Baby Makes Three Dirtbags: A Family Climbing Trip, Part 4 of 4

Every year as the angle of the sun arcs lower in the sky, the air takes on a crisp quality, and the aspen leaves turn from green to golden fire, I start to feel a pull deep inside. An innate feeling that tells me its time to wrap up my loose ends, gather my gear, and head out on the road for the next climbing adventure before the winter season begins. For the past 14 years or so I’ve embarked on this rock climbing road trip—it has become an annual ritual of sorts. A time to send my personal projects and get some much-needed time climbing with my husband (who is my favorite climbing partner but equally as busy as I am guiding and working as a professional athlete for most of the year). This fall takes on even more significance, as my 13-month-old baby will be joining us on our annual pilgrimage.

After nearly three weeks on the road traveling and climbing, we are headed to one of our favorite areas, and our final climbing destination of the trip, Joshua Tree National Park. Joshua Tree is a place where Dr. Seuss illustrations come alive with desert plant and rock formations that conjure your wildest imagination. It's a place where the young and old play as children alike. It's a unique high desert ecosystem teeming with incredibly resilient, and beautiful fauna and flora. Joshua Tree is also home to some of the most challenging climbing I've ever experienced. Run-out protection, sandbagged grades and sometimes gritty and loose rock all add up to some spicy climbing experiences. And yet, the climbing can be so brilliant: splitter hand cracks, delicate face climbs, incredible multi-pitch domes of rock and endless opportunity to explore more. There are thousands of established climbing routes, and even more if you have a sense of adventure and a rack full of protection. It's a place where you can grow your mental and physical climbing game like no other. It can also send you cowering away after a hard beat down, or a route that proved to be too scary. All in all, Joshua Tree nurtures my soul, the landscape, the people you meet, the stellar camping, the desert sunrises and sunsets, the climbing and all the challenges that come with it.

Driving, we wind up the park road through stands of Joshua Trees. The trees can grow up to a thousand years old, and are native to a small area of the southwestern US near the Mojave desert. The trees are actually a member of the lily family and require a very delicate balance of water and warm arid environment, making them a unique species only present in a small region, growing smaller with the ongoing droubt. The piles, mounds, and domes of quartz monzonite rock multiply as we wind our way into the center of the park.

Classic climbs such as Alf’s Arete, Course and Buggy and Sidewinder come into view. We turn at Hidden Valley campground to find our home for the next nine days. 

In Joshua Tree National Park, it's all about the camping, and finding a spot can sometimes be as cruxy as the climbing in the area. We cross our fingers in hopes we find an open spot. We cruise the outer loop in Hidden Valley campground and, to our relief, find a site within a few minutes. As we pull in, a young couple with a six-month-old baby in arms greets us from the adjacent campsite. They welcome us into the campground, and are excited to see another climbing couple with a baby, as are we.  

Setting up camp is easier, as we are practiced at the routine now that we near the end of our month-long adventure. K-Bear runs over to dad when she recognizes it's time to help him put up the tent.

I breathe in the air and take in the beauty of the place for a moment. It really invokes a deeper creativity within me, and others too, as I notice the intricate meditation maze that someone has created out of pinyon pine tree needles near our campsite.

Joshua Tree has become quite the fall and winter climbing destination, ever growing in popularity, and several of our friends and fellow mountain guides are also here. We walk to the inner loop of the campground and connect with our friends who will join us for some climbing over the next week and half. The sun is getting low in the sky, and it's time to scramble to the top of one of the rocks to watch the sunset and the nearly-full moon rise.

Day one of climbing takes us to The Real Hidden Valley to warm up on classics such as Sail Away, Clean and Jerk and Illusion Dweller during the weekday before the weekend crowd comes along in this normally busy area of the park.


