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3 Days, 3 Nights in the Desert: New Jack City | Part I

3 Days, 3 Nights in the Desert: New Jack City | Part I

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Words and photos by Don Burton

The awesome 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.

Campsite on the far left

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.

Sunset view from the campsite

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!

SENDER SPOTLIGHT: Grace Wang on the John Muir Trail

SENDER SPOTLIGHT: Grace Wang on the John Muir Trail

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Here on the blog, it's our goal to showcase our community and all the rad things you're all doing. If you're interested in sharing your adventures, send an email to [email protected].

These days, a lot of us are making the roughly 200+ mile drive from SoCal to Bishop. We've all complained about the drive once or twice, but imagine walking the entire way. For many of us weekend adventurers, it's likely that the furthest we'll trek with packs on is from the car to the crag-and back to the car (then at Black Sheep Coffee Roasters resting our weary legs, espresso in hand). Not so for Grace Wang, a regular at Sender One, who has hiked all 210.4 miles of the legendary John Muir Trail.

The Trail winds along the Sierra Nevada mountain range and features California's grandest natural offerings beginning with Yosemite Valley as its northernmost terminus. From there, backpackers will wind down Devil's Postpile National Monument, on through Thousand Island Lake. Then it's through the King's Canyon and Sequoia National Parks before finally ending up at Mt. Whitney in the Sierras.

Grace, an REI employee, celebrated her arrival in Mt. Whitney back in August. So now that she's well rested, we spoke to her in the hopes that we weary-legged coffee-sippers might one day be inspired to put down the mug and pursue the same!


Hi Grace, let's start by having you tell us a bit about yourself!

Let’s see, I was born and raised in Orange County, grew up wishing I could be a boy scout so I could do cool adventure-y things someday. I’m happy to say that I am now doing cool adventure-y things like climbing and backpacking, and am fortunate enough to have a job at REI that allows me to talk to people about all the latest and greatest outdoor toys! I am also simultaneously pursuing a career in physical therapy and enjoying geeking out about body movement/ mechanics, and rehab.

What made you want to tackle the JMT?

As a kid, my family often visited Yosemite, but only camped or stayed in a cabin. One day, I went into the gift shop and saw a JMT poster, and decided that I wanted to hike the whole thing someday. I wanted to experience the most amazing parts of the Sierras on foot rather than through a car window, and I wanted to see what my body was capable of doing, hiking-wise.

As an REI employee, did you feel particularly prepared for the task?

I definitely think that being a REI employee helped me accrue the proper equipment for the trip. Being around gear all the time and getting to talk about it helped me have a good understanding of what I would need to safely and successfully enjoy the trip. Talking to coworkers and customers that had experience with the trail also helped me figure out how I needed to be prepared for the trip.

How did you decide what to pack? Is there anything you left out?

I poured over blogs, books, and magazines when compiling my list of things to pack. From recalling and documenting my previous backpacking experiences, I had a good idea of what equipment worked for me personally, and what didn’t by the time planning for this trip came around. I also did a trial backpacking trip with the gear and clothing I was going to bring with me, just to make sure things were working well. In doing that, I quickly eliminated things I thought I would need.

Treks along the John Muir Trail require careful preparation and every ounce of weight matters. Grace's pack had a starting weight of only 25.4 lbs., without water. 

What's that one thing you realized you forgot. I know you have one...or three?

Haha. I actually don’t think I forgot anything. I checked over my stuff a million times before I left. I should have probably brought some vaseline for my nose (see below).

When the food ran out, at what point did you decide to eat your friends? If not, what was the hardest part of the adventure?

I should have eaten my friend while they were fresh, day 1 or 2, but by day 5 they were a bit too rank to eat. But really, not having enough food was definitely a real problem. I made a fancy spreadsheet detailing out what I food needed to bring, but I didn’t anticipate being THAT hungry. I resigned myself to rationing out just enough calories to finish up the trail. Also I had awesome friends and met amazing strangers-turned-friends who were incredibly generous at times! At the end of the trip, I lost about 9 pounds--which is a lot for me. Next time, I’m bringing sticks of lard.

Were there any moments you thought you might die?

Many. Just kidding, not that dramatic. But I did have a problem with my nose bleeding like crazy on many occasions. The air was so dry during the whole trip that my nose decided to let loose and bleed a bunch of times--sometimes for several hours. That was fun. Thank goodness I brought a lot of toilet paper with me for nose plugs.

What was the best part of your trip?

One of my favorite moments of the trip happen to be my birthday. It actually had been an exhausting and difficult day for me personally, and some circumstances leading up to that point made me I feel as though I might not finish the trail. But at the end of that day, with the support of my friends, we made it to our planned destination. I found myself sitting around a campfire among friends, enjoying a freshly steam-baked molten chocolate cupcake from a mix that one of my friends had been lugging around for the past 100 miles. I felt like the luckiest and most blessed person alive that night. Chocolate, friends, and fire are a good combination.

GW-Gallery07For the lay-person, what should you know before attempting the trail?

Fitness-wise, you can never truly prepare your body to hike that many days consecutively, but you can prevent injury by strengthening muscles around joints, improving your cardio, and getting proper footwear (hiking the whole trail in Chacos is a bad idea) and a decent pack. Also, test your gear out before you go and make sure it works for you--just because it worked for someone else doesn’t mean it will definitely work for you.

Biggest take-away?

A quote from John Muir puts it best, “Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul alike.” - The Yosemite (1912)

Grace-JMT 1

Photos courtesy of Grace Wang


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