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Joshua Tree for Xmas 2011...with Ammon McNeely

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It's so lame to be sitting at this big glass screen, pushing on these little plastic keys. How can this compare to the happy go lucky life of a dirt bag rock climber? Don’t get me wrong, I love my job, but it doesn’t hold a candle to living the life of a dirt bag climber. The photos in this TR are more about the people I met climbing, rather than just the climbs we did together. For me, the camaraderie of climbing is just as important as the routes we did. So here it is, my yearly jtree for christmas TR:


Do you know this Joni Mitchell song?


“It’s coming on Christmas they’re cutting down trees

Putting up reindeer and singing songs of joy and peace

I wish I had a river I could skate away on.”


If you know that song, then you will understand when I say that Jtree was my river this year. I drove down with Merica and we climbed for a week in puffy weather. I exchanged Merica for Randy and Sue (my wife) on Christmas at the Palm Springs airport. Craig, Ashlie, Michael, Ammon McNeely, Vladimir and Des also showed up and stayed for all or parts of the trip.


Merica showing me her rack...er, I mean her cams:



Merica is a lovely, lovely girl. It amazes me that climber women like this are still single. What is wrong with you guys? Are there any gentlemen left out there anymore?


On the walk back through the campground, Merica saw some climbers leaving site 27 and we snagged it for the duration. On Monday we were climbing at Quail Spring Picnic Area and Craig walked up, having driven down in 19 hours, including a 3 hour nap. That means he shaved 6 hours off our time. He says he just drove faster, but that doesn’t seem possible. I think he got abducted by aliens.


Ashley showed up in a few days with Michael and Ammon McNeely. Ammon McNeely on Wings of Steel at Rock and Ice magazine Ashley, Michael and Ammon are all living and working in the skydiving industry in Lodi, California. Ammon has been called the best aid climber in the world and a google search will return many great stories. He is a master story teller. We spent many nights around the campfire listening to his adventures on El Cap, and his close calls base jumping. His best story was about the time he and two others jumped off a 500 foot electric power transmission tower.


Here is Ammon’s story, as remembered by me:




They had a less experienced jumper with them who had not bothered to pack his chute. He was supposed to hold it in his hand until they flew through the wires, and then release it for inflation. Instead, he released the chute early, before they had fallen through the wires.


His chute partially inflated and the lines caught in Ammons shoe. Ammon says he thinks he saved the guys life because Ammon pulled him away from the powerline. But then they were both falling toward the ground, and neither could open their chutes due to the tangle.


Ammon was frantically trying to pull his foot out of the other guys chute lines as he watched the ground rush towards him at terminal velocity. He said he was looking at the ground rushing toward them, spinning around and around and thinking: *This is what it's like to die*. Finally he pointed his toes and his foot popped clear. The other guys chute was able to open and Ammon pulled his rip cord…at 55 feet. He said his chute popped, he flared, and he landed, all in about 2 seconds.


His first thought on the ground was: “Oh my God, I almost died. But…that was so cool!”




Ammon had many other stories, too many to recount here, but I will say that the story about his 80 foot rope solo whipper, and the denied rescue attempt on El Cap was fantastic. They told him to hold up two hands for no, and one for yes, but all he wanted to do was have a drink and a smoke.


Merica and I had to wear puffys and carry my handwarmers to stay warm, but we had a great time warming up on the many easy Joshua Tree rock climbs. By the time Randy and Sue arrived Christmas weekend I was starting on the 5.9′s. Joshua Tree has old school ratings, which means that you may find, as I did, that you can get gripped out of your gourd on a 5.5. Double Dip is a case in point. I led Merica up that one thinking it would be a cruise. I got totally bugged out at the 30 foot runnout. The fall would have meant a hospital stay. My friction skills were rusty and climbing up those friction holds with the bolt gettting further and further away was unnerving. I don’t know if it was the weirdness of the climbing, or my whining, but Merica didn’t want to climb anything else there after Double Dip.


We left and headed over to Toe Jam, which she liked a lot better. I also took Merica up Bat Crack. Bat is a long 5.4 that goes all the way up Intersection Rock in one long pitch.


