the thing. So that's not a real proud time of Joshua Tree’s climbing history.
SN: But you say –as you did say before, that the climbs will reappear and these have been re-bolted it sounds like.
TG: They have been re-bolted and the tree that burnt down, it's not there anymore, but that's a sad thing. And, you know, it's like I said, people go there only a couple of times a year, ‘cause the climbs are really hard and it's really hard to find and it's just kind of an interest to someone who really wants to go and do a really, really hard climbs. And you know, people have heard the story. You know, the story was –it's been around. A lot of people know about the history of that little area with the super hard climbs that no one else in the world could barely even do. At the time they were put up, only a few people in the world could even do them.
SN: This would have been in the 1980s, Todd?
TG: Yeah, probably the ‘80s, early ‘90s or something.
SN: Okay, thank you. The other area that I'm thinking about from your book is the Wonderland of Rocks and the Ivory Tower Climbs.
TG: Oh, that's another similar area. And that's another Randy Leavitt masterpiece.
SN: Really?
TG: Oh yeah. Randy, he went out there –you can see this thing, but it's way up there; it's hard to get to there, you got to hike way out there and he made it up there and he found really steep climbs that had enough holds on it to climb. And at the time, they were some of the hardest ones in the world. Now that one, there wasn't any really gluing, maybe a little tiny bit of gluing, but nobody goes up there but, you know, about every year, one or two climbers, like some of the best climbers in the world, they go up there and they say just how good those climbs are.
SN: Are they still coming even ‘til today? They still come?
TG: No, nobody, nobody ever messed –oh, yeah even today. Nobody really messed with those climbs, and just people don't like going there because you have to hike really far and they're really, really, really hard. There's not many people even today in the world that can even do them. But people go there maybe about once every month or two or so, and they go do these climbs and they're really hard, they're so hard; you have to be one of the best climbers in the world to even do it that same day. You have to go there a number of times. And when they were first done, the people that went up to do them, like Randy worked –he went on these climbs, he went there weekend after weekend after weekend after weekend and choreographing all the moves and finally did one of them and then I remember my friend did the second ascent on one of them. Him and his dad, he was seventeen or eighteen years old from San Diego, he came out every single weekend for three months, and they just went to these one or two climbs trying to do them. And they finally ended up doing them after they memorized –it's kind of like a ballet dancer or a classical pianist, just memorized every inch of the thing so they could finally do it.
SN: Did Randy Leavitt work on a toprope to do that or did he do it in the ground up style or–?
TG: No, he did it on a toprope and then eventually after he toproped and memorized all the moves, he finally was able to lead it from the bottom to the top. But yeah, he hung all over it, felt all the holds, practiced little sections of it. He even would go and he had in his garage, he would on really hard climbs, he would make –assimilate the hard moves that he had to practice so his body and his muscle and his mind would get used to the little areas. I mean, this little section of the climb that was really, really hard. And he'd practice it in his garage even.
SN: Was he ahead of his time in that regard or were there a lot of other climbers at that level who were doing that kind of work?
TG: No, he was way ahead of his time; there was only a few people in the world that were doing it, and that's how come they were the best in the world. And it was just totally, totally amazing.
SN: Was he the only one coming to Joshua Tree or were there others of his caliber that were there at that time?
TG: There were others but they weren't doing the same thing that he was doing. He was putting up these new routes out in the middle of nowhere, and there was a few people that were doing them here and there, but he was probably, you know, the very, very few of the elite climbers. He was one of the best climbers in the world and he was putting up these routes, and to this day, there's a climber, Jeremy Schoenborn, who's (he lives in Yucca Valley) he's just starting to repeat these old Leavitt classic ones. And also Alan Moore goes, and some of these guys are really, really –they’re the top climbers in California or even the world, they come and seek out to do Randy Leavitt's super hard climbs and they love them. They're still good to this day and they will be good forever.
SN: That sounds like some important history you just told us, Todd. Thank you.
TG: It's really, really important. But it doesn't –every man can't really do these climbs. But in the history of climbing, it's kind of the stuff that's in the magazines and stuff.
SN: Right.
TG: But yeah, I think I think it's really fascinating. I could never do any of his routes. Even his easy routes that are considered his warm ups are way too hard for me. You could get a hold of him, he lives in San Diego. He knows a lot about that kind of stuff.
SN: I know you need to get going Todd, I had one more question I wanted to ask you, but if it's too late, I can
TG: No, no, that's fine. Go ahead.
SN: Well, it kind of relates to what we were just talking about, the idea of toproping, and I know you have a separate section in your guidebook just about toproping at Joshua Tree. And so I was kind of wondering if you could talk to us a little bit about the history of toproping, specifically at Joshua Tree and whether or not there's anything unusual about the way toproping was developed there.
TG: Yeah, a lot of people toprope is because they're too afraid to lead or they don't want to lead or they don't like the way they feel when they're, you know, ready to take a big fall or something like that. And so a lot of people, they just toprope, but some areas you go to toprope and there's bolts on the top and you just gotta go up there, put two slings in and throw the rope down, and then you can have a person holding the rope at the bottom and you just climb up and lower it down. But at Joshua Tree, it's a little bit different. But people still want to climb here even if they're too afraid to lead. But here, a lot of climbs, you have to have a complete trad rack and you have to have extension ropes to set up topropes but if you look in my book, there's a section on that, you know, how to set that up.
SN: Right.
TG: But you got to have more equipment and more skills to toprope at Joshua Tree. But a lot of people do come out here and toprope, and there's a lot of people that for some reason they just wanna toprope. It's really a safe thing to do if you're, you know, kind of timid or you don't want to get hurt or you're not that brave or, I don't know. Joshua Tree, in some areas you can't really toprope, like you can't toprope El Cap because it's too big. But even in Yosemite, a lot of people, a lot of people just like to toprope. And if there's a climb that's dangerous, I'll just climb up the back or do an easy climb to get up there and set up a toprope because I don't want to do something dangerous, but some people, they need that danger in their life. They sit in a little cubicle, they just went through a divorce, they're going through a middle-age crisis. They want to go up there and if they fall, you know, they could get hurt or killed, they like that. That's the kind of thrill that makes them feel alive. Same thing with the guys that go 300 miles an hour on motorcycles and stuff. You know the type. You know, the wingsuit guys that, you know, go real close to trees and sh**, you know, it's just they like that kind of crap. But climbing has all kinds of stuff like that, but then there's other guys that, you know, they get in a racecar and they only go eighty miles an hour. You know, they're real conservative. But the toprope is a conservative thing, but it's really safe and you can do any climb you want to on a toprope. You can fall as much as you want and you don't get hurt, but you gotta have a good anchor, so you got to know a lot –like a lot of people say, “Oh, beginners toprope.” Well, that's a little bit dicey, because beginners might not have their anchor systems down. So it's kind of a catch 22. Yeah, it's a really safe thing. But if you don't have your anchors –like some areas, you can toprope if there's bolts in the top; it's easy to do the setups.
SN: Is it fair to say there's more opportunities for toproping at Joshua Tree than at a lot of other places? Is that right?
TG: Well, any area that has a bunch of little climbs, it's real easy to toprope because you can just scramble to the top. And a lot of times you can scramble to the top of most of the climbs in Joshua Tree, it's not like a cliff band that's kind of hard to get to the top of. So Joshua Tree, a lot of people toprope out here, but you know what? There's other areas where people toprope more if there's bolted anchors on almost all the climbs and it's real easy to set up topropes. A lot of people say, well, “I don't have trad gear and I don't know how to set up my anchors.” But you know what? There's millions of people in Southern California coming from San Diego and L.A. and around the world, and yeah, people toprope up every single day in Joshua Tree. And it's a popular toprope area. But it does have its quirks.
SN: Is there a relationship between toproping and free soloing in the park that you're aware of?
TG: Yeah, there is. Like some people will toprope the crap out of a climb until they have it memorized; they can do it a hundred times and never fall on it. And then they'll go free solo it. And then there's other people that'll just walk up to the climb and are brave enough and their mind just has some kind of disconnect that they can just free solo it the first time. Guys like Alex Honnold and stuff. But a lot of people, they'll toprope the crap out of something with the intentions of eventually doing it without a rope. And that's what gets their jollies off on that though, so, yeah, there is a correlation. That's interesting that you brought that up, but yeah, there is.
SN: Is there anything about that correlation that's unique to Joshua Tree or does that happen pretty much everywhere?
TG: That's everywhere, yeah. Some people do it right off the bat, that's pretty gnarly, and some people toprope it. Some people toprope a climb 300 times, and then finally they're just going, “Hey, I could solo this, I'm ready to solo it or I want to solo it.” And then they do and hopefully –they did it a hundred times without falling, and that wasn't the one time that they did fall, but maybe the first hundred times they did it they fell every time on it, so.
SN: Well, have you done much in the way of toproping to free soloing in your own climbing in the park?
TG: Oh, no. But I've done climbs just so many times; I never toproped it a bunch with the intention of soloing it. But I'll solo easy things, and after I've done a climb a bunch of times then I’ll solo. But as soon as I had kids I was done free soloing stuff. I'm not into that, it's dangerous. And I always stayed way –always within my limits when some people really like to push it. But, you know, like I said, there's guys that go 300 miles on a motorcycle too.
SN: [Laughs] Have you observed changes in Joshua Tree with regard to free soloing? Like have there been periods where more people did it or less people did it or anything like that?
TG: You know, it gets pumped up on the Internet sometimes, and some people like it. But it's a foolish game that a lot of young people do. It has a –you know, if you screw up, the consequences are pretty serious.
SN: And same for top roping, were there periods where more people –where it was more popular or less popular for any reason?
TG: No, I don't think so. Toprope’s been about pretty even-burning. But you know what? A lot of times, you know, in guidebooks, they'll have pictures of guys soloing it or on videos of guys soloing it. And it's romanticized a little bit. You know, just kind of like, you know, you see dangerous things on the Internet, and then people do them and they get hurt doing them; we saw Donald Trump do it too, so there you go.
SN: [Laughs] That's a perfect contemporary reference point, definitely. Yeah. Great. Well, is there anything else that you want to add at this point, Todd? If not, we can certainly wrap it up. We've been with you for more than an hour, so.
TG: No, I know I enjoy talking with you guys. And, you know what, I always have something to say. I know a lot about this place. And, you know, I'm old, I've climbed here a long time and I live here, and once I had kids, I didn't travel as much. So that's my excuse for knowing so much. But it's a big world. In some ways, I wish I would have, you know, traveled it more, but I have traveled a lot, but in other ways I'm just really lucky and fortunate that I got to know one area more than probably more than anybody, though.
SN: Emilio, did you want to ask Todd anything before we call it quits this time?
ET: Oh no, thanks. That's all my questions for today.
TG: Hey Emilio, I'm ready to go climbing again with you, just let me know, okay?
ET: Yeah, so am I!
TG: I want to, so hit me up, okay?
ET: Definitely, I will. Whenever I can make a chance to go out to Joshua Tree, I'll definitely make sure I call you to go climbing again.
TG: Make a special trip out. ‘Kay?
ET: Definitely.
TG: Alright, it was good talking to you and call me up if you need anything or have any clarifications, okay?
SN: Thank you so much Todd, you've been so helpful. Really appreciate it. Thank you.
TG: Okay, Sally, good talking to you guys. And I'll talk to you guys again soon.

[1] Spanish Bombs may also be known as Stand and Deliver, located on Rock Hudson in the Hidden Valley area.

[2] According to Mountain Project, Bikini Whale was toproped by Antoine and Marc LeMenestrel in 1984, but first led by Kurt Smith in 1987.

[3] Now called Illusion Dweller, there is evidence that the original name of this route was “Kandy Kolored Tangerine Flake Streamlined Baby”.


David Haber

Interview Date: 29/01/2021

Biographical Information: David “Dave” Haber is originally from Pittsburgh but is a longtime resident of the city of Joshua Tree and has been climbing for over 40 years with his wife, Sheryl Haber. David has visited many other climbing areas and can provide perspective on the differences between other locations and Joshua Tree. He is a close friend of Todd Gordon and has climbed many routes in the park. David is a witness to the shifting culture at Joshua Tree at the end of the 20th century.

Content Information: Dave describes his path from Pittsburgh to Joshua Tree through climbing. Dave offers insight on the park’s rise in popularity from the 1980s onward, differences between routes in the park, and the history of ever-improving climbing gear. Dave’s accomplished climbing career also allows him to comment on the sport’s transition to incorporating bolts.

  • Alan Bartlett
  • Bouldering
  • Sheryl Haber
  • Sport climbing
  • Todd Gordon
  • Lost Horse Wall (Area)
  • Rock Garden Valley (Area)
  • Buissonier (5.7)
  • EBGB’s (5.10)
  • Scary Poodles (5.11)
  • Sole Fusion (5.12)
  • Swept Away (5.11)
SN: Okay great. Alright, welcome everyone. Today is January 29th, 2021, and this is Sally Ness from UC Riverside, University of California, Riverside. I’m here today with Dave—David Haber. Do you go by Dave or David?
DH: David, actually.
SN: David Haber, who is our interviewee today. And I’m joined by Emilio Triguero, my research assistant, and Bernadette Regan from the National Parks Service. And we are here today to conduct an oral history interview for the Historic Resource Study of Recreational Rock Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. So welcome everyone, we’ll get right into the interview. Thank you so much, David, for joining us today. So could we start with just a little information from you David on your own background with climbing; when you got interested in climbing and how you got interested in climbing?
DH: I first went rock climbing in Coopers Rock, West Virginia. Like 1978, we were down there to do a check-out dive; I had taken this class to get certified in scuba diving. And after the check-out dives and stuff, we were with a group of people and some of them knew a little bit about rock climbing. So I went and rappelled and stuff, and I never scuba dived again actually. So that’s like, like I said that’s like 1978.
SN: Can you tell us about what age were you at that point?DH: 16.
SN: 16. And then are you from the East Coast then?
DH: Yeah, I’m from Pittsburgh.
SN: I should say for the record that I’m in Riverside, California right now. Emilio I believe is in Whittier, California. Bernadette I believe is out at Joshua Tree. And you’re joining us from—is there a town name you could give us in Pennsylvania?
DH: Boswell.
SN: Boswell, Pennsylvania. Okay great. So as a teenager, you very quickly got interested in climbing, is that correct?
DH: Oh yeah. My cousin and I, Kenny, we started —we climbed with my older brother-in-law and his friends a little bit, but we became more like, “Nah, we wanna go and rock climb, we don't wanna stand around and talk about this.” And so he and I started going out like every weekend, you know. Which was pretty good because you know I was in school and so was he, and but we’d get out and drive up to an area near Latrobe, Pennsylvania. And there’s a small crag there that we did a lot of climbing at over the years. [1] And then eventually, he and I also went down and climbed at this area down in Cumberland, Maryland. It’s currently under closure because of access issues as a matter of fact. And that and all these different places in southwestern Pennsylvania and West Virginia. You know there’s a lot of areas down south of Pittsburgh, down in Union Town, and there’s a lot of rocks down there. There’s good climbing down there, it’s just access is always a problem because it’s landlocked at times. But yeah.
SN: Would you describe yourself as self-taught in these early—?
DH: Pretty much. Yes. I would say definitely. You know, I did in fact take a class at University of Pittsburgh. You know how you had to take a phys-ed class or something, you know I’m in engineering school right? And I have to take a phys-ed class so it was like, I’m like, “Oh, okay we’ll take rock—” I took rock climbing, but I’d already been climbing for almost a year by the time I even took classes. So but yes, so it’s like —but that was the only —you know, but then subsequently over the years, okay now, I started climbing out west like in Wyoming; in 1981. And you know, then I started climbing some with guides out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming in the early mid-80s, okay. And so I picked up a lot of things, you know, from those sorts of people, but no, predominantly we just went out, and we —you know, like we were rigging topropes or something; me and my cousin be just like, “What do you think this is enough?” “Well, we’ll add some more…” You know, you have this huge amount of stuff; you’re way over-rigged, but it’s like, “Yeah but we survived,” you know. So yes, it’s all —yeah. It’s so much more primitive, climbing like where we are specifically right now than it ever was in California. I mean once we —like when I first showed up, even in Colorado, it was so much more advanced, or Wyoming, same thing. Both those places, and I saw those in the early ‘80s. And just a whole different world though. I mean, this is like, nobody rock climbs around here. It is so out there, that nobody, nobody. I have a handful of people that I know in the local area that do, but it’s like, we’re it. [Laughs]
SN: So it sounds like for you to start where you did in Pennsylvania was somewhat unusual. It wasn't like it was a phase or a craze or something that a lot of people—
DH: Oh no. No, in fact I’d say climbing —I might’ve started climbing in Pennsylvania and West Virginia when it was getting to be pretty popular. And then it faded. There’s not nearly as many people at these places as there once were. You know, like I said going to that place called Coopers Rocks; I remember going there on weekends and you didn't have to even bring a rope as you could just start chatting with people: “Oh you wanna catch a toprope?” And you would, and there’d be all you could wanna do. You know, the whole place would be like that, but now you go down there there’s not a soul. Not a soul. Yeah. So different.
SN: Now why was it popular when it was when you were there?
DH: I have no idea. I couldn't tell you, because it certainly wasn't like you know the access was any better than it —it’s worse now. You know, where you can go and what you can do. I mean, you know, curiously, Pittsburgh had 3 stores that sold rock climbing equipment. I mean it was very weird that you could in fact buy stuff here. You know, and we were able to. You know, I don't know why the sport hasn't ever caught on so much in this area; weather being a huge factor in it too, you know. And there’s just not that much, you know, it’s like I tell people now I go, with the closure of Cumberland, I can walk out of my house in Joshua Tree, and I can walk up the hill to more climbing than I can drive to in under an hour and a half. Just walking from my house, you know, there’s dozens and dozens of things to do, you know, three quarters of a mile, a mile up from my house. You know it’s different.
SN: So even though there wasn't that much, you still managed to still have this really strong connection with these—
DH: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. And a couple of the places —well, one place that was a real significant thing —we’re getting off of California here but we’re getting it —but anyhow—
SN: This is actually very helpful.
DH: An interesting thing down by Connellsville, Pennsylvania was a group of formations called White Rocks. And White Rocks was a hugely popular place to go and it was very good too. And it was —you know the climbing here is all short things, you’re hard pressed to find anything 80 feet tall say in Pennsylvania, okay. But these places are pretty good, but that lost access and that was a real —Pittsburgh’s always been the people who are climbers, okay. And once places like White Rocks which were very handy to Pittsburgh and the place near Latrobe at Derry, Pennsylvania; once those closed, you gotta go a long way out of that city now to go to climb. You know, like where I am up here right now, we have snow, okay. But like people drive up from DC to come here and go cross-country skiing. I mean that’s like, wow, four hours or something for this? You know you're like, yeah. Yeah, so you get spoiled when you're out west. You do. You know with the access to the amount of stuff; I communicated with a friend I hadn't talked to in quite a long time, and he was talking about how well he had finally moved out to St. George, and now he was in Phoenix, and he goes, “You know I come back to PA for a few visits with my wife and it’s just such a sorry place.” And I go, “Yes!” [Laughs] It’s hard to explain, but you know, you gotta be dedicated here. You do. To go out and do the things here, it’s like you gotta really —you gotta be willing to travel, and you gotta be willing to like, “Well, we’re going whether the weather’s any good or not,” you know. It’s like, for years in California, like somebody’d be suggesting go do something like drive down to Idyllwild or something right, and be like, “What’s the weather gonna be?” And I’m like, “It’s gonna be the same thing it’s been for the last three months,” right. Usually it is. Usually, you know.
SN: Yeah, can you say just a little more specifically what it was about climbing —I mean given that it didn't have all the plusses in that environment than it does out west, what was it that really excited you about the experience?
DH: Well you know you read a lot of literature and stuff when you're young, and you're starstruck —you know, hero tales and stuff like that, and then you get the bug after you go some places and you do see some really cool things, like once I went to —there’s an area in West Virginia called Seneca Rocks and Seneca Rocks is awesome. And once you go to a place like that and see it, you go, “Oh this is really something special.” But you know, there’s so many facets in climbing, because there’s the challenge both physically but mental is at least half of it too. You know, it’s like a friend out in Joshua Tree once said about one route, he goes, “It’s the quintessential Joshua Tree route. So there’s no question whether you can do it, it’s will you do this?” And it’s like, yeah, yeah, you're right! It’s like if it was five feet off the ground, sure we’d scramble it you know, but oh no, we’re gonna fall off this and land on this ledge 35 feet away and oh, it’s gonna be no happy time, you know. So I mean, I would say the mix of the challenge and being outdoors. Because I was in with people you know, and it was just a natural offshoot kind of all hiking and those sorts of things, you know. And that’s how it sort of always was around here was it’s like, “Yeah you did that but then, oh well, we can go and do this,” and you’d meet people who climbed. We had a few people in this area, ancient guys years and years ago, and a guy named Ivan Jirak, now probably been dead 30 years, he’d be 150 years old if he weren’t, but he was a —they had this Explorer’s Club in Pittsburgh, and that’s where my brother-in-law’s friend picked it up.[2] And that sort of brought it into our group and just, you know as soon as we saw it, my cousin and I Kenny, we were totally sold. We thought this was just the greatest thing and nobody else was doing it, and you know, you got to go and —you know, it’s quite an adventure. It is, when you're especially just a beginner and going out on your own, you're like —I mean I see it all the time even with people that I climb with. You know, like in guiding for example, it’s like people are like, “Oh my god, I’m gonna get killed out here,” and I’m like, “Not likely.” You know, it’s like we’ll try to keep that down, but it’s… you know.
SN: Still a thrill.
DH: Oh yes. Oh yes. There’s always —you know that’s one thing I like to joke about that in Joshua Tree, I go, “You know that’s one of the best things because it’s all such close to the car.” I says, “Why I can be in complete terror in five minutes after I’ve gotten out of the car.” It’s like, okay, we’re totally into this now. Everything else no longer matters, you know. Nothing is like Joshua Tree as far as access goes. No place even comes —nothing like that. Nothing like that. To be able to be right next to things, you know. Some places it’s very very convenient, like the Shawangunks in New York, that’s very very convenient but you still have to walk, but you know. Or El Dorado Canyon in Boulder, Colorado. Same thing, yeah but it’s all right there, but it’s not like Joshua Tree, where you can go everywhere. You know, you’ve been up there?
SN: Mhmm. [In agreement]
DH: Yes, you know how it is. You can just, “Oh let’s go someplace else,” and bang, ten minutes later it’s a whole ‘nother place practically, you know.
SN: Well that’s really an important part of our focus is how to put Joshua Tree in the context of climbing at other places. And so that information from that period in Pennsylvania is very helpful in that regard. So tell us, how did you end up at Joshua Tree, what was your path from Pennsylvania out to Joshua Tree?
DH: I climbed a bunch with the friend I was mentioning, Joe, years ago, and we were climbing steadily together in the middle 1980s. And this one —we hit like about September of ‘87, and it was like, “You know, we need to find someplace where we can go like in December and go rock climbing.” And looking in a catalogue from… that would be IME in North Conway, New Hampshire; they had all these guidebooks, and we saw this guidebook for Joshua Tree.[3] So we got a purple guide, and we sat around and looked at that a couple days; we go, “We’re on it.” So we booked flights; Sheryl and I weren't even married at the time, she tagged along so me, Joe, and Sheryl flew out to Joshua Tree in December of 1987, okay. So it was reasonably early on, it was nothing crowded there, you know. And we had great weather too in retrospect, we got very warm weather for December, because you know, snows there Thanksgiving sometimes, things like that you know. So but the last day we remembered though, it was like the wind kicked up and it was like we were done. We were done. It’s like, we’re dying here, it’s like we went and bought donuts and drove to the Salton Sea, it was like that was it, we’re like, “It’s too cold.” It was, you know. But we didn't have that at first. So that’s how we —just a sheer random thing, basically. We just— “Here, we’ll buy a guidebook and see what we think,” and we read it and we go —we’re looking through it, we go, “Yeah, we’ll do this,” you know. It’s like so yeah, we flew in, like I said, we flew into Phoenix, drove across I-10, came in through the Cottonwood entrance and stuff, and like climbed up in Pinto Basin was the first place I ever climbed at in the park, which is like such an out of the way place to have started off there, but we came in from I-10, so that, you know. Just so random.
SN: And you came in after having what, ten years or so of climbing experience?
DH: Nine. Yeah. For sure nine, yeah.
SN: So at that point, would you call yourself an advanced, serious climber?
DH: Oh yeah, because we just went and did —yeah, we were able to show up in Joshua Tree and climb at a pretty moderately high level; I mean for us, I mean it’s like, yeah you know. And like the funniest thing was, we started trying doing some of the slab routes, and it was like, fall, fall, fall, but all of a sudden you get the balance and all of the sudden, boy, you’re up 5.10 slab route. You know, you’re like, “Gee!” So that was an advancement; I have a fair amount of that available here at the time in Pennsylvania because there’s a lot of slabby things in Maryland, and around here as well. So it’s like at least I was kind of on that, but it was like nothing like that bald slab climbing in Joshua Tree with these big distances between the bolts sometimes and things like that. But we were on one route, and as I fell and stuff and all of a sudden I like caught it, and I’m like, “I got it, I got the balance!” And you know, so that was an exciting thing about being there. Being able to do that sort of climb. And plus just, it just amazed us how much there was. I mean, when you start driving around, here’s another formation, here’s another formation. You know we saw a fair amount in a week; I look back, I go, “Boy we really went to some odd random places, but it was good.”
SN: Were you working from a guidebook or were you pretty much working from your own just experience—
DH: Oh we were looking at the purple guide and picking routes out and going and doing them. No, these were all established routes and things like that at that point. And then subsequently, Sheryl and I flew out like in ‘88 twice, and then like in 1989 we flew out there four times. And the last trip was over like around Thanksgiving. And Sheryl’s like, “Well, gee, all the real estate’s selling around here and stuff.” And it was like, “Well, we’ll see about buying something, okay.” And then just an utter whim, we bought our property, and it was just out-of-the-blue, over a matter of about 36 hours; here, we put in a bid on this and it was like next thing you know we had this bare ground that we bought. And then over the next year we built —we moved out there and started living September ‘90. We were living there, off and on, from then on to now. From then on to now. In and out, and this is the longest I’ve ever been gone from Cal. Well I was there in December for about a week or so, okay. But this is —Sheryl hasn't been in California since the end of August and this is the longest we’ve been away from… I couldn't tell you when. Couldn't tell you when [inaudible]. Normally I’m never gone for more than a few weeks, but just so many things have gone on here.
SN: So would you say that it was fairly early on in your visits to Joshua Tree that it changed from being just kind of winter-only location for you to something more than that?
DH: For me?
SN: Mhmm. [Agreeing]
DH: Oh no, we were —in 1989, we were out there in July and things like that. We’d already been there and baked, right away. We’d been out there in very hot weather and stuff, yeah yeah yeah. No, we thought it was okay even then, you know, I was climbing and Sheryl was belay-slaving pretty much, she wasn't climbing that much at that point, but then she started to, of course, once we started living there. But it was like, well this is a place where we can go do this at, you know, and once you’ve lived out there, you learn how to cope with it. And we figured it out right away; stay out of the sun, you know, big thing. Except you can’t in the middle of the summer, it’s overhead and that’s that. [Laughs]
SN: So is it fair to say it shifted from being a place to climb for you to being the place where you wanted to climb fairly soon?
DH: I climb there predominantly, that’s for sure. But at the same time, in the early ‘90s, Sheryl and I drove across the country whenever we would leave Pennsylvania; we’d drive back and forth. So as a result, I’ve climbed a great deal in Colorado and Utah because you come across I-70 and turn and go down I-15. You know, so those places —I’ve spent a lot of time in Colorado rock climbs. And that would be like the second-most place I’ve climbed. But like I says, you're in Joshua Tree and you're reluctant to go, I mean, I’ve climbed a lot down in Idyllwild but I haven't been down there in a [inaudible] years because there’s so much to go through when you're up there; you know, have to drive down there and park and then you gotta hike way into anything there, everything’s half an hour anyways.
SN: So what would you say was the scene, if you will, of climbers at Joshua Tree when you first showed up, how would you describe the types of climbers you met and the numbers of climbers that you met and the different kinds of —just what the place was like during that time period when you very first—
DH: So primitive compared to now. Curiously, Sheryl and I met Todd Gordon and Dave Evans down at Stirrup Tank in like 19… must’ve been 1989 or 90-sometime, and we commented that we had bought that property and Todd knew exactly what property it was, you know, but it was just so funny to run into those guys. But there wasn’t a lot —it was never that crowded, okay. At its worst, it would be like a weekday is anymore, you know, the park itself. You know there’s a lot of people in the park right now, but I don't know that there’s that many people climbing compared to I’d say like up through the early ‘90s was some of the busiest rock climbing times, okay. And then, it fell —Joshua Tree has so much trad climbing. And the lack of bolts there push people to go to more and more of the sport climbing areas. Now, Joshua Tree’s picked up a lot more bolts, and so it’s picked up a lot more following among sport climbers because people wanna just go. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had people walk up to me and like, “Well, all we have is quickdraws and a rope and I’m like, where are we gonna go?” And I’m like, “Man, I can’t tell you to go —here. Here’s a climb. Here’s another climb that’s 500 yards away, you know; they’re looking for something, you’re thinking, it’s a huge climbing area that maybe they are gonna show up and it’s gonna be like perhaps the Owens River Gorge or something, just bolts down every wall, you know, all this stuff right ready to go. But it’s not like that. It still isn't. There’s still a lot more inconvenience in rock climbing at Joshua Tree. Joshua Tree has a lot of objective [inaudible] you know. There’s just —there’s loose rock, there’s just —everything. There’s just everything there. You know, it has it’s… lot of times I used to complain, we climbed a lot early on with Alan Bartlett, did you end up getting him as an interviewee?
SN: He’s on the list. I haven't approached him yet; he’s actually the one we’re thinking of as the next person we’re going to contact.
DH: Mhmm. [Understanding]
DH: No, Alan’s a treasure trove. We climbed with Alan for years, ten or twelve years from the ‘90s into the early 2000’s because he was working on his guidebook series. And we ended up in all the most obscure places there were over time. You know, it’s like first we were working on this guidebook down in Indian Cove, so no, that’s a very close and tight thing. But like going out into the Wonderland and doing obscure routes that are long, long out there and stuff, so no yeah, so that’s where we learned a lot of things and saw a lot of great things out in the park. And you’d go out into the Wonderland in those days and don’t get hurt, nobody’d even know you’re even out there practically. You know, it was such a different kind of thing compared to the amount of people. When I was out there in December, it was like, you know, you better be parked at Boy Scout Trail by like 9am or you’re not going to get parking there, you know. Not never, you know. And that was hikers. It was just hikers. That part got really… the park really got the biggest —it was like six years ago, one day, they started backing up down from West Entrance, and I’m like, “Oh my god!” And it’s been like that ever since. Because it backs down beyond our house, easy half-mile. Easily. You know, on a weekend and even during the week, there’ll be a 15 minute wait to get in the West Entrance. And I just —who could’ve ever believed that? You know especially having come through in the early ‘90s during —there was an earthquake, you know, the Landers quake, and following that, you couldn't hardly give your house away in Joshua Tree at that point in time. You know it was like, oh, everybody was selling, “Oh, we’re out of here, this is just Deadsville here,” and then, but it caught on heavy with Los Angeles like about that time. They saw it as like, “Wow, this is kind of a neat place and we can get to it in only two hours and some change, something like that,” you know. And a friend of mine from Seattle made that comment, he goes, “Where else could they go in that kind of timeframe?” and I’m like, “You're right. Guess you can’t. Maybe you can get up into the mountains but maybe you can’t, not as easy maybe. I don't know.” But it’s super popular. It’s amazing almost.
SN: Do you have any stories from your early days climbing in the park, maybe with Alan Bartlett, of like particularly memorable routes that you developed or things that happened on routes that made them particularly memorable for you?
DH: Boy that would be a hard one to isolate. No, I couldn't pick a… [listening to Sheryl off-screen]. Oh well, but that had nothing to do with Alan. One of the funniest things we saw early on, first trip there as a matter of fact, we saw [Hidetaka] Suzuki climbing the route Sole Fusion. And there’s no anchors on it. And this is a very hard route high up on this thing on Echo Rock. And he’s going up, and he gets to the top of the route, and how does he get down? He jumps off, winches himself back up the rope, gets that quickdraw, drops off again and he does that three or four times and we’re like, “This guy’s sick.” [Laughs] So you know, that’s one that always cracked us up, we’re like, “Wow.” I says, “I’m glad there’s anchor bolts there now, I think.” [Laughs] So yeah, no, it’d be hard for me to point anything because a lot of the times with Alan it would be we’re out searching for things so there’d be a lot of “Can we find this thing?” You know, and I couldn't point to anything —I mean, not with Alan, it’s like, I’ve had different experiences like with people climbing, like being on the Lost Horse Wall in the most ridiculous wind conditions, and it’s cold and I was with a friend this one day, and he gets up to me at the belay he’s like, “I gotta go down.” I just go, “Failure is no option.” [Laughs] And of course, he’s like [mimics shivering]. But of course, he’d be standing around down in the palace while I’m up there climbing this first pitch for twenty-something minutes, and he was frozen solid by the time that I laughed, I go, we’re up there, we’re having to stop climbing and just cringe in because the wind is trying to —you’re thinking you're gonna blow off the rock and stuff.
But you know, some of the best times for me personally is being up in the park in the summertime, and you're there late in the day, and the heat goes down and you get this lighting and it’s kind of this alpenglow, and it is just —and when there’s nobody around you’re like, “Oh this is like a holy place almost.” I’ve been like in Rock Garden Valley and the light comes up in there and you’re just like, “Wow, this is just [inaudible] to be up in.” You know, so there’s not a lot of routes that I would point to that I’ve done that I’m like, “Oh wow, I really remember that route,” because you do so many. You know, when you live there and you’ve done all these things on these formations many, many times and they're not the same. After the first time —you know Alan will be the first person —he doesn't like to repeat routes very much and things like that, whereas oh, I’ve done some of these things… forget it. How many times? I don't know. But it’s like, but once you know the secret or what’s going to happen, it’s like about half as hard mentally. You know what I mean? It’s like, you know you’ve succeeded before, so even though you know, “Oh, I’m gonna hate this when I get to this spot, I kept it together and did it last time,” so you have a higher chance, you know. Whereas you’re up on something and —no, Alan and I have done (and Sheryl as well) have done a lot of new routes, and you’re like, “We don't know what’s going to happen. Is this going to even —are we going to get up someplace and get trapped?” And we have. You get up this like, “Nope, we can’t get off it here no matter what we do, there is no way,” and things like that. So you're always in that —it’s kind of a suspense sort of thing. That’s probably some of the best part, you know. Just wondering, “Are we gonna get away with this, is this gonna happen or are we going to leave a bunch of gear and —we’re getting down!” [Laughs]
SN: So is it, if I’m hearing you correctly, it’s the exploration aspect in part that has made Joshua Tree a special place for you to climb?
DH: Yes. Absolutely, absolutely. Because I can —there’s still, there might be crummy routes, but sometimes you find a pearl out there. You’ll be thinking, oh you’ll go do something and you’re like, “Oh this doesn't look very good, but oh, it’s here and I’m here. We’ll do this route.” And sometimes you’re very pleasantly surprised, you go, “Well if this was in Hidden Valley, people’d do this all the time.” But you know it’s there, and it’s like you report a lot of routes because you can go down to the climbing store and report them, and every so often I’ll get an email from like Randy Vogel looking for, “Well you got any stuff to send in?” And Alan, I don't know if he’s compiling as much as he was, you know, he’s had his health issues and things like that, so he hasn't been out as much, so how much he’s still doing, but yeah, he has the library. You see the library of climbing books, he’s climbed like everywhere. So has Todd. So has Todd, it’s like I’ve done Todd routes in three or four different states as a matter of fact, you know, it’s funny you know. When I see the name; “Oh I’ve gotta go do this.” I can tell him that I did this, you know. It’s funny, yeah.
SN: That’s very helpful, I’m wondering, are there routes in Joshua Tree that if you weren't living there that you would feel like that about? Like, “Oh I gotta go and do this route by so-and-so if I’m going to go climb at Joshua Tree.”
DH: No because I think that people who don't live there, they’re immediately drawn to the big —you know there’s so many routes that are highly popular and everybody has —you know, like half the routes on say like the Hemingway Buttress. Well everybody wants to do half of the routes on —at least half, maybe more! Yeah, a lot of the formations there’s just so many things, you know, and there’s so many places to go to and you know, one of the weakest areas for me is around the Hidden Valley campground; I never go there. It’s always so crowded with people, so it’s like, I’ve done the routes once or twice, some several times, but the lot of them, no. You know, you’re right there in the campground and sometimes you’re starting out of campsites and things like that. That’s why sometimes the summer can be really handy up there, because “Oh I can get on that route, nobody’s there and we can go do it.”
SN: We’ve talked to some of the people who were involved with the Stonemasters era.
DH: Uh-huh. [Understanding] Much before me.
SN: Yeah, and a number of them told us that there was a really kind of typical day sort of practice that would emerge with the Stonemasters group, that they would sort of have a morning activity and move on to something else and then get into their full day, so on and so forth. Was there anything like that for you when you were climbing with Alan Bartlett for example, did you have a typical day?
DH: No. It was like we’re going —and you know, most of the time you’d be out for a couple of hours and that was it. You know, we’re doing our own stuff, home stuff, and things like that and Sheryl and I have spent a lot of time hiking and bicycling and things like that in the park. And for much of our time there, she and I had these split-phase days when we were out doing things, it’s like, “No, here, we’ll go up and we’ll ride, and then I’ll go up later on or we’ll go up later on and rock climb,” or something like that. So no, it’s not like —I wouldn't point to anything and just say, “Oh yeah I really remember this that or anything,” because it’s so many. You know, just dozens and dozens, hundreds of days, literally, out in these places, you know, there’s so many interesting times, you know, and getting to be out there and when you get out there and the sky’s so blue it looks black and things like that; it is stunning. And I see why it has such a big attraction to people and stuff, but I always sort of think, “Jeez, I wouldn't come here more than once or twice if I wasn't coming here to rock climb,” you know, it seems like everybody on Earth has been to the park by now, how come they’re coming back? [Laughs]
SN: Well I’m wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about the ethics that you climbed with, especially when you first came to the park, because we had heard a lot about changes in that, and actually the late 1980s is kind of emerging as a period where there was a real shift in ethics at the park, did you observe that?
DH: When I first started, okay, I had never placed a bolt in my life until climbing with Alan, so this will be an interesting thing. And oh no, we’re placing bolts on lead. And oh no, if you don't have to have it, we’re not putting this in. So there’s not going to be any convenient bolts, okay. And so it was a sparingly done thing, and it wasn't just “boom.” Plus, power drills were expensive, okay. And we were hand-drilling, okay. Whole ‘nother world. Whole ‘nother world. It’s like when you got a drill and man, you got a hole in 35 seconds, yeah get up there sometime and stand on [inaudible] and do that for 25 minutes and yeah.[Interference]So now, as time progressed, there was lots of routes in Joshua Tree; I used to joke and I’d go, “Yeah the only route where you need six quickdraws to do the route when you get to the top, you had better have two or three blue camalots to build an anchor.” You know, now more and more it became it like, people wanted to see rappel stations and anchors and things like that so you could get down off of them because when we were first out there, getting down off of formations was frequently as difficult. It was a difficult proposition. Certain formations are still pretty goofy and dangerous to climb down off of that aren't in the mainstay. But more and more people wanted to see a rappel station, and I kinda was always alright with rappel stations myself because I’m like, “You know what, I really don't wanna wallow down this chimney through 15 bird nests, destroy all this stuff down here to have done this 35 foot long route out front.” That sort of thing. You know so there’s a lot of impact from getting off. So I saw that, but at the same time, more and more bolts appeared, and it quit being a necessary to a convenience at a high level. You see it more and more, it’s like I have personally done routes that I was with people, they saw me do them too, and I had come back and there were three bolts on these routes. And I had done them all free pro. And it’s not like I’m any kind of —I’m not like I’m somebody. It’s like this is just pure laziness, I’m like, “C’mon, there’s a perfect placement for a red camelot here and there’s a bolt one foot to the right of it?” I’m like, is it all about getting bolts? And Alan, Alan used to complain about that all the time, he says, “Oh it’s just all about putting in bolts.” And he was, oh, he was very… it really burned him because he’s ten years older than me, and he climbed a lot all through Southern California, and you did it. You know, you weren't looking for that kind of thing, but as that more and more grew into the 1990s and stuff like that; and you know now, in the last five years the number of bolts has been outrageous. I go out and I see things done and I’m like, “I can’t believe.” And you’re like, “This is just so much, so much, so much…” It does expand the amount of stuff available, okay, but at the same time, it kind of —I don't know, is it really that important? You know, when you have as many routes as you do in Joshua Tree, how many more are actually necessary? Have you actually gone and done all these other things that are out there? It’s like, “No, I did these ones, we drilled holes and put this right next to the car, you know, things that like.” So you know, it has its two sides. I mean, hey, I’m the first person out there clipping something. You know what I mean, when I hear something’s there, I’m like, “Oh I gotta get right back out there and do it,” so I know I won’t be hypocritical but at the same time I’m like, “Yeah, maybe we have enough.” You know, how much abuse can the place take? Because like, when we first were there, Echo Rock had probably three-quarters of the routes that are there and bolts, and now there’s been a number more added, but the whole area has been just utterly trampled by people going out there. You know, it's just the vegetation’s gone from the base of the formation, and that stuff don't heal very well. The desert doesn't —you know, it gets trampled and it takes forever for things to recover. At the Boy Scout Trail head, a road used to go out to the rocks there; is that called Roadside Rocks? I’m not even sure, I have to think what that’s called. But a road used to go out there and park out there, you know, it’d be like 1990 or something like that. That road has been gone for 25 years, and you walk out that is the trail to get to those formations. And plainly it’s been a road, you know, and so those things —and now like in the North Wonderland, with these campsite closures and stuff, well that makes all these people go out there and backcountry camp. And so now there’s great deals of damage out there from that. There’s a lot. It’s just like I’ve come in —just about the way it forces people out into things, and people camp all around those areas, but that’s not a climbing thing, that’s a camping thing. But nevertheless, there’s just so much pressure on everything, you know that it gets beat. It gets beat down.
SN: In your experience climbing in the park, how much of a motivation was doing a first ascent for you? Was that—
DH: Pretty important, because we were picking new routes and stuff and so, yes, yes. That was a high motivator there. Ticking new routes and putting up routes as well. But ticking new routes because a guy named Raleigh Collins had written an article (I don't remember what year this is, he’s now deceased) he had written an article about how many climbs does it take to be a local in Joshua Tree?
[Listens to Sheryl off-screen]
Sheryl says ‘97 or ‘99 for that article. And it was like well, the threshold to consider yourself a local was like you’d done a thousand different routes in the park. And so they had this little thing of like what people had claimed or how many they were quoting them say as having done. And you know so that kind of was driving things, like, “No, we’re gonna go out and get this route, we’re gonna get that ticked.” You know, you wanna be able to like look at your guidebook and see just the checkmarks and dates and things like that and stuff like that, so there’s always been a lot of that because I’ll meet Todd Gordon and he’ll have pages of stuff that him and Tucker [Tech] had put together or somebody else. And, “Oh here, you need to go do these,” and you know, Sheryl and I’d be like, “Yeah, I guess you're right.” So he’s like, ‘“Okay, we’re going down here, we’re gonna find this route, we’re gonna find that route,” you know, so that was a highly motivational thing. You know, maybe not so much on doing first ascents; I mean I’ve [inaudible] a lot, but it’s like as far as ticking routes, that was one of the main driving forces among a lot of the people. Maybe not so much among the strongest of the climbers, okay. They were far more focused on the super difficult routes. But the rest of us, who were just in the wallowing mass of good climbers, you know, we ain’t climbing at their standards. You know, so that was a high-driving force, I’d definitely say.
SN: Did you see a change at any point in your time in Joshua Tree with regard to how many of the world’s best climbers would come to climb at Joshua Tree, or did that stay pretty constant over the years in your observation?
DH: I really wouldn't have a good answer for you on that. You know, because I know the people that I’ve seen who were there and like, I maybe only saw Bachar… twice? And this is somebody who was there all the time, but I never saw him. And now, I saw Lynn Hill for years up in the Shawangunks when she was living up there; me and Joe would see her every time we were up there and stuff, and never ever have seen her in Joshua Tree even though she was a major pioneer climbing there with people from the Stonemasters. She was the youngest by far, of course, ‘cause she’s only like my age, so you know. They’re all people like John Long —is John Long still living?SN: Mhmm. [Affirming]
DH: Okay, did you get an interview with him?
SN: Yes, we did quite a long interview with him.
DH: I wouldn't doubt that. I wouldn't doubt that for a second, it’s like there’s somebody who’s got just so much. You know, he could tell you that much about Idyllwild too, you know, one of those places. Yeah that’s funny, yeah.
SN: Yeah I think one of the things that has come through from some of the people from the later 1970s or early 1980s in their perspective is that there was a kind of a golden era for Joshua Tree during those years, and that after that, times really changed in the later 1980s and going into the 1990s especially when the influence of gyms became really predominant, and so would you say that was also your perception too, that times changed?
DH: Sure, and also, you saw a lot more women. Lots more women rock climbers. Nowadays it’s like, you'll see two women get out of a car from Colorado and stuff like that, you know, and they're set up, man, it's like you didn't used to see women-climbing party. You'd always see guys and a girl or that sort of thing. But no, and there’s many, many, many more women in the sport now, you know. Because the gym was a good access point for those people, for sure. It's a good access point for a lot of people because they're like, “So like, what is this about?” And once they get —you know, they like the gymnastic aspects of it, you know, it's interesting. Everybody who comes from the gyms like that, this is nothing like climbing in the gym; when they come out and climb in the park, this is nothing like a —I says, they’ll know. There's a myriad of holds to choose from, you know, it's not like there's three different things you're supposed to grab and pull on, that sort of thing, you know. So that's changed a lot that way. You know, what the people's expectations and like I said earlier, I says, they expect it like everything's going to be easy. And Joshua Tree is far from “easy” at a lot of the things. It's like no, you'll get up there and it's like you're going to have to get down. There's lots and lots of things, you're going to have to get down from this. So, you know, it's kept its place. And Alan was always like, “Well, it loses its flavor of adventure basically,” was his —you know, and I have to agree. It's like, yes, now that you know this is going to be… you know, it's so much different than… You know, and the people who saw that place in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s, I'm sure it was a world different even from what I saw. It had to be Nowheresville. It just had to be at that point because it was pretty backwoods when we first showed up there, you know. I mean, we ran into a few people and everything, but as it became… I was guiding some people from —these two young guys from New Zealand. And I was like, “How in the name of God did you ever end up in Joshua Tree?” “Oh, well it’s the hottest topic on social media!” And I was like, (this would be about four or five years ago) and I'm like, “Really?” I'm like, “You're in New Zealand, you could go to all these places in Australia or whatever, or New Zealand for that matter”; you’re like, “Oh no, they're coming to Joshua Tree.” I mean, people [inaudible] everywhere, everywhere. It's just unreal, you know, the number of… you'll be there in the dead of summer. And Europe is like on vacation, so like Germans come to Joshua Tree and like one of their goals is to be like in Joshua Tree, the Grand Canyon, and Death Valley, like in July. That way you got bragging rights when you go home; “You’ve never seen anything so hot as this!” You know?
SN: You're talking about right now? This is happening right now?
DH: It's always been that way in the summertime. It's always that way. It's like the only people who are —now people are there all summer. But it used to be, no, the only people who would be there in the summer would be like me and the other locals or Europeans would come there. You know, it was just like this their time of vacation. They have no idea what they read that it's going to be hot, and it's going to be that level of hot, you know. I'm just amazed how crowded it is all summer long. That to me has been one of the differences, you know. And like I says, so much of this, nothing has to do with climbing. I'd say climbing’s not any more popular than it has been at other times, okay? Like, you know, maybe it's more now than it was, but I remember being with Sheryl and our one friend Steve in the early 1990s and places were crowded, you know, on a weekend. We'd go somewhere and you're like, “Wow, there's not much parking here.” There's not much parking but it's not because the climbing routes are crowded, just that there's so much more pressure from people wanting to just get outdoors right now.
SN: We've learned that there was a time period where people who were putting up routes in Joshua Tree were putting up some of the hardest routes in the world at that time, given where the sport was.
DH: Yes.
SN: Would you say that was true in the ‘90s when you were putting up routes still?
DH: Well, the hardest routes would be like Cosgrove's routes and a few other people. Aren't those early 90s routes? I’m thinking, because Scott would have been a couple of years older than me maybe, and he'd have been like 30-ish. So those routes had to have all been through that. You know, the first super hard routes were all those ones on the south face of Turtle Rock, okay. And those got to be like early 90s routes, just thinking about him, thinking about Scott and thinking about people that he hung with and stuff and how old those guys are now, I'm like, that had to be about then for some of those hardest things being put in, but I'm not really all… I have no real knowledge of what's going on. I don't go up the campground, I don't know what's going on down at the climbing store at this point, things like that. So for me to give you any kind of information about what's hard there nowadays, I don't know. I just know when those things went in in the ‘90s that they were like mind-blowers for everybody and people came, you know, people would come from all over and just like, they’d spend a week there trying to do some of those routes. Just, that's it. They’re working this route, you know, and so that had that popularity and plus, you know. Well, like the great climber that Wolfgang Güllich, he was there in the early ‘90s, okay, but then he got killed in a car crash or something like that in ‘94 or something like that. And he had written multiple articles that I'd seen in climbing magazines about the place, you know, extolling this, that and the next thing about it. So, I've never been in with that crowd of people to be able to say that much about what goes on. You know, I mean, like right now, like D Griff [David Griffith] lives up there. And now, but things get pretty [inaudible] able to climb out these days, but did you get Griffith, Dave Griffith as this person to talk to you at all?
[Sally shakes her head to indicate “no”]
No? Okay, yeah, yeah. You know, you only have so much time of course.
SN: He’s somebody who’s name came up, but we haven't put him at the top of the list. We've been so lucky that everybody that we've talked to has been willing to participate.
DH: Yes. Good.
SN: And it’s a long list.
DH: Yeah. Yeah. It's like, you know, other people like, you know, like did you end up talking to Tucker Tech?
SN: He agreed to do an interview with us, but once the COVID thing hit and we had to go to remote, we decided we would postpone until we could talk to him face to face.
DH: Yeah, I know he doesn't have that kind of living situation where he's got all those sorts of things, I says yeah, because he's like a treasure. You know, he has such a background between that and everybody up and down the Sierras, like going up to Yosemite and things like that, you know. And he'd have a perspective on, well, what was Joshua Tree as far as people from Yosemite thought and stuff like that? You know, Joshua Tree was always just kind of like one of these places you'd go to in preparation to go do something else. I mean, that's always been that kind of thing. But, you know, after people started coming there and finding out, “Boy, I can come here for a week and I’ll climb until my hands can't move.” And you'd have all this —it's easy. It's very easy to be there, you know. I remember reading an article in Climbing Magazine and the guy was saying, he says, “If you don't want to waste your time shivering in the palace or dealing with rain, just go to Joshua Tree.” And it’s like, yeah, you're right. Yeah, you're right. If you see something happen, it's so different.
SN: Now would you describe yourself as one of those climbers who used Joshua Tree as a place to prepare for other kinds of climbing?
DH: Mostly just to stay in condition, so when I’d go someplace else, like going up to Colorado or Wyoming, I could do it when I got there. You know, not so much as like, “Oh, I'm doing any kind of—” No, I've never, no, I'm not like prepping for a big wall or something like that. No, no. But there's diversity at Joshua Tree. There's everything, you know. And so it's not like, oh, it's only got this one kind of thing. You can find everything you might want to climb there, you know. It's just… yeah.
SN: So part of the appeal was just having that diversity right at your door.
DH: Oh, yeah, well, I live right next to the park. I mean, that's just like, even with the crowds, it's like, well, I'll change my mode of operation and I'll just get up and get up there early and that solves all my problems, you know. But no, buying property where we did spun me into a hole —like we never intended to spend as much time out there as we actually did. When we bought it, I had a good job here in Pennsylvania and I was like, “Yeah, we're just going to buy this. We'll see what —we'll build some house on, and that way when we go out there a few times a year.” But more and more spent more and more time there, and going to here and there. You know, have you put in much time going and doing any hikings, you know, like in the park itself?
SN: Sorry, I've got an airplane going over me right now, but I think it's going away, so, out in the park; I moved to Riverside in 1990, about the same time, you know. And over the years I have gone out to the park sporadically, hiking, so on and so forth.
DH: Sure.
SN: So I have some understanding of the park, the different areas of it, but it's really fascinating to me to think about what it must have been like for you to live right there all these years [inaudible] over the years.
DH: Oh, it's been great. I mean, hey, you know, we have bighorn sheep come to our water dishes at the house, you know, and things like that. So, no, seeing it in all these different kinds of contexts [inaudible].
SN: Dave, we have lost your sound.
DH: Okay, how about now?
SN: Now you're back.[Interference]
DH: Okay, so what other what are some other items you got?
SN: Oh, a couple of things I just want to make sure we cover. One is with regard to technology and changing technology and climbing. We're trying to identify if there ever has been any particular kinds of climbing gear or climbing technique that were first developed or used at Joshua Tree.
DH: Charles Cole had developed —the first sticky rubbers appeared like… showed up like 1983 or ‘4 or something like that, okay. And then Charles Cole put together the Five Ten company, okay, which I guess has been bought by Adidas or something. You know, he was some kind of chemist and… did you get him as somebody to interview? Charles Cole? [Sally indicates “no”] He was a big developer there. He did this route on Saddle Rock called Dial 911. He bolted that all on—one day, one day. Three pitches, like 11 or 12 total bolts. Drilled them all by hand by himself on lead from a stance. It's like, God, he's got lots and lots of hard routes. He's—yeah, he developed the sticky rubber, okay. That was a huge change for rock climbing everywhere. Because these slabby things when you used to do them in rubbers like on EB or ERPs and things like that; no way, they were just a different thing.
That, and camming devices. That's probably —the development of friends and then subsequently the camalots, was a whole different world. Like I grew up placing hexcentrics and stoppers and things like that. And I did that… probably till ‘84 or so. I remember when I was in Wyoming for this summer in ‘81, I was working for Continental Oil and my girlfriend at the time bought me a friend, okay? And when I come back to Pennsylvania and people saw a friend they were just like, “Wow!” You know, the friend appeared, I think 1979 or ‘78 or something like that it was developed out in California.[4] But like, to have something like that, you were like, like a technical genius, you know. And then I remember seeing the first small camming devices probably 1985 or something like that, you know. And these real small ones, you know, the Metoliuses were the first ones and stuff like that, and it's like, generally speaking, they're much safer, okay, than a passive climbing piece. Although it's good to have learned on passive climbing pieces, just stoppers and things that you have to wedge into a mechanical thing because it gives you a lot more understanding of what you really want to see happen with a camming unit. But camming units easily, easily made the hugest difference for everybody because these crack climbs in Joshua Tree, if you didn't have camming units, I want to see these people do these with a —you’d need a sawed-off two-by-four or something like that [inaudible], you know, it's so different. You know, I have friends who bought cams that are like this big and at first I’m like, “Well, I don't know about that,” but then I ended up using one, I'm like, “Oh don't this cut this down to size, all of a sudden.” So that's a huge difference.
The power drill has made the biggest difference. Okay, that used to be like such an expensive piece of equipment, so it was prohibitively expensive. I mean like, you'd hear about a Bosch or a Hilti in the 1990s and that drill’s four or five hundred dollars then. It's like, Todd came over my house about… that had to be twenty years ago. He had come over my house with a Dewalt, yellow Dewalt drill that he had bought for like 179 dollars and he was showing it to me, and we went out in the back of my house and we drilled into that boulder back there and I'm like, “You gotta be kidding me.” Because it was lightweight. You know, when you see these older —these drills, you can barely get them over your head with two hands, it's like, now you can buy some of these drills —my plumber was up there and he had a Makita, that I'm like, “Aw that ain’t never going to do it.” And it took a little bit of time, it took him like a minute or something. But nevertheless, we drilled a 3/8th inch hole with this thing that was like his, you know, little hand drill. I'm like, that's a big difference. That's why there's so many more bolts, is because it's easy to do. And the bolts are way better. You know, like I don't know if you've heard this from people, but like, you had to see what people used to use as bolt hangers okay. Like David Houser, he would cut pieces of aluminum angle and drill two holes in it. And they were the hangers, and I’ve retrobolted some of those routes. And I'm telling you, you’d put a crowbar behind that hanger and it would peel off of the bolts. The aluminum was just junk. And this is off of a bolt that's a compression bolt. This isn't an expansion bolt. This is a compression bolt, you know, and you pound those in just like a nail, basically. And but it doesn't take that much to pull them out. I've pulled those out where I put the crowbar behind them, ‘cause I’m pulling them and you're drilling a new hole. You're drilling that hole optimally, okay, and putting in real hardware. But I've had ones where I've put a crowbar behind it, I almost lost a crowbar because the bolt popped right out, just like that. There's all kinds of ancient artifacts like that. Sheryl was one time —we were at Echo Rock and I had stopped because I couldn't make it to the ground, and I was still tied in at the top, but and I was tied in down here, and I just sort of was stopped on a ledge and I clipped into a bolt and I just sort of sat down on it; not sat back, just sat down. It popped out instantly. It was like, “Wow, imagine if you’d’ve been leading this route and clipped that and fell.” It was like you had nothing at all. You know, you were just… the rope stopped me twenty feet off the ground, but I'm like, “Oh, boy, you’d have been dead.” You know, so a lot of that, it's like, yeah, you'll see all these different old things, and now the bolts that people are putting in also are far better. Because like when I was bolting things early on, we're putting in the so-called 5-piece Rawl and that bolt’s strong, but it's nothing like these bolts from—that you get like Petzl bolt, something like that. They're made with far, far better materials. These things, they just got picked off from hardware stores. There's things out there still, that like yeah, this is something somebody found in a hardware store in 1972 and drilled a hole somehow and put this in here and here it is. So yeah, and now, they make these prefabricated rappel stations, so people are putting in these hangers that have the rings built in or the chains and the rings built in, and those are very nice. Because it used to be you would have time to construct a rappel station. You'd put in a couple of bolts and then you'd have to buy these hardware lengths and lengths of chain and you'd have to go through all this stuff and pack this all up. Whereas now these things are all pre-packed, ready to go and easy to buy. You know, even early on when we were still hand-drilling and things like that, not an easy thing to just go and get another one of the bits. You know, nowadays nobody even carries that stuff probably. I have no idea.
Okay now, is there like any more hardware things? I'd say well, the gear's way lighter, but curiously, curiously, and people love this, when I started climbing rocks, a carabiner was like five or six bucks. Carabiners are five or six bucks. You know, it's like that used to be such a thing. I remember buying a rope, you know, first rope I bought I paid like 125 dollars. Now, they can be much more, but that was 125 dollars when that would be like a five hundred dollar rope nowadays practically. You know, it's like the availability of the things, and you know, there used to only be two or types shoes; a handful of kinds of shoes. There's so many shoes on the market it amazes me. When you pull open somebody like Gearexpress or, there's just dozens and dozens and dozens of kinds of shoes; predominantly gym shoes though, and sport climbing shoes. You know, that's where the main emphasis is.
Now, another weird thing that goes on is bouldering, okay. Now, bouldering is brutal on the terrain because people are dragging these crash pads around and they just plunk them down. So I have kind of an attitude about that sort of thing. I says, “Yeah, they'll take these crash pads out and it's like it don't matter, they're putting this crash pad down on whatever the vegetation is.” And it's like, well, kinda taken a little bit there to destroy this, you know. So that's another thing. That's why you see that all —but when people get into that, because they see it as a cheap access thing. Although a lot of people think they're going to go out and go bouldering, but then they get out there and it’s like, it don't matter if you have a crash pad, when you're 14 feet in the air, that crash pad looks a long way away. And I’ve bouldered all my life. And it's like, that’s one of the prime functions at the one place that's down here in Latrobe is bouldering, okay. And so I'm used to going and being on high problems, and I'm like, ‘Well, you don't just climb up there and fall down. You climb up there and learn how to climb back down. And you go up and down a bunch of times and then you learn that kind of thing.” So those are big changes because Joshua Tree is now a huge bouldering thing. I mean, so many people have crash pads; you see them walking around, they walk way out into areas and things like that. So I’d have to say, if there was any increase in rock climbing, that's the big increase. I'd say there's many, many more people with bouldering equipment than there used to be, okay. And Joshua Tree, of course, is very well-suited. Just boulders everywhere, you know, so.
SN: I'm going to stop here and ask if Bernadette or Emilio has anything they'd like to ask because we're getting toward the end of our interview.
DH: Sure. Yes, I see.
ET: I just have one question for David.
DH: Sure.
ET: So you mentioned first ascents as a major motive for you when you're climbing.
DH: Yes.
ET: So what do you look for in a rock when you put up a route?
DH: A doable line first off. You're almost always —if you're not looking to put in bolts, you're looking for a crack line, and you're looking for something that it looks like it's going to be attractive enough, not too loose. You know, so much in Joshua Tree, it's like you get on things and there's a lot of junky rock there, so you don't know. But mostly you're looking for solid rock. You're looking for an attractive line, or you'll just see something and you go, “Oh, I'll bet that's kind of cool when you get up underneath that bulge,” and well it is, you know, so it's hard to say what makes you do them, but I mean you're looking and you say, “That can be done.” And one thing for sure, you'll look at these things and you'll go, “Oh, that looks like that'll be pretty easy.” And about 80 percent of the time, it's not as easy as you thought. You'll be thinking, oh, and then you'll get up there and this isn't anything like what I’ve just seen from the ground, you know?
ET: Thank you. That was the only question I had, but that was a really good answer, thanks.
DH: Okay, thanks!
BR: Mountain Project lists that you and Sheryl put up thirty-seven routes in Joshua Tree. Does that sound about accurate to you?
DH: For me and Sheryl? Sure. That might be all the more there is for that. Now me alone, and other people, unknown. It's more than that.[5] Are you the former climbing ranger?
BR: Not for the—
DH: In Josh?
BR: Yeah, I’m the current—
DH: The climbing ranger in Josh? Yeah, yeah yeah yeah. Okay.
BR: Which one of those first ascents in Joshua Tree was your favorite?
DH: I haven't even thought about something like that. You know, I don't have an answer on that. I could not off the top of my head say, “Oh yeah, you gotta go do this or something.” No, no.
BR: Okay.
DH: Sorry, I ain’t got that answer.
BR: That’s alright. Those are all the questions—
DH: How was your recovery going?
BR: Oh, you know about that.
DH: I was there the night you got splattered. I was climbing over at Ken Black [Memorial] Dome that night, and I heard these people over at the Hemingway Buttress and I went home, and that's when emergency started coming up the hill. I was there that very night.
BR: Wow.
DH: Yep. I was two hundred yards away; nothing had happened when I left, but it did. Yeah. Yeah, like I said, I saw your name, I go, “I'll bet that’s Bernadette.” Well, that's good. I'm glad to see you're doing well. ‘Cause you got banged, I’ll tell you that much. Do you have any issues —you had leg issues; didn't your legs got bashed or what?
BR: Yeah my right leg took the brunt of that fall and I’ve had four surgeries to put it back together. But it’s doing alright right now. I also poked a lot of things on the insides, and I broke this arm and I broke my head.
DH: You’re lucky not to have gotten killed. Yeah, when I heard about that, I heard about that from Mayville, you know, and it was like, “Hey, I was there.” I saw those people because it was dead of summer wasn't it?
BR: September.
DH: It was September? Okay. I know it was hot. It was hot, I know that. Well, good, good.
BR: Thank you for asking.
DH: Yeah, no, really. No, I don't have one that I could point to and say, “Yeah, that's something that's sticking in my mind having done.” No, no.
BR: Okay.
DH: Okay.
BR: Back to Sally.
SN: All right, well, I just have one more question for you, David. And it pertains to the study again, we're trying to identify (and this may be kind of an impossible task) but we're trying to identify what routes in the park or what formations in the park might be considered the most historic in terms of what happened on them with regard to the history of climbing more generally—
DH: Intersection Rock immediately, okay, because when did he do Fitschen’s Folly like 1947,[6] something like that? Okay, that's like that's one of the earliest recorded routes, okay. And it's a combination of current routes and things like that, but that thing is old, okay. And I'd say that formation, the Old Woman because like —do you have the red Wolfe guide?
[Sally indicates “yes”]
DH: You do? Yeah, flip through that book and see, he's got lots and lots of —I don't know if you've gotten time to read the anecdotes and stuff like that, but he has a lot of those things. It's funny because I've been doing this one route on Intersection Rock and I'm like, “Wonder if anybody's ever done that.” And I happened to just find this two lines in the red book and he's describing: “Well when you're in the cave, you can go up to the chimney with this overhanging crack.” I go, “God, look at that!” That had been done in 1975 or something like that, you know. So, yeah, that, the Old Woman. What else is really… because, you know, I don't think that the routes on the Hemingway Buttress, for example, are all that old, and I don't know —I’ll bet the routes on the Lost Horse Wall though probably are, because that would be something that would’ve immediately attracted people early on, because they’re long. You know, I would see that, I would see that would be that. You know, I don't know how early —I’m trying to think when was something like Right On done on the Saddle Rock; 1960s or 70s at the latest. You know, like there's that picture in the Wolfe guide of the guy on the Headstone and that's like 1960-something. You know, so those are some of the oldest things I can think of off the top of my head.
SN: Actually, being old is one thing that would make them historic, but there are other things that make a climb historic, like there are some routes where the changes in ethics—
DH: The standard. Yes. Yes. Well, geez, I mean, even something like Walk on the Wild Side had to have been kind of an amazing thing in its day, you know, to have been like, “Here, this is just almost completely bolts.” It is really completely bolts, but, you know, and that's an old route too, as I said, so certain things like that, I'm like —because then there's these different routes that were that were cutting edge, you know, but… I don't know. You know, that's a good —you know, like I says, those formations and what —how old they are… yeah. I don't know. That I don't really have a good answer, I guess. I just know what the oldest things are and it's just like, “Wow, that’s strange that somebody was here in those days.” Imagine driving out there in 1950-something and climbing. Yeah.
SN: Yeah, I guess I'm thinking along the lines of if somebody contacted you, said, “I'm coming from New Zealand, I’m a climbing buff, and I can only go to Joshua Tree once, but I want to do the climbs that are —the ones that are really sort of the most classic, the most… the climbs that I can go home and tell my friends about, that I climbed this one.”
DH: Well that would depend on how hard you were climbing. You know, that would make a big difference, I mean, if you can go solo Scary Poodles, well, you should go solo Scary Poodles; there you go. You know, or just do Scary Poodles, that’s enough. You know, a lot of that would be dependent on the level you were climbing.
SN: Well say I was somebody who was at a really high level. What would you say?
DH: Oh, then I wouldn't… I don't know. I mean, because a really high level; I haven't done anything beyond hard 5.11, so you know, really hard level, I mean I'd say, “Well, you certainly want to go do… you know I mean, well, EBGB’s is only rated like maybe 11a but well, there’s a ride for you!” And even Swept Away, which is right nearby, I mean, those are spectacular routes. They're not super difficult. But you ain't just goin’ up there, you know, that sort of thing. I mean, nah, I'm not the person, you’ll need to ask that people are climbing harder than that because then they’d have a better comment for you.
SN: Are there any climbs that in terms of really famous climbers; to be able to say to somebody, “Well, you want to go do this climb because, you know, so and so went on it and something really important happened then. So go do that one.” Anything like that?
DH: No, but I'll tell you, if you could —like routes, for example, there's a route on Echo Rock called TS Special. That's a ride. That's easy, but it's a ride. And the level of daring that somebody like Sorenson had to do things like that, and there's a lot of routes that —let me think about that, like that's one that just immediately I go, “There’s a historically significant route that somebody did that like, wow, nobody’s just going to, like, laugh that off,” you know? I mean, it's easy, but it isn't. Well, I mean, you can go into all those routes, like there's this 5.7 crack in the [Hidden Valley] campground called Buissonier, I believe that's the proper pronunciation; I think it's a Royal Robbins route, and it's rated like 5.7 and you're just like, “Oh, yeah; yeah, maybe for him it was 5.7.” That's the funny part, is you'll go and do anything that's old, and you see these ratings, you're like [indicates skepticism]. It's like there’s a similar kind of situation here in our area, because like I've mentioned Seneca, which is also near —there's this New River Gorge, which is this huge area, much bigger than Seneca. Seneca was an old place and nobody there had any ego that they could climb this hard. And you're doing some of these routes and they're rated like 5.9 and 5.10 and you go, “This is 11b, this route. Anybody would say that”; you know, you're like, “I can barely scratch my way up this thing and you're telling me it's 5.10b?” You're like, “No, it isn't.” So same thing in Joshua Tree. Lots and lots of routes there that you'll see this rating and you go, “This is an old rating. By modern standards, it’ll be a whole ‘nother thing.” Yeah. I don't know, that I could point and say, you know, “Yes, you want to go do this because of…” Because a lot of the older routes aren't that great. You know, the best routes did —some of the best old routes did come during the late 1970s and early 80s. Those routes were put up then, you know, they’ve been there a long time. So, they were routes, they were long done when I'd gotten there. They'd been done ten years earlier; I first did routes that had been done a week earlier and didn't know it, you know, things like that.
SN: Well, I think we've made it through the schedule of questions that we would always like to give the interviewee a chance to add anything, any comments or anything that we might not have covered or touched on that you think is important to include in your appreciation of Joshua Tree or your thoughts about the history of climbing in the park. So anything to add?
DH: The only thing I'd ever add is just like people need to be a little easier on the resources out in the park. It just gets too much. You know, there's just —it's like you'll see garbage on —you’ll see cigarette butts on ledges, I'm like, “Are you kidding me?” I'm like, “Are you just totally kidding me with this sort of thing?” I'm like, you know, and seeing garbage in the park; you know, some of the volunteers there, you know, it's like… Bernadette knows who Jeanie is, and if you'd see how much Jeanie picks up, it's just like criminal. I'm like, “How come she just cleaned this thing up? She's a volunteer who's up in the park, she picks up [inaudible]”, okay. And let me tell you, I've stopped and helped her and stuff and you're just like, “Can’t believe people would do this here.” You know? That you would just leave —that probably is the single thing I'd say, I says we have to be a little more considerate because the desert doesn't —it doesn't recover. And like, people building fires and things like that, they build these fire rings and stuff and you're like, “No, you're going to burn—” And we've had so many close calls with fires, you know, in the park and getting going and you're like, “This gets going, it's going to be destroyed.” We drove across the Mojave Preserve in August and it was like a tearful event to see. Have you been across that ever? It's over by… on the back way to Las Vegas from Joshua Tree and that burnt up and it was awful; when we drove through there, I'm like, “Oh, my God.” Because we weren't seeing anything burnt, we weren't seeing anything burnt, then we got real close to Cima; it's just burnt right to pavement.[7] I’m like, “Oh Jesus. This is —you know, this can never recover.” You know, never. It wouldn't matter what happened, you know. And it's like it only takes those kinds of carelessness and things like that with the people. That's why like when I'll be coming out and people got a fire out in the Wonderlands you’re like, “Are you crazy?” You know, it's just more consideration. The park’s needs, you know, definitely —you know, there's only so many personnel though, to go out, you know, to police things. There's only so much budget. There's only so many people willing to do it, you know. So it's like the people need kinda like re-educated as far as.... nobody's coming here to pick up garbage. You know, this is a resource that like we have to keep it clean. So that would be —there. That would be my soapbox comment for you. Like, no, too many people just like being careless, like, “Yeah, we're just at Walmart or something. We'll just leave it in the parking lot.” Like, no. No. It needs all the help it can get now, but. Well, if you have any other questions or anything else you think of, just send me an email and I'll respond on that level for you.
SN: Thank you, David.
DH: I hope that I gave you something other than just my rambling. You know, I hope you got a few pieces of information out of it.
SN: Absolutely, absolutely.

