Excerpted with permission from Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14 (Mountaineers Books, April 2019) by Jeff Smoot.
My friend Chris Gentry invited me to take a road trip to Joshua Tree in the spring of 1982. His parents had given him the new guidebook as a Christmas present. It was the biggest, thickest rock climbing guidebook we had ever seen, with more than a thousand routes described and illustrated. We devoured it, poring over it page by page all through the rainy winter, making a list of the dozens of routes we hoped to climb. Our list was pages long and overly ambitious—far more routes than we could climb in a week. Just thinking about all those hard, thin faces, perfect vertical cracks, and rounded golden domes kept me awake at night.
We hit the road at 8 a.m. on a Saturday in late March—Chris, his friend Rich Williams, and I—and drove straight through from Seattle to Joshua Tree in Southern California. We agreed that we would try to make the 1,200-mile drive in under twenty-four hours. The anticipation of arriving in Joshua Tree National Monument and beholding the spectacle of the high desert kept us going through the long day and night.
At 7:45 a.m. the next day, I pulled into a turnout between two high monzonite domes near a sign pointing to Hidden Valley Campground and got out of the car. We had arrived. The air was cold and sharp in the unfiltered morning sunlight, hinting at the promise of heat despite the slight chilling breeze. Everything stood out in sharp relief: boulders, tawny granite domes, Joshua trees poking up across the rocky landscape, arid mountains in the near distance to the south. The thin air of the high desert took an effort to breathe.
‘We’re here,’ I said, giving Chris a gentle shove to wake him up. He’d been sleeping in the passenger seat for the past half hour. He sat up and looked out the window, then pulled out his guidebook and began frantically turning pages. He stopped on a page, ran his finger down a list of climbs, and squinted to read.
‘There’s a four-star 5.7 crack right over there,’ he said, looking up and pointing toward a rock formation right in front of us.
‘Let’s do it,’ I said.
We didn’t bother to wake Rich, who was passed out on the backseat. We quietly grabbed a rope and some gear out of the trunk and scurried toward the rock. After nearly a full day on the road with almost no sleep, I was surprisingly energetic, racing wild-haired Chris across the coarse sand, over rough, rounded boulders, and between prickly Joshua trees, yucca plants, and cholla cacti to the base of the dome.
‘Who gets to lead?’ Chris asked hopefully, catching his breath.
‘I do,’ I said. ‘I drove practically the whole way here.’
‘Fair enough,’ Chris said. ‘I get the next one.’
The route was obvious: a vertical crack splitting a steep, golden wall, about seventy feet from base to top. The rock was delectably cold to the touch. I led up a few moves to the top of a flake, slotted in and clipped a chock, and launched into the crack. It was set in a slightly flaring corner but was straightforward jamming—big, meaty hand jams and foot jams and stems out onto the rough quartzite face. Near the top the flare widened into a semi-chimney and ended on a wide ledge. I rigged a belay with enough slack so I could sit on the edge, legs dangling, and watch Chris climb up after me. He followed quickly and was soon sitting beside me, grinning. We were finally on top of one of the fabled golden domes of Joshua Tree National Monument. We stayed there for the longest time, looking out over the endless domes and boulders and Joshua trees populating the flat desert floor as far as we could see.
Then it got weird.
‘Holy shit!’ Chris exclaimed.
‘There!’ He pointed to the big dome just across the road, to a group of climbers moving in unison up a left-leaning crack splitting a high, steep wall. One climber after the other, six in all, ascended the crack up the hundred-foot wall, moving methodically just a few feet apart, almost synchronized. We watched them climb the crack to its end, surmount a ledge, and disappear around the back side of the dome.
‘They’re not roped up,’ Chris observed, more as a question than a statement.
‘No way,’ I replied, incredulous despite the fact I could see they were not roped up.
