Ode to the Soul Crushing Trail
Massive boulder fields dot the landscape of Wonderland North in Joshua Tree National Park. I'm here to map approaches and walk-offs for our upcoming rock climber’s map. I am alone. Rick took our ailing campervan to Palm Springs to get repairs completed before it left us high and dry again, like in Las Vegas when the engine blew. So far the day has consisted mostly of flat ground with well-defined trails leading to formations where the climbs start at the desert floor. A few crags required 3rd, 4th, and the occasional 5th class scramble to access the base of the wall, but those more challenging approaches were relatively short – up and back down within 20 or so minutes.
When mapping rock climber’s trails, I never know what I will encounter. Trails can be clear and easy or confusing and exposed – with life-or-death or severely-body-altering fall potential. I'm not a fan of unprotected exposure. Before making these maps, I not only got tired of getting lost trying to find a climb based on vague directions but also getting side-swiped by descriptions that mention “a small 5th class step” as part of the approach or descent (if it was mentioned at all). More often than I cared for, that “small 5th class step” was an out-and-out x-rated free-solo. No thanks. So, I decided to do something about it – to map these things and give others fair warning, should they desire it.
Although my tolerance for exposure has grown with these mapping activities, there are circumstances where it gets to be too much. At times I am unsafely exhausted to inch across that ledge or when the rock is slick or crumbly and one slip would send me to my maker. In those cases, and a few others, such as when the thorny brush or cacti are so impenetrable that copious amount of clothing, flesh, and blood would be lost in any attempt to punch through, Rick and I add the notation GLWT – good luck with that. GLWT says, “go forth you hard-core climber, the wall is that general direction, but we are not mapping another step on this so-called-trail.”
The sand on this section of trail is loose. Each step etches a little more soreness and muscular definition into my calves and glutes. Soon, I need to turn off towards the next set of massive rock piles. It is unlikely the trail I need is marked. When a faint trail heads off, I grab it, hoping it is correct. After about a mile, I am met by mountain composed of an incredible number of boulders. Things just get ugly.
Although I have developed some proficiency at reading boulder fields, their true personality is revealed when you are on them. Some fields are easier, where you can almost hop scotch from one rock to the next. Others are far more menacing.
As I glance up at the steep gully and feel the hours of work already on my body, I wish I could pawn this one off on Rick. Briefly, I consider bagging it, but, I am far enough away from the parking and the next mapping locations that it would be a waste of time not to map this now. I attempt to visually locate the three walls high at the top of the pile. I can see only one, at the apex. The others are hidden in nooks and crannies behind behemoth boulders. It’s 12:00pm.
As I make my way up, I continuously refer to the guidebooks and my notes. One book has a written descriptions of the first wall, the other has a black and white photo. Although better than having no photo at all, many times these pictures are taken at an angle with a full view of the climbs, not what you will see from the approach. It is continuous guesswork until everything aligns perfectly and I can recognize the wall. Along the way, I take orientation photos in case they will be helpful on the map. I look for identifiable features amongst the endless monotone rocks.
I finally locate the first wall and the only access I see is a 10-15 foot chimney between two rocks. I place my back against one rock and feet against the other and scoot up. I test holds at transition points to ensure I will be able to get back down again. At the base of the wall, I take photos and GPS points, then continue up the ever steepening gully towards the other crags. Although I am winded and thighs are burning, so far this boulder field is pretty manageable. After mapping the highest two walls, I stop at a lone tree to rest and have a bite. This spot offers a sliver of flat ground and shade. It’s 1:30.
I lean against the tree and it releases sweet smelling, sticky sap on my skin and clothes. I graze on fruit and a protein bar and flip through the guidebooks to determine what’s next. There are four more walls one gully over. Three of them are at the top of the formation and one is on the way down. One of the guidebooks hints that you can cut across, up high, from the walls I just mapped, over to the walls one gully over. That would be more efficient than back tracking down, walking to the next gully, then boulder hopping up again to the top of the formation. Cutting across would allow me to capture a guidebook-mentioned approach and also avoid useless retracing of steps. As I scan the terrain, I see there are several options across. The book is absent of details so, I pick the option closest to me.
About 15 minutes in, the character of the boulders change, shifting from the smaller more manageable boulders that rest against each other, to large, angular, steep-faced boulders that require spurts of vertical climbing and challenging transitions. These monoliths often do not lie at convenient angles to the adjacent boulder. Instead each rock seems cadywampus and often has its own adjacent, 30-foot deep pit. I am not liking this at all. But ahead I see what appears to be one of the climbing walls in the distance. It’s 2:30 p.m.