[1] David Haber later identified this area as the formation as High Rocks, near the town of Derry PA (personal communication, April 9, 2021).

[2] Ivan Jirak was a former student at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. In 1947 he placed a newspaper ad simply titled “WANTED: Active adults interested in forming an Explorer’s Club.” The ad attracted 30 men and women and the Explorer’s Club of Pittsburgh was formed.

[3] Founded in 1974, the International Mountain Equipment (IME) is “the Northeast’s legendary climbing, alpine touring & telemark skiing, and expedition retail shop.”

[4] In the late 1970s, American climber Ray Jardine asked Mark Vallance to mass-produce his prototype of the camming device with Vallance’s English company, Wild Country. Though expensive, the Friends became immediate popular with rock climbers.

[5] David Haber later confirmed that 37 First Ascents was accurate for well established routes, and that it was probably 5 times that number for more obscure routes (personal communication, April 9, 2021).

[6] No route by that name is currently found on Intersection Rock. However, Fitschen’s Folly is the name of a climb found at Tahquitz, first ascended in 1954 by Don Wilson and Mark Powell. The oldest route on Intersection Rock is difficult to identify with complete certainty. The route, Lower Right Ski Track, is reported as having been first done in traditional climbing style by Al Ruiz and John Wolfe in 1966, and has the oldest recorded date of the “classic climbs” on Intersection Rock. However, there are other routes from the same era who have no known recorded dates and which might have been done earlier.

[7] In August of 2020, a 43,273-acre fire burned through the Cima Dome of Joshua Tree, leaving “a graveyard of Joshua tree skeletons.” It is estimated that “25% of the contiguous Joshua tree forest burned” in this wildfire.


John Lauretig

Interview Date: 11/02/2021

Biographical Information: John Lauretig is a retired law enforcement park ranger who has spent time at Joshua Tree from 2000-2001 and 2011-2015, amongst many other national parks such as Haleakala National Park and Acadia National Park. He is familiar with the climbing culture that is present at Joshua Tree and the infractions that may arise as a result of such practices. Apart from being a seasoned park ranger, he is also an enthusiastic climber.

Content SummaryJohn recalls his career working as a park ranger in various national parks, most notable of all being Joshua Tree National Park. Due to this experience, John can directly compare and contrast the characteristics of different national parks. As a park ranger, John is able to provide insight on the duties and responsibilities of rangers, the conflicts and interactions between the climbing public and the rangers, and the social culture of rock climbing as it appeared in the park.

  • Hidden Valley Campground
  • National Park Service
  • Park Ranger
  • Search and Rescue
  • Hemingway Buttress (Area)
  • Hidden Valley (Area)
  • Intersection Rock (Area)
  • Lost Horse Wall (Area)
  • The Thin Wall (Area)
  • Ryan Mountain (Area)
SN: All right, good afternoon, everyone. This is Sally Ness from the University of California, Riverside, Anthropology Department. Today is Thursday, February 11th, 2pm, 2021. And I am here today joined by my research assistant, Emilio Triguero, and National Park Service Ranger Bernadette Regan, and our interview subject for today, who is John Lauretig. John, thank you for joining us and for participating in the Joshua Tree National Park Historic Resource Study of Recreational Rock-climbing.
JL: Well, thanks for having me.
SN: We're just so grateful that you can join us today and share your experiences and your perspective on what's been happening over the years with climbing at Joshua Tree. I want to pause before we get into the questions themselves just to reiterate what we talked about a few minutes ago with regard to informed consent for the project to confirm with you that I have gone over the consent form, which we'll be sending to you very shortly, and that you understand that you have the prerogative to pass over or adjust or revise any question that we might be talking about at any time for any reason and we'll be glad to adapt accordingly. Is that clear?
JL: Yes it is, thank you.
SN: Great. And so with that in mind, you are willing to give us your informed consent to participate voluntarily in the study?
JL: Yes.
SN: All right. Thank you very much. And you do consent to being audio recorded?
JL: Correct.
SN: All right. Great. Okay, good. So we always like to start off with a little bit of personal history. So would you tell us how you first arrived at Joshua Tree? Are you from California or where did you start out in life?
JL: Well, that's a great question, Sally, I'm glad you asked. I grew up on the North coast of America in Cleveland, Ohio, and actually first started climbing there. And then many, many, many years later, me and friends would come to Joshua Tree in the early ‘90s to go climbing, maybe the late ‘80s. And no, it had to be like the mid ‘90s, to climb recreationally. And at some point there, I started working for the Park Service, bumped around at a couple of different parks, came to Joshua Tree in 2000, and then 9/11 happened. I went to another federal agency after 9/11 and then came back to Joshua Tree in 2011 and retired in basically the day one of 2015.
SN: You are definitely the first person we've interviewed who actually has been a ranger at Joshua Tree.
JL: Well, that's great.
SN: Can you remember a little bit more detail about your history with being a ranger; which parks did you work at and where and what your duties were?
JL: Sure. I actually started out as a volunteer through the Student Conservation Association at Canyonlands National Park in Utah in the Needles district. And I liked that experience so much that I returned to Cleveland; they had a seasonal law enforcement ranger academy there. I went to that, I got my EMT training, my emergency medical technician training, and then that next spring, started applying to jobs for the National Park Service. My first job was Black Canyon of the Gunnison. Back then, it was a national monument, now I think it's Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Curecanti National Park, I think, or monument or something. And then after that, two seasons at Acadia [National Park, ME], then went back to Canyonlands to work at Island in the Sky. Then from there, I went to Hawaii to work in Haleakalā on Maui for about eight or nine years. During that time I did a summer kind of a lateral stint out at Yellowstone, so I spent the summer at Old Faithful, which was great. Came back to Haleakalā, eventually applied to jobs back on the West Coast and got a job offer from Joshua Tree and I took that, and that was… I think 19— no, I think it was 2000 when I took that job. Then 9/11 happened, I went to another federal agency, worked there for about nine years or so, and then came back to Joshua Tree in 2011.
SN: That just sounds like the career from heaven.
JL: [Chuckles] Wasn't bad.
SN: It would be really helpful actually, for our purposes if you could talk a little bit about how different each one of these parks is just so we can kind of put your experience at Joshua Tree in perspective. I mean, I can't imagine a more different landscape than Haleakalā. Maybe there is one, but—
JL: Yeah. So, you know, each park was different and unique in its own way. That's a great question. I could spend a lot of time talking about, you know, each of those parks. I guess, you know, one of the big differences with a lot of these parks like Black Canyon and Acadia, there's not a whole lot of, you know, land mass, so to speak. It's a lot of drive-through area for park and visitors; hiking trails and all those kind of things, but they're not big areas like Yellowstone or Grand Canyon or Joshua Tree. So you get a kind of a different kind of visitor there.
And Canyonlands, that was kind of night and day difference too from Acadia; going from Acadia, you know, the East Coast, living on the ocean and, you know, the highest peak around was, I don't know, Cadillac Mountain at, I don't know, 1500 feet or something like that. And then you go to Canyonlands and it's basically the desert Red Rock country of America and it looks like the moon at night under full moon, and it's just—it's incredible. You know, it's not green and lush and there's no ocean, we did have a river. And the extent of the outdoor activity in Moab is much different than Acadia. I can't think of a whole lot of things you can't do in Moab; mountain bike, four-wheel drive, river raft, parachute, hang glide, rock climb, hike, you know, just the list continues. So those were a different kind of visitor there too, and the town was bigger than Acadia—with Bar Harbor, I'm sorry. Yeah, it was a different experience. Oh, it was a great experience, I had a great job. At Acadia, I was kind of more of just a law enforcement ranger driving on the paved roads, taking care of those kind of frontcountry issues, so to speak. And then when I went to Canyonlands, we had four-wheel drive patrols, mountain bike patrols, I was on a couple of different river patrols, hiking patrols, let alone the pavement stuff that the regular park ranger would take care of. That's probably maybe one of the biggest differences; Acadia had much more pavement, Canyonlands not so much. So, you know, different activities were going on there. And then whisk away over to Maui and working at Haleakalā; in some ways, folks have the idea of, you know, I was living on the beach underneath palm trees, you know, taking care of the park that way. But I actually lived up at 7,000 feet and most of the park I took care of was from 7,000 to 10,000-foot summit. So in a lot of ways, it was like the desert because a lot of times we were above the cloud layer. The shrubbery and vegetation was small and low to the ground. It wasn't like the big lush stuff you see down at the beach, right? So in some ways it was very similar. And again, the visitors were very different at Haleakalā. Sunrise was the big thing to come to, so between 4:00 am and an hour after sunrise, we had huge amounts of visitation. People leaving their beach condos in shorts and t-shirts where it's 85 degrees and they come up to the summit where it's 45 degrees and 30 mile an hour winds and you know, looking for anything to wrap around themselves so they could stay warm. So, you know, that was a different kind of visitation. We had backcountry at Haleakalā but not much. A lot of folks came to vacation at the beach, not to camp and go overnight, but there was some of that.
And then, you know, after that, let’s see, came to Joshua Tree, and again, it was in the desert environment. I can't seem to get away from it, I guess. And, you know, when we first moved here, it didn't rain for like 18 months. So it was much different than Haleakalā where, you know, you could go down to the beach and there were trade winds and, you know, the rainy season and all those kind of things. And the visitation here was, again, you know, much different. Let's see, none of the campgrounds I worked at prior to had basically full-time residents like Joshua Tree did when I came here in 2000. I think right around then is when the park started charging for camping. And so that made the campers a little different, as opposed to just squatting in one campsite for three months or five months or six months. They now had to start paying and we had to try and keep track of who is paying and who wasn't, and it was a little cat-and-mouse game between the rangers and the people living in the campground. And so that was fun too.
I think that's the—oh I didn't talk about Yellowstone, which was a phenomenal experience also; you know, the megafauna and I mean geysers and things like that, it was pretty spectacular. The geysers were obviously not like the volcanoes in Hawaii, but, you know, they're spouting off things, too, and huge visitation and you know, Yellowstone was a great experience. I was just in Old Faithful district, so I didn't get to see a lot of the park. But that's a giant place and, you know, every time you turned around the corner, there was something else, you know, whether it was a lake or a, you know, a herd of buffalo or elk or, you know, wolves chasing down a deer to eat, you know, across the valley or something like that. It was a pretty, pretty phenomenal place.
SN: Tor people who don't understand who maybe in the future be listening to this or reading this transcript, can you explain how the ranger job descriptions vary, you know, at a given park and what categories you fell into? It sounds like law enforcement and some kind of medical assistance.
JL: Yeah. So, yeah, if you take the generic term “park ranger”, you know, that kind of encompasses a lot of different things, right. From the maintenance folks that you see to the interpreters, to the folks in management and administration and education and all those kind of things. Kind of the ranger encompasses all those folks, but I did law enforcement for the Park Service, so I carried a gun. And that was one of the main requirements, that you could shoot straight and, you know, carry a gun. And so the medical training was part of that, too. And the ranger jobs are pretty competitive. You'll have, you know, ten, twenty, thirty people applying for one job. So you have to make yourself, you know, one notch ahead of the other twenty-nine people, right, so you get picked. Most of the requirements are kind of general in the law enforcement capacity. Some parks look for specific things. Lake Mead looks for, you know, boat operators who can operate boats. Grand Teton may look for climbers who can climb that are law enforcement rangers. Mt. Rainier is going to look for something else. Everglades, I never applied, but I'm sure they want some kind of water thing down there in the Everglades, so it's a general job description and then it'll change depending on which park you go to and those kind of things.
SN: So are the majority of rangers, rangers like you? [Laughs] You were in terms of law enforcement or does that vary with each park or—?
JL: That's a great question. That's a great—how do I answer that question? So no, most of the rangers do not carry guns in the big picture of things. So at a park like Joshua Tree, I think there's maybe a hundred staff somewhere in that number and there might be on a good stretch, maybe twelve people carrying guns. Does that sound about right, Bernadette? I think that's pretty close, yeah. You know, something like that.
SN: So what did you experience—so I’m correct that Joshua Tree—by the time you got the Joshua Tree, you'd had a pretty broad introduction to doing this kind of work at other national parks. Can you talk a little bit about just what it was like to start working at Joshua Tree? And were there surprises? Was there anything that—you know, your first impressions of the park as a place to be a ranger?
JL: You know my first impression was, was I mean it was a beautiful place, right? The rocks are gorgeous, and the whole Joshua Tree thing is really neat. For me personally, one of the aspects of this job was I could buy a home and live outside the park. All the parks I was at before I was what they were called a “required occupant”, I had to live in the park. So this was the first park that I could own a home. I didn't have to pay rent to the government or to the park for their park housing. Which at the time was great, and now that I own my own house, it's really awesome. So [Laughs]. And in the park, I had seen quite a bit in the Park Service, so there weren't that many surprises there. I was the first climbing ranger that I think… oh, I don't know. I don't know if Todd Swain was… I probably shouldn't say that. I wasn't the first climbing ranger, but I was a climbing ranger hired—I was a law enforcement ranger hired as a climbing ranger. Now at the time, my supervisor didn't really hook me up with a partner, because you generally need two people to climb with, so I was kind of on my own to either find people in the community, other park members or staff members, or just people in the campground to climb with. So that was a little challenging. And staffing is always an issue here at Joshua Tree; there's never enough rangers to deal with everything. So to find half a day to go climbing was not impossible, but it was challenging.
SN: So just to make sure I understood you correctly, Joshua Tree was the first place where you were a climbing ranger. Is that correct?
JL: No, I was a climbing ranger at Canyonlands, also. Going out to climb with some great—there I had staff to climb with. We had other staff members were climbers. We were scheduled for day trips or overnight trips to go climb some of the desert towers. And yeah, that was phenomenal. I got paid to climb, so that was nice.
SN: [Chuckles] Yeah, so can you describe a typical day for a climbing ranger?
JL: You want it in Joshua Tree, right? Not Canyonlands.
SN: Actually, you could do both of them if they're different, it would be interesting to compare them.
JL: Yeah, so some of the climbing in Canyonlands, there's some of those desert towers out there; Washer Woman and Zeus and other desert towers that are big multipitch climbs; they’re—oh I don't know, ten or twelve pitches long. So it would be a full day to climb a tower and come down. So on a typical patrol, we might go out the night before, camp at the base of the tower or a campsite nearby and then get an early start to climb that desert tower, do the ten or twelve pitches, finish off the climb and get back before dark. That would be pretty typical for a Canyonlands climbing patrol. You know, maybe an afternoon, you go out to some of the shorter climbs, the single pitch stuff that folks had around the park and you could go do that.
At Joshua Tree, we don't have things quite that tall. Two or three pitches is the tallest we have. And you can do those in just a couple of hours, so it's a much different experience. You don't have to plan out a day and a half to go do a desert tower. You can plan out just a couple of hours and go do a couple of pitches on Lost Horse or Ryan Mountain or even just some of the short stuff at the Thin Wall. It just takes a couple hours just to go over there and rope up and do the climb and continue on with your patrol.
SN: And I'm going to have Bernadette jump in here pretty soon and talk to you about the details of being a climbing ranger and your particular period in the park's history and whatever else she wants to ask you about. But before I do that, I just thought in a very, very basic question for the non-expert here, the purpose of your actually climbing these features is what? From the park's perspective. To see if they're safe, to see if there's something that needs to be changed? What’s the ranger’s reason for patrolling a climb that isn't being climbed by visitors at that time necessarily?
JL: Well, that's a great question. I think it's the same kind of patrol that a regular hiking patrol would take care of. You know, people hike on trails all the time. So we have rangers or personnel go out and hike those trails to make sure that nothing has happened. Like in Yellowstone one time, there's a big windstorm and it blew down, I don't know, thirty trees across a hiking trail. So [inaudible] the hiking trail clear those trees so visitors could continue to hike on the trail. So the same kind of thing can be said for a climbing route, especially a multipitch route. And especially on like the desert towers where rocks can break off, holds can break off and, you know, the climbing might not be safe. And we can pass that information along to climbers when they come to the park and are asking about, you know, “Hey, has anybody been on this climb lately? You know, what's going on? Is there anything going on the ascent? Is the approach from the south or is the approach from the west? I'm not sure.” You know, all those kind of questions. And yes, to make sure things are safe, the hardware is safe. You know, sometimes you have to clean up trash either at the base of the climb or someone left a rope or a rope got stuck on the rock and you have to take it off and things like that. So it's just a kind of a monitoring situation.
SN: Great, thank you. Bernadette, could you jump in here?
BR: Sure. When you were patrolling, were you in your regular uniform with your gun on your hip when you were doing the climbing patrols?
JL: Great question, I had both six guns on each hip. [Chuckles] No, no, no, we generally would not do—we would keep all that stuff locked up in the car, and we would have… you know, we wouldn't even have handcuffs with us. I think the most we would take would be a ticket book in case we ran across someone who, you know, was doing something that needed a ticket issued. So, yeah, all that defensive stuff we would leave in the car, the mace and the baton, the gun, the duty belt, all that stuff. But we would climb in uniform, yeah.
BR: And how did the folks in Hidden Valley campground—did they treat you as a climber or as a ranger?
JL: Oh, God, no. No, no, no, no. You did not get treated like a climber. You got treated like a law enforcement cop, like someone out to get them for whatever they… [Laughs] whatever they perceived they were doing wrong or they were doing wrong or had done wrong. So, no, you were treated like… a little bit like an alien.
BR: How did you deal with that as a person?
JL: Wow, boy, that's a deep question. Is this therapy, did I get—? [Laughs] Well, you know, I just took it as—I mean, I didn't take it personally, obviously. I mean, I was just, you know, fulfilling my job duties. So I knew the folks were dealing with me as a law enforcement ranger so not as a person, so I didn't take it personally. But, you know, you definitely felt… not ostracized, but left out sometimes because you were not invited to X, Y, Z event or you were not on the list of people to, you know, call to go do something for that reason.
BR: And as a climbing ranger in LE, what was your role with search and rescue?
JL: Search and rescue is hand-in-hand with the law enforcement stuff, so we would generally kind of show up at the search and rescue situations; after they're reported, we'd be first on scene so we would have to mount the troops and figure out how to, you know, rectify the situation that we were confronted with, whether it was a stranded hiker, a hurt climber, lost individual, those are probably the top three. And lately it's been, you know, heat-related issues too, so those kind of things.
BR: And one more question that I can think of at the moment, as a climbing ranger or in your general climbing career, have you put up any first ascents in Joshua Tree?
JL: Yeah, I think one or two in Joshua Tree, I'm not a big FA person, so… yes.
BR: Can you name one of them for us?
JL: I knew you were going to ask that. No I can't offhand. I can't recall the name. I'd have to go on Mountain Project and, you know, look at it.
BR: Did you often climb with Todd Swain?
JL: Lately, yes; since I retired, yes. But prior to that, no. Because he was working outside the park and I was working inside the park and he didn't have a whole lot of time here at the park. But yeah, I climb with him a lot now.
BR: And did your wife, Nora, ever get to go on climbing patrols with you? When [inaudible] coworkers to climb with?
JL: [Laughs] That’s a great question. No, she did not. She's not a big climber, so she did not do that.
BR: All right, that's all the questions I have for the moment.
JL: Thank you.
SN: All right, you have plenty of opportunities to jump back in, Bernadette. Emilio, did you have anything you want to ask right now? I'm going to follow up with some of the things that Bernadette opened up. But if you'd like to ask something, please—
ET: Sure, just one question; when you were talking about your relations to climbers, how they treated you like an alien, like you said, what did you do to deal with those obstacles? Did you try to befriend them or, you know, at least try to engage with them? Or did you try anything to overcome those things, like I mentioned?
JL: That's a great question. Yes, I did. I tried not to be—they call it “badge heavy”. So if you're a law enforcement ranger or a law enforcement person, you like to stick to the letter of the law and hand out tickets and generally flex your law enforcement muscle every time you can; you’re called “badge heavy”. And so I tried not to be badge heavy, I tried to be reasonable. You know, someone was chopping down a Joshua tree, I would take the appropriate actions. But if someone was going thirty-seven miles an hour in a thirty-five mile an hour zone, I would not bother that person. So, yes, those—I mean, that's a great question. You know, where do you find that fine line? It comes down to personality and also who you're dealing with too. Some folks would comply or follow the rules if I just showed up and informed them of what they needed to do. Other folks you had to take a harder approach to. They didn't like law enforcement or they didn't like the rules or, you know, didn't like something. So you had to take a harder approach, so sometimes it's an individual encounter with someone that, you know, person A I might take a really light touch with and, you know, person B, I might have to go badge heavy just because that's the way the situation worked out.
ET: Thank you very much. I'm going to hand it back to Sally now.
SN: I just want to follow up on that, John, in terms of when, you know, you felt you needed to be badge heavy or not at Joshua Tree, did climbers in general fall into any kind of category in that regard? I mean, were they typically the types of visitors that you had to be more badge heavy with or not?
JL: Wow, that's a great question. You know, I think in general, you know, ninety-nine percent of the visitors that come to the park, you know, follow the rules or want to follow the rules. And I think it's just a small percentage of whether it's climbers or hikers or drivers or just people in the park that either out of ignorance or just, you know, break the rules because they don't know any different, right. And, you know, a lot of times it was, you know, people were just, you know, they drank too much or drugs is always a good reason for why people would be acting inappropriately. To categorize it as just climbers, eh, you know, I think that might be wrong. But climbers were, you know, they don't follow the rules in general anyway. Climbing’s not kind of a mainstream kind of thing. You know, they're not hikers and bird watchers; they're out pushing the limits of gravity.
SN: Thank you. I have actually written that exact argument.
[Both John and Sally laugh]
SN: [Inaudible] coming from your perspective as well. I think one of the interesting things we found out from this interviewing process is that if you look back to the people who were really getting climbing going in the 1960s and early ‘70s, that in fact those people were much more inclined to follow rules and that they described the rangers as their best friends. And you know, they very carefully adhered to “leave no trace” environmental ethics. And they really self-described some of their leading members as Boy Scout kind of people.
JL: Wow.
SN: So you know, it suggests that there are different periods of history in climbing at Joshua Tree, where the relationship to the park rangers was quite different. I mean, there was one story from a woman who had started climbing when she was a child in the park who said that, you know, when her parents and her siblings were off on different climbing projects and she was wandering around by herself and she'd get lost, she'd just go to a ranger and they'd walk her back to her campsite and that was how she learned to the think about rangers, as the people who came to help her out when she was in trouble. And so that's kind of a different identity, wouldn't you say, from what you're describing?
JL: You know, I think that's probably the idealistic view of the ranger. You know, I think folks think we're, I don't know, saving Bambi and, you know, doing those kind of things and finding the lost hiker in those kind of things. But, you know, traffic accidents happen and people have medical issues, and I mean there's a lot of life and death involved in that stuff too, that it's just not as sexy, right? It's just not as public, I guess.
SN: Not as heroic maybe, although maybe so. Maybe just as heroic, certainly. Some of the search and rescue activities that you're obliged to do.
JL: Yeah, some of those guys do some crazy stuff to try and save folks.
SN: Yeah, I wonder, just in that regard, I brought up that example from the 1960s just to ask you if during the time that you were active on duty at Joshua Tree, quite a long period of time, did you notice changes in the climber population with regard to how they viewed rangers and with regard to how they interacted with rangers? Or was it pretty much the same from beginning to end? Not really a lot of change.
JL: Yeah, that's a good question. You know, when I was here the first time in 2000, 2001, I really didn't get to know the climbing crowd that much. When I came back the second time, I felt like I had kind of worked my way into the climbing circles, so to speak, in the sense that I knew who folks were and, you know, what kind of cars they drove. And if somebody was off at, you know, Tahquitz for that weekend or up in the Valley for a month or something like that, I kind of had a better handle on that, which I think maybe endeared me a little bit more to that climbing community, as opposed to being like the badge heavy folks that people typically thought park rangers were.
SN: Could you just tell me for the record, when you say you knew a little bit more who folks were, who were folks?
[John laughs]
SN: That's actually exactly what we're hoping to understand better. Can you just give an example of somebody who was somebody at this point?
JL: Oh, who was somebody. Well, everybody’s somebody; I mean, if you're hanging out in Hidden Valley campground, you're obviously somebody because you have to know somebody to get in there. But, oh, you know, someone like the old time folks that still come through; Bernadette, what's that guy's name; John, who had the little dog and the van? John… I think it's John. And he used to have that bicycle roaster up there at the campground and they would roast a pig with a bicycle frame.
BR: Mendo John.
JL: Mendo John. Yeah. So he's like one of the old time folks who still come to—I haven't seen him too recently, but still comes back to Joshua Tree, and he's been coming here for how long Bernadette?
BR: I don't know exactly. As long as I have been, so that's at least twelve years.
JL: Yeah, and I'll bet there's another ten on the back of that twelve years easily. So he's somebody who's like, almost like Hidden Valley royalty because he has some kind of that history to him, he's still living out of a van and those kind of things. Mendo John, who else?
SN: Yeah, anybody you could identify as Hidden Valley royalty.
JL: Yeah, I know, I know.
SN: That'd be very helpful. That’s a very helpful way to characterize it; who’s Hidden Valley royalty in your day?
JL: Yeah, that's a good question.
SN: And how many were there? Were there lot of royalty? Were there not very many? It sounds like when you knew who people were, you knew who were regulars and you knew who had a reputation as a climber and you knew who people respected or looked up to; am I on the right track there?
JL: Yeah, no, that's exactly correct. And… oh, boy. Who is Hidden Valley royalty? Probably shouldn't have said that, because now I gotta come up with names.
SN: Well, no, if you can't come up with names, that's perfectly fine. You may come up with them later and we can always be in touch with you about that as we go through the editing phase of the transcript. So it's not 20 questions on the spot by any means. But can you give us a sense of what would qualify somebody to merit the label of Hidden Valley royalty?
JL: When I was here the first time in—I think it was 2000 or something like that, one of my friends who was a law enforcement ranger up at Yosemite, he called me up one day and said, “Hey, do you got this guy down there named—?” And I can't think of his name, but he was one of the folks that would just travel from—he'd spend the summer in Yosemite and Tuolumne. And then when winter rolled in, he would come down to Joshua Tree and spend the winter in Joshua Tree. And my friend called down because he said, “Hey, is (I can't think of his name) is such-and-such, you know, down there this winter?” And I was like, “No, I don't know, I haven't seen him lately.” I said, “Why?” He says, “Well, he's got all of his stuff hung up on El Cap, like four pitches up on haul bags and he leaves it there for the winter and we want him to take it away. And if he doesn't come get it, we're going to go cut it down and, you know, burn it basically.” And I said, “Well, if I see him, I'll let you know.” So, you know, that's the kind of transitions that [interference] Joshua Tree, and if I could remember his name, he would probably be—maybe not royalty, but at least one of those folks that, you know, lived in both places, right. And if I could think of his name, we would—Bernadette would probably be—well I mean, maybe not Bernadette, but because this was 2000. And it's similar to like Piton Pete up in El Cap who spends the summer on El Cap and doesn't really climb a whole lot, but just moves around the wall. So to be Joshua Tree royalty, you'd have to spend—boy, I'd say like five to seven winters there, coming and going, either, you know, heading down to Mexico for a month and then come back to Joshua Tree or things like that. You couldn't drive a new van, right, you'd have to drive something old. ‘Course you didn't pay for your campsite. If you did, you would let other people come to the campsite. So the campsite rules are two cars, three tents, six people per campsite in Hidden Valley. So if one of the climbers had one car and one tent, he obviously had space for more people. So he would tell folks that “If you wanted to camp with me, that's great; you have to pay the fee tonight and tomorrow night or something like that. And you can camp and stay here.” Because trying to find a campsite in the Hidden Valley campground, which is like the de facto climber campground, is really hard because it's first come, first serve. And like I said, people like to spend the winter there or did spend the winter there. And so trying to find an open site was really difficult. But to piggyback on somebody else's site was a little easier. And so, you know, dirtbag climbers, as you call them, didn't have much money and they didn't have a steady job and they didn't want to pay the camping fees. So one way to get around that was to let folks split their campsite and they pay for the fee.
SN: You kind of had to be royalty or at least aristocracy to make that work for yourself.
JL: Yeah, yeah, I would think so.
SN: You brought up a really helpful contrast there when you were talking about the ranger in Yosemite that was calling you for that purpose. Was there a difference in your experience between the way rangers and climbers interacted in Yosemite and the way they interacted at Joshua Tree? I know it's a lot of the same people were in both those locations, but some of the climbers that we've interviewed have actually said that their behavior was different in Joshua Tree from what it was up in Yosemite. And so was the ranger behavior different, would you say?
JL: Well, that's a good question too. Yosemite has the benefit of having a jail right there in the park. So if someone was belligerent and a danger to themselves or others or just needed to be arrested, it was a much easier task in Yosemite to cuff somebody up and throw them in jail for the night, and the magistrate would see him the next day or two days later or something like that. So it was a much easier process to arrest someone in Yosemite. In Joshua Tree, it was not. If we arrest someone in Joshua Tree, you have to take them outside the park to the local sheriff's office. If the sheriff jail was full, then you had to take them down to the low desert, down to the West Valley facility, so I mean, you could spend all day trying to arrest one person for, you know, just being stupid, basically. And, you know, you have to kind of weigh it out; is it worth arresting this person and having to waste a whole day of administrative stuff to try and get them in jail or can we pass them off to a friend and say, “Can you take care of this person, don't let them hurt themselves or others and take them back to the campsite,” or whatever the case may be. So that was different, yes. People always talk about getting arrested in Yosemite. People talk about getting arrested in Joshua Tree, but it really didn't happen that much. Not that much at all.
SN: Can you give us a kind of quantitative estimate in the years that you were active there? How many arrests would you say you made? Like in the hundreds, in the tens?
JL: Oh, no, it would be the single digits. I bet maybe five people a year would get arrested in Joshua Tree, maybe. And I'll bet in Yosemite that was probably in the hundreds. That's just a guess.
SN: So in Joshua Tree, were of those five people, were they likely all to be climbers or none or [inaudible]?
JL: So a lot of those—it seems like most of the folks we wanted to incarcerate were either really drunk or on some kind of drugs. Joshua Tree’s a—people like to come here and do acid or mushrooms or experiment with drugs for whatever reason. The desert calls to these people and they want to come do that here. So of those, you know, five arrestees, probably six of them were either drunk or on drugs or something like that. That's usually the big thing we arrest for.
SN: Well, that's opens up a topic that we've had some kind of challenge to get into with a lot of our interviewees, which is the relationship between drugs and climbing. And for obvious reasons, it's a topic that we tread very lightly on, right. So can you tell us from your own experience of observing climbers at Joshua Tree during the years that you were active, what did you witness with regard to drug usage or alcohol usage or, you know, just trying to find ways to enter altered states of consciousness among the climbing community? How would you characterize them as a group or is there really any point in trying to make a generalization like that?
JL: No, I think you could probably say that, you know, some climbers—again, you can't say all climbers or fifty percent; I think it's a small percentage. But the kind of the way I would do that was I would walk through the campground early in the morning. And if people had a big party the night before, I could just look at the picnic table and see what was going on, whether it was beer, you know, left on the table or marijuana left on the table or other kind of drugs left on the on the picnic table because, you know, it's late at night and you just pass out or fall asleep, you don't clean that stuff up. So you could walk through early in the morning and, you know, find a lot of different things; bongs, pipes, marijuana, pills, I mean alcohol galore. So, you know, after a hard day climbing, folks would, you know, come crack a six pack of beer and, you know, have a have fun and talk about climbing and sit around the campfire and have another six pack and, you know, somebody would have a light up a bowl and all that kind of stuff. So, you know, drugs was a part of it. I think it's kind of hard to quantitate that over the you know, the whole climbing, climbers spectrum, but Hidden Valley was, you know, it was a place to come climb and party. So yeah.
SN: So it did have a certain reputation. Its identity to an extent was connected with drug and alcohol use.
JL: Oh yeah, for sure. There wasn't—you know, if a campsite opened up and you know, the Smith family showed up in their station wagon with their three kids and two dogs, they would not have a fun time because, you know, quiet hours are 10:00 pm to 6:00 am and, you know, those kind of rules were not followed very well. So, you know, you can have drumming circles and medicine circles late into the night and, you know, just people singing by the campsite with a guitar and all their friends around, and some nights even, you know, the desert air would be so still, you could stand at one end of the campground and hear what people are saying at the other end of the campground. And so, it wasn't always the most family friendly kind of campsite, and generally those were the people that would—I would see the next day who would complain about, you know, the drum circle next to their campsite at 2:00 in the morning. And, you know, I'd be like, “Well, sorry, I wasn't here at 2:00 in the morning; I'm here now, you know, let me go talk to the folks next door,” and those kind of things, but yes. Noise and drugs and alcohol, I think were a big part of Hidden Valley Campground.
SN: And was that pretty much constant over the time that you were here?
JL: [Laughs] I laugh. Yeah, yes. Definitely in the early—in the 2000, 2001 era for sure. I think it might have toned down a little bit when I came back in 2011.
SN: Did you ever speak to rangers who had worked there before 2000 about that and what their perceptions were?
JL: It was the same perception as mine. You know, people like to come and party; [to Sally] go ahead.
SN: I was just thinking, how they might have reported it; was it was it getting more or getting less in 2000 than what it had been before or changing somehow? I'm just trying to extend the record backward if we can.
JL: Yeah. Yeah. I don't think I ever asked that question directly, but it seemed like I dealt with that a lot less in 2011 and 2012 than I did in 2000.
SN: And so with regard to—we talked about arrests and drug use, I'm just wondering with regard to the ticketing—so I just have to break in here and say it's so very helpful, John, to get a sense of the array of things that a climbing ranger was doing, because I think that I probably shared the sort of naive visitors perspective that mostly what you do is give people tickets. But in fact, what you're telling us is that you had a lot of duties related to just patrolling and monitoring the condition of the climbing, that were also a very important part of your job. And so I’m just kind of wondering if you were to sort of figure out kind of like a pie model, how much of your time was spent on this sort of patrol mode and how much of it would have been spent on that kind of ticketing mode with regard to your duties at Joshua Tree?
JL: Yeah, I wasn't a big ticketer. You know, one of the premises of law enforcement in the Park Service is compliance, we just want compliance. We don't—and now this is a big generalization, because if you go to some parks and, yeah, you have to ticket to gain control of what's going on and ticketing is a way to do that. In Joshua Tree I don't think we needed to do that in general, so I did not. I tried to just get compliance. If, you know, people were noisy at 10:30 at night and I went and talked to them and they quieted down, that would be great. If I came back at 1:00 and they were still noisy, then they'd probably get a ticket. So I just tried to gain compliance and I think in general I did do that. I can't remember your question, does that answer it? Oh, how much I was patrolling and how much ticketing. Well, I mean, it was always patrolling, right. One of the one of the patrol things I used to like to do was I would pull into the Hemingway parking lot and from the Hemingway parking lot up to the Hemingway wall, it's a two or three minute walk, but it's far enough away and there's enough rubble and cover at the base of the Hemingway wall where folks could have dogs off-leash or bring dogs up to the base of the climb there where dogs are not allowed. So I would like to go park in the parking lot and then walk up to the base of the Hemingway climb and either ticket folks with dogs off-leash or tell them to get their dogs back in the car, but I always like the looks on people's faces when they were belaying there or just, you know, waiting to climb. And the park ranger popped up around the corner and starts talking to them about their dog. Their eyes got really big and, “Oh, my God, what are you doing here? You're supposed to be in the parking lot on the pavement, you're not supposed to be here at the base of the climb.” So that was always fun. I enjoyed that.
SN: Well, that kind of brings up the other question I had in mind with regard to ticketing, when you were doing ticketing, how often was it a climber that was being ticketed; more often or less often, or was there really no trend there?
JL: Yeah, so… boy. You know, would I ticket the climber out on, you know, Hemingway or, you know, Atlantis Wall or the Thin Wall or something like that with his dog? Probably not. I would just kick him out and tell them to take their dog back to the car or something like that. Now what I see that same climber that night in the campground being noisy after 10:00? Yeah, probably. And would I give him a ticket? Yeah, probably. I mean, I don't know if you count that as a climber or a camper, right.
SN: Well, I'm just kind of following up on your comment earlier that climbers weren't as likely to obey rules. And so that would seem to possibly set them up as ticket-able. [Laughs]
JL: Oh, well, yeah. I mean, it certainly did. And, you know, some of the rules we had were like, you can only have six people at a campsite, right. Well, shoot, people travel in caravans with, you know, six people and four cars and three more coming on Saturday and two more people are coming on Sunday and we're staying until Tuesday, and there’ll be a party at twelve or fourteen people. And they all want to sit around the campfire circle and talk and drink and have fun and, you know, talk about the day's adventure or where they're going tomorrow. And that's, you know, over the limit, right. You only get six people per campsite. So, I mean, it'd be easy to ticket that stuff all the time, but again, I was just trying to get compliance and, you know, make the campground quiet after ten o'clock, so I would just break the party up and shoo those people away and send them send them on their way.
SN: So that also brings up another thing I was hoping we could get you to tell us about as examples of things that climbers might do to avoid getting ticketed. Were there any sort of favorite strategies that you learned about as a ranger that they would employ to [inaudible]?
JL: Yeah. Well, one of them would be—so when they started charging for campground sites, folks didn't want to do that. So they would not necessarily camp in the campsite, but if you've walked around Hidden Valley Campground, there's, you know, rocks and boulders everywhere and just twenty feet behind a campsite, there'd be a great little kind of an alcove or a cave or cover where you could, you know, pitch your tent or throw down your sleeping bag and keep all your food and everything. So you'd be out of the sight of the ranger driving his vehicle through the campground. But they'd be living, you know, just, you know, twenty feet behind a campsite. So to avoid paying the camp fee and there's also a fourteen day limit in the campground and in the parks; you can only stay for fourteen consecutive days before you have to leave for thirty and come back; it's a little convoluted, but in general, there's a fourteen day limit, so, you know, if folks kept the same car and the same campsite for more than fourteen days, you know, they were obviously noncompliant, and you had to move them on. You either had to ticket them or tow their car or, you know, send them on their way. And generally, we didn't tow cars, but that was always a threat. So yeah, people would live in the rocks behind the campsites. And so you'd have to get out of your car and go wander around behind those campsites and look under rocks and in caves and, you know, under rock shelters and things like that and shoo those people out also, you know, gather up your stuff and send them on their way.
SN: And before, to your knowledge, you know, from talking to other rangers perhaps, before they started charging, were the ticketing issues substantially different for climbers during that period?
JL: That’s a good question. That's like a Jeff Ohlfs question or a Jimmy Pritchett question. Those are rangers that worked here longer than I had. I think they're probably the same. I don't know about the numbers of tickets, but generally they were the same; either noise or alcohol or, you know, drugs or stuff like that.
SN: I had another question I really wanted to ask you and it’s just disappearing from my mind. I'm going to—oh, I know it was. So with regard to Joshua Tree royalty, were these people more or less likely to get ticketed in your—
JL: Oh yeah. See, like Mendo John, he knew—they all know the rules and they tend to follow them more than not. I think it's the folks that come in kind of short term that don't know the local ethic or the local… the local ethic and how to deal with, you know, being in the campground and dealing with the rangers. There is an understanding between, you know, the park ranger and the full-time Hidden Valley resident, right. That if they moved around enough and didn't cause any problems and, you know, weren't cutting down trees or having giant bonfires or thirty people around the campfire at night, that, you know, they could pretty much stay as long as they wanted, so to speak. There was that kind of understanding, right? It was the folks that would come in for two weeks that didn't know about that kind of relationship or didn't have that relationship with any park ranger or any law enforcement entity, that they were just coming in and just kind of wanted to do whatever they felt like they could do. And those are the folks you'd have the problems with, as opposed to the quasi-full-time Hidden Valley residents.
SN: So that suggests that the kind of culture of the place, the local culture of Joshua Tree was relatively benign. That it wasn't a group of people who were out there to try to, you know, express their rebelliousness by making your life difficult, right. That they were people who wanted to kind of live and let live. Is that a fair characterization?
JL: Yes, I think especially with the quasi-full-time residents. You know, they understood that if they created too much of a problem, then we would have to do something. But if they played within the rules and, you know, didn't do too much too wrong, then, you know, that was okay for them to be there.
SN: And it's really fascinating, I want to make sure I got this right, that part of what was creating that relatively benign relationship was the fact that there really weren't the resources at Joshua Tree for a lot of badge heavy conduct on the part of the rangers, that there weren't jails readily available. And there weren't the kind of—there wasn’t the kind of infrastructure that would have enabled that sort of behavior. So it was just realistic on the rangers’ part to go for compliance rather than ticketing or minimize arrests. So is that correct?
JL: I would—in general, I would say that's correct, but so there'd be a difference if, you know, you came up on—say, I walked up to a campsite and I found on a joint on the picnic table and the people I was talking to were compliant, and they said, “Yeah, that's all we have.” And, you know, it seemed like a pretty sedate kind of encounter with this person and they're going to comply and they're not going to bring drugs back into the park and those kind of things. I would probably confiscate the marijuana, probably ID the person and maybe give him a warning ticket or something like that. Now, if I came up to a campsite and I looked in the van with the sliding door that was open, and there was a pound of dope on the floor, well, that's a different conversation we're going to have. And, you know, large quantities of drugs have been confiscated and folks maybe not arrested then, but cited to court later on. So, you know, compliance can happen on a lot of different ways, whether it's, you know, taking people's property or illegal drugs or those kind of things, which happens a lot. And you don't necessarily have to take them to jail right then for that offense, so to speak. So, yeah, because of the lack of infrastructure, jail was not always the best option. But you could always ID people and cite them to court later on, if that makes sense.
SN: Yes, it does, thank you. That’s very helpful. I just want to make sure I—we're almost through the list of questions in case you're wondering. But no, I did want to ask you if there were are there any stories of climber/ranger interactions at Joshua Tree that are kind of legendary, you know, sort of along the lines of, “Oh, have you heard about the time that, you know, Ranger X and Climber Y got into it because of this or that,” or fantastic rescue stories. Are there any really outstanding, memorable stories that sort of live on in the Joshua Tree lore?
JL: Yes, there are. So the one of the big ones is the—this is when the campgrounds had picnic tables that were light, made of wood and metal, they would end up on top of Intersection Rock a lot. Now, the picnic tables in the campground are concrete, so they don't go up, they can't move them, so they don't go up on top of Intersection Rock. But there's always stories of the picnic table up on Intersection Rock, you know, how’d it get there, who put it up there, bring it down. And, you know, the law enforcement folks would, you know, get all in a fluff, all in a bother because of this picnic table up on the top of Intersection Rock and for, you know, for good measure, I mean, it could fall down and hurt somebody. I mean, you know, there's always people walking around the base of Intersection Rock, so it's a busy place. And, you know, eventually the picnic table would come down. There’s, I think—
SN: I'm sorry, I don't mean to interrupt you, but could we get a time frame on that? What decades was that likely to happen?
JL: Yeah, I think that was probably, again, back in the like the 2000 era. But, you know, even Bernadette might have a little better—I think the picnic table… yeah, it hasn't been since they've been concrete in the campground for sure. I'm going to say 2000s. Yeah. In the 2000s range.
SN: Thank you.
JL: Yeah and then, you know, somebody will drag a keg up there still to this day, have a keg up there and cookouts happen at the top of Intersection Rock a fair amount of time, in fact, I think this year there was a cookout up there and it was Halloween and people were in costume, so, you know, those kind of things still happen. Oh and then the New Year's Eve parties are legendary in Hidden Valley. Yeah, so the New Year's Eve party was always an interesting cat-and-mouse game between the rangers and, you know, “Where's the party this year? Where's it going to be held?” Because it was up in Hidden Valley, it wasn't in the campground, but it was off-site somewhere and there'd be a bonfire and, you know, plenty of people and music and noise and all those kind of things and some rangers made it a priority to try and break that party up and find out where it was and those kind of things. And Bernadette, she would know if they still go on. Bernadette didn't carry a gun. So she kind of walks the tightrope between being in the climber community and being an NPS representative, so she has a little more insight on, like, you know, the New Year's Eve parties and where they're at and all those kind of things.
SN: Bernadette, can you add on to that?
BR: Yeah, those parties definitely happen. I can't tell you exactly where, because, of course I don't know where they're happening. Or at least that's what I don't want climbers to know, that I know exactly where they're happening all the time. But we let them happen because it's fun. And yeah. The Intersection Rock thing is an important habit—not habit, tradition—to get up there on Halloween. And then there's another group that comes up the week after Halloween every year and has a big party on top of Intersection Rock.
JL: Bernadette, were you around when the picnic tables were brought up on top of Intersection, or was that before you?
BR: That was before me.
JL: Yeah.
BR: Were you around when the Blob got set on fire with a streak of fire?
JL: [Laughs] Oh, gosh. Well, I seem to remember that. I seem to remember that story. Yeah, not specifically, but maybe just in lore, yeah. You know, Joshua Tree’s a crazy place for all kinds of different reasons; I remember one night I was kind of at the intersection there where Park Boulevard and the cut off to Barker Dam goes right there by the Cyclops. And it was late, I think I was doing like a 1:00 am shift and it was like 11:30 or something. And it was one of those kind of nights where there was like a little bit of fog around or something like that. Nothing was going on. I'd gone through a couple of campgrounds and nothing was going on, everything was quiet. So I was just parked there and just walking around a little bit. And I was like, “Wow, Joshua Tree, this is really amazing. You know, come on, give me something. Just give me something.” And then sure enough, like five minutes later, somebody was up on top of the Phone Booth, I think, with like, fire sticks.[1] And they were twirling fire sticks around for a couple of minutes. And I was like, “Ugh,” and I watched them for a couple of minutes and I was like, “If this goes on for any longer, I'll go over and find out what's going on.” But the fire went out shortly thereafter and Joshua Tree was back to its normal self once again. [Laughs] So I went home, it was nice.
SN: Listening to your accounts, it just strikes me how even these sorts of infractions are really kind of benign, or done for the sake of more playful fun than any kind of real intent to do harm or, you know, to do damage. Is that—?
JL: Yeah, you know, malice was not the driving force of a lot of this stuff, right. You know, the fire sticks, in general, not that big a deal, but, you know, had he or she dropped one and it fell down into the, you know, the vegetation down below at the base of the rock, well, you know, now we have a fire in the campground and that's a different situation. So, you know, was that his intent? Obviously not. He was just up there, you know, grooving on the whole Joshua Tree vibe, you know, throwing his fire sticks around, twirling them around and all that kind of stuff. And it was cool to watch, and again, had it gone on longer I would have had to go over there and do something. But even if I had, you know, turned on my red lights and sirens and went over there, I probably would not have caught that person and, you know, the chance of him, you know, or her throwing that stick over the edge because he saw the lights and siren was, you know, kind of high, I guess. So I thought it was just best to monitor that situation and see how it played out. But, yeah, in general, people are not, you know, cutting down Joshua trees and those kind of things. It happens. But in general, malice is not the driving force.
SN: Would you attribute that to the landscape? I mean, you talked about the Joshua Tree vibe. Does that contribute to Joshua Tree’s being a relatively benign site like in comparison to some of the other places you’ve worked perhaps?
JL: Oh yeah. You know, I don't know if it's—I'm not going to say “benign site”, but so it's interesting; being in those different kind of parks, you know, forests and oceans and islands and things like that. Different people find different things in those parks. Joshua Tree, for whatever reason, I hear the statement from visitors that, you know, “The desert gives me just what I need. The desert is what I needed. I needed to come to the desert.” Those kind of statements I hear so much more than, “I needed to come to the islands” or “I needed to go to the geysers in Yellowstone” or “I needed to go to the East Coast” or something like that. For some reason, this desert environment really has a super effect on certain people, they really groove on this whole, you know, Joshua Tree environment. And I've lived here 20 years so, you know, in some respects I look out and see the desert every day and say, “Oh, that's nice.” But, you know, for folks who come here only, you know, for their first time or can only get here once every couple of years and they get so much energy and so much healing and so much… so much of whatever they need from the desert, it's really amazing. I don't know why I don't hear that at other places, but definitely here at Joshua Tree, maybe because it's so different from Orange County or L.A. or Vegas. You know, we're three hours away from 20 million people. And there's this landscape you cannot duplicate.
SN: Bernadette, do you have anything to add on to that?
BR: No, not at this time.
SN: Okay, yeah, I think we're pretty much to the end of the road with the questions that I wanted to run by you, John. So thank you so much. Is there anything that we have neglected or passed over that at this point you would like to add to the interview? To the record?
JL: Yeah, you talked about search and rescue a little bit, which we didn't really talk about a whole lot. You know, folks think we rescue a lot of climbers, we really don't. We really don't. We rescue more people who scramble up on the rocks and then can't get down. So, you know, people just drive along the road and they see this beautiful rock and they pull over and they jump up and climb up on these rocks and like, “Oh, my God, it's so beautiful.” And then they can't get down and then that's—those are the people we rescue, you know, a lot. We don't we don't really rescue that many climbers and, you know, like some climber we rescued like two years ago, she'd climbed up Hemingway; I forget what climb she did, but she was scrambling her way down. The walk off Hemingway is not really easy, there's a couple of sketchy little downclimb moves, and she slipped and broke her ankle. Now, do you call that a climbing accident? Did we rescue a climber or did we rescue, you know, someone who was just trying to, you know, get back down to the ground? I don't know. But folks think we rescue a lot of climbers and we really don't. Which is amazing because we see a lot of climbers all the time and a lot of them are doing sketchy things; not tying their knots right or belaying properly or—it's amazing we don't rescue more.
SN: I'm so glad you added that; that’s really, really important, because one of the things that's coming out of the interview process is just what an important site Joshua Tree has been for free soloing over the years. And because the information is that because it's so toprope-able, it makes practice for and then the performance of free soloing relatively doable. And so I've been asking climbers, “What's the accident rate, given that you're going up there without a rope? I mean, how many people are taking really bad falls?” And I have met people in Yosemite and elsewhere who have, in fact, taken really bad falls high up off of features in Joshua Tree. But it sounds like—and what they've told me is that there really was a very low accident rate in terms of bad accidents. And with free soloing, it's going to be a pretty bad accident. So that sounds like that was your experience as well, is that right?
JL: Yes, I would agree with that. And, you know, the free solo folks, they’re generally like next-level kind of climbers and mentality, right. They’re not the weekend warriors that come out from, you know, wherever to spend half a day climbing and the other half day hiking around and things like that. These are folks that are on the rock, you know, hours and hours a day, six, seven days a week. So I would—those folks I generally don't worry about that much. It's the other folks that think they know what they're doing that don't. [Chuckles] And but again, you know, it's not that many climbers. We really, really—in fact, I would almost say we rescue more boulderers than we do climbers. You know, just because so many boulderers fall and break an ankle or break a knee or something like—dislocate a knee and then we have to go pick them up. But yeah.
SN: Yeah, a number of people we have asked (and I should have asked earlier about search and rescue in innovation, whether or not Joshua Tree developed any search and rescue kinds of practices or strategies) have said, no, to their knowledge this really wasn't a site for innovation for search and rescue. Is that your understanding as well?
JL: No, I don't necessarily agree with that. I think there was a time period when Joshua Tree was kind of like leading the search and rescue charge for a while. When I was here in 2000, we were using some equipment called the Vortex, which had just come on the market. It wasn't that popular, it wasn't that easy to use. You needed to have some good training with it. And I think Joshua Tree was one of the first places to have the Vortex and to use that. So I don't necessarily agree with that statement. And I think even today, we're using devices called MPDs, which a lot of rescue folks are still using 540 devices and break racks and radium release hitches and things like that, which are, you know, old school kind of things. These MPDs work—there's a mechanical advantage to them for belaying and rappelling, lowering and raising litters and things like that, so I don't necessarily think that's true.
SN: Thank you. Do you know what the initials MPD stand for? We can look it up.
JL: I think it's “multiple direction device.” Multiple directional… MPD. “Multiple…” I forget.
SN: That's all right. I'm sure we can find that. Bernadette, do you have any information on that just by chance?
BR: Yeah, I think you're right, “multi-purpose device” or something [inaudible] that, MPD.[2]
JL: Yeah.
SN: Okay, and the Vortex, can you just say a little bit more about what that was and how it was used, John?
JL: Yeah, so the Vortex was a tripod device; three legs, big tubing. It was like two or three inch tubing, maybe four inch tubing. And it worked as a tripod, so what it gave folks, if we had to go over the edge, so to speak, we would set this tripod up above where we had to rescue someone or lower someone. We would set the Vortex above them on the cliff edge and it would give us a high point of direction which made moving the rescue apparatus, the litter, the patient, the attendant a little easier because you had that high directional, a high pivot point above your head, so to speak. Yeah.
SN: And why was it, if you have any idea, why was it that that was used at Joshua Tree relatively early on? Is there any reason why or—?
JL: Yes. Yeah, that—oh, boy, that would be like a Jeff Ohlfs question again. I think one of the rangers here either knew the folks at Vortex. Or they had gone to training where the Vortex was used and they were like, “Oh sh**, we got to have that thing, that's super sexy.” So I think that's how it came about.
SN: Thank you. I mean, that was sort of my next bigger question, was if Joshua Tree didn't have that many accidents happening, why was it at the forefront when it was during that period, do you know?
JL: Great question. You're always prepping for the big one, you never know when the big one’s going to happen, right? You always practice for the worst. You know, we haven't had a serious technical rescue I think in quite a while, but yet we still train for it, so.
SN: Bernadette, can you add anything to that in terms of recent accidents occurring in the park?
BR: I think what affects our numbers is that a lot of time climbers get hurt and they're so close to their cars or they're so close to the road, they just take themselves to the hospital. So we don't really have a good indicator of how many accidents there are in this park that are climbing-related or bouldering-related. Because a lot of times they just rescue themselves.
JL: But, Bernadette, don't you think we hear about those that next day or the next weekend at Climber Coffee when all that stuff gets flushed out? You know, it's like, “Hey, did you see the helicopter was in on Wednesday,” or “Did you hear about Jimmy, you know, tweaking his ankle on White Rastafarian on Thursday,” or those kind of things?
BR: I’d say sometimes, but not all the time.
JL: Mhmm. [Understanding]
SN: So it sounds like there's a bit more of a story to search and rescue than we've been able to uncover so far.
JL: Yes. And again, I think the search and rescue is kind of a different tangent than the climbing thing we want to look at or you want to look at here. But it's definitely a part.
SN: Yeah, I think our goal, one of our goals is to figure out what role Joshua Tree has played in climbing generally as an innovator or a leader, as a site for that. And so if there was a time when search and rescue—or a long period when search and rescue has been developed, when it was at the forefront in that regard, that we should have that documented and try to figure out if there's any correlation between what was going on in climbing at the park and what was going on in that regard, because there certainly are periods where the world's best climbers had Joshua Tree high up on their priority list and other periods where they don't, and there's general agreement on that amongst the people we've interviewed. So be kind of interesting to know, did that correspond with innovations in search and rescue or not? Maybe there are other reasons for the history of innovation in that regard.
JL: Yeah, and I think that time frame—Jeff Ohlfs would have been right there, I think in that time frame. Because he was here… he was here forever. He was here when I was here in 2000. [Laughs] He was here when I came back in 2011. And he had been here probably 10 years before that, which was when, you know, the search and rescue stuff was going on. And I think when that Vortex came up and I want to say it was Becky Patterson's husband who might have had something to do with that because he was big into fire, and he was one of those tech guys that would you know, he would have seen that Vortex and gone, “Oh, that's pretty cool. I gotta see how that works.” I can't remember his name, Becky Patterson's husband.
SN: Are any of these people still reachable, as far as we know?
JL: Jeff Ohlfs should be, I think he's still local. Becky Patterson's husband, I would go to Jeff Ohlfs first and see if he can pinpoint that Vortex information better. Oh, Judy, what was Judy's name? Judy. The chief ranger before Jeff. Judy…
BR: Was it Bartlett?
JL: No. I don't think so. Bartlett, no. Anyway, the chief ranger before Jeff Ohlfs and the Jimmy Pritchett era too, Jimmy was here too, along with—Jimmy and Judy and Jeff would be the three old-time rangers you could talk to. I think Jeff might be your best bet there, because he's like a historian himself and he could talk to you about the Vortex and the search and rescue early on in those days, and he could point you to either Jimmy or Judy to see if they might have better or different information.
SN: Thank you, we'll see if we can locate contact information for him and definitely put him on our list then. Thank you, that’s great. So one last question for you—or did you have anything else you wanted to add before we close up?
JL: No, I don't think so.
SN: Okay, the one last question, because we kind of got away from your own expertise and experience as a climber, talking about all these other aspects of your work at Joshua Tree. And I just wonder before we close, if you could tell us in your own words what it's like as a climber to climb at Joshua Tree. What's distinctive about the landscape for you, as you compare it to some of the other places that you've climbed in the country?
JL: Wow. You know, every time I get to the top of something, the view is just really incredible. Living here in Joshua Tree for twenty years and having the connection I do with the park and things, that it makes it extra special when I look out over the valley. [Through tears] And to see that beautiful landscape. It's really nice.
SN: Thank you so much, John. That is such an important statement coming from you.
JL: Thank you.
SN: It's really such an honor to hear you express that relationship for us, as you just have done. Thank you.
JL: Thank you.
SN: Emilio, I think we’re ready to say goodbye for today or at least for this time, unless, Bernadette, did you have anything else you wanted to add?
BR: No, I don't.
SN: All right. All right, John. I just want to say again, from the bottom of our hearts, you have given us so much today. Thank you so much.
JL: You're welcome you guys, and if you have any follow up, you know where to reach me.
SN: Definitely.

