Hidden Treasure on the Amalfi Coast

Sunset over the Amalfi Coast

What comes to mind when thinking of the Amalfi coast? Most likely picturesque towns, wine, Sorrento, Pompei, and Vesuvius. I doubt that basking in winter sunshine and sport climbing on perfect limestone springs to mind though. The climbing here seems to be a very well kept secret, so in this post, I’ll do my bit to correct that.

It’s worth admitting that until the day before I arrived in Positano, I had no idea there was climbing on the Amalfi coast either. We had planned to head into Spain when winter chased us from Finale, but a bit of Googling turned up the Amalfi coast. A quick Spain / Amalfi coin toss came up ‘Amalfi’ and we decided to take a punt on it. There were definitely no regrets!

Almost Homeless

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Before I get to gushing about how awesome the climbing is, here are a few logistical points…

The whole area is very quiet in the winter time. This means that you get the crags more or less to yourself, but the down side is that many of the camp sites and hostels are shut. My penchant for showing up to a place with no accommodation booked nearly landed us in trouble this time… We spent a fairly torturous few hours driving along the Amalfi coast road, knocking of the doors of shuttered hostels, and pulling into ‘closed for winter’ camp sites….

Eventually, we found the camp site Nube d’Argento, just on the outskirts of Sorrento. This requires a ~45 minute drive to the nearest climbing, but it’s a short walk into Sorrento. A reasonable compromise to have the cafes, bars, and restaurants on your doorstep. The Taverna Sorrentina is no more than a five minute walk, and it does a decent pizza for €5, and a glass of local wine for €3 on top – can’t argue with that!

A final logistical note. Make sure that your car insurance is up to date, and prepare yourself for some truly terrifying driving experiences! The driving has to be seen to be believed, as does the road up to the climbing in Positano. My van emerged with only a couple of scrapes, and I considered that a win.

Getting A Head?

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My last post on the Euro trip left me buzzing for more climbing, but quivering a bit (okay, quivering a lot) when moving above ‘highball boulder’ territory. There was progress in Finale, but it was slow progress and my climbing was very limited by poor head games. Amalfi seemed like a perfect destination to work on the head games.

So on day one, I set out with the intent to do a bunch of fall practice and really work on the mental side of the sport… Of course, I did not do any fall practice… We did find an amazing coastal crag and started get into the slabby and crimpy style. I’m not exactly a ‘powerhouse’ (matchsticks for arms),  and so the technical climbing was right up my street. I felt at home immediately. The switch in style also did wonders for my confidence, giving me an ideal excuse to continue to neglect the fall practice. Oh well, progress was getting made regardless, confidence was coming back and with it a real enjoyment of roping up again.

It is worth admitting upfront that I definitely used the change in style as an excuse to neglect properly training the head games. One of these days I’ll learn to love fall practice and fingerboarding, but those days did not come on the Amalfi coast, and at the time of writing, I’m still waiting!

Sorrento

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We had planned to stay in Positano, near the climbing, but there was no room at the inn  (actually, there were no inns..) and so we we ended up camping near Sorrento. I think this was likely a blessing in disguise as it was good to be withing walking distance of civilisation. There’s no shortage of cafes and restaurants, and the prices are generally not too bad.

Christmas was in full flow when we were there, and Sorrento looked the part! The lit up streets streets were pedestrianised at the weekends and were very lively with shoppers and families. Sadly it was not busy with patrons of the local bars, which were typically very quiet even though the streets were full. The Christmas tree (above) dominated the end of the high street, bringing festive cheer and good will to all men – or something like that.

This is all great if you want to do your Christmas shopping and get a glass of wine. Be warned though, if you’re looking for climbing supplies, you have come to the wrong place. Further underscoring the secretive nature of the climbing here, there aren’t really any climbing shops in Sorrento. Make sure you’re stocked up with chalk, tape, and other climbing disposables before you arrive.

Sorrento is cool, but it is a strange kind of place to visit in December. More of a family vibe than a touristy vibe, and certainly not a climbers hub. An excellent base though for launching climbing missions to Positano, and so highly recommended in that respect!

What about the climbing?