Merica on top of Bat Crack during the first week before it got hot.










Bat Crack starts out in a cool body slot chimney, passes a 10,000 year old car sized pile of bat dung, traverses some thin face climbing and finishes with 30 meters of wide crack. It’s a very lovely pitch. Merica climbed it in her puffy coat. My wife Sue and I first climbed Bat Crack in 1980 with hexes. I have pictures of us standing on top with a rack full of hexes and stoppers.


Because it gets dark and cold at 5pm there is a lot of time to kill each evening. Dinner and a campfire is nice, but wood is expensive so we went out exploring in the desert on night hikes. A prime hiking destination from Hidden Valley campground is the famous Iron Door cave. Legend has it that a frustrated parent locked his developmentally disabled teenage son in the cave back in the last century. He would shove food in through holes in the sides of the locked cave and then leave. Craig and I tried to find it one night and gave up after wandering around in the desert for two hours. We stayed warm, but never found the Iron Door cave despite my having been there before in the day light.


Ammon took 4 of us there a couple nights later and he gave me landmarks as we walked, which burned it into my memory. The trick is to stay on the wash as you walk north out between the blob and outhouse rock. Head towards the *v* notch on the north horizon until you step up onto 60 foot wide shelf of rock. Go down the "stairs" in front, turn right and go through the 70 foot narrow corridor lined with bouldering problems. You are within 100 feet of the cave.


Here are photos of us in the cave:


Michael passing the roach to Ammon. Note, I was an observer here, my days of wacky tabacky are four decades back in the past.







I captured this photo by having Craig sit in the cave with his red headlamp shining on the door. It set my Cannon 50D on a rock with a 10 second delay to about a 5 second exposure. During the exposure, I painted the rocks with my led headlamp, hence the blue coloring. I did not do any post processing in Photoshop. It came out of the camera like this.




Ammon sitting outside the entrance to the Iron Door cave:



After hanging out at the Iron Door cave, Ammon offered to take us to the Hobbit Hole. These pictures are from our first visit to the Hobbit Hole:





Ammon never went anywhere without a can of brew. He said he had hurt his shoulder and was trying to relax for a while. That's not to say he wasn't climbing. He cruised up all the hard boulder problems at # 27, our campsite...in tennis shoes. I could tell he was a very, very good climber. It was an honor to share a campsite with him, and hear his amazing stories about big wall climbing and base jumping. The man can tell a story like no one else.




The girls had wisely decided not to accompany on our first night time hiking adventure. After leaving the Hobbit Hole, we headed back through the dark starry night towards the campground. Ammon, our guide, had imbibed rather heavily and was unsure of the way. All the desert mounds look similar at night and we soon realized we were lost. I located the north star and thought we could simply walk south. We would be bound to eventually hit one of the roads leading out from Intersection Rock. But after wandering south for a while, Ammon came to life and decided we were too far East. He took the lead again and we walked South West for half an hour until we saw a white spot reflecting light on the horizon.


It turned out to be a 25 MPH speed limit sign on a road…but what road? And which direction should we walk on said road? We turned right and walked for 10 minutes but decided it was the wrong direction. We turned around and walked the other way, eventually spotting the campfires of Hidden Valley campground. I was completely turned around by that time and had no idea where we were until we walked into the actual campground.


The next day was windy so we drove down to Indian Cove for warmer climbing, food and showers.


Merica shows Craig some Yoga:






Craig leading me up some 5.11 nightmare at the Feudal Wall, Indian Cove




Merica following Toe Jam. I saw...I think it was Lisa Rands...free solo this one morning around 7AM. She downclimbed via the East side sort of near the Deviant.


Merica, I love this woman's smile!...rapping down Bearded Cabbage.




Merica following Double Cross...Jtrees best moderate hand crack.





We climbed almost everything here: Dogleg, Double Cross, Sexy Grandma, Dandelion, Toe Jam and Bearded Cabbage. Merica and Ashley at Sexy Grandma, love that climb!





