Sunday, April 17, 2011

Dairy Queen Wall aka "Um, so the approach is the crux, right?"

Topping out in cloudfire

I do not know this guy, but he did a lovely job.

Before this weekend, I theoretically understood that there existed such things as "approach shoes." I theoretically understood that one wears such footwear in order to approach a place where one might want to apply actual climbing shoes to their feet, so as not to ruin said climbing shoes on the, uh, approach. I theoretically understood that in order for "approach shoes" to be a necessary item, there must exist the sort of terrain that cannot be crossed in flip-flops.

Just because I theoretically understood all of that does not mean that I was somewhat shocked by the serious amount of steep scrambling it took to approach the Dairy Queen Wall, one of Joshua Tree's classic climbing destinations. Good Ranger Laura was leading Rebecca and I up towards a series of routes - my first time climbing in Joshua Tree (if you don't count the Conan's Corridor scramble), and only my second time climbing outdoors in my entire life (the first time happened, I don't know, thirteen or five billion years ago). About half a minute into the scramble, I stopped and said to Laura, "Um, is THIS the climbing?" knowing full well that this was exactly why the "approach shoe" was created.

After skinning approximately 15% of my exposed skin on the scramble up to the base of the routes, we reached our destination - some purported 5.6 climb whose frozen-dessert-related moniker I can't remember. I belayed as Laura led the route, and watched as she reached a sort of open, featureless area in the middle of the route. Hm. Hmm. For a brief moment, Laura considered where she'd place her next protection, then with the wingspan of a freakin' pteradactyl, lunged gracefully across the open space and proceeded with the climb. I studied her moves, and calculated that my own wingspan was about that of a blue jay, so we might have some problems here.

Nevertheless, I volunteered to go first, and then realized that to start the climb, I'd have to stem up using the boulder behind me - a skill I was pretty sure I didn't possess, especially since when I initially launched off the wall, I ping-pongged between the two rocks, skinning off an additional 5% of my exposed flesh. However, flush with the feeling that I couldn't let myself get soft-served by this frozen delight, I found myself aloft, pinching the grippy holds, and practicing all of the super-useful stuff related to weight and tension and movement that I'm really glad I learned at the rock gym.

I didn't make it all the way up (turns out that blank spot in the wall was too much for my old granny hip), but no matter - it felt good to shimmy up the rock. We then moved over to Frosty Cone, rated a 5.7, but it played out a lot better than this jerky 5.6 did. After a few minutes, I forgot about Laura and Rebecca below (for a bit, at least), and focused on what felt right on the rock, shifting my weight and working up the face. Once again, I got stuck the crux, but looking back over my shoulder at the desert below, I was proud of what my normally acrophobic self had accomplished.

A few climbs later, we began to downclimb the approach route, and almost immediately, I started to whimper. I felt secure up on the rock, but here, facing the slabs and boulders, and air beneath them, I lost all confidence. With some patient guidance from Really Really Good Ranger Laura, the shaking subsided and although I skinned off another 25% of my exposed skin, I made it to the bottom, my pride from my first Joshua Tree climbs (mostly) intact.

The rock tore up my skin, the approach tore up my confidence, but it felt good to be out there, realizing new limits for my body and mind. I'll definitely be back, and this time I'll still bring my "approach shoes," but hopefully also my "approach attitude," acrophobia be damned!

Thar she climbs!

What Would Ed Do?
Ed guided something like 20 million ascents of Mt. Rainier as a young buck, so I have a feeling he could probably coax me up and over some unclimbed summit in the Himalayas if he had to. That said, Ed would probably high-five Laura for her supreme patience and general awesomeness, and hopefully high-five me right afterwards for being up there in the first place.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Annapurna aka "Every Chick's Got One"

This beauty came in the mail the other day:


In internet parlance: ZOMG!!!

This isn't just any old badass T-shirt - this is a replica of the badass T-shirts sold to raise funds for the first successful American expedition to the summit of Annapurna (Annapurna I, if you're being technical), the 10th highest mountain in the world, back in 1978.

The woman behind the expedition - and the badass T-shirt - is famous mountaineer/scientist/environmentalist Arlene Blum, and the reason I'm mentioning any of this and the reason why I'm so excited to sport my very own replica T-shirt is because she wrote a book called Annapurna: A Woman's Place that I just finished reading. You see, not only was her expedition the first American team - and only the third team in history - to reach the Annapurna summit, but they were also the first women to do so, during a time that was less than hospitable towards female climbers or adventurers of any sort.

I saw the T-shirt in a photo towards the front of the book, and for all of the obvious reasons (mountains! double entendres!), I had to have it. But since finishing Annapurna, that tee seems a bit more symbolic. There's a reason Maurice Herzog famously (well...famously to mountaineering nerds) said: "There are many Annapurnas in the hearts of men" - this mountain has the highest percentage of fatalities (the ratio of fatalities to summits) of any of the big dogs - yep, even more than Everest and K2 - and if you want to translate his sentiment into non-mountain dork parlance, it basically means we all have our own crap to conquer.

