Josh, Joshua Tree National Park

“That anticipation of being like, ‘Can I do this? How am I gonna do this?’ Overcoming that and gradually pushing your limits and getting more comfortable is sort of a high that you get addicted to.”

Josh was in southern California this past December when he decided to swing by Joshua Tree for a couple days of rock climbing. Before this trip he was used to climbing with consistent partners—friends he knew he could trust. Since many of them had succumbed to the pitfalls of adulthood, like having kids and rigid 9 to 5 jobs, he branched out to finding partners online and we made plans to meet up.

There’s an incredible amount of trust that goes into a climbing partnership; when you climb, your life is literally in your partner’s hands. We didn’t do any high commitment routes, but Josh is looking to get further into the backcountry this year. The risk is obviously higher when you’re in a remote area with no one but your partner—knowing that he or she is competent and safe is crucial. However, the risk won’t hold Josh back; the reward of being able to traverse inhospitable terrain over a full day of intense focus is unparalleled for him.

Before Josh left the park, we found a seat on some rocks with a good view of Hemingway Buttress. As we talked, we watched free soloists climbing the 120’ route we warmed up on and high liners tenderly waltzing across webbing anchored between two rock formations. I asked Josh about his passion for climbing, his attraction to the backcountry, and what he loves about the outdoors.

How did you get into climbing?

My parents always had a love for the mountains. For my 13th birthday, they set me up with an instructor in California and for a few days I climbed with him. When I got back to Chicago, I discovered a climbing gym in a really rundown neighborhood and started going there with some high school buddies. By the end of freshman year, I gave up cross country and track and all this stuff that I thought I was going to do. I was completely dedicated to climbing; for the next three years, it saturated my high school life.

What was it about climbing that got you hooked?

There’s something about solving puzzles with your body that’s cerebral but also super physical that appealed to me. I did a road trip out west climbing in Utah and Colorado when I was 16, and because of climbing I only wanted to go to Colorado or Washington or California for college. I ended up going to Colorado College, and while I was there, I got way more into skiing and mountain biking and backpacking. I didn’t climb as much as I thought I was going to—skiing took up a lot of that energy. I still had a lot of fun and spent a lot of time outdoors.

Is there one sport that you’re most passionate about?

Definitely climbing. But I took a long break; I got swept up in work stuff and ended up moving back to Chicago and getting a job that was very much rooted there. And then a few years later, I moved to DC, and spent some time in Italy in between. And for probably like, eight years I wasn’t really in a good place for climbing, so it just kind of fell out of my life. And I got distracted by some other things. It wasn’t til I moved back to California that I started to rediscover it.

It sounds like when you rediscovered it, you got more into adventure-style climbing and the backcountry. Is there something about that type of climbing that attracts you?

At this point in life, with hectic work situations, getting away to climb would be a brain emptier. There’s something about a long day that incorporates a beautiful approach [hike to a climb] with just you and your partner. I love those days. Like we climbed Half Dome; it’s a long hike to get to the base of that climb and it’s a long hike home. And I just realized I hadn’t been thinking about anything other than climbing for the whole day.

There’s a great pleasure in [a long day of climbing] because it’s super engaging. The anticipation, the actual act, then the soaking it in when you’re on top of whatever you’re on top of, and then reflecting on it on the hike back home. It really takes up so much of your brain space. It’s kind of a relief to not be worrying about whatever little worry you have. It gets you into this very, very present space; the world narrows in a little bit.

It’s so hard to be present in everyday life, but climbing forces it on you. It shuts off the part of your brain where the anxiety and stuff resides. It’s the adrenaline and the risk and the fear and the overcoming. That anticipation of being like, “Can I do this? How am I gonna do this?” Overcoming that and gradually pushing your limits and getting more comfortable is sort of a high that you get addicted to.

Do you have any goals with climbing?

I’ve definitely become bewitched with the [Yosemite] Valley—intimidated, but also totally drawn in to it. The Valley is so incredible; you have this cornucopia of world class stuff to play on. And when you break into the 5.10 [rated climbs], even the 5.9’s in the Valley, things really start to open up. Climbing is a lot cleaner aesthetically and there’s just so much more. So that’s my big focus for next year.

You mentioned earlier that finding partners has been an issue for this coming year, right?

It’s been hard, some of my best partners have had kids, or have 9 to 5 jobs, and it becomes hard to wrangle partners. I haven’t been an anti-social climber, but I’ve never tried showing up at a spot completely alone. There’s a lot of that in the Valley, so I’m trying to get more comfortable with climbing with strangers. And this has been a foray into that.

I hope this has been a good experience for you, it’s been fun for me. I have one last question, what do you love about the outdoors?

There’s a few things. We’re all ego-driven creatures, but there’s something to be said for feeling small and alone every once in a while. Mountains and big landscapes make me feel that way. For me, the beauty of the backcountry and wilderness and our national park system is sort of bittersweet in a way because I wonder what some of these ecosystems are going to look like at the end of our lives.

It’s also bittersweet in the sense that [the landscapes] are hard to move through; they test you and beat you down a little bit. And yet, when I think of my favorite days in the wilderness, I think of some suffering. But also, I would die to be transported back to those zones right now. That’s what’s so confusing. Like I tell people about some of these stories, and they’re like ‘God, that sounds grueling and terrifying’.

There’s some pride, too, in being able to move through these inhospitable, scary landscapes, and survive. Once you gain the tools to do it, you kind of level up in this way. And this whole world that most people park at the lookout and take in from the pavement—this whole world becomes accessible to you. It’s like this level that you unlock, and once you realize how much there is to gain from being in it, it’s hard to give up.

This interview has been trimmed and edited to fit this format. If you would like to access the unedited interview audio and unposted photography, see my Patreon page.

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