The Desert Has Made Me: Stingray

Stingray and a season in Joshua Tree. Because the climb was more than just the climb, it was everything that happened in between burns.

“Index isn’t known for splitters (perfect cracks). That’s okay, because I’m not much known for climbing splitters in the first place.” Almost two years ago I wrote these words in a blog post describing my ascent of City Park in Index, Washington, the iconic 5.13+ crack climb first redpointed by Todd Skinner in 1986. At the time I was a lost sport climber who decided to dive headfirst into the world of hard trad, in an attempt to solve a lack of direction that had been plaguing me for months. It caught most who knew me and my climbing by surprise because I’d barely climbed a handful of 5.12s on gear, and then all of a sudden I had redpointed the hardest trad line in the state.

The months that followed City Park changed my life completely. That climb showed me how much potential there was for me in the world of trad, but in order to see how far I could go I knew I would have to leave Washington, my home for the past decade. I moved into my car and hit the road that fall, touring North America in search of inspiration, adventure, and growth. I balanced my destinations and agendas evenly between sport climbing and trad at first, but as time went on I found myself gravitating more and more towards gear climbs as I fell in love with Indian Creek, Squamish, and of course Index. My love of finger cracks quickly grew as well to soon be a love of cracks of all sizes, from tiny pin-scarred seams to gruelingly wide offwidths and everything in between. By the end of 2019 it was hard to imagine a time when I ever would have said “I’m not much known for climbing splitters,” because now it was the thing I did best of all. 

My identity as a denizen of the deep forests, granite mountains, and endless rain of the Pacific Northwest changed over time as well, as I began to consider the desert as much my home as the northern swamps. When I say desert however, I mostly just mean the sandstone of the southwest. I had yet to put in my time anywhere else.

Thanksgiving of last year found me in Indian Creek, bringing with it an early end to the season as multiple snow storms soaked the fragile sandstone and dropped temperatures below what even the most insulated van-dweller would want to endure. More psyched on crack climbing than ever before, I made a last minute decision to head west to California instead of south to Mexico, where I had found refuge from the winter months for the previous two years. Lured by the promise of better weather, wild New Years parties, and a five star hang, I plotted a course for Joshua Tree.

I had visited Joshua Tree once before in April of 2015, just a few months before City Park. I was only passing through for a few days, during which the only thing I sent was the 5.5 free solo, the Aiguille de Joshua Tree (aka the Finger of Hercules), and I might have followed a 5.10 or two. I got completely shut down by every single other thing I tried. From 5.11 hand cracks to 5.12- sport climbs, it all seemed ludicrously sandbagged, sharp, crumby, and absolutely butt puckering. I had a hard time imagining that anyone actually climbed hard here other than Bachar himself.

After that experience, the prospect of returning to Joshua Tree was a daunting one, but I had done a lot of growing since then and was less afraid of having my ego checked as I had once been. It wasn’t the only thing that had changed in my mindset about climbing. Another gift that City Park had given me was a deep obsession with climbing’s history during the era of Todd Skinner, Alan Watts, and the other stone masters that were responsible for transforming trad climbing into what it is today. During their dirtbag days, Joshua Tree was where everyone on the OG circuit went for the winter. Now that I was living in my car and climbing full time like they did, I wanted to follow their footsteps into a new type of desert and work on my own “razor hone,” as Skinner called it.

Todd Skinner and Beth Wald in Joshua Tree in ’85 [Photo by Jeff Smoot]

I arrived in Joshua Tree alone, having failed to coordinate with any of my friends who were headed that way. I also had no guidebook, there was no cell phone service, and for some reason Mountain Project had deleted the state of California from my phone, so as the sun rose on my first day in the park I was pretty directionless. I knew the climbing rangers put out free coffee in the campground on weekends, so I figured it was as good a place as any to try and get my bearings. As I started talking to people, I overheard two guys, Prith and Greg, discussing plans to go to the classic 5.12+ finger crack called Equinox that day. My winter ticklist for J Tree contained exactly four climbs: the four most splitter and/or classic hard cracks in the park. That just so happened to be the easiest one on it. For lack of a better plan, I invited myself along. Might as well dive in headfirst.   

