Climbing in Joshua Tree National Park: Breaking Bones and Belaying Friendships

Todd Gordan checks his footing on the Elf’s Hat formation. Joshua Tree National Park’s granite formations are legendary in the climbing community. (Photo by Tim Royan/Cronkite News)

JOSHUA TREE, Calif. – Sitting on well-worn couches in a living room lined with climbing guidebooks, Todd Gordon and Tucker Tech reminisce on a friendship that has lasted nearly 40 years and rock climbing careers that have lasted even longer.

They’re swapping tales in the house where Gordon, 64, lives with his family on the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, in the desert of south-central California. Tech, 61, owns a house nearby, but it lacks water and electricity, which is what you might expect from a former dirtbag.

Todd Gordon’s living room in Joshua Tree, California, is filled with guide books – several of which he wrote. (Photo by Tim Royan/Cronkite News)

Gordon, pulling back an old Ironman triathlon hat to expose wispy gray hairs on a balding pate, ventures three decades into the past, reminding his friend about one of the many times he fell off a large rock face.

“Yeah, I broke four ribs, almost tore my ear off,” Tech replied, adjusting thick glasses.

Gordon, a retired school teacher and part-time climbing guide, and Tech – who, when asked about his profession, says only “Whatever comes my way” – have just finished landscaping the front yard in preparation for an upcoming wedding. In the next room, Gordon’s kids play video games.

Gordon speaks quickly – and loudly. Tech, in sandals – he refuses to wear real shoes unless he’s on a job site – and a long-sleeved gray sweater, is more measured. Clutching a beer in his hand, he enunciates each syllable as he recalls pioneering the climbing scene in Joshua Tree.

“We were doing more obscure routes and putting up new routes,” Tech said.

“A lot of people want to climb the classics and, yeah, we did all the classics,” Gordon said. “It’s like, how many times can you see the same movie?”

Gordon’s house sits at the end of a labyrinthine dirt road so uneven that it scratches the undercarriage of the average sedan. The house stands on one of the many rolling hills in Joshua Tree, flanked by an above-ground pool that is being drained and sits on top of a basement climbing gym, now used mostly for storage. It’s about the closest anyone can come to the national park without building on government land.

Todd Gordon takes a break from yard work in preparation for an upcoming wedding. Over the years, Gordon’s basement was converted into an indoor climbing gym by visiting climbers, but it’s now used mostly for storage. (Photo courtesy of Dean Neugebauer/Cronkite News)

Joshua Tree National Park is a geological marvel. Ranging from 1,000 to 5,500 feet above sea level, it sits at the intersection of the Mojave and Colorado deserts, dotted with towering granite formations scarred red by the sun and rising out of the arid ground as if poised to pierce the sky. Cholla cactus, with sharp, barbed spines that stick to whatever they touch, surround the eponymous Joshua trees that stand like sentinels over the land, as if to remind people who’s in charge.

For the climbers who filter in and out of the region throughout the climbing season, the 1,238-square-mile park is welcoming, one of the world’s climbing meccas. Each granite slab, boulder and rock face is a problem to solve, a chance to conquer nature or be one with it. The routes have such names as “Acid Crack,” “White Rastafarian” and “Strawberry Contraceptives,” and regular climbers memorize every path up the rocks, revere every chalk-smeared, large-grained granite handhold and foothold and work to perfect every minute body movement to maximum efficiency.

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Every Saturday and Sunday morning, dust-flecked climbers gather in a space between the campsites at Hidden Valley, near Intersection Rock – an iconic granite pluton a few miles into the park – for a get-together known as Climber Coffee, a tradition started by climbers in Yosemite National Park and adopted in Joshua Tree.

Park rangers drag jerry cans filled with donated coffee from dirty pickup trucks and set them on plastic picnic tables covered with the pages of old park guides. Climbers then line up to fill their sticker-coated thermoses and titanium mugs, talking about the latest “project” they’ve “sent” – the routes they have successfully climbed – or seeking belaying partners for the day’s climb.

A few of them sink into collapsible nylon chairs to play chess on a foldable magnetic board perched on a rock. A dog that looks more like a wolf zigzags through the crowd, dragging a makeshift leash of climbing rope attached to a carabiner on his collar. A 20-something blonde woman in yoga pants asks a ranger not much older than her, a suntanned woman with a taut brown ponytail and green uniform, about the invasive species endemic to the park, mustard. It spreads rapidly, destroying native plants.

