[Trip Report] Saudade and Joshua Tree National Park

[Trip Report] Saudade and Joshua Tree National Park

- 14 minute read

I. Headstone Rock

The night before we arrived in Joshua Tree National Park, a foot of snow came down on the park and enveloped it in a serene, blanket-white winterscape. A park ranger told us it hadn’t snowed like this in several years. The day we got there, the sky was clear and sunny, but we quickly found the temperatures were still too low for the snow in the area to melt. ⁣

Undeterred, we ventured in. Maybe the snow would melt by the time we got to the park. I had my mind set on a route that I had been looking forward to for the few months leading up to this trip, and I wasn’t about to let some snow stop me.

To be fair, the snowy desert was gorgeous. An already alien landscape, with the extraordinary turned up and flipped on its side. And I was honestly happy to bear witness on this alone. But I had a primary objective here, and a tendency for indifference to little obstacles like this.

We drove the 15 miles to the campground area we had planned to check out, and sure enough, no snow had melted in the area. Even our parking spots were covered in a foot of snow, and with no shovels, we had to use our hands to dig out parking spots for ourselves.

We could see the rock from the parking lot of the campground. Headstone Rock sat there, as glorious as any photo I’d seen. The SW face of it basked in the sun and it slabbed in such a way that it seemed fairly dry despite the melting snow. We decided to take the hike out to it, just to see. We had already made it this far, and by now a sense of adventure had sparked into the entire group, to both the seasoned climbers and newly-acquainted of us alike. All signs pointed to a no-go for getting on any rocks today, but we just had to be sure… ⁣


Normally you can just scramble up a bunch of boulders to the base of Headstone Rock, but we were hindered by a layer of snow and ice on the boulders. We ended up finding a neat little cavern system that you could climb through to the top of the pile of rocks. Some of us even took the challenge of the snowy rock overpass and made it without the cavern. And at the top, we found our routes at the base of Headstone Rock, dry and totally climbable. Cold, but do-able. ⁣So we threw down our packs and geared up to climb!

Me starting up SW Corner.

Even without the ice, this might be one of the most heady 5.6 pitches I’ve encountered. A 10 foot traverse out on small edges along the base of the rock to the SW Corner, completely and utterly exposed, leads to a great jug that lets you pull over a bulge to a slab finish. I would be ecstatic about this climb in normal conditions. Now add in frostbitten rock and an icy tundra of a view and you’ve got a climb of a lifetime. I even had to scoop out snow from the jug! ⁣

DK pulling over the bulge of SW Corner.

Chris climbing SW Corner of Headstone Rock.


And that wasn’t even the best pitch we climbed that day! The neighboring route, Cryptic, was among the most exciting 5.8’s I’ve ever climbed. Interesting movements through the start and middle lead to a perfect flake system. It’s pretty overhung at that point too so you can cut your feet, and as you do that you also realize that there’s nothing but 50 ft of air under you while you make the final haul to the chains. Brilliant. ⁣

Mike at the base of Cryptic, 5.8

Considering all the work we put into getting to Headstone Rock, with the drive from Portland, the hiking and the scrambling and the crazy conditions, being able to stand at the top of it with the sun beaming off the snow and lighting up the park, and knowing that our steadfastness paid off, was so completely gratifying.


Shan on SW Corner of Headstone Rock.

II. Split Rocks

For our second day at Joshua Tree, our plan was to check out a crag called Isles in the Sky. The crag was located in the Split Rocks area, which was unfortunately at a higher elevation and still covered in snow even after a day of sun. Nonetheless, a bunch of our friends and family had planned to meet us there, and hey, even if climbing wasn’t possible, this area was a labyrinth of rocks worth exploring.

After some light snow hiking through the area, we found Isles in the Sky to be completely encased in snow and ice, blocking even our approach up to it. Note for next time, the sun only hits this spot for a few hours in the morning, and there’s a 4th class approach up to the ledge at the base of the climbs. A definite no-go in snow conditions!

So we made a day of exploring the quiet, snowed-over rock clusters and corridors. We found some interesting spots called Cling or Fling Corridor and Brit Corridor, but they too were too covered in ice and melting snow.

Boulevard of Dreams

So we made our way back to the parking lot, where we found a rock called Overbolted Rock that had some moderate bolted slab climbs. A few of us geared up to have a go at Boulevard of Dreams while the others settled down for some lunch. At 5.10a, this was the most difficult slab I’d ever tried, and it was hilarious how blank the face was, but we had a blast on it regardless.

DK climbing Boulevard of Dreams, 5.10a

Finding My Balance

We had some newer climbers with us and I really wanted to get them up a route before the end of the day. We had searched high and low in the area to no avail. But I saw on Mountain Project that just down the road was a small crag with some 5.6 that were worth checking out. So we headed down and sure enough, there was a huge, dry slab there just waiting for us. I quickly set up the TR anchors and we were able to get a few of our friends on their first outdoor climbs ever!




Venus hanging with the Crescent Moon as the sun sets.

Sky’s The Limit

At sunset, we made our way to a free public star party at the nearby Sky’s The Limit Observatory, where volunteers set up telescopes pointed at interesting astronomical phenomena. Joshua Tree is is a designated International Dark Sky Park, which means the land possesses “an exceptional quality of starry nights and a nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural heritage, and/or public enjoyment.” So through this star party we got to see that designation on full display. With the telescopes we got to see a nebula in Orion, a pair of twin stars, and the big telescope there was trained on a 200-star cluster that cannot be seen with the naked eye!