In her book, Arlene recounts the struggles of being a female mountaineer in the 70s - that's to say, the struggles of dealing with all of the sexist bull that came both from outside and within the patriarchal mountaineering community at the time. To add to that the daunting task of organizing an expedition up the most dangerous, and at the time, only barely explored, of the 8000ers is a helluva challenge. I ended the book gutted by the fatalities that occurred during the expedition, but in awe of the strength of this team of women.

So hell yeah, Arlene - a woman's place is definitely on top.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mugu Peak aka "Where It All Began...Sort Of"

Mugu Peak sentinel

In contrast to last year's flurry of slightly obsessive pre-Whitney hiking and camping activity, the first three months of 2011 have been woefully inadequate, leaving me to flip nostalgically through old photos and stare wistfully at the REI catalogue. In essence, life has just gotten in the way of LIFE, so in an effort to reconnect with Ma Nature (and one another), Rebecca and I met up for a moderate spring trek through the grassy La Jolla Valley of Pt. Mugu State Park, including a traverse of Mugu Peak, an oceanside bump bearing some awesome views.

The day couldn't have been better for hiking - clear blue skies, bright grassy fields, mild temps, a gentle breeze - paradise in boots. Our hike took us through a verdant (and Boy Scout-filled) La Jolla Canyon, past some temptingly climbable rock walls, above a sleepy waterfall, and up to the overgrown grasslands above, where I tried to temper my intense fear of ticks (I do not want Lyme disease. I DO NOT want Lyme disease. I DO NOT WANT LYME DISEASE.) with an appreciation for the height of spring exploding all around. Leaving the valley behind, we ducked onto the Mugu Peak Trail, bounced over a clover-choked, low-flowing creek, and up we went.

The path to greatness

Clover-choked stream crossing

From here, we wound around a hillside perched over an unnaturally aquamarine Pacific, darted across a side trail, zig-zagged over a sizable bump, and then up to Mugu Peak itself, the small-but-steep rollercoaster ridge recalling a bit of our special (read: leg-killing, emotional-trauma-inducing) Mt. Wilson traverse last summer with Casey. On top, we chimed in on a group discussing various means of descent, then plopped our butts down on a small rockpile for some chocolate and a sweeping view of the Pacific, all the way out to the southernmost Channel Islands.

Three strangers and a clear blue sea

Almost Caribbean

We quickly realized we were short on time (a girl's gotta have a social life, you know), and decided that the best way to descend was via the use trail that shot straight up the opposite end of the peak, down towards the top of the Chumash Trail. Once again comparing this to "Casey's Special Birthday Hike" (aka the Mount Wilson Marathon), we started down a steep, but nicely compacted dirt trail, wherein Rebecca offered up, "This is the worst of it here."

It wasn't.

We reached the little sub-summit hump and stared down a much steeper, less compacted vein of dirt and rock, and lurched downward towards the grass below, skidding and engaging every single one of our abs (or our singular ab, in my case), until we reached the bottom...only to watch a bare-chested man emerge from the steep Chumash trail next to us and thrust up the use trail towards Mugu Peak at full speed. SHOW OFF.

Contemplating spring

All in all, it was a perfect day on the trail - the weather and scenery cooperated for a morning worth the mileage, and we both bounced back to the car on that sweet Santa Monica Mountain High.

I chuckled, thinking back to my first trip to Pt. Mugu State Park several years prior - a booze-filled car camping trip with a group of (mostly) new friends. One morning, we decided to hike to a waterfall listed in the guide book I'd brought along. I pulled on a pair of jeans (mistake), laced up my Sauconys (big mistake), and led by optimism and a vague map, we trudged along in the searing mid-day sun, veering off on what turned out to be a use trail. Members of our group flaked off one by one, done in by the heat, lack of water, and rapidly deteriorating trail.

A few of us stubbornly carried on, the promise of a gushing waterfall somewhat clouding our (my) judgment. My slick-bottomed tennies slid around on the dirt trail, which had turned into less of a single-track than a half-track, perched sort of diagonally on the side of an oceanside bluff. Unable to control my anxiety, with no waterfall in sight and convinced I'd soon slip off and drown in the ocean below, I said that I needed to rest for a minute. We turned a corner and I plopped down precariously on the side of the trail, shaking from nerves, when something just to the left of my hip caught my eye. I turned just in time to watch a baby rattlesnake slither away from my left thigh. I screamed, and headed back down towards camp as far as my crappy shoes would allow.

Strangely, this didn't mark the end of my hiking days (although I was convinced for a short while that I would never again set foot on a trail), but rather the start. I ditched the Sauconys and bought a pair of Keen hiking boots from a girl I met during the camping trip, and the confidence they brought was enough to completely blow open the world of hiking possibilities available to me in SoCal.

And you know - I still have those Sauconys...but they're strictly Disneyland-issue footwear these days.

What Would Ed Do?
Ed is a Spiderman among mortals. I am convinced he could hike upside down and sideways if he wanted to, and his feet probably have built-in crampons at this point.