Joshua Tree Night Adventure

23 Nov 2000 - by Ron Hudson (view roster page)

At Thanksgiving I had arranged to climb at Joshua Tree National Park (JT) with friends from the Bay Area. Thu I hiked, Fri I rock climbed with the group around Indian Cove (IC) - beautiful weather. Three of the group, Nancy, Patty, and Tom had gone on a hike rather than climb Fri; a long loop via the "Boy Scout Trail" and intending to come back through Willow Hole, the Wonderland of the Rocks and Rattlesnake Canyon (RC). Another of their group had returned early from the trail part, but now it was dark and the 3 had not returned. By 9PM we (there were about 15 of us there) had weighed the plight of our missing hikers and did not feel the situation did not warrant calling search and rescue yet. The night temperatures would be well above freezing, and they were likely to have matches and the sense to find a safe way to spend the night. It seemed they had no flashlight either. We kind of decided to, at worst, wait until 9 AM before alerting the rangers.

I had been on the route before; there are a lot of rocks to get lost in, which would be much more difficult at night with no moon. In this kind of situation, there are unknowns, like somebody could be injured, and timely assistance could be very worthwhile. I felt like doing some more hiking and had had plenty of sleep the night before. Also, not many people have done that route and coming to ones aid, avoiding rescue involvement seems appropriate. It felt it would be a good challenge and the right thing to do, so I volunteered to go looking; I could not enlist anybody else, so I packed some things including 5 flashlights, spare batteries, and extra food, water, and clothing for the "victims" if I should find them. I brought also, mainly for my own safety, a sleeping bag, and tiny ham radio. At 10:15PM I was given a ride by Jim Curl over the day use gate and began walking.

RC is a great place to go with its rock caves, year-round water and trees, protection from wind and sun, and some crags for climbing. The route from the parking lot winds amidst the sand, boulders, water sculpted rocks and brush rocks for a half mile or so, then is a sandy canyon of about a mile, then climbs upward among large boulders. I knew the logical route was via an unmarked side canyon, and used my GPS and map as I went along. It was a good navigation exercise to find the canyon. I needed to be within 50 meters or so to be certain I would be on the right route rather than just trying the tapered canyon sides; all boulder fields and piles. It took me 30 minutes to figure it out because the map had no lines and I had to interpolate, draw without a ruler, approximate and fixate using my flashlight to figure out my location closely. Only hazy forms above was I able to distinguish in the starlight. So with some back and forth climbing I went upwards among the room-size boulders. It was mostly class 3 rock climbing or lower, above some deep holes, in and out and up and around the rocks. I did check position and altitude with the GPS; finally the steep drainage began to flatten out. I yelled every so often, hoping for a response.

I got to a little valley and vaguely remembered a rock face I saw ahead in outline. I continued up and around the drainages and remembered that before I had visited an interesting little shack that someone had fashioned under a large rock. The only prints were from hooves and paws; few humans venture back here. That is what is nice about it, and other wild backcountry in JT. A couple little valleys, and lo! I heard a response to my cry. At 1:30 AM I had found them! There they were, at the little shack, uncomfortable and tired but surviving okay. The clothes and water were very welcome, and they were warm enough; the area was not lacking in natural fuel. They still had some food, too. Apparently they had been wandering around as it got near dark and did not find a route back down to RC. The maps they had were not detailed enough either.

I then weighed the possibilities for going back. There were options of the trail end above, the trail end where they started, and another canyon down to IC. But I felt the way I came would get us back the quickest. Climbing there would be dangerous at night, so we elected to start a little before daylight, and get back hopefully before 9 AM. We then tried (but failed) to get some sleep, and lifted up our bodies (got up?) at 5:00. We were ready for our usual bath, lounge, miracle cream workover, massage, and champagne buffet, but could not locate the spa. So, packing our meager items and thoroughly erasing our traces we started out at 5:30. It was not fast getting down the bouldery route, finding and assisting at the moves using hand and foot holds. But I guided it safely and the weary group made good progress in the daylight. It was nice to walk again when we got to the sandy wash below the rock piles, later followed by another hundred or so yards of rock hopping. Then finally the RC parking lot and another mile up the road to the campsite, and got back to camp and the others at 8:00. A bit hungry and sleepy but safe and secure! Happy faces and food and comfort! All was well as we ate and rested. Ah, the memories of misery! Such adventures are the ones I don't forget, when I think of wild places. After receiving hearty thank yous, I still went rock climbing for 3 more good days at JT.


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