Now that I had become a pretty decent crack climber, I figured even sandbagged at 5.12c it couldn’t be that bad, could it? Yes, turns out it could, as I got a healthy spanking that day. Despite having climbed on granite for the better part of the year, it felt like my first time all over again because the grain was so vastly different then that of the northwest. I couldn’t read the rock at all, and even the most straightforward jams felt counter intuitive and off balance. It didn’t help that the winds were blowing so fiercely I could barely keep my balance on the small crystal feet. Perhaps my goals for the season here were a bit ambitious, I couldn’t help but speculate. I’d wanted to tick off first Equinox, then Acid Crack and Asteroid Crack, and then maybe, just maybe take a crack at The Stingray.

While the climbing didn’t play out how I’d hoped, the hang seemed to hold potential; my new crew was strong, psyched, and most importantly: hilarious, bizarre, and incredibly fun. We quickly went from strangers to friends and regular partners, as Season One of “The Greg and Prith Show Featuring Brittany” began. I met more of the locals early on, with new friends Josh, Ezra, Eric, and others introducing me to the unique flavor of weird that is the SoCal climbing scene.

We returned to Equinox, and I managed to fall from the top a few times before finishing it at the end of the second day. Greg, Eric, and Josh were trying it too, but Prith had already climbed it along with most of the other things I was interested in doing. He had even given Stingray an attempt the year before. Regardless, he never complained about waiting for the rest of us to catch up or spending his rest days in full support mode. This detail was not lost on me, but I had no idea just how critical of a role it would play in my season to come.

Equinox [Photo by Tyler Meester]

Asteroid Crack came next, and Acid Crack went down shortly after, as I started to get the hang of the peculiar style that is Joshua Tree climbing. With three of the four done, that just left Stingray. I hiked out to look at it by myself, overflowing with anticipation as I wandered the washes and rock piles of the Wonderland with a singular thought in my mind: Could this be the next project like City Park?

I wanted a real project. I wanted a climb so special it felt like I was in a relationship with it. A climb so beautiful I fell in love. A climb so challenging I would willingly make sacrifices for progress. A climb so inspiring that I would be willing to do whatever it took, for as long as it took, to break through and send. A climb so proud it would teach me new things and show me how to grow as a person. The kind of climb that takes you on a journey. The kind of climb that changes your life.

There haven’t been many. Fight Club was my first. It lit a fire in me for projecting that I hadn’t known existed. City Park had been the most powerful, because it so daringly toed the line between a realistic goal and simply a fantasy. That had been almost two years ago; a fact that had been nagging at me more and more recently as my 27th birthday crept up at the end of the month. Was that the peak? My quarter life crisis voice likes to whisper when my guard is down. It had been too long, and I wanted to ride the roller coaster again. I was hungry for something big.

Stingray from a distance

When I first saw it my jaw fell open. Perched high atop a slab and arcing to the very top of the Iguana Dome, the incredibly thin and wildly steep Stingray towered over the boulder strewn wash below. A singular weakness in the otherwise unclimbable overhanging face, it was the second most impressive crack I’d ever laid eyes upon, after the Cobra itself. “I think you can do it!” a recent message from my friend Jared, who had tried it the previous season, flashed in my mind. What if I could? I knew I absolutely had to try.

Prith, my friend Charlie, and I quested out to Stingray for the first time on December 21st, just a few days before Christmas. We knew true project mode wouldn’t begin until the new year, but we had to start somewhere. With a goal so close to my limit, I broke it down in my mind into realistic goals that I would tackle one at a time. Prith and Charlie chatted about the idea of placing gear on lead, but I tuned them out and focused on the moves. The only gear that mattered right now were our directionals for top roping. Everything else would come much, much later. I did all the moves on the first day and managed to avoid ripping any terrible gobis. It was a very promising start, and Prith was committed to projecting it with me.

Around that time the scene began to shift into holiday mode, and I decided to give my agenda some room to breathe as I celebrated Christmas in the Park in the strangest possible way: as part of what we called “The Bunny Cult.” The day after that brought with it over a foot of snow, no thanks to a spell allegedly cast by Eric. The road became crusted in ice, trapping everyone’s vans in Hidden Valley. There was too much snow to scale the formations that provided a weak cell phone signal, absolutely everything was too wet to climb, and with sundown at 4pm, the days were too short to provide enough sun to really melt any of it. Thus, damp became the new dry as we sat in Josh’s and my vans for three days straight.

