The rock in front of me is smooth and too steep to climb. Not vertical, but steep enough. No holds at hand, I squint across blank stone, bright in desert sunshine. Decidedly out of reach is a thumb-sized bump, but two feet beyond my grasp is digital nirvana--a one-inch ledge. My left foot stretches sideways to nuzzle into a shallow notch. A puff of gymnastic chalk, used by a previous climber to dry sweaty palms and improve grip, brings my attention to a wrinkle in the granite maybe as thick as a nickel. I press the pads of two fingers gratefully onto it. Exhale, focus concentration, and pull hard.
Suddenly I'm falling. The strain that had been holding me against the stone catapults me into space. A rope stops my fall almost as soon as it begins. Securely knotted to my waist, it is clipped to a bolt driven into the granite and runs down the face to my 100-pound belayer. She catches my fall with a single hand and saves my life for the fifth time in as many minutes. We both laugh.
The rope has stretched momentarily like a rubber band, yo-yoing me to a stop. Woven especially for climbing (165 feet costs $100), it's good for dozens of these inconsequential falls--as well as the one real screamer it may never get.
The climbers standing along the base of the cliff hardly notice. To them a five-foot drop onto the rope is like hitting a wrong note while practicing the saxophone. Rock climbing has become so complicated that delicate weight shifts must now be executed from full power-grip hangs, and few can master such an intricate sequence on the first try. So the climbers, if they notice at all, are more interested in critiquing techniques: Since the foot popped again, shift the body angle outward.
Beyond the climbers hover clusters of tourists. They notice the fall. These people didn't come to the desert to see climbing; to them we're just a roadside attraction. On the tip of many a tongue is the disclaimer, "You wouldn't catch me up there."
Probably not. The fear of falling is deeply ingrained, one of only a handful of feelings that psychology is willing to call "instinct." Even climbers are not immune. "Fight gravity" says a T-shirt popular in the camp. And climbs get names like "Fear of Flying" and "Aerial Anticipation."
Maybe we've just misunderstood George Mallory all these years. The British conqueror of Mt. Everest cut short a reporter who was asking yet again, "Why climb?" by replying, "Because it is there." Maybe "it" isn't the mountain at all but the void, forever snapping at the heels of the climber, escaping upward.
At any rate, I balance back onto the rock and again address the crux passage. Leaning out one or two more degrees intensifies the strain on my fingertips, but it allows me to stick my foot onto its smear hold. I slap the higher nubbin a moment before the foot skips, teeter and, holding, scramble up onto the one-inch ledge. My belayer yells congratulations, and the little knot of tourists behind her breaks into applause. My concentration slackens, and in a rush I feel the winter sunshine on my bare back.
After all that, I am 25 feet above the desert floor. I clip my rope through another bolt. The difficulty eases slightly, almost imperceptibly, but enough to allow fluid ascension. In two minutes I pull over the top of the 80-foot climb. Stella follows with disquieting ease, and we scramble down the backside of this granite bump into the Mojave.
This is Joshua Tree. Like many other climbers, from casual weekenders to dedicated fanatics stretching the limits of the sport, I spend several weeks each winter at this national monument east of Palm Springs, honing the skills that go into modern rock climbing. An odd blend of raw power applied with finesse, as well as year-round training, have become essential elements in mastering the hardest climbs. The distance on some of the most notorious ones is less than 100 feet. While Yosemite's El Capitan is best known and by no means passe, the demanding new climbs are the little outcrops at its base and elsewhere around the country. A number of the world's hardest climbs are in Joshua Tree, and this modest collection of granite has become a winter training mecca. During the climbing season, which is just now ending, one sees license plates from a dozen icebox states on the cars parked below the rocks and hears rope chatter in French, German and Japanese.
For the curious, Joshua Tree turns out to be one of the best places to see rock climbing, check out the moves and explore the mystery of "how the rope gets up there." Joshua Tree is actually much better for watching than Yosemite, for example, where the action on El Capitan is veiled at binocular distance, and the short climbs that would be good viewing are hidden behind trees in obscure parts of the valley. At Joshua Tree many climbs are right out in the open along the road.
But don't be lured onto the rock by the climbers' easy grace, their deceptively casual manner and occasional solo adventures; like good athletes anywhere, they make what they do look easy. Recently I came upon a teen-ager, from a South Bay church group, crumpled on a ledge. While scrambling, he slipped and fell 25 feet. He was lucky: Other than suffering some abrasions, he seemed only to have broken his wrist. But the rangers and I had to strap him to a backboard for a rough carry to the waiting ambulance, and the experience ruined the day for a lot of people. As all climbers know, gravity is unforgiving, and ever so democratic.