JOSHUA TREE, Calif. – There are no more benches and plumbing pipes to practice on anymore. These rocks – and gravity – are for real.
Since early March, the students of Kinesiology 247A Techniques of Rock Climbing have been using the concrete benches in the quad of the Physical Education Building to practice properly and safely tying anchors for climbing and rappelling. Furthermore, with nothing to actually climb, they never had to factor in the harsh realities of gravity that prove why safety in rock climbing is of the utmost importance – until now.
As the students begin trickling in Friday morning to the 10 a.m. meeting spot in Joshua Tree National Park, passing through the dust of the desert and valleys teeming with Joshua trees, reality sets in.
The comparatively tame desert heat of the national park’s April sun, combined with the flies swarming the meeting site, adds a new dimension to what was learned at the Cal State Long Beach campus.
The leader of the class is Bill Webb, a CSULB instructor since 1976 of rock climbing and other wilderness studies classes like winter camping, kayaking and backpacking. Webb sits comfortably in a chair next to his white Ford 4×4 diesel truck reading a book. Flies are buzzing everywhere, but they don’t seem to be much of a bother to him or the others who have gathered at the spot waiting for everyone to show up.
The moment is a quiet one for CSULB history and its wilderness studies program. The three-day weekend getaway is Webb’s last of his 32-year tenure at CSULB. He will be retiring at the culmination of his last trip this semester.
After all the participants and the expert climbers who have volunteered their weekend to help Webb’s class – many of whom are former students of Webb – show up, the group continues to the large group campsite that was booked one year in advance.
“It’s tough to get it on a weekend,” Webb says. “There are a lot of groups that vie for those sites.”
The style of the weekend is “car camping,” so weight and amount of materials brought are of little consequence considering that the students will not have to lug around their possessions.
The students begin setting up their tents but soon realize that the flaps should be kept closed to prevent the prolific amounts of flies from getting in. One tent, however, becomes the temporary hangout for at least 30 flies, whose collective buzzing and hitting against the nylon can only be described as sounding like gentle rainfall, only with more flies.
After setting up camp, everyone heads out to the spot nearby where Webb has been taking students nearly every year since he started in 1976.
“I like that place because there were no other groups out there. Just us,” says Webb, noting that veteran or rude “hotshot” climbers who can intimidate the many first-time climbers he teaches are generally nowhere to be found. He adds that the spot has climbs for all skill levels, and is close enough to the road to safely evacuate if someone gets hurt.
At the climbing spot Webb and the volunteers re-introduce the class to the nuts and bolts of rock climbing (literally – climbers use metal pieces called nuts and bolts to anchor into). They give safety tips such as always having three points of contact when bouldering (climbing without ropes and harnesses) to the students, many of whom are sleepy having rested little the night before and tired after driving since the wee hours to make the 10 a.m. call time in the desert.
After the instruction the group practices bouldering and safely anchoring before heading back to the campsite for a well-deserved meal.
The temperature drops as the desert winds pick up heavily at dusk. Jackets for temperatures more extreme than Long Beach’s are applied. Webb gathers the group with end-of-day instructions for Saturday.
“We’re waking up at 6:30 and leaving at 8,” Webb says.
The group groans at the thought, to which Webb replies, “You can stay at camp. I don’t care. But I thought ya’ll came out here to learn climbing.”
The moonlight and campfire make campsite navigation easy enough without flashlights once the sun sets, though most stars are flushed out.
“It’s a very bright night tonight because of the moon,” Webb says. He sets up his telescope to view Mars and gives students a chance to inspect its exotic bright pinkish, reddish color. He borrows a star laser pointer to navigate the night sky and point out constellations.
‘If I’m up, you’re up’
A generous amount of chilly morning wind accompanies Webb as he wanders the site going from tent to tent Saturday morning.
“If I’m up, you’re up,” he proclaims. “Don’t ruin daylight.”
Tom Nelson, a sophomore kinesiology major, slept outside on a pad and kept himself covered to avoid the wind.
“I couldn’t find any good spots to anchor my tent with poles. And the weather was nice. The only thing I was afraid of was that something was gonna crawl up with me in my sleeping bag,” he says.
Quiet murmurs and Pop Tarts constitute most of breakfast before the group gathers before heading out. For Natalia Colindres, a sophomore interior architectural design major, the outing is her first time camping. When asked how sleeping in a tent was, she only has a one-word answer at this time of day: “Fine.”
Webb stresses the generous application of sunscreen.
“Ya’ll came back looking lobsterish yesterday,” he says.
“I love the faces people make when applying sunscreen,” says Ashley Vetter, a senior mathematics major in the class. She contorts her face as her group laughs.
“I can’t believe I broke my sunglasses T-minus four hours,” says rock climbing student Nathanael Trimmer, a senior computer engineering major, about the crack his $4 Wal-Mart sunglasses got on the first day, which made them near-useless.
The various pairs and threesomes then practice on the rocks – doubling up on carabiners, doubling up on webbing, making sure the gates are locked, double-checking everything, dictating the proper commands before executing moves, tying the knots correctly, not stepping on the rope.
On a rock formation dubbed “The Tooth,” senior biology and music major Charlene Hurst utilizes the ascending system, which is a hanging rope that fancy knots and footholds make possible to go up on.
“It’s kinda scary at the top,” Hurst says. “You trust the instructors, you trust the gear, but there’s always that little thing saying, ‘Ah! What if I die?'”
Toward the end of the day the wind picks up again, causing hearing the communication and walking on top of the rock piles to be difficult. The temperature drops fast in the desert.
At that night’s dinner, it’s made abundantly clear that some groups over-packed the food supply for a three-day stay. One small group has brought a five-pound bag of hot dogs, and another brought what appears to be five pounds of spaghetti sauce.
That’s nothing, says Webb, who adds that he once had a student who brought “about 32 boxes of maple brown sugar Pop Tarts” for one of his longer hiking trips.
“It was clear that the kid had never been away from his mom,” says Webb with a chuckle.
The time is ‘bittersweet’
A 6 a.m. wakeup time and breakfast precede the short and last outing of climbing Sunday.
The group takes down camp and heads out to practice again for a few hours before coming back and collecting all the gear, much of which is owned by the university for student use.
Of the trip, Trimmer calls it “like the last level of ‘Contra’: exhilarating, difficult, and oh-so-joyous once it was complete … and who planted all those Joshua trees?”
The last meeting before all the students head back home is a mixed one for Webb, who never fails to mention the necessity of safety in climbing.
“[Climbing] is not an academic hoop,” but is a hoop with life-or-death consequences, he says, adding that the volunteer experts who came out with him on his last climbing outing all have “known people who have died” fr
om climbing accidents.
But, knowing the outing is his last as the head teacher, he tells the Daily Forty-Niner he has mixed emotions.
“It’s kind of bittersweet from the standpoint that I have thoroughly enjoyed my classes, my students and what I do. I’ve been blessed with such great work to do and great people to work with,” Webb says. “Leaving my students and what I’ve been able to do with people for people in the outdoors – it’s going to feel strange.”
Webb added that he always tries to provide the class, and all his classes, “a platform by which people can go out by themselves and do it and feel like they could be safe.”