The Bunny Cult in the Space Station on Christmas Day. From L to R: Sarah, me, Tony, Pim, and Cedar [Photo by Tony Archie Kim]

New Years brought with it debauchery on levels I never could have imagined, but by the time it wrapped up I was ready to take myself seriously again. I was ready for the deep dive into Stingray’s world. The mental transition was easy, but physically it was apparent in my climbing that I had not been in performance mode in quite some time.

After only climbing outside for the past year and a half, I’ve learned that training on the road is a lonely pursuit, especially in the middle of winter. At the end of a gym session it’s easy, but by the time the outdoor climbing day is over it’s dark, you’ve already cooled down, and no one wants to put off dinner or leave the fire to go punish themselves on a hangboard or the rings. No one, that is, except for Prith and Greg.  

On only our second day climbing together back in December I watched the pair of them assemble a homemade metal tripod they had built for holding a hangboard, and proceed to work out until long after the sun had set. They would train before every rest day, and motivated by their contagious drive, so would I.

Prith and Greg hitting the hangboard

As January progressed, Prith and I trained and chipped away at Stingray together, lost in our masochistic pursuit as the rest of the Joshua Tree scene moved around us. We were sometimes joined by Josh, Charlie, or local crusher Fan, but most of the time we were alone. On our walks to and from the climb, Prith filled my head with stories and dreams of Yosemite, and I in turn spun tales of Index and Squamish.

Josh and Prith on one of countless walks to Stingray

We came from very different backgrounds. He was 23, and I had just turned 27. He is 5’5”, to my 5’11”. His index fingers are the length and width of my pinkies. He had never projected anything seriously before, while I was on a quest to lose myself in a process I knew intimately. Where he needed to discover new ways to approach climbing, I had to unlearn old ones to quiet my ego and allow the learning process to unfold. We brought completely different sets of strengths and weaknesses to the project in every way, which gave us both an incredible opportunity to learn from each other.

We top roped the climb for four and a half days, at which point my best go was a two-hang, and he had done it clean. At first we’d thought we had to just quickly power through the moves in the steep crux, but it later became apparent that each hold needed an intimate knowledge of where each finger would settle to ensure we got the following jam right. Any mistake would disrupt the sequence and result in a fall.  

We worked out the gear, which was a Frankenstein mix of Prith’s cams, Josh’s, and my own, since most of the pieces needed were the same size (yellow alien/Metolius) to fit in the small pin scars. There is only one cam placed for the entire crux, a 0.3 that we would put in our mouth while resting on a ledge 15 feet off the ground, do four or five jams, place it, and then gun it another fifteen feet to the next lock decent enough to pause for even a second to place again. Seven cams in total, with only four left after the crux. After all the wear and tear, not to mention multiple upside-down whippers that both of us took, several of the cams barely worked by the end.  

About to place the 0.3 [Photo by Hobo Greg]

We started leading it early on, because once we had sorted out the beta we theorized that we would only have to make it through the low crux once without falling, and would be so psyched we would refuse to fail on the pumpy yet delicate laybacking at the top. With a fixed line on the anchors, if a fall down low were to happen, we would transfer over, clean the gear, and lower to the ground for another attempt. Most of the time we wouldn’t even finish the crux, in favor of saving skin and energy for another actual redpoint go.

Prith climbed with his fingers mostly bare, whereas I adhered to a strict regimen of superglue and EuroTape that I would often redo between every other attempt.  Even a single go without it, and I would open the sides of my fingers into gobies. Sometimes I still would, even through the dressings. Prith mostly managed to avoid the carnage somehow. The difference possibly came from how we held the holds—with our dramatically different finger sizes, most of Prith’s locks were weighting the index fingers, with the pinky on top. For me, I only went thumb down on six jams on the entire route, three on each hand. The rest were all just cranking off my pinkies. Where the crack size may have been better suited for Prith’s small fingers than my own, I held the advantage when it came to the footwork. The crux is characterized by a short section with absolutely no footholds, with only the overhanging crack to attempt to toe in on. While I had to campus one move in that section, Prith had to essentially do several back to back one-armed campus moves to get through it. He would have to leave the last decent foot much sooner than me, as I stretched my 6’2” wingspan to its max to milk the ledge for all it was worth. To make matters worse, his shoes were desperately blown out.