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As I said above, I’m quite partial to a crimpy and technical slab, so I was absolutely at home here. The crags we visited seemed to be typified by this style. You could occasionally shave on the handholds, so either pack some climb-on, or man up! I should note that there are a number of steep or caved out crags that we didn’t visit. I’d expect there is something for everyone here.

I’m not sure about paper guide books, but we did fine with the Vertical Life app and topos.

We mostly based climbed on the crags around Positano. You can park at the local football pitch for free and walk out to most of the crags in about 45 minutes or so. We spent a good amount of our time in the Selva area, which has a decent spread of grades and long sustained routes with an excellent outlook. The obvious ‘thread the needle’ as you approach Positano (Monte Gambera) has some excellent climbing as well, again with a great spread of grades and decent length routes.

The crags are generally facing the sea, and as picturesque as you could ask for. Watching the sun set over the sea while you strip the last route of the day is as close to a religious experience as I ever get. The December sunshine is pretty much bang on for me, easily t-shirt weather without getting fried. And given that this whole area seems to be a secret, the only interruptions you may encounter are inquisitive donkeys coming to see what the humans are up to.

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Repeat Customer

I struggle to pick out a specific highlight from this part of the trip. The climbing was all generally excellent, the settings were all beautiful. The standout for me of this part of the trip was the gradual re-emergance of some kind of head for climbing, and associated massive increase in enjoyment. After years of neglect I left Positano feeling about as positive as I had in years about getting roped up.

I’m not sure that there is a better winter climbing venue out there, especially if you value a bit of solitude. The climate, setting, and local amenities are all bang on, and the climbing is also fantastic. I can’t imagine that this place will stay a secret for long, so get in while it’s good. I’ll definitely be making an effort to get back here at some point.

The Amalfi coast was the last destination that we visited on the outward leg of the European journey. Leaving here was the start of the long drive back home, and a good opportunity to revisit some destinations, and hopefully close out some unfinished business…

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Pleasantly Sandbagged in Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree is, I think, the most beautiful place I’ve ever climbed. But fuck me those grades are stiff!

I climbed in Joshua Tree a few years ago, and have basically been itching to get back since the day I left. There is something about the place that really feels other worldly. The weird forest with bulging, rounded rock formations on the horizon looks like a science fiction set or a Neptunian moon. It’s a very cool place to go climbing.

The way the Red Rocks trip worked out left us out of time in the camp site (14 nights max) and struggling a bit for cheap accommodation near the climbing. We only had a few days left in total for this leg of the trip, and so it was the perfect opportunity to get out and check out somewhere different.

I think you could probably spend multiple years climbing in Joshua Tree and not get bored. We only had three days, so we couldn’t even scratch the surface. The highlight for me was climbing in Real Hidden Valley. I think that may be my all time favourite climbing destination – perfect granite in a stunning setting. We did a shaded two pitch route that will definitely stick in the memory for a long time.

The climbing in Joshua Tree was every bit as good, and every bit as hard, as I remembered it to be! I’m still getting reacquainted with placing trad gear after a long lay off, so there was some additional and unnecessary terror from that side of things! One of these days I’ll get a trad head on me…

Like this post, the Joshua Tree trip was a short one. We mostly stuck to roadside and relatively straightforward trad routes. I tried one absolutely nails sport route, and we ran out of time to do some bouldering. There is so much that I would like to do here, I definitely feel like I have unfinished business in the park. Watch this space….

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Free Solo Travel

Don’t worry, I’m not brave enough to ditch the ropes. The title refers to the next part of the US trip. 

This weekend I bid a fond farewell to Keith & Manu, and venture forth on my own. Solo, and free to go where I choose. 

Which, in the first instance will be New Orleans then Houston… Not exactly well known climbing hotspots! I’m taking a break from climbing for a week or so to catch up with some friends from back home. I guess I might post about the trip, but the only climbing I’ll get in will be indoors, if at all. 

I’ve no fixed plans afterwards, but if you see a Scottish guy hanging about a camp site begging for a belay, please give generously! 

