For not living in the desert I regard myself as a desert rat as far as climbing goes. Choss doesn’t bother me, it’s what I know. I’ve fallen a number of times climbing routes in Apple Valley and New Jack City with a rock in hand, as it just goes “boom!” right in my mitts. I can’t even feel guilty about broken holds like I cranked too hard or something, or didn’t knock on the rock enough to determine how solid it was. Sometimes this stuff just blows out there. Boom! Look out below.
I’ve kicked off all kinds of kitty litter scooting up slabby faces, and have freed more than a few pebbles of metamorphic rock from very pedestrian foot placements. It all adds to the flavor of the climbing in the high desert of southern California. It’s a fuck-you to the climbing world, to the all-too-holy ideal of perfect, bulletproof granite. I climb where you might fall even when your beta is perfect because the rock you’re climbing on is helplessly insecure, and unwilling to say a word about it until it snaps. Though honestly, one look at some of these routes should be warning enough.
In one of these crumbly paradises, in the Horseman’s Center area in Apple Valley, is a little hallway of fun shorties called the Black Corridor. It has about a dozen sport routes from 5.7-12a. For my take, it has a couple of real fun 11’s, a good 10a, and a beautiful 5.8. The 12a is…well, let’s just say it aint named Grain Surgeon for nothin.’
Now the funny thing about Grain Surgeon is that the beginning of the route is totally bomber. Seriously, it’s like goddamn steel. It’s 20-25 feet of slashes that feel good on your fingerpads. They’re a little thin like you want them to be but not overly hard. The first bolt is a little higher than it is on surrounding routes, and feels about .10c getting there, but the climbing has smooth, foot-rocking flow.
The top of the route, about another 20 feet, is another story. What the hell happened? Suddenly you’re on the worst kind of Joshua Tree slab. 3 bolts worth and each move an insecure squirm fest. You’re climbing an arete mostly. You enter the slab on a face and quickly transition left a little at the bolt. There are some seams out right that you can use for hand and foot holds, but these things give true meaning to the common phrase “needs to clean up with traffic.” Except that will never happen. Not many people climb these routes to begin with and of those that do, few at all get on Grain Surgeon. This thing is going to be a lifer for crumbly choss and slipping rubber. Maybe that entices you or maybe it doesn’t. But if you’re in the area, now you know.
I’ve only done Grain Surgeon once. It was a little touch-and-go up there, what with the grain and all. I remember clinging to the arete. Danelze said I looked fine and my feet weren’t flailing or anything, which is funny, because I remember feeling like Fred Flintstone when he drives a car. The second to last bolt is oddly placed, a little too far right, and I crossed over my chest with my left hand to clip it. Whatever my right hand was on, I wasn’t ready to let go yet. More of the same yabba-dabba-doo smearing followed up to the last bolt as I began to exit the arete again and join the face towards the anchors. There’s a ledge at the top you access for the chains, which I mantled up sloppily, get-out-of-the-pool style, feeling the tug of gravity and it’s hot breath laughing in my ear. I had the last laugh though. The flash was mine, my first at the grade.
And I say flash, for the record, because earlier I had scoped out the top section of Grain Surgeon pretty intently as I slowly lowered down off an adjacent route. I got an eyefull of those seams and had an idea then and there how I might need to tackle them. You can’t call it an onsight when you descend at a glacial pace so you can stare at the route to your side, eeking out whatever visual beta you can. As I said, ethics matter, even if no one else is holding your feet to the fire. Because if you’re not honest with yourself, are you really honest at all?
No. The answer is no, you fucking asshole. Unless of course you’re actually honest, which means you’re a good person.
Along these same lines of thought, I was excited but found that second-to-last bolt a little unnerving. A pure ethicist, or as pure as I can be in the nearly lawless world of sport climbing, I had to wonder if I broke one of the only rules by deviating from the route. I followed the natural line, but I wondered, was it somehow even more diabolical and required more movement, however cryptic, on the face? Was the arete on?
I didn’t worry much, because it seemed pretty undoable any other way. I emailed Jim, who bolted it, to confirm. I described what I did and he said in an email, “Yep. You did it right. Good job.”