Beginning my glue/tape routine… [Photo by Hobo Greg]
…so this won’t happen

Once we started to feel closer to sending, another one of the differences we experienced were the conditions. Over several weeks of trying it, I began to notice a direct correlation between the temperature and wind speeds, and my performance. The climb is in the shade the entire day, and while it may be calm on the ground, by the time you ascend the slab to the base even the lightest wind would feel bone-chilling, numbing my fingers before I could even start climbing. By the top of the route where it is most exposed the gusts would sometimes feel apocalyptic. My catch phrase of “I’m numbing out” went from a joke, to a nuisance, to my biggest limiting factor. On the cold days, which were most of the days, I just couldn’t relax enough to bring my full strength, and I couldn’t feel my hands well enough to get the locks correctly. It didn’t seem to limit Prith as much, aside from a bit less friction on the warmer days.

For weeks Prith and I traded leaps in our progress, taking turns feeling like we would be the one who would get it first. We had many long talks about our shared competitiveness, and how we were both at least partially ego-driven, and what that meant when we were sharing a project. We bonded over our shared fear of being left behind: if one were to send and move on while the other got stuck and still needed support. We agreed that the only option was to send on the same day.

Towards the end of January however, Prith pulled ahead. He unlocked something important; some sort of acceptance of how bad the feet were that he had to use in the crux. As soon as he committed to simply campusing and scrapping his way through it, suddenly he was gunning for the summit one day. Seeing as how it was the first time either of us had broken through that barrier, in that moment I was sure he was about to send. I was equally sure that I was nowhere close to it being my day too. You have to be peace with this, I told my competitive self as he neared the chains, and somehow I actually was. I was, up until the moment that his feet skated off the microscopic crystals at the top and I found my grigri arresting his fall.

The moment of glory suddenly turned to one of distress, as Prith announced that he had felt a pop in his ankle doing one of the jams. He was in too much pain to even get to the summit. There would be no more attempts by him that day. He commented that it hadn’t been meant to be, because we had to send on the same day.

Back at camp Prith trained like a fiend, resting his ankle and hangboarding, sitting in complete silence around the fire because his mind was consumed with rehearsing the moves over and over again to give himself every possible chance of success. It was harder for me to lose myself in the obsession to the same extent, because I still didn’t feel close at all.

With the ankle on the mend, we returned after a handful of rest days to give it another go. He appeared to be done falling at the crux, making it closer and closer to the chains on two impressive attempts that day. Meanwhile I was still stuck at the bottom, falling lower and lower as the cold temperatures shut me down. It was clearly only a matter of time for Prith, but his feet continued to slip as his toes all but poked through the ends of his thrice-resoled, blown out shoes. I had been urging him to invest in a new pair, and was sure he would send with ease the moment he did. After falling at the top three times, he decided it would be worth it.

On Saturday, January 25th, we returned to The Stingray with fresh skin and fresher rubber. Prith was brimming with excitement to see how well his feet would stick. Instead he suddenly was stuck at the low crux again, as I found myself getting higher than ever before. It was only the second day we had been on the climb where the daytime high was over sixty degrees, and I felt amazing. In the end I still wasn’t there, and Prith was, and on the third try of the day he finally clipped the chains. He sat in silence on the top for several minutes, before finally descending.

Our hike back to camp was quiet. I grappled with mixed emotions. My partner had just sent the hardest route of his life, and I was ecstatic for his accomplishment. At the same time, I was crushed that we had not done it together. So far this whole journey had been one we went through together, and now I was on it alone. I said as much out loud, and Prith replied that he would keep coming back with me. I told him how badly I wanted him to be there when it happened, how I still wanted it to be our journey together, and he affirmed that he felt the same way. Neither of us dared to put a time constraint on it, probably because he believed I only needed another day or two, and because I was too afraid of the opposite: that I was nowhere close.