Tips from a Red Rocks First Timer

The Cat in the Hat in the distance

I’ve been kicking about Red Rocks for a couple of weeks now, and I think I’m starting to get the hang of the place. In this post I’ll list a few places that I’ve found handy for a camping traveller visiting Red Rocks for the first time. I guess some of this will be more applicable to non-US visitors, but we’ll see. I think this post will likely evolve over the next few weeks if I pick up any other tips along the way.

This is certainly not a comprehensive guide, and is of course not as valuable as advice from a local. Rather, this is just some tips that I have picked up in my first two weeks here. Anything incorrect, or any obvious omissions, please let me know in the comments.

Accommodation

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I have been mostly camping since I got here, but I had a night in the Rio when I arrived, and then a few nights in an Airbnb while I got myself organised for the rest of the trip.

A point to be aware of if staying in a hotel. There are typically ‘resort fees’ when you arrive which will add about $30 p/n or so to the cost of your stay. As far as I know changing the advertised price like that is not legal in the UK, so it might be a bit unexpected. The Rio was a cool place to stay for a night though, and the $10 entry to the Voodoo rooftop nightclub was worth it for the view alone.

There are hundreds of low cost Airbnb’s in Vegas. You can’t really go wrong. I just got the one closest to the climbing that was in my price range.

The Red Rocks Campground (located here) is the only nearby option for camping. Some points about the camp site:

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  • You can only stay for 14 days out of every 28 days. So be careful if you are planning a longer trip.
  • The rangers are really nice people and very helpful.
  • There are no showers…
  • There is drinking water available, although it tastes a bit like a swimming pool. It’s fine for cooking with, washing dishes etc, but I would recommend buying bottled drinking water.
  • Discounts are available with certain national park cards, although the $80 annual pass does NOT allow a discount unfortunately.
  • It’s bloody freezing at night in February and a Walmart sleeping bag will likely result in hypothermia!

Gearing Up

I guess most folk will travel with their stuff packed, but I decided to just buy camping kit when I arrived. My camping gear in the UK is wearing out anyway, and I would have needed to add another bag to my flight to get it all across here. There are a number of REI stores in Vegas that are really well stocked with camping and climbing kit, although they are a bit on the expensive side… For really cheap camping kit, Walmart is the answer….

HOWEVER… the stuff in Walmart is really really low quality and I would not recommend going this route. Buy cheap, buy twice – a lesson that I need to re-learn on a regular basis!

I have already been to REI to replace my Walmart sleeping bag with a decent one, and the Walmart tent ($50 – pictured above) offers basically no resistance to the wind at all, and is next on the list to get replaced. I did get a perfectly decent airbed, blanket, and pillow in Walmart though so there are some things that you can get cheaply there. But, unless you like to sleep shivering and freezing cold in what feels like a wind tunnel, the tents and sleeping bags are to be avoided!

I travelled with most of my climbing kit, but I’ve picked up a few incidentals at Desert Rock Sports (located here). The staff seem to know  what they are talking about, and it’s pretty well stocked with gear. There are a couple of other climbing stores, but this one has done for us so far.

Civilisation

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I camped for more or less ten weeks straight in Europe last year and had no problems, but there are certain considerations to be aware of if you’re doing a long term camp here. Firstly, in Europe the camp sites more or less all have hot showers – not so in the desert. The Red Rock Climbing Centre (located here) offers showers for $4 which is a bit expensive, but totally worth it! It’s a cool looking indoor centre as well, worth a look if the weather’s poor.

There is no WiFi in the camp site, and only patchy phone signal. I am getting a sniff of 3G from AT&T in the camp site, although it’s really slow. Good enough for occasional WhatsApp messages, and that’s about it. The best place that I’ve found so far for WiFi is ‘The Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf’ (located here). This is a decent enough cafe with fast WiFi and good coffee, and it’s a very short drive from the camp site.

Eating

I’m on a fairly strict budget here, so I am mostly trying to cook for myself at the camp site. I stocked up on camp cooking kit at REI, and have been mostly buying grub at Albertsons. There is a store really close to the camp site, and I think the extra cost for produce vs Walmart is worth it for a step up in quality.

It’s incredibly easy to get run down when you’re camping at night and exercising all day, so I think that making sure you’re properly fed is a decent investment. I might actually write up a post on camp site cooking for climbing survival… Watch this space.

