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  • Writer's picturevanlafaxine

week 13: los angeles, joshua tree

los angeles

Amy: We’d been told by fellow travellers that Venice beach was one of the best/coolest parts of LA, so we found a quiet residential street to park on then explored the neighbourhood. Like its Italian cousin, many of the homes in Venice line somewhat swampy man-made canals. You can meander down palm tree lined pathways and stroll across pedestrian bridges, admiring the ornate succulent gardens that seem to adorn every backyard.

We spent the rest of the evening people-watching at the beach and skatepark, then wandered down the hip Abott Kinney Blvd. for dinner at Gjelina, a trendy (read: pricey) local joint. I left for Vancouver the next day, leaving Bill to explore the rest of Venice. 

bill: got into los angeles in the afternoon, headed to venice beach for sunset. we walked around the canals and watched the surfers and skateboarders on the beach. we parked right down by the beach. la is actually very reasonable with their street parking restrictions- many streets you can park for up to 3 days for free as opposed to ottawa’s max 3 hours anywhere in city limits. “motorhomelessness” is a big thing here thanks to the astronomical cost of living, so we fit in pretty well. we went out for dinner for a beef tartare and a wood oven pizza and it came out to $140cad.

the next day i dropped amy off at the airport and drove out along the pacific coast highway to malibu to do some surfing. 0/5 stars: long times between sets, small swell, aggressive locals dominate the lineup and take every single wave. our wipers broke again thanks to an ancient linkage bushing, tried to fix this in the parking lot with a zip tie without success, guess i will need to actually buy parts. went back to venice to camp on the street again.

venice is a cool neighbourhood, once a “slum by the sea”, it is definitely deep in the process of gentrifying, now full of modern investment show houses with $8000 chairs in empty rooms made of glass, but is still home to a lot of young people, surfers, and motorhomes and tent camps. a studio apartment will run you about $4000cad a month though.

the next day i walked the famous beach boardwalk from venice to santa monica, checked out the santa monica pier amusement park and the end of route 66, got a foot long veggie sub at subway for $20cad, then went for a couple “happy hour special” $10cad pints.

Amy: I rejoined Bill on Sunday morning, and we decided to explore LA’s biggest outdoor space: Griffith Park. Since it was Sunday, the park was packed with families, couples and hikers looking to escape the bustle of the city. We joined the throngs of people to explore the observatory, which was totally free (!!) and decently informative. To escape the crowds, we hiked up Mount Hollywood for a birds’ eye view of LA. Since we were in the movie-making capital of America/the world, we had to check out Hollywood Blvd and the walk of fame. We squeezed in a movie (the new D&D flick) at Chinese Theatre where all the movie premieres happen, and I stood in the literal footprints of the great queen Meryl Streep!

Unfortunately, Bill and I left Hollywood feeling pretty icky. We saw a lot of poverty and homelessness, which, against the backdrop of Hollywood’s extravagance and pomp, felt very wrong. Our final stop in L.A. was Mulholland drive, where celebrities like Madonna and Jack Nicholson live/have lived. The road winds high above the city in the Hollywood hills. We stopped at a few scenic overlooks to enjoy the view of Universal city and L.A.  Overall, I’m happy we got to explore the city, but ready to head back into nature! 

bill: sunday morning amy flew back in, we drove up to hollywood, hiked in griffith park up to the observatory, which was very cool but very busy, hiked to the top of mount hollywood to get a good view of the smog blanketed city, then we went down sunset ave for a mandatory la stop: the elliott smith mural.

afterwards we drove down to the hollywood walk of fame, an absolute tourist trap disaster of a place where unhoused people sleep on top of monuments to some of the richest people in the city. we walked down to the famous old chinese theatre and watched a movie. the theatre design really is incredible.

monday we drove mulholland drive, a famous road through the highest part of the hollywood hills which looks out both ways over the landscape of the city, it also houses some of hollywoods richest people and takes a prominent role in my favourite david lynch movie. we considered other plans but we needed to get to joshua tree and driving across the city any later than lunchtime would be a disaster, so we headed out.

on our way out of town, we started to have some engine issues: the temperature gauge was slowly rising as we were sitting in traffic. not good. the electrical components also started to act up; the blinker blinking slowly, the windows rolling sluggishly, headlights dim. i have two theories currently: one is that the engine is overheating, this is disrupting the battery and the electrical distribution system, this would be bad; blown head gasket, dead water pump, fried radiator etc. the second is that the engine thermostat reading is conveyed by degrees of resistance, and if there is a drop in voltage going in, that would mean less voltage going out and a false high reading, which would also explain the sluggish electrical. the hood doesn’t feel hot, the engine casing doesn’t feel hot, so i am currently going with the latter. why there is a voltage drop i don’t know, but i polished any corrosion off the battery terminals and disconnected the house battery charger from the system and that may have solved the problem? i also replaced the wiper linkage bushing so now we have functional wipers again.