Two days of attempts after that it was finally warm again, and I at last found a way to stop falling off the move to what we called “the crux lock”. We had assigned a name to each of the jams after the 0.3 for reference. First was “the rattly lock,” where the right hand had to twist painfully to gain purchase. Next came “the tooth hold,” a left hand named after a small tooth-looking feature that formed the base of the constriction. After that was “the bloody hold,” because of an identifying blood smear from the very first day. Then came “the scar hold,” a jam next to a small rock scar, followed by “the crux lock,” which signified the hardest move in the crux. “The pinch lock” was last, requiring a desperate bump to get to, and signaling the end of the crux because after that you grab the pinch, get your feet onto something real, and finally relax just a little.

The beta

By the end of that day I was now falling off the bump to the pinch lock; as close as I could get to finishing the crux and still fail. I lowered down from my fourth try, and recklessly decided to give a last hail Mary “anger burn,” which meant pulling the rope and going again immediately without resting. Somehow I finally got through the crux for the first time. Too tired from the day’s efforts, I fell pulling out of the rest at the top. For the first time, I actually felt that I was close.

For Prith, endurance had been an issue on The Stingray, a challenge he tackled with relentless laps on the Gunsmoke Traverse until it no longer held him back. Endurance wasn’t my crux, and I was filled with fear that I wouldn’t be able to get through the hard moves down low again far more than I worried about coming off the top. Rest days were stress days, especially when I saw that the weather was about to take a dramatic turn for the worse. It looked like Eric might have cast another spell, because temperatures went from 67 and calm one day, to 40 with 30mph winds the next. If I didn’t get it in my next session, it would be at least a week until I could try again.

The next day on Stingray was the hottest day yet, and I felt amazing as I top roped the upper half of the climb as a warm-up. Everything felt like it had lined up perfectly. On my second go of the day, I found myself smoothly repeating the crux, not even pumped as I slotted my fingers into the jams leading up to the final rest. I floated higher than my previous high point, placing each hand and foot with perfect precision until I was in the final left hand fingerlock; a jam so good you could cut all three other limbs and still probably not fall. I fell.

The week of rest after that was good, because at this point I had started to notice a concerning swelling in my right index finger. It had ballooned to larger than my thumb, after repeated falls out of the “crux lock,” where almost my entire body weight hangs off that finger alone.

“El Gigante,” aka my swollen finger

It was February now. We had been in Joshua Tree for a long time. It had started to feel like too long. Eric had left to find a job and some stoke, Ezra had gone back to school, Josh was about to spend a few weeks in Bishop, Greg had bought a ticket to Europe, and no matter how much he loved the park, even Prith was clearly ready to move on. I was too, but after how close I had gotten, I couldn’t leave without finishing Stingray. Not after how many tries it had taken me to learn exactly how to do each move perfectly enough to have a real shot, which was in the dozens.

All the pressure and nerves I had successfully quelled before had crept back in en masse, as I worried about partners, my still swollen finger, and another impending week of bad weather. I was faced with a potential reality where I ended my Joshua Tree season having fallen off the very last move and never sending. I had been reading my friend Steven’s blog, The Daily Nugget, for wisdom and perspective that week, and ruminated on one of the articles as I attempted to calm my frantic mind during a light jog. It was titled, “What Will You Regret?

Will you regret not taking a risk to pursue your dream?

Will you regret having tried if it doesn’t work out?

I thought and thought and thought about my experience in Joshua Tree. I knew without a doubt that whatever happened, sink or swim, I would leave with no regrets. I had done my absolute best on and for this route, of that I was certain. I had given myself every possible chance at success. The time I put into it was not wasted if I didn’t send. I had made it possible for Prith, by supporting him through the process. We had both learned so much from the route and from each other. We had even started talking about doing a wall together this spring, because we worked so well as climbing partners. I found acceptance in that the entire experience did not derive its meaning solely from the outcome.

Regardless of my mental peace, fucking hell, I really wanted to send that friggin’ rock climb.