Transport – I hate rental car companies

I’m staying in the states till the 8th July, and planning to travel around the national parks and climb as much as possible. So I basically need a car for the whole time I’m here. The best deal that I have managed to find so far is through Turo, although at $50 a day it really starts to add up.

A point to note for European / UK travellers. As far as I can tell, the basic price that you get quoted from a rental car company does not include insurance OF ANY SORT AT ALL. This is because most American personal car insurance covers rental cars as well as your own car. Unlike in Europe, the ‘extra insurance’ that the rental company pushes on you is not really optional, it’s a legal minimum requirement. If you do not have cover through your own insurance, you are 100% liable for any damage caused to the rental car, anyone else’s car, or basically anything. This is total bastard, particularly if you are here for five months… The insurance top up through Enterprise is $30 p/d – nearly $4000 for me to insure a car for 5 months…. Obviously not going to happen.

My backup plan was to just buy a car, but that is also a nightmare to get insurance without a permanent address in the USA. I think  the may be a solution going through an insurance broker, but I’m not there yet. In fact, I’m writing this post as a way of procrastinating on getting the car situation sorted out.

If I ever get to the bottom of this, I’ll write up a post on how I solved it. For now, I’m out $50 a day for an old Toyota, and that might well be the best deal I can get.

General Tips

Getting around Vegas is really easy. It took us a few days to get orientated with respect to accommodation, showers, WiFi etc. The only outstanding concern is the car situation, which I’ll get sorted eventually.

I’ve been intentionally avoiding the Strip and the Casinos so far, but I’ll venture in for a look at some point I guess.

Everyone that I have met in Vegas, in the camp site and out climbing have been brilliant so far. Very friendly and helpful. Particular thanks to the folks who jump started our car after we left a phone charging in it…

I think this post will evolve as I keep exploring. And please, let me know anything I’ve missed or messed up in the comments.

Andy

 

Rainy Days in Red Rocks

Red Rocks River

We arrived in Red Rocks on the 18th Feb, 2017. Just in time to catch record breaking rainfall. The rain here on Saturday was the highest ever recorded on that date, and is more than double the total February average rainfall. Not ideal climbing weather!

Saturday was a total washout of course, and Sunday was still pretty damp and obviously unclimbable. Picking up supplies in Desert Rock Sports though, I was surprised to hear how long the Canyon would take to dry out. No climbing until Wednesday? Obviously unacceptable, so we grabbed the limestone guide and started laying plans. All is not lost, and hopefully there will be tales of Limestone sending appearing on this blog shortly…

This weekend was a washout and not the ideal start to the trip. But, it was far from a disaster. Hiking around the Canyon and checking out a good few crags and boulders was fun, and will save time later on. The Calico Basin is a beautiful place to walk about even without climbing. The extra heavy rain meant that a fairly sizeable stream was flowing through the canyon, creating impromptu waterfalls and pools along the path. The sun poked it’s nose out of the clouds a few times during the day, giving a hint of what was to come – world class climbing in a fantastic location. Can’t wait!

Swiss Bliss

Swiss Bouldering

This post was nearly a tale of travelling from Aberdeen to Houston, detailing the highlights of sitting on a plane for 10 hours. But I figured reading about it would be about as exciting as living it. Instead, here’s a write up of a month bouldering in Switzerland last October.

I have been told that my idea of what constitutes ‘training’, looks more like ‘not training’. Or rather, just going climbing and hoping that I’ll get better. So of course when planning the Swiss trip, I took the training seriously. I went to Font for six weeks prior. I guess old habits die hard, and I still can’t get disciplined for a fingerboard. But, as non-training goes, six weeks in Font is as good as it gets!

For the first time ever really, I was starting a trip more or less at the top of my game. Problems which I’d normally write off as impossible were starting to look a bit doable, or at least inviting ‘just a look’. Could Dr Med Dent go? Vasco Da Gama? Lemon Tree?

The drive from Font to Switzerland is flat and boring until it is not. The Alpine scenery of the drive in is not a view that you can get bored of. The last time I made that journey was to check out Cresciano and Val Calanca. This time Chironico and Brione were the main targets.

