On a bright, crisp December morning, Hidden Valley Campground in Joshua Tree National Monument is filled with cars from faraway places, including Tennessee, Alaska and the Yukon. Their owners have all come to climb rocks.
“This is the Mecca,” says Nancy Henderson, the campground host, “the best (place) in the world for winter rock climbing.”
When other popular sites succumb to snow and ice, hundreds of climbers from around the world descend upon Joshua Tree like ants on a picnic, testing themselves on the solid quartz-monzonite monoliths rising from the high-desert floor. They concentrate at Hidden Valley because the campsites are laid out among the rocks and they can climb right out of their camps--or somebody else’s camp. And there’s the rub.
In the past, they didn’t always ask permission of the occupants, and over the years they established about 3,500 climbing routes in the monument’s half-million acres by drilling in permanent security bolts, with hangers and slings. They trampled out miles of meandering trails getting to those rocks. They defiled Indian pictographs and petroglyphs. They played their radios too loud, partied too late and stayed too long, leaving their trash behind when they finally did depart.
Those were the old rock climbers--"a dirt-bag image,” concedes Randy Vogel, a Santa Ana lawyer who heads the Access Fund, an offshoot of the American Alpine Club that is working, Vogel says, “to change that image.”
If they can’t change it, the climbers fear, they may lose their privilege to climb at Joshua Tree and elsewhere. They have already been barred from the Superstition Wilderness Area in Arizona, and the National Park Service is working up new management plans for Joshua Tree and the similar City of Rocks site in Idaho that could alter how all national parks are used.
The new generation of climbers doesn’t seem to be a problem. On this day, there is a couple on almost every rock around Hidden Valley, but the only sounds are murmurs of climbing talk and the loud hush of the desert.
Trails are marked with neat, unobtrusive signs to consolidate foot traffic. There are new plastic outhouses. The bolts on established routes are virtually invisible and will become more so following planned “bolt camouflaging” parties when climbers will paint unsold bolts and hangers at local climbing equipment stores to match the terrain.
Other routes at the Schwarzenegger Wall, near historic Indian artwork, have been “chopped” or eliminated by removing the bolts and patching over the holes.
All of that has been done at the $10,000 expense of the climbers, who also plan to build another campground, seeing as how they have all but pushed the non-climbing tourists out of Hidden Valley.
“You’d think we were strip-mining from the way some people talk,” Vogel says. “If we were Winnebago people, they’d bend over backward to build facilities for us . “
A few weeks ago, the Access Fund and its related activist group, Friends of Joshua Tree, staged a cleanup day. The 259 climbers who turned in trash bags at the end of the day got tickets for a free meal from their favorite hangout, Edchada’s Mexican restaurant in nearby Yucca Valley.
“They had a vegetarian special,” Henderson says. “Most climbers are vegetarians.”
Henderson, petite and fit, is a dedicated climber herself, as is Todd Swain, a tall park ranger. They believe that persons in authority who relate to climbers can be an effective liaison with the National Park Service.
Before he arrived, Swain says, “There were a couple of rangers that really hated climbers.”
Henderson says: “The last (campground) hosts were an older couple that didn’t relate well to the climbers. The story was that the climbers would get on their Winnebago and rock it back and forth while the people were inside.”
Are climbers taking over the park?
If they are, the park could do worse. Sure, they’re protecting their interest, but the place has never been cleaner. After five hours, a visitor has seen only one piece of litter and no bottles or cans.
“Climbers are not the irresponsible sort of vagabonds that they used to be 10 or 15 years ago, doing drugs and stuff like that,” Henderson says. “These people go to bed early, watch what they eat. They are athletes in training. They have a singleness of purpose.”
This year, the park will have more than a million visitors for the first time. Vogel estimates that 50% to 60% will have been climbers, qualifying that group as the major user of the park.
Rick Anderson, who recently retired after 14 years as the park’s superintendent, says the figure is “probably 15%--not more than 20%. The other people just aren’t as conspicuous.”
Anderson saw the sport change and grow dramatically during his 14 years, when he tried to balance climbing with other uses of the park, such as bird watching, photography or plain, benign nature loving.
“It’s the era when a lot of high-risk sports have taken off--hang gliding, sky-diving, bungee cords off bridges,” Anderson says.
The climbers became known as “rock bums.” Some still are.
“The climbing group is like any other,” Anderson says. “About 90% of ‘em are real well behaved, and the other 10% are high-profile.”
But Anderson was a friend of the climbers. “I climbed most of the stuff in Yosemite years ago, so I have a feeling for the climbers,” he says.
He laid down only a few special rules for climbers: no power drills for placing bolts, no brightly colored bolts or slings and no climbing from occupied campsites without permission.
The climbers decided they could live with all of that. In fact, many welcomed the rules.
Cyndie Bransford, who teaches school in Yucca Valley, says: “Climbers are more protective of the environment. We spend more time here. We don’t want to see it a mess.”
Bolting--the placing of permanent bolts to clip one’s rope harness onto in case of a fall--is a rising controversy among climbers themselves, especially since the popularity of sport climbing has risen.
Don’t ever call a rock climber a sport climber.
Swain says: “Sport climbing is the step between the artificial walls and what used to be rock climbing, where there’s the element of doubt as to where the route goes and where you can get protection in, as opposed to these sport-climbing things where the bolts are all basically a body length apart so there’s no way you’re going to get hurt. You don’t have to figure anything out because the bolts are already there.”
Rock climbers do use bolts when they feel they must, but they also place expandable mechanical devices called “friends” in cracks and remove them after the climb. They cling to an ethic of meeting nature closer to its own terms, rather than merely ascending a wall, as Royal Robbins writes, already “festooned with bolts.”
Bransford says: “This is a more traditional (climbing) area than a lot of other places in the country.”
Swain, who is known around Joshua Tree as “the climbing ranger,” says there are climbers who “even though they can put in natural gear that doesn’t deface the rock at all, they’re putting bolts in just for convenience. They take the easiest way out, and that’s what climbing is coming to. People’s ethics are slipping.”
Bransford didn’t climb until she moved to Joshua Tree four years ago. Now she climbs 150 days a year, all over the world.
“I’m afraid of heights,” she says. “I cried the whole first year.”
Dave Mayville, a guide, is coaching Monie Lindsay, a banker from Chicago, up the route called, “Fun Stuff.” Her knuckles are bleeding and she is at maximum exertion, but she seems to be enjoying herself.
“Climbing used to be an adventure,” Mayville says. “Now it’s a sport. Sport-climbing has its place. Josh is just not the place.”
Anderson doesn’t know who will replace him. The climbers hope it will be someone attuned to their interests. Anderson says a superintendent would have the authority to close the park to climbing, if he cared to do so.
“Yeah, if he had the guts. Politically, I don’t think he could. The climbing community has been recognized since the inception of the National Park Service. It’s an appropriate use of the resource.”