In the distance, a solitary climber is trudging past the Joshua trees with a crash pad, a portable safety cushion to break a climber’s fall, strapped on his back. He heads in the direction of the Outback, a cluster of challenging boulders – “bouldering problems,” in climber parlance – adjacent to the Hidden Valley campgrounds.

For Gordon and Tech, this landscape is a rock-climbing Eden.

“Vast, endless rock climbing,” Tech said between pulls on his beer. “If you want to do first ascents, you can never be shut down. It’s endless rock and variety.”

But paradise is becoming popular.

In recent years, interest in rock climbing has grown, going from the fringe hobby of hippies and mountain-men to mainstream. “Free Solo,” a documentary chronicling the first ascent by Alex Honnold, a professional outdoor climber, of El Capitan in Yosemite without a rope for safety, won an Oscar for best documentary feature earlier this year. Climbing will, for the first time, be part of the Olympic games in 2020.

And climbing gyms seemingly are everywhere – the first climbing gym, Vertical World, opened in Seattle in 1987. Now, there are 478 in the U.S. More than 5 million people in the country participated in indoor climbing in 2017, according to a report by an outdoor-industry group, while more than 2 million participated in the outdoor disciplines of traditional, ice climbing or mountaineering with a similar number participating in bouldering or sport climbing.

Scores of new visitors have descended upon Joshua Tree National Park in the past few years. From 1990 to 2014, annual visitors to the park typically numbered 1 million to 1.5 million, according to the National Park Service. In 2015, visitation broke 2 million for the first time, and last year, the number nearly reached 3 million.

“There’s a lot more going on than just the climbing,” Todd Gordon said of treks to his favorite rock faces. “They’re outdoor experiences, they’re mental experiences, they’re spiritual experiences. There’s a lot going on, but you got to have the catalyst. The catalyst is the climbing.” (Photo courtesy of Todd Gordon)
Tucker Tech is a frequent target of Todd Gordon’s good-natured ribbing. “Tucker, he’s one of the only true dirtbag climbers. And he did go a year without bathing. … But he says he wiped himself off with wet paper towels. Does that count now?” (Photo courtesy of Todd Gordon)

Jaime Gangi, who manages Phoenix Rock Gym, the first climbing gym to open in metro Phoenix, has been climbing for about 20 years. She noticed the rise in interest in the sport.

“Now, we do birthday parties, big church groups, camps and school field trips,” said Gangi, 39. “And our member base is way bigger. So you get members and families that come in.”

Growth is welcome, she said, but it comes with downsides.

There are “people who aren’t that experienced thinking they know what’s going on; they might be safe in this environment,” said Gangi, gesturing to the color-coded routes on the indoor wall. “But they don’t know the difference of how that’s not safe out there, and you get these lay people outside climbing who pretty much have no reason being out there.”

Gordon agrees the ranks of occasional climbers, with more confidence than experience and skill, crowd the park.

“It seems like most people that are out there, they’re not climbers. There’s just so many tourists out there since Facebook and Instagram came out,” Gordon said. “Before, if you wanted to go climb, you’d have to go climbing. Now if you want to climb, you go to the gym.”

According to John Lauretig, executive director of Friends of Joshua Tree, a nonprofit that conducts search and rescue operations in the park and partly funds Climber Coffee, most issues with climbers moving from gyms to the outdoors involve poor outdoor etiquette, such as leaving trash when camping. For him, climbing safety isn’t the biggest problem his organization has encountered in its searches and rescues.

“We probably average 30 to 60 calls per year, and a lot of those are not climber-related,” Lauretig said. “Most of them are people unprepared for the temperature.”

About 80% of the rescues that Friends of Joshua Tree conducts are due to poor planning for the desert, such as forgetting to eat or pack water before a hike, Lauretig said. Other calls come from parents after their children climb rocks and can’t get down. Of the remaining calls, there are only some rescues due to falls sustained by climbers, which often result in serious injury.

