“Dirtbag Invasion” in Joe’s Valley, UT

Dustyn, Moon, and I fled Moab Thursday afternoon for the Manti-La Sal mountains of central Utah in search of a world-class boulder field called Joe’s Valley. The day had begun with a slew of rad ascents and we were eager to keep the send train going. When we arrived, we found the valley empty and claimed it for ourselves.

‘Last Light on the Rim’ taken in Joe’s Valley

For a world-class climbing destination we were surprised by the lack of development. Searching for established bouldering areas at times became hour-long adventures in and of themselves. But the problems we found were inspiring; the rock itself exotic in appearance and touch.

At Warm Up area we stumbled upon a solid V3 and V4. I flashed each, culminating one of my best overall days of climbing. Dustyn and Moon got the sends, too.

‘Dancing Feet’ taken in Joe’s Valley

By the time we crawled into our respective sleeping abodes, we still hadn’t seen anyone else in the valley. Even the bugs were nowhere to be found. Moab’s suffocating blanket of heat long behind us, the cool night air of Joe’s Valley was unspeakably refreshing. I found a spot for my tent between some boulders and below a patch of low-hanging pine trees.

We collectively woke early the next morning to my car alarm echoing throughout the walls of the valley — Dustyn the guilty culprit. After some peanut butter and stale bagels we headed straight to the Crack Boulder and got to work.

Dustyn and Moon warmed up on some bizarre V1s and got sketched out by an unfriendly downclimb that they made more unfriendly with the aid of a dead tree. Not willing to risk my ego on the sandbagged V1s, I instead picked out an even weirder V3 aptly named Lanky. It’s basically a super balancy hand-foot match mantle move and then a dyno to a stupid slopey top out, which I was unable to see or feel until I left my feet and went for it. I stuck the dyno and topped out without slipping and breaking my back. To finish up with the area, Dustyn climbed his first outdoor crack problem after which this boulder was named. Moon and I wanted nothing to do with the crack, so we moved on to the Riverside area.

Freshly exhilarated by the river’s boulders, I went ham. Without bothering to chalk up or put my climbing shoes back on I jumped on every fun line I could find. Moon followed me on a traverse directly over the water while Dustyn snacked on peanut butter and explored the hillside above. By the time we were ready to jump on something harder, I was well warmed up.

‘You Should Probably Breathe’ taken in Joe’s Valley

We decided to work the area’s classic V5 called Kelly’s Arete (not really an arete). Still riding the euphoria of the morning and the day before, I inefficiently tried all sorts of different beta while Dustyn watched with a critical eye. He sent it his second burn. By the time we had the beta on lock my fingers were too fatigued to make the last move before the top out. Though frustrated, I was pleased with my progress nonetheless. Moon, nursing a tendon injury, wisely decided this problem’s pockets weren’t worth further jeopardizing his fingers.

Out of water and eager to escape the midday heat, we made the drive into town to find the local climber hangout spot. After some unintentional detours and faulty intel, we found Food Ranch and filled our bellies. Moon and Dustyn left together in search of a boulder called Hidden Dragon while I stayed behind to get some work done.

I followed before long and aimlessly scrambled in flip-flops up the most unstable hillside in existence. After shouting back and forth to echolocate each other, I found my fellow dirtbags staring down another V5. We took turns on it but were ultimately uninspired, so we turned our sights instead on the namesake of the boulder: Hidden Dragon (V7), a dramatically overhung pumpfest of a problem that tops out with a V4 reach from a bad pocket and a slopey crimp. This was a line that oozed inspiration.

“You climb like a monkey!” Moon exclaims as Dustyn gives the dragon his first burn. I jump on next, cruising through the juggy overhang and slipping on a dyno to the beginning of the top out because I cut feet and swing into Moon. We work it together until dusk falls, each able to make the moves but unable to fit the pieces for the send. The descent down the hillside is dangerous fun; we basically surf down the dirt in the dark and try to avoid uprooting unsettled boulders along the way.

Back at camp we got a fire going and cracked some beers. Over creatively spiced ramen we joked and shared stories well into the night.

“Did you guys hear that guy last night?” Moon asks us the next morning. “He slowed down as he drove by, yelled at us to get out of here, and threw a beer can out of his window.”

Mildly taken aback but mostly amused, Dustyn and I each shrug and say we must have slept through it.

It’s our third day on, and I can feel it in my fingers; they’re stiff and my skin is thin. But we’re here with a purpose. The climb must go on.