[1] John Lauretig, in a subsequent communication identified the “Phone Booth” as: “a local rock formation behind Hidden Valley Campground. Campers could scramble up on top of the “phone booth” & get cell [phone] coverage” (email communication, March 12, 2021).

[2] The MPD, or the Multi-Purpose Device allows the user to lower and raise a rope with control. It's commonly used by search and rescue teams and acts somewhat like a large belay device.


Mike Lechlinski

Interview Date: 08/01/2021

Biographical Information: Mike Lechlinski is a seasoned Joshua Tree climber who has been climbing in the Joshua Tree area for over 50 years. He was one of the few American climbers who was invited to Germany for the Konstein international climbing festival in 1981 alongside reputable climbers of the time. Mike’s list of recorded first ascents in Joshua Tree National Park surpasses 50 routes. He has an intimate understanding of climbing techniques and the development of free soloing over time.

Content Summary: Mike outlines the end of the Desert Rats era and the beginning of the Stonemasters and competitive climbing in Joshua Tree in the early 1970. Mike also identifies the importance of Joshua Tree National Park to the development of traditional climbing and free soloing. Conflicts between traditional climbing and sport climbing as the sport developed are also discussed.

  • Free soloing
  • John Bachar
  • Konstein Climbing Festival
  • Mari Gingery
  • Stonemasters
  • Snake Pit (Formation)
  • Big Moe (5.11)
  • Bikini Whale [Chasing the Concord] (5.12)
  • Left Ski Track (5.11)
  • Mike’s Books (5.6)
  • Tap Dancing (5.11)
  • The Powers That Be (5.13)
  • Toe Jam (5.7)
SN: Good afternoon, everybody. This is Sally Ness from the University of California, Riverside. Today is January 8th, 2021, this is our first oral history interview for the Joshua Tree National Park Historic Resource Study of Recreational Rock Climbing in the year 2021 so I’m very pleased today to be able to welcome Bernadette Regan from the National Park Service, and Mike Lechlinski who is our interviewee for today, and Emilio Triguero who is going to be assisting me in the interview as well. So welcome everybody and thanks for being here today.
Okay. So before we get started Mike, as I mentioned, it’s important for us to have consent from you that this process is indeed voluntary and that you are aware of the focus of the interview, the main content that we’ll be going over which is the history of rock climbing at Joshua Tree National Park as it relates to the larger subject of rock climbing, more generally. And that you consent to be audio taped while we talk about the subject.
ML: Yes.
SN: Just to repeat that your participation is voluntary, not just in general but in specific, so if at any point in the interview, there’s any question that you would prefer not to answer for any reason, please just let us know and we will be glad to move right on. Okay?
ML: Okay.
SN: Okay great. Alright, so for the record then could you give us your full name and your date and place of birth?
ML: My name is Michael Alexander Lechlinski. I was born in 1953, and I was born and raised in Glendale, California.
SN: Thank you. Alright.
Alright, so I was just asking you to tell us a little bit about how you first got interested in climbing. How old you were and what your motives were, and where you were when you started climbing.
ML: In high school, graduated 1971. Was probably my first trip out here; I’ve learned about rock climbing at a place called Mount Williamson in the Angeles National Forest above my home. And we saw people climbing, and from there we took it up. Educated ourselves in climbing. People I went to high school with, who never really took climbing up later.
SN: So you were the main person among your original group who decided to pursue it, is that correct?
ML: Yeah. Basically we read books and learned about it, but nobody really ever went climbing besides at a local crag, and no one ever really went out besides me, I guess you could say. Out of the people I started with. Just a couple people. And that’s like 50 years ago.
SN: So at that time, you weren't looking for training for example from established experts or clubs or anything of that kind, is that right?
ML: You know, starting on it, looking and watching, it just sort of progressed … started meeting people at crags, Tahquitz and Stoney Point and probably in the mid-70s, maybe ‘74, just became obsessed and became sort of a junkyard athlete for climbing. Putting up pull-up bars and doing loads of pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups and cardiovascular and just trying to be super fit to go climbing.
SN: Great, so what was –before you really got sort of into it to that extent, when you were very, very first –do you remember what very first intrigued you about climbing when you were looking at the materials that you were using initially?
ML: What inspired me, why I wanted to do it?
SN: Yeah exactly, because it sounds like you weren't sort of born into a situation where you were doing it before you even knew what it was, as I understand you. So I’m just wondering what it was that drew you to it at the very very beginning.
ML: Just because there was no one there, and it got me out into the mountains which I loved.
SN: So your access to those spaces– thank you that was very helpful; your access to those landscapes then, did your family give you access to them or were you old enough to be able to drive to them yourself or how did you actually get out into them–
ML: Actually old enough to access them by myself and my family –I came from a large family, I’m in the middle. [I was the] outlier [who just] went climbing his whole life.
SN: Okay, I want to be sure I understood that, I think you may have been breaking up. Who went climbing for his whole life, could you repeat that for me?
ML: Me, I wasted my time I thought, always just going climbing. It’s all I wanted to do.
SN: Okay thanks, I wasn't sure if the reception was actually working there. Good, okay, so tell us about Joshua Tree when you first started climbing there, was it right at the beginning or did you do climbing at Stoney Point and Tahquitz and other places for a while or how did that happen?
I don't know if you heard the question but it was about Joshua Tree. Can you just tell us about how you first got into climbing at Joshua Tree, what your first impressions and experiences were there?
ML: My first experience there was not really climbing, in 1970. Went out with some folks and we scrambled all over. And probably my next trip [I climbed] Toe Jam.
SN: What you just said, Mike, it was garbled, so can I ask you to repeat it?
ML: Yeah, so the first time I went to the desert with friends we didn't really climb, we scrambled around on the crazy landscape. And we didn't exactly see many climbers. I don't even think we saw any of them.
SN: And the “we” there was your friends from high school, is that right?
ML: Yes. Correct.
SN: And so when you first saw it, were you surprised by the landscape, I mean how did you know to go there? What was your initial reaction to it?
ML: Oh there’s rock climbs all over here. [Laughs] We could climb anywhere if we had the equipment.
SN: Uh-huh. [Understanding] Great.
ML: And so it was in a period of discovery, you know. And when I first started climbing there, I mean the guidebooks were very thin, it wasn't much so –it was a time of exploring and doing a lot of new routes and stuff.
SN: So were you in the era of the Desert Rats guidebook at that point?
ML: After those folks. We were kind of overlapped a bit in the early days.
SN: I see. So how did your climbing at Joshua Tree then evolve, can you tell us a little bit about how you went from the initial discovery of what a kind of potentially great site it would be for climbing to actually getting the equipment and getting out there and exploring it?
ML: Well we had equipment and we climbed other places. And it sort of ended up being a… it’s like a winter destination, you know? The mountains were snowed in and it was a place to go when –at least get some training in, some climbs, so when the snow melted in the spring you could go to the high country and climb.
SN: Yeah, so is there any way looking back, Mike, that you can see events or time periods where the way you climbed changed during those years? I’m thinking mostly about your technique at this point and how you moved from being kind of an enthusiastic person who was starting out to being somebody who was really an advanced person in terms of your technical skills, can you tell us about that?
ML: How that evolved?
SN: Yeah, and how Joshua Tree played in that. The climbing.
ML: Well there’s a lot of easy things in Joshua Tree, and it’s very accessible. And so much of the easy stuff could just be climbed, and what interested me was the steeper climbing, the harder climbing. And the grades were just starting to just sort of go from, you know, 5.9, 5.10, 5.11 and 5.11 was kind of like, sort of the hardest of that time but people were starting to train to try and do harder things. But the thing about Joshua Tree, it was very easy to go out and do like hundreds and hundreds of feet of climbing. And that was the greatness of the place, and you could climb so much, especially if you went ropeless and soloed around. You could do ten, fifteen, twenty routes in an afternoon, never having to tie in.
SN: Great, that’s very helpful, thank you. That gives us a picture of what was, you know, truly significant in your experience there as far as your own evolution as a climber.
ML: Right. And if I could say this too, in the beginning in the desert, there were people that you knew, but then as we get more towards the ‘80s and stuff, it started becoming –you know, people knew about it. You could go to the desert and climb in the winter, and people from all over started showing up. And at the end of the ‘70s, standards were being pushed, and climbs were getting harder.
SN: Right. So I’m kind of wondering, you know what you just said about standards being pushed, would it be fair to say that at the beginning of your time there as a climber that there really were –that the standards were quite different from say what they were even five years after you had started climbing there? Or did it take longer for things to change?
ML: Oh no, probably –yeah, within five years, yeah people got better and people were climbing harder. It sort of seems like there became a lot of people obsessed; van-life seems like it started around then. For climbers anyway. Hidden Valley Campground used to be full of snowbirds free camping at a monument, and some of the climbers started arriving and climbing near their sites and stuff, and it wasn't the quiet happy place for retirees, and climbers sort of took it over.
SN: Would you say that takeover happened like around 1973, ‘75, can you–?
ML: Probably ‘73, maybe ‘74 is when there were a lot of climbers starting to show up. And California climbers for sure. The holidays, people from San Diego, Riverside, LA area, San Francisco, even people from back east would start showing up. And so everybody was involved with climbing, everybody knew everybody it seemed like. [Laughs] The campground was kind of small.
SN: This is a really key point for us in the study actually, when that happened. 1974, you know, that period when the climbers started showing up.
ML: And I would say this, it just progressed, and by the late ‘70s, it was somewhat internationally known, with people showing up and enjoying the weather and the weird desert and even the rock climbing. A great place to run around with people and get climbing done.
SN: Yeah that’s –my question is sort of around what the Joshua Tree versus outside of Joshua Tree, when this growth was occurring that Joshua Tree became –we’re trying to figure out what’s the best way to characterize this. Like was Joshua Tree a magnet that drew people and recruited people into climbing, or was it more of–
ML: I’m back.
SN: You didn't miss much Mike. [Laughs] Yeah, so the question I wanted to ask you was, did you see Joshua Tree as really like the start of that growth in climbing, or was it sort of one place among many that was receiving more and more people who had elsewhere gotten into the sport? Is there a way you can characterize Joshua Tree’s sort of identity in that regard?
ML: Well it was a good place. Things started happening there –at Tahquitz and Suicide a lot of things were already freed, and out there there was sort of unlimited rock. Unlimited things to test ourselves on, and people were looking for new and hard things to do.
SN: At that point in time, why do you think so many people and so many more people started looking for harder things to do? What was going on in climbing at that time fed that [inaudible]?
ML: That’s a good question. The easier climbing was just so doable. We needed a challenge. And there was a lot of bigger things. Even dreams of climbing El Cap free, and learning to do really hard things.
SN: Yeah I guess I’m wondering, if we look back to the ‘60s say, in climbing, and some of the sort of “golden era” events in Yosemite Valley, with things being done that had never been done before, right. And these developments sort of made certain things conceivable that then only manifested in the ‘70s, if you see what I’m saying.
ML: Yeah I would say, in the ‘60s, people would climb and they would use aid, then climb 5.8, 5.9, and maybe a couple points of aid, and later a lot of those things ended up being perhaps 5.11 cracks, all freed; you don't have to pull or aid them anymore. Does that make sense?
SN: No that does.
ML: As we evolved –and the cool thing about Joshua Tree is the fact that the most fun thing was to climb without a rope, do really hard stuff. Not the hardest, but some pretty hard stuff was done, you know. [Laughs]
SN: Yeah no, this is something that has come up in the course of our interviews with a number of people climbing in this time period and it’s becoming a really important focus for the study as well, that Joshua Tree seems to have been somewhat unique in its providing a landscape that would allow for lots of what some people have been calling highballing or free soloing climbs that were –or free solo climbs that were not multi-pitches, obviously (not the kind of thing that Alex Honnold’s doing) but still, allowed for that to be a fairly accessible practice, does that sound right to you?
ML: Oh yes, totally. It’s so conducive to it, you know. There’s a lot of routes in Joshua Tree where the climbing is so accessible and frequently the first 25 feet might be hard but fairly reasonable to solo. [Laughs] And not die.
SN: Sorry Mike, you're breaking up a little bit, I need to ask you, could you just repeat what you just said before “and not die”, we got that part.
ML: Yeah, I mean, the crux is maybe closer to the ground. And people are willing to say, “Yeah I can do this.” [Laughs] And they would go for it a lot of times, and people would pull things off. But there was always that people knew their limitations. That was one thing about climbing, we actually joke about a Clint Eastwood quote that was “A man needs to know his limitations.” And when you're climbing without a rope, you certainly know your limitations.
SN: [Laughs] Can you describe for us, how in your observation how the free soloing practice kind of got started and how it grew during these years? Do you remember the very first events or when the lightbulb went on for somebody to do this or how did it actually become kind of part the scene for many people, not just for one person?
ML: Right. Oh lots of people free soloed, there wasn't just one –I’m sure a lot of people say Bachar was the guy, but there was a lot of people; Yablonski, Gilje, Russ Walling, a host of other people. I recall Dan Michaels from Colorado was an avid soloist also, and it was just fun to be able to go and –if you could climb 5.11 or even when it got harder, 5.12, they could run around the park all day and climb 5.9 and 5.10 and never tie in; all you had was your chalk bag and your shoes. And that was a lot of fun times, hanging out with Bachar and things like that. There’d be a train solo of people going up the Left Ski Track, or sometimes referred to as the left, right, and half boulder problems. [Chuckles] Because you would see people climbing them without ropes more than you would see people lead them.
SN: That is an amazing thought. [Laughs] Not one that describes the contemporary scene, would you say?
ML: Pardon?
SN: What you're describing is a vision of climbing at Joshua Tree that isn't really what we think of today. [Inaudible] would you say.
ML: No. Right. It’s definitely changed a lot.
SN: Yeah so, I’m just wondering, do you have memories –because it does sort of belong to that time period, it would be great to get as much kind of detailed narrative on it as we can, so I’m wondering, do you have particular climbs or particular events that come to mind that you can describe for us as like what was sort of illustrative of how free soloing would happen in a way that might contrast it with the way that people tend to use sport climbing or free climbing, traditional climbing today?
ML: Hm. So how it started?
SN: Well I’m just kind of thinking, is the practice any different? Do people relate to each other –for example, when you’re in a trad climbing or in a sport climbing situation, somebody’s belaying you, right?
ML: Right.
SN: So there’s a relationship between you and somebody else as you're climbing, whereas in free soloing, that’s not obviously the case, right, ‘cause the rope doesn't connect you to anybody else.
ML: No, uh-uh. [Indicating no] Your friend may be five or six feet above you and somebody might be ten feet below you and you just sort of –you're trusting that, well a lot of times, you let the better climber go first. [Laughs] Jokingly, but everybody was solid.
SN: And is it more like bouldering then?
ML: Yeah because when you get high enough, you don't want to fall. Now we have crash pads and things. Back then, we didn't really and people would take some pretty hard falls, but they would try to downclimb and be in control. And now it seems like, you know with the pads and everything, it’s just –you could just throw yourself at these things and really not worry. Albeit though you can still get hurt with a crash pad below you.
SN: Yeah so, I wonder, did that create a different kind of relationship between people than what we see today? Let me say, a different sense of camaraderie perhaps, a different sense that what you were facing together was something on a different order from what people are facing together today when they climb.
ML: Well, the park still has a little bit of this soloing that goes on. And I still think it is still fun to go in the park, like the classic solo of Mike’s Books, and solo it with a mob of people. You’d go to the top of the rock formation at sunset and it was sort of just a thing to do. People’d be sitting around the campground like, “Hey let’s go solo this,” and you didn't really have to get too organized to go soloing, just grab your chalk bag and shoes and start climbing.
SN: Thanks, that’s very helpful. We haven't heard I don't think that Mike’s Books was the classic. Can you say a little bit more about that particular route and what its role was?
ML: It’s in the sun, it’s pretty easy. Well I mean relative to standards now, and it’s an easy way to get on top of Intersection Rock, which is sort of the premier rock in the Hidden Valley campsite area. And there’s a lot of really great routes on that rock. And a lot of them could be soloed. [Laughs] But that was like perhaps the easiest, the Bat Crack is another one. Zig-Zag is another one. And it’s just that there’s enough holds, it’s hard to fall off the big holds. When you know –say, you’re trained up for climbing soloing 5.10, 5.11, you usually won’t fall off the easier routes.
SN: Mike, I’m sorry we didn't catch the very end of that. Can you repeat that part?
ML: Well you wouldn't be falling off the easier routes after being trained for harder climbing.
SN: I don't want to drive this topic into the ground, but just one more question on the free soloing at this time. Will you say that maybe you had a different relationship to the routes when you free soloed them? Did you [inaudible]?
ML: A different relationship with the routes, well we became familiar with them. And sort of practice makes perfect, it’s just like hangdogging now, familiarize yourself on that stuff enough and you get it, and then know it and you can do it. So you would learn the ins and outs, and it would just be kind of like, what you would do.
SN: Okay. I get it. Okay thank you. So let’s talk about the peak of this period a little bit, the period that you describe before when people would start coming to Joshua Tree to climb from other parts of the US and even other parts of the world. And were there particular routes that they knew about before they got there? [Inaudible] Or were they just–
ML: Oh yeah. Yep, people were definitely coming for the harder routes now. And one of the famous ones was the Leave It to Beaver, and that was definitely a destination. And then, there’s other harder routes, Europeans would come, and they even had done some harder routes. The Bikini Whale was first done by a Frenchman, and it was renamed –they called it Chasing the Concord.
SN: Uh-huh. [Understanding]
ML: And it was renamed the Bikini Whale by someone. It was toproped by Marc LeMenestrel I believe. When they were here, and that was sometime in the ‘80s, and –it was sort of becoming international. Some Germans came in the late ‘70s, Reinhard Karl and his crew. And that was where they went to, they went to climb the Beaver and all the hard routes, things that John Bachar and his crew and stuff were doing. And yeah exchanging things, we would go to the Valley and run into all these people and in the summer and spring and fall and winter, you’d end up and they would show back up in the desert. Following the sun to be able to climb.
SN: Now did they, in your observation, did they have a different approach or a different style in relation to these climbs, or–?
ML: Well I guess you’ve heard about when hangdogging started, and rappel bolting and other things, and that’s near the end of the ‘70s, the beginning of the ’80s, and like in the mid-80s, regarding bolting, you could just do whatever you wanted; there was no controversy it seems. [Laughs] But I was invited to Germany –SportChek put this event on and they invited people from England, France, Italy, America; me and John Bachar represented America, and it was kind of a discussion what’s “free.” And that’s kind of where redpointing began. The Germans had the idea. If you're aiding a route and it hasn't seen somebody climb up it without falling, it was a red circle, but as soon as somebody climbed it without hanging on it and did all the moves in succession, clipping the bolts and stuff, you would fill it in. It’s a way to clarify a totally free climb now, redpointing (still, onsighting, onsight free soloing, that’s the ultimate, you get one try to do it, you gotta do it your first try). And so this meeting outlined what a free ascent of a “worked” route was. And the idea was adopted by the climbers.
SN: Sorry Mike, I think Emilio wanted to jump in here and ask some questions. I’m gonna let him follow up with you on that.
ET: Hi Mike. Sorry, I wanted to jump in because I had been researching the Konstein festival which you had just brought up. You speaking about redpointing brings up to me the name of Kurt Albert, who was a German climber at that time. Could you speak a little bit about just perhaps what your impressions were of what you're talking about with redpointing?[Interference]
ML: Are we back?
ET: Yes, welcome back Mike. Getting back to what we’re talking about, I wanted to ask you, what do you think the significance was (you mentioned these two climbers being selected, yourself and John Bachar) being selected to go to this Konstein festival. What do you think the significance was of the climbers coming from Joshua Tree, being selected from Joshua Tree, perhaps not Tahquitz or even Yosemite?
ML: Actually, Ron Kauk was invited to go, but he chose not to. Reinhard Karl was the one who kind of organized it, and Bachar was going, and there was an extra ticket here and at the last minute, I was invited to go. And I said “Okay, if I can get my passport.” And I got my passport about two hours before I jumped on the flight.
ET: And what were your impressions of European climbing once you got there? I was mentioning earlier that you were talking about redpointing and how the Germans did that –what were your impressions of that and how they did that over there, so to speak?
ML: It was very similar kind of to our climbing. I mean, the limestone was a lot different, but the climbing, the difficulty was similar… everyone was starting to climb harder stuff. 5.12+, 5.13, and they took us to their hard routes. Like when they were here, we would take them to our hard routes, we would try to do the hard routes, sometimes successful, some not. But at the time the Germans were determining what denotes if you have you done it or not without aid, and so redpointing became kind of a normal thing. Everyone agreed that you would pull the rope after falling, and when you climb it, you wouldn’t hang. It changed how a route was climbed. If you were doing stuff and toproping it, you wouldn’t hang, you’d just be lowered to the ground. But things changed, and bolt-placing changed. And hanging on the route became the norm. You could definitely do harder routes by figuring out what to do first. And placing bolts from above reduced bolting to a no-brainer.
ET: And so would you say this change, you know you’re talking about this shift in let’s say ethics or just techniques in general for climbing, would you say that this change happened as a result of the Konstein festival or was it just something that came as a result of other things, or what’s your thoughts on that?
ML: Well I would say it definitely had a big impact on how the world looked at a route being climbed “free.” So yeah, I would say that. Because there was a lot of people there that were really good climbers; Ron Fawcett was there, and really great climbers from that era, the ‘70s and ‘80s. They're probably still kicking about a lot of them, some have passed on. But it was already somewhat agreed to free climb –but a lot of routes would be done “French free.” [Chuckles] Meaning that you would be climbing and if it’s “Oh, I’m falling here,” you just pull on the draw and keep climbing and that would be a French free.[1] So redpointing clearly defined free climbing for the hardest routes.
ET: Mhmm. [In understanding] So these methods of climbing were being influenced, as you’re saying, by French climbers, different people around the globe.
ML: Right. And training also, people were really starting to advance training. There were wood hangboards, and earlier Bachar (and all the junkyard athletes) had pull-ups bars stashed in the woods, there was a couple hidden in the desert here and there. You would train to go climbing. And one person to really take that to the next level had to be Wolfgang [Güllich] and Kurt Albert. But Wolfgang for sure being the radder of the two. Wolfgang went on to do many many hard routes all over the world, and came here and repeated hard routes also.
ET: So would you also say that Konstein was perhaps a catalyst for Joshua Tree becoming more of an international place or was that already kind of in motion before Konstein even happened?
ML: It was a destination before that, and I just think it just sort of helped it even more so.[Mike and Emilio speak over each other]
ET: I’m sorry, go ahead.
ML: Then international folks came. There was an era when Jerry Moffatt and Chris Gore from Britain spent a couple seasons here and they had traveled all over. Saw what the hard routes were and redpointed them, and then he was here during hard bouldering and hard routes.
ET: Alright, thank you very much. And just as my final question to wrap up this Konstein discussion, can you talk about the reaction of Joshua Tree locals to the events of Konstein? Of course, you mentioned just John Bachar and yourself and a couple of other local climbers may have been invited to attend, but the majority of climbers of course were not invited, so could you speak about the reaction of these Joshua Tree locals to the Konstein festival and how they perceived it? Did they see it more as like “our American climbers versus European climbers”, was it like a conference or was it like a really big event, or was it nothing at all really?
ML: I don't think anybody noticed –nothing at all, I don't think anybody really gave a crap about it. [Laughs] You know, I mean for myself I can say, the Germans were very hospitable people; we spent months over there hanging out and climbing with Kurt Albert and Wolfgang on all their local crags and it was good stuff.[Mike and Emilio speak over each other]
ET: It’s funny to me because in my research into the Konstein festival, it’s referred to as “infamous”, a pivotal point in rock climbing history, but yet I haven't really found a lot of content on it, and that’s why I’m very excited to talk to you about it because even though it’s referred to as infamous, there’s not a lot of content on it. And like you said, it feels like no one really gave a crap about what was happening.
ML: Right, yeah. But out of that, definitely people want to redpoint routes, and when you're hanging all over them, there had to be a way to determine if they’ve been climbed, if people would believe that. So what came out of that was the way to, you know, “Oh it goes free, it’s this hard, it’s been redpointed, it’s been climbed”, I guess you could say.
ET: Okay. And my final thought is to say it added a new layer of climbing dimension; you know, redpointing, like you just said, redpointing is like, “Yeah this has been redpointed, it has a red circle on the bottom”...
ML: When John Bachar and I were there, there was an unclimbed route, and John got the first to go at it and he didn't fall off of it, and it hadn’t been done yet; it was bolted, and he was the guy that they gave the nail polish and he got to fill the circle in.
ET: I see.
ML: So the route was there, it had a circle at the base of the route. It wasn’t filled in yet, it was just a round circle. And John was the first guy to send it, and he filled that in. And that conveyed, “Alright, it’s a legit thing,” you know.
ET: Yeah.
ML: It’s not like a project.
ET: Right, well that’s all my questions, thank you very much. I’m gonna hand it over to Sally now.
ML: Alright.
SN: Actually, I’m going to pass it on to Bernadette. She came with several questions for you, Mike, so I’m going to let her jump in here and–
ML: Okay.
BR: Hi, I just have one main question, could you tell us about the man with the ten thousand year old face?
ML: Say that again?
BR: Could you tell us about the man with the ten thousand year old face?
ML: The man with the ten thousand year old face?
BR: Mhmm. [Affirming]
ML: I don't really recall that one. I do recall someone from the Country Kitchen who we always stared at because he penciled in his mustache with a magic marker.
BR: [Laughs] That was that guy, okay, that was another person I was asked to ask you about. So the mustached man is from the Country Kitchen?
ML: [Laughs]
BR: What about Skoal man?
ML: The man with the ten thousand year old face… it’s a long time ago, I don’t recall.
BR: Okay. Do you have any recollection of the Skoal man? S-K-O-A-L?
ML: Oh yeah, yeah. He would sit kind of overlooking… it’s on the way out of the park, the big turn out just before going down the hill. [To someone else] What was it? Yeah, it overlooked Coyote Hole, and you would drive by and this guy had his lower lip packed with an entire tin, and he saved all the tins, they were just scattered in his car and there were like hundreds of them! [Laughs] And that was a bad habit people had back in the early ‘70s. I wasn't one of them, but a lot of people did the chaw.
BR: Okay those were the only three people I were asked to ask you about, so I’m gonna pass it back to Sally.
ML: Alright.
SN: Mike, I’d just like to pick up on a few points and then we’ll –I know we’re coming up to the end of our hour, but there’s a few things from Mari’s transcript that I wanted to follow up on with you, is that okay?
ML: Alright.
SN: Ten minutes or so? Yes? Are we okay?
ML: Are you there? Yeah.
SN: Okay good. So Mari was talking to us about, with regard to the mid-1980s–
ML: Pardon? Say that again?
SN: When we were interviewing Mari, she talked to us a little bit about the mid-1980s, and characterized that time as a period of when there were “debates and difficulties” that some of which almost had an international impact. And I was just wondering what you might remember that would kind of give us any examples of what she might have had in mind there, because we didn't really have a chance to elaborate.
ML: On the international impact in Joshua Tree?
SN: Yeah from these “debates and difficulties” of the 1980s. Do you have any idea –how would you describe that period yourself?
ML: Sort of –things were getting harder. People were really pushing things at that time. And there’s a handful of folks that were trying to do harder routes instead of quantity. People would do harder routes, not so many easy routes. People were looking for a particular thing, hard climbing. Steep climbing. Very fingery. Or very hard overhanging cracks.
SN: Okay.
ML: And I think this is what everybody was coming for –these climbs, and… I mean it’s not like everybody wants to go do these hard routes, there’s a lot of people that just enjoy doing easy climbing.
SN: I see. Was there a time period at Joshua Tree that you would say was more conflicted than for one reason or another where there were more people in conflict with one another?
ML: I didn't get that, you broke up really bad.
SN: Oh, sorry. I’m just wondering, is there a time at Joshua Tree that you would identify as being characterized by conflict?
ML: You know, there’s a few folks who created animosity amongst the people that sort of climbed hard routes.
SN: Mhmm. [Understanding]
ML: But I guess, you know, maybe there was some vandalizing of routes, I guess you could say.
SN: I’m sorry, if you said it, we didn't get it, what the time period was, when that happened?
ML: Bad with dates. It’s a big blur.
SN: That’s okay.
ML: You could find out the dates when you look at the date at the first ascent. [Laughs] You know.
SN: Right. When I talked to you on the phone the other day you mentioned one particular case of Randy Leavitt that comes to [inaudible].
ML: Right, it was the Snake Pit. Yeah.
SN: Can you tell us what you personally witnessed with regard to that case just as an example?
ML: Well… me and my friend Tom Gilje found it. Leavitt was very secretive, so I guess that’s what the animosity was about –being secretive about where a climbing area is. It’s sort of egotistical, because you're gonna know once it’s all done and he’s named it, it’s all set up and glued up and ready for the public. And that’s probably where climbing was headed. I never thought I would be climbing to install routes for people of future generations, you know.
SN: Okay.
ML: And it seems like, wow, this is where it’s gone, now people are kind of, you know, trying to own a route. You may climb it, but it’s not really yours. [Laughs] And I think a lot of people find that hard to believe, that it is my route, I did all these routes, they’re mine. And so there’s then compromising ethics, how it’s done. And I like I mentioned earlier, rap bolting is a no-brainer, and inevitably it’s going to get the results you want. And that upset some of the purists. John Bachar most of all. And Bachar vandalized the route, but that was out of animosity created by Randy Leavitt, who found out that a route that he had done, The Powers That Be, at 5.13, was one day ascended by people and one of the crew couldn't do it, and was going out in a week to redpoint it because he was tired –he worked the route a bit, couldn't do it that day. Getting late in the day so we all left. A handful of us had redpointed the route. Somehow Leavitt found out, and walked out, and this I find to be ridiculous, like why would you walk all the way out, chop a hold off so the man couldn't climb it, and then go back home? And then not expect anybody to mess like, with the Snake Pit. And Bachar, that really upset Bachar. Like he questioned, “What is he doing? I mean, how would it be if I just went out and destroyed the Snake Pit for him?” And I think that’s what happened. Yeah and he was very upset. And I believe Randy, I don't think he went back afterwards or cared about it, because recently I just heard, some of the good young climbers went back out and resurrected the route. The rock did take a hit, and that’s never good. It’s better not to bolt or glue or chip. Just leave it alone. But as we roll forward here in 2020, it just seems like everything must be bolted and named and… in a way it’s the destruction of our sport. [Laughs]
SN: Yeah. Exactly, thank you, that’s a really helpful comment.
ML: Pardon?
SN: Very, very helpful information there, Mike. It really gives us a sense of the time and what the conflicts were and how things have changed at the same time.
ML: Yes. Yes. And more of the story, me and Bachar were close friends, and that was the end of our friendship.
SN: Oh wow. Such consequences at that time.
ML: Yes.
SN: You can see from an example like that how profound the values were, how deeply held, how deeply committed.
ML: Yes. I think to a lot of folks, the purists, it’s like taking chess and deciding to change the rules just so you can win. And in climbing, changing the rules just so I could ascend. Yeah. But you know it’s fun, and this is where it goes. It’s amazing how many people there are doing it now.
SN: How would you describe yourself, Mike, in relation to that purists label?
ML: You know, I’ve done a bit, I’m more a purist. I don’t think manufacturing a climb and rappelling down is really climbing, because you’re basically rappelling with hammers and chisels and drills trying to fix your route up. The best routes are ones you could walk up to and climb without any preparation. They remain the best routes today. And there’s a lot of them that don't have glue on them. [Laughs]
SN: Great, thank you. Just two more questions actually. And again they're kind of inspired by what we learned with Mari. The first one is with regard to gender; you’ve climbed, in your career, with lots of different people obviously, and both with men and with women a lot.
ML: Yes.
SN: Can you talk about what if any differences you experience when you're climbing with women or you're climbing with men? Is there anything general you can say about that or is it really an individual thing?
ML: I would say, when we all started some of the ladies climbed really well, better than the guys. So it was just sort of this, all on equal footing, you know.
SN: Right.
ML: Everybody encouraged each other and sometimes the women went off and did some really rad stuff on their own. And other times I’d climb with guys, and it was just sort of a mismatch and mix-up of things. But there wasn't that many women. But I mean there were, but definitely more men, for sure.
SN: Did you yourself ever observe any kind of discrimination of any sort based on gender?
ML: Well, I would say this: when Mari and Lynn [Hill] climbed the Shield, there was definitely some sh**-talking at Camp Four. Guys on the rescue team thought they might be plucking a couple girls off the wall. But that did not happen. [Laughs] In fact, some people, Randy Leavitt and a friend of his were bailing off the Shield because Randy got a piece of metal in his eye from a piton or something. And Mari and Lynn, it was a crazy day on El Cap, but Mari and Lynn persevered and did the route. [Chuckles]
SN: And were they greeted with congratulations just as any climbers would be?
ML: Oh yeah, yeah. It was a great thing, you know. It’s a great route. I mean it’s one of the best ones, it’s very exposed and it’s just like this butterknife cut through this golden headwall. It’s a good one, yeah. Probably a coveted route that people want to do on El Cap. And that hasn't gone free yet. [Laughs]
SN: So as the years have passed, have you observed any changes in the relations between men and women climbers over the years, or not? Pretty much the same?
ML: I would say, definitely women have a lot of respect in the climbing world doing hard things. I mean Lynn was the first woman to free El Cap.
SN: Right.
ML: I mean the first person, and she is a woman. So, I think that there’s talk about a lot of other things in climbing. I guess it’s glossed over by all the climbs that are done now, but she was ahead of her time.
SN: Right. Definitely. Good, okay. And the last specific focus I wanted to talk about with you–and feel free to tell us if you're not interested– but I was recently reading the article about your experiences that was published by Emily Weinstein, I believe. And she talks in there about some stories that involve the exchange of drugs, I think hash. Something that we’re trying to understand, what the role was, what the practices were that related to climbing specifically during the Stonemaster period and possibly later, but since you were definitely on the scene during the Stonemaster period, would you be willing to tell us how often or what purpose in relation to climbing were different kinds of mind-altering substances used?
ML: I just say generally it was the time and period; it’s the early ‘70s. Mid-70s, people probably still experimented with things. A lot of long-haired folks. [Laughs]
SN: Was there a sense that taking drugs improved the ability to climb or did not improve the ability to climb?
ML: Well, I could say for some folks –pot’s pretty benign, I mean, even back then, it wasn't even strong –might as well have been grass clippings, some of the stuff that was about. [Laughs] So it didn't really do much for you anyway.
SN: Uh-huh. [Understanding] Was there any concern that it might make free soloing more dangerous if people were high on something, or maybe it gave them the courage they needed to do that, or anything like that?
ML: Some people could do it. That’s about all I could say. It’s like some folks couldn't, and some folks could. Seemed like it made them climb a lot better. [Laughs]
SN: Yeah, so there was quite a bit of variability it sounds like, in the way it came into the practice.
ML: Right. And I could say, that wasn't like the purpose of the climbing, the climbing was definitely what it was about.
SN: Uh-huh. [Understanding] It wasn't dominated by drugs in that regard.
ML: No, no, absolutely not. It was dominated by junkyard athletes.
SN: I ask because in part, it’s from an anthropological view which is my background. It’s kind of interesting that ritual practices in landscapes like Joshua Tree very often do involve mind-altering substances.
ML: Right.
SN: So in some sense, the introduction of drugs into the climbing practice parallels some of those rituals, so I’m just kind of curious from that regard actually; to what extent it might have made the practices at Joshua Tree [inaudible] junkyard athletes actually less secular than they might have otherwise been.
ML: Yeah. Well, you know, like climbing then, it was a time of discovery for a lot of people; we were really young.
SN: Right. Yes, discovering things that were maybe in this world and maybe beyond it.
ML: Right. [Laughs]
SN: Yeah. Definitely pushing at that limit of the normal. Good, okay great, so I think that’s as much as we can cover today, and we always close the interview with a question to the interviewee about whether or not there’s anything that we’ve missed that you’d like to say about the history of climbing at Joshua Tree and its significance for the rest of climbing more broadly. Is there anything that you’d like to get on record before we close Mike?
ML: Well I would say this, one of the earliest things that a lot of people cared about, they love to leave no trace. And as we abuse all the rock and stuff, I keep thinking back at leaving no trace really leaves you open for some adventure. And that was a big part of it. The adventure. And you know with the way things are going now, we can take all that away.
SN: Can you say a little bit more about that, how things are going now as they might decrease the sense of adventure? That’s really important.
ML: Sorry you broke up there.
SN: Sorry, what you said was just so important about the way things are going now, and I was just hoping you might be able to comment a little further on the contrast, you know what’s happening now that might take away from that sense.
ML: So with bolting, you know [inaudible] the murder of the impossible.
SN: You broke up Mike, can you back up and just repeat yourself?
ML: Reinhold Messner, he made a statement about “bolting is the murder of the impossible.”
SN: Thank you.
ML: And you can take the adventure and the life out of climbing just by bolting the crap out of stuff, and that seems to be where we’re going now. And I’m not sure if that’s being taught in gyms or what, but the attitude is “I climb in a gym, the outside should be the same.” But it’s not, it’s a place to discover yourself and… bolting does take away the life of a climb kinda. If there’s too many, and they're too close together. And an example of this is I did a route that was toproped and I went and led it. And I pounded two pitons in, did it without bolts. Maybe thirty years later, somebody asked if they could retro-bolt it, and I said, “Well you could probably put one bolt in, or maybe two. Use your judgement.” I went back and there was seven bolts in it. And suddenly it became the most popular route in the park for the two weeks it was established with seven bolts. I was upset, going “Man, that just messed that up.” And somebody else said, “Yeah, that does mess it up and I’ll take care of it.” And all the bolts were removed and it’s back to what it was. A climb. [Laughs] If that makes sense.
SN: Is there a reason why you don't want to tell us the name of the climb? Because if you don't that’s fine. [Interference]
ML: I think it was Tap Dancing? I think it’s Tap Dancing. It’s on the Negropolis in the park. It’s one of the first buttresses you come, driving in the park up the big hill, it’s on the left.[2]
SN: Thank you.
ML: And I saw it with the bolts, and I just, oh my gosh. And there was a crowd of people there, because of the bolts. That’s the only reason they were there. [Laughs] The bolts got removed and nobody’s there anymore.
SN: That is a stunning example of the evolution of climbing at Joshua Tree. Thank you.
ML: Right. And with the bolting thing, back then so much stuff was walked by because of that leave-no-trace ethic.
SN: Can you say that one more time for us? I don't think we caught.
ML: I said so many things, so many routes were walked by, because it’s like, “Man, you don't have to bolt all that, that’s fine.” It could be easily done without it. It’s something… you could just leave it as the scenery. [Laughs] But I don't know, somehow I think folks think it all needs to be named, needs to be bolted, needs to be published.
SN: Thank you so much. That is, in a nutshell, so concisely laying out the change in perspective that we’re trying to articulate, or one of things. I’m not hearing you Mike, anything else you want to add before we say goodbye?
ML: No, I think that’s –I hope I filled your ears with a bunch of nonsense.
[Sally and Mike laugh]
SN: Not at all, not at all.

[1] A French free is a potentially offensive term to describe a climb that is done almost entirely free, but with one or a few moves of aid climbing. An example is a leader climber who completes the route completely free except for one move in which he or she pulled on a quickdraw.

[2] According to climbing record, Tap Dancing was toproped by Bob Gaines and Pat Nay in 1986 and freed by Mike Lechlinski in 1987.


Dave Mayville

Interview Date: 28/02/2020

Biographical Information: Dave “Too Strong” Mayville has been recreationally climbing at Joshua Tree for over 30 years and professionally guiding for Vertical Adventures since 1988. He is credited with more than 35 recorded first ascents in Joshua Tree, among them Some Like It Hot (5.12), one of the most popular sport routes in the park. He is well known for his passion for sharing his knowledge of climbing in Joshua Tree and has been a part of the effort to replace aging bolts in the park since 1988.

Content Summary: Dave offers a perspective on the different styles of climbing employed at different points in time. Joshua Tree climbers were not receptive to the rising interest in sport climbing. Dave also speaks on the safety issues of bolting and the replacement process. Due to his experience with the guiding business, Dave is also able to comment on the cultural changes of Joshua Tree climbing as well as the demographic of park visitors.