Craig and I had an awesome day during the first week where we ended the day with half an hour of light left. We realized we just had time to sail up Damper over on Chimney rock. We hot footed it over there and he led it with just two pieces of gear. I raced up it quickly thanks to my fat feet and hands. At the top we had time for a exactly 4 photos before the sun dropped below the horizon and the temperature dropped 20 degrees. There is no anchor up there, and if you don’t know your Joshua Tree descents it can get desperate. Someone had rapped off a brand new yellow Metolius cam and Craig snagged it. If only I hadn’t blown the rock paper scissors that cam would have been mine.




Me atop Damper on Chimney rock, last climb on another perfect day.




Friday night was Merica’s last night before her flight home. A couple Swiss guys joined the 7 of us for a grand tour of the night time hotspots. We headed towards the Iron Door cave again, this time with me in the lead. Ammon walked behind me double checking my navigation in the moon light. I nailed it first try, he was a good teacher.


The Iron Door cave is only an 8 minute walk from the campground if you know the way.


Starting from the left is Michael, who works as a sky diving instructor in Lodi. Second from left is Ammon McNeely. Ammon and Michael know each other through Base Jumping. Ashlie is also trying to break into skydiving as a career and knows them from Lodi.


Merica, my climbing partner is in the blue coat is surounded by the two Swiss guys, whose names I don’t remember. They were super nice guys, and very talented climbers on a 3 month climbing trip between college and career.






Here we have moved the party over to the Hobbit Hole. We had 7 people in there, and we stayed for so long the place warmed up and filled with smoke. It's funny the things you can entertain yourself with on a long, cold night in the desert.






We found our way back to the campground successfully that night. I was ready to call it quits as I had to pick up Sue at the airport the next day but everyone insisted I couldn’t break up the team…so we headed off for the Chasm of Doom. This is normally done without headlamps as a sort of exercise in trust. You are supposed to climb through it with a guide in pitch darkness, holding onto the person infront and behind, with each person telling the next where to place their feet and hands. The Chasm starts at the bottom of a rock tower and climbs up though the center of the tower in a hidden tunnel. It’s a bizarre formation that has occasional glimpses of the stars over head, but is mostly completely enclosed by overhanding boulders and huge slabs of rock.


With headlamps it’s a lot safer and we made our way quickly up through the chasm until the birthing canal. This is a body sized chimney that ascends to the balcony overlooking true hidden valley. A fall here would not be pleasant and I was wishing I had not worn my chaco sandals. The drop down the chimney is about 35 feet, and it would take some caving specialists to extract you from a fall at the wrong moment.


This is Merica in the easy part of the Chasm.




Craig on the best moderate climb on Intersection: The Flake, 5.8.




Don't head up this route unless you have your chimney skills in order, it's got a wide one at the bottom.




My lovely wife Sue showed up halfway through...man it was good to see her.




My wife likes to ham it up.




Randy and I took Sue up the Bong.




Craig gets all the action:




Chimney Rock before the rangers busted the bluegrass hoedown. That place was hoppin' We saw the blue lights and the singer shouted: "Everyone split, no more than 6 people per site...now!"




On the last day we tried to lead O’Kelley’s crack, but couldn’t get past the bouldery start. We should have just done a hand stand, or climbed Wangerbanger…but decided to go do something we could easily get up before starting the epic drive home. We found this little outcropping at the Lost Horse road intersection and we all led some nice moderate climbs followed by this finger eater.




I love jtree...





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Great TR!!! Excellent stories and photos as usual Mark, thanks for the reminder to get back there.....

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Wow - that last photo is beautiful. Great write up - makes me wish I lived somewhere i could go cragging more often.

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Great tr Mark! Just awesome. So glad you had another stellar trip to the desert this year. You got some amazing shots down there! Also, you're definitely right, most often it seems to be the people you spend time with and the stories they tell that make climbing so damn hard to stay away from. Nice work!

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LowLife...dude, where you been? Call me. We are heading up to one of the Seattle gyms Sunday. Too cold at Vantage. Craig took a bunch more climbing shots...he has them on Facebook.

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awesome photos. we were there at the same time in site 31 under toe jam.


But under NO NO NO circumstances are you allowed to have headlamps in the Chasm!!!! Where's the fun in that?!?!?


Love JTree!

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