This required further investigation. We rappelled off the back side of the dome and walked back to the car. Chris retrieved his guidebook and studied it furiously. ‘Left Ski Track,’ he said. ‘5.11.’ We walked over to look at the crack, to see it, to feel it for ourselves. It was vertical if not slightly overhanging, thin here, wide there, shallow, angling gently to the left up the shaded wall. There were chalk marks here and there in the crack, but otherwise no trace that anyone had passed. The half dozen climbers had climbed it, unroped, in quick succession, and then vanished. For all of this recent activity, the wall was cold, dark, and strangely quiet.
‘They just soloed this,’ Chris said, looking at me and then back up at the crack in disbelief. ‘Who are those guys?’
Dave Sorric was a veritable Joshua Tree local. Even though he lived 200 miles away in Santa Paula, he, like dozens of other suburban kids from the Los Angeles area, spent every spring and fall weekend climbing at the monument, driving out each Friday night and back each Sunday night. He was a scruffy-looking twenty-year-old with sandy brown hair hanging over his eyes, and he wore a red flannel shirt and ripped-up climbing pants that were duct-taped across the knees and ass, the same outfit he would wear every day for the rest of the week. Chris and Rich had met Dave while they were trying that dreadful 5.10 slab I had seen them working on. Dave had wandered by, seen them struggling, offered to belay, and had immediately started giving them shit.
'Hanging on the rope is for pussies,' he told Chris derisively after Chris had skidded off yet again. 'If you don’t get back on the rock I’m going to lower you off.'
'Geez, Dave,' Chris said. 'Why don’t you try this?'
'Fuck that. This is a bullshit route. Only tourons climb it.'
Chris got back on the rock and tried the moves again, but his feet slipped off and he skidded back down the slab until the rope came tight and held him.
'These shoes just don’t stick on this rock,' Chris complained.
'That’s bullshit,' Dave said. 'I’ve seen old ladies climb this route in their tennis shoes.'
'I give up,' Chris said. 'Lower me.'
Dave lowered him to the ground. Chris’s fingertips were raw. He grimaced in pain.
'I can’t even untie the rope. Look! I’m getting blood on the rope.'
'That’s fucked up,' Dave said, smirking. 'You need to work on your calluses.'
For some reason, even though he hadn’t succeeded in leading a 5.10 route all week, Chris decided to try Bearded Cabbage, a 5.10c located in the campground loop, within sight of God and everybody. The route was short but ostentatiously positioned, starting with a ledge traverse across an overhanging wall to a shallow, flared crack thirty feet above a jumble of boulders and spear- tipped yuccas. I admired Chris for his lack of fear of public humiliation. So what if he was in far over his head? So what if everyone in the campground could watch him flail? So what if he failed comically? He was having fun. That is what he had come for.
'What’s the worst that could happen?' Chris asked, grinning, as he tied in. 'You could be impaled on those yuccas down there,' I thought out loud.
'Aw, don’t listen to him,' Dave said, giving me a dirty look. 'You’re going to fire it!'
Chris traversed out across the ledge, hooking his right heel over the edge while shuffling his hands across, his left leg more or less dangling. He clipped the bolt at the end of the flake, then reached across to the shallow crack, set a jam with his heavily taped left hand, swung his feet over into the crack, struggled to find his balance, then let go of the flake, intending to jam his right hand in the crack. He promptly swung leftward and lost contact. He dangled there ridiculously in midair in front of the gathering crowd, unable to pull himself back up onto the flake, and had to be lowered off. He tried again, and again, and fell at the same place each time.
'I think this tape is too thick,' Chris said. He ripped off some of the tape and gave it another try. He didn’t barn-door off this time; he managed to establish his position in the crack and make a tentative move higher, jamming his hand into a slot and pulling up, at which point he let out a yowl and let go, falling a few feet. 'That’s enough for me,' he said, examining the blood oozing from a new gouge in the back of his hand. 'Lower me.'
A couple of grungy-looking climbers materialized from behind the boulders below us, making me wonder if there wasn’t a secret portal from another universe down there. They had seen our rope, and sensed an opportunity.