Completely aside from the climb, I had made such deep connections in J Tree, both with the park and with the people I had befriended here. As I ran through the yuccas, piles, and namesake flora of the park, I reflected on how much this place had given me, always in ways I would have never expected. My time here had been a profound chapter in my life, and I was filled with gratitude. I thought about how many times Prith had taken rest days to go back to Stingray with me after having sent, never once with anything less than the upmost enthusiasm. No one else ever gave me a lead belay on the route. I thought about how many times Josh had jugged the static line, dedicated to capturing aerial send footage. He only had a few days off from work each week, and had given so many of them away to be behind the lens rather than doing his own climbing. I thought of how much everyone I had met here taught me about what it meant to be a partner or a friend, a good person, and even sometimes a trash person (we had some very high quality dumpster dives, and had been otherwise mostly living off expired protein cookies that had been on sale at 8 for $1 at Grocery Outlet). I wanted to send this route for them, as my own way of attempting to return the favor.

February 7th marked my next day on The Stingray after the week off. Greg joined Prith, Josh, and I as we trekked into the desert; an entourage ready for the next and hopefully last battle. I scrambled to the summit of the Iguana Dome to set up my usual top rope warm-up, and felt the chill of winds much higher than predicted on top. My fingers felt strangely slippery in the locks, and when Prith asked me how I felt afterward, the honest truth was ‘not my best.’

Nonetheless, I powered through the crux on the first try shortly after. I slipped off one of the last truly difficult moves at the top when flash pump set in, having apparently not warmed up quite enough. Things were looking promising. After losing badly to Greg at a game of Cribbage, I gave two more attempts and didn’t get through the low crux again on either one. Things were no longer looking promising. As I rested another hour for one last round of attempts, Josh and I took turns failing at juggling in the shade at the base of the route. “Juggling is harder than Stingray,” he declared, and I couldn’t help but agree, but Stingray was still feeling pretty damn hard too. It kept me warm, without draining my energy the way our long rests in the sun often did.

Prith and I playing one of many Cribbage games in the sun between burns on Stingray [Photo by Hobo Greg]

It’s hard to imagine a crack climb being low percentage, but Stingray always felt like it to me. Despite my best efforts, every attempt felt at least a little like a roll of the dice. Even after almost fifty attempts and weeks of getting to know each granite crystal in every lock, I still needed a bit of luck to get everything just right. As I stood on the ground preparing for my fourth attempt of the day, I tried to tell myself I would not fall during the low crux the way I’ve been able to in decisive moments on hard climbs in the past. My swollen index finger ached despite the higher-than-recommended dose of Ibuprofin I had taken, but I knew I couldn’t hold back to try and protect it, which had caused my mistakes on the previous two burns. Through the crux and back at the final rest, and again I tried to tell myself, I’m done falling on the next move. I had done these moves dozens of times, there should be no reason to fall anymore.

I had pictured what it would be like to clip those chains so many times that I was crying before I even grabbed the final jug.

“I’m free!” I yelled over and over again. I could finally let my mind and body rest. My finger desperately needed it.

I could finally celebrate Prith’s send. I could finally celebrate my own. It was a team effort until the very end.

I could finally work on other climbs or go to other places.

Finally. [Photo by Josh Holt]

The next day was my last in J Tree. What was once a wild and rowdy five star hang in Hidden Valley had dwindled down to a bare bones (or friggin’ bonies) crew of a few close friends camping in the lakebed. Just a small cluster of vans huddled together in the desert that had made us. Made us students, made us mentors, made us dreamers, and made us friends. Still a five star hang, but we all knew our time here was up. We packed up our belongings and said our goodbyes to the park and to each other. With an “I have to poop tremendously,” Josh drove in one direction to LA, and Prith, Greg and I the other. The next day Greg left for Sacramento. I now write this from Prith’s parent’s house, where we are attempting to rest, because the next big thing is just around the corner waiting for us in Yosemite.  

Was it the next City Park? No. It was the first Stingray.

Team Send. [Photo by Josh Holt]

2 Comments

  1. Just so well done – climbing, writing, and the full experience of climbing life. Thanks for taking the time to lay it all down to be relived here. Immensely enjoyed. Many blessings on the path of you and your partners.

    Like

    Reply

  2. Such a wonderful and visceral feel of story and scene in the way you let out the rope of the journey step by experiential step. I had the reminiscence of slowly stepping up the many many stairs to the top of a temple, pausing on each step to immerse, to feel.

    Your story had that wonderfully reverent and at times hilarious feel where a whole world lives robust and full at every step.

    Like

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s