  • Bolting
  • Ground-up
  • Indoor gyms
  • Kevin Powell
  • Hidden Valley (Area)
  • Father Figure (5.12)
  • Left Ski Track (5.11)
  • Rots O’ Rock (5.12)
  • Solid Gold (5.10)
  • Some Like It Hot (5.12)
  • The Tarantula (5.12)
  • The Scorpion (5.13)
Sally Ness (SN): All right. We're on. I'm looking at the recording and it's doing fine. I am here today at Joshua Tree National Park Headquarters in Twenty-Nine Palms. This is Sally Ness from the University of California, Riverside. It is February 7 just before 1 o'clock, and I'm here with Bernadette Regan from the National Park Service and "Too Strong" Dave Mayville, who has graciously agreed to be our first interviewee for the Historic Resource Study of Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. Dave--may I call you Dave?
David Mayville (DM): You can call me Dave.
SN: Thank you so much for joining us. I hope I've got all the basic information now on the recording. Dave, we're here today to talk about the history of climbing in the park. But before we do that, I'm hoping that you can give us a little information about your own individual history with climbing. Is it okay if we start with that?
DM: Sure.
SN: Great. So just tell us when you started climbing and why were you attracted to the sport? What was your early interest?
DM: As a kid, I climbed everything: the buildings, the trees, you know, flagpoles.
SN: And now is that in California?
DM: In Cleveland. I was born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio. Yeah. So I was climbing everything. And then when I got into climbing, I had actually been an arborist for five years prior to.
SN: That was also in Cleveland?
DM: That was in Colorado when I moved from Cleveland to Colorado. So I was an arborist before I really got into technical rock climbing. So the rigging all came easy to me, all the rope work. And I had a guy just say, hey, you know. I was really strong. I was pumping iron in a gym, you know?
SN: Can you give us a date?
DM: It was like in 1983 when I ran into a guy who was a climber and I was working on a project and he asked me if I'd ever rock climbed. And I said no. I said, but I had tree climbed and, you know, I climbed things. And he's like, “You want to go rock climbing?” And he took me rock climbing.
SN: In Colorado?
DM: No, in San Diego. So that's where I first went climbing. The first place, I remember the climb, I went was to Mission Gorge in San Diego and he took me up this route called the Ramp and the Empathy. And one was 5.7, one was 5.9. And I remember doing it with my New Balance tennis shoes or something. And he goes, "Well, we'll get you some shoes. "
SN: And that was around 1983?
DM: That was the beginning of '83, yeah. And then I just went and got ‘biners[1] and shoes that night and then I was off.
SN: You were hooked.
DM: I was hooked.
SN: So how did you get from there to Joshua Tree?
DM: Well the people that I met, they climbed in Joshua Tree and in Idyllwild and Yosemite and Tuolumne so they took me and went, “oh, we’ll go here.” So the guy that brought me to Joshua Tree actually was a pretty good climber. And his name was Eddie Bebout. You know, there was a couple of them. But I remember him particularly. He was a PhD in physiology at UCSD at the time. Very fit man, and he took me climbing and I mean just like that I was climbing 5.10, 5.11. I mean, the third climb I ever did in Joshua Tree was The Left Ski Track. The first day I was ever there.
SN: Can you say what year that was?
DM: That was 1983. Right there. I mean, literally from buying shoes to here to here; the guy gave me some gear and I went there the first time, and I did Double Cross, Dogleg, and Left Ski Track my first day in Joshua Tree. So it wasn't really a big deal.
SN: What was it about the sport that you found so inviting?
DM: Well, you know, I'd always been kind of a… I guess I had some issues as a young man with drugs and alcohol, and it seemed to me really cool that I could scare myself. But you have to hold it together and play this little game versus a pure adrenaline sport. I was really into pumping iron back then with a guy going to the gym and doing that, just to do something to keep myself from going wacky. But yeah, it was really cool because I got to scare myself. My physical fitness helped me. It just fit me and I'd already climbed trees, so the heights and the rigging and the rope work was like elementary to me. I had worked with cranes and rigging big things. And so it was pretty simple. It was just the movement, you know. So it attracted me to scare myself like that. But yet that was attractive. I don't know how to say it. You know what I mean by that? So that attracted me to it.
And the people I met were all fit and all motivated. So I was like, “Oh I want to be around these people.” So it kind of pulled me in like that, too.
SN: Were they all around the same age as you?
DM: They were all around the same age as me.[2] And that's what I noticed, when I got into climbing here, that even when I came here, the best climbers that were in the world at that time, John Bachar was the same age as me. So I was like, oh, I could relate to these people because they're my age. You know what I mean, in a way, they were, you know, years ahead of me in climbing, but they weren't like these old guys that were talking down to me. You know what I mean by that? There are some older climbers that I admire, but all the great climbers in my day were the same age as me. So I thought, well, I could do that. It felt feasible.
SN: So it sounds like at that point, Joshua Tree was one of many locations that you were climbing in.
DM: Yes. Oh yeah, well you went to Tuolumne and you know, Idyllwild obviously… climbed a lot there. More there than here to begin with.
SN: Is that right?
DM: Yeah. Yeah. Because it was bigger. It was different, you know.
SN: Can you tell us a little bit about how and why you went to Joshua Tree among this group of places that you were going? Was there anything particular about the climbing here?
DM: Nope. The guys that I were with told me, “That's where we're going.” And they had already, like, taken me and kind of played with me down there and at Idyllwild. So you go here and it was pretty quick I was here. And then once I came here, I remember leaving--I remember that day driving out with my friends--and I said, "I'm going to move here and become a professional rock climber." And they said, "You should smoke another joint." Five years later, I was making a living on rock climbing.
SN: So that was 1988?
DM: 1988 I moved here. I quit my job and became a rock climbing guide. I was a guide for 30 years.
SN: So there was a point at which Joshua Tree became not just one of many places, it became the place.
DM: Well, because it's feasible to come here. And well, I guess at the time, too, my wife got a job teaching at the high school so we could move from San Diego to here. And I had some money put away. We bought a couple houses. It just all worked out. And Josh was a place I really liked because it was hard stuff, short stuff. I could play around and learn all aspects of climbing, you know, without having to go hike forever. It’s easy access.
SN: Right, the approaches are…
DM: Yes. You can learn so much here. Because it's easy.
SN: So tell us a little bit about the, I guess that would be the 80s. (‘83.) Tell us a little bit about what climbing was like here in the 80s: what kind of equipment you used, how many routes there were, how many people there were, things like that. Can you give us a sense of what the scene was here in the 80s?
DM: There was a lot of climbers here—Hidden Valley was all climbers. You know, they camped there full time because you didn’t have a 14 day limit. So you could stay there and you know, there’s guys selling chalk bags and Metolius cams. And the Tuckers were re-sole-ing climbing shoes right out of the campground. So there was this a little culture thing that was, you know, there's a lot of partying, too, obviously. But yeah, there was like a little world here, you know, where that's where the climbers were and they were hanging out.
SN: How long did they usually stay?
DM: They would stay seasons. You know, I mean, I've stayed three months in the back of my truck and nobody said nothing to me, you know, because they weren't doing that back then. They weren't going around and charging for a campsite. So, yeah, there were a lot of people and then everybody got to know everybody. And hey, this guy's going to here to work on this route and this route next to that route. And you know, me, at first, I just wanted to do all the routes in the book. I had some fantasy that I would do that, do all the routes in this book. And then obviously, you're gonna run into things that’s not in the book. But yeah, I had a thing like, that's how I am, though.
And then guys that I climbed with told me I had to do certain things as part of a—not initiations. The word I'm looking for…you have to do these things just to be this. Like you had to do these climbs, in other words, to be like in their little fold. I mean, if you could do that, that, that, and that, those are the best seven 5.11 cracks in the park or you know, there was all like this little—I don't want to use the word--"dick measuring" thing but…
SN: It makes me think a little bit about karate—how you have a yellow belt and orange belt and a black belt—that you have certain grades of expertise.
DM: Yeah.
SN: But it wasn't that codified.
DM: No. And then, you know, there was all the challenging of this and that. But I met a lot of good people. I was very fortunate, I think, to meet Mike Paul, you know, and Bob Gaines and you know, I did meet Mike and Mari[3] but never became friends with him—and good people. Randy Leavitt, the Lindners, Chris Lindner. I met good people that were really there. But as I started to climb more, I'd see this animosity with these groups. These guys don't like these guys because of this. So this guy's chipping holds. Or that guy. You know, you hear these little things going on.
SN: So even that long ago there was conflict within the climbing community?
DM: Oh, yeah, for sure.
SN: Would they call themselves the climbing community?
DM: Well, there were the Stonemasters that were way before me. Right. And then they kind of dwindled away a little bit. But there's still a hub of them. But there's a lot of climbers out there that if you look in the guidebook, there's a lot of people that put up routes. It isn't just seven people, you know, but sometimes there are little cliques that--you're not in their clique, so you're not in the clique. But it's all right, you know, you're just not in their clique. And every now and then you might do something.
SN: Was the 80s the main time when people were putting up new routes? Was it like the heyday or the golden age out here? Or would you say that came earlier?
DM: I told Bernadette when I moved here, I bought the green or the pink guidebook. I think it was published in '83. And the people I knew told me that the park was climbed out. In other words, "This is the book and there's no more routes here, Dave." And I went, "OK, I believe that,” because I don't have vision to even look at a route, because I'm too immature about that. OK. There's no more routes here. So again, all the routes are in this book. Until all of a sudden you start climbing with people and they're putting up routes. "Well, Dave, what about this? Let's go here." And next thing you know, you start putting up routes because there's more routes to do and there's more routes in the park right now. And this is a fact. There are more routes since 1983 till today than there were in that book to begin with. So when they tell me it was climbed out, I always had this theory they were telling me that so we wouldn't do anything. You know, “You're not going to exclude me.”
SN: Could it also be that the technology made things possible later that weren't possible before?
DM: Well it isn’t technology it was ethics. Technology really didn't get any better.
SN: Could you talk just a little more about that?
DM: Well ethics were, you know, in the beginning. Again, you'll talk to John and people prior to me. You know, these guys were putting up routes standing, just standing and drilling a bolt. You weren't allowed to hold on with anything. And then I think Solid Gold and Figures on the Landscape. This is before my time.
What I know is then they could hang on hooks and they could drill bolts like that. So harder routes started going up and different kind of climbing. So all of that started changing and then people started dropping their ethics and going, "Well, I can do it this way now." And then people like Scott Cosgrove just said, "I'm just going to rap-bolt them. I don't even care anymore." So the ethics just went away completely. And this is why—I'm sure you'll hear—he got a lot of flak because he started rap-bolting routes. And you couldn't do that. I mean, I never did it. Nobody ever did it that I knew. I couldn't believe it. But he just said, "I don’t care." And I was like, "OK." So I kind of liked him because he was kind of a rebel. You know, it's like, "Really, you're gonna do that? They're going to beat you up.”
But he was such a good climber that he could change the ethics because there wasn't anything in the park for him to climb anymore because he had climbed harder than anything in the park. So he kind of made the world. He's the guy that should be sitting here today. But he's dead.
Yeah, but he changed the world. No doubt. 1988. I think that when he first started… trying to think of the first route… the first hard route was Father Figure, and he actually did that on the lead. Just to show them that he could. He just did that to show them that he could. And then after that, he just started doing what he wanted to do. He'd rapp down, he’d put two bolts—ch ch ch—and just do what he did and go do another route. And I was just like, "Wow, that's pretty amazing," because I think ethics are kind of crippling. You know what I mean? Because I can't do this because I can't do that.
Where he’d just say, “Why don’t you do what you want? What do you care?” Ethically, that's kind of unsound, right? So I was like, “That's kind of like that.” And then nobody beat him up. So that's why that’s who I started climbing with in ‘88 all the time was Scott Cosgrove, and he's the guy that did everything in the park. I couldn't climb anything he’d put up, but it was just fun to be there and to watch it happen. You know, in a way I felt kind of cool, like, "Hey, you guys can't climb these routes anyway, so just go away."
SN: Are there any particular routes that come to mind in that regard?
DM: Father Figure… I mean, Father Figure he did but the route that I worked with him on was the Desert Shield. And a guy tried to bolt it, put one bolt on it. And I knew the guy. And we went over there and Scott just looked at it and he just rapped down and put two bolts, worked it, ticked it, bolted it up, led it and was done. I was like, "That would've taken me two months." Because his ethics—he didn’t care, he's like, "Just do it." You know, that was a different way of looking at it, and I still never wrapped around it even after I climbed with him until… twenty years ago, maybe, because it didn't do anything for me. But that's ethics in the park. You'll hear that from everybody.
SN: I'm thinking, as you're talking, about exactly what that ethic is.
DM: The ethic is you do a ground-up, you don't preview. This is what real rock climbers do.
SN: Right. This, I think, is coming from a sort of a wilderness approach where you don’t have that option. You have to start at the bottom.
DM: But even here where you had the option, they wouldn't let you do it. In other words, if you did it, which is called a Grit-stone style, that means you rap down the route, you look at the features and then you lead it from the ground up. I don't agree with that either, because there are things in the park that were done that way, and I go, “how do I know that hold’s coming?” Where you do.
So I saw ethics kind of doing that, too. That was a Grit-stone ethic. Scott was rappelling. You know, we were hanging on hooks, you know, and as I told Bernadette once, you know, [speaks aside to BR] you can do a lot in climbing if you hang out a hook and you totally de-pump and then you go a long way to the next bolt drill, which makes it a run-out route. It makes you look like this [gestures strong pose]. But the reality is, as you're shaking that out and the guy who comes up to do that route--he doesn't get that opportunity. So I always thought that was unfair. But the guys that were doing that, they were doing that. And I go, "Well, yeah, but you're kind of cheating in a way." They didn't like that. Scott Cosgrove never did that. He put a bolt here and another bolt pretty close to it. He goes, “I could go farther because I'm stronger, but that's gonna make a run out and I'm cheating cause I'm working it.” So there’s a lot of ethics that are kind of--
SN: It’s pretty subtle, isn't it? Everyone can kind of have their own.
DM: You can keep tweaking it. And I know because I put slings in trees and climbed up and not had a bolt. People think I stood there and drove that bolt. I go, “No, I had a sling in a tree and if I fell, I was just falling in the air.”
But you didn't know that. So all those things get tweaked a little bit. Yeah. Those are the hidden little stories.
SN: Yeah. So the 80s, it sounds like, was kind of a time when there was a lot of new work, new routes being done, but in a variety of ways.
DM: Yes. The ethics were going away a little. And by ‘90 they were gone. They were gone.
SN: I asked you this before, but are there any other routes that come to mind when you think about the 1980s, or people, extraordinary things that happened during that time period?
DM: I think it was ’89, Rots of Rock got chopped. It was a mixed route that Scott Cosgrove bolted it as one of his first four routes. And I remember that. And then it got chopped and he never went back to fix it up. I remember that because we just fixed the route up recently. I remember that one. You know, I'm trying to think of other routes, but you know that the one reason I know Father Figure is Scott was Scott. And he was doing his thing and he was an amazing climber. I mean, I don't know. I put up some routes that year.
SN: OK. Tell us what you did.
DM: Well, in 1989 I put up the longest, hardest route in the park. It was 12c called Some Like It Hot. And then right next to that we did The Scorpion that was 13c and right next to that we did The Tarantula that was two pitches of 12c. And those were the hardest multi-pitch routes in the park in 1989. And I did them all ground up style.
SN: You made that choice.
DM: I made that choice because that's what I was taught to do and I still held on to that even though, and I’ve told Bernadette this story, that Scott Cosgrove used to walk over there all the time and look up at me and go, "When are you gonna finish that route so I can come in and flash it?" But I would sit there hanging on the hooks and doing all this hard man stuff, “Ra, ra, ra, ra, ra.” You know, because that's what you did.
SN: So how long did it take you to set those routes?
DM: I spent four years on that wall.
SN: Wow.
DM: Really workin’ things, yeah.
SN: Why did it take that long?
DM: Well, because you're drilling them on the lead. Sometimes you go up and—the second pitch of Some Like It Hot, it took me five days to drill one bolt because of ethics. Where Scott would just rap down and went—[makes drilling noises] we’re done, 30 seconds. So that thing just kind of holds you back a little bit for me. I saw that, but I still kept doing it.
SN: It seems to me like those stories about those routes need to be documented because there's such a big difference between the way they were put in.
DM: Well mine were put in the way they were. Scott Cosgrove is the one that did it differently. He's the one who said, “No, I'm just gonna rappel ‘em in”, you know, and but we were still doing all this dumb stuff, you know?
SN: But it’s not-
DM: Well, I mean, I'm sorry. That’s bad. [Laughs] Yeah, I didn't mean that.
SN: No, I know what you meant. I know you meant. But it speaks to this complexity, these different eras.
DM: I'll always remember that. I always remember routes I put up on the lead because you remember there, you remember every piece of pro, you remember everything. But I can't remember things that I just went like this with. But Scott, like I said, he's kind of the hero of Josh. But there are a lot of people that didn't like him, obviously.
SN: Were there other people in the park who were committed to putting routes in from the ground up like you were?
DM: Oh, yeah. I mean, Paul Borne, David Griffith, Mike Lechlinski, Mari I mean, all of those people, Tom Gilje, everyone you can name on that list [indicates list of possible interviewees]. Ground-up. Ground-up. Ground-up. Every one of them- except for Scott Cosgrove. So that's the guy, like I said, he's the guy, because he changed the world. And now I don't know how routes go in in the park. You know, you could do them however you want.
SN: So how were they at that time maintained? Was there any need to maintain them? Was anything wearing out at that point?
DM: No, because they hadn’t been up long enough. Now, that's your future.
SN: Exactly. Looking at that bigger picture and history of the park, the 80s were a time when that just wasn't something you had to worry about, right?
DM: It wasn't. But I when I came here, I had a bolt pull on a friend of mine, Alan Bartlett, on the Astro Domes, and he almost died. I was belaying him and when this bolt pulled out, he almost died right next to me and I had to carry him out. In fact, he had to have surgery, ripped his tendon on his hand. And that day, I went, “Nobody's fixin’ the bolts.” That was 1988. You know, I came here and he pulled that bolt and I went, “Nobody's fixing these bolts.”
SN: So you saw it.
DM: Oh, I saw it happen in front of me.
SN: You saw it in the future as something that was going to be more and more...
DM: And because it happened to me, I think that close to me, my friend doing that. I was like, “Oh, sh**.” So I just went on a binge because I was kind of a maniac. And I replaced over a thousand bolts in the park by myself. I just went crazy because I thought, well, I got nothing else to do, you know. That's why, again, I hate to talk like this, but when these people tell me they're climbers, I'm like, “Dude, you had a job for 30 years. I climbed for 30 years, but yet you climbed more than me.”I spent my whole life in the park just going out and replacing bolts. It was just something you did because I got to do a lot of climbing, too. I didn't just go do this. I went climbing and replaced bolts while I was there. I tried to always do something while I was doing something instead of just: I'm just gonna do this.
SN: So those bolts that you were replacing in the 80s, you have any idea when they were put in?
DM: The 70s.
SN: Just 10 years?
DM: Yeah, but they're a different kind of bolt. They're a compression bolt. They're not an expansion bolt. So different style.
SN: So does that mean they would pull out more easily?
DM: That means they're, to me, more susceptible to come out. Yes.
SN: There were no bolts prior to the 70s?
DM: I think there's bolts back as what? [looks at BR] Isn’t there a bolt from ‘46 on the X… boulder or X-Factor thing out there?
BR: Not that I know of.
DM: And that crack. Wasn't there an old bolt there or something? BR: There’s a bolt from that crack.
DM: OK. There's something. There's some old bolts in the park that are really old, but different kind of bolt. They're only little, like this big, an inch and a half, an inch, just as thick as a pencil. You know, just pounded in the rock and they're not really that good. So expansion bolts came into vogue and that's when we started doing that. So all the bolts I replaced were just compression bolts. There weren't any expansion bolts yet.
SN: The life of a compression bolt is about 10 years?
DM: The life of it could be five minutes if the guy put it in wrong.
SN: [laughing] That’s true.
DM: You could put it in and it could just fall out if it's bad rock, which is what we find today. The future is that. But, yeah, I just started doing that. You know, just because it was not really hard to me at the time. I’m pretty manic and pretty wired. So I'd get up at four and just do my thing. Plus, I tell people today, I give back to the park because it gave me a living for 30 years. You know, I was able to make money up there. So also, I would replace bolts too, because they could affect me as a guide. The bolts are bad here; we gotta rappel the climb. You know what I mean--and Kevin Powell started fixing them up. Bob Gaines, slowly, we just started. And now I think we're, what, over two thousand? We're over two thousand.
SN: So tell me about bouldering. Was there any bouldering in the park at that point?
DM: Oh, sure. Yeah. Yeah. Bouldering. Well, bouldering for some guys was Spider Line and Bikini Whale. [Laughs]
But, no, there was a lot of bouldering. I wasn't a big boulderer. I did, but there was no path back then either. But yeah, there were all kinds of people bouldering and you know that's the challenging thing. Because we can go out right here; you try it, I try it, versus on a climb or on a rope. It's different. So, yeah, there's more.
SN: So it was there.
DM: Oh yeah. All the time. Not like it is now, obviously.
SN: But it was still a presence in the park at that point. Did it have the same kind of guidebook representation as what was going on with the routes that you were climbing on?
DM: Mari’s book, I don't know when Mari published hers, Mari Gingery published the guide--a bouldering book--but maybe it was like 1989. I don't know that one.
SN: Were there more people, do you think, that were doing both bouldering and rope climbing at that point than now?
DM: Definitely more people bouldering now.
SN: It seems like, my thought was that these days there are a lot of people who only boulder.
DM: Exactly. We didn't do that. No. You bouldered because say you did two routes and you go, “Oh let’s boulder and finish the day out. Or we’ll go over here.” It wasn't like bouldering was your life. It was a means to like, “I'm going to get stronger, I'm going to do this so I can go do something.” You know, where boulderers now, they don't do anything. They just boulder. But that's cool, because that's their thing. I can't squish it, but I'm like, “Really?”
SN: But it fed into the rope climbing.
DM: Oh, yeah. It makes you strong. It makes you really strong and makes you be able to figure out cruxes in your mind. It's like a chess game all the time. So when you get on a climb, “Oh it’s like that boulder problem!” is what people always say. “Oh yeah, it's kind of like that boulder problem.” You know so you just do moves. Yeah.
SN: The other thing that's a major topic for the study is the relationship between climbing and Search and Rescue. So I just want to be sure I asked you about that back in the 80s. Were there important things happening with climbing that influenced the development of Search and Rescue practices or was it not really involved with that at that point? Did that come later?
DM: I can only remember one time when I tried to rescue somebody or tried to do something for a ranger. I can't remember his name. I want to say Kieber. That accident on Intersection Rock. I never really had that much to do with Search and Rescue or anything like that, but my experience was this: I can help you right now, but you can't get involved with that because you're not part of that. And I had to understand that at the time and was kind of like, “Really?” But, you know, I mean, kudos to them. I mean, I don't want to do it.
SN: Well, that kind of brings up the other topic that we haven't covered yet for that period, what was the relationship between climbers and rangers? Was there much interaction? A lot of interaction? I mean, I’m assuming the rangers in the park at that point really weren’t climbers.
DM: [Laughs] No, actually, one was.
BR: You mean Todd Swain.
DM: Yeah. I mean, I did a lot of climbing at one time with Todd Swain. So he's another one. He's on your list or he should be. He's local and a pretty rational guy.
SN: And he was a ranger in the 80s?
DM: Yeah. I remember I'd go climbing with him.
SN: And so you were climbing with him. That suggests that you had a good relationship.
DM: I had a great rapport with him. The only thing was that one day; I didn't have a bad rapport with the ranger, but I wanted to help. That's the only thing I remember that you brought up. But otherwise, you know, I never had really a problem with Rangers.
SN: Well, my experience in Yosemite is that there are a lot of tensions, or have been over the years, between the park personnel and climbers. There's really a culture of a kind of rebellious, obnoxious, dirtbag climber that, in a sense, needed the ranger order population to make itself as rebellious, obnoxious, radical as it wanted to see itself being. People on both sides are kind of hesitant to get into the details of that for obvious reasons, but it was there, and everybody acknowledges that it was there, certainly in previous decades. In the present area, there's been a lot of effort made on both sides to bridge that divide, and it's been largely successful, particularly in the last 10 years. Does the history of Joshua Tree parallel that, would you say, a similar kind of thing or is it different here?
DM: You know, it's funny because I climbed here so much and then I, when I moved here, I never really stayed in the park because I bought a house. So I wasn't one of those guys that lived in the park all the time. There was five years I did, but I never had a problem. I said I knew Todd intimately, you know, Todd and me climbed and we put up routes and, you know, was a friend too. And again, you know, I could always relate to these people because they're all my age. You know, there wasn't this world of this different thing. I don't remember any problems. I remember years ago, I actually think in the 80s that there were more rock climbers in here than anybody. There were no tourists. I'm not saying there weren't tourists, but they were rock climbers. Now, I'd love to sit at the gate one day and just count the cars. And how many people I think are climbers in those cars. And I bet it's one out of a hundred.
SN: You think so?
DM: I bet you. Because I see it, you know. You know, it's not climbers like people think.
SN: Who are the other 99?
DM: They’re tourists, you know, they're coming here to do “the windshield experience,” I call it. I call it the windshield experience.“I saw Joshua Tree”, I’m like, “Did you get out?” “Well…” I’m like, “Well, that was the windshield experience! Did you get out at Cap Rock?”“Went to Cap, went to Barker, went over here and got out to Twenty-Nine the same day. I saw the park.” That's great. Yeah, but I think there was more climbers then. And I think the Rangers were different. There's a different dynamics, you know. And nowadays, I mean, we also know it's all about money. I mean, climbers ain't bringing no money here. They're not. It's the Air BnBs, it's the people vacationing, it's not climbers. I'm glad you're doing this thing in a way, because Joshua Tree is a very pivotal thing in climbing. But it's not climbers here that are really making the mess. Or, the crowds, I should say.
SN: Well, what you're saying now brings up a big difference between Joshua Tree and Yosemite, and that is the presence of people living right by the park. And that people who want to spend more time in the park have that option, because that isn't something that people in Yosemite, who want to be in Yosemite all the time, that isn't an option for them. And the fact that you could come here and start a business here and make it work, not make millions, but you make it work, allows you in a way to develop a different relationship with the Rangers and the park personnel. That you don't have to break the law to spend the time you want to in the park. And that may have contributed over the years to a very different kind of dynamic, in terms of the Park Service and the climbing community here.
DM: I'd like to know the numbers on climbing. You know, I mean, I don't really believe there's that many more climbers than I saw in 1992.
SN: No kidding. Wow.
DM: Because I know because I go to routes and I see how many people are lined up for the route. You know, like I tell people that talk about climbing, “Yeah but are you out there every day? Do you see it? Do you see what's going on?” You know, there's not people bolting sporting routes, setting ropes up on this, there's not all this stuff happening and things happening. No, it's not like that.
SN: So in the 90s—we should forward to then—You were still guiding through the 90s?
DM: All the way through.
SN: And out there every day. And you go to, say to some of the more popular routes. How many people would be out there climbing them?
DM: If I went on a Saturday to “Illusion Dweller,” one our most popular routes, there could be four parties waiting. You know, and I'm like, really? But there were. Because I’d have to do Desert Song. Now you go over there, there might be one. You know, I'm not saying climbers aren’t out there. I'm just saying that I don't see that. And one of the reasons that's going to happen in your future is that really good rock climbers don't want to come here because it doesn't look good on their resume. Joshua Tree is a very hard place to climb. So when you get these world-world-world class climbers, Joshua Tree’s not on their list.
SN: Why is Joshua Tree a hard place for them?
DM: Because the ratings are really hard and the kind of climbing is a very difficult kind of climbing versus sport climbing in Vegas or places like that where there's holds and the rock just adheres to that. Joshua Tree doesn't adhere to that. It's you know, if you know what sport climbing is, it's not a sport climbing destination because it's not any fun. It's not. It's just “Ehh.” You know, guys get on 5.14 here and “Eh, I don’t even wanna be on that”, where they'll go somewhere else and love it.
SN: It's because of the rock.
DM: You’ll maybe understand when I'm saying the rock doesn't adhere itself to sport climbing. It doesn't allow big holes and bolts. That's what people want. That's what the Olympics is. That's what it's about. It's not about this other stuff.
SN: But this other stuff is actually harder.
DM: This other stuff is different. Not harder, but different. And once you apply yourself to that stuff, you can do it, but it's not something that a really good climber, I should say, why they don't come here.Every now and then one tramples through, the Sonnie Trotters. But they don't want to come here because the ratings are really hard. They'd rather go somewhere else and climb 14 plus and 5.15 because it looks good on your resume. You try to get money. As a sponsored climber, Josh is not on your list.I do meet the good climbers every now and they come in and there's a couple of us here that— like Jeremy,[4] this other kid that’s a phenom right now, but there's not that many that come here. You know, they don’t like it.
SN: But there are other, you know, perhaps less elite types of climbers that might come here in large numbers. It sounds like you're saying that they don't come.
DM: Well, they don't come in large numbers, but an elite climber would come here because he wants to do Acid Crack or Stingray or something like that, which isn’t something he’s gonna put on his resume. He just has a thing he wants to do. It doesn't mean there's not a lot of climbers coming, I just don’t think there's as many as we think. That’s what I think. And I'm out there—and she knows them [looks at BR]—I go out there sometimes, I don’t do anything, just look around. And the parking lot’s full, just not full of climbers.
SN: Well, tell us about the 90s. I focused on the 80s. How did the 1990s in the park, the climbing scene, how does that differ from the 1980s? Or does it at all?
DM: Well obviously the dinosaurs went away. You know what I mean, people go away. And then the ethics change. “Right now, you're not doing it my way so I don't like what you're doing.” You see what I mean by that?
SN: Yes.
DM: So it changes until, like for me or some people I was with, “I don't care. Just do what I do.” Yeah. And the other thing is what happened is sport climbing came into vogue.
SN: When did that happen?
DM: I wanna say 1991 is where it started to really go. But sport climbing’s been around since 1986. But not like—
SN: What happened in ‘86?
DM: Well no, sport climbing has been around since 1986. I think Smith Rocks is one of the first sport climbing areas that was developed actually as the first 5:14 Scarface. I think in 1986 by Scott Franklin.[5] So I do know my history because I study it because I want to know what's going on. So Joshua Tree just did this little thing with Scott Cosgrove starting to put up sport routes. There's no sport routes here. He's putting up these sport routes.
So that's what attracted me. And then obviously, you know, guys like me and some other guys started putting up sport routes, too. And Bob Gaines. So all of a sudden there's a different energy. Now we're putting up sport routes because all of the trad lines are already done. You know, there's a crack system over here. Somebody’s done it. And if they haven't done it, they're gonna tell you they did it so you don't do it. But that's what happened, sport climbing. [Liftoff noises] And then I mean, I gotta say, and I think that's a Sylvester Stallone movie, that one movie that just went boom. What was that one with the—
BR: Cliffhanger?
DM: Cliffhanger! When that movie came out—because Bob[6] worked on that, Dave Schultz worked on it. That just- climbing went [liftoff noise]. Everybody was climbing because of Cliffhanger.
SN: When did that come out?
DM: I want to say 1991- but you’ll have to do some history.[7] Right around there. I remember that because Bob worked on it for six months and a couple other people I know worked on it, and then all of a sudden climbing went [liftoff noise]. Because as a guide I started to notice this, you know, there's a lot of people. And some of them were climbers already. So you started to see that. You know, where, in a basic class, I might have people that know nothing. Now I'm getting people that are climbing 5.11 as soon as they get to me because they’ve been going to gyms now, the gyms started.
SN: In the 1990s?
DM: The first gym was in Costa Mesa. Jeff Klapp. First gym in the country, I think. Yep. I went there with Scott Cosgrove, I remember; they wanted to watch him fall, you know. But yeah, that started it right there. The gyms, you know, and movies. And now, look, you can't watch TV without seeing a rock climbing thing.
SN: So what happened to the park as a result? Can you describe how the scene changed?
DM: Again, I think for me, a lot of the lot of climbers that I knew about, they all left. The Randy Leavitts left, and they went to other places like Charleston and Vegas and started putting up 5.14 sport routes and more doing that. They were done with Josh. I can see where you get tired of it for sure.
SN: So the people that came to you after that were largely sport climbers. And they wanted to do that kind of climbing?
DM: Yes. Well, they wanted to learn trad too. But sport climbing is now how you kind of got them, you know, the gym got ‘em, the movie got' em, the sport climber got' em, you know, Smith Rocks. I mean, that's a historical thing up there. I mean, that's where I think it all started. Really condensed sport climbing in Vegas. Yeah. 1986.
SN: So did you have to adapt your guiding significantly to keep those people coming back?
DM: Well, for me, I was fortunate enough to have a clientele. And I did just one-on-one guiding a lot of times. So I got to branch away from the school and I was just doing that for the schools. So I got to take clients climbing. And I had a really good clientele. But yeah, I mean, working, I'd work 200 days a year guiding. I could work 29 days in a month. Just keeping “Bobby” company, work another day. It was just nonstop.
SN: Can you talk a little bit about your clients?
DM: Oh, I had all kinds. I had people that would get out of the car in their muumuu and tell me they wanna—or I get people that climb harder than me. I had several clients that climb harder than me.
SN: Were they mostly from Los Angeles?
DM: One was from Oregon... Most of my clients in general were from L.A., San Francisco, San Diego. Yeah. But every now and then, I’d get these clients that’d come in that climb pretty good. But yeah, I had clients out of San Diego. I had one guy, sixty-seven times I guided. Another guy a hundred and fourteen times, the same client. So you get these clients that would just come out and come out and come out. You’d get those and then you'd get your corporate team building, I did like 14 commercials being riggin’ on them and a couple little models—And you’d be just piecemealing your life together. Between rigging, guiding, military jobs, Navy SEAL jobs, I made a living for almost 30 years.
SN: Sounds like a pretty wide variety of kinds of work happening.
DM: Yeah, you would do everything for like, “What am I doing today?” You know, I got to go do this. But I was lucky again; I'm very fortunate to have a friend like Bob Gaines. I started putting up routes with him and he looked at me one day, “You wanna be a guide?” And then next thing you know, I'm working for him. And John Bachar and John Long had just quit. So I kind of moved up real fast with Scott Cosgrove and everything in my climbing career, to be honest with you, was almost luck. I just fell into the right people. Just happened to be around those guys. John Baer, and I just happened to; I didn't plan it.
SN: So when you were putting up routes in at this time period, they were sport routes.
DM: Mostly sport climbs, yeah.
SN: And did you change your ethics for that? Or were you still doing ground-up?
DM: I still did ‘em ground-up. Yeah, only because it just made sense, you know, for me and my little mind.
But then in my latter career, I'd say, yeah, I got three rapp routes in the park; three routes that I rappelled. It's not that I'm not proud of them, but, you know, I liked it.
SN: So the sport climbing didn't have that big of an impact on the way you--?
DM: To be honest with you, I didn't even like sport climbing.
SN: Why not?
DM: Because it was something I wasn't that good at. And you never like what you're not good at. You know, I was more of a trad climber where I could scare myself really good and you couldn’t. But sport climbing is a physical event where you have to train. And to me, I didn't really like training. So it wasn't something I really sought out.
SN: So you have to train like in the gym or--?
DM: Well you have to train for, you know, you've got to do laps on climbs. You've got to be doing bouldering. To be a good sport climber, you have to train. To be a good trad climber, you just need scary stuff, you know, and to be able to hold on to your brains a little bit. And plus, that's what brought me into climbing. It wasn't the physical thing. It was this mental game I could play. I could scare myself. You know what I mean, like I told you earlier?
SN: So it seems like the people who would have come to you in the later years—in the 1990s and 2000s or so—they would have been more technical people, people who liked that aspect.
DM: They did. The sport climbing usually got them in the game. And then they go, "Well, I want to do something on Tahquitz.” And I go “Well, then you gotta learn how to how to put gear in.” You see, because there’s a means. They go, “I wanna do this.” I go, "That’s it. That's all you're gonna do."
SN: Were they mostly men at that point that came to you? Did the clientele ever diversify beyond that?
DM: I'd say mostly men, but I did have some women. I had a couple of women that were actually pretty good climbers that would just hire me when they came into town to do certain things.
SN: And were they mostly, say, 30s--?
DM: Probably 30s, 40s, professional women that had money. And the men were the same. "Hey, I'll be in a town. I got a convention in Palm Springs there. I'm from New York. I'll be there for two days."
SN: So it was sort of upper middle class ---
DM: It's kind of just reserving a partner to play with.Like one guy I had, he said he goes, “You're just fun.” He goes, “I’m not gonna get hurt, my wife thinks it's great.” So you know, it’s all like fun, for them.
SN: We're a long way from the dirtbag model.
DM: Oh, yeah. I never was a dirtbag. I tell people that all time. I never was a dirtbag. No, I moved here. I had money, I bought two houses. I became a guide. I never had to be a dirtbag. Well, you were dirtbags. I didn't do that. I had money in the bank. And, you know, I wasn't poor.
SN: Would you say that Joshua Tree in general had less of that? You said there were people basically living out in Hidden Valley for long periods of time. Which seems to kind of go toward that dirtbag model. But maybe that's not right. Maybe they were actually not that similar to that.
DM: Well, you know, it depends what you call a dirtbag.We used to say a dirtbag is a guy who lives in his car that can rock climb. You know, a bum lives in his car and he can't rock climb. Some guys just live in their car, but they actually can't climb. But a true dirtbag, like, you know, John Yablonski or Sorenson or John Bachar, they're dirtbags, but they're the best climbers in the world. You know, because there's a lot of people that are dirtbags and think that gives them an identity as a climber, and I go, “No you're just a dirtbag without a job. That’s all you are.” You're not even a good climber.
SN: But a lot of the people that showed up at the routes, when you would say there were four people waiting to climb this climb, they wouldn't be living in their cars, they would be people who were coming—
DM: There'd be a mixture. But yeah, I mean, now you have people with money. I mean, everybody has got a sprinter van, a BMW. There’s not a lot of poor climbers out there, but we do see them. I mean, sure, Bernadette meets them out there. And there's some really good climbers nowadays, too. That I’d really like to see.
SN: Anything else about the 1990s?
DM: No, it just evolved like that. And I think what happened to Josh, to get back to that, I think what happened to Josh is the guys that were the motivating force here; they all left. Those are your Vino Kodos, those are your Randy Leavitts. You know, my brain's gone awry right now, but I can start naming ‘em. Those guys. They all left. "No, forget that place. We're gonna go move on and put up routes in other places", and "I'm tired of Joshua Tree.” And there is a lot of routes here, don't get me wrong.
I mean, I've only done like 3,300 routes, but there’s like, eight thousand. I think they left. Then, also in the 80s, too, there was a time, you know, again, before my time, there was a time when a lot of people were in the Needles and doing other things, too. As you'll get when you start to put all this together. But, yeah, the 90s were just more work, work, work, work, work. I don't know what else to say about that. It was a different energy than the 80s for sure, because all those guys were gone. You know that I would go, “Oh, where's you know, Lechlinski, where's Leavitt? You know, what do they do?” And they're not here anymore. They're gone. They left. They went away.
SN: Bernadette, did you want to ask anything at this point? I'm about to start talking about the present time I'm thinking, which to me is since 2000.
DM: Yeah, I know. When you're going 90s, I'm like, God. [Laughing]
SN: [laughs]. I’m showing my age here. [to BR] Is there anything you'd like to…?
BR: No particular questions now.
SN: Alright good. So let's talk about the present moment, which goes back 20 years. [laughs]
DM: Is that present? Wow, h*** sh**.
SN: Far as I'm concerned. [Laughs] But in more recent times, when you see the key events, if you were to look back, what are the high points? In the last, say, 20 years, that stand out to you with regard to climbing at Joshua Tree? Because I'm getting the sense that the 80s was really what, like where the climbers that—
DM: Yeah, there’s no doubt, for sure.
SN: If you were to think back about the last 20 years, are there any things that stand out about what happened in the park that was really important for climbing here, but maybe even for climbing more generally?
DM: The last 20 years, wow. I can't think of anything. The only thing that I've seen in the last 20 years is the damn boulderers.
SN: OK– [laughs]
DM: Did I say that? [laughs]
SN: OK, let's talk about safety. Let's change the subject now. Well, we were talking before about safety and bolting and stuff like that.
DM: Right.
SN: I'm thinking that probably in the last 20 years, the issues related to bolts wearing out and how to keep the climbing safe might have changed.
DM: We know about it now. We know how to fix it. It's just doing it, you know, and that's the same.
SN: Can you say more about that? We know about it and we know how to fix it. Just to get that on record.
DM: Well, we've known that about the bolts are this old. We can look at the years on the routes. We can almost tell what kind of bolt it is from the era. We know how to fix it. It's just getting in there to fix it. And then it’s also, probably the biggest hurdle is prioritizing which one first. Which route. It's like, “Oh, should we fix that one or that one or that one?” Because you're trying to fix routes that people do. Well, maybe other people do that one that you don't know. So there’s this thing, you know. It's an arduous task.
I mean, I have my personal opinion on things, but it's like I told somebody recently, that it's not about me. It's about what we want to do as a collective. I told a lady at the coffee the other day, I says, "If every climber that came to Joshua Tree one time replaced one bolt, we'd be done in one season." There, we're done. It's really simple. Fixed it. You know, that's all you have to do. But you got these head walls with the bolts. I mean, I want to fix things. I also have a process through the Park Service, you have to go through. Well, I'm not a real process guy. So that's going to be my stumbling block. But there are other people that do that. So I kind of work under them and let them do all the paperwork and the things I don't want to deal with.
SN: Oh, maybe we should get that on the record. The history of that paperwork. Back in the 80s and 90s, I assume there wasn't any paperwork involved.
DM: I never checked in to see, to be honest with you. You know, I did a lot of things that I just did and I did them pretty blatantly in a way sometimes. I mean, today I would not go do the things I did back then. There's no way.
SN: Can you give us an example?
DM: Well, I mean, I can’t go hang out on a hook with a power drill in Hidden Valley. Like I'm going to go to jail or something. You know what I mean, so you just got away with things because there wasn't anyone here. You know, I’d get up at 4:00 in the morning, and go start drilling bolts. But today, that's not something you can do. And now we have a process where we can do it.
SN: And that process has been in place since…?
BR: Since the management plan got written in the early 2000s.
SN: Trying to think, was it 2003 or 2006?
BR: Closer to 2003. Yes.
DM: But at least we have it. At least we're doing it. So I mean, I don’t know what the right thing or the wrong thing, I don’t know on that. The bolts, what do you want say, they need to be replaced. And you would think, you know, my one friend who is a world-traveling rock climber says that we should be embarrassed in America the way we leave our rock. He said, “You go over to Europe. It's not like that. They got people that maintain their routes and they got, you know, it's this thing.”
You know, where here, it's everyone do everything. And he goes, “We should want to fix our hardware up. So when a European climber comes here and he goes to do this world class route he's been looking at for five years from Europe, the bolts are good on it.” You know, he goes, “It's embarrassing. If that was in Europe, the bolts would be fixed. Everything is fixed.” We don't do that here. And because I think there's a liability issue. You know, in America we're all about suing. But you know what I mean, it’s like there's nobody maintaining. I can only maintain so much. I'm smart. I go back and replace my routes under their rules and then I get all new bolts on my routes. So I'm like re-making my routes all nice.
SN: I wonder if we can find out more about what the Europeans actually do, how they have that organized, where the money comes from.
DM: Well they have people. They're stewards of the rock. I mean, this guy is gonna get paid to fix things and to make sure things are right. But you couldn't do that here. You know, I mean, you just couldn't do it, I don’t think.
SN: It made me think again about up in Yosemite. There's an organization, the Yosemite Conservancy. And part of that used to be an organization—it’s changed, they all combined—but it used to be called the Yosemite Foundation. And that was not a government organization. It was a private organization, but it was a non-profit, and the whole point of it was to take on bigger projects than the Park Service could afford.
So, like when they wanted to really do a good job of the visitor area at the base of the Yosemite Falls, and that was a multimillion dollar project, it was the foundation, actually, that raised the big money to partner with the Park Service to make that happen. And it has been a successful situation where there's been a private partnership, and anybody who wants to give money to the foundation can join the foundation. It’s not exclusive. But it's been a place where people with more resources who want to give back to the park and who have a sense of stewardship, an extraordinary sense of stewardship, can go, and they don't necessarily have to deal with the government. So it's been a good meeting grounds in a way.
DM: If I could just say, “I want to do this on my schedule with people I know”, on my schedule, I would go do things more. But it doesn't work like that. But I understand the process.
SN: But it seems like in the US, these kinds of intermediary organizations where it's not the government and it's not an individual like yourself, a well-meaning individual, but there's an organization that is a bridge between that is really needed.
DM: Well, we have Friends of Joshua Tree, would that be a bridge?
BR: Mm-mm [indicates yes].
DM: That would be our bridge. One of them.
SN: That’s the beginning. It seems to me that’s what’s happening with Friends of Joshua Tree. Is that it's beginning to form that kind of --
DM: Well, making awareness is always the first thing. And then you know, but I think unfortunately, there might have to be a bad accident for something to happen. You know what I mean? Usually that's what usually makes people change or do things. You know, someone needs to die because a bolt pulls out, but I don’t wish that on somebody.
SN: Any other thoughts about the recent history of the park?
DM: Well now guides all have to be employees, I think. Things are changing, the whole climate of being a guide or not, what we were. You know, we were climbers, you know, I mean, when I was a guide, I was guiding with Scott Cosgrove, John Bachar, John Long, Bob Gaines, Peter Croft. Like these are the best climbers in the world and they're guiding. Nowadays, there's no way a good climber would ever guide a day of his life because he would waste his—I mean, I always think about it today. I tell people all the time, “If I wasn’t spending 30 years taking you climbing, I might have been a pretty good climber. But I was too busy taking you climbing.”
And so you held yourself back in a way. But it was a way for us all to make money and go rock climbing. But nowadays, there's no guides that are good climbers. That whole era is gone. They don't--there aren't any of us anymore.
SN: So the really good climbers are sponsored.
DM: They're sponsored or they're out just doing their own thing and climbing on their own. They don't wanna guide. Jeremy's trying to guide, this one kid, who is a phenom here right now, I wonder how long it'll last. But, you know, if he didn't have to guide, he'd be a lot better climber. But yeah, that was a way we did it: to make money. Nowadays, it doesn't work like that. The whole climate is changed.
SN: Well there’s a larger population of climbers at the lower levels, right? Of ability.
DM: Well, as me and Bernadette were talking, there's a lot climbers out there right now that climb really hard, way harder than when I was a climber. Nowadays, there's climbers up there in the park, there's four climbers up there, and when I was up there, maybe there'd be one in a year I'd see. No, now there's like four of them, climbing 5.13 plus and you know, so there's a lot of good climbers out there. And it's one of the reasons I think some of the older climbers are a little surly because they [the younger climbers] got to be good climbers because they're smart, they worked out. They went to gyms, they you know, they did this thing where we beat ourselves into the ground and ethic and all the b***s***. It's like why? They're just coming up in two years and they're better than we were. So, I think they're smarter. I think there's some old climbers that don't like it.
SN: I mean, that sounds like it has a lot to do with changes in the training.
DM: Exactly. They train.
SN: In other words, there is training.
DM: Our training was rolling a joint. You know, it's a training. “Go boulder over there.” That's it. That's training. So they're different. You know, I like it because I was an athlete, too, in my life. So I like that athletic. Some of these guys, like they're maniacs where they’re doing push-ups or doing push-ups between sets. So I kind of like it.
SN: So in some ways, the level of ability is way better.
DM: Way better than we were.
And I think that old people sometimes are just like, well, if they would—Here's the one I hear: “If they would’ve had to do it our way…” Yeah, you're right. But they're smarter and they did it the right way. And their end product is right here. You're still stumbling right here.
SN: And you’re seeing more people on the harder routes.
DM: Yeah. And hard climbers, like, oh, my God, there’s a bunch of them. There's a bunch of them. It isn't like, oh, every now and then; no, there's a bunch of them, you know. So it's different.
SN: And they can't come out and live in the park for a season either, right? So they're having to come in for shorter periods of time.
DM: Yeah, 14 days, I think. But I don't think there’s that many travelling climbers anymore. I don't know, maybe two weeks in Josh is good enough when they want to go to Red Rocks. I mean there's so many areas to go climbing now. You've got to remember, when I started climbing, there wasn't the Gorge. There wasn’t all these. There was like, “Oh there’s Josh. And there's Idyllwild and Yosemite and Tuolumne.” And, you know, that's it. Now there's like, you know, you go up to Bishop and it's just a grid pattern. You know, you can just go climbing anywhere. You know, that wasn't there. So now you have all these people going there.
SN: So, Joshua Tree’s part of a much larger network of climbing now for these very, very skilled climbers.
DM: Yeah. I mean, it's got great climbs and it’s a different world. So many climbing areas. There’s Shut-eye Ridge—[to BR:] have you been there?
BR: Mm-mm [indicates yes].
DM: These places, like, I haven't even been there. Like they're just great climbing areas that have been developed by the guys that said, “I don’t wanna deal with Joshua Tree anymore.” You know, like Randy Leavitt. “I'm done. I don't want to deal with you guys and your ethics and your b***s***.” And he left and just started, well he put up the hardest route in the world. Right. Jambalaya. I mean, he couldn't do it, but he bolted it. But I mean, that's where he left.
SN: Where is that?
DM: That's in Vegas, you know, outside Vegas. But he was one of the best climbers in the world, Randy Leavitt. And he just said, “I don't want to climb here anymore. I don’t want to deal with your b***s***.”
SN: And he was talking about the other climbers; he wasn’t talking about the park.
DM: Well, he was talking about other climbers that… [To BR: ] Can I say that, about what he did?
BR: Sure.
DM: Well, you know, some guy did something in the park and then another guy came over and chopped all his holds off his climbs because he didn't like the way he was doing it.
SN: When did that happen?
DM: That happened in the 80s, I think it was. And like, OK, so what happened? And then I did the research on what happened. Like some guy's doing some things that I don't agree with, maybe gluing some holds and another guy doesn't like that. So he goes out, beats up the rock and chops all the holes and starts a fire and just desecrated the area. That’s what I saw in climbing. And I went, “Really?”
And so that guy, Randy Leavitt, I'll say his name because he just left because “I can't deal with that.” Where I would’ve just went back to the guy who did that and punched him in the head. You know what I mean? But there was that thing. You know, like, “Oh my God, why did you let him do that? You should just--” But they didn't.
And then people started gluing the holds and doing things. And you're like, “I don't glue holds, and I don't make holds.” You know, If something’s broken… But yeah, I don't agree with what either one of them did at that time. One guy's gluing holds in his little gym he's making in the park and the other guy chops his sh** because he doesn't agree with that. I agree with this guy more than this guy. But I wouldn't have done that to that guy. So you got to see that. I got to see people punched in the face because somebody did something to one of their climbs. And, you know, all that happening too.
SN: The word that comes to mind is “wild”. More of a wild time.
DM: Oh, yeah. There were people that you knew that if you did this, they were going to do that.
SN: And nowadays, you don’t see that kind of thing anymore.
DM: No, I don't see it anymore.
SN: The sport has really evolved.
DM: Yeah. People have evolved a little bit. I mean, I get upset about certain things. But the reality is that it's not really that bad.
SN: That’s very helpful. I'm just thinking in that regard, and we can kind of bring this to a close if you're feeling like—
DM: No, no, whatever you want.
SN: OK. I don’t want to make you sit here for endless periods of time. [DM Laughs]
But that kind of brings up this bigger-picture topic of what Joshua Tree brings to the rest of the world of climbing. You know, and thinking about it's always been a place, going back to the 80s anyway, where climbers have gone here.
DM: The 1970s really.
SN: Yeah, where this has been a space that relates to other spots. And that's still the same as there's more spots now. But it’s still is a place that they go among others. So what's bringing people to the park now since things have changed so much since the 80s? What is it about the park now that's attractive to this new kind of hard climber?
DM: Oh, OK. We're talking about climbers. Again, they don't come here very often. The really good climbers. They don't. The really good ones. They’re not going to come here.
SN: The best in the world, okay, we’ll put them to the side. But the ones who are coming here, what do you think--?
DM: I think it's—a lot of it's convenience because “I live in San Diego or L.A., and I can get here” --like it always has been. It's a convenient place.
Some people I know actually have bought houses out here, older climbers, and now they have a place to stay. But they still come here. I still climb here because I love to go do the really good climbs and the park’s a really pretty place to me. Still. You know why other people are coming here, other climbers, I…
SN: So are there routes here that they can only do here. I guess that's kind of what's behind the question is are there climbs here, like you had mentioned for the scenario of the European who waited for five years to do a particular climb. What is it about those climbs that’s drawing those people?
DM: You know, to be honest with you, some of it I think it might be the history of the route too, who did it. You know, oh, it’s a John Bachar route. I could see it. Not for me, but I could see where that might be. “Oh, yeah. He did Acid Crack in ’72, he led it with nuts.” You know, so there is that part of that, that I do meet sometimes. People, they like that. They want to look into it a little deeper about who did the route, how’d they do it, you know.
SN: That’s really the heritage.
DM: There is! There’s some of that that I do see in some people. Like “Oh, they did it in this style.” And then they go back and do it today. And, you know, and then, you know, kids have different styles.
SN: So as opposed to like, for example, oh, the Joshua Tree rock. “We want to climb that kind of rock.”
DM: Best friction in the world. [laughs] Right? I mean, best friction in the world. In other words, you can stand on something here that you could never stand on in Tuolumne… –nowhere. You’d be [makes slipping noises]. Here, you just go like that: One, two, it’s stayin’ an’ I don't believe it. So I think it's the best. That's why you have to learn how to use your feet here, because there's not all these crisp holds to grab onto. So, we call it in the climbing world, you have to have body English. You’re pawing, you're pressing, you’re pawing. You're not just rah, rah, rah, rah, rah. You're doing a dance. So it's more of a dancing kind of climbing than a powerful kind of climbing.
SN: Okay. Yeah. That was--I was kind of wondering if there are particular techniques that you can acquire here.
DM: I think that she [BR] would agree with what I just said. That's Josh, too, it's that funky… you know, it's that paw-y, press-y. You know, you're not on, you're not off. I don’t know if you know, you're not a climber so—
SN: A little bit.
DM: You can kind of understand what I’m saying.
SN: I do.
DM: Yeah. It's like that thing that vagueness and it's what’s cool about it. And good climbers come here and I watch them get their ass kicked. You know, because there's no holds, or they're not the holds they want. And they're like, “What is that?” And it's a different world.
SN: So in that regard, Joshua Tree has a special identity?
DM: I think so. That's what's special about Josh, you know, is there is that too.
SN: And it's always been there, that hasn’t changed with sport, with trad, with whatever kind of climbing. That's always been there.
DM: Yeah. And the history is important everywhere. I mean, you know, people ask me who my favorite climber is and it ain’t no-one from here. You know, history's important, you know, about why I climb. You know, I climb here because I'm here, but it ain’t my hero. You know out here. You know, my hero’s John Standard, you know, and he's a New York climber because he had ethics and he was he wasn't a dick and he wasn't all airy, he was just like this guy. You know, guys like him. And you study history…
SN: But he did come here.
DM: He lives here. Yeah, yeah. He's not a Josh climber. You know, he's old too. But he was a guy that taught me ethics and taught me something that I learned. The other guys taught me things, but it was always, like I said, I hate to say the word, it was always dick measuring. But he taught me ethics. And I like history because that's the guy. He is the guy, or John Bachar is the guy. Or Scott Cosgrove is the guy...
See you gotta study history, right? Yeah. I mean, that's why you're doing this.
SN: I'm definitely with you on that one.
DM: Yeah. I mean, history is what…
SN: Okay. Last question… unless you have more, but I think we've made it through our roster. So, looking forward, we talked about what the future holds. And obviously, there are going to be some challenges with regards to maintaining the bolts and making sure the climbs are in good shape for future climbers. But what do you think, if you could foresee a best case scenario for the park? For, you know, what it might look like in 30, 50 years with climbing. Any ideas about what that could be?
DM: My idea would be, if I could, I would disperse the climbers. You know what I mean? It's funny, the Wonderlands are a place where you're not really allowed to put up climbs. But if I could disperse people and do that, there wouldn't be as much of this impact here. That's just what I see, if you could. That many more people that go out. But that's not what the park wants, because then there's impact in the wilderness. So that's this conflict. But to me, I mean,
SN: from a climber’s perspective—
DM: For me, I walked out, you know, recently to some area and I saw a hundred routes to put up. But technically, it's not really that easy to put up routes there. You know, you gotta do this, you gotta hand-drill.... But I think if we could disperse people a little bit, and obviously fix up the bolts on all of it. Well I call it repo-ing what real estate that has bad gear and fixing it up. And instead of putting up two garbage-y routes, let's repo an old one that doesn't get done because it's got bad hardware and it's not set up right. That's my philosophy. Let's set up the routes. Good. And then they'll do those and not go drilling piles of garbage.
SN: And what kind of people would you like to see climbing those routes?
DM: Well, there's a lot of climbers nowadays that I climb with that would like to do certain routes. But because of the run outs or the bad bolts or there's no way—it’s like I'd like to do that, but it's just not really something that's on the list.
SN: Would you like to see a return of the ethics from the 70s or 60s?
DM: No, no. I think ethics are crippling. Like I told Charlie[8] one day, I said, “You have ethics because you think I care.” I go, “I don't care what you do or how you do it. I care what I do and how I do it.” But I think ethics, like for me, I learned ethics because I studied history and I talk to older climbers. This is what they did. This is OK. OK.
And that's why when I was doing things really right and ethical and I would get sh** from another climber, I’d go, “This is what I'm supposed to do.” “Well, you know, you're not doing it…” No. Like you, you're collecting all this information to get something, and ethics, I can only collect from what he did, he did, he did and what can I do? That's kind of what you are gonna be okay with, I guess. Now, I don't care if you're OK with my ethics.
SN: I guess behind my question is I’m wondering what kind of visitor population is going to also be a best-case scenario? What would you hope that people who are coming out here to climb, what kind of value system would you hope they might have? I say that because there's a sense of vulnerability, you know, with regard to the resources in the park, that if they're not treated well—not just by the management, but by the climbers themselves, by the community itself—they’re not going to be here for future generations. So that's kind of what I'm thinking about.
DM: Oh, yeah. I mean, there's a lot of abuse that goes on in the park today. You know, and it's like someone told me once, there's impact. And I go, “I think there's a difference between impact and use.” Now, if you're not using anything, and we're setting up this place in the middle of nowhere and all of a sudden you open it up to people; “Hey, it's a really nice lake here, and we gotta get here.” And they have to use this trail when they get here to get there. Well, is that impact or is that use? That’s impact, right? That's what you say. It's impact. That's use because they can't get to the lake without walking. So there has to be use, but people call it impact too. You know what I mean, there has to be use. I think there should be two more campgrounds in the park. I mean, I've been here since as long as… and there are no campgrounds in the park! You went from 68,000 people in what year to three million, and you haven't put in one more campground. That doesn't make any sense at all, right? But they don't. Because of what? Why they didn't put a bike trail in the park? That was completely insane. Why wouldn't you put a bike trail in this beautiful park? “Well, it's going to impact…” I don’t understand things like that either.
I would like to see a bike trail. I would like to see more campgrounds. And I'd like to see maybe if the Park Service could even get people to replace the bolts, maybe have a crew that that's what they do. And every year you just whittle at it, that's all. You don't got to do everything all the time. Just whittle at it. We've been whittling and look—we’re getting there. It might be eight bolts a week. You know, that's kind of what I'd like. I'd love to see a bike path in the park, but that's not going to happen. You know, there's a part of me years ago, to be honest with you, I wish they would've just closed the gate. You couldn’t drive in there. And then if you wanted to do something, you had to earn it. That's where I’d go. That's it. OK, you got to ride your bike.
SN: Well, that's a certain kind of visitor perspective, too. There are a lot of people out there who share that perspective.
DM: And I bet there's a lot of people that wish they could ride the bike up there without getting their arms hit by a rearview mirror, you know, all the time. Just so you know, Bernadette, there's not going to be all these people rapping in all these sport routes and doing all these things that everybody thinks is coming; it’s not coming.
SN: You don't think so?
DM: I do not think so.
SN: Why not?
DM: Because Joshua Tree does not adhere to sport climbing. That's all there is to it. The rock does not dictate that you can do that to it. And that's just a fact. And that's just the way it is. And you can ask any climber—doesn’t work.
SN: They're going to go elsewhere.
DM: They have to.
SN: Where it works.
DM: They're going to go where it works. Yeah. I mean, I could go out in the Wonderlands and do some things. But, you know, I mean, nobody is going to hike that far. But it just isn't a sport climbing area, you know. So I know that everybody tells me and I have a couple of friends that tell me all the time, “This is what's gonna happen, Dave.” And I'm like, “I don't think so.” Neither one of these guys climb anymore.
They have a lot of experience in this park and I have a respect for them. But they're not out there and they're telling me what's going to happen in the park and I go, “Dude, you don't go in the park. You should go in the park sometime, walk around and go climb with people and see what's going on. You don't. You pontificate from your armchair. Like a lot of old climbers do.” I go, “Go out, play in the games.” Kind of like everybody online now telling you this route is so hard. And then I meet guys and go, “Where’d you hear that?” “Well, online, they said this”, I go, “Oh really? That's not true.” But you know this thing. So if it makes any sense to you.
SN: It does. It absolutely does. I’m just thinking that we've been through all the main topics. We haven't talked so much about search and rescue, but it sounds like that’s not so much on your radar.
DM: No, no.
SN: We've talked about change over time. What we see going forward and we haven’t talked so much about technology and gear and how that's changed. But I think I got, you know, parts of that. Is there anything you might want to add that in that regard?
DM: You know, gear always changes. It just gets lighter. You know, gear gets lighter.
SN: I guess the question I just want to make sure I have it on record is: is there anything that you know of that was developed in the park that's become an important piece of equipment more generally? Any kind of protection or any sort of rope or any bolts, anything like that, that was designed for Joshua Tree that then became important more broadly?
DM: No. There were just a few things that were designed for cams, but nothing for Joshua Tree, just in general, cams. You know, I don’t think technology is making climbing… it's all just lighter. Really, I mean, we had old cams and stuff, too. It's all kind of the same. I think it makes it more accessible for a lesser climber to do things, because of better gear. But I don’t think that’s…
SN: Anything else you'd like to add for the record?
DM: No, not that I can think of. There’s always things in my brain, that—[Laughs] I hope I helped a little bit. I don't know.
SN: Very much so! Thank you so much. I'm going to take us off record. Thank you, Dave Mayville, for being our inaugural Historic Resource Study of Climbing Interviewee Number One.

