[Interim 2011 Part I] Rock Climbing Instructor Training
Joshua Tree, CA (3-9 January 2011)
Joshua Trees look like Truffula Trees from Dr Seuss
Day 1 “are we there yet?”
Following a direct flight from Grand Rapids, MI to Phoenix, AZ, all members of the Calvin College Outdoor Educator Interim group said goodbyes to one another as they split up and piled into two white vans. Half had the Grand Canyon as their destination while the other half, including myself, were heading to Joshua Tree California for Single Pitch Rock Climbing Instructor training through the AMGA.
My van was full to say the least. In it were 12 people, 90 meals, and 12 internal frame backpacks with clothing for a month, sleeping bags, tents, toiletries, and anything else that would be used over the course of the interim. We were packed in tight but all were in good spirits having left the gray, sunless Michigan winter behind and had been welcomed by the warm Arizona sunshine. We laughed and played games such a hot seat as we got to know one another.
Arriving in Joshua Tree, we were greeted with a crippling cold we had so happily thought had been left in Michigan. Quickly bags were shuffled through for jackets, gloves, hats and balaclavas. It was dark and cold, but everyone worked as a team to set up tents and prepare the campsite by the light of our headlamps. To my surprise, we cut through the darkness to find an excellent plot for our six-person tent. Once the tent was guyed-out and packs secured inside, I threw on an extra pair of socks and pants and headed out for the evening meeting where we discussed the happenings of the day.
Day 2 “this is a ‘don’t tell Rooks’ moment” (inside joke)
Morning came too soon as I had been awake for most watches of the night. Six big guys in a six-person tent make for warm but very uncomfortable sleeping conditions. I was flanked by the second largest guy in our group and a student who must have dreamt he was one of those Rock’em Sock’em Robots as he repeatedly punched me throughout the night. It didn’t help that we were packed in so tight every couple hours we would hear, “ok guys, roll onto your left sides now.”
After hearing the “wake up” call from the day’s cooks, I sat up and prepared to exit the tent. My heart sank as I felt an icy chill creep into my warm sleeping bag and noticed that my breath was visible even inside the tent. Upon exiting the tent, I discovered a fresh white covering of frost over the earth. I wish I could say I was as excited as our geology student was as he examined the crystal structures in the frost and taught the group about the formations, but I just couldn’t find excitement from the cold. I was probably still in shock that my Mountain Hardwear Sub-Zero Parka hadn’t come in time and I was forced to use a 20-year-old snowmobiling jacket that severely lacked insulation. I was cold to say the least.
The two instructors who camped next to us for the duration of the class introduced themselves to us after breakfast and we headed out to climb for the day. When we reached the site where we would be climbing for the day, our instructors lead the group in yoga to get our muscles moving a little bit before our lesson. A series of short scrambles and traverses lead us to the top of a crag. Here we discussed safety and watched a demonstration of how to properly place cams, tri-cams, and nuts to build anchors. Following that demonstration we were also shown how to build a “magic-x” to automatically equalize the load on various anchors, as well as how to tie master points with an intended loading direction on the rope.
The day was cold and we climbed on a wall in the shadows. Between climbs, we would throw on our puffy coats and hiking boots to warm back up. Often we even needed to “take” half way up the wall and warm our hands that had become increasingly clumsy from the cold. The day was a success.
The group tore down equipment, coiled ropes, and headed back to camp. Warm pasta with a soy/peanut butter sauce made for a delicious meal. We had an evening meeting in the dark and discussed the highs and lows of the day for each member of the group and also discussed the plan for the next day.
Following the meeting, a group of us went out and explored one of the nearby boulder piles. “Boulder piles” does not adequately describe the magnitude of what we explored. They were a class 4 scramble (a fall would result in serious injury) and we explored by the light of our headlamps. Everyone was so excited about the amazing scenery that the group was transformed into Tom Sawyer wanna-be’s. Under the supervision of our more experienced group members, we negotiated our way to the lowest peak – leaving room for further exploration throughout the week. While on the peak of the boulder pile, the group laid down to look at the stars. I passed my astronomy laser pointer to my climbing partner who knew constellations and he taught the group about the various constellations above.
Upon returning to the campsite, I quickly retired to my tent for bed. I had not felt my toes since I left the tent that morning and I soon found my sleeping bag was the only place I was not uncomfortably cold.
Day 3 “all plants here try to hurt and/or maim” – Chris Tatum (AMGA Instructor)
Early in the morning, a group left the tent to watch the sunrise. I caught a little peaceful sleep thanks to the now roomy tent. It was wonderful. Soon enough I got up as it was my turn to cook breakfast. I prepared quinoa with cinnamon, raisins, almond slices, and chopped peppers. It tasted great and was very filling.
Following breakfast was the morning quiet time. Many broke out Bibles, often reading Psalms, others sat in quiet admiration of our surroundings. It was wonderful to be perched on a rock feeling the sun chase away the cold while it filled the world with its warmth.
Having noted to one of the older members in my group that my feet were always cold, I was introduced to a trick for keeping my feet warmer. “Tie your boots looser” is all that was said. The trade off from having my boots very secure to becoming slightly sloppy was well worth the increase in warmth. This would not work while scrambling, but around camp it was great.
A warm afternoon gave everyone extra energy as we went through our lesson. The day’s lesson taught us how to read rock structures to make sure that our trad-gear would be placed correctly. By the end of the afternoon, we were building 3-point anchors and testing them with our body weight. No gear tore out and our instructors were very positive. They would often show us a slight adjustment that would make our anchors move from the “safe” category to “bomber” as I soon learned was a common word in the community.
