Last January, I visited Joshua Tree and lead my first trad routes. It was a harrowing experience—at least my first route was—despite the low grades. Throughout the year, I lead a few more routes including some multi-pitches on Tahquitz. It’s a new year, a new (exceptionally mild) winter, and the time had come to return to Joshua Tree.
I left the last trip jonesing to climb “The Eye” on Cyclops Rock. It’s rated in that low-grade zone where I feel comfortable and it looked really fun. It’s essentially a tall alcove that leads to a small tunnel near the summit of the rock around 100 feet above the ground.
I rolled into Joshua Tree Saturday morning with Travis and Moreno. We were lucky enough to find a campsite at HIdden Valley directly across the street from Cyclops Rock. The fates had spoken. We set up camp, Moreno packed eight days of food into his day-pack along with his video camera, Travis grabbed his GoPro mounted quadcopter, and we hiked over to the rock. I lead it without incident, belayed the guys up, and we got a little video during the prep. It was a good warm-up and ego boost. It was time to pick a new route. “Penelope’s Walk” just around the corner seemed like a good idea.
“Penelope’s Walk” is 5.5ish with some slab-climbing, a bit of traversing, a little cave, and a short crack leading to the 80 foot summit. It looked fairly easy from the ground. I was surprised to find out how psychologically taxing it would be. Early on I noticed the rock was poor. I’ve climbed on worse choss (crumbly rock), but it was bad enough to make me question the reliability of some of my foot placements and a couple of my pro placements. Regardless, things were going well until I reached the traverse. I spent a large amount of time at this spot—climbing, down-climbing, weighing my options, looking for alternate routes (it’s where I’m perched in the first photo of the gallery). My dilemma was committing to one move roughly half-way across the traverse. The rock was poor and I couldn’t find any reliable foot placements I could trust to execute this one move linking both ends of the traverse. A fall would cause a pendulum swing possibly into a lower ledge. Chancing a fall was not an option. Thankfully, there were several rest spots nearby where I could cling to the wall comfortably and consider other options. After many retreats, I finally found a way to get me past that questionable spot. I climbed into the cave and rested for a bit. An older man had walked up earlier, stopped to watch, and chat with Travis. Thankfully, he would relay the small bit of reassurance I needed to top out on this route. Next to the cave is a thin crack that works left, then turns 90 degrees directly to the summit. It bulges out a bit, and looks quite intimidating. It was hard to protect, my last good piece was below in the cave, and a fall would have been ugly. The man on the ground assured me that it looked worse than it was, that as soon as I felt like I needed a hold, it would be there. I stood at the seam, placed a marginal cam primarily to appease me psychologically and committed. Hesitation would likely lead to a fall. Hesitation was not an option. I have rarely climbed a crack so smoothly and calmly. Although the crux of the route, I felt like I was dancing through it. My only option was to climb it well, that motivation made it so. I topped out, relief and satisfaction washed over me.
Moreno followed and cleaned the route, pulling onto the summit as the Sun set. It had not been the quick, easy route I suspected. Not because the climbing was hard, but because it was just intimidating enough at the right spots to make me doubt myself. I did feel that I had progressed as a trad leader, although. The year before, “False Layback” (my first) had terrified me. “Penelope’s Walk” had made me uncomfortable and a bit frightened at parts. It even had me consider bailing a few times, but I was never truly scared and I was confident in my abilities when it counted.
The next day I lead “The Eye” again, Travis shot some copter footage of it, and we gave him his turn on “Penelope’s Walk” by top-rope. Then, we climbed in the van and headed back West.