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I don’t really believe in booking accommodation in advance. It’s more fun that way. Right…? So with some last minute googling, and after confusing a Swiss lady with what passes for ‘English’ up north we rolled into Camping Gottardo. The confused Swiss lady turned out to be the camp site owner. We asked to camp. “Too cold”, she said miming shivering. Once we convinced her that with the northern accents came a natural resistance to hypothermia, we were pitched up and ready to go.

Day one in among the boulders confirmed what I already knew. Bouldering in Switzerland is really fucking good. Better than Font? Maybe. Superlatives as such were in full flow as we got used to the gneiss crimps and edges that typify climbing in Chironico. A fantastic contrast to the sloping Font sandstone. The landings can be a bit uneven and spiky,  and made good the army of pads we were hiking around with. The absolute standout from day one was a superb f6b called Shock Wave. It looked simple but was not, and took a good few goes (hours) to figure out and dispatch. 

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Patience prevailed on day two with the seemingly impossible start to ‘Triangolo’ (6c+) eventually yielding to some tidy beta and a good dose of gurn. Even the bad days in Chironico seemed to be good days. Being dragged out of my tent to ‘check out a cave’ in unlikely conditions resulted in ‘Triade’ (f7a) and also the extension at f7a+.

Fairly early on in the trip, I tested myself on Lemon Tree. I was found wanting, but the problem was not – a classic for sure. A tricky pull, leads to a deep rock over, long reach to a sloper, a crimp, and then a big pop to the flat top and glory. Or, in my case a small pop and flop onto the pads. Forced to retreat with reduced fingertips, battle lost but war still on. Trip project identified.

There’s not much danger of getting bored in Chironico. Every taste is catered for with massive burly roofs, delicate padding slabs and everything in between. Variety being the spice of life though, we drive through to Brione a couple of times. This is a less well known venue and access is delicate, so check out the website before you visit. There’s not a guidebook but the ‘Bimano’ app has a few of the problems listed.

The stretch target at Brione was the classic ‘Molonk’ (f7c), but it was quickly obvious that I wasn’t getting close to that. However, there is treasure in the lower grades here as well. The easier problems on the Molonk block were all good fun, and the meadow bouldering is excellent as well. Of course, I had a go at the classic highball ‘Black Mirror’ (f6b), but chickened out less than half way up… I think that was likely the right choice as a fall from the high crux would likely be a trip ending mistake to make.   The left and right arêtes of the big triangular face in the meadow are both good, although the right hand side is an ego massage at 7a.

I capped an excellent day at Brione getting up ‘Pebble Straight’ (f7a), which with the two arêtes made for 3 problems at 7a in one day, a personal record.

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Returning to Chironico inspired, it was time for round two on Lemon Tree. I made sure to have the camera rolling from the start of the session this time to catch the presumed send. Perhaps even ‘first go on the day’? The footage is unlikely to see the light of day which is no great loss. As ever, an overly egotistical approach ending in to failure and frustration. So, 2-0 to the so-called ‘classic’. Still plenty time for another go…

Schattental, is lower down that most of the bouldering at Chirinico. The name means shaded valley, owing to the fact that the sun never really shines there. So it’s pretty cold, especially in late October. The bouldering is excellent though, and definitely worth a visit, regarless of the temperature. The highlight for me was  fiddly & delicate ‘Particle Elementare’ (f7a). This one seemed unlikely till the beta came together and I was at the top. The long and pumpy Vasco Da Gama (f7a) is also well worth a look, although it was too hard for me this time.

As October tended towards November, the weather did as it does and started to interfere with our climbing plans more and more. It was clear that it was time to fly south for the winter. But not before one more session on Lemon Tree. I went up on my own, got reacquainted with the moves, brushed up the top and went for it….

So far this narrative mirrors the previous posts on Amateur Acrobatics and Breakfast Arête, but this time with a far less satisfying conclusion… I got close a few times, but Lemon Tree was not to be for me. Session #3 ended with me lashing the rock with repeated rapid attempts on thin skin and getting predictable results. I could not do it, and it was time to go.