Instagram influencer Meg Kee, 34, belays as Todd Gordon leads the first climb of the day. Kee hopes to get a license as a climbing guide. (Photo by Tim Royan/Cronkite News)

It’s not just beginners who face dangers in what is unquestionably a dangerous sport. Even for seasoned climbers like Gordon and Tech, the risk of injury or worse is always in the back of their minds. Gordon says risk is part of the appeal. He calls it “the bad-boy factor.”

“If you do something wrong in tennis or golf, you don’t f—–g die,” Gordon said. Climbing “is unforgiving for idiots.”

Gordon has climbed in Europe, Yosemite, Nevada and, of course, Joshua Tree, over his long career. He is credited, along with his wife, Andrea, for the first ascent of “Sexy Grandma,” now considered a classic climbing route in Joshua Tree. He and Tech also are responsible for the first ascent of an equally famous route with a risqué name, “Dos Chi Chis.”

Anyone searching through the Joshua Tree classics on Mountain Project, an online database of climbing routes, has a good chance of seeing a first ascent by Gordon or Tech within a couple of clicks. Searching Gordon’s name on the site yields 597 routes, while searching for Tech yields 183 routes. They were the first to ascend or modify the routes or the routes were simply named after them. Both men claim vastly more first ascents than those listed online.

Gordon has only had a few minor injuries, like a broken wrist and a gash in his face that needed a few stitches. He remains surprised that he lived to see his 35th birthday, he said.

“Then, when I got to 40, I could kind of see that I’m not going to die,” Gordon said.

“Yeah, at that point you’re smart enough,” Tech said. “You’re no longer getting the near-death experiences on a regular basis.”

Tech has had his share of close calls.

“When I was first climbing, I had no trouble taking 30-foot falls and just going, ‘Yeah, survived another one,’” he said of his 20s.

About 30 years ago near Elephant Rock in Yosemite, Tech was traversing steep terrain when he pulled on a rock pillar that collapsed, striking him with the full force of its weight. He fell 50 feet.

“I managed to walk away from it, but I ruptured my pleural cavity and barely made it up the hill – I had to hike a mile on a fourth-class hike to get to my camp,” he recalled.

Tucker Tech met Todd Gordon in the early 1980s in Yosemite Valley. “I would only go there for two weeks at a time and he would go there for decades at a time and just live there, Gordon said. (Photo courtesy of Todd Gordon)
For climbers, Tucker Tech was the guy to meet if you needed to get safety equipment fixed or were looking for homemade climbing gear, friends say. (Photo courtesy of Todd Gordon)

Tech has also fallen off a boulder into the ocean, losing consciousness face down in the water; luckily, his brother was nearby and came to his rescue. The next thing he remembers is waking up in a hospital, annoyed as a nurse repeatedly searched for a vein to place an IV.

There have been some bad falls at Joshua Tree, too. He and Gordon remember them well.

“That one time,” Gordon said, “you hit your head and it wouldn’t stop bleeding and our friend who’s a doctor …”

“Well, he was a vet,” interrupted Tech.

“Yeah, that’s a doctor,” Gordon said.

“For me it is,” Tech said, laughing. “He grabbed an ACE bandage and a bunch of used tampons and that was good.”

Gordon said he remembers touching Tech’s head, feeling the bandage give way with a squishing sound and seeing a pool of blood forming on the ground.

“Your head’s all caved in. We’re going to take you to the doc,” he told Tech.

But Tech refused. He walked around with a bunch of dried blood on his head for a week or two.

“I washed my clothes,” Tech said. “And it looked like in Saving Private Ryan, the opening scene in D-Day.”

The two friends leaned back and laughed as if this was the funniest story ever told.

Climbing culture includes a variety of subcultures and styles. Different methods of climbing include bouldering, traditional (trad), sport, free solo and top rope, which are differentiated by the techniques and equipment used. But climbers also have different lifestyles.

Climbers practice several styles of rock climbing. Here’s a look at some of the most popular ways to climb. (Video by Tim Royan/Cronkite News)

Some outdoor climbers, like Gordon, climb after work, on weekends or during planned vacations. Others, like Tech, take a different approach.

“In Joshua Tree, you had the weekenders that had jobs, and you had the dirtbags like me that lived in the campgrounds,” Tech said. “And we’d save a site for them.”

Dirtbag is the appellation given by the climbing community for someone who foregoes a stable job and normal life to dedicate nearly every waking moment to climbing. Dirtbags live outdoors or in their cars for weeks or even months, camped at places like Joshua Tree.