We go straight to Riverside. I have Kelly’s Arete in the crosshairs, confident that I have my beta dialed down. Without really warming up, I jump on and cruise to my personal crux. I hit the wrong hold and get stuck. Unable to readjust, I jump down in frustration.

I work it probably a half dozen more times but just don’t have the strength in my fingers that I’d had a couple days before. My last burn I fall again at the high two-finger pocket with heinous feet and land badly on my ankle. I rip my shoes off in angry agony and throw my hat into the forest. I’m done with this problem, and perhaps climbing, for the day. My grand adventure tallies a new personal low point. I’m not an emotional person, but I am fiercely competitive — especially with yours truly. And when I fail, I lay waste to myself.

“I’ll catch up with you guys later,” I tell Dustyn and Moon. “Gonna go hang out at Food Ranch and get some work done.” We arrange a meetup point for later in the evening and I drive away.

In a funk but still wildly productive, I whittle away hours in the upstairs of our new favorite spot. I’m voraciously satisfying my sugar craving with a pack of red vines and a liter of raspberry lemonade when Dustyn walks up the stairs to surprise me.

With contagious energy he recounts to me the afternoon’s misadventures. Moon and he had spent hours traipsing through the wilderness in search of Wills a Fire, the valley’s famously classic black-and-gold-streaked V6. They’d supposedly found it, but not without accidentally dislodging a boulder from the hillside and sending it crashing down the mountain. They hang out with me for a hot minute, looking up videos of the line before heading back out to the valley for an onsight attempt.

I finish up my project at hand and leave in pursuit of them. Finding them is easier this time; Dustyn leaves a roadside cairn for me denoting the trailhead. They’re in the midst of problem solving when I stoop through a cave to join them.

The onsight attempt didn’t go as planned and the reason is clear: the line is true to its grade and the beta is unclear. I give it a couple burns but am pretty shredded from the morning’s climbing, so I’m happy to focus instead on lending insight where I can and capturing moments through a lens.

‘Crouching Tiger’ taken in Joe’s Valley

Dustyn and Moon cycle through attempts, working each sequence independently until they feel like they have it right. The send burns each fall short at the crux, though. The day has brought each of us to moments of doubt and vexation, but Dustyn reminds me that’s just the nature of climbing.

‘Moon Zen’ taken in Joe’s Valley

The attempts continue until dusk when we collectively decide our fingers have had enough. We return to Riverside, this time only to relax and fish.  After our descent from Wills a Fire, a dude in a truck stops in the road to ask if he can borrow a lighter. Dustyn offers up his and in return the guy gives us each a beer. At the river, Moon catches and releases a beautiful cutthroat trout. The evening is on the upswing.

Once our stomachs start growling, we head back to set up camp for our last night in the valley. Again we make ramen and a fire. The conversation bounces back and forth for hours. At some point in the night I’m eating dry sugar cereal and pulling pants on over my shorts because I’m cold. Dustyn meanwhile sits fireside in his underwear because he’s been wearing his shorts for two weeks and thinks they smell bad (they do).

My sugar craving carries over into the morning and I eat my knock-off Captain Crunch with water because almond milk is unpractical when you’re living in a car. We get a jump on the day and arrive back at Wills a Fire before 8 AM.

‘Firing the Crux’ taken in Joe’s Valley

My friends are possessed, ready to kill themselves on this boulder if that’s what it takes to get the send (I exaggerate, but not by much). The morning is a continuation of the prior evening: progress here, setbacks there. I jump on at times to try different beta, but ultimately nothing works in its entirety. At four days on, this problem is above our ability to perform at this point. We walk away not with a sour taste in our mouths, but instead excited anticipation for the next trip to Joe’s Valley.

‘Problem Solving’ taken in Joe’s Valley

We return one final time to Riverside in good spirits. We come across a young bouldering crew from Berkeley, California and Moon asks if that’s flour that they’ve rubbed all over the rock. They bite on his sarcasm and we laugh.

We fish a bit more only to be teased by the local trout who are evidently smarter than we are. After a couple of the most grotesquely delicious PB&Js anyone’s ever laid eyes on, we say our goodbyes. From here Dustyn and I will head South to Capitol Reef and Bryce Canyon en route to Zion. Moon needs to stop taking days off and actually return to work, but he promises to meet up with us in Wyoming at the start of August and finish our trip with us. I can’t wait.

Woke up in Moab, UT.

Slept/woke up in Joe’s Valley, UT.

Sleeping in Bryce Canyon, UT.

379 miles.


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