Three Parks in Just as Many Days
This is a 2016 trip report on my interpretation of March Madness.
Officially finishing the trek across the country from Miami, FL to Las Vegas, NV totaling 3,152 miles and culminating the trip with a night at the Maswik Lodge. Staying less than a quarter mile from the South Rim in Grand Canyon National Park, chasing the sunset and sunrise on bicycles; my journey had been filled with climbing, cycling, photography and good ole times
Calling at the end of same week I arrived, Leon Legot, had just landed in Phoenix, AZ… “Make it to Las Vegas yet papo or still in the Grand Canyon?” We met at Coral Cliffs in Fort Lauderdale and soon after went on his first outdoor climbing trip together at Horse Pens 40. Both of us always ready for an adventure in a moment’s notice, the fleeting feeling of an opportunity abound.
“Vegas already bro, you trying to visit?” I asked. Leon explained he had three extra days before he had to return to work from a weekend trip to Havasu Falls on the Havasupai Tribe Reservation. Although the falls are in the Grand Canyon, it’s administered by the tribe and no roads go down to it: people either walk or helicopter in with supplies.
Leon isn’t the type of guy to waste three days sitting at home if there are adventures to be had, so with rough plans I picked him up from McCarren Airport at 10PM on Monday night.
A good local rule of thumb to have for your first time in Vegas, is knock out the touristy Strip shenanigans off the first night. Directly from the airport: we watched the Fremont Light Show, ate at the western classic In-n-Out Burger, walked from Mandalay Bay to Treasure Island, and watched the last Bellagio Water Show of the night playing “God Bless America”. In the fifteen years visiting my brother who lived in Vegas, I had never walked the Strip that much in one night!
DAY 1 Sleeping in until 8:30am, we packed my Civic, hollered “see you later” to my parents and off we were to Death Valley National Park. I’ve heard people dis the park and skip it thinking there’s nothing to be seen or do. Those fools are missing out, we were heading there for the experience of a lifetime: the once every ten years super-bloom of flowers. The previous in 2005 and recent El Nino heavy rainfalls in October had brought on quite an impressive bloom.
Kicking off D.V.N.P. with a drive/hike to Dante’s Peak (5,600ft) to overlook the one mile drop off into the Badwater Salt Flats (-282ft below sea level). Driving across the valley in an attempt to snag one of ten, highly coveted free campsites at Emigrant, Leon convinced me to a guaranteed site at the Stovepipe Wells campground. Turning out to be a much better idea as we didn’t have to drive so far between camp and our trip objectives.
My parents had given us the low down on the wide-open fields of flowers in the Badwater area; far away from the crowds pulling over left and right for the little bits of flowers on the side of the road. Praying for less cloud coverage as we raced the sun past the Salt Flats; finally reaching the blankets of yellow, purple, and white flowers with just thirty minutes to spare.
Spontaneously pulling over for a Salt Flats night hike under a new moon, constellations, and satellites… Far away, a red streak of light magically swirled above the salt. The streaks of light looked oddly familiar to me, yet I couldn’t tell what they were so far in the distance. Intrigued and continuing our walk towards the red streaks, Leon mentioned that it must be a photographer playing with long exposure. The closer we got we could see the silhouettes of a tripod and two people.
Vrummmummmmm FVISH! A blue streak appeared and I instantly realized that we had stumbled into a Star Wars cosplay. As the lightsabers arced around them, the glow revealed that they were decked out in full Rey and Kylo-Ren outfits. Talk about a twist to our night hike. Gazing in awe at the couple’s ingenuity and complimenting their idea, I continued past them to star gaze and taste the salt. I’ve had iodized, sea, pink and black salt before, but never had BADWATER SALT!
Joking about how fun it’d be to cook with Badwater salt, our stomachs grumbled about dinner being a great idea since we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. Sometimes I forget about feeding myself with every new view feeding my adrenaline. In the desert it is imperative to gas up every half tank as you don’t know where the next gas station could be, so the same should go for staying nourished.
Boiling water for the Mountain House packets and tossing around the idea of pitching a tent; I looked up at the stars in the clear sky… Unrolled my sleeping pad on the space next to the car: “too much effort for a single night, plus no desire to block this view”. Slurping our noodles, crawled into our sleeping bags and dozed off…
DAY 2 A gust of wind up flipped the tarp underneath us just before our 5 o’clock morning alarms went off. Turns out we didn’t need to set any technological devices. The dim light of dawn crept up on us while making our way to the Mesquite Dunes. Attempting to cover as much ground as quickly as possible, we trekked up and down the loose sand: three steps forward, one step back.
Finally reaching the ridge of the tallest dune, Leon set up his tripod awaiting the sunrise over the mountains on the horizon. We had followed the footprint trodden sand ridge until reaching untouched territory. No one else had made it as far as us, these dunes were all ours for photographing.
The first ray of sunlight began racing across the sand in front of us, a rising sun began to turn the dunes a golden hue. As shadows inched forward creating a majestic contrast that bewildered me, I made a promise to return on an over-night backpacking trip. The sight of beauty was so short-lived that without spending the time behind the lens, the memory of the dunes would’ve faded too soon.