III. Rattlesnake Canyon

We spent our third day at Joshua Tree exploring Rattlesnake Canyon. There was no trail to pave our way for this hike, and instead we scrambled over and under and through the playground of rounded monzonite rocks of the canyon. I had originally intended for us to tackle the whole of the 4 mile hike outlined in this post, but the recent snow melt meant the canyon actually had running water flowing through its center. So our main hiking trail was effectively washed away and underwater, which forced us to rock hop the entire time!

Each member of our party forged their own path as we hopped and jumped up and down the stacks of boulders, channels, and ravines that the rocks created throughout the area.

After two miles, we found a quiet place to settle down and Abby led a guided meditation of our surroundings before we made our way back down the way we came.


Wonderland of rocks.

Silent Scream

Rattlesnake Canyon was located in Indian Cove Campground, which was where our campground reservation for the night was located. Indian Cove is an amazing area with hundreds and hundreds of climbs within walking distance or literally inside some of the campgrounds. So while some of the group went to set up the tents and get dinner started, those of us that were itching to get some climbs in decided to gear up nearby.

We landed on a classic 5.10a called Silent Scream, which allowed me to really get accustomed to the degree of Joshua Tree climbing. At this point in my climbing career, 5.10- rarely give me pause, but this one managed to get the blood flowing and sustain it throughout the entire climb. I love when that happens!

Shae leading Silent Scream, 5.10a

IV. Moosedog Tower

Our campsite at Indian Cove Campground was at the base of a 200 foot rock feature called Moosedog Tower. So naturally, Chris and I jumped on it first thing in the morning with a 7am start! Rising early and walking a few feet to the route we wanted to climb was such a privilege that I really appreciated.

At 5.9, the Direct South Face of this tower was the biggest trad route I’d led. The roof was surprisingly difficult, with nothing but a jam and a small edge to haul myself up. An “I can’t fall here” instinct kicked in and gave me some super strength to pull through it, forever etching the moves into my head. The rest of the way was pretty chill, although Chris had to do some adventuring at the top before pulling me up. Getting to the top of a multi-pitch always puts a smile on my face and this one was no different, especially so considering we were down and back to camp before breakfast. And to top it all off, there was an awesome free-hanging rappel off the backside of the tower!

Chris topping out on Moosedog Tower.


Nathan about to pull the roof of Moosedog Tower. Photo cred to Shae Galloway.

Shan at the P1 anchors of Moosedog Tower!

V. Short Wall

After breakfast we made our way over to a spot called Short Wall, just down the way from our campground in Indian Cove. At a modest 40ft and boasting over a dozen routes from 5.3 to 5.9, this was the perfect wall to get some climbing experience in for the newly-acquainted of our crew. My favorite was sending people up Linda’s Crack. Despite the 5.4 grade, chimneys are notoriously tricky to negotiate, so we got a kick out of seeing our friends battle their way up that thing.


Tuna flailing up Linda’s Crack, 5.4 chimney


Mike sending Linda’s Face, 5.6

Rob at the top of Chockstone Chimney, 4th class

Right V Crack

And then this little route caught our attention. A few of us gave it a go, but at 5.10b trad, it made short work of most of us, being both unexperienced trad climbers and unexperienced with Joshua Tree.

Chris going after Right V Crack, 5.10b

The route is strenuous and sustained. And the positioning on it means it’s difficult to see the placement of the gear. The crack also flares a bit through different sizes, which makes it hard for a newer trad climber to know what gear to place. Chris found all this out the hard way when he went for his redpoint attempt. He made it past the horizontal feature, placed a couple pieces, then decided to take. However, when he took, one of his pieces blew. When he inspected it, he noticed that its trigger wire had actually broken! And the other piece he had holding him up was barely camming!

We told him to take a breathe. That didn’t help, but he still managed to find a spot with the last cam he had and lowered down. A heady situation, but all was well. Paul went up and pre-placed gear for the rest of us to make our attempts. The redpoint wasn’t quite worth it at for our experience level, but it was still worth a lead!

Making my way up Right V Crack.

My attempt saw my first fall on gear as my foot slipped out just few moves from the top. A heartbreaker to miss the send, but the climb was still an absolute blast nonetheless.


Paul getting the send of Right V Crack! Photo cred to Shae Galloway.

VI. Que Saudade

There’s an emotion that describes a happy nostalgia for something or someone while simultaneously feeling a sadness or wistful longing for that which is past.

Saudade, a Portuguese term for which it is difficult to find an English equivalent, but could be translated to “bittersweet”.

I somehow often encounter saudade. And writing this post, four months after leaving Joshua Tree, I experience it yet again. I find joy and happiness in the memories and the photos of this place and for the people I was there with, yet there is also a melancholy that accompanies those memories, for the yearning to be back at that place, at those moments in time. It seems to happen for every one of these wonderful and inspiring places I visit, where I exhaust myself with their matchless allure, with their thrills and throes of adventure.

For this time only

Turns out, there’s a phrase that seems to recognize this emotion and attempts to make peace with it.

Ichi-go ichi-e, which can be translated to “for this time only”, is a Japanese idiom that describes a cultural concept of treasuring the unrepeatable nature of a moment. It means to cherish each relationship and encounter, regardless of whether you know it will last a long time or not. You may never get the chance to experience that particular relationship again. Every moment is always a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I certainly appreciate the time I was able to spend in Joshua Tree, and I hope to one day return. There’s a lifetime of climbing to be done there, after all, and those rocks aren’t going to climb themselves!

Thanks for tuning in, I hope I was able to convey the beauty of this place well enough, and I hope you’ve found some kind of inspiration from this post.



View of our campground from the base of Moosedog Tower

Ryan Westby

Ryan Westby

Coder, climber, artist, 21st century ghost

comments powered by Disqus
rss facebook twitter github gitlab youtube mail spotify lastfm instagram linkedin google google-plus pinterest medium vimeo stackoverflow reddit quora quora