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!
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.