Joshua Tree Climbing Clinic

Beginning to Boulder
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Our other instructor, Steve, was setting up an anchor atop one of the rocks. We watched him walk up routes that the rest of us would later struggle to climb. He made it look like walking up stairs.

Class started with a bouldering lesson on a low stretch of rock. We practiced inching ourselves sideways, using the rubber on our shoes to stick to tiny ledges that barely looked big enough to support a good-sized bug. It took a while to get used to the idea of"smearing," an entirely counter-intuitive technique that uses friction instead of solid footing to cling to a surface. My tendency was to try to hold myself up with my fingers and bend over, putting as little weight as possible on my feet. It took a few falls to figure out that a smear only works if you stand on it.

After a few successful moments with my newly acquired skill, I felt ready to get vertical. First, we had a lesson on knots: grip, twist, wrap, pull through, follow. Then, when Steve and Al were satisfied that we could all tie in, we moved on to belaying. Most of the students had climbed in gyms before, if not outdoors, so it didn't take long to master the simple system that keeps climbers from taking big spills.

When we were ready for our first climb, we paired up and chose from among four easy routes. My partner and I walked over to the easiest-looking one, checked each other's gear, recruited another student to back up the belayer, and exchanged starting commands. "Climbing," I shouted, then stepped onto a hold.

This isn't so bad, I thought as I yanked and scratched and pulled my way up the rock, ignoring every bit of technical advice we'd received earlier that morning. As I'd find out later, the holds on this route were big enough that technique didn't really matter. So I made it to the top without much trouble, and thought, maybe there's a climber in me after all.

We broke for lunch before I had a chance to shatter that new confidence. By then, the sun had reached its peak, so everyone ducked into shady alcoves to eat their sandwiches and examine the first of their scrapes. ("Skin grows back," Steve said to one of the climbers whose elbow was rubbed raw.)

Leaning against a cool piece of rock, I watched heat waves ripple upward from the unprotected sand. The distant boulder fields that had seems so solid that morning had started to shimmer, giving the illusion of puddles at their bases. We sat so still and silent as we ate our lunches that some desert mice that had been hiding from us all morning came out to scurry from bush to bush. For the first time since the climbing started, I stopped to take in the surroundings and relax.

A more confident climber might incorporate the scenic landscape into a peaceful climbing experience—the scenery, after all, is one of Joshua Tree's main draws. But as soon as I finished my sandwich, my anxiety level started to rise, and the beauty of the desert disappeared as my focus returned to the rocks.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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