Nothing like some true validation a few days later. I saw Jim on another trip to the Corridor with Danelze, Wes, Emily, and Adan. The guy is a crack-up. He was out riding his bike and saw some activity at the Corridor so he decided to drop by and see how it was going. Jim is psyche on psyche on psyche, and the best kind of it. A heart with arms open wide, he just loves to hear people talk about climbing so he can go ahead and launch off with minute details of routes right in front of your face as well as at crags you’ve never even heard of, tucked away off the beaten path of the high desert, unknown on Mountain Project and to the community at large. Jim will tell you just what’s out there and how much you’d like it. Love him.
I thanked him in person for getting back to my email, and he laughed and nodded his head with enthusiasm. Regarding the odd bolt, he said, “Yeah, sometimes we get a little eager!” The enthusiasm for a new route rushed the process, caused the bolt to go a touch farther right than it should have. So it’s not a perfect job, but it’s a damn good one. A fine human labor that gifted me the high of a new watermark achieved. For that my heart is grateful.
Now as far as grades are concerned, it goes without saying that different areas have different thresholds. Grain Surgeon was hard, but I’d argue not as hard as the average 12a at New Jack, or maybe any of the 12a’s I’ve done there. But whatever. You can’t get too bogged down in that stuff unless the route was totally soft or something, which it assuredly wasn’t.
Besides, the extra-heavy choss factor on Grain Surgeon gave it its own unique edge. Navigating that messy-ass rock first-go is something I’ll always treasure. I hadn’t kicked off that much gravel since I downclimbed Pigfucker.
Oh boy. Pigfucker. Nothing better than the description in the Miramontes Jtree guidebook: “A decade of ascents and it’s still raining grain off of it!” Known as the worst problem in Josh, and centrally located next to Yabo Roof in the JBMFP area, Pigfucker is easily accessed and given its infamy for awfulness, it’s drawn quite a crowd over the years. The fact that it hasn’t cleaned up at all makes it some kind of a miracle rock, its cup overfloweth with bad shit.
I’ve never sent Pigfucker, at least off the ground. For some reason, not knowing the rock super well, I downclimbed it in 2015 to get off the top after I sent Yardarm, one of Jtree’s better v1’s. Yard arm is a big, dynamic movement off a low crack/seam thing to flat sloper top out. There’s an undercling you can bump to as an intermediate for the static send, also an option, but less fun. Still more cool though. Dynos just aren’t cool. Sorry.
Anyway, here I was, dropping off the lip to that “gut-busting” bulge described in the book, swinging my feet down to pure choss below. I’m kicking off, and pulling off, so much rock that it’s in my hair, it’s in my friends’ hair, and it’s covering the pads like confetti. I keep moving down, pulling half the climb off with me in the process, though when I finally got to the ground it miraculously still stood, as though nothing had happened. I don’t know how that thing does it.
My friends joked I should tick it because isn’t downclimbing harder than going up? I don’t know, some stupid day out there I tried to get on it again but that gut-busting bulge feels pretty different pulling onto it as opposed to dropping to it. I declined to keep going because I wasn’t hungry but I was getting a mouthful of kibble.
So Grain Surgeon reminded me quite a bit of Pigfucker, which is probably not a great endorsement. I’d give it a star for the bottom part, but that’s about it. I actually like the movement up top, because I like just about everything that I climb, but I’ve never recommended the route per se. Don’t get me wrong, I still celebrated the flash with Danelze and Chelsea afterwards at Off the Grid Brewing, enjoying a nice beer in their garage-like setting, watching the lawn signs whip and ripple in the warm, windy desert day.
Thankfully this wasn’t my first 12a route I got clean, that honor belonged to a route I dare call better, in New Jack. Cromag. I’ll tell that story another day. Though come to think of it, I pulled a rock right off on that one, leading to a fall before my redpoint go. It was about as big as my palm, hitting Danelze in the shoulder. Thankfully she had a helmet on. Man, I’m telling you, if you want to take a piece of the climb with you when you go home, hit up the High Desert. Otherwise I’ll do my best to be the traffic that cleans these babies up, though don’t expect it to make much of a difference.