Spinning and Crying in Joshua Tree
“Pull your body in close to the rock!” I hear Jonathan yell from below me.
“What does that even mean?!” I yell back, my brake hand held firmly down.
I had just set up my first rappel after climbing the Southwest Corner, a 5.6 sport route in Joshua Tree. Jonathan rappelled down before me, and all was well – until I was frozen, and 40 feet off the ground.
When I left home in mid March I was very ignorant, a little nervous, but above all else, I was stoked. My partner, Jonathan, and I planned a 2 month-long climbing excursion with one goal in mind – to learn. I had spent a few months prior climbing in our local bouldering gym, and while he was a part of a climbing group in college, the sport was entirely new to me.
Most of our time was spent with Jonathan leading, me following, and then a rappel down, which I made him walk me through every time. I needed to know what was keeping me from falling to certain death. I needed to know how to keep myself from falling to certain death. He patiently showed me how to clip my personal into the anchor, to pull the rope through the chains until we reached the middle mark, and then toss it down while yelling “ROPPEEE”. Then he showed me how to extend my rappel, to clip the rope AND the ATC through the locking carabiner, to weight the rappel, to keep my brake hand down, clean the anchor, and finally – walk backwards.
He could explain this process to me 100 times (and probably has) and I could set up a rappel 100 more times (and I probably will), and I would still be scared. I know the system is safe, because I’ve tested it myself. I know I’m going to be okay, because I have a back up brake if I do let go.
I just don’t believe it’s in human nature to walk backwards off a ledge. It gets me every time.
During our last week in the park, we ventured out to climb an exposed 5.6 sport route called the Southwest Corner. While I was feeling confident that my climbing had gotten better, as we approached the base of the rock and the scramble that awaited, I wasn’t sure I’d gotten that much better. The route started on the south face, and extended out left onto an arete. Jonathan led up with ease, while I tried not to psych myself out on belay. Fifteen minutes later he pulled me tight, and I started climbing. For a 5.6 this route was not an easy one. The start was a few spread out crystals, that I tried to smear against with shaky legs. I traversed with minimal hand holds out of the shadows and onto the arete. And suddenly, I had no wall in either direction. It was just me, the corner, and the air. Turns out, that’s all I needed. And when I got to the top, the relief and adrenaline washed over me like the windstorm we found ourselves in.
In a hurry to get out of the wind, Jonathan and I shuffled over to the rap rings at the opposite corner of the formation. In the spirit of practice, Jonathan let me set up the rappel while he supervised. He gave me the thumbs up and I was pretty proud of myself.
As he rappelled, I was left alone on the rock. I looked out over the sprawling desert, the setting sun, and all that air. Then, I shit you not, two birds – playing tag, I assumed – circled all around in giant swoops. They called back and forth to each other and their song reverberated against the granite and took up the entire sky. I smiled, and closed my eyes. Normally, I would avoid anything that even remotely resembles a cliche, but it really felt like I was on top of the world.
“I’m off!” I heard Jonathan yell from below. The wind slapped my eyes open and right on time – cue fear.
I was locked, and started baby stepping backwards off the tallest rock I’d been on to date. Just walk over the edge, I told myself again and again and again. As soon as my feet were planted back on the south face, the panic subsided and the lowering was easy.
That is, until I got about halfway down. The rappel was over a ledge that didn’t exactly match up with the straight line I was trying to shimmy down. Each time I lowered, I felt the rope pull me out toward the arete and toward open air. I resisted and tried to keep my legs straight out and feet on the rock.
“Pull yourself into the wall!” I heard Jonathan yell from below.
“What does that even mean?!” I yell back at him. Something wasn’t right.
“Bend your knees, and get close to the wall!” He yelled again.
I looked down at him. What the hell, I mumbled. The closer I got to the wall, the more the rope wanted to pull me into the open air.
“Great! Now let yourself swing over the corner into the air.”
“What! No!” I stayed curled up against the wall, unwilling to give into the ropes pull.
“Deej, if you don’t do it now,” He said calmly, “You might lose your footing later on and take an uncontrolled swing, because of the directional pull of the rope.”
Ah. So that’s what the tension was. The directional pull of the rope.
“Ugh,” I groaned loudly, inching towards the arete, strangling the rope with my brake hand.
I was only 20 feet off the ground when suddenly, the directional pull was too much. I swung out into open air, dangled, and held on for dear life.
“What the fuck, J” I whimpered. “I hate this. I hate this.”
I started spinning in circles. And then I started crying. As I hung there, spinning and crying, I heard Jonathan laughing.
“Deej, you’re okay.” I looked down at him. He was attempting to be supportive while stifling a laugh. “You’re really okay, just keeping lowering down, and don’t get your hair caught in the ATC.”
Great. Don’t get my hair caught in my belay device. Don’t fall and break both my legs. Don’t spin in so many circles that I puke. I stayed there, 20 feet in the air, spinning for another minute or two before I realized, I was okay. And I lowered myself down. I only loosened my death grip after my feet were rooted firmly back on the ground. I untied immediately and looked up at Jonathan.
“Why are you laughing?” I asked.
“Because a free hanging rappel is really normal Deej, it’s the most fun!”
“It was scary,” I said curtly.
“I know, I’m sorry,” he replied and smiled softly. “I forget all of this is new to you.”
“I thought I was going to die.”
He laughed again, I finally cracked a smile, and we made our way down the rock.
In my opinion, our two month trip to Joshua Tree was a success. I learned how to climb cracks, and grunt my way up off widths. I learned that granite is unforgiving, and so are rattlesnakes. I learned how to set up a rappel, clean an anchor, and that free hanging descents are “fun”. I learned that even the desert blooms, and every once and awhile, if you get really scared, pause. Take a breath and look out, because you really are on top of the world.
About the writer:
DJ Reinhardt is 23 years young and living in the cozy mountains of Missoula, Montana. Writing has always been her first and longest love, but as of recently she’s become enamored with the great outdoors. So now she enjoys running, climbing, biking, falling, being absolutely scared shitless, learning a ton, and falling some more. She also slings coffee on the side.
You can find DJ on Instagram as @dj_reinhardt.