Ever since I first climbed this route, just over 5 years ago, I've dreamed of enjoying a beautiful sunset from the spectacular ledge at which it finishes, still my favorite spot in the whole monument. Perhaps I might even get to enjoy such a view while cuddled up with a lovely young lady. Today I finally got to realize that dream. Unfortunately, the last five years had worn away my memory of how long and tricky the descent was. Hopefully the coming years will wear away her memory of it as well, until all that remains is the view of that amazing sunset, the exhilaration of the climb, and the resplendent finish to a wonderful day of climbing in such a beautiful place.
The first time I went climbing with Amanda was almost a year ago, and that time, we finished the day with a short slab climb of about the same difficulty as this on Trashcan Rock. That time, we also spent a peaceful moment enjoying the solitude of Joshua Tree, before scrambling down in the dark. Unfortunately, this little bit of scrambling turned out to be rather traumatic for Amanda, which surprised me considering that she had so proudly endured so much torturous wide crack climbing earlier that day. Though she had regarded bloody shins and bruised knees like they were nothing, she became absolutely terrified at a few points during that evening descent, and at one point even shed a few tears. Since Trashcan Rock is my favorite place to finish a day of climbing at Joshua Tree, I know the simplest way down like the back of my hand, and could manage it easily, in the dark with no headlamp and with one arm tied behind my back. So had I put two and two together beforehand (that is, how traumatic the descent of Trashcan Rock was for her, together with how much longer, more tricky, and less familiar to me the descent from Saddle Rocks would be), I might have planned this climb differently. I could have simply brought a second rope so that we could rappel the route, or at the very least, looked online the day before for more detailed descent beta. Instead I am left once again feeling awfully guilty for having put Amanda through such hell.
Other than the descent, this climb went perfectly. I knew that the sun would set right around five o'clock (5:01 to be precise), so I figured that if we got to the parking area by about 3:30 at the latest, and if we hiked and climbed pretty quickly, and if there weren't a line of other parties ahead of us on the route, we should be able to finish the route before the sunset. As we left Hemingway Buttress, we packed my little yellow climbing pack with my down jacket, Amanda's fleece jacket liner, a few pieces of fruit, and some Gatorade. At the parking lot near Saddle Rocks, I quickly coiled the rope, left all my other gear except for a handful of quickdraws and slings, and we set off on the trail. It was just past 3:00. We could see that there was one party just finishing the route, and so far it looked like no one else was on it, but I could hardly believe that we might have the whole route to ourselves. When we arrived at the base of Walk on the Wild Side, there was indeed no one ahead of us, and I became optimistic.
We quickly tied in, and I blazed up the first pitch. It felt pretty easy since I had just done it the previous year, although I had forgotten how bad the rope drag could be near the end of the pitch. Next time, I will try to remember to bring a few double-length slings for this pitch. Amanda followed the pitch almost as quickly as I had led it, and had no difficulty at all with the climbing. After taking a few minutes to get her comfortable at the belay (getting her fleece out of the pack to deal with the wind, tying her in nice and short with a clove hitch, and explaining what to do if we couldn't hear each other when I finished the next pitch), I took off. I led the second pitch even more quickly than the first, and found the climbing mostly easier as well. I arrived at the lovely crescent-shaped ledge that marks the end of the route a little before 4:30. I had guaranteed Amanda that we wouldn't be able to hear each other, due to the wind, the length of the pitch, and the curvature of the rock. But just as I clipped myself to the anchor, the wind serendipitously died down a little, and we were able to communicate with relative ease by yelling. I used the rope signal I had taught her for “on belay” anyway, just to demonstrate it. Within a few minutes, she started climbing, and she once again dispatched the pitch quickly and easily.
At least twice as she climbed the second pitch, I heard Amanda yell something about how beautiful it was; she was stopping in the middle of the climb and turning around to admire the view! When she arrived at the ledge, we made ourselves comfortable and got out our snacks. The sunset was beautiful, with just enough of a break in the clouds to watch the sun disappear behind the mountains, but enough clouds to decorate the sky with blazing pinks and reds a few minutes later. Since Amanda had only brought the fleece liner to her jacket, but not the windproof shell, she was pretty cold. So we huddled together while we enjoyed the view, and I tried to shield her from the wind as much as possible.
When it started to get pretty dark, we decided to head down. I had scoped out the descent a little in the last few minutes of daylight, and had found that at least the initial traverse around to the right didn't seem too bad. But very soon we came to a fairly steep section that it looked like we would have to scramble down. I started down first, but before long it got steep enough that I realized Amanda might not be able to handle it. I knew she could do it physically, but in the dark with only a headlamp, and with her fear of heights, it wasn't going to be pretty. I scouted a little further to climber's right, but I didn't see any more promising prospects. So I returned to where I had left Amanda, at the top of the first steep section, and we decided that the best option would be for her to tie in and have me lower her down that section, after which she could pull the rope and I could downclimb it. This worked out fine, but took a little while. I have to admit, the downclimbing here was pretty sketchy: the last ten feet was a steep chimney, which probably went at a solid 5.5 or 5.6. Fortunately, the chimney had a nice, flat, sandy floor at the bottom, so there was no real exposure, and a fall wouldn't have been too serious.
From there I scouted again, and found a reasonable next step. We traversed further to climber's right, to another gully that I could pretty easily downclimb, after which it looked like we would be most of the way down. Again we decided to have Amanda lower down this, and this time she went almost a whole ropelength. I scrambled down pretty easily, and as we had hoped, we were now most of the way down. We still had a little more scrambling to do, but it was no longer exposed, and it turned out that there was only one more tricky spot. After I thoroughly scouted the rest of the descent, all the way to dirt and trees, Amanda followed me, and we finally reached flat land. About an hour and a half had passed since we started the descent. We took a few minutes to change our shoes, drink the last of the Gatorade, and reorganize, then hiked the rest of the way back to the car.