[1] “Biners” is short for “carabiners.”

[2] David Mayville was born July 9, 1957.

[3] Mike Lechlinski and Mari Gingery

[4] Jeremy Schoenborn

[5] There is documentation of Scott Franklin redpointing Scarface in 1987. Dave Mayville noted the 1987 date as correct when reviewing the transcript and also revised the date of 1986 with regard to how long sport climbing has been around to 1987.

[6] Bob Gaines

[7] Cliffhanger premiered in theaters in 1993.

[8] Referring to Charlie Barett.


Michelle Onsaga

Interview Date: 25/08/2020

Biographical Information: Michelle Onsaga is the daughter of John Wolfe, one of the key members of the Desert Rats group. Her childhood was often spent with the Desert Rats in Joshua Tree National Park, and as a child, Michelle helped her father with the assembly and distribution of the 1970 Joshua Tree guidebook. Due to her frequent interactions with the group, Michelle can comment on the traditions and methods employed by the Desert Rats. She has been climbing since before she can remember, and has insight on the key changes in recreational rock climbing over time.

Content Summary: Michelle narrates her experience climbing with her father, John Wolfe, and the Desert Rats in Joshua Tree National Park as a child. Her father also wrote one of the first guidebooks to the area, which Michelle helped with even in her young age. Michelle also comments on the changes to climbing over the years, as bouldering became a variation of climbing all on its own and gear improved.

  • Bouldering
  • Desert Rats
  • John Wolfe
  • Mike Wolfe
  • Mike Rose
  • Richard Wolfe
  • Royal Robbins
  • Sierra Club
  • Tony Yaniro
  • Hidden Valley Campground (Area)
  • The Cookie Oven (Formation)
  • Intersection Rock (Area)
  • Lost Pencil (Area)
  • Wonderland of Rocks (Area)
  • Leave It to Beaver [The Beaver] (5.12)
  • More Monkey Than Funky (5.11)
ET: Okay, so I believe it’s recording now.
SN: Yes, I think we're all on record now, so this is Sally Ness, recording from Riverside, California, and I'm here today with Emilio Triguero and Michelle Onsaga to conduct an interview for the Historic Resource Study of recreational rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. Today is August 25th, 2020 at 2:00 p.m.. So, Michelle, thank you so much for joining us. We’re just thrilled that you could help us out. Alright, I’m going to turn it over to Emilio, so he can walk you through the consent form, and then we’ll get started with the interview.
MO: Okay.
ET: Okay, great, so I'll just go ahead and reiterate for the record that you consent to be recorded both audio and video for the study.
MO: Mhmm. [Indicating agreement]
ET: Okay great. And so the consent form just kind of tells you that you’re consenting to be interviewed by us for the purpose of the study. Do you consent?
MO: Yes.
ET: Great, so with that out of the way, I'll go ahead and just jump right into it for our life history questions and ask you a little bit to talk about your beginnings of rock climbing and your rock climbing experience, whether at Joshua Tree or somewhere else. But if you could, for the record, also tell us your date and place of birth and then, yeah, just tell us your beginnings with rock climbing.
MO: I was born April 9th, 1964, in Pasadena, California. At the time, my parents lived in Temple City. I can't even tell you when I started climbing exactly because I was one of those kids that was out camping in Joshua Tree, with my climbing family. My dad wrote an article in the original guidebook called “Climbing Memories”; that’s where I get a lot of my information regarding the early climbing days of the Desert Rats Uninhibited.I was out there as a baby, camping, with a natural progression into climbing as a child. My earlier memories include spending time with my grandmother in Joshua Tree, playing with magnets to find iron in the dirt while the adults were out climbing. Now and again, they roped up willing (and sometimes reluctant) kids to climb something easy. I typically whined while being reminded that I had actually requested to join in the fun. It is true I always begged to be included, but then I’d get on the rope and start crying because I’d get scared. I was told to toughen up and just get up there. So– like every other kid in the family, I’d “man up” and do whatever was required. Come to think of it, I still whine inwardly as an adult until I remember that I actually really love climbing.
[Michelle’s video screen goes blank]
–did you see that, when that comes up?
ET: Yes.
MO: [Laughs] Sorry.
ET: That's OK.
MO: My sister Valerie was a few years older than me; my brother Chris was a few years younger. Climbing in the Monument was a passion of my dad’s so we spent a lot of time out there. After my parents were divorced (I was about four) he’d take my sister and I out for weekends and we’d amuse ourselves all day in Hidden Valley Campground while he climbed. We were those kids that were just sort of...out there. It was pretty quiet back then. Sometimes we’d make friends with other kids and once in a while those parents would take us in and feed us a cooked lunch, which was very exciting. I know it sounds like we were neglected little urchins or something, but we never saw ourselves that way. Hidden Valley Campground was like a second home to us, and we were independent, capable and happy.
ET: You mentioned that you started so young, right?
MO: Yes.
ET: You also mentioned that you started in Hidden Valley, or was that at the campgrounds you guys were designated at?
MO: In that era, most of the climbing was done in Hidden Valley Campground. I spent a lot of time there. My sister and I had our special little places where we searched for fairies and played house and chased lizards. She told me if you slapped your hand on their tails, the tails would come off and grow back again. Thankfully, we never once managed to catch a lizard and take the tail. As far as actual climbing, yes, my earlier climbing experiences were mostly easy little kid-friendly climbs in Hidden Valley Campground.
There were certain boulders that my dad would designate to each of us and say something like, “Hey do this. It's called a lie back,” or “Hey kids, can you go up this chimney?” So we would. Of course. Because we’d do as we were told. And it was super fun! He would identify the type of movement that we each enjoyed or tended to do well, and find problems for us. He’d find things that worked well with my little fingers and tiny body weight, which gave me a real sense of accomplishment. I liked using finger pockets and cracks. We all enjoyed the chimneys he would find for us. I would play around and practice my little bouldering problems that I was assigned while he was off climbing with the big people. When he returned, I’d show him.
As far as serious climbing for me goes, which really didn’t occur until much later, I have to laugh a little because my first big lead was the SE corner of Intersection Rock. It was several pitches and fairly involved, but easy climbing and very exciting! I was so proud of myself. Years later I read in one of John Long’s books that he and his buddies used this as their scramble to summit Intersection Rock.
At the start, my dad would be on the ground saying something like, “OK, now that big thing you got there hanging off the sling you have over your shoulder? You’re going to stick it in that crack.” Then I’d go up a little ways, and he’d tell me when to stop and shove a nut in someplace or clip a bolt, or put a sling over a chicken neck, whatever the situation required. Then I’d set up my anchor and give him a hip belay so he could instruct me on the next pitch. I’m sure we were both grateful for short pitches!
At that time it was Swami belts and hip belays. And for me, Vans tennis shoes. The adults were wearing the blue Royal Robbins boots with the red laces (I thought those were so beautiful!) but Van’s tennis shoes actually had a really nice grip for Joshua Tree friction. Later I had some EBs that were way too small. I still have them and the soles look almost new, because they hurt so much I rarely wore them. My feet would be kind of blue by the time I took them off due to lack of circulation. Many years later I received a harness and a figure eight to replace multiple carabiners for rappelling. That was a very good Christmas!
ET: So it was more localized like you said in the Hidden Valley campground, like a little bit past that too?
MO: Hidden Valley Campground was the most common climbing area I’d say, because it was so convenient. After 1970, we spent A LOT of time hiking into the Wonderland of Rocks, where my Dad, his wife Mona, and stepbrothers Rob and Dave would check out new ascents and explore more the of the “unknown.” I enjoyed that because there was always a chance we’d come across old pioneer things.
By the later 70s, Dad was running an annual climbing class for Orange County Boy Scout leaders. With so many scout troops heading to Joshua Tree for merit badges, there was a need for safe education. I became a part of that when I left my mother’s household and moved in with my dad while in high school. It involved several consecutive weekends at Sheep Pass Group Campground. I believe we had 2 weekends of climbing instruction, and a third with a mock rescue, followed by an additional three day trip to Mt Whitney via the Mountaineers Route. Instruction included tying figure eights and bowlines, how to wear a swami belt, anchor building, rappelling with many carabiners, among other things. I particularly enjoyed playing victim and being tied into the rescue litter and lowered off the ledge to the ground.
By the time I became involved, there was quite a base of “instructional assistants” and fewer students each year, many not even affiliated with the Boy Scouts. It was such a fun social gathering that the same folks returned year after year. Sadly, I missed out on the belly dancing around the campfire, but I did enjoy a lot of good times reliving the day’s exploits and playing silly campfire games. Dad typically didn’t drink, but the “annual class” was the time he cut loose with the Annie Greensprings wine, Peach Creek being the favorite.
ET: So you mentioned the Boy Scouts as like a group that was present in Joshua Tree, were there any other groups at that time that were there, because I read that the Sierra Club used to take our trips out there, correct?
MO: I'm sure they did. I wasn't involved with that. The only official thing I was involved with at that time was the Orange County Boy Scout Leader class. Many years later I taught scouts at my local climbing gym in order for them to get their merit badges. I guess it’s come full circle.
In the original climber’s guide, there's an article about climbing in Joshua Tree from my dad's perspective, because he used to camp with his family in the 50s, dipping his toe into the world of climbing with his siblings. That article is a good resource for your research study. It talks about the Desert Rats, which would be my family group, and the Riverside Bunch. Are you familiar with that term?
ET: I've never heard the Riverside Bunch, but I've been picking up bits and pieces that the Desert Rats kind of originated from different types of groups that came together, is that correct?
MO: Well, I think the term “desert rats” refers to people that enjoy the desert in general. But the specific Desert Rats from Joshua Tree would be the Desert Rats Uninhibited, which is an actual group which would consist of my family and their friends back in the day. It was originated by my Uncle Mike Rose, who you're going to interview soon. Mike Rose and the gang started the Desert Rats Uninhibited.... they called themselves, “a disorganized disorganization” that started in 1961.
I have this little essay my uncle wrote to me about the Desert Rats’ 50 year anniversary, which was in 2012. He wrote 1962 but I just read it was 1961, so... 50 years, more or less. Mike is a graphic artist (he did the logo for the Vans tennis shoes). He designed our official logo. The Rats were (and remain) a bunch of fun folks that enjoyed outdoor pursuits.
Desert Rats Uninhibited began when the uncles decided to have a southwest adventure when they were still teenagers. There are some good stories about that trip, riding on boxcars, climbing and running rivers. In the late 60s and early 70s, the Rats had a Baja off-road racing team. Sierra backpacking was always a big part of family life. The Desert Rats expanded to Nepal when my dad decided to explore further abroad and launched the DRUNK expedition (Desert Rats Uninhibited Nepal Khumbu Expedition), complete with logo designed by Mike Rose featuring Jockey Rat. They’re pretty diverse, but it's a specific group of people. My understanding is when the climbing scene in Joshua Tree kind of started, other than the early guys like Royal Robins, it was the Desert Rats and the Riverside Bunch (guys that were part of the Riverside Search and Rescue group), that got the modern era ball rolling. I could be completely wrong about that, but it’s my understanding. I think there were always some climbers out there, but it was relatively unknown.
In the early Desert Rat days, the Rats and the Riverside Bunch would find themselves climbing by day, and maybe hanging out by the campfire at night. And that's kind of how organized (if you want to use that word) climbing started to come together in Joshua Tree. According to my father’s writings, there was talk of putting together a guidebook by several, but he was a meticulous documenter, and followed through on the good intentions of the many. Thus, the first 1970 edition of “A Climber’s Guide To Joshua Tree National Monument” was born. This is the paperback 1970 guidebook. [Shows the book on screen]
It's only eighty pages. And it is mostly Hidden Valley Campground. From there they realized, “Oh my goodness, this thing is really becoming a thing.” This was the 1976 guidebook. [holds up vinyl 1976 edition] So it was this, [indicates to the 1970 guidebook] and then this [indicates 1976 edition] is the one that's got that article I mentioned –and it's got some other good historical things. And then after that, was the other edition [shows 1978 red vinyl edition on screen], same book but with more stuff, more routes. Now there are many, many guidebooks on Joshua Tree, just to cover the enormous geographical space that comprises the park.
ET: So would the Desert Rats would update these books every couple of years with new routes?
MO: The 1970 original was paperback and went through a publisher. The following editions were self-published and had a durable vinyl cover and three pins so the user could add and remove pages. There was also a pocket in the cover with a user-friendly map.
Between editions a lot of letters came in from climbers supplying information, insights, and seeking advice. Apparently John Long was just getting started in climbing, and wrote a few letters saying something along the lines of, “Hey, me and Richard Harrison (whose daughter ended up marrying my son, which I think is kind of awesome), we're doing this and that, we're thinking about this, and what do you think?”
Various climbers would write letters describing routes and areas to be included in the next edition, which I think still happens quite a bit in the climbing world at large. All of this would need to be verified of course, which partly explains why we spent so much time exploring the Wonderland of Rocks. There were many instances where we never found the formations described, let alone the routes.
Which brings us to the construction of the later editions with the durable covers and the bolts? Screws?
ET: Pins?
MO: Yes, pins! We would construct the books at home. There was a shrink-wrapped pack of black and white pages, and a smaller shrink-wrapped packet of color pages. We would unwrap the packs and collate the pages. The flat vinyl covers needed to be folded into the book shape, and have the pocket glued on for the map. Then we’d insert the pages, and insert the pins. After that we’d fold the map and put it in the pocket. I’m thinking us kids may have been paid 50 cents per book. If we were efficient, we could make five or six books an hour, if they passed inspection.
In 1980, our household was comprised of my dad and stepmom Sonia, and three kids, me being the eldest at 16. October of that year we went to Nepal for two months as part of DRUNK II (Desert Rats Uninhibited Nepal Khumbakarna Expedition), again with official t-shirts and logo designed by Mike Rose. Five family friends joined as well. So in order for us kids to “pay our way,” we were required to complete a certain amount of books. On weekends we'd go to Joshua Tree, and my younger brother Ken and I would sell books to climbers in the campgrounds to make a little spending money.
ET: Wow, so you kind of talk about Desert Rats and Mike Rose has told me this too, that search for adventure and looking for adventure no matter where it is. And you kind of talk about that earlier. And one of their quotes or the motto for them would be: “Dedicated to the principles of absolute and total unusualism.”
MO: Yes. Because we are a wacky bunch.
ET: Would you say that that was reflected in the activities in Joshua Tree?
MO: Yes. I don't know how much your research projects gets into such things, but particularly in the 70s, it was a certain era, as far as drug use. One thing I admire about the Desert Rats is the old guard was adventurous and fun and really funny, but at the same time, straight arrows as far as drug use. That’s never been part of the Desert Rat tradition. My people, the elders, they really didn't even drink. Which to me just makes them all the more interesting because in the Vietnam era and beyond, that was a thing in their age group.
ET: They were chasing life’s high, so to speak.
MO: What?
ET: They were chasing life’s high, so to speak, like adventure–
MO: Yes. Their activities were unimpaired; they were a little bit crazy, but sober. [Chuckles]
ET: What kind of things in Joshua Tree did they do specifically that were crazy or Desert Rat-like?
MO: Well, I don’t think they did anything particularly crazy, but they knew how to have a good, clean time. There’s an old black and white silent film my Grandpa George made titled “Oh What Rats” featuring various Desert Rats, scampering through the rocks, holding up signs with subtitles. We played silly games. We’d be expected to lay on the picnic table and climb around it without touching the ground or the benches. In the middle of the night, particularly if there was a bright moon out, we’d head out to Hidden Valley proper to do The Cookie Oven, which was particularly entertaining if we had newbies. Especially newbies who were squeamish about the dark, tight spaces and rodents. Are you familiar with The Cookie Oven?
ET: Not yet.
MO: The Cookie Oven is best done at night. We’d start on the nature trail, then turn off and enter a rock corridor and squeeze through some things and thread our way up to “the oven.” A few headlamps or flashlights might be allowed, but it was mostly dark. If there were folks in the group who didn't climb but were there for the social aspect, we’d lure them into this little adventure and make a point to discuss rats and spiders as we traveled through the darkness. At a certain point, we’d descend into a pit in the rocks. The pit fits 2-3 people. At this time, you must lay down flat on your back and squirm under a rock. You are now the cookie on the baking sheet. Somebody on the other end of the “oven” would grab the cookie by the ankles and pull them through to the other side.
Upon arrival at the other side of the oven, there would usually be enough moonlight to find the way out and carefully scramble back down to ground level. I heard (you might ask John Long about this if you haven't talked to him yet), I heard, but I wasn't there, so I can’t testify to this, that he had quite the barrel chest and actually couldn't get through the oven and they had to push on his feet to reverse him out of the oven so he could find a different way through the maze.
It was silly, but lots of fun, and folks would beg to do the Cookie Oven. Definitely a Desert Rat thing.
ET: Some more of, like you said, like fun and the adventures aspect. So would you say that that was the prime focus for their climbing or was it also a little bit competitive or just more towards that adventure-seeking mindset?
MO: There were a lot of personalities within the group. I think my dad and my uncle, Richard, were the two that were more into the climbing. They tended to push the boundaries a bit more. No doubt Uncle Mike, the youngest Wolfe brother, would have been more active in the climbing scene had he not been sidetracked by the Army. However, he was persuaded to lead the first ascent of Mike’s Books, hence the name.
ET: Yeah, so they liked to just be adventurous, as you said.
MO: Yes. We’ve always been backpackers, so a lot of Sierra backpacking and then Nepal. Once he caught the Himalaya bug, Dad was taking a Nepal trip every other year. Not so much climbing the big peaks, but trekking through different areas, exploring.
ET: Wow, that's pretty great. So I kind of wanted to go back to an earlier topic we were kind of discussing, when you were discussing your first experiences of climbing and you were using cams or “friends”, you said, to place in the rock.
MO: My earliest years did not involve cams. Not that it affected me; I was always on top rope. I started hearing about Friends during the high school years. These days of course, I think cams are the best things ever! My dad was pretty old school; I think harnesses came on the scene well before we actually got to wear them. The first time I saw somebody using a belay device, I was astounded. It would be twenty years before I used one myself. Unlike most people who start climbing in their 20s, I stopped about that time and didn’t climb again until I was nearly 40, when I moved to Las Vegas and rediscovered the magic. By then everything had changed. Harnesses were comfortable. Sport climbing was a thing. I suppose I’m naive, but I had always thought, “Climbing is climbing and if you have bolts to clip, all the better!” And I still really like bolts, because I’m basically a coward.
But as far as equipment from the earlier days, here’s some visual aids. [Shows a hex, nuts, pitons, hammer, etc.]
ET: Those are called hexcentrics, right?
MO: This is one of my dad's old “friends”; he gave me a bunch of gear from his garage at one point that I just keep around. I've never used one of these [shows a rock climbing hammer], but here's his old hammer.
[Michelle’s screen freezes]
ET: Oh, I think you're frozen. Oh, there you go.
MO: –’cause I was going to say, “You were frozen there.”
ET: Could I see his hammer again? I’d like to see that.
MO: Here is his hammer; that picture that I sent to you not too long ago? He was using this hammer and this is the belt that he [indicates with the belt] was wearing, and here are some pitons.
I think some of the other people you're going to talk to are much more knowledgeable about these things that I never used personally.
ET: And I think one thing that we've learned from the Stonemasters and the 70s and 80s is that they had their own set of rules, what they called ethics...
MO: Yeah.
ET: ...that they had to have these things apply during climbing. Was there ever anything similar to that with the Desert Rats?
MO: Yes. We’re still very “Leave No Trace.” But as far as like the ethics of climbing, for me, we were always told we weren't allowed to use our knees. No knees. That was a big thing. You were... you were discouraged from scooching around on your butt. I know this well, because I was reprimanded frequently. Obviously no crying, whining, sniveling or puling; these were the words that were thrown around when anyone started to emotionally crumble. Of course, you’re getting this from my perspective as a complete subordinate. I’m sure if you ask anyone else, you will get a different answer.
We did not use chalk. Ever. We were told only sissies use chalk. It marks up the rock. I realize chalk’s a big thing now. And it's funny because now I'm in my fifties and I carry a chalkbag, but I rarely use it. It is so ingrained that I forget it’s an option. I mostly use it in the gym, if at all. I realize climbing is different now than it was then; people climb so much harder and it can be really useful. And even though I don’t like the way it affects the rock, there are times I really appreciate a good tick mark.
Not that it affected me personally, but bolting from the ground up was part of the Desert Rat ethic, as well as other common old school practices.
ET: So it was more pertained towards the “Leave no trace” ethic and kind of centered around that?
MO: I would say so. That, and good form produces good habits.
ET: Yeah. So reinforcing more of that adventure. Right, chasing that?
MO: Us kids were definitely raised to follow in the footsteps of the original Desert Rats and be adventurers. I appreciate that even though I was a girl, I was expected to man up. When you talk to my older stepbrother Rob, I’m sure he’ll have stories of temporary misery he may have endured that resulted in tremendous joy in the pursuit of grand adventure.
ET: I see. So kind of getting into a little bit more of that, talking about other climbers in that era, did you see other climbers that were not part of Desert Rats that maybe were by themselves; recreational or kind of lone wolves out there in Joshua Tree by themselves? Were they ever part of that Desert Rats community? Did they interact?
MO: Yes, because climbing is a social –I mean, for me anyway, it's a social activity. And as I said earlier, my younger brother Ken and I would walk through the campgrounds selling guidebooks, so we'd make friends everywhere we went. My family was very welcoming and inclusive. We’d pick up strays. One example would be Dan Zacks. He’s a climber who now lives in Joshua Tree. When he was about twenty, he was out there climbing alone, in his VW bus. We crossed paths and he ended up coming back to Mission Viejo with us and living in his van in front of our house for several weeks.
We would meet people, and see them again the next weekend, and strike up friendships. In some cases we’d say, “Come on home, we'll give you a shower.” One time we met a nice family from Scotland. They ended up returning to our home and using it as a base while they visited Disneyland and the LA sites. We were living in a modest home in Orange County with no spare bedrooms, but apparently our living room couch was comfortable. Climbers tend to be an easygoing bunch and that’s appealing to me.
One thing I wanted to bring up, based on your question about interacting with other climbers, was my “lightbulb moment” as far as climbing. I had always considered it as something we did, that none of my schoolmates could relate to, so I really didn’t talk about it. It was almost like a double life. Every Friday during climbing season we’d come home from school and load into the car, head out to Joshua Tree, and return Sunday evening. I’d climb some routes, enjoy the campfires, hike a bit, and revel in breathing that air, feeling the sun on my skin, and that insanely blue sky.
The day Dad scooped up Tony Yaniro I had an epiphany. I realized climbing can be graceful and beautiful and amazing! He ran into Tony and a friend of his, threw them into our Volkswagen bus (honestly, I still feel like it was almost an abduction), asking if we could take some climbing photos. I knew nothing about this guy, but my teenage self thought he was awfully cute. I think he was in college. We took him out to More Monkey Than Funky by Barker Dam.
Mesmerized, I watched him do this thing, hanging upside down and swinging his torso, alternating between jamming the hands and the feet as he advanced through the crack. It was amazing. I couldn't believe how fluid and graceful and gymnastic he was.
That’s when I realized that climbing could be art. I’ve never forgotten that visual. When he finished, we threw him back in the car and took him to climb Leave It to Beaver in Hidden Valley proper. I had never seen anybody climb things that difficult before. It changed my perspective entirely.
ET: Did those pictures ever make it into the guidebook or those just pictures for pictures sake?
MO: They ended up in the red guidebook [the 3rd edition].
SN: What year would that have been, Michelle, do you know?
MO: That’s a good question. I was just looking at the red book, which is officially the 1979 edition, which makes me think those pictures were taken in 1979. I would have guessed a few years later.
ET: So what kind of other routes existed at that time, we talk about Tony Yaniro climbing in such a difficult but graceful way, but are there any other routes in that time that kind of exemplified a little bit of a Desert Rat charisma of adventure and skill?
MO: Leave It to Beaver is listed in that guidebook at the pinnacle of F14 and had only been toproped at that time. Now it’s listed as a 5.12a trad route, which gives you an idea of how much climbing has progressed. I was oblivious to what the “serious climbers” were doing. I heard names like John Bachar, Randy Vogel, and John Long, and I saw pictures of those guys as I compiled the books on our kitchen table, but I never interacted with them. However, when you speak with my stepbrother Rob, I’m sure he’ll have a lot to share with you because those guys are his peers.
As far as difficulty and how things have changed, 5.9 in Joshua Tree to me is still hard and scary. At least the old 5.9s from my day. To me, they're terrifying. I remember struggling on 5.8s, even with my magic EBs. I took 20 years off, started climbing again at age 40, first in a gym, then back outside at Red Rock Canyon. Normal looking people would tell me they climbed 5.10 and I was super impressed because I thought, “Wow, you must be amazing!” They looked flattered but also confused. I learned things have changed. With a good pair of shoes and a reasonable skill level, a 5.10 at Red Rock is middle of the road.
ET: And I think that explosion, and we talked about this with John Long, is that dedication to training and just an emphasis on practicing the craft. So for the Desert Rats was it like a method of training or was it just doing it repeatedly?
MO: Back then, climbing gyms didn't exist, and sport climbing did not exist. You climbed, you reached the summit, you came back down. Now, with sport climbing, you climb up, you get to the anchor and you lower. That took some time for me to understand because I thought, “Well, where’s the payoff? You're supposed to sit on top and eat your sandwich, and then you come down, right?” Of course, in Joshua Tree, a lot of the time, other people (perhaps people carrying sandwiches) would scramble up the back and hang out at the top watching as you climb up.
Entirely different mindset and training. The first weekend of the season we’d drive out from Orange County and I could climb a certain amount before my fingertips would give out and maybe get a little bloody. Then I’d return to school for the week while they recovered, only to build up fingerpad tolerance the following weekend. By week three I had pretty good callouses and felt ready for whatever lay ahead.
And we couldn't train per se, because we didn't have gyms like we do now. I imagine you could do strength training, but that wasn’t something I cared about. Dad was a fireman, so he was active in normal life, and played a lot of racquetball.
But as far as like climbing-specific? You could say that we kids trained because we had an arch in our house. There were bricks lining the arch, and we would be expected to climb that on a regular basis. I don't think it was for training, I think it was just for our own amusement. We chimneyed through our hallways and had a chin-up bar. But I think that was just because it’s how we rolled, not because we were looking to be better climbers. Come to think of it, I guess we were a little weird. We never gave it a lot of thought.
ET: So was bouldering seen as just like a training or just like a different type of climbing at that point in time?
MO: I think back in the olden days, bouldering was just something you did when you weren't climbing, it wasn't taken seriously like it is now. I get the impression that initially it was something to do around the campfire as entertainment. It is a serious thing now, bouldering. And of course, boulder pads didn't exist back then. The first time I saw one was in the 90s in Las Vegas while hiking. I'm like, “Dude, what is that? What are you doing?” And this guy explained it. They make so much sense; I’m glad somebody was smart enough to invent crash pads.
ET: I've seen people take it to –like at Stoney Point. They take it to a degree where it's almost like its own climbing, like they don't really focus on belaying or anything; it's focused primarily on bouldering, in that aspect.
MO: Yes. It is absolutely its own form of climbing now. My son loves to boulder. When he heads out to Bishop I say, “If you're going to highball, I don't want to know because I just, I can't deal with that.” He's twenty five now. And it seems to me people closer to my age, are not as avid outdoor boulderers because we know that limbs and joints break. I am the worst boulderer ever because even though I know that pad is there, I'm convinced I'm going to break my ankle, or worse. I can't do it. I'll fall all day on a rope, but don't make me land on a boulder pad. Or worse, NOT land on a boulder pad.
ET: Yeah. So I also wanted to pivot this discussion to the Rangers and what type of enforcement –not enforcement, but just the people who were at Joshua Tree at that point in time, since it was a relatively new monument at that point in time, how could you describe the relationship between the Rats and the Rangers at that point in time?
MO: Really good. Because as I said, the Rats began in the 60s and they were not drinkers, and pretty law-abiding. Although the last time I was in Joshua Tree with my dad a few years ago, he told us a story about how they had driven into some area that no cars were allowed and the Rangers were asking them how they got there or something, all the while the jeeps were behind a rock. Overall, the Rats were mischievous but mostly law-abiding with strong outdoor ethics.
Some of the rangers climbed with them. I was raised with the attitude that the rangers are our friends, just like policemen. Also, I was that kid that would wander off and forget which number was my campsite. I can remember at least one instance that a very nice ranger walked with me from campsite to campsite, looking for my parents. I was that kid. I appreciate Rangers.
A lot of the historical information in the guidebooks comes from the older Rangers. Phil Smith climbed in the Monument in the 50s. He was a Joshua Tree ranger. I visited him in his home once long after he’d retired. He had great stories.
ET: I think that's all I have for questions for right now, unless Sally, do you have any questions that you'd like to bring up right now? Oh, you’re still on mute by the way.
SN: Yes, [laughs] trying to keep the noise level down as much as possible, but then I forget to –I have to turn it on. But yes, this has just been fantastic and thank you so much, these stories are just priceless and exactly what we're looking for so it's really wonderful. And all I want to do, actually, is just ask you in case you have a little bit more detail for the record about the dates and places and stuff like that [inaudible] you mention, okay? And if you don't know, don't worry about it, it’s just in case you do. So the guidebooks that you're talking about, for the record. they came out in 1970?
MO: Yes, this one is 1970 [shows the first edition with the paper orange cover], this is ‘76 [shows the second edition with a similar vinyl orange cover]. And then this is this one ‘79 [shows the third edition with a red vinyl cover].
SN: There were three, basically, that was it?
MO: This one –so this [the second edition] is the same as this [the first edition] with like more. And yeah, and there were several printings, I think this [the first edition], the first printing had a thousand and then –so it's a pretty rare thing these days, this particular one. Most people think, “Oh, I've got this rare guidebook and I'm like, that's not –that's rare, but not like this.”
So, yeah. And this one had multiple printings, I think. I think this one [second edition] might’ve had two printings and this one [the first edition] may have had like three. And then we went to this.
SN: Okay, so there were four total? Different versions, or three?
MO: Three, because there's this, this and then this [shows all three editions in order]. But if you didn't want to buy this [third edition], you could take this [second edition] and stick the other pages in it.
SN: And so you're thinking that the later ones, that they were in the thousands of copies that were made?
MO: Oh, yeah, definitely in the thousands, because we had boxes and boxes of pages in the garage to be assembled into books. Remember when the Sports Chalet in Eagle Rock was one of the only outdoors stores? [Sally nods her head] So we would drive to these various outdoor stores with deliveries of completed books and sometimes he’d do a trade. That’s how I ended up with these shoes. [Lifts up EBs] Because one of those places traded all these shoes for books. I had to pick out which shoes closest fit my feet. None actually fit, and that’s why they hurt so much. Climbing shoes should be tight, but not like this. They hurt really bad, which explains why they remain in excellent condition. [Laughs]
SN: So was the production of the guidebooks primarily an economic incentive for your father?
MO: No, he was a fireman. It wasn’t primarily economic, but it was certainly helpful.
SN: And we haven’t asked you about your dad's start with the outdoors stuff. Did he and his family know a lot about that stuff, or did he come by it on his own?
MO: Adventure definitely runs in the family. My great-great-grandfather, George Washington Wolfe, led two wagon train trips from Missouri to California. I have a great aunt that was the first white woman to cross the Andes on a mule, when she and her husband sailed from San Francisco to Peru to deliver farm equipment. My grandmother homesteaded in Arizona as a child. She and my Grandpa raised their kids in Big Bear for a few years, and they had one of those old cabins at Chantry Flats in Santa Anita Canyon when I was very young.
SN: Fascinating, Michelle, actually–
MO: What?
SN: –it's very important to make that connection between your family’s history of exploration, and pioneering with your early presence in the climbing community as well. It's not an accident, so I’m so glad we got that information, thank you. It’s wonderful. I think we’ve covered most of the– oh. In terms of route development, Michelle, did your father and the Desert Rats develop a lot of routes, did they have a lot of first ascents in the Hidden Valley area?
MO: Yes, yes.
SN: And what was going on if anything before they did that route development? Do you know of these kinds first ascents prior to Desert Rats?
MO: I mentioned Phil Smith earlier in this book [shows the first edition] that's got historical information. There is an article written by his son about when they climbed Headstone. They threw a ball of twine over the top with the Boy Scouts, and then they pulled the twine to bring a rope over so they could toprope. There is also a story about the Lost Pencil where they put a bolt ladder on one side, but when they reached the top, they realized there was another bolt ladder someone else had already put up on the other side. Those were early ascents. I think the 50s or 60s, it's in the book, that is why I know. And there's talk that Royal Robbins did some training back in the day, he and Tom Frost.
Those climbing pioneers did things in Joshua Tree way back when, but I believe they considered it a practice ground as opposed to Yosemite where there was “real” climbing. Joshua Tree wasn't really taken seriously. There’s not a lot of documentation. My dad listed first ascent information as best he could, and his name, along with his Rat and Riverside contemporaries, is on a lot of things. Some of those, it's possible that somebody else would have climbed it and just not said anything because they just didn't back then. But he's credited with a lot of first ascents, along with the uncles and the other Rats.
SN: And do you think that the Desert Rats had sort of a shift in attitude in that regard, that Joshua Tree was no longer just this practice ground, that it was in its own right someplace worth climbing?
MO: I think that's absolutely true with them and the Riverside Bunch, which led to the need of a guidebook. John could well be described as an A-type. He was a very organized, meticulous documentarian. He eventually took on the project and got it done, because he was willing to put forth the effort to compile everybody's information. There was an increasing amount of climbing activity and they really needed an efficient method to disseminate information. The two later editions, with significantly more routes, were an enormous project. Fortunately Bob Dominick[1] was willing to come alongside and shoulder a lot of that burden as a co-author.
SN: About how many people –I don't think we asked you, to estimate the Desert Rats Uninhibited group, about how many people belonged to that group–
MO: I couldn't quite hear you. I couldn't quite hear what you said.
SN: Oh, sorry. If you were to give us an estimate of how many people were part of the Desert Rats Uninhibited group, would you say it was about fifty, was it a few hundred? How big was it?
MO: I think it would depend on what activity, because different factions were involved in different things. Baja off-road racing involved different people than climbing, although there was certainly crossover with the Wolfe brothers. Dad was the nucleus of the climbing. My uncles should be able to give you a good answer on that.
SN: Do you have any idea why he was the one that stuck with it?
MO: Passionate climbers are a breed unto themselves. Some might say obsessive. It’s a constant striving to improve upon yourself to achieve not only a clean ascent, but one that is fluid. In order to do that, you need to employ a strategy of strength, balance, and geometry that is specifically suited to your own body. I believe my dad had that drive to constantly improve and rise to the next challenge. It’s almost obsessive-compulsive. I do consider myself part of that clan, but to a mild degree. I don't have that fire in the belly that my father had and my son has now.
Personally, I am content to climb moderate grades while being outside. Sometimes I enjoy the approach hike more than the actual climb. My son Keoni, who is twenty-five, started climbing when he was maybe ten or so. At that time I was more obsessive about it, and he thought it was okay, but didn’t have the passion. By the time he was fifteen or so, I needed belayers to help with birthday parties at the local gym where I was working, so he did that to appease me. Soon enough, he had a “lightbulb moment” and realized climbing is AWESOME. He is now one of those obsessive guys, and climbs 5.13. He and his wife Lisa climb, mountain bike, kayak, paddleboard, etc. They seek adventure; they make me proud.
SN: That's a very wonderful statement about the generational shift. It’s wonderful, you’ve really seen climbing through so many generations, haven’t you; with your father, yourself, your son, and [audio interference] you’ve seen the sport evolve so many different places.
MO: Yes.
SN: Let me go back to the early days –just one more –two more questions, actually, on the really early stages; you mention the search and rescue, where you would get in the stretcher and they would lower you down, were there any techniques for search and rescue, to your knowledge, that were developed at Joshua Tree? That since have been used elsewhere?
MO: That is something I wouldn't know, but I do know that my dad's climbing partner during those years, Chris Gonzalez, lived in Twentynine Palms, and worked at the Marine base. I believe he was involved in search and rescue. As far as I know, he's still out there. He’d be a great resource for you if you can locate him. I knew him as Speedy.
He was amazing, and I have a rather large belay plate that he actually made that was used in Search and Rescue. I’m pretty sure he designed it, and made it on the base. That makes me think that things like that were developed out there.
SN: That’s very good, thank you. You're the first person actually that documents something like that, so thanks again. Also, when your father was teaching the Boy Scouts leaders, was he the only instructor out there at that time or were there other instructors also teaching?
MO: He was the main instructor for his course with the Boy Scout leaders, but there were several assistants, myself included. I’m sure there were other groups doing climbing instruction but I don’t have any information on that. I don't know that climbing guides were a thing yet, but I’m sure the Sierra Club had instructional outings. Bob Dominick, who co-wrote the later editions of the guidebook was involved with the Claremont colleges. I recall one year we did some instructional work with a bunch of students from Harvey Mudd College.
At one time I believe he initiated education within the LA City Fire Department so firemen would be safer and more efficient when it came to lowering off of buildings. I got the impression they’d been “winging it” so SAR techniques were definitely necessary. My Uncle Mike Wolfe, a retired LA County Firefighter, probably knows details on that.
I have friends here in Las Vegas that are involved in local Search and Rescue. They implemented climbing technology to replace and improve upon outdated and dangerous techniques that were being used by Metro. People should always share knowledge of safety, right?
SN: Absolutely. Great. Okay I have just one more question.
MO: Okay.
SN: And you are uniquely the person to speak to it because you were climbing when you were such an early age in your own life. A lot of people talk about climbing as sort of being a masculine pursuit, right, and you mentioned in your comments earlier about how your brothers were held to a different standard but in your experiences in Joshua Tree climbing, did you notice that there was a difference in your experiences climbing because you were a girl and a woman?
MO: Absolutely. Female climbers get a lot more respect now, because people like Lynn Hill proved themselves worthy and pushed through the nonsense. I was completely unaware of her and insulated from the experience of women like her. In my own experience, I was aware that young strong men (all men, actually) would expect to “outperform” me because I was a skinny girl. I admit I found it satisfying to easily climb things they found difficult. Times have changed. “Climb like a girl” was not on the radar.
SN: Do you think your father was unusual for teaching you at all in the first place?
MO: No. Well, I mean, maybe. Within our family, women were expected to fully participate if they wanted to.
SN: It wasn’t as though women were actually excluded, or that the sport was rigged in a way so women could never prove themselves. It was just that there were these expectations that men would be stronger, is that the idea?
MO: Within our group, yes. Women were given the same climbing opportunities and encouragement as men, and were not excluded. In fact, my dad took a certain pleasure in seeing me or one of the other ladies in our group do a climb well after an ego-driven guy might struggle on the same route. If you watch a skillful climber, they make it look easy, right? So I think those guys just thought it was going to be easy. That attitude still holds true. People think it will be easy and then they try and it’s not. I have a good friend a few years older than I, who was climbing hard in Joshua Tree during that era. I didn’t know her then, but we’ve talked about her experiences. She was climbing some really difficult stuff, and those guys did not give her the respect she deserved. They were dismissive because she was female. There was definitely an attitude.
For me personally, I was underestimated but never felt disrespected. I’m sure if I were climbing with “those guys” and climbing at that level, I would have had a different experience.
SN: Because of your father.
MO: Yes. I was insulated from a lot of “climber culture.” I remember camping during the 70s and early 80s, and “up and coming” twenty-something climbers would want to talk to him and tell him about whatever they had recently done. He’d usually stay at the edge of our campsite or walk over to theirs. He wouldn’t let us go with him. I thought it was because he was ashamed of us, but years later it occurred to me he was protecting us. We laughed together when I finally asked him about it. He certainly wasn’t going to expose his vulnerable children to the drug culture! He was careful to keep us in our little safe zone as much as possible.
SN: That's just incredibly helpful information, Michelle, thank you so much. One of the things we’re interested in in this study is trying to show the differences in values that went along with different eras, and your stories are really speaking in such concrete ways to those changes, you know, really as you experienced them in that time.
MO: Well, thanks, I'm distracted because I keep seeing the lines of sun on my face. Yeah, well, I really didn't think I could be much help to you, so thanks for being so kind and encouraging.
SN: It's wonderful to talk to you. We’ve gone over our hour, sorry. But was there anything that we didn't cover that you would like to add to the record?
MO: I was just curious because I keep referencing these little things in the book. I don't know, do you guys have copies of these books? I can send some of the text to Emilio if you’d like, because there's some good stuff in there.
SN: Now, I know there is a copy of the original one; I’ve actually looked at it at the UCR rare books collection. I do happen to know that it’s there–
MO: Is it the paperback or the vinyl?
SN: It’s the very first paperback.
MO: Okay.
SN: So they have that and they don’t loan it out, so it’s safely guarded. The other two I don’t believe they have a copy, maybe in Joshua Tree Twenty-Nine Palms headquarters; they have quite a large collection of guidebooks. So before you go to the trouble of sending us anything, I would say, let us check when we go out there again, let us check and see. I’ll ask Bernadette Reagan, she’s a park ranger that’s been helping us with the study]. Let’s see if she knows if they have that there. If they don’t, we might take you up on your offer, but let’s check.
MO: He wrote a lot of just kind of fun things in these books that are not in the original. Historical Miscellanea, I think you would probably like.
SN: Oh, yeah, we definitely –if we don't have that in the collection. We will make a note on that to follow up.
So great. If you’ve spoken, if your two cents have been put in, our two cents have been put in, Emilio was there anything else you needed to…?
ET: No, I'm covered with all my questions.
SN: All right. I think we're ready to say thank you very much, and we’ll stop the recording.
MO: Thank you so much.
[1] Bob Dominick is credited as a co-author on both the 1976 and 1979 versions of the guidebook.


Kevin Powell

Interview Date: 28/09/2020

Biographical Information: Kevin Powell is a seasoned climber who has been climbing for over 40 years and has climbed in Joshua Tree National Park since 1974. He has over 40 recorded first ascents in the park listed on Mountain Project, which includes the well-known Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time (5.12). He was a part of the Stonemaster group that often climbed at Joshua Tree National Park between 1970 and 1990. Kevin has also been replacing bolts since 1987, and is now part of a larger project at Joshua Tree to replace aging bolts in the park. Kevin is a professional landscape and wildlife photographer with much of his work focused on Joshua Tree National Park.

Content Summary: Kevin outlines the early Stonemaster days and the training methods used by the group. A list of remarkable routes in Joshua Tree is given, with Kevin discussing the reasons behind the names of his memorable first ascents. His involvement with the bolt replacement process is also explored.

  • John Bachar
  • Stonemasters
  • Black Diamond Equipment
  • Dave Mayville
  • Sport Challenge Rock (Formation)
  • Lost Horse Wall (Formation)
  • Clean and Jerk (5.10)
  • Championship Wrestling (5.9)
  • Gunsmoke (V3)
  • Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time (5.12)
  • Left Mel Crack (5.10)
  • Right Mel Crack (5.10)
SN: OK, so my name is Sally Ness, and I'm here today; it's Monday, September 28th, recording an oral history interview with Kevin Powell for the Joshua Tree Historic Research Study of Recreational Rock Climbing. And with me is Emilio Triguero, my research assistant; Bernadette Regan, Ranger in the Park Service. And thank you so much, Kevin, for agreeing to be part of the study.
KP: Yeah, no worries.
SN: So I'll start right off with just asking you for the record, a little bit about your own personal history and talking about how you came to climbing, just your earliest experiences; when, how and why. Can you start with that, just tell me about that?
KP: Sure, so I got into rock climbing through Boy Scouts. The troop I was in, Sunnymead at the time, now known as Moreno Valley Troop 114, the scout master was really active; we did 20 mile hikes once a month, and then every summer and we did either one or two seven-to-ten day trips into the Sierras usually. And so when we were peakbagging on the hikes, that kind of piqued our interest and then one of the guys in the scout troop, his uncle was an actual rock climber and he came and gave a demonstration one evening with his climbing gear and stuff. And this was probably ‘71 or ‘72, somewhere back then.
So that's–a small group of us got into climbing when we were still in… gosh, I think we were in junior high school.
SN: Can you state, for the record, your date of birth?
TG: 8/6/58.
SN: And you were born in Sunnymead?
TG: No Strong City, Kansas.
SN: So when did your family move back to California?
KP: Let’s see, we moved to Ely, Nevada first and then down to Sunnymead, so I don't know, probably ‘60… I don't know, ‘65, something like that, ‘66.
SN: Was it for work purposes, or what’s the reason for–?
KP: Yes, my dad was an educator. He was the athletic director, and he taught psychology and stuff at the high school in Ely, Nevada, and then we moved down here. And he did much of the same thing and he worked with special education kids at Moreno Valley High School. And then he became an administrator through the –at the Riverside county superintendent’s schools office in Riverside.
SN: Great. So that gives us a sense of how you very first got introduced to climbing. And the next topic on the roster is to give us a little bit of a bird's eye view of your career, if you will, with climbing. And actually, I’m going to turn that over to Bernadette, if you’re willing, Bernadette, to kind of walk through that phase of Kevin’s history.
BR: Sure–
KP: So you want to know about how I got into the career that I ended up retiring from?
SN: Yeah, exactly, and I think Bernadette has some more specific questions to ask to you.
KP: Yeah, well, so I retired from Cal Fire, the State Fire Department, about nine years ago. I retired as a fire captain paramedic, and I was in a middle management position; I was a program manager for our EMS program. And I got into doing that through a ROP program in high school, they had a basic firefighting class. And then through that I became a volunteer in Sunnymead for the Sunnymead volunteer fire department.
And I ended up –our volunteer fire department had a volunteer ambulance; we were the only ambulance service in Sunnymead at the time so we would go on medical aids and transport the patients to the hospital, usually down to Riverside or sometimes to the old March Air Force Base Hospital. And then through that, I went to paramedic school, and then worked private ambulance for four or five years after I got out of paramedic school. I graduated from school January of ‘82, and then I got hired by the fire department in ‘87. And I spent the next twenty-five years with the fire department. So that was my career path.
SN: OK, thank you. I misdirected you a bit there. I'm really glad to have that information; it is important for the purposes of this study. What I'd like to focus on, though, is climbing, what you did as a climber. So that's where I'm going let Bernadette take the lead.
KP: Okay. Gotcha.
BR: When was the first time you got to Joshua Tree National Park?
KP: Probably in either ‘70 or ‘71 on a Boy Scout hike. So we came out here for one of our weekend hikes where we'd walk usually 15 to 20 miles, it was usually eight to ten miles a day. I can't remember exactly where we went, but it was somewhere up in the main part of the park. I don't even know where we camped; we might have camped at Sheep’s Pass Groupsite[1] or Ryan or something; I just can’t remember, but that was the first time I ever came to Joshua Tree, was through the Boy Scouts on one of our weekend hikes.
BR: And how’d you start rock climbing?
KP: Well, we started rock climbing on the rocks around our house in Moreno Valley. This after the guy's uncle came and gave us this demonstration. There was one instructional book at the time called Basic Rock Craft by Royal Robbins, so we bought that. And we basically just started teaching ourselves and we actually made climbing gear in metal shop in junior high school.
We didn't have a lot of money, so when our required projects in metal shop were done, we started making homemade pitons and homemade hexes out of steel. Steel hexstock, and we made our own bolt hangers. So we would just go out to these boulders, and one of the guys that went with us, his dad worked for Southern California Edison and he had a cotton rope that he gave us. And so that's what we started out using. Yeah and we just we would buy stuff as we could, and we climbed in hiking boots originally. And then they opened up Big Rock, up by Lake Perris, ‘cause the whole area had been closed when they built the –when they built the dam there, Lake Perris, and so we got connected with the… I don't know if his actual title was the park superintendent, but we were the first people to go in and climb there before they allowed the place to be open to the public; we got to go in a few weeks before.
So that's where we did our first kind of lead climbs, was out at Big Rock.
[Bernadette and Kevin speak at the same time]
BR: Go ahead.
KP: So we, me and my younger brother, he got into climbing and a couple of the other guys in the scout troop. And so none of us could drive. So our parents would drive us maybe to Big Rock and leave us for the day, and then they’d come back and pick us up in the evening, or we'd ride our bicycles. So from the house to Big Rock on the bicycle is probably, I don't know, twelve or thirteen miles, something like that. So we’d put all our gear in a little Daypack, because we didn't have much gear and we’d bicycle out there and we climb and then we bicycle home.
And for Joshua Tree, when we first came out here, our parents would bring us out here and they had a tent trailer, so my dad would tow the tent trailer out, he'd put it in the site Friday afternoon after school and then come back Sunday evening and pick us up. So we were totally campground bound, we had no way to leave because nobody had a vehicle. So it was kind of a cool thing and people thought my dad was crazy, that we’d kill ourselves, but he said, “No, they'll learn how to make good decisions by doing this.”
So that's what would happen. Eventually, one of the guys, well… one of the guys that was one year older, actually got a car and he could drive, so then we had a way to get out here on our own. Until we all got driver's licenses, but yeah, that's how we… one of the other places we would go was Mount Rubidoux in Riverside, and so once again, they –our parents would either take us there and drop us off, or we'd ride a bicycle down there. And then ride back up, it was the same thing, about twelve or thirteen miles. Going down wasn't so bad, but coming back was all uphill.
So that's –yeah, we just we just started kind of fumbling around on these boulders and fortunately, nothing drastic happened, although there were some, you know, near misses because we didn't really understand everything that was going on, and there was –back then, there was no climbing schools. There was one climbing school, the Yosemite Mountaineering School in Yosemite, but we couldn’t go up there, it was too far.
So we just had to figure everything out on their own, and then when we started actually leading routes, you know, people that were around us would tell us, “Hey, what are you doing?” And “You should do it this way.” And so that's how we learned. So we learned pretty quickly, probably from the first time we actually led a route… I would say in less than two years, we were climbing 5.10 and 5.11 routes.
The first time I climbed in Joshua Tree, I kind of –and I think this is pretty accurate, was March 23rd of ‘74. So sometime around there, we come out here in February or something, and then we did, two years later we did the first 5.12 in the park, the Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time. So we kind of progressed somewhat quickly. You know, back then, if you did 5.10 that was a huge deal because not that many people climbed 5.10.
And 5.11 was, you know, that was –even fewer people climbed that. So –and then we got, you know, we started making friends of the people that would climb fairly regularly, and so we'd all –like when we came out here and we'd all show up on the weekends and everybody kind of knew everybody, and so you would just, you know. And that's where most of the climbing was done around the campground, people were just starting forays out into the different areas right around then.
So we started doing some forays out. I think we put up Clean and Jerk on Sports Challenge. Was that in ‘75? Must have been ‘75, I'm guessing. I'd have to go look in the guidebook, but you know, those were –to go away from the campground was kind of a big deal because the only guidebook at the time, the Wolfe Guide[2] was all centered around climbing in the Hidden Valley campground. You know, there was one or two routes on Saddle Rocks, and there were some routes kind of, you know, sprinkled around the other parts of the park, but mostly everything was there, and then some in Indian Cove.