joshua tree

Amy: Our first taste of Joshua Tree was at sunset/moonrise and it truly felt like an alien landscape. We hiked the hidden valley loop, a short trail winding through giant bulbous rocks. Every boulder appeared round and smooth, as if they were bloated and about to explode! We couldn't help but climb all over the rocks along the path. It felt like a playground!

bill: made the drive out of town to joshua tree, there is a very abrupt transition from green california hills back to harsh desert. the joshua trees (yuccas) really are incredible. we have seen lots of yuccas in our journey so far, but usually they max out at shoulder height, these grow so tall they actually resemble trees, they actually grow bark on the trunks. very cool.

we stayed outside the park on blm land for a few nights in a dust bowl dried up lake but were lucky enough to get a site inside for 3 nights after that.


we hiked the lost palm oasis trail, a 12km 400m 3hr hike from one oasis to another. the whole trail was lush and full of wildflowers. lots of other familiar desert fair: ocotillos, chollas, and fan palms at the oasis. lovely to be exercising and not sitting in a city, sitting in the van driving, or sitting on a beach eating nacho chips. we have to wait 48 hours for our rock climbing insurance to kick in, so tomorrow we climb!

Amy: I did not expect hiking in the desert to be so lovely and colourful. During our hike to Lost Palm Oasis, we spotted about 10-15 different species of wildflowers in varying shades of purple, pink, yellow and orange. We also crossed paths with a few lizards, and - the highlight of the day - an old weathered desert tortoise! It was plodding along the trail and I almost mistook it for a rock (I nearly jumped out of my skin when it moved). We watched it munch on desert greens for a good 10 minutes before continuing on our way.

wildflowers blanket the desert



bill: the next section as well as many of the coming week's entries will be heavily rock climbing focused, and so i have prepared a glossary of terms to explain some of the important climbing terminology since i will be using it a lot. that is linked here:

joshua tree is one of the biggest rock climbing destinations in north america. it is not particularly tall or mountainous but there are these massive boulders as far as the eye can see, and they are all solid granite with beautiful cracks, just not very tall. it is also possible j tree is so popular because it is close to l.a. and l.a. is the centre of the universe and dominates our cultural zeitgeist; anything close to l.a. must be cool. if hollywood were in ottawa, everyone would come from around the world to climb the gatineau hills.

Amy: With all the cool rocks surrounding us, we were eager to try climbing them. First stop: Trashcan Rock at Quail Springs. We were told it was a nice place to get a feel for the rock. Bill sent a few nice crack routes, and we had a great day making our way up and down the wall. A highlight was climbing a 5.7 route called 'Tiptoe' which followed a vein of rock that resembled a very mini staircase. Overall, the climbing was harder than we expected, likely because 1. we aren't used to climbing this type of climbing 2. it's an old, very traditional crag. Unfortunately, a combination of not climbing for 6 months, having the wrong guidebook, engine issues, and getting scared on a few routes meant we did more hiking/sightseeing than rock climbing. Oh well. We made the most of our time in the park, catching some great sunrises/sunsets, looking at cool rocks and immersing ourselves in the rocky desert.

it seems i am spending most of my time here in the dirt under the engine

bill: trashcan rock has a bunch of moderate routes up beautiful hand cracks. very fun but fairly sandbagged (graded much easier than they should be i.e. graded 5.1 when they should be graded 5.7). amy got very spooked on the "walk-off" which was a solidly 4th class scramble. the next day we were going to climb at hidden valley, but on our way there sprung a massive transmission fluid leak, so fixing that took a lot of the day. when we finally got there it turns out many of the routes were also super hard, sandbagged, and runout, and many involved 5th class "walk-offs" (aka to get down you also need to rock climb down but without a rope). scary, not very fun.

we drove up to keye's view to watch the sunset over the coachella valley, then had a fire with our neighbours at our campsite.

we wrapped up with a climbing day in indian cove, where again the climbs were sandbagged, sketchy, and for the first time ever i had to bail off a route: a '5.4' that turned out to be an absolutely heinous angled off-width (a crack too wide to jam your hands or feet in) that was way too hard for me and way, way, way too hard for the grade of 5.4. bailing off a trad route is a whole endeavour since there are no bolts to lower off of, i had to downclimb the whole beginning of the route and clean my gear as i went, which is pretty dangerous. not cool. no way would i have gotten on the route if i had know that '5.4' actually meant '5.10 off-width'. at the end of last season i was climbing 5.11 and now i am bailing on a 5.4. it has thoroughly shaken my confidence and made me question my ability, and now i am expecting every grade to be a massive sandbag, every climb to be massively runout, and every walkoff to be a 5th class downclimb, because that is everything in joshua tree.