It’s hard to say where the term dirtbag comes from, but Outside magazine traces its origin to the old-school climbers of a previous generation who lived in Yosemite Valley throughout the season, funding their lifestyles with odd jobs in the national park and adhering to expert thriftiness.

One such climber is James Lucas, a living legend and the subject of the Cedar Wright documentary “The Last Dirtbag.” Lucas, 37, spent nearly 15 years living in caves or his beat-up Saturn to climb full time. In college, he camped out in the woods near the campus of the University of California-Santa Cruz so that he wouldn’t have to spend money on rent – he preferred funneling his finances toward climbing trips.

He learned to be as frugal as possible, occasionally stealing food, wearing down his shoes and ropes – working to earn just enough money to replace them before they became unsafe to use – and buying gasoline for trips with the extra money he earned placing bolts in climbing routes.

Lucas is a top-tier climber and one of the few to ever free-climb – climbing with a rope used only for protection – the Freerider route of El Capitan in less than 15 hours.

He says his frugal former lifestyle – he now is an assistant editor at Climbing magazine – is a large part of what made him such a skilled climber. Still, he’s conflicted over the term dirtbag.

“I always thought of it as derogatory,” he said in a soft voice, a surprising tone coming from someone with the confidence to climb at the level that he does. Now “it seems more like gentrification, almost like it’s hip to be a dirtbag and to be extra thrifty. In the past, it was more of a necessity.”

Gordon, a former elementary school teacher, was always friendly with dirtbags, but “I wasn’t part of that whole scene.”

“Every single day, I put a tie on and went to work,” he said.

Gordon met Tech in the mid 1980s in Yosemite Valley.

“I would only go there for two weeks at a time and he would go there for decades at a time and just live there, Gordon said.

Tech was known for living in Camp 4, which is a famous camp and meeting spot for climbers to this day. Tech was the guy to meet if you needed to get your safety equipment fixed, Gordon said, or even if you wanted some homemade climbing gear.

“He’s a lot more well-known climber than I am in many respects,” Gordon said.

Gordon bought a house in Joshua Tree in the early ’80s. Though he was as dedicated to the sport as Tech, he would cram his climbing into his free time, including the summers off he enjoyed as a teacher. Gordon eventually met his wife, Andrea, who worked in the same school district, and had three children: Beck, who is now 14, and the twins Von and Lake, 13.

Gordon would see Tech in the winter months when Yosemite got too cold.

“I’d see him in the campground. I’d see him walking around and see him in town,” Gordon said. “It’s a pretty small, incestuous climbing community, and if you climb a lot, you see the same people around.”

They became friendly and started climbing together.

Gordon said he occasionally was mistaken for a dirtbag because of being dusty from climbing and hanging out with friends like Tech.

“I owned a car, I owned a house. I didn’t dirtbag,” he said, his voice gaining speed. “That’s insulting to real dirtbags.”

“Well, it’s insulting to people who aren’t dirtbags as well,” said Tech, scratching his gray beard.

“Tucker, he’s one of the only true dirtbag climbers,” Gordon said as Tech grabbed another beer from Gordon’s fridge. “And he did go a year without bathing. … But he says he wiped himself off with wet paper towels. Does that count now?”

Gordon says Tech’s tales of dirtbagging are the archetypal stories that have made dirtbagging hip and trendy these days.

“Tucker, he’s like the king of the dirtbags,” Gordon said. “He’s the dirtbag that other dirtbags looked up to.”

Tech, who now lives in a house without electricity or running water a few winding dirt roads over from Gordon, claims he was drawn to the dirtbag lifestyle for the same reasons he found climbing so appealing.

“The rushes, the near-death experiences, the wildness of being 20 or 30 feet out over a piece of gear and if you blow it, you get seriously hurt, perhaps killed,” said Tech, his eyes growing intense.

For Tech, a full-time job was a distraction from climbing. Instead, he would find temporary work in construction, roofing, trenching and other manual jobs. Although some dirtbags had better skills and could land higher paying jobs, Tech was happy to earn just enough to climb again.

“For the most part, people who are committed to climbing most of the time just want to avoid doing any full-time work,” Tech said.