But we never went to Indian Cove, I never went down there until… I think one of the first things I did in Indian Cove was we top-rope free climbed this thing called the California Crack. Was an aid climb over… I don't even know what wall it's on, maybe the… not the Short Wall, what's the –Feudal Wall, it's on the right side of the Feudal Wall. I think that was one of the very first times I went to Indian Cove, we did that thing, so…

Anyways that's how we got into doing it. And I still have some of the homemade climbing gear that we made back in junior high in metal shop. So it's kind of crazy when you look at and think about that's how we used to climb routes, was with this homemade gear. [Laughs] You know, totally different from now, right, where everything’s so refined.
It was just very rudimentary, and one of the other things that we did was we started climbing in tennis shoes. We didn't have a lot of money so when we went to school, we would get our lunch money, but we'd never eat lunch. We'd save the money so we could buy, you know, back then, climbing shoes were like twenty three dollars and they got imported from England. So, you know, that required several weeks of savings before you get enough money to buy those. But every fall, our parents would buy us a new pair of shoes for school. So one time me and my brother found these shoes in Gallenkamps, he was the one that actually found them. He says, “Hey, I think these things would edge really good.” And so we got them. They were $6.99. They were called Gallenkamp Aspens.
And that was one of the precursors to the original 5.10 climbing approach tennis shoe, was the Aspens. And most people know ‘em more commonly as SCATS, because when the Aspens, I guess whoever made them went out of business and this company started making a shoe called SCATS and the SCATS were blue leather and brown leather. And that's what most people remember. But the original shoes were the Aspens.
And then a guy, Michael Jaffe, he had a pair of Adidas Countries. They were a cross-training shoe type thing, and he had a work rubber put on called Green Dot Rubber. It was a very dry rubber and it edged really good. And that's what we did back then, you had to edge, ‘cause the shoes weren’t –you know, there wasn't all these different shoes, you just had like EB’s and the PA’s. And then that's when Charles got the idea for the Five Tennie. And then he started working on a rubber formula. And then that's when the first Five Tennies came out. I kind of segwayed, didn't I? [Laughs] That story… so that I answer that question or…
SN: Did you have anything to follow up with on that?
BR: Only is it true that you like slab climbing more than crack climbing?
KP: For sure, because slab climbing you didn't have to train for. You know, you didn't have to be super fit to climb a slab, right. Where crack climbing was more strenuous. Plus, I got linked up with this guy, Darrell Hensel. He was, you know, one of the masters of slab climbing, and you know, we just basically… yeah, we liked each other's style of climbing, and so we started climbing and bouldering together a lot. So, yeah, slab climbing and that's sort of how I got my nickname “Dimes,” it was from pulling on really small holds. And, you know, we were really small and lightweight, right. So, like, back then I weighed like 115 pounds. So, you know, that was super advantageous, right, for pulling on microholds and we went bouldering at Rubidoux a lot, which is microhold climbing.
So, yeah, while I wasn't so good at crack climbing, not wide cracks, anything that was over fist size we wouldn't even do. If there was a chimney on something, well, we’d try to avoid if we could, because we didn't –we weren't good at the technique. And plus, back then, you couldn't protect them, right? That's just the way it was. You know, the biggest nut you had was an 11 hex. And then Chouinard came out with the tube chocks, but those were… I mean, they were okay. They were better than nothing, but it's nothing compared to what they have nowadays with all the active camming devices that are so much more versatile. So, yes, I was a slab climber.
BR: And does your brother like all the same styles of climbing that you do?
KP: He was stronger physically, so he was –I mean, yeah, he climbed the same –we all climbed –because me and my brother climbed together all the time, very frequently. And we put up first ascents together. But he ended up going into –he started going to college right out of high school, and so once he did that, he kind of didn't really… he didn't climb as much after that, he went to Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles. But yeah, he was –but he was a stronger crack climber for sure. And he doesn't climb… he climbs very little nowadays, very –maybe a couple of times every few years or something.
SN: Anything else, Bernadette?
BR: Nope. That's it for now.
SN: I want to understand a little better these 5.12 climbs at the time that you did them, because that sounds ahead of its time, to me. That number, I mean, five plus–
KP: So, yeah. So at the time in the United States, when we did that, it was about a week after Bachar and Kauk did –freed this climb in Yosemite called Hotline, which they rate it 5.12, but we didn't rate the Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time 5.12, we rated it 5.11c because we didn't think we could climb 5.12. And, you know, nobody did, right, because it wasn't it wasn't a grade that was there; it just wasn't around. It may have been in Europe, or back in the Gunks or something, but out here it wasn't.
So, you know, it was actually the only… we actually trained for it on the chimney in my parent's backyard. So what I did was I took a chisel and chiseled out the mortar between the bricks which was flush, and so I just chipped it, just chipped out of enough (without my dad knowing) just enough where we could really hang on, barely hang on. So we started training on that thing.
And it proved pretty beneficial. [Laughs] The chimney was pretty gnarly. I mean, I don't know what they would rate the chimney nowadays, probably 12+ or 13a or something, I'm guessing. But we could do it any time we want, we just walk into the backyard and so you could just start trying to get on the chimney in these SCATS. We’d use the tennis shoes, that’s what we trained with, the tennis shoes so... and you know, the Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time, it's only like 30 feet high. It's just an old bolt ladder in Ryan Campground, I mean, it's not… it's not this, like eye-popping formation, but sort of significant for the park's climbing history.
And then that's considered the, you know, kind of the first 5.12. that was done out here. Yeah, it's ultra micro-dime holds, really small holds stuff. So you know, one of the things with Joshua Tree is it was important in raising the standards of grades, you know, in the US because, you know, Bachar and Long and Stonemaster and those people, they came out here quite a bit and they really kind of built on the free climbing revolution that kind of started at Tahquitz and Suicide –well, maybe more Tahquitz and Yosemite. And then they kind of brought that standard out here and started developing it, because before those guys really, I think the hardest route out here might have been 5.9 or 10a, but when they came out –because Joshua Tree was really considered mostly a practice area by a lot of people, like the big Yosemite climbers and stuff. And they would go to Tahquitz to train and then they would go up into the valley, you know, to do the bigger climbs up there.
So Joshua Tree, most of the stuff is very short, 150 feet or less. So it was considered practice climbing, but it definitely contributed, you know, Bachar and Long and those guys really started developing a standard and then the guys up in Yosemite, Kauk and Bard and Bridwell and those guys, and so that started raising the standard, not only here in Southern California, but in California in general. And then there was other places, Colorado and the Gunks. And these are all very traditional climbing areas, not sport climbing areas.
The people were doing climbing in a very traditional ground-up style on you know, Funky Gear and doing routes that are still now super well-respected as far [audio interference] to be pretty crafty, leading them with your gear placements and stuff, even with all the modern gear. And the modern gear certainly has made things a lot easier to protect and safer, because you just have a lot more options. But that was one of the things, when gear started being developed, like the first camming devices. Well, the first kind of production ones were designed up in Yosemite, but it was a spin-off from another design that George Lowe was working on in Colorado.
So Joshua Tree was… you know, this is where people would come and basically live in the campground for the winter and train and boulder and climb and, you know, Bachar was very much at the forefront of all that. And bouldering was a super important part of the whole process, because you could get stronger bouldering and you could also figure out all these things, you know, “I can do these kind of moves and they actually really work.” You know, so bouldering close to the ground, you can fall off, you don't get hurt. So it really helped, you know, it was one of the components that really helped start bringing the standards of free climbing in the United States higher.
SN: Now, when you were doing these early 5.12s, were you already kind of comparing –were you already aware of what Bachar and the Stonemasters were doing, or was this before you came there with them?
KP: Well, it was sort of before us and then… we were kind of in on the whole thing, because those guys started coming out here ‘72-ish, I think, maybe late ‘71, ‘72, and they were doing stuff up in Idyllwild as well around that same time, so they started, you know, raising the standards that were –they were building on the free climbing stuff that started in the late 50s and the 60s, guys like Bob Kamps and Royal Robbins and Tom Higgins and Frank Sacher and those guys were big. They were going out and free climbing these aid routes because they thought that was a much more pure style because, you know, you're not damaging the rock as much by pounding as many pitons and you're just using your hands and feet to move upward instead of, you know, standing physically on a piece of gear, you know, to move upward. So it was just considered a much better style.
So that just that whole kind of evolutionary process, you know, just started getting developed by all these people that were pushing the standards –in different places, right. So maybe somebody would push the standards in Eldorado Canyon in Colorado or in the Shawangunks of New York, and then that kind of stuff would filter through, you know, the climbing communities, you know, not ‘cause –not nearly as rapidly as today, obviously, but, you know, and that would be motivational for people; “Oh, yeah, you know, John Bragg just did this,” or “Steve Wunsch just did this in the Gunks.” And people like, “Wow, that's pretty cool.”
You know, so that whole thing, you know, you're building on other people's motivation, and it builds your motivation up, so –and guys like Bachar, he was one of the first guys (him and Bridwell) that trained specifically for climbing. I mean, they developed their own training devices, their own training regimes. I mean, they were super into it. Him, Ron Kauk, Dale Bard, Werner[3] I mean, I think Worrall[4] and Chapman and those guys, they were all up in the valley, but they would come down here in the winter. You know, because the weather was fairly predictable. And like I say, you could spend the winter here, really. And that's what people would do, they would spend the winter climbing in Joshua Tree. So yeah, it was all part of the whole evolutionary process of raising the free climbing standards in the United States.
So for us, I think the question was, so where did we fit into that? We were kind of on the fringe of that. We knew those guys, you know, maybe we’d occasionally climb with them, but certainly, what they were doing would be motivational for us and then we would kind of find our own little things to do that were motivational. And, you know, we would sometimes, you know, people would come together as a bigger group and all climb together or boulder together, and we used to boulder– lot of us would boulder at night. After you're done climbing, we'd go out after dinner and boulder maybe from like eight at night till ten or eleven, and then come back to the campsite. So that was a big part of, you know, being out here and the night bouldering stuff.
And a lot of boulder problems were –the first ascents were done at night. No bouldering pads, we didn't have pads back then. Somebody might have, you know, some old style headlamp or some type of, you know, battery-powered lantern that they might hold up so you could sort of see what you were doing.
But those are all very… I don’t know if I’d use the word “pivotal,” but they were all very, you know, they were all very important to, you know, pushing the standards, getting to know the other people and, you know, “What are they possible of doing; wow, maybe I could do that too,” you know, so it was kind of motivational.
So it was kind of… you know, there was regular people out here every weekend, climbing. ‘Cause it wasn't a lot of other climbing areas, none of the sport climbing areas that existed, you know, all the stuff that's here in Southern California now, the sport climbing areas, none of those were –they didn't exist at the time. So you only had a couple of choices of where you were going to go.
ET: Kevin, I wanted to jump in and ask you a question about –you're talking about raising the standard or at least establishing one; could you speak to the Stonemasters and the importance of how they started building on training? You talk about you and your brother chipping on your chimney at home to work on climbs for chimneys; I think even John Bachar used things in his own backyard to build training grounds. Could you speak a little bit more about specific trainings and things to work on for climbing?
KP: So for Bachar, he made this thing called the Bachar ladder. And it was out of, you know, used climbing rope and then one-inch PVC pipe that he cut like 12 inches wide and then drilled holes in. And so it was like a regular ladder, like a rope ladder. And then he would hang that at an angle somewhere. It was out here, maybe it’d be in the campsite, you know, up in Yosemite in his backyard, he probably had one –I never went to John's house in LA, so I don't know what he had there, but…
So one of the other things he had was there's a thing out here in Joshua Tree called the Gunsmoke Traverse. It's out by Barker Dam, very famous. Lots of people go there and it's just a traversing, you know, it's probably… I don't know, a hundred feet long or something, maybe a hundred and twenty. And you can traverse, and it's easy on your fingertips, relatively speaking, because that was the thing out here in Josh, your fingers would really get beaten up by the coarse monzo’ granite. So you had to be really careful of what you were doing, ‘cause if you pulled a flap or a hole through one of your calluses, then you were kind of done. But we would boulder and climb all the time with our fingertips taped with one inch cloth tape.
But anyways, so on this thing, the Gunsmoke Traverse, at the end of it, Bachar had a hang board, and basically what a hangboard is, you know, he had like a 2x6 and then he fashioned these wooden holds on there, so you could have a hangboard; you could set it up like on the edge of your van, or you know, in the campsite. And you could do fingertip pull-ups on these different-size edges. So the hangboard at the time was sitting down at the southwest end of the Gunsmoke, so you do the Gunsmoke and you go down and you could do a finger workout, and you come back on the Gunsmoke. And so that was kind of a natural training thing out there.
And back then, very few people would be there, you know, you’d go out there and maybe there'd be three or four or five of us out there, you know, on the thing. Wasn't that big of a deal, now you go out there and it can be thirty or forty, maybe fifty people. But that was just one of the rudimentary training things that Bachar devised.
ET: Now did that spread to the larger community of climbers, or is that just centered around Bachar and his friends in the practicing and training?
KP: Yeah, so there was –I had some friends that they made Bachar ladders, and they had them in their backyards. You know, because a lot of the people worked, so they would train on the Bachar ladder, you know, during the week. And they might have a fingerboard or a hangboard there too. There was no… so one of the first –this is the –one of the first artificial walls that I know of, maybe even in the US, was in a place called Loma Linda by San Bernardino, at this place “Wilderness Recreation and Cyclery,” and it was a concrete wall that the owner, Tom Polk, had some people come in and build. And then every Wednesday night he had bouldering night. And so we would go over there, our parents would take us over there because we couldn't drive and they’d drop us off. And that's where I first met my buddy Darrell Hensel. And so if you put up a new problem, you’d get a twenty-five cent block of chalk for free, and then the first person to repeat it would get the same block of chalk.
So we would do all these –it was an indoor training wall, very rudimentary. You know, I'm sure it's no longer there now, but that was our kind of midweek training, was we’d go over to the training wall and boulder on this wall and then come back out here and go to Idyllwild on the weekends.
So I don't know… I mean, Bachar would train with weights. He would do pull ups with weights on. Those guys started slacklining, where you walk a –well, they had chain. But they would have chain strung between two trees. And I don't think they ever –I don't know if they ever set up a slackline out here or not, I can't remember. But they had them in the valley and they were like permanently set up in Camp Four in the valley for balance, you know, and kind of core strength and stuff.
But those guys, they had a whole regime of things they did and, you know, I never did that stuff. Like I said, we never really trained. We just kind of went climbing. So that was why we went slab climbing. ‘Cause slab climbing, I mean, you don't get pumped, right, you can just stand there and rest. But if you're in a vertical overhanging crack, it's a lot more physical.
SN: Kevin, can you hear –sorry, I think my sound cut out for a minute there. Can you hear me now?
KP: Yeah.
SN: I just want to confirm that was in the 70s, that this indoor climbing wall was set up in San Bernardino. Is that correct?
KP: Yeah.
SN: And that's quite a long time ahead of the sort of explosion in indoor climbing walls. That correct?
KP: Yeah, I'm trying to think of when the first –when I first knew of… they might have had some indoor climbing walls at some universities. I know they did in Loma Linda because me and Darrell, we… they had a couple bouldering contests there and we were the route setters for I think two of them, at least one of them. But commercially, I don't know when the first gyms started opening, I'm going to say–
SN: I’d say early 90s.
KP: Yeah, probably early 90s.
SN: Yeah, so do you know the story on this guy in San Bernardino; who set this up, what he knew or how he got interested, or–?
KP: Well, I haven't talked to Tom. He moved to a remote area of Montana. I'm going to say he did that right around 1980, somewhere in there. Him and his wife, I can't remember her name. But he was kind of more of a mountaineer-type guy, I mean, he did mountaineering. I mean, he climbed too, I mean, I climbed with him up in Idyllwild a few times and out at Big Rock, he put up some new routes at Big Rock. And so, yeah, I mean, he was just –he was into cycling, he was just a big outdoors guy. And the place they moved to in Montana, you had to, in the winter (I hope I remember this correctly) you had to go in by dog sled.
You couldn't drive in there, I believe was the deal. Because he came down once or twice after they moved up there. We were talking to him about it. Yeah, we’d have, you know, there wasn't a lot of people, there’d maybe be five or six people over there bouldering on Wednesday nights. So, you know, it's kind of a cool deal.
But yeah, there was another guy, this guy, Jim Waters, in Hemet. He had a mountaineering –well, a climbing outdoor related shop, Waters’ Mountaineering. And what he did was he took and he had –there was a cinderblock wall that divided another occupancy and he just bolted on some, like square pieces of stock metal, different sizes of this square stock metal. So you could climb on this vertical wall on this square stock metal stuff. And that stuff was super hard on your fingers and if you came off, it was super painful. And it was really slippery, right, because the chalk didn't work on the metal. So you had to be really careful climbing at that place. We went there a few times, but he wasn't open that long. I think just a few years. Yeah, so most people don't know that there were these indoor climbing walls here in Southern California back in the mid-70s. You know, they were never anything of –they weren't noteworthy in any way, so…
SN: But do you think that contributed to your –having a kind of ability that compensated for the relatively primitive gear in accomplishing some of these harder climbs that you did?
KP: Well, I mean, it's certainly increased our contact strength, you know, especially on small holds. It didn't necessarily increase your endurance, because the stuff wasn't very long. I think that the wall in Polk’s shop there in Loma Linda, I think you topped out about 15 feet maybe at the most, and then at Waters’ place it was probably maybe 12 feet, 10 or 12 feet. I don't know what the height of that ceiling was in there, but I mean, certainly for our contact strength, I think it was super helpful. And that's what bouldering was. You know, you got really –you really improve your contact strength on small holds.
You know, because once again, bouldering, you don't typically get pumped or fatigued because it's –you're not on there long enough typically. You know, it's not like you're doing a hundred and sixty foot pitch of crack climbing or something. So yeah, all that stuff, going to Rubidoux, bouldering at Rubidoux; I mean, people now, modern day people go to Rubidoux and kind of shuts them down really, because it's a totally different type of climbing.
It's very small hold stuff. And it's very –what I say… it's just tedious, people aren't really into that. The small hold slab stuff just isn't very… you don't see people doing it nowadays very often, and the shoe designs, the shoes we used –the kind of shoes we used are no longer made. They were board lasted shoe[5] and they were stiff, so you could really edge on them. And that's what we… we edged, that's what we did, that's what we knew how to do. And when the new soft shoes came out, it was… you know, we had to try and change the way we used our feet, because the shoes worked differently. You know, they weren't what we were used to. And I still have a bunch of pairs of the old board lasted shoes. If I ever thought about really climbing again, I'd break those things out and see if I could squeeze my feet into them.
But if you gave them to a modern day climber, they probably wouldn't know what to do. They wouldn't be able to use them. I mean, some of the people might be, but a lot of people, they would be too stiff.
So, I mean, that's a whole –we could segway into the whole climbing shoe thing and spend a couple hours talking about that. [Laughs] I was really into the shoes, and I experimented with –I was able to use some kind of experimental rubber back in the 70s that different people were thinking about. And so I would find out about it and say, “Hey, can I send you these shoes, can you re-sole them with that rubber? I would like to try them out.” And so I was kind of intrigued by that whole thing.
And when I took a 70-80 foot fall at Tahquitz, I was climbing in a pair of EB’s that had been re-soled with this experimental rubber. But I kind of made a crucial error. [Chuckles] Wasn’t really the rubber’s fault so much as it was mine, but I never made that mistake again.
SN: Would you mind starting at the beginning and telling us that whole story, Kevin?
KP: The 70-80 foot fall?
SN: Yes.
KP: So I was climbing this route at Tahquitz, in fact, it was the first time I ever climbed with a fairly well-known woman climber, she wasn't well known at that time, but Maria Cranor. She ended up being the vice president of Black Diamond Equipment, but it was the very first day ever climbing with her, and I wanted to do this route, Tobias, at Tahquitz. The first pitch had never been led on just all clean gear stoppers and hexes and stuff. People had always used pitons on it, so…
I thought, “Well, it’d be cool, let's go up, see if we can free climb,” because that was one of our big things back then, was trying to free climb these aid routes or free climb routes with just clean gear that people’d normally use pitons on the first pitons on. So I led the first pitch on all clean gear, no pitons.
SN: What year was this Kevin?
KP: Boy, I don't even know. I'm going to say…. I couldn't drive; maybe ‘74? Fall of ‘74 something.
SN: OK, thanks.
KP: Probably, I don't know, might have even been in ‘73. I can't remember. Maria had to come by my house and pick me up; she lived in Riverside, so we went up there and so I led the first pitch without pitons, seemed okay. There were some people watching and they're like, “Wow, you just led the thing without pitons.” And yeah, it was kind of nice.
And so then I got on the second pitch and I got off route. That was my big error. And then my second big error was my friend Hensel would tell me, he says, “Well, sometimes you can't get gear in, and so you just have to keep climbing.” So I'm like, “Well, okay, I can't get gear in, I guess I gotta just keep climbing.”
And then I did a mistake that you never do on a run out slab route, I did a high step. And when you're on runout slab you want to make really small moves that you can reverse by climbing back down. It's the same when you put up a first ascent on slabs. You have to be able to down-climb in case you get –climb yourself into like a cul-de-sac or someplace where you can't stand to drill.
So anyway, I tried to do this high step move and reach for this edge and I just kept right on going down; I mean the high step move, I just pushed through and just kept right on going. And all’s Maria could see was a bunch of rope coming down over this roof; she couldn’t see me, she just saw all this rope coming back down.
And finally I came into the air. So I slid part of the way, I was climbing in cutoff Levi shorts and so I slid on the slab. So I had these second degree friction burns on the outside of my left leg. So I didn't hit the belay ledge, I just stopped just above it, and my fall was held by a little #1 wire hexcentric; thing’s about as big as maybe your little finger or something.
So Maria lowers me to the belay ledge, and I kind of sat there and thought, “Man, that was pretty scary.” [Laughs] She says, “You're not going back up there,” I go, “No.” [Laughs] No, we need to just go down, leave some gear and rappel off, you know, because we were only a pitch up, so we were able to rapp to the ground, and then we –I kind of stumbled back down to the car and we drove home. So that was… I mean, it was an interesting experience because I was an –after that, I wasn't nearly as bold after I took that big fall, even though nothing really happened to me but it scared me enough that I was a lot more tentative after that.
And I took the fall in an one-inch swami belt, so just a piece of one inch wide webbing wrapped around your waist. Totally different than what people use now, right? And the rope that we were climbing on I bought used at a garage sale. [Laughs] Because we didn't, you know, we didn't have hardly any money, so that's what we did. Of course, I'd never do that now, but at the time it seemed like a good idea.
So, yeah, it was a pretty pivotal thing in my climbing experience; like I say, it really kind of shook me up and I was never –I never had that same boldness after that fall. But we still went climbing and I got over some of it. We started free climbing these other routes up in Idyllwild. Me and Darell, we took some long, long lobs off of those things, there was like 30, maybe some –well, 20 and 30 footers for sure; I don't know if we ever dropped a 40, but maybe. Onto some kind of manky gear, one of the routes we were working on, we’d taken like some 20 to 30 footers and then we came back, I think it was the next weekend and the piton that we were using for the protection, we looked up and it was gone. We're like, “Man, how could somebody get here during the week and steal–” Well, we looked down and it'd fallen out; it was on the ground at our feet. We're just like, “Woah, I thought that was a better placement than that.” [Laughs]
So, you know, once again, that's kind of those you're just learning, you know, you're learning as you go and you know, you're younger, so you have a little bit more… maybe you're not as cautious or you're just a little more adventuresome. Yeah, but can't go back to those days now, too old for that stuff.
SN: Well, that's a very memorable experience, that 80 foot fall. Can you share –are there any memorable experiences from climbing in Joshua Tree that you would say were some of the most memorable climbing experiences that you've had? Anything come to mind?
KP: Well, I mean, Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time would probably be for me… I mean, that was a pretty, pretty important event for me anyway, but when we put up this route Clean and Jerk on Sports Challenge Rock, me and my brother and this guy Dan Ahlborn, that was the first climb on that formation, and they had actually found it the weekend before, and we came back and, you know, work on it collectively as a group. But Dan was the one that came up with the name Sports Challenge Rock, because there used to be a show called Sports Challenge on TV. I don't know if you remember that, Dick Enberg was the emcee, and they’d ask you all these sports-related question type things. And so that's why the first two routes on there were named the Clean and Jerk and the Championship Wrestling.
And then there's –I’m trying to think if any of the other routes kept with the whole Sports Challenge theme; I think people deviated from the Sports Challenge theme after that [laughs] but yeah, they did. I don't think there's any other routes on there named that. But, you know, that was one of the cool things about like –so, you know, my brother and Ahlborn found the formation right on the Hidden Valley nature trail, right by the old bridge, the old wooden bridge. And nobody'd done any routes on the thing, you know, and it was like a ten minute walk from the campground so, you know, that kind of stuff was pretty cool for us because we were younger and, you know, we're just figuring everything out. And so you get these, you know, that's one of the more popular 5.10s in the park, the Clean and Jerk.
Trying to think of the other routes that we put up. I did what we think is the second ascent of this thing called the Wangerbanger on O’Kelley wall –or, the left O'Kelley crack. Tobin had done the first free ascent of it; it’d been aided. And then we went over there and I think, from what I remember, is that I led the second ascent of that thing, the second free climbing ascent of it. That was fairly memorable because those are things, you know, once again, not the, back then, not the average climber was doing so much and was pretty important to us to kind of be, you know, kind of near the top of the standard; we weren’t at the top, but you know, it was fun to kind of be a, you know, that upper echelon. You know, perhaps wasn't such a big deal back then as this stuff is now, but there’s a route we put up in Belle Campground called the Count Dracula. That was a really cool first ascent. Sort of epic. Because we were hand drilling bolts, placing a fixed anchor in the rock, and so you had to stand there and you know, tink tink tink tink with a hand drill as long as it took to get the hole in.
So we were drilling quarter inch bolts that were about 11/4” long, so you know, if you had a good stance, you could probably drill one in 15 minutes. If the stance was funky, it might take you 30 minutes because you might have to keep repositioning until you could get the hole deep enough for the bolt. So, yeah and that was on impeccable, perfect granite, which is kind of unusual in Josh. Was more reminiscent of like of Idyllwild Rock, but that was pretty cool and then… another formation that Ahlborn found was this place called the Rock Garden Valley, Rock Garden Wall; and so we went up there and we did the first route on that called the Double Dogleg.
It’s a 5.7, really good rock, pretty popular, moderate route, I think, out here now. But one of the things that was unusual about that route is instead of placing a bolted rappel anchor, we down-climbed off the back, which was probably 5.4 or –almost as hard as the route, because back then, that's what you did, we didn't place bolts because, well, first of all, it took –it was time consuming. And it cost more money. And back then, the stuff was pretty cheap compared to now, but it was just one of those things we didn't do. And we tried to climb just using, you know, stoppers and hexes, and then we got some more advanced type of stoppers, and then they made the offset hexcentrics, and then friends came along, and then [inaudible] started getting… more and more passive –or passive and active protection devices became available, which made things a lot, lot more efficient.
That was a pretty cool first ascent and we didn't do any other first ascents on that wall, but now there’s like, I don't know how many routes are out and that thing, 10 or 15 routes or something; it’s fairly popular. But we would poke around, we didn't do any of them, like the huge, kind of the more… I don't know if you would call them “visionary” but some of the more out there, you know, first ascents, we never get any first ascents on th–
Well, actually, we did do some first ascents on the Astrodome, but on the west side, they’re kind of… we can ‘em call “junky.” But they're not nearly the quality of the ones on the east side for sure. Me and Ahlborn did this route called the Aqua Tarkus, fairly run out, up this water course system. Nothing to… certainly not anything to rave about, probably never even been repeated for all I know. Was only like 5.8 or 5.9 or something. But just being, you know, on that kind of fringe of the frontier of exploration out here was super cool for us, even though we weren't the people that were out there really doing first ascents all the time.
One of the things that was interesting was I talked to one of the guys who did do a lot of first ascents recently was this guy, Dave Houser. And I never climbed a lot with Houser, but it was super fun to connect with him after 30 years or so. The last time I talked to him was we had this –well, it became known as the Stonemaster Reunion at my house back in 2006 here in Joshua Tree. But it started out just to gather a few people that climbed in Josh in the 70s and early 80s together out here just to kind of reminisce and hang out and it parlayed into this huge –I think we roughly counted 165 people at the house. And all the original living Stonemasters were here; there were six original Stonemasters. Everybody thinks there was a bunch of them, but there were six original ones, and two of them had passed –no, let’s see, no, Richard was here. I think the only one that wasn't was… Tobin definitely wasn't because he died, ‘cause he died in ‘80. Pardon?
SN: Kevin, can you name the six for us?
KP: So there was John Long, Ricky Accomazzo, Richard Harrison, Robs Muir, Mike Graham, and Tobin Sorensen, that was the six original ones.
SN: Thank you.
KP: Tobin had passed away… no, Richard was here, because Richard hadn't passed away yet. So I think all five of the… yeah, Ricky… yeah, the five who were still living were all here and it was pretty cool. That was a once in a lifetime event. I mean, people still comment about that thing, because a lot of the people that were important in the Southern California climbing community were here. It was super cool. Bachar was here, the five Stonemasters that I mentioned, you know, Houser showed up. Trying to think of…
Mike and Mari were here, Fish[6] was here… all the people that we used to see in the 70s, almost all of them were here. They ended up showing up so it was super cool, and Black Diamond made a commemorative carabiner. It was called –what did they call it? I think it was the Climbing Masters 2006 or something like that. Maria had them made, she made a hundred of them. So they gave them out to the first hundred people that showed up to the thing; they were blue. I actually got two of them, which I still have.
Yeah, so that was an interesting event, probably never be –well, never be repeated for sure, because Richard passed away, say, six or seven years ago, I think now. Yeah. Anyway, so, yeah, for the Josh stuff, I mean, I know there was probably more adventures that we had out there that I… [Laughs]
Maybe if I pawed through the guidebook, I'd remember some of them. The bouldering; bouldering was a huge thing. We'd go and try and find these new boulder problems. You could spend a weekend just bouldering if your fingertips could last through the weekend. So, yeah, because I think you mentioned and I saw it –one of the questions in here, you know. [Reading from question guide] “What was the relationship between bouldering and other kinds of climbing in each period?” And I think bouldering has always been important here since the mid 70s, when those guys… won’t say “those guys,” when all of us, really started bouldering kind of as an end in its own, realizing how much how much stronger it would make you and how much you could learn by trying different ways to do these different moves that you could then know, “Okay, that works.” And so then when you got on the climb, you could use that particular technique or style or whatever.
So yeah, bouldering was super important back then. And I think a lot of people –I think Bernadette can probably talk about this, but I think a fair amount of people come out to Josh just to go bouldering now. They have bouldering pads, so that makes things a little… I mean, had we thought about the bouldering pad idea, we probably would have made some, but all’s we had is a little piece of carpet. So if the ground was wet –and this is when you would do the stuff in what they call a “highball problem” out here, was you would go after it’d rained (and it rained more back then than it does now) when the ground was softer. So you put down your little towel or your little piece of carpet so your feet wouldn’t get mud on them or wet sandy soil on them, and then that’s when you would do the highball problems because the ground was a little softer.
So it was just like a built-in bouldering pad, but you had to wait till it rained. That was the deal. But we all used gymnastic chalk, I don't know if that's on your guys’ list, but that was super important. Try to keep your hands dry, but like I’m climbing, really, for me, a chalk bag became more like a cigarette. If I got nervous, I could dip my hands into the chalk bag and try and calm myself down. Of course, bouldering… I mean, you might chalk up in the middle of a boulder problem, or you might not, because most of them are only like three to ten moves long or maybe fifteen the most.
But at first, there was only one kind of chalk, and it was the twenty-five cent blocks from GSC and they were imported; they were supposedly cut off the White Cliffs of Dover some cliffs in France had these chalk cliffs and then made into these little cubes, I still have some of them. I have some of the original chalk cubes that we used are still in the same wrapper and everything. I think, Bernadette, did I have those out there at the thing a couple springs ago, B? Do you remember?
BR: Mhmm.
KP: That's crazy. I mean, you know, I just kind of kept hold of some of this stuff, really, I'm not really sure why, but sometimes I paw through this stuff and think, “Wow, those were pretty cool times back then,” you know, because that's how we grew up. We grew up rock-climbing. You know, I mean, how many people you know, their parents took you out to a climbing area and dropped you off and came back and got you. Not very many, but there was a catch to the whole thing with my dad was we couldn't drink alcohol and we couldn't do any type of recreational drugs. That was the deal.
SN: Yeah we were going to ask you about that deal, Kevin, because that doesn't sound like the Stonemaster era, really. I think Bernadette might have had a question on that for you.
KP: So that was just for me and my younger brother, the other people did the stuff. I mean, I could have freely –I was offered many times, but I've never done recreational drugs in my life ever. And a lot of people don't believe that. I have drank alcohol, but not very –very infrequent.
But yeah, that was just the deal my dad had with me, my younger brother–
[Kevin’s video is cut off]
KP: Oh, did I lose you guys, are we there? Somebody tried to call in.
SN: No, we didn't lose your sound, your sound was fine. Emilio, did you have a question?
ET: No, I just wanted to let him know that we could hear him.
KP: Yeah, somebody tried to call me, it’s a person I'm helping tomorrow, but I'll call him back here after we're done. No worries. So, yeah, that was the deal. My dad, the deal was no –we couldn't drink alcohol and we couldn't do recreational drugs. And if we abided by that, then he would bring us out here for the weekend and drop us off. So we thought that was a reasonable deal.
So that's what we did. We never got involved with that stuff, so. So, like I said, that was the Stonemaster era, so like I say, everybody around me –maybe not everybody, but most of the people were, you know, doing recreational drugs and drinking. But we weren't kicked out of the group or whatever term you want to use because we didn't, you know, it's just we said, “No, we were not interested in it,” so.
SN: There were things –that's an important point for the study, because it kind of shows that what created community in the group at that time was not first and foremost the kind of social practices that were significant in that era. That what gave you a sense of belonging in the group was basically the climbing itself. Does that sound accurate?
KP: Yes. I mean, there was some small cliques where people, you know, just like in anything, you know, people will migrate more towards a certain… maybe style, person, or whatever, but nobody was really pushed away or anything that I could remember, it was just, you know, maybe some of the people that had climbed out here before that –well, so, one of the things that I started doing was I started going –I joined the Sierra Club ‘so I could –’cause they had the rock climbing section. This is back before I could drive, so you know, they would have these things like once a month or whatever. And so maybe my folks would drive me down to Riverside where they would meet, and then I would go with the rock climbing section of the Sierra Club.
And they tended to be more conservative. And I learned stuff from them. And it was a way for me to learn about climbing. And that's how I met Maria, because her husband was one of the prominent persons of the rock climbing section out here, and so that's how I met Maria Cranor, was through that whole experience. But they weren't so psyched on the way I climbed I guess. [Laughs] Because we were already kind of on the way to trying to climb harder climbs. And they were more conservative and they’d go to places and do the same climbs kind of over and over again, where we were kind of like, “Well, let's look for something different,” or “Let's try something different,” or whatever.
We were more willing to take falls, I guess, than they were. I mean, they were just a much more conservative group, but it was a good learning thing for me, and like I say, I met Maria and then from that, you know, started meeting other people, so it was super helpful.
SN: OK, so we're at four o'clock right now, and I know that Bernadette still has a couple of questions that she wanted to ask. Is it OK to go over? Bernadette, are you OK to stay with us for another 15 minutes or so?
BR: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I'm in no rush at all.
SN: Okay great. All right. Maybe –why don't you go ahead and see what's on your list that we haven't covered so far.
BR: Well, going back to some of your first ascents, I was curious where the name Mel's Diner came from.
KP: [Laughs] Yeah. So the Mel Cracks, not Mel's Diner, came from a shirt. So I used to buy most of my climbing clothing at a thrift store down in Riverside. And so, Mel, the shirt Mel, was –Mel was a player on a dart team from Chino. I don’t remember the –oh, the Shamrock Shooters was the name of the dart team. And so when we did the first ascent of the Mel Cracks (and those were cool too), I happened to be wearing Mel at the time. So we called ‘em the Mel Cracks and then just kind of spontaneously, I'm like, “Let's name them, let's name the left one –the one on the right will be the left Mel crack and then one on the right will be the left Mel Cracks, so it’s…”
[Laughs] You know, people are like, “Can’t you just switch those back?” It's like, well, no, I mean, that's, you know. That's how it played out on the day we did the first ascent, I know it seems –it’s probably kind of crazy or corny, but I don't know, we kind of –me, [Mike] Waugh and [Darryl] Nakahira and “the Voice”, Alan Roberts[7] were all there, and so we all thought, you know. We thought that would be a fitting thing to do, and so I had –for first ascents, I had a list of names that I thought would be good for first ascents.
And so, like the Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time, that was the Panasonic, you know. That's what the brand, Panasonic –they made electronics and stuff, you know, their commercials on TV was “just slightly ahead of our time,” and that's where the name came from for the route Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time. And then on the Lost Horse Wall, Bird on a Wire, that was another cool first ascent. It was a poem, I think it was by Leonard Cohen. And it was called “Bird on the Wire.” But I didn't like how “the” sounded with it, so I just changed it to “Bird on a Wire.”
So we would just –you know, a lot of routes were named after rock songs or rock albums, but I had this particular list of things that something kind of caught my attention, I’d write it down on this list and I might still have the list. I'll have to go look for it.
But anyway, so that's how the Mel's Diner and the Mel Cracks –and then there's a top rope up and left of the Mel Cracks called the Shamrock Shooter. And you have to throw a dyno[8] and I just top roped it, I think [Mike] Lechlinski may have led the thing not too long afterwards, but I just top roped it. But it seemed fitting, right, because you pull up on this kind of small hold and throw this dyno for this undercling, so it's like you're shooting for the hold. So the whole “Shamrock Shooters” seem to kind of play into that whole theme.
Any other route name questions?
BR: That was about it. When did you start calling Joshua Tree home?
KP: That was –I moved out here in April of ‘94, so we'd been in Australia for a month photographing, climbing, and traveling around and then so I flew back into LAX and then the next day I drove out and moved into the house that I'm in now, so it was twenty-six years ago and a few months or something; April of ‘94. I've lived in Idyllwild –well, I was back in Moreno Valley– [audio interference] –years. Yeah. And one of the reasons I came out here because of that was when I was actively photographing climbing.
So it worked out perfect throughout the rest of the 90s. And then I stopped shooting climbing or photographing climbing in 2003. The last climbing photo that I took was an ad shot for Sportiva. I've written a couple of articles about climbing out here. Back in –they were both published back in the 90s, one in Climbing Magazine and one in Rock and Ice. I don't know if you’ve seen those, but one was doing the 10 classic 5.10 routes in a weekend.
SN: Actually, no, we haven't seen those and we would really like to see those. I don't know if you have any copies of them, but if you do and you could send them to us, we'd really like to put them in the project bibliography and take a look at them, too. So thank you for mentioning those.
KP: I could probably at some point scan –so the first article was like, it was about climbing the ten classic 5.10s in the park in a weekend, so I kind of had –kind of drew up a list of what I thought they were. And then I showed it around to a bunch of different people, and kind of came to this consensus. So me and my buddy Mike Waugh tried to do it.
We wanted to wait till the days were a little longer, so we waited till April. And that ended up being a mistake because that was the year we had snow in May. [Laughs] So we had this perfect weather window from like February to March, and then the weekend we decide to do it, the first day Saturday was perfect weather. We did the first five routes, but the next day [laughs] not so good. Oh, it was howling wind. We walked out to the base of Solid Gold, we could barely stand up because it was so windy. And then for the next –rest of April and May, the weather was just hideous. Lots of wind, we had snow the first weekend in May. A couple of inches of snow.
And the second article was a romance piece about climbing out here under the full moon in the summer. And so when I wrote that, I thought, “They'll never print this thing.” Because I'd never seen anything like it in a climbing periodical, right. So I wrote the backup article called “School Daze.”
So the main article –they actually ended up publishing it and I worked with a woman editor on it, so there was a lot of innuendo in it which got… well, a lot of it got removed, [laughs] let’s just say that. But it was called “Summer Secrets.” So that was a fun article, and it was fun shooting the pictures for it.
And even the 5.10 weekend, that was a super fun project to work on and had a good time, you know, climbing and photographing people, so, yeah, I can probably sometime… I don't know, probably won’t be right away, but I can scan those things and try and send them to you.
SN: Great. Thank you.
ET: I want to –oh, sorry, Bernadette, are you…?
BR: Just saying that's all my questions for now, so it's your turn.
ET: Okay. Sorry about that. Thank you. Yeah, I just wanted to ask you, Kevin, just as we're wrapping up, about your work with Dave Mayville, and the work you've been doing to re-bolt some certain routes around the park.
KP: So what happens with that, and the primary person is a guy, Mark Wagner. He's really the motivating force and kind of the brains behind all the removal and techniques and stuff. And I got –Dave was the one that actually introduced us. And he lives right up the street from me.
So that was four years ago, I started, you know, Mark got involved, but before that we started (me and my friend Darrell and another friend of mine, John) we started replacing bolts back in ‘87. And I think it was the first kind of large-scale replacement project in the US. I hadn't heard of anything else, and we started out doing it –we just wanted to fix certain bolts on certain routes that we liked where if the bolt failed, you know, you would get seriously injured or maybe killed.
And so I got a power drill in May of ‘87, and I got my power drill about a week or 10 days after Bachar got his, so we were the first ones that we knew in California, climbers that had these power drills, really cordless battery power drills that you could take out and… So we started buying the bolts and hangers and stuff ourself; we used all our own money. And then when we would go climbing, we would take the stuff with us and we would fix –we started just fixing these specific bolts that we had in mind, but we soon discovered that we had to do them all because you could not tell which ones were good or bad. You couldn't. It was just so random.
And so we did… a lot of stuff at Big Rock, up in Idyllwild, Suicide mainly, and Tahquitz, and out here. And this was back when the power drills were legal. So a lot of this replacement work I did out here at Josh I did by myself; I would drive out here on my days off from work. Maybe spend a day, you know, hike to the top of a formation, drop the rope, take out the bolts, put in the new ones.
And so I just continued doing that until… well, like I say, when Mark got involved back in June of 2016 is when we started, me and him started working together. And then that's when we got into what's happening now. I had really kind of stopped replacing bolts. I would just do it very intermittently. But when Mark got involved, we started working on the bigger 3/8th-inch bolts. And those I couldn't get out with the rudimentary techniques I was using, all from the late 80s up until Mark came around.
And he’s developed a whole series of tools and techniques. Basically he can take out any bolt that's out here, and so we're very careful, we're very patient, and we do it hole for hole. We remove the old bolt, he gets all the metal out, and then I enlarge the hole, and yeah, it's worked out; I think we're up to… what’s our count? It's around 1320 or something like that, I think now, right in there. It's a lot of work, but like I say, he's the brains behind it, he's the motivation. And we found some pretty scary stuff.
SN: Can you say more about what makes it scary for people who might not know?
KP: Well, because people don't know –so people nowadays, they have this inherent trust of these fixed anchors, okay. So these fixed anchors are all placed by people that have never been trained in how to do it. We just teach ourselves.
They didn't necessarily use the best products, even when we were replacing, we were using mixing metals, what we were putting in was much better than what we took out, but it still wasn't the best way to do it. And so I was climbing up at Suicide about a month ago, and I was thinking about, you know, I don't know how many bolts we did up there, four or five hundred, probably, maybe more.
Just thinking all those need to be redone. [Laughs] You know, I was younger then, so it wasn't as big a deal for me to hike up there by myself, but usually me and Darrell would do it, or my buddy John would come. And we would do it as we were climbing, we'd go up and say, “Let's climb this route and replace the bolts.” So that's what we would do. But nowadays, the bolts –they get hung on all the time, they get fallen on all the time, because that's the norm. People are transitioning from –
[Kevin’s audio and video cut out]
SN: He froze.
ET: It should come back soon, I think.
SN: Yeah. Kevin! So important. Bernadette, while he's struggling, is there anything more on this subject that you want to ask him? Because I want to be sure you get a chance to…
ET: You’re on mute.
BR: Yeah, this is a really good flow so far. Thank you for asking this question. Maybe just his motive for following the policies about the power drills and not just going out and doing what he wants all the time.
[Kevin comes back]
KP: Are we back?
SN: We lost you–
KP: Yes. Okay, the Wi-Fi connection out here is very spotty. And so I just switched over to my broadband, my cellular phone connection, so we're good. We're okay.
SN: Oh good, yeah, but we missed most of what you said. Unfortunately, I think.
KP: I see. So the whole bolt replacing thing, is something –did you guys get the part where, you know, I started –me and a couple of friends started doing [inaudible] back in ‘87?
SN: Yeah.
KP: So, you know, we were the only ones who did it, I think, on a large –kind of on a semi-large scale. And then when I got involved with Mark back in June of 2016, he designed these special tools and these techniques and he continually refined them and develops them. And so, you know, we've done about 1320 bolts right now. And not just me and him, other people help us, right. But we're kind of the core two people that kind of, like kind of organize… [He begins to get up] I'm going to have to move, I gotta clip into…
Are we back?
SN: We can hear you, so please keep going. This is so important, Kevin.
KP: Okay, so anyway, I'm going to –had to plug my phone into a charging source, so it's kind of funky. Anyway, so when Mark got involved, we started doing this a lot more difficult work. He designed all these tools and these techniques and, you know, he's an engineer and he's essentially a genius. And so it's really allowed us to really replace any type of bolt that was put in over the last 30 or 40 years, and there's a bunch of different types. I mean, you think you've seen it all, and then you'll come to something you haven't seen before.
So how does that parlay into the stuff with the park? You know, the park supports us by granting us the special-use permit so we can use the power drills in front country; non-wilderness, we can’t use them in the wilderness at all. So our primary focus is on, you know, those formations and formations that are relatively close to the road, because there's so much gear that we have to take so we don't typically stray more than about a half mile from the parking lot.
So what have we found? Kind of more of the same that we found over the last… me over the last thirty-plus years of doing it. Because you can't always tell. How many bolts have we discovered really that had a high degree of maybe having a catastrophic failure? We've pulled five bolted belay anchors out by hand, so that's ten bolts total.
I don't know. I would say maybe twenty or twenty-five bolts over the whole 1320 that had a decent potential –we had a catastrophic failure back in November, and it was a bolt we weren't going to replace. And we got down to it and it snapped off with a hundred pounds or less of force. If somebody would’ve fallen on it, or someone would’ve just grabbed it, it would’ve snapped it. Because it had corroded all the way through the shaft to the bolt. Through 5/16ths-inch metal, and it was just a little sliver of regular metal left, maybe as thick as your thumbnail.
SN: Wow.
KP: So if somebody would have fallen on that, would not have been good. [Laughs] And we know there's more of those out there. We'll never get to them, but somebody is going to find them eventually. And they're going to find them in not the best way. Because like I say, people, they get fixated on these fixed anchors; they grab them, they hang on them, they fall on them. We would always climb with the mentality “you don't fall,” because the gear wasn't good.
So our whole premise was, “you don't fall.” I mean, we did, we did fall. But nowadays, the people climb at premise you can fall whenever and wherever you want. That's how they approach these things. And it's very unnerving for me to watch people on these fixed anchors. And they just don't understand them. And they don't know, like people go, “Well, who maintains these?” We go, “Nobody.” “Well, somebody has to!” [Laughs] “Well, I guess us.” That's it.
You know, and –but people, they don't understand how the whole thing works. They just take –they think it's Disneyland. They're coming out here for Disneyland, and this open air climbing gym, and, you know, everything's taken care of for you. And you just go out and have a good time and, you know, yeah, you sort of do. But at some point, the good times are going to end for somebody. That's the thing we're worried about.
And it's probably going to happen in a wilderness area because we're not, you know, we can't replace out there with power drills. And plus, there's only two of us, really, to work on this regularly, right. There's no way… I mean, I don't know what Bernadette thinks. We think there's about eight or nine thousand bolts in the park. You know, and it's just a pure guess, but if you think about it, we've done 1,300 in four years. So there's a lot of potential catastrophic failures waiting. Well, in fact, even Bernadette had one. She had a hanger failure. How long ago was that, B, like five years ago?
BR: Five years ago in the Astrodome.
KP: Mhmm. [In understanding] And that was because, I mean, you know, you guys reached out with the quickdraw[9] and pulled on that hanger and snapped the hanger off, right?
BR: Mhmm. [In agreement]
KP: Because basically, you'd been out… I don't know, I mean, the kind of story I got from Mike was that you –just from going out with us and you know, or with me replacing the stuff, Mark wasn't really involved yet, but it made you guys think twice about “Well, let's test this thing a little bit and see what happens,” and then the thing snaps off. So that's what's going to happen. And it'll probably going to be in the wilderness area that will have, you know, probably a fatal accident with a failure; I'm sure it's going to happen. And I don't think it's going to be more than five more years. But hopefully it won't. Hopefully it won't happen. But I just can't see it not.
So it's an important thing, it's a community service thing; we don't get paid to do it. You know, we don't care to get paid to do it so much. It's just something that we both like doing, you know, me and Mark. But like I say, other people help us. It's not like it's just a two-man show. I mean, we've had a lot of help over the last four and a half years. A lot of people have helped us get gear out to the formation, rigged the ropes, the climbing stewards over the last couple of years have started helping when they're here during the season.
But we replace year round, we go out in the summer and we just stay on west-facing things early in the morning or east-facing things at late in the evening and we just chip away at the stuff, you know, as we can. We're kind of wearing out, I think we might be… [Chuckles] I think we might run out of steam in the next year.
It's pretty hard on our bodies, you know, carrying all that stuff and hanging there for so long in the harnesses. And we have full-body harnesses, not… people would never climb in the harnesses we use, but for the rigging work that we do, they work perfect. So we spend a fair amount of our own money, but we do that voluntarily, but we get support from the American Safe Climbing Association. They provide all the hardware. And the Friends of Joshua Tree has provided some of the gear, some of the drills, some ropes and racks and stuff, and then other companies have contributed; BlueWater Ropes has us given the ropes through the American Safe Climbing Association. Some of the local guide services have lent us a guide for the day or something to help us with the rigging and everything. So it's not… but it's not… it's not a community… it's not a community process like they have in other climbing communities, like the New River Gorge, or the Red River Gorge back in Kentucky; New River Gorge is in West Virginia.
Or even the Red Rocks, there's not a really cohesive organization, local climbing… I'm trying to think what they call them; it’s an LCO. “Local Climbing Organization” that really kind of gathers everybody together and make these kind of important decisions collectively and stuff. It's all done… well, all the bolting stuff mostly done by me and Mark. And then we get, you know, we'll get input from the other climbers, even Bernadette and stuff, but, you know, there's not a collective voice out here that's really… you know, that’s really taken over, that's really responsible for this whole bolt replacing, you know, when me and Mark stop, it’ll stop, nobody else is going to do it. There may be, you know, people, very occasionally will go out, but that'll be it, it'll be done.
It's kind of sad. It makes us kind of sad that nobody's really kind of saw the need, but they will at some point, they will find the need, when we have the catastrophic failure because it may, you know, could potentially affect climbing in the park. And maybe even nationally. And we've kind of discussed this with some legal people, you know, what could happen, and it's not a good thing because you're placing these fixed life-safety anchors with no training and you're using, for the large part, anchors that are designed for the construction industry; they're concrete-fastening anchors.
So I don't know if any of you have ever given a deposition, but I've given a couple of depositions through my work. And basically what happens is they come in and they discredit you. And they're really good at doing it. And so, you know –probably don't want to go into this here for the interview, but if you ever want to talk about it, it's kind of… it's kind of an interesting thing that the people that could be potentially the most affected would be the guide services. ‘Cause if climbing got shut down in the park or nationwide because of a catastrophic failure that involved litigation, their livelihood goes away, right. Basically.
So you would think more people would have a greater interest in this, but really, in this climbing community, there's almost zero. And there will be zero, when me and Mark stop, it'll just go away. And we know that, because nobody else is doing it. Well, I said, you know, a couple of people do it on occasion, but not on a consistent basis.
Okay, anything else? Should I not digress onto that stuff again? [Laughs]
SN: Bernadette, did you have any follow-up for that, or did we pretty much get the statement that we need for the record?
BR: We got the statement, thank you Kevin.
KP: No worries. I mean, I got the first permit back in I think it was 2000, after the climbing management plan came out. The current one, and I queried Ernie Quintana, the superintendent at the time, and he said, “Can you come out and give us a demonstration?” And Don Roberts was the special permit guy, so I came out to Twenty-nine, and I hand-drilled a quarter-inch roll bolt, switched out the old bolt, and I put it in, then, I took it out, and then I enlarged the hole with the power drill, so they could understand what the process was, what we were doing. And so I got the first permit. Was that in 2000, was it dated 2000, B, that one I sent you? I think I found the first one.
BR: 2002.
KP: Anyway, so the permit process was more lengthy and more confining. And now with Bernadette's help, it's worked out where basically we get a permit good for a formation, you know, that's good until we're done doing the work on it. Before, I was constrained to a single day. And if I wasn't able to make it or the weather was bad, then they'd have to change the permit. They'd have to change the date. So this works out a lot better for us because that gives us a lot more flexibility, depending on the weather if it's windy or if it's cold or hot or whatever, we can go to the different formations, so it's super helpful.
And that process has gotten really refined in the last couple of years, so it's super, super easy for us. The park has to do… well they have to do more work, because they have to do the site study and everything. I just sit in my office and type some formation and climbs onto a little spreadsheet thing. So, you know, it's worked out really good for us, and I think, Bernadette, you guys have issued a few permits to other people to replace bolts, but not that many, right? I mean…
BR: No, just you, Doug Green, Seth Pettit, and that's all I can think of at the moment.
KP: Yeah, so if you think about the number of people that climb out here, which is, you know, thousands for sure, I mean… probably every year there's probably hundreds of thousands of people that climb out here; would you say is that accurate or is that be too many?
BR: No, that's too few. The last time we counted, a quarter million people were coming to this park to climb each year, and that was 10 years ago before we had the big explosion of people.
KP: So if you think about that, two hundred and fifty thousand using a variety of these fixed anchors and really only two people focused on trying to replace them, it seems pretty insane to me.
SN: Well, it seems like there's a lot of things about Joshua Tree that are kind of having that insanity, doesn't it? But it's a heroic mission that you're engaged in there and it gives you a unique role, a historic role in the park's history. So we're definitely going to make sure that gets represented in the study. I wonder, and this may be a question for Bernadette, but do you think that the bolting challenges are unique in Joshua Tree, because there are other places, obviously, where people do rock climbing, but is there anything about just the sheer number of climbs or the kind of bolts that have been put in, or the length of time that people have been bolting in the park that makes the maintenance situation really kind of one of a kind in Joshua Tree?
KP: Well, my answer would be no, because there's a lot of places and they have very structured replacement programs and projects, and the LCOs, for the most part, from my understanding, they're the ones that… they're the motivation and they have people in the climbing community that, you know, they're kind of like Mark, where they design tools and techniques to get out bolts in their area. And then they're supported by the American –lot of them are supported by the American Safe Climbing Association and or the LCO; they have fundraisers. You know, so they can buy, you know, a drill that the LCO uses, or they buy bolts and hangers and chain and whatever else they deem necessary for their area.
SN: Can you say, for the record, Kevin, what is LCO stand for?
KP: Local Climbing Organization.
SN: Thank you.
KP: They’ll call ‘em like, through the access fund, they’ll call it the LCO. So the one here, the Friends of Josh, like I say, they’ve provided some funding to Mark for some of the tools, and he buys tools that a normal person might buy somewhere but he modifies them so they work for what he wants to do, for his removal process. So they funded some of that, and they’ve given us, you know, they’ve got us some ropes, and then they bought us some other miscellaneous gear, but we kinda moved away from that support mechanism, so now we’re just basically supported by the American Safe Climbing Association and then our own funding. Me and Mark have spent our money to buy stuff.
SN: Yeah. Bernadette, did you want to add anything to that? [Bernadette shakes her head no] No? OK, great. Well, we've gone way over time with you, Kevin, but it’s been so helpful and so informative; I really want to thank you for hanging in there with us. You really are the first person to talk in detail about the bolt replacement program and obviously you're the perfect person to be talking about it. So that's part of the history of the park that we want to be sure we document carefully and I really appreciate your willingness to go into detail with us on that, and there's a lot of things that we could have pressed you on with the history of shoes and from there on, but I think we should probably, at least for today, bring it to a close.
KP: Sure.
SN: We always ask the interviewee if there's anything that we missed that you would like to say at this point. And in your case, I think that might include the question of really what is the historic significance of Joshua Tree as a site for climbing? So if you have anything to add at this point, the mic is yours.
KP: I don't think so, really, I mean, it's… you know, it's been an important place for me in my life, you know, as far as the climbing, and you know, and just the park in general, you know. I wrote a hiking guide to the park about four years ago. You know, I lead guided hikes in the park, so you know, and it allows me to photograph, you know, the natural world, which that's what my photography is all about, is the natural world.
So for me, you know, there's a lot of pluses living here. It's not quite as nice as maybe it was five years ago, because there's a lot more visitation, but it's still workable. And I think for a lot of climbers, a lot of the people I know, you know, Josh was a very important place when they were growing up and they were climbing all the time, but a lot of my friends, you know, we're older now. We don't climb as much anymore, and the park's not the same. So people aren't willing –people I grew up with; they're not as willing to drive out here because of all the changes in the park and, you know, the amount of visitation it gets.
So, you know, my house used to be full of people almost every weekend. And we’d have six or eight, ten people sleeping here, climbing, photographing, whatever, but… yeah, most of my friends, they don't think it’s… they don't see the value to come out here anymore, because of the amount of the visitation… and the park essentially is overused, and you know, it’s not the fault of the Park Service, but it’s just all the National Parks in the US have become super popular, right. I mean, you go to any of them, and it’s the same thing.
You know, if I was to start climbing now, it would be a totally different experience, right. I mean, I wouldn’t have the experiences that I had, where it was a lot more rudimentary, and there wasn't as many people, and there was a lot more figuring out going on, and yeah, it’d just be a totally different thing.
SN: Yes. Alright, well thank you so much, Emilio, I think unless you have anything, or Bernadette, we can go off record and–
[1] The full name of this location in Joshua Tree is Sheep Pass Group Campground.

[2] Referring to the 1970 “A Climber’s Guide to Joshua Tree National Monument” by John Wolfe.
[3] Werner Braun
[4] Kevin Worrall
[5] Board lasted shoes utilize a firm piece of plastic or cardboard as a means of support for the foot.
[6] Russ "Fish" Walling
[7] Alan Roberts’ nickname is “the Voice of the Crags.”
[8] A dyno is a move that requires a climber to fully commit their movement to and usually involves a jump where no part of their body is touching the wall as they moves from one hold to another. They are used most frequently to overcome a distance to a hold that can not be reached by stepping or reaching up.
[9] A quickdraw is a piece of climbing equipment. It consists of two carabiners connected by a short sling, used to connect the rope to fixed protection, like bolts, or to extend gear placements to reduce rope drag.


Mike Rose

Interview Date: 28/08/2020

Biographical Summary: Mike Rose was a member of the Desert Rats in the 1960s and is responsible for the artwork associated with the group (shirts, logos). Mike also helped with the development of John Wolfe’s first Joshua Tree guidebook, drawing some of the maps and diagrams that were included. He is married to Lucy Wolfe, sister of Richard, Mike, and John.

Content Summary: Mike discusses the history, activities, and motivations of the Desert Rats. The Desert Rats are described as an adventurous group, focused on the unexplored and the unexpected. Mike was also involved in the creation of John Wolfe’s first Joshua Tree guidebook, and he elaborates on John and his work with recreational climbing.