After dinner was exploration time yet again. We explored caves/cracks running through the giant boulder piles. This night’s exploration took us from the base of a rock pile to its center. Looking to continue, we spiraled through the pile and eventually scaled a fifteen-foot tall chimney to exit through the top of the pile. I was excited and wanted to keep going, but the next day was going to be very full so we went to bed on time.
Day 4 “this nut is supposed to make me feel safe if I fall?”
The morning came and my climbing partner and I organized our trad-gear before again practicing placing protection in the rocks. We placed cams, nuts, hexes, and tri-cams. The 7” tri-cam was my favorite to place because it was such a ridiculous piece of equipment and by placing it, we no longer needed to lug it around. From these pieces of protection, we built anchors using the techniques we had practiced the day earlier. We built out anchors about 30 feet off the ground. Then it came time to put our weight on the system and pray it would hold. With a body tense from nerves, I trusted my good health to a system built by a friend and myself. It worked! What a relief.
Following a break for lunch, the group piled in the van and headed to a nearby crag to build anchors on a real cliff. On the way, all nervousness that may have existed was lost as the group rocked out to “Pappa Americano” and bounced the van to its beat.
Upon leaving the vans a more serious tone once again came over the group as we were preparing to build anchors that our lives would truly depend on. We scrambled up the back of the rock face, built our anchor systems, transferred onto the main rope and belayed ourselves down the 100ft cliff – it was quite a rush to lean over a 100-foot cliff on our own anchors. It is a very odd feeling to transfer ones own weight from the safety of the rock to a position that would be unrecoverable should the protection not hold. Everyone did this successfully though and had a great time with the rush it brought.
At the end of the day, we tore down anchors as we watched the sunset from the top of the crag. The knot from my anchor wedged itself in a crack, so I had to lower myself back over the edge of the cliff on a tether to free the knot. I didn’t enjoy it very much because the tether was a smaller diameter rope that the gri-gri was rated for, but I had a couple good backup knots on the tether and was told it would be fine. Tentatively I lowered myself and freed the knot in the other rope. The gri-gri held just fine. By the time we were finished it was getting quite dark.
Following the evening meeting, the group prepared for our biggest night scramble yet. Working together as a team, we navigated our way to the highest nearby peak only using the moon and our headlamps for light. The peak was just large enough for everyone to sit at the very top, with one edge dropping off of about 75 feet, while the other side had a shelf located 15 feet down, followed by a drop off to the desert floor 200+ feet below. Although it was dark, we could see for miles by the light of the moon, we sat and talked about numerous things, including how we were going to get back down, and we admired our beautiful surroundings. Sitting on this peak was one of the highlights of the interim trip for me.
After some time the group was ready to navigate back to camp. Knowing there were some very risky spots, we helped one another and reached camp safely. After spending some time with one another in camp, all members of the group retired to their tents for the night.
Day 5 “No! I’m not coming down!” -Jon
Rescue scenarios were the topic of the first lesson this day. We had a lot of fun as we learned to take-over-belay and raise ourselves up to climbers on the other end of their rope. The group became very animated as they acted as scared or injured climbers, while the others practiced these techniques. Jon, one of the more experienced members, even went so far as to build a second anchor to tie into so he could not be pulled off the wall. This made everyone laugh as his partner had to tear down the anchor before he could get Jon (playing the part of a scared, hysterical climber) back to the ground. In addition to learning techniques to rescue from below, we also learned to top-rope-belay so we could learn to rescue from above the next day.
By this time in the trip, I noticed myself becoming very comfortable with stepping over the edge of the cliffs. It no longer put my stomach in knots; furthermore, it also no longer gave me as much of an adrenaline rush – but it was still an amazing feeling.
One aspect that really made the trip was how exceptional the group dynamic was. Everyone had been doing their camp-jobs and going out of their way to help others finish their tasks. We all respected each other, and when anyone spoke, they were able to finish their thought without being interrupted. The group shared laughs often but could be serious when the situation deemed it necessary.
In the evening, the group went to bed early. We were going to be waking up early for our last half day of instruction, before driving to Flagstaff, Arizona for our Wilderness First Response Training. It was distressing to be leaving so soon after arriving in Joshua Tree, but we were all looking forward to showers and flushing toilets again – the desert does not have much water.
Day 6 “goodbye Joshua Tree”
The final morning of this section of our Interim class began early. We ate a quick breakfast and went into our lesson. The day’s lesson included a vector pull (gives a climber assistance from a top-belay) and a 3-to-1 haul that is used to pull a climber up a wall if they cannot climb it on their own.
After the instruction and some free time for climbing, each pair of students, who had been partners all week, met with the two instructors to discuss personal strengths and weaknesses. My partner and I had gotten along very well and gained a lot of trust in one another throughout the week. Our camaraderie had made learning the many knots and systems a lot of fun. Meeting with our instructors was a very enjoyable experience as well. Our instructors had taught us well and where very encouraging while guiding us through what we needed to practice most.
The group said goodbye to the instructors and climbed into the van. Our bodies were tired and slightly chewed-up from a week of climbing on rough granite, but it was completely worth every blister and sore. Before this trip, I was unsure if I would ever be very much involved in rock climbing, but through this trip, I fell in love with the sport because it is such a unique way to engage with the outdoors, and many different people can all challenge themselves together by picking routes tailored to their abilities. There is nothing quite like being multiple stories off the ground while a couple bottle-cap sized rocks as the only things holding your entire body to the wall.
For the rest of the interim, see:
[Part II] Wilderness First Response Training – Flagstaff, AZ
[Part III] Grand Canyon Backpacking – Grand Canyon, AZ
Joshua Tree, CA