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Scrambling in Joshua Tree
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Brad Branan

Locale: Sacramento Valley
Scrambling in Joshua Tree on 11/17/2013 14:12:55 MST Print View

Joshua Tree Scrambling - a Test
When you keep thinking about Aron Ralston - the man who amputated his forearm with a pocketknife after getting pinned by a boulder in Canyonlands National Park - chances are you have made a wrong choice in your outdoor activity. I kept thinking about him when I was scrambling in Rattlesnake Canyon in Joshua Tree National Park.

The canyon and its washes are choked beyond belief with huge boulders - those Seuss-like mounds I've only seen in that part of California. Getting through the canyon took me a few hours and tested me like no scramble trip ever had before.

I was in Rattlesnake Canyon because I have an aversion to in-and-out backpack trips. I had planned to backpack the Boy Scout Trail - with a side trip to the Wilton Trail - from park road to the end and come back. The night before, I noticed in my guidebook that there was a "very strenuous" route called the "Wonderland Connection," that would allow me to turn my trip into a loop: Boy Scout to Wilton to the Connection and back down the Boy Scout.

The guidebook did not show the Wonderland Connection on a map. That should have been my first clue. It said it consisted of following a wash from the end of the Wilton to the picnic grounds at Indian Cove. With my GPS, I assumed I would have no problem following the wash. That much was true. I was able to follow the wash.

What I did not expect was the sheer amount of rocks and brush. I would say about 20 percent of the wash is what you would expect - sand or wet sand. The rest was impassable brush or piles of rock connected to the huge formations that Joshua Tree is famous for. I recently took a scrambling class at REI. I also read the classic mountaineering book "Freedom of the Hills." The skills I learned were used in the Rattlesnake Canyon.

I was climbing or hopping rock most of that time. Fear and tiredness set in and the going went even slower. I had to maneuver in tight spaces quite often, using legs and arms in concert to push me through. I had to drop my pack several times to get through tight spaces. I kept worrying about getting a limb caught between rocks like Aron Ralston. I kept telling myself to be calm patient and take one move at a time. I had to jump down more than 10 feet several times. I had to clear crevices of a similar distance several times as well.

As I was crab walking down a steep rock, my water bottle popped out of my backpack's side pocket and went skittering into a crevice. The sound scared me. So did the loss of the water. I was left with about four ounces of water and a mile of treacherous climbing to do. Ironically, about an hour later, I found a full bottle of water between two rocks. I could only guess that it was not cached there. I believed it fell there. So I took it. I hope someone else wasn't counting on it.

I plowed ahead. I ripped the butt of my shorts. I cut both legs on brush and scraped both hands on rock. I got out of the canyon by using the gps and sticking to the wash but was amazed it was considered a trail. When I got I let out a hoot. I felt proud of myself for getting through it but foolish for taking such a route with no planning.

I think more experienced climbers might find this an enjoyable route. Despite the account I provide here, I mostly enjoyed the scrambling. I kept calm almost the whole time and learned my limits. The Pine Canyon Trail also provides some fun scrambling for those visiting Joshua Tree.

Just about every trip teaches me something about how to more effectively backpack. This one drove home the point: Don't take unknown routes. Crosscountry trips are fine - but only with proper route planning. Satellite pictures and topo maps would have better prepared me, although I doubt I would have done the trip if I had known was I was in for - and that would have been a loss too.

Here's a picture of one rock field I scrambled:

More pics from my trip to Death Valley and Joshua Tree:

Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: Scrambling in Joshua Tree on 11/17/2013 16:19:35 MST Print View

"Here's a picture of one rock field I scrambled:"

Now that looks like good fun.

Nice adventure you had down there. A suggestion for future scrambles in Joshua: use a pair of thin gloves, leather probably best, but other materials will also suffice.

Brad Branan

Locale: Sacramento Valley
Good idea on 11/17/2013 18:30:39 MST Print View

Good advice. I'd might have brought a pair if I'd known what I was in for. I think I'm just going to have some gloves always in tow in that "just in case" bag.

Rob Vandiver

Locale: So Cal
Willow Hole through Rattlesnake Canyon on 11/26/2013 14:08:52 MST Print View

I did this trip last spring, and my experience pretty much mirrors yours spot on. I went with a couple of younger guys and it is incredible how disorienting it is to get deep into the washes down there and realize you have ZERO landmarks. We ended up shooting east a little early, down the wrong canyon, and had to route find a way up and down a doozy of a canyon wall. We were all getting a bit flustered and happened to find a human sized femur bone right at the top of the ridge we were trying to navigate down. We had a nice little chuckle.

There was just enough signs of people (broken twigs and branches) to at least let us know that someone had passed though the route somewhat recently and bolster our confidence. We were about half way down the wall o' rocks to what ended up being Rattlesnake Canyon when we spotted a couple making their way up the canyon on the other side. They looked up at my hail, and yelled, "How on earth did you get up there?"

All said and done it took us about 8 hours to navigate maybe 6 miles of the Wonderland of Rocks. It's trips like this that I will remember for years. Great experience! I've been itching to get out there and do it again.

Brad Branan

Locale: Sacramento Valley
A femur bone? on 11/26/2013 14:22:17 MST Print View

Classic. That would have freaked me out, on that day at least. I thought the "trail" was rough because it was closed due to vandalism for five months. But some locals told me it has always been like that. I guess you climb as much as the folks around there do, and that kind of trail isn't as formidable as it was to me.

Adan Lopez
(Lopez) - F

Locale: San Gabriel Valley
Re: Scrambling in Joshua Tree on 11/26/2013 15:19:13 MST Print View

"Don't take unknown routes."

Not so fast. From where I sit, you were totally prepared for this, except in your expectations. Now, through experience, your expectations are re-calibrated. If anything, your lesson should be that, now you KNOW you can handle "unknown routes". The "pre-trip you" just didnt know that! I too am currently a humble student of the "unknown me", and on my next lesson, I hope I handle it as well you did!! Love the honesty man, thanks for that.

Hikin' Jim
(hikin_jim) - MLife

Locale: Orange County, CA, USA
Re: Scrambling in Joshua Tree on 11/26/2013 15:54:11 MST Print View

Cool photos.

Yeah, there's some pretty rugged stuff out there. I gotta get back there while the weather's cool.


Adventures In Stoving
Hikin' Jim's Blog

Brad Branan

Locale: Sacramento Valley
Re: Re: Scrambling in Joshua Tree on 11/26/2013 18:18:00 MST Print View

That is a very good point and something I kind of recognized. I was stretched by the trip and therefore I have a broader sense of what I am capable of doing.

Charles P
(mediauras) - F

Locale: Terra
Re: Re: Re: Scrambling in Joshua Tree on 11/26/2013 22:31:48 MST Print View

Sounds like a good experience that in the end made you a stronger hiker with more confidence. Great!

And I have to admit, that scramble looks like a lot of fun...

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Scrambling in Joshua Tree on 12/03/2013 21:03:50 MST Print View

Nice trip. Yes, sometimes progress is measured in hours per mile, not miles per hour. I was there a few weeks ago after a hiatus of a few decades. Shame what has happened at the bottom.