Stuck, Climbing Cheese Graters

The sun was low on the horizon, blackening the Joshua Trees into silhouette, and long after our brief climb was over, we still hadn’t found our way off of this bloody rock.

But I didn’t feel that knot of danger in my stomach that comes with the realization that you might have to spend the night out in the wilderness. No–we were in sight of our campground, for chrissakes. Below us, other climbers were starting their campfires and popping open cold beers. We felt stupid for getting stuck on top of this rock and just wanted to get down and start our own campfire. And we wanted to do it without having to yell to a camper, “Where’s the downclimb?!?”

We’d been warned. If you utter the word “Josh” to a climber, you’ll hear tales of challenging downclimbs and cheese-grater rock. Joshua Tree’s granite is notoriously rough and ragged, and taping your hands is de rigueur. So is learning to downclimb 5.6 to get off of the big granite boulders.

We were not good at either.

Despite the warnings, on our first Josh climb–a few days before getting stuck on the rock above our campground–I wasn’t prepared to see blood on my hands before I’d even left the ground. I was huffing and sweating and stuck on the ground. Ignoring the fresh red blobs around my cuticles, I ground my fingers back into the monzogranite crack, pressed hard against the cheese-grater rock, and finally hauled myself off the ground with an unsatisfying grunt on the fourth try. We walked away from Day One slightly scarred and unsure whether we were having fun climbing here.

Now we were stuck atop a rock, stuck atop an “easy” climb, but not at all comfortable with the idea of downclimbing the exposed slabs that seemed to be the only way down. One slip would be a long fall against the cheese grater.

Call me crazy, or unadventurous, but I like to know how to get down off of a climb before we get to the top. So we’d checked our guidebook and even asked a soloist for descent beta. He’d soloed our route just before we climbed it.

“Which downclimb did you use?”

“The one on the northeast side. It’s pretty good, but it requires some skill.”

Soloists are notoriously understated.

Since we topped out on the southwest side of the rock, we searched for the downclimb there first–to no avail. We crossed to the northeast side–where the soloist descended–and again faced dubious downclimbs. But we had a glimpse of hope when we found an arch on the very top of the rock we could sling to rappel part of the way down. At the very least, we could get a better look, we thought.

Jeremy looped our rope around the arch and rappeled first. I watched our rope smash into the giant granite crystals as he weighted it. When he finished, the rope didn’t budge–it stuck to the rock like we’d superglued it there.

“I’m worried that we won’t be able to pull the rope after I rap down!” I yelled.

“Really? Crap.” We were equally concerned and pissed off but didn’t have much choice. The light was fading fast; so was my stomach for this situation. I rappeled, stopped on a broad slab next to him, and tried to pull one end of the rope.

It was stuck. We whipped it around wildly to no avail. The worst part? We still didn’t see a way down from here, either.

“Okay, you go retrieve the rope, and I’ll look for the downclimb,” I said.

Cursing, Jeremy ascended the rope while I slinked down to the edge of the slab. It only got steeper. But a wide crack to the east looked like a possible chimney we could downclimb.

Jeremy, usually mild mannered, came back cursing even more. “I can’t believe we had to leave gear behind on this climb. And we still don’t know if we can get down over here.” But I was hopeful about the chimney. He came down and wedged himself in it to belay me through the possible downclimb I’d found.

The guidebook said the downclimb involved ducking under a chockstone. I didn’t duck under anything, so I doubt this was the “official” downclimb, but it worked–it was exposed, but with big hand holds. We were tired and frustrated (and ready to hurl gear at the guidebook author, had he been there), so in an attempt to be Capt. Saftey, I placed gear as I descended to a ledge (I’ve never placed gear for a downclimb, but oh well) so if Jeremy fell descending, he wouldn’t fall as far.

We were down.

Wait, we were not down. We weren’t more than 15 feet off the ground, but we were stuck in a maze of rocks and cacti. Are you effing kidding me?!?

Okay, after a brief wander through the rock labyrinth, we really were down. We walked back around to our packs in dusk. Above our packs, we spotted a pair of climbers–one using a headlamp since it was nearly dark now–near where we had turned away from the “downclimb” off the southwest corner of the rock.

“Hey, are you guys okay?” I called up.

“Oh hey! No, the last time I did this, there were rap bolts, but they’ve been chopped. Do you know where the downclimb is?”