  • Canyonlands National Park
  • Desert Rats
  • Four Corners
  • John Wolfe
  • Mike Wolfe
  • Mike Rose
  • Richard Wolfe
  • Tahquitz and Suicide
ET: OK, well, I’ve started the recording, so I'll go ahead and start the interview, that's OK with Sally.
SN: Yep.
ET: OK, great. So this is Emilio Triguero from UC Riverside, Department of Anthropology, here today on August 28th, 2020 at approximately 1:00 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. I'm here with my colleague, Dr. Sally Ness, and our interview guest today, Mike Rose. So thank you, Mike Rose, for being with us today.
MR: That's fine, thank you.
ET: All right, great. So I just want to go over the consent form with you, which I've already sent to you, but we can discuss it a little bit at length here.
MR: Okay.
ET: So consent form basically states the purpose of this study, which is the history and culture of rock-climbing at Joshua Tree National Park, and it also states that you consent to be video and audio recorded, as well as to voluntarily consent to participate in this interview. And if you have that you don't feel comfortable answering, just let me know and we can go ahead and skip those, okay?
MR: OK, that's fine.
ET: Great. So with that out of the way, I'll just go ahead and jump into the questions. So if you don't mind discussing your first climbing experiences at length, whether it's at Joshua Tree or somewhere else, and if you could for the record, state your date and place of birth. And again, just describe your origins of climbing experience.
MR: Okay, I was born on the 1st of November in 1938, in Honolulu, U.S. Territory of Hawaii. Okay, does that answer that question?
ET: Yes.
MR: Okay, my first climbing experience, it was probably with this bunch of guys; I was dating a young girl who I married 60 years ago and her brothers became my best friends. And they were a bunch of outdoor guys. And I –you know, we were up for everything out on the desert, and I couldn't tell you the exact place that we started bouldering, as you would call it. But obviously early in the process, we wound up at Joshua Tree. It was not a national park, I don't even think it was a national monument then. It was just Joshua Tree to us.
And it was a campground. And there was a lot of granite formations around there and early on it was just free climbing easy routes. And then John Wolfe, who was my wife's oldest brother, recently deceased, by the way, he got involved in technical climbing ropes. And in those days it was pitons and bolts and it just kind of grew from there.
Okay, I don't know if that totally answers your question, but that was probably my first real climbing experience. And then we traveled around; there was a place up in the San Gabriels that was called Granite-something, and then there was Tahquitz and down by the beach there was a place –any time there was a chunk of rock, we'd go out to give a look and maybe we could get up and down it a few times. Okay?
ET: I see. So, yeah. So you mentioned that in the beginnings of Joshua Tree, when you first started climbing, Joshua Tree had the easier routes; would you seek out the easier routes or would you kind of push for the harder routes as you became more experienced with climbing?
MR: Well, yeah, once we adapted to some of the technical advantages of ropes and pitons and things, then we started what was technical climbing at the time, but early on we were going just up simple routes that didn't offer too much exposure. And just because they were challenging; it was more bouldering. You'd find a rock that might be 12 feet high and had difficult route up the backside and...
We’d fall down more often than we get up it, but once we got there, we'd move to another one. And then there were some places out there at Joshua Tree; one place I remember called the Oven[1], which was inside the rocks and you had to belly down and go through a tunnel and… just all kinds of different things to keep us occupied. And we enjoyed it.
ET: Oh I see, definitely like the Oven one sounds pretty exciting. I wanted to ask you about the guidebooks or the way you navigated to find these routes. You had mentioned to me that you were the navigator behind a lot of the adventures that the Rats took out in Joshua Tree. Would you say that would be true?
MR: I would say I was not the most advanced of the technical climbers, John was probably the best climber. And then his brother Richard was very good. And then I was in there along with four or five other guys. But I would say I didn't lead that many climbs, when I did –I had long legs, so I could make some moves in two steps that took the other guys three. So I did have a single advantage in that respect. But they had more arm strength than I did and I would say, John… John Wolfe and Ed Zombro and Alfred Ruiz were probably the most technically advanced at the early stages. And like I said, when we were out there, we hardly ever saw anybody else trying to climb, it was pretty early on in the game. And, of course, we'd go out on the weekends because we lived a hundred miles away.
ET: Mhmm. [In understanding]
MR: Okay. If you're reading the early guidebook, I think it lists who led some of the first ascents; I don't think I had more than three or four first ascents as a leader, and I couldn't even tell you which ones they were. And they were probably not ones of the great difficulty, hundred-meter climbs or anything like that, but…. anyway, that's –like I say, I was in the second tier of ability, shall we say.
ET: So you mentioned that you weren't familiar with a lot of other climbers at that time, but there were other groups at that time that would also take excursions out to Joshua Tree? We've heard of the Boy Scouts being a part of that and maybe the Sierra Club?
MR: If they were there, I didn't know about them, okay? I honestly did not. I mean, it was a popular place for Boy Scouts –when I was 13 years old we'd go out there, Boy Scouts, but it was more just camping and campfire ring and stuff like that. And some rock climbing, but nothing technical. We were too little and didn't have the equipment at that time. But like I said, I don't remember any other organized groups, or I didn't recognize any pairs of climbers that became regulars out there at that early time.
ET: And just to put a date on this time, would we say like this is 1950 –late 50s or early 60s?
MR: Yeah, I was married in 1960 and I probably was out there with my wife –future wife’s– brothers, two years before that, maybe. Two and a half years before that. We –at that point… well let's see, I guess it was about 1963,[2] five of us made an expedition over to the Four Corners area. And I remember we used our rope climbing skills to get into Indian ruins, normally you couldn't get into it.
And they were usually made from above. We would rappel down into some of these Indian cliff dwellings and stuff in the remote areas of what is now Canyonlands National Park. Back then, it was just… it wasn't anything other than government land. But we spent two weeks over there and… I remember one time, we were up pretty high, four or five hundred feet on a face, dropping down off the top and a tour group out of Moab came and the tourists all got out and waved at us and took pictures.
But most of the Indian ruins that we found were pretty well picked over by the early cowboys. And there was always a mantra of, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” We were pretty much in that mode. We weren’t there to collect any artifacts or anything like that. And we found very little. Went looking for a couple of mummies; one time, a guy told me where there were a couple of mummies were buried. And when we got there, we found two big holes in the ground. Somebody had dug them up and carted them off.
But it was one of the first great Desert Rat adventures; we had a four-wheel drive truck, a flatbed truck that we had kind of constructed a… well, I wouldn’t call it a camper, it was open air, but we had hammocks and bunks in it and climbing ropes on the side, and we towed the jeep with a small boat on the top. So this was our expedition vehicle and we started over in Shiprock, New Mexico, and we drove over and we all rendezvoused at Shiprock, New Mexico, and then just worked our way back through the Four Corners country. So it was a good time. And it was… if you want a picture of that vehicle, I have a good picture of it.
ET: Yeah, we’d love to see that picture. If you could send that to me by email, that would be great.
MR: I’ll try to look it up and give you –I’ll send you a copy of that.[3] It was taken in front of my house the day we left. Actually I was in the Navy at the time, and I was stationed in Long Beach, California early on. And then I got out of the Navy, and my wife and I bought a house in Diamond Bar and I think we'd only been in there a week or two, when the five of us guys headed out on the great adventure. I was working as a graphic artist at the time for a box company.
Three of the guys drove the vehicle over to Shiprock, New Mexico. That was our rendezvous point. And two of us, the other guy, he was in the Marine Corps at the time; I had just come out of the Navy and bought a new house. We caught the El Capitan, the old Santa Fe train out of Fullerton, California, and it went to Gallup, New Mexico; we rode all night on the train, and we got off. And then we had to hitchhike 90 miles across the Navajo reservation to Shiprock. And that was an adventure in itself, because the Navajo Indians are all drivin’ pickups; the guys sit inside and the women sit open in the back, and they don't pick up hitchhikers. And finally we got picked up by a couple of rodeo cowboys and we covered that 90 miles in 60 minutes. I mean, that is one of the thrill rides of my life.
But, you know, we all arrived in Shiprock within 20 minutes of each other. And then that's when we took off on a great adventure.
ET: Wow. So you speak about, you know, going to New Mexico and Moab and different parts across the southwest of America, but did you ever encounter other climbers that were at these other sites or did you ever go climbing yourself at these sites[4]?
MR: Well, we did… we did some climbing, rock climbing and roping up in what is now the national park, Canyonlands National Park. But we could access that with our four wheel drive vehicles because there are some old cowboy roads down in there. And, of course, they’re closed now, a lot of the places are places like Chesler Park and stuff, and we camped right in the middle of Chesler Park and climbed at some of the formations around there.
But recreational climbing, no great achievements. These places hadn’t been explored much, you know, some of them had only been discovered 10 years before we were there or somebody saw the arches back in there. I can remember Angel Arch was –we were within ten years of the first guys to ever see it, not counting the early cowboys who never marked it down or anything. But the National Geographic Society went into the area about ten years before us and started mapping it.
But I honestly don't remember ever finding any other climbers in there, and of course, nowadays it's different, particularly down in Moab, along the Colorado River. There’s a lot of climbing done there, but I've kind of aged out, being 81 years old now, I don't hit the rocks very much anymore.
ET: Well, that's all right. But, yeah, you kind of speak to a topic that I wanted to relate to, which is pre-existing climbs that you have maybe come across. You mentioned the National Geographic Society had been out there mapping these climbs.[5]
MR: They didn't map the climbs so much; they were out there taking pictures of arches and naming them. And it became kind of a controversy, some of the arches had old traditional names that were given by the cowboys. Then the National Geographic came along and they started naming them after their presidents and officers. So they were officially registered for the Geodetic Survey, as you know, X mountain or X rock or X arch.
Early on we knew them by the traditional names. Jacob Hamblin Arch used to have another name, that was called Lobo Arch. You know, there's a half a dozen of ‘em that I remember. In fact, I ran across one of those survey groups that was out there naming stuff later on. An old river runner, I know he had an arch named for him, it was first called Flying Eagle Arch, I think, and they named it after Harry Alison; they just changed names and the formations registered with their new names. But I don't know, maybe I'm off the subject matter, but go ahead, ask my next question.
ET: No, you're doing great. I want to touch a little bit more on that and speak to the idea of –were the Desert Rats doing climbs, like for first ascents in Joshua Tree? Or were there are a lot of climbs that had already been climbed that had pitons scars or bolts that you didn't put in personally that a previous group may have put in?
MR: I think that is probably true; I don't know if there were groups or a couple of… sometimes just two guys go out and climb. John in his book, (John Wolfe in his book) he has listed himself and some members of our group as making the first ascent on some of these climbs.
We didn't do ‘em to do first ascents, they were just challenging, so we did ‘em! And not knowing… it's hard to get first ascents. We went over and we kayaked down the Escalante River one time and then a few years later, I found a book with some other guys did it five years after we did it, and claimed they had made the first technical run down this river. And I know a guy who did it 10 years before me because I talked to him.
So, you know, some guys think they're making first ascents, but they're not always true. But I don't know how you validate those. But I know some of John's climbs nobody's ever come forward to say, “Well, we pre-dated him on that piece of rock,” but I don't know, it's kind of an ambiguous thing in many cases.
[Emilio and Mike speak over one another]
ET: Okay, can you hear me?
MR: Yeah, I think you're probably finding that out as more as you study a lot of these other groups and stuff. And no doubt they made first ascents too, you know, I'm sure they did.
ET: And I wanted to speak a little bit more about your motto, which you mentioned earlier, was “Leave no trace,” you know, “Take only pictures, leave only footprints.” Do you think that motto spoke to climbing as well? We've heard that chalk wasn't really encouraged.[6]
MR: I hope… I hope it did. We were –I wouldn't call us environmentalists at that time, but we were practicing good outdoor ethics. I mean, if we found a beer can, we’d pick it up and trash it, you know, that kind of stuff. I don't remember anything about chalk. I'm not even sure we had chalk at the first. There was a lot of just finger-grabbin’ and hoping. But you gotta remember –this is in the infantile stages of recreational climbing.
We had to go all the way up to La Cañada to a store where we could even buy pitons or carabiners or ropes. There was a Sports Chalet up there in La Cañada, one of the earlier –it might have been the first store, I don't know, but you certainly didn't go into a Sporting Goods store down in the valley somewhere and find climbing stuff.
ET: So were you using more pitons or more bolts? What kind of equipment would you say was like a–?
MR: Pitons. Yeah, we used pitons and then gradually we discovered bongs and if you want to use a bolt, you have to drill it out[7]. We did have star drills, but that was painstaking because you could spend two hours pounding a hole out to put a bolt in. And I don't remember coming across any bolts. I'm sure they're out there. But at first, anyway, I don't remember seeing them, but I'm sure there are a few out there and I'm sure we left a few too.
ET: And speaking to more types of equipment, what kind of shoes or belts or ropes do you remember using? We've heard –I mean, in more modern times, we have, you know, the carabiner or the EBs or sometimes even Vans shoes in the very beginning. But what kind of equipment can you speak to in your very beginnings or earliest memories of climbing at Joshua Tree?
MR: Well, I remember going out there with my Vans shoes. You want to hear my Vans story?
ET: Oh, let's hear it.
MR: Okay. As a graphic designer, I designed the Vans logo, okay, almost 50 years ago. For the for the Van Doren Rubber Company in Garden Grove, California. Old Charlie Van Doren, he was a Dutchman and he came in and we were a screen printing firm, and we used to take –he was doing a lot of private labeling; shoes, sneakers, tennis shoe kind of things.
And he always would come to me (I was the art director there), so he would come in and he said, “Mike, I need a little logo that'll fit on a one inch by half inch high,” (that's that little rubber tab that goes on the back of your shoe, you've seen it a million times) and he came in and he said, you know, “Mike, you've been doing these things for me for years, for all my customers,” you know, X, Y, Z shoes or something.
You know, they were largely big box stores kind of thing. And he said, “I've decided to come out with a line of shoes of my own.” So I said, “Okay buddy,” –we called him Charlie, he had a Dutch first name; I could never pronounce it, so we called him Charlie.
And he said, “I’m going to call them ‘Vans’,” and I said, “Well that's easy to work with, it's only four letters.” I don’t have a lot of room to print this stuff on. And what we would do, we would get a design that he approved and then we would gang it up like one hundred and twenty up and he would screen it, print it on a sheet of flat vulcanized rubber, and then he would have his guys, they would cut these little tabs apart, with an X-acto knife and then heat set them onto the back of the shoe.
So he said, can you do something with Vans? And I said, “Well, you know, I'll work with it for you.” He says, “Good, I'll be back at nine o'clock tomorrow morning.” You don't normally do that, but I did four designs for him, and he came in the next morning and he paused for a minute and he put his finger down, he pointed, he says, “That one.” And that's the one they're still using today almost 50 years later.
ET: And that's your Vans story?
MR: That’s the Vans story, yeah. And of course, they've been bought out, they’re big international corporation out of the Midwest somewhere now. But, you know, I could be all –I can remember being over in France, at a little town on the Normandy coast; my wife was sitting and eating dinner, and we looked out on the cobblestone street, there was a shoe store across the way and the big sign in the glass window of the door was my Vans logo.
So Vans has gone worldwide now. anyway. Yeah, and I was just a salary art director, I didn't get paid anything extra. He's great. He says, “You married?” and I said, “Yeah.” “You got kids?” “Yeah.” “Alright,” and so he says, “Send them down!” And he gave us all shoes.
ET: Wow.
MR: I probably wore those shoes out there, out in the early days, but then… and then we discovered that there was a climbing shoe or a boot, and pretty soon most of us had those and they had a hard rubber grip sole, and we were pretty much climbing in those most of the time. I can't remember what they called them, but we had those shoes. We used a lot of carabiners and then we bought rope. And I can't remember if they were 100 footers, I guess. A lot of the ropes and wear.
ET: And what are you primarily using harnesses or Swami belts in the beginning?
MR: Swami belt. Yeah, I’ll tell you how crude it was; we went out to climb the Winding Stair Cave[8], which is one of the deepest caves in the state, and it was marked on a topog map; it was out near Mitchell's Caverns in California. And we were out there and we were climbing, we were just crawling all over this hillside looking for this thing and the map said it was there. And I remember I was the one who found it.
I just looked down behind a rock and there was a little hole in the ground. So I climbed into this little hole in the ground and suddenly it opened in a passageway, a horizontal passageway that went in about 50 feet. And that looked like somebody had taken an old railroad tie, I don't know how they got in there, and there was a cleft in the floor that went down that you could wedge down between it. And there was this railroad tie spanning this cleft.
So that's what we anchored to. And then we rappelled down in the slot for about 10 feet, and then suddenly it opened up like a bell jar and you had to free climb –you know, go down the rope for another 30 feet or so. But then you had the situation of how are you going to get back out of this cave? We ended up spending 11, 12 hours in there, it was quite an adventure because there were all kinds of little side caves.
But we didn't have any jumars or ascenders in those days, so we had to use Prusik knots. And if you've ever used those, they are strenuous. But if we didn't use them, we ain’t gettin’ out of there, you know. [Laughs]
ET: I've seen the Prusik knots, they’re all legs, right?
MR: Well, yeah, you got one on each foot and one around your chest, and you stand on one leg and then move the chest one up and then you hang onto the chest one and bring the feet ones up. But it's tough on the old body, you know. But I made it successfully out. But like I say, there’s a learning curve for all of this, you know; we read about Prusik knots, we went out and tried them outside a little bit and then we [inaudible], which is we didn't make it all the way to the bottom; we didn't have enough rope, but anyway, it was fun. And now, of course, they've put a gate[9] over there. You can't climb there anymore.
ET: I wanted to ask you, where did you read about the Prusik knots? And you also mentioned a topog map earlier when you were discussing the Staircase.
MR: Well, the topog maps at Sports Chalet were pretty readily available, you could get ‘em. I don't know where we learned about Prusik knots, they were probably in some books somewhere. I mean, I remember the guys just showed up and said, “This is a Prusik knot and we’re gonna play with it and to see if it works. If it does, we're gonna go down that cave.”
Which we did. And all five or six of us that were on that expedition that day, we all made it out.
ET: So it was successful.
MR: Yeah, yeah. It was successful –nobody ever made it to the bottom. The last pitch was about 80 feet down a dark shaft and we just didn't have enough rope. And I'm glad we didn't, because 80 feet of Prusik knots, that would’ve been, oh my God, that would’ve been tough. Really tough.
ET: I bet.
MR: And we had never talked to anybody who had ever been down there, but anyway, one of the interesting things I found, it was calcified on the side of one of the little side caves after we got down there, was Mitchell's name, the old guy who discovered those caves out –Mitchell's Caverns. He had found this thing and he had gone down in there some way and managed to climb out on a rope, apparently. I don't know how –that’s the only way he’d’ve got out, but...
Yeah, there was his name and they'd have been there for, you know, 50, 60, 80 years, and it was kind of calcified over. But you could read his name.
ET: Wow, that's incredible.
MR: So it wasn’t the first –we were certainly not the first, other people had been in there, I know.
ET: So you speak a little bit at length about the type of equipment that you used; I'm wondering if there was any equipment that you ever developed or the Desert Rats ever had a hand in creating, whether it was knots or equipment, pieces or shoes or a step forward in some sort of equipment?
MR: I would have to say probably not. You know, the pitons, the ropes, the shoes, we all purchased at one point along the journey. And the Prusik knots, you just tied those out of rope yourself, you know, you make them yourself. They aren’t a commercial product or anything. Okay?
ET: I see. Yeah, so that kind of leads me to my next question, which you were talking about right now about the cave and how scary and dangerous it is. And we've heard from other climbers about this topic called the Josh Factor, which is a term that's used to describe distressing situations, scary climbs, things that promote adventure, right. And so I'm wondering if there was a Josh factor for the Rats and their adventures at some point in Joshua Tree.
MR: Oh, well, you know, it's... the first time you rappel off of the 80 foot ledge, gets your attention [laughs]. You know, where you’re hanging out… you know. But we were conditioned to some of that, you know, we ran a race car down in Baja, and I've been upside down in that car, so I made sure all my activities had a safety factor and I don't plan on falling.
You know, if you climbed that Angel’s Landing down in Zion, there's a ledge about a foot wide and you're up about 1500 feet, two thousand feet, with just a huge back door out of your back pockets when you're on this ledge. But there is, you know, the Forest Service has put a cable that you hold onto when you go along there. You just hope you don't have to pass up a fat guy on the ledge because one, you have to reach around him or something.
But and I remember that and thinking, that's a long way down out there, you know, the back side there. But we figured that they've been climbing that one for years. They don't drop very many of them. They do have a few accidents. But –and you're not on a rope or anything; you're just free climbing. Most of it is protected on a trail. It's a very strenuous climb. It's about 2000, 2500 feet high. So you're pretty gassed by the time you get to the top. And it's usually pretty hot in Zion, and I remember I climbed there, I’m glad I had a canteen when I got to the top.
So anyway. Yeah, I mean, there were some that got your attention and you were glad that you were belayed in, so if you slip, you have a safety factor. But yeah, I didn't… I never did any big walls, Zion or I meant Yosemite or anything like that. John did Yosemite. He had an accident and his climbing partner fell. And he didn't even know the guy, you just would go to the camp down below when the climbers would all assemble down there. You find a partner, and they were climbing ‘bout six hundred feet up. John had done the lead and he was sitting on a ledge waiting for the guy to come up. And he never came up and he never heard anybody yell or anything. But the guy got off rope someway; they think he was probably moving his jumars over an anchor or something. But, you know, that fellow lost his life. He fell 600 feet. So anyway, that was the only serious accident any of us –and I wasn't there at the time. It was just John and no other serious accidents.
ET: Was John the one doing primarily these more dangerous climbs?
MR: Oh, yeah. You know, he went off to Nepal and was trekking in Nepal –he was trekking. He wasn't really climbing. But, you know, he took a big bite out of adventure, I'll tell you that. I think he went over to Nepal five or six times and he trekked –he was up over twenty-two thousand feet trekking, which is, you know, there's places where you don't wanna get off trail or anything, for [inaudible] slide down.
ET: And in terms of the Desert Rats, was John more the one that we talked about, the one leading all the technical climbs and pushing for the Desert Rats to be more skilled with technical climbing?
MR: I would say he was the most advanced climber, certainly the one early on who did most of the leads. But there are a couple of others –Alfred Ruiz, and he's still alive, but he lives half the time with his lovely wife down on the Baja coast in Mexico. And then he has a house, I believe, in Alpine, out of San Diego, where he spends half the year. But he's on Facebook; my wife talks to his wife and they’re down in Mexico right now, so he'd be a little hard to find. And Ed Zombro, who was… Ed was an old childhood friend of mine; I knew him when I was 11 years old. And he went to John Muir High School and he was a very skilled gymnast.
So he had a lot of the basic genetic equipment to be a good climber. You know, he could –he was a good climber. He was better than I was for sure, but unfortunately we lost him. He had a stroke when he was mountain biking in the Sierras and he died.
ET: Oh, that’s unfortunate; I'm sorry to hear that.
MR: Yeah, I seem to be outliving all my best friends. I don't know if that's a good trait or not. But anyway, I've gone to far too many funerals for the last 10 years anyway, and I'm healthy as a hog; I plan on being around here a while.
ET: Oh yes, well, you have quite the history to tell us about, too.
MR: Well, what's your next question?
ET: Well, I like to speak a little bit more about John, if that was okay.
MR: John, absolutely.
ET: So what were John's ethics? You know, we've talked about “Leave no trace,” but did he have any ethics in terms of climbing that he really pursued or promoted while he was climbing?
MR: Not that I knew of. Just, you know, “No wimps and no complainers.” [Laughs] That was kind of a mantra, too, you know. If you're going to cry or whimper and you're a lightweight, you don't belong with this group. You know, you got to buck up and go for it. Which we did. That was never a problem. But I don't remember anything specifically about that. And he was always –if we led it climb and the whole group made it up, hey, that was Pepsis all around, we weren't beer drinkers, I'll tell you that.
And we weren't Mormons. I don't know why, nobody smoked and nobody drank. So I don't know. There are some comments that we were… must’ve been real party goers or something. No, it was like at all, really.
ET: So that passion that John had was really just internal, right. Came from his own persona.
MR: Yeah. Yeah. He was a loner by –I mean, he wasn’t very socially outward, shall I say. He was a professional –he was a fireman, and he had a very good mind, a very smart guy. And when he retired from the Los Angeles City Fire Department, he started a business where he would –the fire department would contract with him because he had the inspectors, he had the manuals all memorized. And he would –companies would contract with him to go in and he would set the standard for their fire protection and tell them what they needed, what they didn't need, everything.
And then whatever he said, the fire department… said if John says it's what it is, he knows. He knows our code books and what we expect. So he became sort of an adviser or I don't know what you call it. But anyway, he had a very lucrative business for a few years after that. Until he totally retired completely and sold his business. So he was a smart guy.
ET: So do you think that our passion for learning and teaching other people a skill or a trade, did that translate over to climbing when he was participating in that?
MR: Well, yeah, he definitely was the lead dog early on and got a bunch of us interested in it. And we all pursued it and, you know, as we journeyed on in life, you know, we did other adventures and stuff. I know when I was in Germany, I wanted to go to the base of the Jungfrau and I'm certainly not going to climb the Jungfrau; the older one, the north face of the Jungfrau. But I went to the base of it, just because I wanted to say, “Hey, I stood in the shadow of the older ones,” you know.
So I mean, I was always interested in seeing where some of these classic climbs in Europe had gone. Anyway, it was a fun pursuit. And I read books on climbing, the “White Spider” and some of those little books, you know, about the early climbers in Europe and stuff. That held a fascination for me.
ET: And so I’d like to speak now about the history of the Rats, if that's okay with you.
MR: Yes.
ET: So I have information that this group began in 1961 and I've read in some places that this group is often referred to as the Desert Rats Uninhibited RCS, and they have that acronym at the end “RCS.” So I'm wondering if that speaks to the faction of Rats who were dedicated to climbing?[10]
MR: Yeah, I would say the Desert Rats probably started back at about 1958, you know, when we'd be going out to the desert, and I had printed up a bunch of orange sweatshirts with the brown logo on the back. I remember on one of our trips, some people in Zion were sayin’, “Oh yeah, we saw those Rats, those guys in orange shirts were over here somewhere.”
But I think we probably started doing some of these activities out on the deserts, jeeps, you know, jeeping and we had a sled that we used to pull with the Jeep and guys would get on it like they were water surfing, we’d surf on the sand dunes. And get pitched off and you'd have sand all in your clothes, but I would say that they probably called us Desert Rats –somebody probably said, “Oh, those Desert Rats are gone for the weekend; they’re on a… you know, on the dunes somewhere or something.”
And… golly, I know I –my wife and I, we took trail bikes and went 600 miles across the wilds of southern Utah one time and somebody said, “Oh, man, you guys, you go everywhere, you know?” And we wore our orange sweatshirts and t-shirts on that trip, just the two of us.
And we went six hundred miles in seven days. And just camping and explorin’. We were one of those last ones to cross Hite Ferry on the old Colorado ferry at Hite[11]. And then we had to bike eighty-five miles up a sand wash to Hanksville.
But she did it. She did great. She’s… I married the right girl, let me tell ya.
ET: It sounds like it, and it sounds really cool as the adventures you have together.
MR: We have, you know, we've gone to Africa, we've gone to Europe many times, and we've done a lot of things. And last night we sat together in the Blue Boar Inn and celebrated 60 years of marriage. It was our anniversary last night.
ET: Well, congratulations to both of you.
MR: And we're both pretty healthy as hogs. We got a trip planned –a driving trip planned up to Oregon here in the next few… well the end of the month, so.
ET: Well, that story you’re telling me about, and all these stories, they definitely speak to the motto that the Desert Rats have with their logo, which is “Dedicated to the principles of absolute and total unusualism.” Do you think the activities –where did that come from? I’d like to ask you.
MR: Well, I made it up. [Laughs] It just seemed to fit the group.
ET: Oh, I couldn’t agree more.
MR: Yeah. I mean, you know, we put on car rallies, we did all kinds of things, kayaking, ocean kayaking and desert river kayaking and…
I know we went eighty five miles down to San Juan, six or seven major rapids. I made them all but the last one and I wiped out on the last one, but we made it all the way. You just get real wet, real fast. Kayaking is described as a sport where you get real wet real fast.
So we did all kinds of different things. Anything that was fun, that looked like adventure. We said, “Hey let’s take a bite out of that and see what it’s all about.” That’s what we did.
ET: Yeah. How do you think Joshua Tree allowed you to express that feeling of adventure or just challenge?
MR: Well, it was certainly that early ground for the Desert Rats. I mean, it all started really, the climbing part of it was… that it was the home base for climbing. We went to Tahquitz Rock, and to some of these other places, but the challenges were much more extensive. Joshua Tree, because it's bigger. You got these boulders piled all over everywhere, and we scampered up and down them a lot. Some of we roped up and sometimes we'd get up on top and rappel down.
So we were doing those kind of things out there. And that was, the kayaking came later, the dune buggy racing and Baja came later. Some of the traveling came later.
ET: The climbing was the one that kind of started you off with all of that, you said?
MR: I would say that was the most significant start factor; we had been going out to the desert and jeeping, you know, on some of the jeep roads and stuff before that.
But the first adventure where there was some thrill involved. I would say it was the climbing. Other people have been jeeping out in the deserts for years, but there hadn’t been that many people climbing. So we were kind of stepping out of the box when we did that, I think.
ET: To be totally unusual, right?
MR: Yeah, yeah, if it was unusual.
ET: So I'll just–
[Emilio and Mike speak over one another]
MR: Go ahead.
I’d like to ask you just one more question before I turn it over to Sally, which is we've heard about a group called The Riverside Bunch that may have played into the formation or just the development of the Rats. Could you speak to that at all or–?
MR: I've never heard of that name.
ET: Okay.
MR: But, you know, I honestly, I don't know. Now, we picked up a few guys along the way that would climb on any given weekend with us. But I don't know who –I don't know what name they were going under. We just knew them by their first names. John, Pete, Dirk, whatever, I don’t know. You know, I don't know. I don't remember any other semi, quasi-organized climbing group. And I know there were some that came after us. But anyway. So that's all I can say to that.
ET: Okay, well, I'll go ahead and turn over to my colleague Sally Ness now.
MR: Okay.
SN: Hi Mike.
MR: Hi Sally, what can I answer for you?
SN: Well, you have answered so much already, I just have a couple of really, focused things for you Mike, but I just want to thank you that the world you have opened for us about this era of climbing at Joshua Tree, it’s just fantastic, so thank you so much for giving us–
MR: OK, you gotta talk real loud because you're on a phone that I can't hear very well.
SN: OK, is this–?
MR: That's better. That's better.
SN: OK, all right. Let me shift over then. So the question that came up for me when I was listening to you was about the guidebook itself. Can you tell us what the inspiration was for doing the guide book, Climbing at Joshua Tree?
MR: Well, that was wholly John Wolfe's baby, okay? Other than that, he came to me early on and said, “Hey, I'm going to do this, can you–” And since I was a professional artist, supposedly, I have –that's what I have been all my life, made my living doing that. He said, “Can you do some illustrations in there?” So I did the cartoons. And he said, when I mapped the routes, “Can you lay down the spotted tape and, you know, do the black and white plates that I will use in the book,” and on the cover, I had access to printing that orange vinyl.
If you have one of the orange books with the vinyl –with the brown printing on the front, I was able to do that because I worked for a company that did screen printing and that was screen printed on vinyl and then, of course formed into the cover. So I helped in the physical production of the book, but not the writing of the book.
SN: Why do you think John wanted to have more people know about climbing in Joshua Tree?
MR: That’s hard to answer. I wish you’d got to him before he passed a couple of weeks ago.
SN: Oh, I know.
MR: I mean, it was totally unexpected; he died in his sleep one night, and it was kind of a shock surprise to everybody. But he was 81 years old, an age we all kind of approach the finish line. He hadn't been physically active for a long time and he had diabetes. So I think it probably just caught up with him.
SN: Right.
MR: Well, I would say his sister –my bride, is sitting here in the room with me. I would say, [calls to his wife] why do you think John wrote the book, Luc’?
Lucy Rose: Why?
MR: Yeah.
LR: John was very, very intelligent. And he–
MR: I think he just wanted to document some of the early stuff that we had done out there.
LR: He was extremely, extremely smart.
MR: Yeah, he was a bright guy and very bright.
[Lucy Rose and Sally speak over one another]
MR: Say that again, please.
SN: I was just thinking, it sounds like he really wanted a public record rather than to sell things to people so they would be the same thing. Is that–?
MR: Yeah, I mean, he didn't do it to make money. He just wanted to establish a public record. I would get on board with your comment there.
SN: Okay, thank you. That's very, very helpful. Great. Well, the only other question I had was when you were talking about the stories of what you and your wife have done over the years, it kind of raised the topic of gender and the fact that most of the Desert Rats were men, right, if not all. How were women, you know, included or excluded from the Desert Rat–?
MR: Well, the women were, you know, girlfriends and wives and moms. They always participated. We sort of arbitrarily called them “the women's auxiliary.” But I mean, if one of them wanted to climb or rope up, you’re goin’ up with us, that was never a question. Nobody ever got told they couldn't. And there were some of them that did! My wife, for one of them.
SN: Yeah. So if the individuals chose then they were included in turn, does that sound right?
MR: Absolutely.
SN: Great. All right. Well, I'm so grateful to you, Mike. You have really changed our picture of this era. Significantly. Thank you so much for these wonderful stories, this very vivid description. We always leave a moment at the end for anything the interviewee would like to add to the record. This –is there something we haven't covered that you'd like to –I assume that there was really nothing major with regard to Rangers or things, given how early this was in the park's history.
MR: Rangers?
SN: Yeah, relationships with the park personnel.
MR: We always consider them our friends; I hope people didn't think of them any differently. I only had one experience with a ranger that was over on the river in southern Utah. We had gone down the San Juan River. And I was with one of the other guys and we were in our aluminum canoe, which we lost in one of the rapids; It got wrapped around a big rock and, you know, we had it –we tried to pull it off, but we had to leave it.
And I remember we went down into this little Navajo town of Mexican Hat where the kids were collecting aluminum cans and we said, “Hey, if you can get that canoe off that rock, you've hit the mother lode,” you know, because you got about 40 pounds of aluminum up there in the river. And apparently they didn't. And the next year, we came back with kayaks, much better prepared to do this trip. And we ran into the same ranger, and he recognized the name on the old canoe that was lost, that had been painted on my new kayak.
And he said, “You wouldn't happen to know about that.” And I said, “Well yeah, of course,” we said. “It got lost –we lost it on the Ledge Rapid, we T-boned on that chalkstone and we lost the canoe.” And he went on to complain, “Well they finally pulled it out of the river, down at the base of the narrows, down at the Goosenecks of the San Juan.” And I said, “God, that's amazing,” you know, it traveled that far in the spring rains.”
And he said, you know, “Well you know, you're supposed to report that.” I said, “Well, I did report it. I called it into the Ranger office, I talked to a girl, gave her all the details, and then there was a contracted guy running a river trip down that same river and I told him about it and I also told the people in Mexican Hat.” So I said three places officially. And he said, “Well, they didn't tell me.”
And I said, “Well, that's obviously your problem with your people, but it's on record somewhere.” But he was just a cranky old fellow. But no, we tried to obey all the rules; we didn't bend the rules. I had to walk out of there, you know, I had to walk two miles out of there to the highway and then hitchhike 15 miles back to camp. So I kind of aborted our trip, but we did come back the next year and successfully make it down 85 miles. Now, the San Juan River goes down through Mexican Hat and it goes through the Goosenecks of the San Juan and you have Navajo reservation land on river left all the way.
So there was quite an adventure. We rescued a cow, pulled him out of the quicksand. Try that sometime for a fun day. Took about six of us to get him out. But it belonged to some Navajo and I'm sure that cow probably ended up at McDonald's –as a Big Mac. But, you know, the guy owned it, it was worth the money and we never met the Indian, we don't know. We just were going down the river and we saw this cow stuck in the quicksand and I thought he was dead, I was the first one to see him, but his ears wiggled.
So we went over there and –thank goodness for our climbing lines because we got some under him, and we pulled him up sideways on his belly and then kind of floated him across to the solid ground. Took us about an hour. I’d like to end this story; he got to his feet and he didn't move or anything. He just worked with us. I guess he knew he was being rescued. And he got to his feet, he walked about 30 feet up a little draw, and he turned around, and for the first time, he did a big, long “Moooo.”
And I said, “Guys, I think he's thanking us.” So yeah, true story. The cow rescue. Anyway–
SN: Amazing. Well, any final words about Joshua Tree?
MR: Well, I haven't been out there in years, so I can't really speak to it. I know it's all changed. We live up in Utah now. I moved from California with my wife up here 16 years ago. And no, I really don't know what's going on out there now.
SN: Well, I think there’s a lot of people who still have a very wonderful relationship with the climbs that you all did. A lot.
MR: Well, that's good, that's good, that’s providing some enjoyment and challenges for them and that's good. As long as it's all done in the spirit of keeping the rules intact, that's good. That’s good.
SN: Yeah. So your work lives on, Mike. Definitely.
MR: OK, now, what do you guys hope to do when you get this thing all done? You're going to file a report on it or what?
SN: That's right. But I think I mean, I'll be glad to elaborate on that. But I think we're going to go ahead and take the interview recording offline now. So –and then I'll be happy to answer that question.
[1] When reviewing the transcript, Rose added the editorial comment that, this was known as “just ‘The Oven’ back then. [There was] no exposure – just very close quarters under a rock formation high above.”
[2] In the interview recording, the date given here is 1960. Rose corrected this date in his editorial review to 1963.
[3] In his editing of the transcript, Rose indicates that he sent a book with that picture, which could be scanned.
[4] Rose’s edit supplies the answer: “Not by myself.”
[5] In his edits, Rose specifies that the National Geographic Society was mapping formations and old ruins, not climbs.
[6] In his editorial notes, Rose mentions that the Desert Rats did not come up with the “Leave no trace” ethic, but they practiced it regardless. He also states that he never saw chalk being used.
[7] In his notes, Rose adds that they primarily used pitons and anchors; “bongs were new [and] just coming on the scene.”
[8] Also known as the Cave of the Winding Stair.
[9]The recording states a “grate” was installed. Rose corrected this in his editorial comments to read “gate.”
[10] In his editorial comments on Triguero’s question, Rose changed the date 1961 to 1962 and crossed out “RCS” from this question and responded in the margins “I don’t know that?”
[11] The Hite Ferry was constructed on the Colorado River in 1946 by a settler named Arthur Chaffin. It was in use for 20 years before being shut down by rising water levels.


Craig & Alfred Ruiz

Interview Date: 19/09/2020

Biographical Information: Alfred Ruiz was a member of the Desert Rats in the 1960s and frequented Joshua Tree National Park with the Wolfe family to climb recreationally. He is interviewed by his son, Craig, in this interview.

Content Summary: Alfred speaks about his time with the Wolfe family and the Desert Rats and identifies Joshua Tree as an important place for the group due to its location and various climbs. The Desert Rats’ climbing habits stemmed from Richard and John Wolfe and demonstrate the beginnings of standards in rock climbing.

  • Desert Rats
  • Hidden Valley Campground
  • Richard Wolfe
  • John Wolfe
  • Mike Wolfe
  • Mike Rose
Alfred Ruiz (AR): My name is Al Ruiz.
Craig Ruiz (CR): Tell me briefly about where you grew up.
AR: Grew up in eastern L.A. County, actually about 15 miles east of downtown L.A. in the San Gabriel area.
CR: Tell me about how Joshua Tree and your trips to Joshua Tree with friends came about.
AR: Well, we were just a bunch of teenagers at that point and probably out of high school by that point because we were driving and some of us had cars. And for activity or things to do, we'd like to go to the desert and just explore, do fun things out in the desert from L.A. County. So we had a loose group of buddies that formed a group called Desert Rats, and part of the activities we got into ended up being rock climbing. And from there, I'm not sure who started it, but we got interested in going out to Joshua Tree, which is about probably close to two hour drive at that time.
CR: How about --tell me, when you talk about high school, around what year are we talking when maybe the group formed? And who were the loose group that you talk about? Maybe if you could tell me some names.
AR: Yeah, the --I would say the group formed maybe early 60s to mid-60s, and it was just kind of a group of friends and relatives from San Gabriel, Temple City area, because the people that really got it started revolved around the Wolfe clan. That's the last name Wolfe. And Richard Wolfe, his brother-in-law, Mike Rose, were kind of the main people that got it going. And then their group of friends, which I was one of the buddies.
So just got it going as a group that liked to do similar things, you know, like I said, go out to the desert, do exploring, do things like riding jeeps or we even built a wood sled to pull behind an old pickup that we'd ride through the desert and people would ride it like a chariot. So…
CR: What desert was that?
AR: It was out probably near Palmdale, I think it was, yeah. Outskirts of what's now Palmdale.
AR: It was out probably near Palmdale, I think it was, yeah. Outskirts of what's now Palmdale.
Just go out in the open where you could drive through the desert and not run into any rocks or boulders. And so that was a fun activity. But anyway, the group was some neighbors of the Wolfes that were friends, high school friends. But I think the loose initial group was maybe six or eight people.
CR: Besides yourself, John Wolfe, Mike Wolfe, Rich Wolfe, Mike Rose, are there any other core guys in that loose set of seven or so you can think of, names?
AR: Well, one of the --Richard Wolfe's neighbors, I can't even remember his last name now, and his nickname was Skeeter. So he was one of the regulars. Another neighbor or friend from that area was Steve Hart, not quite as often, but he was part of that group. And John Blom for a while, which was a good high school friend of both Richard and myself. John Wolfe, not so much a Desert Rat, but he was the one that really, I think, got people interested in rock climbing.
So the group kind of evolved from there as to include girlfriends, wives, and maybe a few other people. But I can't remember any names at this point.
CR: What high school was it that a few of you went to and met?
AR: Most of us had gone to San Gabriel High School, although some of them lived in Temple City. But, yeah, San Gabriel High School.
CR: And so when you were in the early mid-60s when the group formed, how old are you guys?
AR: I would say a couple of years out of high school. So maybe 18, 19, 20. And different ages because John Wolfe’s brother’s about four years older, Steve Hart was a little bit older. Oh, another person that was kind of part of that group was Steve Harris. He was a neighbor of Richard Wolfe’s and he was a couple of years older than us. So I think the age range was, you know, 19 to 20 to 23 when we got going.
CR: Was Stu part of that group, too?
AR: Well, Stu --it was informal, so--
CR: That was maybe a little later that Stu became kind of like --did he climb with you guys as well?
AR: No, I don't think he really climbed, but he was part of the overall network of friends because he was an avid hiker. Hiked extensively in the Sierras. And so he got people interested in backpacking, so yeah, he probably joined in some Desert Rat functions, too, because he was --Stu was Steve Harris's dad. And the--
CR: Oh, Stu was Steve's dad. Okay, that's interesting because I met Stu a bit, but less so Steve even though Steve was younger.
AR: Some of the group, you know, would occasionally be involved in something. It was not any kind of formal organization or anything like that. It was an informal group of friends and neighbors that liked to do similar things, you know, outdoor kind of activities.
CR: So for the purposes of anyone that listens to this, one thing that you may or may not know is that, well, he's --my dad’s describing it as informal, which I believe and agree, there was a lot of apparel and everything is orange. Orange shirts with the Desert Rats logo. I have a business card that has my dad's name on it that shows his membership in the Desert Rats. I remember growing up and having orange canoes, inflatable canoes. So I say that so that I can ask my next question; it was informal, but was it always something that you sort of reflected with your attire or was it something I remember, for example, having the jeeps or trucks in some cases outfitted with the logo on the side of the car? Tell me a little bit more about what you remember about what went along with these outings in terms of the Desert Rat and how it would --you get what I'm saying.
AR: Yeah, I think all that logo and all the designs came about through Mike Rose, who had always been in some form of commercial art. I mean, he designed t-shirts, he did other things, I think before that, but always having to do with art. So between him and Rich Wolfe, I think they came up with the idea of creating a logo, which Mike did the designs for. And from that point, had a logo.
So they came up with the t-shirts and the color orange is kind of the standard color for Desert Rats. And then came maybe the logos for the jeeps that put on the side of the Jeeps or inflatable kayaks that we did trips. And even the business cards, I think Mike at some point came up with the design for that, so it was just a way to identify the group.
And some outings, you know, everybody would wear their Desert Rat t-shirt if you had one or drive your vehicle with the Desert Rat logo, but nothing formal again.
CR: Was that, the orange shirts and the logos and the identification, from the very beginning, or did that slowly happen over time?
AR: It probably happened a year or two after… well, that's probably --when the logo's came about, is probably when we started calling ourselves “Desert Rats” and came up with the name and the logo probably at the same time. I wasn't really a part of that piece, but once they had the T-shirts and that kind of stuff, I got the shirt and got a logo for our vehicle, you know, stick-on logo.
CR: What types of vehicles were you guys driving?
AR: Uh, mostly four-wheel drive; Richard always start out with… he had an old Bronco for a while, Ford Bronco. And then he moved to a old… let’s see, wasn't old at that time, but Nissan Patrol. And then he evolved from that to a four wheel drive van, and other people had pickups or things like that.
CR: What were you driving?
AR: Well, we had a dune buggy that we put together for a while. And it was, yeah, it was orange. It had the Desert Rat logo on it; think it was orange. Or maybe it was red, I can’t remember now, but--
CR: Was that the Manx?
AR: Yeah, one of the fiberglass dune buggies. And then, when we got rid of that, we got a four wheel drive, International Harvester pickup and did a couple of Baja trips with that.
CR: So tell me then about how you guys discovered, or if you remember how Joshua Tree, you know, your first visit, what turned you on to going there? And what maybe did you know about what was going on there, if anything, in terms of rock climbing?
AR: Well, I'll tell you what I can remember. I'm not sure exactly who in our group first had gone out to Joshua Tree, but as far as climbing, it was probably John Wolfe who was --got into rock climbing and then introduced his brother, Rich Wolfe. And from there, Rich Wolfe got more of the Desert Rats that liked to do that kind of thing interested in climbing. So Richard and John primarily were the ones that had the rock climbing equipment and got us going. I mean, they had the ropes and the pitons and all the gear at that time that you'd use for rock climbing.
So it was probably either John or Richard that had discovered Joshua Tree as a place just to go have fun and also do some rock climbing, so. And that was probably late 60s, I think mid to late 60s that we got started doing that. And into early 70s.
CR: Prior to Joshua Tree, had you climbed before?
AR: We did a little of climbing around the San Gabriel Mountains, but I don't remember which came first. You know, we'd go to certain rock outcroppings up… trying to remember the highway up, I think it’s… I can't remember now what the highway is that runs through the San Gabriel Mountains. And even besides Joshua Tree, one of the other places I remember going to was Tahquitz Rock out near Hemet.
CR: Is that all around the same time?
AR: Yeah, all through those, like I said, late 60s, early 70s timeframe.
CR: So you bring up a good point. You went into the service in the late 60s to, right. So you had a period when you did a lot of climbing maybe before and then you went into the service and then did some after you returned, right?
AR: Right. Yeah, probably a little bit more before I went into the service. And that was… I mean, yeah, I’m gettin’ my time frames… yeah, I went in in ‘66, so probably did a bit of this in mid-60s, and then a bit more after I got out in ‘69.
CR: And so --but you feel like you did more of it before the service?
AR: Probably a bit more, but I do remember doing a bit out Joshua Tree after I was out with John Wolfe.
CR: Once you started climbing in Joshua Tree, would you say that the group, the Desert Rats, did most of the rock climbing there?
AR: Say that again.
CR: When you were, let's say, in the early mid-60s when you were rock climbing and John and Richard got you into it and the group, when you were rock climbing and was it mostly in Joshua Tree? Was there an active period where you guys would return to Joshua Tree versus climbing other places?
AR: We probably went Joshua Tree more than the other spots, but we did a few other spots, yeah.
CR: And now tell me not so much the Desert Rats as a whole, because to your point, some of them weren't as involved in climbing. You know, let's again call it in the mid-60s when you would make these trips to Joshua Tree at that time to climb; who were the primary climbers you remember climbing?
AR: Yeah, I --my memory’s not really good on that, but primarily John Wolfe, Richard Wolfe and myself, and there might have been a couple others, but John had other climbing buddies that he'd go with. There's a few names, and I can't remember them.
CR: Now, when you were climbing in Joshua Tree around this time, would you encounter any other climbers outside of your group or John’s group or the Desert Rats or was…?
AR: I really don't remember seeing much in the way of other climbers when we were out there. I'm sure there was probably some, but…
CR: Not that you remember encountering or having any interactions with.
AR: I can't remember ‘em. ‘Course John had other buddies he'd climb with, so he would know.
CR: Yeah. And when you climb there, I know we've talked about it, and I know that from what I understand, most of the climbing was concentrated around Hidden Valley campground area.
AR: Well, you know more and I do because I don't remember what the areas were. I'd have to look at his book, and--
CR: Do you remember, like, Intersection Rock or any of those by name?
AR: It’s been so long; no I don't.
CR: Yeah, so let me ask you another way, because I think I do --feels like generally what I understand is most of it was concentrated around that campground area, and you know, there’s Intersection Rock, of which is sort of the big massive boulder at the center of where the parking lot is now and the campground. But again, you know, there’s a lot of climbs that show up in the book that are probably, you know, within a quarter mile of maybe there. So my question to you I suppose would be, when you went up there, do you feel like you recall it centering around a relatively small area, or do you feel like you guys were climbing all over the place?
AR: I don't think it was a really big area. You know, there was different formations that we climb, but I don't remember like driving from one to the other. So it's probably a smaller area.
CR: Yeah. And how, you know, over time, I'm sure your confidence built, but did you feel like you guys were kind of pushing your own limits or did you ever feel like you guys could be --clearly, you know, rock climbing is a dangerous sport and hobby, but did you guys have any close calls or did you guys feel like everybody was safe and felt confident the whole time?
AR: I don't --I can't remember. You know, we were young, so we did whatever we felt we could do and… but I don't think I remember being… I don't know what I'm trying to say. Yeah, I don't remember getting too worried, except we climbed what we couldn't and if we couldn't, we didn't.
CR: Sure. Now, maybe you can describe the personality of the group as it relates to climbing, as we were talking about the movie Valley Uprising and how there was different personalities to like the Stonemasters versus Royal Robbins and, you know, the individuals that constituted the group and the personality of the group. What would you say the personality of the group was and, you know, in their nature, not only in general, camping and cavorting, but also when you were climbing?
AR: Well, as far as climbing, if John was involved, John Wolfe, he was definitely the most knowledgeable and organized in terms of gear and right way to do it. I was definitely a novice. I didn't --probably the only gear I had was a rock climbing hammer, pretty basic one, and eventually I got some rock climbing shoes, but probably initially we were just using tennis shoes.
But --so John was probably the one (which was a good thing) that knew the most and was good about teaching the rest of us procedures, you know, the right way to do it. And eventually, Richard Wolfe too, was very good because they were both… I think maybe by that time, firemen as a profession, so they got some of that --those skills from firemen training, so…
So I was more haphazard, I didn't really didn't have the same kind of training they did, so I was learning from them, as far as dealing with pitons and right kind of gear and how to belay, all that kind of stuff. So personalities, John, again, was more structured, organized. Richard and I, a little more haphazard and easygoing, I’d say.
CR: Yeah, in some of John Wolfe's guidebooks there was some colorful stories about, you know, just the --I think the goofy nature of the group, but one thing that stood out to me and I've known from growing up is that maybe compared to some of these groups that I mentioned, like the Stonemasters, the young Desert Rats at the time were, you know, pretty innocent young guys, you know, that were out there just having fun and drinking Pepsi. But maybe you can tell me what you remember.
AR: As far as what?
CR: Just kind of the nature of the group and you know, how… if that kind of --you remember it being lighthearted and goofy or --?
AR: Oh, yeah. It was lighthearted; we just went out there to have fun, whether it was rock climbing to see what we could do, or just explore the formations out there. Joshua Tree, I remember one trip we did with Richard's mom and dad who had a camper, and we stayed maybe a couple of nights out there and Richard's dad had… probably was an 8mm movie cam. We put together a little --he put together a video from his movies there where we tried to create our own little story and movie in the rocks and were just having fun.
CR: Yeah. Yeah. I've been hoping to dig that up. I think I've heard of it. I've almost heard of it enough to where I can picture it in my mind, but I know I might not have ever seen it. I have those 8 millimeters; I have to see if by any chance that's what one of them is. Those came from Mike Rose of course.
AR: Yeah, I forget what our storyline was, but it was pretty simple, basic story that we could have fun trying to recreate and he filmed--
CR: Was that prior to the service, so maybe mid-60s as well?
AR: Probably. Yeah I think I was pretty young. It might have even been before we did rock climbing, I can't remember.
CR: Now back really quickly to equipment. Let's describe maybe what John might have had at the time too, since he was the most organized, but also would be indicative of how equipment has changed. If you were to describe what you remember John to have in terms of equipment, what do you remember at the time being standard for an organized climber?
AR: Well, definitely the climbing rope, and I forget what --you know, they’ve probably evolved over the years, but, you know a good climbing rope or two. Proper shoes. Pitons, all the slings you'd use, I don't know if we really had harnesses at that point, but you'd create your own with webbing. For protection, of course, carabiners. Those were primarily what we were using and John and Richard had their collection of pitons, carabiners (I might add a few carabiners) and then you'd create your own little protection belt or sling and that was the basic gear, I think, before I ended up stopping, or was no longer climbing. In addition to pitons, they started using nuts that you would jam into the cracks and you wouldn't have to hammer those and, um, but I never really used those, I probably hadn’t been climbing too much at that point.
CR: From what I can see of all the pictures too, no one was wearing helmets back then.
AR: Nope, no helmets.
CR: They probably didn't even make helmets for climbing back then either, even if you wanted one.
AR: Yeah, I can't remember. Yeah, I didn't have a lot of money at that point. The gear was pricey if you got all the stuff you needed. Good rope was… I forget what it cost back then. Rope and then each piton and good carabiners and that kind of stuff. So I usually ended up using Richard's gear or John, if I was climbing with him.
CR: Were you guys aware, and maybe this would be different for John versus say, you, but were you aware of other climbing communities or, you know, in the case of like a Royal Robbins that had some degree of fame, was he sort of known of at that time or were you aware and the --let's call it the early stage in the mid-60s, or were you sort of unaware?
AR: Well, I wasn't aware. I mean, we were just doing rock climbing for fun after we got a little more serious. Probably did through Richard, I got to know more, you know, he did a bit more reading on climbing, you know, about people like Royal Robbins and a few others.
CR: And when you came back then, from the service and potentially some of the others were involved in other things, was there a period of climbing --you mentioned at least a little bit more after-- when would you say that maybe for yourself and then also for the group when things started to wind down?
AR: I think it was probably early 70s because we were getting married, getting jobs and kind of some of them --people go in different directions. So as a group, in terms of climbing --for me it kind of wound down then; I think John got more serious and branched out into more mountaineering. Richard probably stayed involved a little bit more --a little bit longer than I did. He’s always, always doing a little bit, but not as often.
CR: Yeah. And then from my experiences, that's when kind of the, you know, the families started to grow and the trips became, you know, more family events. And again, the orange of the Desert Rats and the logo stuck around, but it became more a variety of activities and things that involved the families.
AR: Yeah, it's always like an informal group, so it expanded with the families and branched to different locations, like with the Roses moving to Utah; their clan, I’m sure, still considered themselves Desert Rats.
CR: Yeah, they still do the trips down the Green River, is it, right? In Utah with all their orange shirts?
AR: Yeah, we did the river trips back in this time frames too, the 70s.
CR: Now, describe of the core group you and I know, but maybe for anyone listening that doesn't know. Can you tell me about where those people that you've mentioned are now, those that are still around or even those that aren’t?
AR: Well, of course, Mike Rose and Lucy Rose and all their sons and daughter are in Utah area. So that group is up there. Of course, Rich Wolfe is passed away now. And his sons, I don't know if they're really considering themselves Desert Rats, but they're I think out in Colorado area. Let’s see… Steve Harris is around somewhere, and he's kind of been on his own for a number of years, so I don't know where he's at.
CR: How about Mike Wolfe?
AR: Mike Wolfe, I'm not even sure if he's in California or some other state right now.
CR: I want to say Washington or Oregon.
AR: Could be.
CR: Did he --you didn't mention him a whole lot. Was he doing much of the climbing too?
AR: I don't remember him doing much, no.
CR: More so John.
AR: Yeah.
CR: Yeah. And you mentioned John was about four years older than you.
AR: Yeah, about four years older.
CR: And John just passed a couple of months ago.
AR: Yeah.
CR: So that would be, you know, maybe and you know, summer of 2020; early summer of 2020.
AR: Yeah.
CR: Trying to think if there's any other questions I have. Anything that comes to mind when you reflect on that time or just feelings about it?
AR: It was just a great experience for me with the group of friends, the activities we did; they’re all outdoor-focused activities: climbing, river rafting trips, or canoe trips, or kayak trips, just exploring in general. We did a number of --two or three Baja trips back in the 70s as groups and just good memories.
CR: Do you think if you didn't have that experience, you would have been any different?
AR: Yeah, I'm sure I would. Learned a lot from doing those activities and just built lifetime friendships… yeah, I'm sure shaped a bit who I am.
CR: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Well, thanks for taking the time to answer some questions.
AR: Sure.

Jeremy Schoenborn

Interview Date: 03/12/2021

Biographical Information: Jeremy Schoenborn is a promising young climber who has spent much of his time climbing in Joshua Tree National Park amongst other remarkable climbing locations. He is a climber sponsored by outdoor companies such as Flophouse Resoles, Hippie Tree, and Friction Labs. Jeremy also works as a guide for Cliffhanger Guides, a guiding service located in Joshua Tree. Jeremy is a remarkable talent who has a fascination with the iconic climbs of yesteryear, especially those within Joshua Tree National Park.
Content Summary: Jeremy describes how Joshua Tree played a role in his development. With his amount of experience in the park, Jeremy is able to name and describe routes that are considered “iconic” as well as provide perspective on the Bolt Wars from a modern standpoint. Climbing at Joshua Tree is examined from a contemporary position.