After hours of driving twisting mountain roads to an unpaved Panamint Valley road and passing a school next to a nuclear plant; we had finally arrived at Joshua Tree National Park. A desert in full bloom reminds you of the life surrounding you, even if you didn’t see it before. The only other time I’d been in this area was late fall as the greenery gave way to winter. Soon as you enter park, there are granite rock boulders skewed about increasing in height the closer to middle we drive.
‘J-Tree’ is a rock climber’s playground: with the some of the most solid rock around, stunning cracks, short faces, and huge domes; it’s no wonder why the Yosemite Valley Stone Masters flocked in search of unclimbed lines. Bringing their conservation ethics, most of the climbing is traditional (commonly known as “trad”, where you plug in/remove your own gear) or protected runouts (bolts, sparsely placed to lessen damage). New climbers beware; the grades are no joke and the slabs have no hand holds!
When I first/last visited the park in 2012, an ex-Yosemite guide took me under his wing and planned on ending my trip with a 270foot ascent of ‘Walk on the Wild Side’ on Saddle Rock. Under his mentorship that Thanksgiving week, I had learned more about trad climbing than been previously exposed to. Since then I vowed to pass on my own knowledge, thankful to have had the opportunity to learn so much from an experienced guide.
Unfortunately, the popularity of the route didn’t allow time for us to climb the route back then. Teary-eyed; I planned to make it the first climb on my next visit and four years later, Leon and I were harnessing up. At the base of Saddle Rock chatting with a team that just finished the route about how I wouldn’t need any of my trad equipment, although the guidebook says a small rack would help. The team we passed on the approach had pointed out the start of the route atop of some boulders, but our interpretation of the book convinced me that the lower right route was the one…
[Background knowledge on the Yosemite Decimal System of grading a rock climb:
5.6 is easy, 5.13 is hard.]
Starting up the delicate slab, I immediately cursed the spirits of J-Tree and the old school climbing masters for giving the route such an easy grade (5.8). Thirty feet off the ground, I clipped my first bolt. Finally feeling safe from any potential ground fall I began to confidently climb upwards. In the back of my mind the realization of getting in way over my head crept. As I reached a ledge, two other climbers rappelling off asked me what climb I was on.
“I HOPE ‘Walk on the Wild Side’!” I shakily responded.
The one closer to me replied that they had just done the route and it was further to the left: “I don’t know what route you’re on kid, but you look solid and it looks fuunn!” [More back knowledge when climbers say fun, it usually tends to have a twisted meaning along the lines of ‘that’s insane, but why else do we do this’]. Laughing it off and gathering proper route beta, the guys offered me the use of their rappel line as a backup, declining, I committed to the full adventure of discovering new climbs. Eventually traversing into easier terrain to connect with our intended climb.
Wondering which route I had just climbed, I began thanking the skies for my safety. Mentally exhausted from the harder route than originally intended, belayed Leon up the route and told Leon it was his turn to take the sharp end. Explaining that he could combine the next two pitches into one long single pitch, we climbed the remaining 170feet with only five bolts… talk about a runout!
The winds whipping us cold while watching the sunset dipping behind the San Bernadino Mountains, we took obligatory summit selfies and prepared for the descent. Proud to be picking up where I left off, I howling as I got off rappel and just
as Leon made it to the base, a coyote responded!
There are very few places that a rock climber can camp near rocks inside the park boundaries and climb at any hour of the day, year-round. Feeling at home in the outdoors as we strolled back to the car without worrying about the time. Cracking open an L.A. brewed IPA back at the campsite, the fire rolling and dinner boiling: Chinese noodles loaded with garlic, ginger and sriracha.
Spicy foods warm you up even on the coldest of nights, especially when your fire dies out faster than you expected. Diving into my sleeping bag, I began to count the stars and maybe reached the seventies…
DAY 3 The sun woke us up with clear blue skies, we quickly tossed everything in the car wanting to squeeze in as much as we could for Leon’s last day out West. Munching on some peanut butter and honey sandwiches while on the road, I made the mistake of stopping at a Route 66 gas station with a rip-off $5/gallon. Hence why you should always take it easy on your way out and fill up ahead of time. We made an obligatory touristy stop passing the Hoover Dam for Leon’s first time.
Not wanting to waste limited time in a line knowing there’d be one to enter Red Rock Canyon, we opted of grabbing some In-N-Out Burger before climbing. If the peanut butter and honey sandwiches held us off for this long, they were sure to fuel us for a couple more hours. Inhaling our nutritional intake, an older couple inquired our whereabouts as do all travelers and told us they were heading to Death Valley the next day. I couldn’t help but laugh at the irony as Leon explained we had just visited with a rock climbing stop in Joshua Tree.
“Wow, you young guys seem to be all over the place in so little time, DOING IT RIGHT!” exclaimed the man.
Moments like those, tell me I’m on the right path: when others tell us that we should keep trekking and adventuring. As a young adventurer, I sometimes wonder if I made the right decision to not settle in my hometown, but with great friends like Leon ready to adventure at a moment’s notice… There’s only one thing I think about then: where’s the next place to explore.
Our climbing objective was to log as many routes as possible rather test our limits on this new rock style. In a short four hours we ticked off a wall moderates wrapping up with one harder route, before heading directly to the airport from the crag in true dirtbag climbing style.