'Hey,' one of them called up, 'mind if I give it a try?' 'Sure,' Chris said. 'Show us how it’s done.'
The dude ran up the talus, his curly, long reddish-blond hair bouncing behind him, and started to tie himself into the rope with his grubby, callused hands.
'Do you want a harness?' Chris asked.
'No, man, this bowline-on-a-coil should work. Now how does it go? The rabbit comes out of the hole, then runs around the tree, then . . .' He tied a perfect bowline-on-a-coil, with a single loop of rope around his waist. 'Man, I’m not sure I tied this right. Guess I’d better not fall. Watch me.'
'I’ve got you,' Dave said.
He started traversing out the flake, no chalk, no EBs, no gear, just slapping along with his hands, his tattered-Nike-clad feet dangling. At the end of the ledge, he swung his right heel up and hooked it over the ledge, smeared his left toe on a tiny hold, and reached up, sinking a hand jam in the flared, shallow crack, then another, and another. Soon, he was standing up on the flake, then jamming his trainers in the crack. He climbed a few moves up the crack, to where it angled back above the steepest section.
'Oh, shit!' he yelled, just as his feet slipped out the crack and were sketching around on the rock in desperation. 'Oh, fuck!' His left hand popped out of the crack and was flailing as he hung suspended off of one hand jammed in a shallow, flaring crack. 'Watch me! Watch me!'
We were all gaping below, sure this guy was about to pitch off and take a twenty-foot fall on a bowline-on-a-coil. And then he started cackling like a coyote.
'Ha! I had you, didn’t I? Suckers.'
He re-established his feet and hands in the crack and calmly climbed down, as easily and methodically as he had climbed up, all the way back to the flake.
'Lower me, dude,' he said.
'I’ve got you, Fish,' Dave said, suppressing a smirk.
This Fish character let go of the rock and flipped himself upside down, wrapped his feet around the rope, and adopted a Superman pose pointing straight downward until he reached the talus below.
'Thanks, fellas,' Fish said, untying from the rope. 'That was fun.' He and his companion bounded off, laughing all the way.
'Who were those guys?' Chris asked, wincing as he tore the rest of the tape off his hands.
'A couple of assholes,' Dave said. 'We should try an easy route. How about that one?' he said, pointing vaguely rightward toward an overhanging wall.
'What? That?' I asked, pointing up at an overhanging thin corner crack in that general direction.
'Hell no,' Dave said. 'Not that one; that one’s 5.12. The slab on the right.
It’s only 5.9. Think you ladies can manage it?'
Dave and I were waiting our turn to climb when we heard a sound on the sandy ledge behind us. We turned to see a lone climber, tan as the desert stone and just as blond, standing quietly at the base of Spider Line. He had shaggy hair, shoulder length in back with a slight curl, and was wearing gray shorts, a blue T-shirt tied around his waist, a blue chalk bag, and gnarled old EBs. No partner. No rope. He seemed oblivious to our presence, like he wasn’t conscious of us being there. He chalked his hands methodically, one after the other, digging deep into his chalk bag and pulling out hands white as ghosts and trailing flecks of chalk dust. He rubbed his hands together meditatively, breathing deeply, while looking up at the crack. And then he started climbing, setting his fingertips in the thin crack, toeing in on barely discernible ripples and undulations in the rock, and pulling himself up, move by move. Dave and I stood mesmerized, watching as he climbed upward perfectly, move after flawless move, quietly, without emotion, without any apparent effort, as if the force of gravity had been momentarily suspended to allow his passage there. Within what seemed like a minute at most, he pulled perfunctorily onto the ledge at the end of the crack and vanished over the top.
'Do you know who that was?' Dave asked quietly, almost reverently, after the climber had disappeared.
'That was John Bachar. That was God.'
Find out more about Hangdog Days: Conflict, Change, and the Race for 5.14 and purchase the book here.
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