The lure of the wall, and possible improvements in the terrain, propels me forward. So far, though, this approach will receive an “ass-kicking” rating with lots of exposure markings. As I move forward, I make several steep, creepy 4th and low-5th class moves over the cavernous pits. Turning back enters my mind, but then, I realize I do not want to redo some of those moves in a down-climb. The lure of the wall and hope for better boulders prompted me to violate my “don’t do a move unless you can undo it” safety mantra.
Now I am stuck. I HAVE to move forward.
Twenty more minutes in, the rock changes. Not for the better. The solid granite gives way to crunchy flakes and kitty litter crumble. Nervousness now succumbs to deep fear. I find myself crawling on hands and knees, and even inching on my belly, to keep my center of gravity low and friction high. Each transition between boulders has become an untethered circus act on crumbling rock. I am now in full, soul-crushing, hell-boulderado terrain.
Hell-boulderado fields are terrifying. They consist of huge, difficult boulders that form 20-40 foot abysses beneath them. If you fall in, not only would you get severely injured, you would not be able to get out, and no one, I mean no one, will hear you scream. A satellite signal would likely not escape to reveal a location. And, if you didn’t die in the fall, it would, in all probability, be a long, ugly death sentence. To survive, you move slowly – very, very slowly. After an hour of arduous, vertical and horizontal full-body moves, I stop. It’s 3:30. I have moved, perhaps, a few hundred feet. The climbing wall doesn’t look that much closer. Rick and I were scheduled to meet at the parking lot at 5:00. There is no way I will make that time. Panic. I became fogged and my breath short and choppy. I am isolated and in a seriously dangerous situation. My body is splayed across a disintegrating boulder with a huge black pit to my side. I can’t move. I don’t want to move. Rick has no way of knowing where I am. I sob uncontrollably.
I learned long ago to not fight what flows from me. If I was in a safe-enough spot, it’s best to give the tears and terror their space. Often this eventually gives way to solace, more strength, and clarity. I hope for that, but try to think of nothing. After all of the fears and tears have left me, I lay still on the rock. I close my eyes and the sun partially cuts across my body. In this moment, when I’m not moving, I am safe. That is all I can hold onto. I stay still as long as I can. The sun shifts lower in the horizon, bringing the shade and a slight chill to my spot. 4:00. I now have to move. The gritty steep boulders continue, but ease just a little. I cannot think of anything but the boulder I am on and the one I am transitioning to. I cannot think of Rick or my son or food or fear - all of that was let go in my sobs.
Like the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, every slow step brings me nearer to my destination. Finally I reach one of the walls. I snap photos, take notes, and GPS points. Two of the other walls are up higher and around to the right - too far to get. Those will not be mapped. The fourth wall is down and to my right. It’s 5:20 p.m. I can see the desert in the distance below the long steep boulder field. I am not out of the woods. I have no idea what I will encounter on the way down. I hit some dead ends and backtrack. The pits from hell decrease in numbers, but still show up to remind me of my mortality. An hour later my feet finally hit the dirt. All I can do is sit and cry – releasing the immense tension trapped inside my body.
6:20 p.m. I have a 45-minute hike back to reach Rick. I am physically and emotionally exhausted. I get up, brush the desert off my pants and begin to run. I’m not sure from where that energy came, perhaps desperation mixed with extreme gratitude, but I run. The glow of the sunset reflects off the clouds, leaving enough light for me to see trail without a headlamp. As I near the parking area, I turn on my walkie-talkie to see if it reaches Rick. Nothing. I try again in a bit. Still nothing. Then, I hear the crackle and a voice. “Stef, are you there? Where are you?” I push the button and replied “yes” through my exhale. “Are you ok?” he asked. I was out of breath, unable to speak and unwilling to stop and waste time on explanations. I replied, “Be there soon.”
To relieve the stitch in my side, I have to alternate between walking and jogging. But I know I am close. I can see the headlights of the cars on the road in the distance. Soon, I make out a tall, dark form in the distance ahead and start running again. The form runs too. When we reach each other I grab Rick and sob in deep relief. He says, “Oh my God Stef, I’m so glad you are ok. I was really scared.”
That makes two of us.
Epilogue: This so-called “trail” is marked as Soul Crushing on the Joshua Tree map. It includes plenty of fair warnings for all to avoid, should you wish. Had I known what I was in for, I would have turned around and labeled it GLWT.
Stefani Dawn is the co-founder of Climb-On Maps, a company that creates very detailed maps for unique adventures. The rock climbing maps include approach and walk-off trails of the largest rock climbing areas in the U.S. and C-YA (Choose Your Adventure) hiking maps where you can pick from a menu of adventures in spectacular places on your not-so-standard trails. In order to map these locations, over the past 1.5 years Stefani and her husband Rick have hiked about 1800 miles in some incredible, but sometimes quite dangerous, terrain.
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