The Free Soloist

Joshua Tree California

No lo permitiremos para quedar, I tell my climbing partner, Jose. We’re not going to let him stay.   

He nods, voices his assent in Spanish as we pull up to our site in Hidden Valley Campground, in Joshua Tree National Park. Hidden Valley Campground is the center of the Joshua Tree climbing scene, and on a Friday night, the place is swamped with after-work weekend warriors heading out from Los Angeles and San Diego.

Twenty-four million people live in Southern California. The 42 camping sites in Hidden Valley aren’t nearly enough to handle the demand. Luckily, Jose and I had arrived early and staked our claim.

Still, when we returned from town, we found a minivan parked in our campsite. The campsite could accommodate two vehicles, and we had only one. Graciously, the interloper had left space for us to park. Still, I wasn’t in the mood for company. We’re not going to let him stay, I told Jose.

Immediately after we’d parked, a young man walked up to the driver’s side window, and started to plead his case. Before he had time to get two sentences out, Jose interrupted him: “Yeah man, you can stay.”

Awesome! he said. Thanks guys. I’m gonna run off and try this boulder!

And he was gone.

What the hell?! I laugh, half mad, half disbelieving.

Jose and I have a brief back and forth in Spanish, once we roll the window back up. Acabo de decir no!

We just agreed he wasn’t going to stay!

Jose shrugs. We’ve been here for a while, we’re leaving tomorrow, we’ve been camping for free…let’s pay it forward, bro, he says, amicably.

Jose had been a little more community-minded, than I, on that trip. I’d been quiet and withdrawn; emptying my mind and finding focus in the climbing and the mentorship. I had emptied myself out; I didn’t want to put the bandwidth towards socializing.

Still, I said, laughing, it looked like we didn’t have much choice anymore.

Life on the road.

We popped out of the truck (la camioneta), and set about making our dinner on the tailgate. It’d been wet and rainy, so we were cooking off a small backpacking stove instead of over the fire, as had been our custom on this three-week trip.

It had also been our custom to speak in Spanish. Jose was a patient conversation partner, teaching me some Mexican sayings and looking past my constant grammatical errors; while I’d been a climbing mentor for him: choosing easy routes and explaining the ins and outs of traditional and multi-pitch rock climbing.

Un buen intercambio, as everyone kept telling us. A good exchange.

Our new camp-mate returned while were cooking, introduced himself as Sam. White kid. Like me. He overheard us talking in Spanish.

“You’re teaching him Spanish?” Sam asked Jose. “Can you guys roll your ‘R’s? Say: perro.”

Jose does so perfectly; I, somewhat less so.

“That’s so unfair,” Sam says. “I was just down in El Potrero Chico, and this guy at the crag was doing it like nothing.  He kept saying ‘naranja.’ What does that mean?”

“Orange,” we answer, laughing.

“Hmmm, thanks,” he says, nodding to himself. “Have you guys been to EPC?” he asks.

No, we answer. Sadly not.

“It’s fucking paradise down there man,” he says. “Endless climbing. And it’s all bolted. Huuuuge walls. Wish I was still down there.”

“So why are you in J-Tree, then?” we ask.

“Well, I’m in nursing school in Arizona. But they’re fucking retarded and there’s like a week and a half between the ‘first day of school’ and the actual first day. I went to orientation and they said we had no class until like next Thursday, so I was like… ‘alright… guess I’ll leave then.’ And I got in the car and drove straight here.”

“Any goals?” I ask.

“I’m hoping to free solo the route ‘Left Ski Track’,” Sam says, casually.

Joshua Tree National Park Rock Climbing
Intersection Rock with Left Ski Track fully visible. The line that starts in the center and cuts up and left is Left Ski Track (5.11a, 6c)

Left Ski Track is a diagonal crack which splits the face of Intersection Rock, the most visible formation in Hidden Valley Campground. Left Ski Track is rated 5.11a (6c), which means, in layman’s terms, it’s pretty damn difficult, even with a rope. Plus, the route’s right next to the parking lot — meaning you’ll always have an audience.

Sam has said he wants to free solo it, which means without a rope.

Russ Wailing free soloing Left Ski Track, sometime before I was born.

We’d seen lots of free soloers around the campground – daring, confident climbers, who insist the rope’s more trouble than it’s worth – but after two weeks at Joshua Tree, I hadn’t seen a single person attempt Left Ski Track without a cord.

“That’s kind of a hard route, no?” I ask.

“Eh, not really,” Sam says. We stare at Intersection Rock as we talk. “It’s on the circuit, though,” he says. “It’s kind of one of those routes you kind of have to climb if you want to be taken seriously as a soloist.”

“Well, good luck,” I say, by way of parting. “Try not to plummet to your death.”

He doesn’t comment. He walks away, over to the picnic table, where he starts chopping veggies next to his simple campstove. I rejoin Jose over ours.

“What a weird dude,” Jose says to me, in Spanish. Sam is only three meters away, filling our space with new vibes.

“Yeah, he’s a bit strange,” I answer. “He’s a soloist. He told me he’s here to free solo Left Ski Track.”

“Holy shit,” Jose comments. “What’s that one again? 5.11?”

I nod. Jose whistles.

“Maybe that’s just what you have to be like to be a free soloist,” Jose says. “Have you seen interviews with Alex Honnold? He’s kind of similar.”

I agree.

Poco vacio,” I say. A bit empty.

In the background, we can hear Sam talking to himself under his breath. He is repeating two words, over and over again, rolling his tongue around the letters: Perro. Naranja. Perro. Naranja.

Perro. Perro. Perro.

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