It doesn’t take long to remember how intense and fun the climbing can be around here. K-Bear is fascinated with a trio of ravens that seem to be following us. She points and calls out to them, they're interested but indifferent at the same time, and fly off in the other direction. A lizard scurries from a warm spot on a boulder and catches K-Bear’s eye; she trots after the lizard, but it darts under a scrub bush, and she puts her hands up in gesture which says, “Where did it go? hmmmm?” We tick off a few more climbs before the sun drops behind the mountains of this desert. Walking back to camp, the rosy glow of sunset paints the rocks in a soft, warm light. The outline of the Joshua trees against the twilight is equally as stunning. It's not long before the night is upon us during these shorter late fall days. We make dinner at camp and head to bed in our cozy tent.

Day two, we venture into the Echo Cove region. As we walk across the flats toward the climbing, we come upon a massive Joshua Tree, with each “floret” indicating decades of growth, I'm guessing this tree has seen some years.

We continue on to warm up on the classic crack climb Touch and Go while little K-Bear naps in her carrier.

The finger crack start attests to its namesake, and the hand crack up higher is pure fun. I'm glad K-Bear is sleeping as I negotiate the “walk off,” which proves to be more complicated than the climb itself. We venture deeper into the region, ticking off Popes Crack, Heart and Sole and Crime of the Century as the day burns on. Sunset is nearing, we pack up and walk back along the soft sandy trail to yet another display of twilight hues. 

Over the next few days we expand out into The Outback, The Wonderland of Rocks, Steve’s Canyon, Hemingway and the Hidden Valley Campground area.

Some of the climbs we've done before, and others are new to us. Some days we climb with our friends, and others we're on our own as a family of three. We enjoy the opportunities we get, no matter the climbing scenario.

Fingertips getting more raw daily, and forearms starting to lack the necessary power, we realize that we must take a rest day, whether we like it or not.

I've never been one for rest days. There is an art to resting, and I can honestly say I don’t have it. Maybe someone can enlighten me, but it's so hard to hang out, do nothing and lounge around, when the climbing beckons to you from every angle. There is just one small problem: when your body says it's time to rest, it's hard to ignore. We opt to head down into the town of Joshua Tree, catch up with some local friends, take showers and make some phone calls. Joshua Tree is such a funny mix of artists, military, desert dwellers and outcasts. I'm not sure I truly understand the dynamic of the community, but I always find it a fascinating place. Freshly showered and socialized, we head back into the park for the evening.

Back at our campsite we watch the full moon rise and prepare a one-pot wonder of pasta, et al. There is a chill in the air tonight, so we start and stoke a warm campfire. K-Bear spots a desert mouse with a long, bushy tail. She squeals in delight, and follows the incredibly nimble little desert rodent all around our campsite. Soon K-Bear is slowing down, and gives up on finding her little friend. We sit as a family on our plush bouldering pad sofa and devour dinner. K-Bear looks sleepy and within a couple minutes she has fallen asleep in my arms in front of the campfire. I guess it's time for bed; we could all use some rest after many days of climbing and travel.

The tent lights up as the sun begins to rise. K-Bear is especially tuned in to this rhythm of day, she wakes with a smile and uses us as a jungle gym augmenting the incredible bed-head quaff she is sporting.

There is something so joyful and promising when you wake to a sweet babe smiling that pure smile that wipes away all your stress and the worry the world has bestowed upon you. K-Bear is ready to go and gestures that she's ready to get out of the tent and start her day of desert adventure. She finds the fire poker and uses it as her walking stick. I've observed such an amazing amount of development in the last three weeks, including this new ability to venture off on her own.

I can’t help but think that this trip has helped expand K-Bear's physical and cognitive development in so many ways. We make breakfast and head out for more climbing.

A rest day has proven to be helpful, and we spend our last few days in Joshua Tree sending some fun projects.

We are feeling strong from four weeks of climbing, and it's hard to imagine that our family climbing trip is about to end. But rumors of powder snow in the Tetons and the comfort of home are calling to us. We pack up early in the morning on our final day and say goodbye for now to our beloved Joshua Tree and our annual fall climbing adventures. Until next time.