ultimately, joshua tree is a very nice place but we had a bad time climbing here. below is a short essay on the subject, if you care at all about climbing politics you can read it, if not, feel free to skip to this week's video.

on sandbagging

i actually hate the climbing in joshua tree. well, not so much the climbing which is lovely crack climbing on great granite, but the ethos. the climbs here are all super sandbagged, so you have no idea how difficult the route you are getting on is before you leave the ground, which is particularly dangerous in trad climbing where the protection is more tenuous. this is made even worse by the fact that the routes here can be super runout (long distances between places to put in trad gear, so the falls are super far and ground falls are possible), especially if you find yourself in over your head because you thought that low grade climb was within your capabilities. runouts are easily handled by having a bolt put in in sparse sections, but bolting here is also unreasonable; there are no bolted anchors (a standard for single pitch crags), so you have to make your own anchors with trad gear when you get to the top. this is fine in general though a little tedious, but then you need to clean that gear out of the rock, so how do you get down? you have to “walk-off”, which in a normal crag literally involves walking off, but in j tree involves down-climbing 4th or low 5th class with no rope. this could be easily fixed by just adding two bolts on the top of each boulder so you can lower off of these with a rope like at any other single pitch crag in north america, but not here for some reason. it is not like there is a purity ethic that says “the pristine rock shall not be marred by bolts”, because there are plenty of bolted sport routes here, just with no bolted anchors. like, you already put in 5 bolts on the route, why not just finish it with the last two? how much sense does that make? why am i building a trad anchor on a sport route?

this is all to do with a climbing philosophy ostensibly of “tradition”. “why would we just add two simple bolts to maybe save somebody’s life? because it’s always been that way, and that’s how it is”. to me this belies the true reason; the real cause for the sandbagging, runouts, and 5th class walk offs is machismo. when you grade a climb much each than it actually is, you are saying to the world “look how good a climber i am, this climb feels like nothing to me”, when you make the walk-off a 5th class downclimb, you are saying “look at how good i am, i don’t care about free soloing low grades because i am so good, if you are worried about getting hurt you should just suck it up and be better”. the climbing “tradition” here is a tradition of needless chest thumping.

it ultimately comes down to a question of what is the telos of climbing? to many, climbing is a physical and mental test, strength and skill building, a means of exploration, and a means of outdoor recreation and a way to commune with the natural environment. to a certain part of the community, climbing is about machismo and adrenaline. to them, if you remove the needless danger, climbing loses its purpose.

there is a place for adrenaline, risk-tolerance, sketchy downclimbs and runouts. that place is the alpine, where there is a reason for it. you have to move fast and light with limited gear, and nobody is up there bolting anchors for you. you need to have to confidence and skill to navigate the terrain. but the alpine is very different from a single pitch crag in a parking lot next to the biggest city in north america, where there are already thousands of bolts and toddlers toproping with their parents.

climbing has changed. it is no longer the olden days of the mid 1900s where is was a sport for adrenaline junky maniacs with no regard for their personal safety. like it or not, climbing is for the masses now. there is a climbing gym in every major city hosting a children’s birthday party at this very moment. with so many more people taking to the crags, just by sheer mathematics the likelihood of severe accidents due to all this needless sandbaggery goes up astronomically. last year in yosemite a girl was critically injured, broke every bone in her body and lost a foot climbing “snake dike”, a famously very runout 5.6 route up half dome. this sparked a massive debate as to whether more bolts should be added, with a certain vocal subset claiming "tradition" in defence of adding more bolts. the person who literally made the route eventually chimed in and said that the reason the route is runout is not because of some wanton need to recklessly endanger himself and others, but because he was poor at the time and couldn’t afford the bolts. and yet still, the route remains as it was. as does joshua tree. “tradition” is a powerful euphemism.

tldr: i am a whiny scared little baby

next stop: vegas!

here is this week's video:


Apr 24, 2023

Were most of the routes you were climbing trad or sport? And the kids climbing were toproping off trad anchors, or are some routes with bolted anchors? I don't even want to bother going there any more after reading this hahha. Super weird. Hope the bouldering or hiking was at least fun!

Apr 26, 2023
Replying to

all trad! the kids were climbing on top ropes set up on trad anchors by their parents. yeah not a super fun place, unless you have a parent set up all the top ropes for you!




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