In some ways, thriftiness became a sport in itself.

“When I was in search and rescue at Yosemite one year, I only made $610,” Tech said. “It was a contest in the spring with these young girls coming in. We’d wander around and when they got a job in the right place, we’d schmooze and get free burgers in one place, free pizza in another place. We could live there practically for free.”

In Joshua Tree, jobs were always hard to come by for Tech. Historically, the area has been economically depressed, although he thinks that’s changing. Still, when he was forced out of Yosemite by increasingly stringent park rules in the early 1990s, Tech moved to Joshua Tree full time.

“What happened is they started rigidly enforcing the 14-day (camping) limit on everyone with cars, and there I was with no one to climb with,” Tech said. “So, I went one year just soloing everything I could solo … and then I ran out of stuff I could solo, and I had to come here to get partners.”

Gordon remembers when the park began the 14-day limit on camping because it meant even more visitors to his already popular house.

“All the dirtbags couldn’t stay there, so they kind of had to go somewhere else,” he said of the 30 or so dirtbags who wintered in Joshua Tree National Park’s campgrounds. “Tucker kind of just started hanging out in my house and I started climbing with him; I climbed with them every single weekend for about 10 years.”

Gordon said his hospitality and outgoing personality had already earned him the nickname “The Mayor of Joshua Tree,” a title he finds flattering, if a little silly.

The Joshua Tree climbing community began converging at his house simply because he was the only climber to actually own property in the town and, of course, because he was friendly and easy to get along with. That led to many climbers living part time at Gordon’s house even before the dirtbags moved in.

“Anybody who wanted to could stay there,” Gordon said. “There were two other bedrooms and if you wanted to stay on the sofa, you could. It was great. There was a little donation thing if they did laundry or stayed there. Some people would take money out of it – it was really supposed to be my money, but it ended up being a community thing.”

Gordon doesn’t find this arrangement odd.

“If you’re sitting at a table and you have a loaf of bread and a jar of peanut butter and you make a sandwich for yourself, you’re going to say ‘You want a sandwich?’ You know?” Gordon said. “That’s one thing about the climbing community – they share everything.”

Gordon and Tech don’t climb together as much as they used to.

Gordon said Tech became “all beat up” in his old age and doesn’t climb as much these days. With Gordon, who can never seem to resist a playful jab at his friend, it’s hard to tell if this is true.

Still, their diverging lifestyles have finally caught up to them.

“He lived in my house, so I saw him every single day,” Gordon said. “But once I got married, he had his own place and everything.”

Gordon’s climbing schedule has shifted now that he’s retired and married with children. Rather than climbing weekends and evenings, he now goes out almost every day with new climbing partners while his kids are in school.

On any given day, Gordon will wake up early and check his calendar amidst the scattered papers on his dining room table for the names of that day’s climbing partners. He’ll sit beside the sign in his kitchen that reads “You’re the friend everyone wishes they had,” and field calls from high school friends he’s still in touch with, musicians from his band, the Mojave Zevon Project, and give climbers directions to the rock face du jour.

And despite his reservations about the arrival of the “social-media climbers,” as he sees many of the newcomers to Joshua Tree, Gordon is always available to climb with people who want to enter the sport.

He keeps a box filled with climbing shoes and harnesses of all sizes to loan out to anyone who expresses an interest in the sport, as well as those he’s successfully roped into climbing with him.

He’ll dismiss objections from the inexperienced while flashing a grin: “You’re a primate, you can climb,” he’ll say, sounding rehearsed. “It’s in your DNA, all you’re missing is a tail.”

To witness Gordon climb is to believe this. It’s as natural as breathing for him. Every movement is fluid and precise, more like swimming up the rock than climbing.

As for the crowds, Gordon said his pioneering spirit keeps them from bothering him, since he’ll go to the places they don’t know about and avoid any rock face that has a group already on it.

“But that doesn’t happen to me,” he said. “If other people are getting up at 6 a.m., we’re getting up at five. I’m always the first one. I don’t like climbing below other parties. It’s really, really dangerous and if they’re slow, they’ll slow you down.”

For Gordon, climbing transcends its designation as a sport.

“There’s a lot more going on than just the climbing,” Gordon said.

“They’re outdoor experiences, they’re mental experiences, they’re spiritual experiences.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.