Words and photos by Don Burton
We’re pretty lucky in Southern California to have so many climbing destinations nearby. I had some time off over the holidays and was looking for a place to climb for 3 days. The two places I considered first were Red Rock outside of Las Vegas and Joshua Tree. I decided against Red Rock because I felt like the drive was going to eat into too much of my climbing time so I originally decided on Joshua Tree. As I did more research, I was reconsidering for two main reasons. One, it would be really hard to get a campsite (although, there are nearby BLM sites). Two, I was looking to Sport climb and JTree leans more towards trad which I don’t have any experience in yet. I saw a friend’s Instagram post of him climbing at a place called New Jack City so I did some research.
Although most climbers refer to the area as New Jack City, the official name is Sawtooth Canyon. It’s located about 15 miles south of Barstow along Highway 247. The elevation is approximately 2500’ and you can expect similar weather as Joshua Tree. The climbing season is generally late Fall, Winter and Spring. In terms of climbing, Jack Marshall and Sam Owings are credited with discovering it, hence the name New Jack City. I guess New Sam City or Sam’s Town didn’t have quite the same ring to it. The two of them developed and bolted a majority of the routes starting in the mid 1990’s, which is now approaching 400 routes. When Jack and Sam first started coming here the area was littered with burnt out cars, ammunition casings and broken glass. Efforts were made to get the area cleaned up and eventually in late 2010 the Bureau of Land Management built 13 campsites each with a fire ring, grill, picnic table and patio cover along with a couple of pit toilets. The shooting of firearms and off road driving is prohibited within 0.5 miles of the area now.
Since I was going from Thursday to Saturday, it was difficult to find a partner among my usual pool of climbers because most of them were working or out of town for the holidays. I decided to extend my search to the world wide web and posted on Mountain Project. About a week after posting, a climber living in Indiana named Todd responded by saying he’d be nearby visiting family in Big Bear but could drive down and stay Thursday and Friday. Great, I got 2 of 3 days covered for a climbing partner and I figured I could just meet some other climbers on Saturday because I assumed it would be crowded. A few days later my friend Vall said she could come down Friday and Saturday from Bishop. Even better!
Todd and I met at campsite 11 before lunch the first day. I quickly set up my tent and we walked over to the Boy Scout Wall. New Jack City has routes ranging in grade from 5.6-5.13 so there is something for everyone but a majority of the routes are rated 5.10-5.11. When I dream, I’m a 5.12 climber outdoors but in reality I lead more moderate routes. Boy Scout Wall is popular because of the abundance of moderate routes. It is mostly in the shade, which is usually nice but it was bitterly cold this day. We started with a fun 5.7 called Girl Scout Cookies. I noticed Todd stopping whenever he had a good stance to warm up his hands. I guess it wasn’t too surprising seeing how I was belaying while wearing my winter down parka and a beanie. When it was my turn to lead, I made quick work of climbing and cleaning because of the cold temps. Todd, who had flown in from Indiana where he is finishing up his Ph.D. in engineering at Purdue University, said it was the coldest he’s ever climbed in. Yikes! It was in the low 40’s in the shade so we made our way to a nearby wall aptly named Sunnyside.
It was significantly warmer in the sun and it made the climbing much more enjoyable until Todd pulled a hold. He was above the last bolt and almost to the anchors when he pulled off a hold about the size of a softball on a route ironically named Fun In The Sun. I dodged it and waited for the familiar pull of a falling leader. Moments later I realize he didn’t fall. By some miracle he only fell about 2 feet before a sling racked on his harness caught on a small horn. If that hadn’t happened he most likely would have fallen about 15 feet and it wouldn’t have been pretty because the route was fairly low angle so he probably would have hit the wall a couple of times before stopping. This is one of the big warnings of New Jack City. Choss (loose rock)! Be careful when pulling on holds here, especially flakes. More than a few times each of us had pulled on holds that flexed. It doesn’t really inspire confidence, but sometimes you have to work with what you have. “Uh Todd, why don’t you just build an anchor and I’ll top rope it.” After I top roped and cleaned the route we decided to walk back to camp. We felt like we tested our luck enough for one day and it was getting dark soon.
Todd was sleeping in his car and didn’t need to set up a tent so he built a fire while I finished setting up. Around the campfire we ate dinner and talked about climbing and life in general. Besides the obvious, one of the things I have really enjoyed during the short time I have been climbing is the people I have met. I have heard stories about intimidating and arrogant climbers but I have yet to meet them. I’m sure I will at some point but I have mostly experienced support and encouragement from other climbers. Whether they are shouting words of encouragement as you struggle with a sequence or share invaluable beta, climbers make a great community. Todd is a great example of that too. Being the more experienced climber, he never hesitated to lead a route first if I was reluctant and always shared helpful beta after he finished.
Part II here!