I’d be lying if I said I walked away grinning that day, but overall the Switzerland trip left a huge smile on my face. The bouldering is as good as it gets, as is the setting – a good combination. Not getting up Lemon Tree was dissapointing, but it in no way overshadowed the many problems that I did complete. A trip to Chironico comes highly recommended.  I think it’s safe to assume that I’ll be back to Chironico at some point, and I guess it’s probably easy to guess which boulder I’ll go to first. It’s not over yet, Lemon Tree!

American Airlines

American Airlines

What a difference a day makes… This time yesterday I was festering at home, no visa, no flights, no firm plans, and wondering if the US trip was actually going to happen. Today, I am Visa’d up, flights booked and ready to go. Flying out 5th Feb, returning 8th July, so plenty of time to get a good look around. I’ll be there in time for the Superbowl, and staying until after Independence Day. So I figure I’ll get a good look at American culture along the way. And of course, a shit load of climbing!

I intentionally don’t have a lot of specific plans for the states, I want to get across there with a bit of freedom to change locations, or stay longer if I like a place. But here are a few places on the ‘must see’ list, that I’ll definitely be paying a visit to.

Red Rock Canyon

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Our first stop is going to be Red Rock Canyon. The climbing here looks amazing, and of course it’s right next to Vegas… So plenty of scope for non-climbing activities. Red Rock seems to be a playground for bouldering, sport, and trad climbing. I intend to do a bit of everything here, but I really want to try out some of these crack climbs I’ve heard so much about. We don’t really have cracks in the UK. I climbed one in Joshua Tree that I thought was tricky, and later found it was graded 5.1 (yes, point one). So, obviously needing some practice there. Some of the bouldering looks amazing as well. I’m gushing now… Suffice to say, I’m looking forward to Red Rocks.

Bishop

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I spent a couple of weeks in Bishop a while back, and I’ve been itching to get back ever since. The bouldering in Buttermilk Country is probably the most scenic I’ve ever done, and I’ve got some unfinished business with the (also excellent) Happy Boulders. The last time I was there we inadvertently stumbled on a Mule festival in the town as well which was… interesting! The daily breakfast burrito from the Black Sheep cafe was almost as appealing as the climbing, I’m looking forward to that as well!

Joe’s Valley

I’ve not been to Joe’s Valley before, but it is somewhere that I’ll definitely be visiting. I’m hoping that lessons learned climbing on Fontainbleau sandstone will translate well here. But, that kind of thinking has resulted in an ego-spanking before, so I’ll see how it goes out there. Some of the videos online look amazing, I think this is a place not to be missed on this trip.

Zion National Park

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Zion is known for it’s off width cracks, and the UK climbing community has concentrated all of it’s collective off-width skills into two people. Neither of which is me. I’m expecting to get a lesson in climbing grade humility here. But, just look at the photos! The place is absolutely stunning to just look at, never mind going climbing there. I’m pretty sure I’ll be happy hiking about if the climbing is too tough- a visit here is not going to be a hardship!

Yosemite

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I’ve been to Yosemite a couple of times before, but I’ve never really been there long enough to really get into the style and maybe try something hard. I’m not exactly sure what yet, that’ll depend on how fit I manage to get before I arrive in the valley. But there is endless scope for adventure at all grades, so I’m sure I’ll find something to climb on. I would absolutely love to get one of the classic hard boulder problems as well… You all know which one I mean, but I’ll need to up my game for that to happen. Time will tell… I think some friends from the UK are meeting up with us in Yosemite, so I’ve got high hopes for a brilliant time here.

Joshua Tree

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Another place that I’ll be returning to having climbed there previously. Joshua Tree is a landscape like no other I’ve ever seen. It looks almost otherworldly – like climbing on a Neptunium moon or something. Last time I was there I went in May, and it was a little bit on the hot side. I’ll try and factor in an earlier visit this time I think, although “it’s too hot” is an excellent excuse when the notoriously sandbagged V2’s are spitting you off…

Other Cool Places Too

I’m definitely not limiting myself the only visiting the above places, there are loads of other things that I’d like to go do, but I have only got five months, so I might struggle to fit it all in..

I’m also looking for advice from the locals, so if there’s anything I really shouldn’t miss then let me know in the comments please.

Regardless of the specifics, I’m sure this is going to be an amazing trip. Rather excited to get going now!

Andy