  • Bolt Wars
  • Bouldering
  • Toproping
  • Yosemite National Park
  • The Snake Pit (Formation)
  • Chain of Addiction (5.13)
  • Just Slightly Ahead of Our Time (5.12)
  • New Deal (5.14)
  • Ocean of Doubt (5.13)
  • The Cutting Edge (5.13)
  • The Powers That Be (5.13)
ET: All right, well good afternoon, everybody. It is March 12th 2021 at 2pm. My name is Emilio Triguero. I’m with the historic resource study for Joshua Tree National Park forRecreational Rock-climbing. I'm joined today with my colleague, Dr. Sally Ness from the University of California, Riverside, park ranger Bernadette Regan, and our special guest today, Jeremy Schoenborn. Jeremy, thank you for joining us.
JS: You got it.
ET: Pleasure to have you. So before I jump into the interview questions, I just want to reiterate for the record that you have gone over the consent form and that you understand its contents.
JS: Yeah.
ET: Awesome. And that you also consent to being audio recorded?
JS: Yes.
ET: Awesome. Okay, great. Okay, with that out of the way, I’ll just go ahead and jump straight into the questions. First one being, could you please state for the record, your date of birth and place of birth, just put your climbing experiences in perspective. And then the first question, how did you get into climbing?
JS: All right. I was born April 2nd, 1997, in Palm Springs, California. Got into climbing just like I got into so many other things. I got into it because my older brother was doing it; my older brother Rob. Really didn't matter what it was. If he was doing it, I was going to do it, you know what I mean? And so, yeah, super, super basic. Nothing, nothing special. Just whatever he was doing, I was doing.
ET: So is it fair to say that your training then for climbing and getting better at climbing, was that more formal or informal, more like just learning things by hand or actually taking a course and doing things like that?
JS: I mean, so I'm a climbing guide these days, and with the knowledge I have now, I really wish I would have had some sort of formal training. I just didn't know it was available. I didn't even have the sense to look at YouTube or to go to the ClimbSmart events, which are like insanely affordable events for budding rock climbers in Joshua Tree. Once again, me and my older brother climbing together, trial by fire, looks like. It's totally amazing that we survived our first couple of years because we were just winging it. But yeah, now it's all good, but super informal, I would say.
ET: Okay, thank you. So was Joshua Tree like your home crag like that you started at or did you start at other places before coming to Joshua Tree?
JS: The first time I went climbing actually was in like halfway between my house in Yucca Valley and a town just to the north called Pioneertown. There’s a couple of dinky, small cliffs with just a few rock climbs out there. And that first place I climbed, and then Joshua Tree just took off from there. And it's been about—I’ve been climbing for eight years now. And Joshua Tree is my home cliff every single year through the winter.
ET: Awesome. Yeah. So what do you remember your first time going to Joshua Tree and your first experience climbing there?
JS: Well, I think technically, my first time going to Joshua Tree was like in the second grade on some field trip, didn't do anything for me. I was bored. If I remember anything, it was being bored like this is boring, let's go. The second time I went rock climbing was in Joshua Tree, probably just a few days after the first time my brother took me out and we climbed the Headstone, which was the most insane thing I've ever done in my entire life. And, you know, it's like a 40 foot, pretty small, but hyper-impressive, super impressive cliff. And I had to rappel off of it. It was just the most grand experience. And I think maybe that day, more so than the first day of climbing, hooked me for good. Like didn't matter that my brother was doing it anymore. This is like, this is what I want to do.
ET: So it's fair to say that climbing was more of a thing that you wanted to do long term after that experience.
JS: Oh yeah, I've got a single-track mind for whatever I'm pursuing; to give you an example, when I skateboarded and I found tennis and I fell in love with tennis, I stopped skating altogether. No more skateboarding. Then climbing actually brought me out of tennis. For some reason, I don't want to do more than one thing, I just want to do the one thing. And so I basically dropped everything for climbing. And it remains the same today.
ET: That's great, I'm kind of the same way, actually. So comparing to other places I'm sure you've been to after Joshua Tree or even that place that you started off at, how does Joshua Tree compare to those places like Yosemite or like you said, the other place that you started at the beginning?
JS: That's a good question. A simple answer would be, I think it's just harder. In most ways. Commitment levels are low. We don't have massive, massive cliffs, you know, everything is just a couple of rope lengths, mostly single-pitch stuff. So in that way, things are a little bit easier. But everything else, I swear, technique, technical systems, placing gear, route finding, yeah, just getting a lay of the land is very difficult. A lot of the cliffs look kind of the same. And most importantly, the climbing style is harder than anything I've ever come across. I climb here for six months in the winter and it doesn't matter where I go immediately after, but wherever I go, Yosemite, Wyoming, anywhere, those places feel very simple in terms of technique after a long Joshua Tree season. So in that way, it's really good, but it's just harder.
ET: So would you say it's difficult for a beginner to start off at Joshua Tree, or is there room for someone to start at Joshua Tree, or is it more for like the harder veterans like yourself?
JS: Well, I would say as a beginner, just like the way I came up, you don't know any better. This is kind of like what rock climbing is. It's a great place to learn. I dedicate all of my success in other climbing areas to having built a foundation in Joshua Tree. But I think it gets really difficult when you have a base in another climbing area or God forbid, the climbing gym, and then you come to Joshua Tree. That's when you see the real contrast. But I think if you learn to climb in Joshua Tree, it would be okay. It would be slow going, but then you would take that skill set with you and everywhere else would feel easier. Yeah, I just—I think it's the best place to climb, but if you learn to climb somewhere else and then showed up, it can be difficult for people.
ET: So you were saying like the climbing gym, it's harder for someone to start off at the climbing gyms and then come to Joshua Tree. So it might be harder for those who are starting recently, right in the climbing gym boom. Would you say that's fair?
JS: Totally, I mean, you know, those gym climbers, they show up stronger than any of us, but maybe they don't know how to dance their way up a blank slab, sort of thing.
ET: Yeah, I've heard it's like a dance, like you said, like a dance going up—like choreographing the moves, going up a really hard route, right?
JS: Totally. Exactly.
ET: Okay, thanks. So that kind of leads me to one of my next questions, if I was to say like the words “iconic routes at Joshua Tree”, what sort of things that jump into your head right away?
JS: “Iconic routes.” Oh, my gosh. Well, the first one that jumped into my head is one that I've always loved to climb and always loved the history of. And it's a route in Ryan campground, not the Headstone, but just across the way, Slightly Ahead of Our Time. A 5.12, the first 5.12 in Joshua Tree actually. It’s really cool, it’s put up by our—Bernadette and myself’s friend Kevin Powell, in—gosh, I don't know, Bernadette, if you listen to this, maybe, you know, the year that Kevin did this, but it's got to be like 1972 or something. The first 5.12 in Joshua Tree. By no means is it the most impressive like visually or esthetically, but I've just always held that route way in high regard because of the first 5.12 in Joshua Tree, that’s huge. Yeah. That’s the route, that’s the one.
ET: Okay. So when doing the route, is there anything that jumps out at you as like iconic or is it, like you said, just the history about it that makes it really special?
JS: It's definitely the history. To be honest, it's kind of what I would call hateful, it's not really fun rock climbing. It's got really thin, really sharp holds at the start and the difficulties are short lived. But yeah, just the history of it, it's amazing to think that, you know, at a certain time, there was no 5.12 in Joshua Tree, like that just blows me away. And it's only like 40 or 50 years ago, something like that. And this one route was –boom, here it is, the first 5.12 in Joshua Tree. And to this day, incredibly hard. Like really hard for 5.12. Yeah, not a route that gets enough credit.
ET: Yeah, interesting you say that, too, because when I think of iconic routes, I think of other things, and I think what you just said too, like the first 5.12 to be put in Joshua Tree, like you said, it is really historic because you think about it and comparing to what you said earlier about Joshua Tree being a really hard place with a lot of technical skill, it is kind of crazy to think that there was no 5.12 routes at a certain point in time. So going off of that a little bit too, do you think just the history makes a route iconic or is it more than that, is it like the rock, like the actual rock feeling or is it the difficulty of it, or is it like the location where it might be relative to the park or maybe all those things? What do you think?
JS: I think history is the number one for me, because there's nothing I like in climbing more than the back story, like, you know, even just random little things that, you know, these old climbers can remember and tend to, you know, the story of a route. I love that stuff so much. Next, after the history, I think that the setting, the position of the route is super important, like if I wasn't going to go with Slightly Ahead of Our Time, the first 5.12, I would say the most iconic route to me is the Cutting Edge on Headstone. Purely because of position and like just the angle of the rock, it’s this sweeping overhang arret that you kind of climb on both sides of. And what really does it for me is cover of Climbing magazine 1989, Scott Cosgrove doing the first ascent of it, just one of the most epic pictures; been off and on screensaver of mine on my phone for six years or something. It's just this beautiful, beautiful photo of Scott climbing it. Yeah, definitely, look that one up, that's iconic. The Headstone might be the most iconic piece of rock in the park, as is.
ET: I think my eyes have grazed over that picture before, but I'll make sure to look at it one day if I can. But so is there… excuse me, sorry. But is Joshua Tree, is that different from other places that you've been to? In terms of the history? You know, like the difficulty and the position, as you're saying, is that different from other places like Yosemite? Or is that like a classic route only in Joshua Tree that you would find like the characteristics of it?
JS: Let me ask, so you're asking is the history important in Joshua Tree as much as it is in other places, like based on a route, like an iconic route?
ET: Yeah, my question is kind of long worded there, but yeah, you're getting to the point of it.
JS: I just have like a deep-rooted connection with Joshua Tree. I think it's just because I live 15 miles from it or something. It feels like actually my backyard ‘cause it kind of is, you know. From my house, I can see, oh, it's just over those hills, and then like a couple more hills, it’s right there and it's always been there, you know, as I grew up right here in Yucca Valley. So I think I've definitely searched for a lot of the history and just created like this mythology around so many Joshua Tree routes and stories and, you know, not even good stories. Like stories of fistfights and just weird little things that were happening with the climbers. I just love that stuff so much. And, you know, Yosemite’s got the same sort of big history surrounding every route. But I just never really searched it out that deep. I go there all the time, every year. Do those routes, but I'm not like, totally sucked into the history of it as much. Yeah.
ET: I see. So then what are your favorite kind of histories that you like to go over then for, like you said, the fights or even the small ones, the conflicts. What are the ones that you like to think about or that stick in your head when you go climbing?
JS: Well, some of the earlier stories I remember hearing that really painted a picture for me were the solos of—these guys soloing hard routes in Joshua Tree. So, you know, you got John Bachar, you've got John Yablonski, Tom Gilje, Peter Croft. I really love these soloing stories, especially the ones that didn't go so well. There's a classic story of John Yablonski nearly falling off of like two or three of these classic hard solos. Like Leave It to Beaver, apparently he almost fell off of like the 80-foot mark, like way at the top where there’s this last little sequence and I forget who writes about it. Maybe it's John Bachar himself. But he tells the story of watching Yabo, like about to perish right in front of him and he barely gets away with it. I think he does the same on More Monkey Than Funky, this radical roof crack; he also gets up in there, not solid, like should not be up there. And he squeaks it out. And yeah, that kind of story just always—it just did it for me, even though I’d never solo, I do not want to solo, but there's just something about that era, like in the ‘80s or ‘70s of these soloists. And then you've got John Bachar who is, you know, famous for—ultimately he did die soloing, but his career, he is known for being the most solid, you know, the first [Alex] Honnold really. And there’s footage of him on ‘80s television soloing Leave it to Beaver, just perfectly.[1] I’ve watched that footage so many times and just wished I was there because I think people do some soloing in the park these days, but he's just like a mythical, mythical creature in my head, you know, even though he's totally normal dude.
ET: So those stories live on even through your own climbing experience?
JS: Oh, man. I've climbed Leave It to Beaver probably four hundred times; it’s my favorite pitch of rock climbing ever and I always—I think of that footage, I imagine him being up there ropeless, you know, it's just so cool to be able to connect with it like that so many times.
ET: Wow, thanks. That's a great answer. So in terms of your own climbing career, what are your goals for your career? Basically like, are you someone who looks for a first ascent or someone who looks more into repeating older historic routes, as you’re telling me?
JS: You know, I would love to do good first ascents, they're hard to come by. The makings of a good, hard route in Joshua Tree that has holds the whole way, they're out there, but man you got to do some serious searching. And I have some routes that I've got in my back pocket that I would like to do someday. But the other thing you mentioned repeating old routes, that's my jam, that's all I want to do. It’s so cool like these days, I'm repeating a lot of Randy Leavitt's routes, who's one of the guys who put up… gosh, probably like, I don't know, 9 out of 10 5.13, 5.14 sport routes in Joshua Tree. And it's so cool to be able to call him or text with him and get these little pieces of the back story on these routes and climb these routes, and it turns out they're all incredibly hard, so they take me a long time. But every time I get to check one of those boxes, which is typically once a season maybe twice a season, if I'm doing all right, that's huge for me. And these are routes that, you know, some of them have never been repeated and they're thirty years old. Some of them have been repeated once or twice. So they’re these amazing routes that have no attention, almost no attention, almost never been done. And that's extra special I suppose, just because, you know, they're not these classic Red Rocks routes that get done five times a day. These routes are just sitting out there in the Wonderlands, waiting to be climbed, you know, they're like sleeping giants almost.
ET: Can you name some of those routes for us, if you can?
JS: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I can name them all if you want.
[Emilio and Jeremy laugh]
ET: Well, you can if you like.
JS: A couple of years ago, I did the Cutting Edge on Headstone, which I told you about. I think I did the third ascent of it, but you can never tell. And that one’s interesting because it's two minutes from the road, it's not this massive hike into the Wonderlands where a lot of them are. It's like so close to the road, that one’s crazy. That's one of the more significant ones for me, because I've been looking at that photo for so long and then I finally got strong enough to try it, did it. It was a huge moment. The Ivory Tower has four hard 5.13s on it, The Powers That Be, Chain of Addiction, Ocean of Doubt—Ocean of Doubt’s pissing me off right now, it's so hard. I just can't break through on it. And then the last route on that formation is called La Machine, which I did earlier this season, so that was big, a big check. Let's see, there's a route called Hydra that is incredible out in the Superdome area of the North Wonderlands, that one’s also really high on the list. And I should definitely mention Scott Cosgrove, his routes as well. He put up the Cutting Edge, he put up the New Deal, which is the first 5.14 established by an American, I think.[2] And that's in Echo [Rock] area. And maybe the biggest prize in Joshua Tree left is the second ascent of a route he put up called the G-String; never been repeated, and I've tried it a little bit, it's really hard. Like it's incredibly hard. I don't know if I can do it. Maybe. But yeah, there’s so many, but those are like the top, those are the top right there.
ET: Okay, thanks. I also want to ask you about something that you've kind of been alluding to in your answers to me is the “Josh factor,” which is has been defined to us by other climbers as something that's unique to Joshua Tree, where a lot of the routes are, like you said, harder, more technical, have a harder “dance” to them. How would you define the Josh factor in your own terms if you're familiar with the term?
JS: The Josh factor. It’s a pretty good term, and does apply to a lot of stuff. Gosh. So it depends on the difficulty, really, I would say. The harder things get in Joshua Tree, obviously the steeper. And at that point it's just a matter of like, how hard can you pull on razor-blade types of crimps, you know, just small, sharp holds. So in terms of actually breaking through and climbing one of these routes, for me, it takes such a dedication to my skin, like my skin care has to be on point. I have to condition my skin, I have to make sure I'm not beating it up too bad, you know. I can only try this move three times a day, otherwise I won't be able to try it again tomorrow. So the really hard areas of climbing, there's so many small details, it's pretty insane, but it does ride that same standard of Joshua Tree, the Josh factor of “what am I doing? How do I climb this move? This move makes no sense.” And then you figure it out, you know. Limestone climbing or sandstone climbing areas, I've spent a lot of time at and I really enjoy. And I think I enjoy those areas a lot because it's kind of mindless, it's like, “Oh, there's a hold, there’s a hold, there’s a hold, there's a hold, I’m just going to keep grabbing these.” You know, in Joshua Tree, I spend so much time swinging around on a rope looking for anything. The New Deal, Scott Cosgrove’s 5.14, it's got no holds that are bigger than like… I don't know, maybe like three credit cards stacked. You know what I mean? Almost an overhanging slab, so it takes so much time to figure out those moves, and each individual move, you know, it's pretty wild and then that's a huge sequence to choreograph, you know. The route might be fifty feet long, you know. Thirty moves or something. And those 30 moves might take days, days to figure out. I mentioned that the Ocean of Doubt right now is really taking me for a ride. I put five sessions into the moves, just the moves, not even trying to do the thing yet, just I need to find the moves. And I've got them now. Now it's just a matter of linking them together, but it's so cool. I think a lot of people wouldn't enjoy that process of just getting totally battered. But I do.
ET: Are there any routes besides the one you mentioned that have that Josh factor specifically in them?
JS: Oh, I don't think there are any that don't have the Josh factor. Oh, I should back up a little bit. I forgot to mention the Snake Pit. The Snake Pit is a cliff that was destroyed like thirty years ago in the Bolting Wars. And with the help of Friends of Joshua Tree, our local nonprofit climbing advocacy group, I was able to go in there last season and it took like a month, but I re-bolted the whole cliff. Those routes have less Josh factor. It's a really special cliff in Joshua Tree because it's really steep, and there's like actual holds. It kind of climbs like a limestone area. It's kind of straight forward, there's a little bit of the Josh factor. But it's a nice break from the constant, you know, Josh factor feelings, you can kind of just go and grab holds and pull down really hard. So that zone kind of doesn't have it, but everything else does. Absolutely.
ET: Okay, I see. Thanks. So I also wanted to ask you also about your climbing techniques. You mentioned that you're not really a big soloist. You like to—are you someone who topropes more of your climbs?
JS: Toproping is number one. Literally right behind soloing is toproping in terms of purity. Once you get past, you know, once you start dealing with a bunch of gear on your harness and dealing with leader falls, you've just gotten further away from that act of climbing, I think. I don't I don't see why people are so hung up on leading always. If I don't need to lead something, I don't. There's no point. I just want to climb it.
ET: Do you think Joshua Tree is specifically good for toproping?
JS: Yeah. Oh yeah, you know, the angle in Joshua Tree is typically less steep. Really the only times you can't toprope something are multi-pitch climbs, right? You need to use this rope for pitch after pitch, that I understand, or really steep stuff where it's actually more dangerous to be toproping, right, because you could take these big, big swings. Other than that, toproping is king, it’s number one. It’s the safest form of climbing, it’s the funnest. Yeah. I'm trying to change people's mind about that, I don't understand what the deal is. It's almost like when you send something on toprope it doesn't count. Why? Why wouldn't that count? Totally counts, I climbed the route.
ET: Yeah, I got to the top, right?
JS: I climbed it with my hands and my feet. Yeah, the rope was there to back me up, that's climbing.
ET: Yeah. All right. So one last question before I ask Bernadette or Sally to jump in with their questions; I also think you mentioned Bolting Wars, what's your perspective and understanding of that?
JS: Well, I guess it was 15 or 20 years before I was even born, so I can't have too much, but looking back on it now, I'm just like, “What were you guys—what was going on?” I mean, in some ways I understand if the rule was in climbing: we don't place bolts ever. That would be one thing, like blank faces, we don't climb those because we can't protect them. But that wasn't the case. People were placing bolts, but it gets sketchy when it's like, okay, but you have to place them on lead, you can't place too many of them. You know, you can't place them on rappel. All of that is like—all you're doing is removing another potential branch of climbing, which is sport climbing, arguably the funnest form of climbing. You know, you go out, you can try really hard, you’re not worried about dying like you are on most any bolted slab in Joshua Tree. Yeah, I think it was just like a big—there's just a big ethical thing, people were… you know, had morals surrounding climbing and they took action, they chopped people's routes and in the case of the Snake Pit, they actually lit the cliff on fire, kind of gnarly. Lit a big plant or I don't know what kind of tree it was, maybe like a big nolina tree, I think is what it was supposed to be got lit. So now there's like this big burnt streak going up the middle of the wall, and they like peeled off a bunch of holds just like melted this section of the cliff. So it's like pretty extreme just because of some bolting, you know. And I'd never seen the Snake Pit until last season—
ET: Oh, Jeremy, you’re muted.
JS: You got me?
ET: Yeah, you went out for a second. You were talking about the Snake—
JS: Okay. Yeah, I’ll just back up a little bit. So they lit the cliff on fire and I just don't see how it could come to that point because of some bolts, like why? You guys must have been so, so confident that what Randy Leavitt was doing was evil, that we're going to go remove all the bolts, we're going to break holds off with hammers, we're going to light the place on fire. It just… yeah, when I when came upon it the first time last season, I was so angry. I was pissed. I was like, “Whoever did this…” I don't know if I should mention names, but there are a couple of suspects [laughs] who are like supposed to have been responsible and it's like, you guys suck. It's all good now, we're back. Snake Pit’s back.
ET: So is it fair to say that kind of activity and behavior is no longer at Joshua Tree anymore? Or is it somewhat still there? What's your take on that?
JS: Bolt chopping?
ET: Yeah.
JS: I've heard of a couple of instances. But not to that degree, no. That's like—that's probably a felony these days if you lit a cliff on fire. Yeah, and I don't know what would happen if you got caught chopping somebody else's route these days, maybe you get in trouble with the Park Service, I'm not sure. But I don't think so. [Bernadette shakes her head “no” on her screen] I think all of the really aggro stuff that happened back then, all these fistfights, you know, Kurt Smith getting punched in the face by Tom Gilje, like all these hilarious stories about people getting laid out over climbing, I haven't heard of anything like that. I think climbing’s just chilled out a little bit.
ET: All right. Well, thank you. I'm going to take a break for a second and just let Bernadette or Sally jump in with their questions and I'll come back.
JS: Awesome.
BR: I have a question, you currently guide for Cliffhanger Guides and—
JS: Yeah yeah!
BR: Can you describe your typical day teaching other people how to rock climb?
JS: The typical day has got to be more trended towards like the babysitting aspect of climbing, I think. Got a lot of small families with small kids. And so the typical day is kind of the more boring day for myself. Where we show up, we want you to tie us in, help us up the rock, bring us down, untie us. We don't really want to learn, we kind of just want to check this box of “we went rock climbing” and maybe we'll do it again, but probably not. That would be the typical day. Not so typical day would be, you know, the climbers coming out, whether they're from the gym or maybe they've got some other outdoor experience, but they show up, and the point is, we want to take some of our guide’s skillset, pick up on as much as we can, sponge up as much material and, you know, take that and help us become self-sufficient climbers. And those are the days that I love so much. I love actually teaching. So much, in fact, that I don't call people “clients”, I call them students. And I tell people I'm a teacher, not a guide. [Laughs] Makes it sound cooler.
BR: Nice. My only other question is, do you still climb with your older brother?
JS: Rarely. He's so he's the opposite of the single-track mind, he's like, “I want to do everything. I'm going to go snowboarding, I’m gonna climb.” What else does he do. Oh, he’s big surfer. He goes mountain biking, he does it all and wants to be proficient at a bunch of things, whereas I'm just climbing. So maybe like three times a season or something we climb together. Typically in Yosemite, he'll come visit and we’ll do some climbing. But as far as climbing goes with us together, most of what we do is film. He's my guy. He's the guy who makes our videos. So he's really amped on that. Yeah, but he can climb Leave It to Beaver off the couch just after not climbing for a year. He's just a stud athlete so he can pull it out whenever he wants, but he just chooses not to. [Laughs]
BR: How many brothers do you have?
JS: Three.
BR: And you're the youngest.
JS: Second to youngest.
BR: What do your parents think of you climbing?
JS: I think at this point, there's—I think they’re pretty all right with it. At first my mom was not into it. But I think that comes from—she actually knew a bit about it; Todd took my mom climbing before she had any kids, Todd Gordon. So she had like a little reference for how extreme it could be. And they never took us to the national—they never took us to Joshua Tree. We went to Yosemite every year. So we were like outdoorsy, but we never went to the national park right in our backyard. And I think maybe it had something to do with keeping us away from the most obvious thing to do in the area that we live in where there's nothing super spectacular except for the park. But it was just a matter of time before we found out, but I think they're okay now. Mom is terrified.
BR: Cool. I'm going to pass my questions on to Sally.
JS: Alright.
SN: Thanks so much, Bernadette, and thank you, Jeremy. I can't tell you how much we're learning from your answers so far. It's really great. I don't know if Emilio mentioned it, but you're the first climber that we've talked to who's actually in his 20s. We've talked to a lot of people who are in their ‘60s and the sort of Stonemaster generation but we haven't talked to a lot of people your age and so it's really helpful. So thank you so much for giving us your information. I want to find out a little bit more just to make sure I have my facts straight with regard to your own experiences climbing, and where they stand sort of in a larger world of climbing. So could I just ask, are you ranked as a climber on any national, international ranking site?
JS: I'm not. There are a couple of ways you could get some sort of ranking. is a website where you just log all of your ascents and basically each ascent with each difficulty is worth a certain amount of points. I didn't want to start trying to you know, send rock climbs for points, even though it's not really why I would be sending—I just didn't want to have to look at that. But it is an interesting question; just this season, I started climbing on what's called a Moonboard, which is basically an artificial board. 45 degrees, really steep, it’s a bouldering wall. And it's a standardized wall. It's got the same holds in the same orientation at the same angle. For every single Moonboard in the world, and there's probably like fifty thousand Moonboards all over the world, so everybody gets to climb the exact same boulder problems and log those for points, and I think I'm ranked like 120th in the US on the Moonboard. Which I feel like might be okay because I'm not really a boulderer, but I would say that's my only—that's the only ranking I have like in any way. Yeah, I'm glad not to be competing.
SN: And that was my next question, are you doing any kind of competitive climbing, anything like that?
JS: No, no. I started climbing when I was 16 and by that point, I think it's way too late to like, do well in competitions. Those kids that are coming up in the competition side of climbing, they’re such mutants by the age of like eight years old. And I just never really climbed in a gym to begin with. I just always climb on rock, so it'd be very difficult. [Laughs]
SN: Yeah, so you're not a sponsored climber at this point, is that correct?
JS: No, I am a sponsored climber.
SN: Oh, okay, well, who's your sponsor?
JS: I have a couple of sponsors. The first sponsor that I had actually was a local guy in the town of Joshua Tree named Dave. He runs a company called Flophouse Resoles. And when me and my older brother started making our climbing videos, I just reached out to him and was like, “Hey, dude, could we put a banner on our videos and you give us free resoles?” and then, yeah, seven or eight years later, however long it’s been, we're still on that. He's just a cool dude and we like what he does so he's still grandfathered in. We put his advertisements on every video. And then in the last couple of years, I picked up some bigger sponsors, I’m sponsored by a clothing company called Hippie Tree, they’re like the surf and stone brand. Basically they just make amazing clothing. So that's really cool. I’m sponsored by a company called Friction Labs, which is like probably at this point, like the biggest manufacturer of chalk in the world. And so every month I get this big old box of chalk and chalk bags and product climbing skin creams and files and all sorts of everything around chalk. And then most recently, I have joined the SCARPA grassroots team, so a shoe company. And so I'm getting kind of like a basic level of sponsorship out of them right now. Just kind of, “Hey, I need three pairs of shoes.” And they send them over. I think that's it. It's pretty cool.
SN: Great, thank you. So with your involvement then—oh, let me just get this other sort of fact question; in your network of places that you go to as a climber, can you tell us what are the sites or can you describe for us, in addition to Joshua Tree, where do you go regularly as a climber and where are you hoping to go in the future that you haven't gone to yet?
JS: That's a good question. So my season in Joshua Tree typically ends May 1st. And for the last year, with the exception of this last year due to COVID, every year I go straight to Yosemite Valley. I'll just go do at least a month in Yosemite Valley. That's kind of the only for sure spot that I'm going to. From there, the rest of the summer is kind of wide open. Just living in my car, usually with my girlfriend Sarah. And after Yosemite, it's wide open. You know, we love Wyoming; Ten Sleep, Wyoming, Lander, Wyoming. Those places are amazing summertime cliffs. We kind of just chase the good weather, really, which usually keeps us in California; Tahoe, the hotter months, Tuolumne, the high country of Yosemite, it's one of my favorite places on the planet, Tuolumne. Yeah, so we always hit new spots throughout the summer. With the exception of Yosemite Valley, that's for sure. And then in terms of places that I would like to go, there so countless, but I think my next big trip will be to France. I have to go to France. I have to go to Ceuse. It’s like a really classic historic sport-climbing cliff, you know, the really blue limestone. I love it so much. We've got a little bit of it here in some of the Western states, but not like Europe. I went to Spain last year for a month and a half, something like that and that was amazing. But yeah, France, the south of France is next.
SN: Great. And when you go to other places, is there any particular—when we're thinking about, like trad versus free soloing versus sport climbing, is there any particular (versus bouldering) any particular type of climbing that you typically do? Or do you do just a wide variety of stuff when you go to another place?
JS: So historically, Joshua Tree has been my traditional climbing season, so I get really tuned up, climbing lots of cracks, climbing lots of slabs. And that really prepares me for the season in Yosemite. Just feels really good to go from Joshua Tree straight to Yosemite. Things just kind of click. And if I do that schedule, by the time I'm out of Yosemite and I've done these big committing rock climbs with lots of trad, lots of crack climbing, I'm usually ready to chill for a couple of months and just go sport climbing. Sport climbing, once again, it's just the funnest. It's like… you can't beat it. So Wyoming is amazing. That's why we love Ten Sleep, because you can just go up there worry free, clipping bolts and taking whippers. But in the last couple of years, it kind of changed. I've kind of done a lot of sport climbing in Joshua Tree my last two or three seasons. So I'm coming into my summers really ready for trad. And I will never climb every route in Joshua Tree; there's just too many, but as far as, like, the really classic hard trad climbs go, I've only got a few left that I'm, like, really keen on doing. But what I do have a lot of in Joshua Tree is these hard sport climbs that I’ve been talking about. So this summer’s kind of up in the air, I might go to some places that I've never been and trad climb all summer after having only clipped bolts in Joshua Tree for months and months, which is kind of unheard of. I don't think people think of Joshua Tree as a sport climbing area, but it totally is.
SN: That's extremely interesting, that your perception of it is in relation to sport climbing, and I wonder if that may have something to do with where you see the cutting edge of climbing being these days. I mean, people who want to be the best in the world at climbing, looking forward or like looking in the next 10 years, people who are aiming for the best in the world kind of status, what kind of climbing will they be doing and what kinds of things will they be taking on and what type—where really?
JS: I think if difficulty and pushing just difficulty really, bouldering and sport climbing are the ways. Bouldering will build you so much power. The hardest routes in the world are obviously sport climbs and they're on that European limestone. So, you know, Spain and France and those places are just so loaded with the hardest rock climbs in the world. Because of the way that rock forms, really, you can have two hundred feet of this with holds the entire way. And then I don't like training, I don't like anything that doesn't involve climbing, so bouldering is my training. And if I just want to push, push, push, push, push, which is kind of all I do, I don't really go out and cruise so much anymore. I guess I do a lot of that guiding, a lot of cruising, but I like to just go out and get beat down, it’s my favorite part of climbing is going out and trying something way, way too hard. You know, I might fall on it forty times first day and then just whittle it down, whittle it down to finally do it someday, you know, like there are climbs in Joshua Tree that I've tried for three, four seasons now and I'm still just like, “Nope, too hard, way too hard. Keep working.” So I think bouldering is actually, for me at least, the quickest way to take it up a notch. Just build power.
SN: Yeah, it's something I'm trying to figure out a little bit better in my own understanding of climbing more generally is for these little mutants that are coming along now, that are going to be amazing, what does their training regime look like and how much of it is actually about climbing, you know, and how much of it is doing other things that then contribute to them being able to pull harder on smaller holds or have more muscle tone to get up bigger, bigger jumps or things like gymnastics skills or whatever? What's your sense of that?
JS: Well, I see a lot of it these days, mostly on Instagram, all of these like Olympic-bound athletes that are just pretty much limited to the indoors right now, they're not going rock climbing because they want to win Olympic gold. They are—you see the gymnastics. That's exactly what they're doing. They are doing, you know, so many exercises that don't really look like climbing. And it's all designed to just build the most insane core strength that you could possibly have. So that's really what it comes down to in climbing, you’d think. Strong fingers and strong arms. It's definitely really important but the core is everything so, you know, they're just doing these insane weighted core exercises that I don't even know how to properly do because I don't want anything to do with them. You know, lots of like front levers where you bring your whole body like this and just [sound] I guess, you know, climbing-specific exercises, they are doing a lot of bouldering, a lot of bouldering. Yeah, I follow Brooke Raboutou, who's one of the USA's Olympic athletes, and she is bouldering all day long. And if she's not bouldering, she's doing insane core workouts or she's—she does a lot of campusing. It's just like hanging off your fingertips and going from rung to rung on tiny little edges. It’s a totally different game. It's pretty insane. It looks like a lot of suffering to me. And not enough climbing.
SN: Does it seem like it's going in that direction of a lot more cross-training and a lot less on-site stuff to really get that edge that will make them competitive at that level?
JS: I suppose so. Yeah, and with everyone in the last year kind of being stuck inside, you've really seen people's levels just skyrocket. Like this year was huge for climbing achievements as soon as people were able to go outside, because for months and months, everybody was off of work inside training, training, training, doing crazy hangboard workouts, once again, blasting your core, which I really need to do because I think it would really help. [Laughs] I just don't have the discipline. I think the best way for me to train is just to go out and try hard and just beat my body up on the move that I want to do. It’s just something I'm not even begin to be fluent with because suffering is not my thing, I do not like suffering. That's what training looks like to me.
SN: Well, that said, I was going to ask you to tell us a little bit more about how you project a climb when you have decided, “Okay, this is going to be the one I want to do next in Joshua Tree.” How do you plan it in terms of what's the typical sequence of work you go through in order to be able to finally climb it?
JS: Ooh, interesting. So I guess it would start, you know, days or weeks, sometimes years before, before I've even gotten to a point where maybe I could do this route. I've already done all the research I can, right, like I go through all of the old, you know, Supertopo forums, look for any information just to get any sort of sense of what the route might be like if it's not as easy as just like walking up to it and having a look. And, you know, the day before, check: is the weather good? Which way does the rock face? Do I want to be there—when do I want to be there? I want to be there in the morning for the sun? Do I want to be in there in the afternoon because I want it to be shady? So get that all going and then once I'm there, first thing I do, toprope, hang a top rope on it. I'll typically lower down a route and start brushing the holds. Every feature that I see that looks like I could stand on it or grab it I’ll get chalk on it, because I can't tell you how many times I've talked with climbers who are strong climbers who went ground-up on a route, right, just decided, “Oh, I'm just going to lead this thing right off the bat,” and they get to a certain point where they think all the holds are broken because they just can't see them, because the holds are so small, they don't stick out. So they go up, they fall, they go up, they fall. They can't find the holds and then they bail. And I'm like, “You guys, you've got to toprope it. You got to lower down it, you got to chalk it up because you're not going to see all the features you need to see on lead when you're scared because you're going to take lead falls.” And then, you know, a lot of these routes that I'm trying at least, they haven't been tried in a decade or so. And so there's no chalk anywhere, you can't see anything. So go down, brush it all up and then start trying it on toprope. And I might toprope a route for every session, like all the sessions until maybe I do it with one fall or something, you know. And it's just—it takes a lot of time. To give you a more clear example, with the Ocean of Doubt, I lowered down it, brushed it all up and immediately was seeing that there's rock scars like, “Oh, that might have been a hold. Oh, this might have been a hold.” So immediately on a lot of these routes you come to realize things have broken. So expect it to be much harder than you originally thought. Ocean of Doubt’s supposed to be rated 5.13B. I’ve probably climbed sixty 5.13Bs, not even close. It's like 14A, almost. Never confirmed to have been repeated. So going into it knowing that, I was ready to try as hard as I needed to try for a 14A, not a 13B, and that's really important because, you know, if you get on a route and you're like, “Oh, this is supposed to be 5.7,” you're not going to put in the 5.11 effort, you know what I mean? You're going to sit there and you're going to figure out the way to make it 5.7, because you're convinced it’s supposed to be 5.7. And that's really helpful. Just giving yourself that—it's kind of an excuse like, “Oh, there's broken holds, so it makes sense that I'm getting shut down right now.” And then, you know, every route’s different. I just work the moves on toprope, I think it's the best thing you can do because you don't, you know, take leader falls and have to pull back up every single time and lose progress. You could just take, you can hang there, swing around looking for holds. Yeah, there's a lot that goes into it, and most of it is hanging on a rope and trying to imagine, “How do I get from here to there? You know, I've got this left hand over here, I need feet over there. Are there any feet over there? Nope. Try something else.” So it's just a matter of trying a single move as many different ways as possible until you find the easiest way and even if the easiest way’s still really hard, try it some other ways and then settle. Like this is it, this is all I get. This is how the move is done, I've tried it every other way possible. This is it. This is it. You know it’s—oh, go ahead.
SN: No I was just going to say, with climbing difficulty, you're ending up really figuring out there's one only way that you are going to do it and then you have to really practice that one way. Is that correct?
JS: Yes. Yep, so once I've committed this is the move, I tried it every other way that I could imagine, this is it, move on. You do that the whole route, Ocean of Doubt, specifically this route, I didn't do a single move first try. There wasn't one move that I was able to see and just, “Oh, boom, there it is.” Nope. Every single move took me time and I had to try it. And it's really getting into the weeds, but I have to remember pieces of data. You know, pieces of information as small as like make sure when you get this hold, you turn your right hip in and you, you know, you kind of smush that shoe around so that the outside edge is sitting on the foothold just like this and then that gives you the position to go up and get that right hand. You don't check that right hip into the wall, no chance you fall. So every single move I've got, I know what my hips are doing. I know what my knees are doing. I know what my feet are doing. You know, I've got a little tick marks. I know exactly where my index finger is going on the hold. Pretty much the whole way, I know with my index finger is going to land on every hold for every single move. Then once the moves are dialed, there's nothing left to do but to start trying for some links. And it's just, you know, just break the route up into bits, like I'm going to try to climb halfway, then I'm going to fall because this is where I fall. Now I'm going to try to climb from the halfway point to the top. And if that goes well, maybe I do that once or twice. And then this next time, maybe I'm going to try to climb to the three-quarter mark and then fall. And then instead of resting for five minutes, I'm just going to rest for one minute and then try to climb to the top, and once I can do that, I climb three-quarters with a quick rest and then climb to the top, I'm getting really close. That means I maybe should start thinking about leading it because it's right there. It's starting to—I can start to see the whole thing coming together. So it's kind of brutal at first but then when it all comes together and then it finally clicks and you climb every single move perfectly that one time and then it's all over and it's on to the next one, that feels amazing.
SN: How similar do you think your process is to what Alex Honnold goes through when he's planning a free solo on something?
JS: Oh, it's pretty much the exact same thing, I would imagine. And I'm probably as scared on a rope as he is without a rope. So we're probably doing the same thing ‘cause in my frame of mind when I'm lead climbing is unless I'm in like a super steep sport climbing zones (which in Joshua Tree I'm typically not) I don't want to fall. Like I'm going to climb this route perfectly, if I climb it perfectly, I'll have five percent power left over. And having that five percent makes me feel like I'm not going to fall, I'm going to be in control. As soon as I get to the one hundred percent I'm about to fall or I'm about to maybe not fall, I usually quit, I'll just like downclimb and take or, you know, grab the quick draw or whatever. So I think it's pretty similar, actually. But, yeah, he's up there taking footholds, he knows exactly how he's going to climb every single move. It's almost the same thing. His routes are just a little bit bigger. But his routes are also a lot easier. You would never solo any of these sport routes, you would never do it.
SN: Yeah, I was thinking about John Bachar and the way he's been described as working on some of the things that he free soloed as well. It sounds very similar to what you're doing. He would toprope everything and scope it out really carefully.
JS: Yeah, yeah, and a funny little story is Father Figure, one of the—maybe the most popular sport route in Joshua Tree, Bachar soloed it. Awesome photo of it, and Alex, a couple of years ago, maybe like 10 years ago now, but he attempted to solo it and he bailed. He grabbed a quick draw at, like, the last hard move and then downclimbed, grabbed another quickdraw, downclimbed, downclimbed, downclimbed, couldn't pull the same—just like didn’t have it. Not to rip on Alex, but it’s kind of an interesting story because I want to say that Bachar did it twice in the same day. And the route is so incredibly hard, it's so brutal to imagine soloing it, it's just awful.
SN: Yeah. [Laughs]
JS: Not good.
SN: I'm going to shift the topic a little bit here and ask you about the role of video in your climbing and making those, because obviously that's something that you do quite a bit, and I wonder if that's something that you plan in when you're thinking about a new route now most of the time; are you thinking of it ultimately as a project that you're going to make a video in relation to or not?
JS: It becomes obvious in my own head, really just this route is amazing, these moves need to be seen. Maybe the position of the route needs to be seen. This is the route we need to make a video of. My brother's, he's a filmmaker. It's what he does. So his time is a little bit thin for my climbing stuff, because this is not the stuff that gets him paid very well. So if I'm going to call on him, “Hey, I got the thing. We need to make a video of this.” I need to choose the right stuff. And he's always game for whatever I recommend but there are so many routes that I wouldn't waste my time making a video. And I think it all comes from my background in skateboarding. In skateboarding, you film everything. Because, you know, it's kind of similar to climbing, you can project a trick on a skateboard. And then when you succeed on that trick, it's over so fast, it's gone. The trick really lives on in the video. That's where it lives. When you land a trick, it's so quick, you don't even get to enjoy it. You really enjoy it when you have footage of it. And so when we started climbing, it was just so obvious we're going to make videos of climbing because we want to be able to look back on it. And now we have a mountain of climbing footage. Like a mountain, which I already, you know, stuff that's five years old, I really enjoy looking back on.
SN: So I'm wondering when you know that you're going to make a video, does it change the experience of doing the climbing significantly at all? I mean, obviously, you go through the same project of trying to figure out how to do the climbs successfully, but when the cameras are actually up there shooting you and people are with you positioned in different places, and when you actually have to produce the video and you're in the process of climbing to produce the video, is it a different kind of experience from when the cameras aren't there?
JS: Yeah, but mostly because of the way I prefer to film, which is full movie magic. It's very rare for me to tell Rob like, “Hey, I'm trying this route. I think I'm going to do it, you should come film it.” I would rather climb the route without him there. And then without any pressure, go back and film the route from multiple angles. Where I'm hanging on the rope all the time, you just don't get to see it, obviously. I think it makes a better video, just because I can stage single moves all over the place and you can get really detailed shots. That being said, like raw, uncut footage of somebody’s send, is amazing. But what that involves is somebody being there to film you every single time you try it. And that's a pressure I don't enjoy. I don't want Rob out there, even if it's only three or four different sessions, out there waiting for me to do it and then nope, boom, I didn't get it. Didn't get it. I'd rather do the route, come back, stage the whole thing. But I would never make a video of a route that I hadn't climbed yet. So I like the movie magic type of video making.
SN: It's so interesting because one of the things that you're kind of exemplifying for us about your generation perhaps is how far away you've moved from a sort of first ascent mentality, that the climbers from the Stonemasters era were still in that place where getting to the top of something first was the deal. That was the motivation. That was why they didn't want to look at it first. That was why they didn't want to “cheat” by rappelling, placing bolts on rappel. They wanted the whole thing to be a little miniature of climbing whatever peak for the first time, and with the video work as well as what you're doing with your various re-climbing projects, you have a very different sensitivity toward the art of the climbing moves themselves as being really kind of like the main thing that you're interested in and interested in documenting, as opposed to this is the first time this was re-climbed or this is the first time I got to the top of something.
JS: Can you hear me? Yeah, yeah, I missed, like the last 20 seconds.
SN: Oh, I'm sorry, I'm just thinking like is it fair to say that this is sort of obsession with getting to the top of pointy things is not what your climbing practice is about, that it's—you're interested in the art of the moves themselves and the difficulty of the moves themselves and the videoing that you're doing is kind of an example of that.
JS: Yeah, it’s very true. You know, when I was first learning to climb, first learning to climb, I was all about style, like, “Oh, you got to do it like this. You don't want to have your quickdraws hanging. You want to hang your own quickdraws.” I've gotten so far in the other direction, I don't care about anything other than the act of climbing. That's why, once again, toproping, number one. It's the best. I don't see a real difference between trad and sport climbing these days. Like, if you know how to place a cam, place it correctly, that's pretty much a bolt. You know, it's the same thing. It's just about the moves. I want it to be as far removed from—or I don't want the climbing to really involve the gear. Don't care about the gear, the rope, I love having the rope. I do not want to die, but I don't want it in my way. I don't want to lead climbs that I don't need to or that I don't need to lead. I love bouldering. I get just as much excitement out of bouldering as I do climbing these big walls in Yosemite. Same thing, because it's all like right here, you know, it's like—what do they call it? The eight foot eggshell. It's like, “What can I reach and what can my feet reach?” That's all I'm worried about. And as soon as I've got a big rack hanging off of me, it just detracts from the point, which was the rock climbing. So I totally understand soloing, I guess. Sounds amazing, just rock climbing. But it's not just rock climbing like you're going to die or you’re—you know, death is like right there, so that's a little bit too far, but bouldering you don't have to do anything. You don't have anything hanging off of you to go bouldering. Yeah. Yeah I don't—I'm not worried about any style or ethic anymore. Sport climbing, love it. Place as many bolts as you want, don't care. Or place none. [Laughs]
SN: Great, just one more question, actually, for me, which is about the potential of Joshua Tree as a place for world-class climbing. A lot of the people that we've talked to have really seen the heyday if you will, or the golden age of Joshua Tree as being during the Stonemaster era or perhaps when Kevin Powell put the first 5.12 up or that era when these really, really hard sport climbers were first being placed or, you know, done in the park and that they don't really see any potential for Joshua Tree to be the hardest place in the world to climb in the future, that's just not part of the picture. So I’m just kind of wondering, would you agree with that, that the hardest climbs in the world are going to be found elsewhere? Or is there a way in which the sport might evolve so that Joshua Tree might actually have another heyday at some point?
JS: Ooh, that's an interesting question. I don't think you can have 5.15 in Joshua Tree. Obviously it's possible, and I'm sure there are 5.15s just waiting to be done. But I don't think a 5.15 climber would ever try one. A 5.15 in Joshua Tree would be the most heinous thing you could imagine, it would be the sharpest holds for, you know, every single move, it would be awful, really. It would be—the kind of holds I’m imagining you'd have to grab onto to have a 5.15 in Joshua Tree would be just like razor blades, just razor blades or like single crystals that you crank on. I don't think it would work out so much. People don't even come and do the 5.14s here because they're too hard. And we have probably, I don't know, five or six maybe, maybe a couple more, maybe some of these other 5.13s are actually 5.14. Those routes don't get done. I've seen so many 5.13 climbers come to Joshua Tree and not be able to climb 5.13, maybe not even be able to climb 5.12. It's just—the Josh factor it's too big. It's real. Which is totally fine because there's so much rock on the planet. Yeah, Joshua Tree, I wouldn't—if I ever climbed 5.15, I'd be gone. I'd be in France. And I certainly wouldn't get to a point where I could climb 5.15 in Joshua Tree. It would just be too painful. And I don't think our cliffs are shaped for it, you need real steepness. We've got plenty of it, but steepness with holds. And in the case of 5.15, very small holds. I don't think it would be a good idea. I think it would be—I think your skin would just explode.
SN: Great. Thank you. I'm just going to open it up here for Emilio or Bernadette, did you have any follow-ups for Jeremy?
ET: Just one last question before we let you go. Can you describe your relationship to rangers as a guide and as a climber?
JS: Literally, other than Bernadette, I don't know any rangers. I know a couple of retired rangers who are all excellent. I've never had an encounter with a ranger, I think—actually I shouldn't say that. I think the only encounter I've ever had with the ranger in Joshua Tree was me and my buddy were coming out from a bouldering spot called the Gunsmoke at like nine o'clock, but we were parked in a day-use area. And my buddy got a two hundred dollar fine for being in there after sundown or something. It was literally the only experience I had with a ranger. So it's great, we have a great relationship with them. I hope it stays that way. [Laughs]
ET: It's neither good nor bad. Yeah. All right. Well, that's pretty much my only question on the rangers part. And we always give the last couple of minutes—I'm sorry, the last question for the interviewee to have the last word. So is there anything that we missed or we didn't talk about in this interview that you feel like should be said on the topic of Joshua Tree?
JS: Topic of Joshua Tree. People need to stop driving off of the roads. That's the number one thing I see in Joshua Tree, that's like really bad. Like really bad. Oh, on that same note, another threat I see for Joshua Tree (I don't know if this supposed to be me just listing threats) but boulder pads in Joshua Tree, horrible. People—the way people hang around with boulder pads and trample through vegetation and lay their pad down on vegetation is one of the worst things—that's one of the worst things I've seen in Joshua Tree. I think Joshua Tree’s working out just fine, other than you can't park anywhere on a weekend. It’s okay, you know, it's an amazing spot and everybody wants to come. That makes total sense. But there's so many boulderers with so many boulder pads. And that pad, even though it seems cushy, it's just a menace for rock-climbing in Joshua Tree. I think if anything were going to get climbers in trouble, it's going to be these boulderers. And I'm a boulderer, you know, and I'm probably responsible for stepping on plants, too, but there’s—people need to take care when they're walking around with these massive boulder pads and make sure that they're not climbing boulder problems with so many pads, so unnecessary, the amount of pads that, you know, just bushes gets destroyed. It's the worst thing I see in Joshua Tree is small vegetation getting trampled on. It's just horrible. And people driving their cars off the road. That's the worst. That's huge. So I don't know, maybe just a little bit of education on that would be nice. I do my best when I'm just like, “Dude, get your boulder pad off of that plant, you idiot.” [Laughs] I'm sorry, but you have no idea how hard it is for that little bush to just be there on its own and you're throwing your boulder pad on it. Yeah. Is that what you were looking for?
ET: Yes, definitely.
JS: [Laughs] Okay.
ET: All right. Anyone else have the last words, Bernadette or Sally, before I close the recording? Okay, well, thank you, Jeremy. It's been a pleasure talking to you.

[1] John Bachar climbed Leave It to Beaver for a segment of the 1980’s TV show “That’s Incredible!” The narrator describes the route as “the most dangerous rock ever to be scaled”.
[2] Scott Cosgrove’s New Deal is the first 5.14 put up by an American. It has only seen one other repeat by Alan Moore.


Russ Walling

Interview Date: 03/12/2020

Biographical Information: Russ “Fish” Walling is the owner of FISH Products, a climbing gear store currently based out of Joshua Tree. He began selling “one of a kind” items out of the back of a VW van in Yosemite National Park in 1983 and now is global due to an online ordering system. Russ has been climbing in Joshua Tree for 40 years. He also has significant experience with free soloing as well as Search and Rescue procedures.

Content Summary: Russ describes the early beginnings of climbing communities in California and how climbing locations played into developing climbing identities. Joshua Tree is referred to as an important location for the sport of climbing and for the individuals of Southern California. Russ provides his perspective on improvements in climbing gear, shifting ethics in the park, and conflicts between rangers and climbers. Search and Rescue operations in Joshua Tree and Yosemite National Park are also discussed.

  • John Bachar
  • Mike Lechlinski
  • Royal Robbins
  • Stonemasters
  • Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks
  • Tom Gilje
  • Yosemite National Park
  • YOSAR (Yosemite Search and Rescue)
  • Father Figure (5.12)
  • Leave It to Beaver [The Beaver] (5.12)
  • Left Ski Track (5.11)
  • Spiderline (5.11)
  • Tonic Boom (5.12)
SN: So welcome everybody, today is December 3rd, it’s 2:00pm, and this is Sally Ness from the University of California, Riverside, Anthropology Department. I’m here today with Bernadette Regan from the National Park Service, and Emilio Triguero, my research assistant. And our interviewee for today is Russ Walling, who has graciously agreed to contribute an hour or so of his time for the Historic Resource Study that we’re conducting for the National Park Service, focusing on the history of recreational rock climbing in Joshua Tree National Park. So thank you so much for joining us today.
[technical difficulties interrupt the interview process]
Okay, all right, so let’s start right off with life history information, Russ; can you just, for the record, state your date of birth and where you were born?
RW: 9-13-61 in Pasadena, California.
SN: All right, and can you give us a little bit of background on your occupational history, what kind of work you’ve been doing over the years?
RW: I would say it used to be spotty, if it was on an actual paper record. But I’ve been manufacturing rock climbing equipment under my own company since 1983. And previous to that, I was, you know, laborer, I was a machinist for a little while, and I did some Hollywood stuff, you know, just grabbing at whatever dollars would float my way.
SN: Okay, thank you. Great, that takes care of that first set of questions. Let’s shift now and talk a little bit about your individual history with climbing, which will take us back into your climbing equipment –how you developed that. So can you tell us when you first started climbing and how you got into it?
RW: I probably first started in 1978, or right about then when I got out of high school; I got out of high school in 1979. And I was not –you know, I wasn't a Boy Scout or I wasn't anything like that, and I had some friends that fancied themselves as mountaineers of some sort, I don't know where they got that idea. And they said, “Hey, we’re going out to Joshua Tree, like, to go rock climbing.” And they were mostly backpackers in the Sierra, but when they would go on these backpacking trips, they’d bring little bits of climbing gear and maybe scramble or something like that, which was at the time pretty adventurous, really.
So I went with them to Joshua Tree and we went climbing, like they set up a toprope or something and next thing you know, I was climbing and said, “Hey, this is kinda good,” and never really stopped after that; was hooked on it immediately.
SN: So your first climbing experiences were actually in Joshua Tree, is that correct?
RW: Yeah, I think the first climb I ever did was in Joshua Tree on Intersection Rock.
SN: Okay. And your friends, were they all from Pasadena too? Was it a local group?
RW: They were pretty much all from Sierra Madre, which was the neighboring town there; I think you might be familiar with it. And we were all from Sierra Madre.
SN: Okay, yeah, I lived in Pasadena myself for a number of years so I do know that area fairly well. And it’s interesting that you were hooked immediately and sort of never looked back, is that correct?
RW: That would be pretty much correct. I’ve been climbing, to some degree, I guess you would call it “full time” (of certainly, not like every day or whatever; I have big gaps especially now that I’m like a hundred years old) but always a climber. Always went climbing. Lived the lifestyle for decades, where you would climb, you know, two or three hundred days a year kind of thing, for many, many years. Lived in the various areas, did the whole thing.
SN: So tell us a little bit about the different places that you climbed over the years, and if you have any sort of peak experiences or particularly memorable climbing events, fill us in.
RW: Well, initially, what we used to do –and it wasn't just me, it was a handful of us sort of from that same area, and of course when you climb, you meet a bunch of people all the time, and since they’re like-minded, you end up seeing them at various areas. But we would predominantly winter in Joshua Tree for the entire winter, and then go –in the spring, let’s say you would go to say, Tahquitz and Idyllwild and climb there for a little bit, and then go to Yosemite and stay in the valley for the entire summer until the snow flew, and then you’d come back to Joshua Tree and did that for… oh man, it’s got to be close to 20 years kinda thing.
And then, we sort of branched out a little bit, like I wasn’t one of those early adopters of international travel or anything like that, but we would go to other areas and go to like maybe Texas, Waco, Texas and winter there for a few winters and hit Joshua Tree on the way back, and with LA is mostly a base. I mean, you were within striking distance of the Valley or Joshua Tree pretty easily, so you could, you know, go home, freshen up, do some work, do something, and then go to the next destination and stay for pretty much the season, whatever the season would be weather-wise, and just stay there for the duration. And it only recently, I would say in the last… you know, “recent” nowadays is about the last 20 years, 15 years. I’ve traveled more and gone to other areas like out of the country, I’ll go to Kalymnos, in Greece, and I’ll go to Mexico, down to El Potrero Chico and climbed down there for about a month at a time. At each area, we do a couple of trips a year like that, and of course, I always climbed the east side of the Sierra, though I was never a Sierra climber, like I don't really like walking. That’s why Joshua Tree has such a great appeal; if you are walking it’s pretty much flat.
Because I lived in Bishop for ten years and did that whole thing, where you go bouldering every other day and go climbing on the various pieces of granite that were nearby. So that whole east side of the Sierra and then into Yosemite, and it was always kind of a loop, like you go up through the Valley, come down through the east side, out to Joshua Tree, maybe plan a trip to Hueco, come back to Joshua Tree. Season changes, and do it all again.
SN: So tell us about the earliest experiences you had once you were in that sort of “full-time” climbing mode. Tell us what Joshua Tree was like for you as a climber, what was your sense of what it offered to climbers and how people lived in that particular landscape? Can you describe the scene for us in a bit of detail?
RW: Well, back then –I mean, so much has changed, because of course the time period we’re talking about is huge; now, you know, it’s a span of forty years.
But back then, you could go to Joshua Tree whenever you wanted, whatever day it was, there was never any “full” signs or anything like that. And you could walk around, literally five minutes from the main campground, Hidden Valley or whatever, and do new things. So we always started out really doing new things, like we would do new routes; we did a lot of bouldering. And at that time it was like bouldering and even to some degree, climbing at Joshua Tree, was just preparing you for bigger and better things, let’s say like maybe going to Yosemite and climbing El Cap or whatever you’re doing.
So we’d walk around with nobody around, our group of, you know, back then maybe 20 people were really climbing all the time and you’d always see them out at Joshua Tree. And just do a lot of new problems, like a lot of exploring and finding things and you didn't have to go far. And it was just wide open. It was as wide open as you could get, as far as not seeing people, not having problems that had already been done. You know, you’d walk out there and do a new problem or have four or five guys try it for an hour or two and somebody would get up it, and there was no real record of any of this. It was just kind of what we did and then you’d maybe go rope climbing or you’d go toproping or whatever you would do, but it was really pretty barren back then.
And you didn't have to venture far to get what people are sort of looking for now, which is that solitude. I mean, five minutes away, you would have your solitude and new stuff. And new stuff was always appealing, I’ve always enjoyed doing new things or un-done things.
SN: Great, that’s very helpful. I’m wondering if you could talk a little bit more –you mentioned earlier about how Joshua Tree prepared you for these other climbing experiences. Could you say a little more about exactly what it was that you experienced at Joshua Tree that gave you that sense of being prepared? Was it a physical, mental, some other kind of preparation that you acquired there?
RW: Well back then, it’s like the sport changed over the years to where it was really kind of an offshoot or a spur of maybe mountaineering or something like that. There was always these giant goals that people, not necessarily our people, but even the guys I started with, they wanted to go do big routes in the Sierra or whatever, but they had these big goals. And everything else was deemed “training” for the “big goal.”
I think even a million years ago, Royal Robbins was always talking about how it was really training for something else, like he would go to Stoney Point out in Chatsworth and it was kind of like training. And what it trained you for is to make you strong, make you confident, maybe work on your library of moves, like if we were in Joshua Tree and somebody was going to Yosemite, like maybe you would climb a bunch of cracks because Yosemite’s all about the cracks, so you’d climb a lot of cracks.
But it was really like almost a practice environment so you could go on to bigger things. I mean, for some people, sure, their bigger thing was really nothing more than going to Tahquitz, which, compared to Joshua Tree is quite large and could be intimidating. But it was a practice ground, but it was also an end to a lot of people, like they never really wanted to go anywhere big, like I never wanted to do a mountain or crawl up Everest or do any goofy stuff like that. So any time we went bouldering or climbing, it was mostly like, “Oh yeah this is fun and all, but we’re really doing it to –so when we go to Yosemite we won’t be either intimated or without the necessary skills or embarrass ourselves,” as, you know, “Oh the Joshua Tree guys showed up and man, they really stink,” that kind of thing. Because there’s always a prideful element too. You want to be well-prepared to do your thing. And I think Joshua Tree and to maybe a little larger degree, Tahquitz, people would go there to train for Yosemite because it was bigger, grander, longer, harder, and you just wanted to be strong and confident more than anything else. And to get that you needed to put in a lot of hours.
SN: Thank you, that’s very helpful. I’m really interested to hear you say that you might’ve thought of yourself as one of the Joshua Tree climbers. Did you really have an identity at that point that was connected to Joshua Tree, or wa