Vacations are not supposed to be painful.

But here I am, on my third rock-climbing trip to Joshua Tree, the desert national park about an hour northeast of downtown Palm Springs. I stand at the foot of the 5.5-skill-level climb Wilson Regular Route, looking up at an impossibly tall rock in Lost Horse Valley and tightening the laces of the secondhand climbing shoes I got a couple of years ago.

The little piggy on my right foot jams into a bump near the shoe tongue that I never quite managed to file down. It's my first injury of the ascent, and I haven't even set foot or fist onto the rock yet.

Not a promising start, especially considering that Black Tide awaits. I fell in love with that difficult route on a previous trip, even though it bested me the first time I tried to conquer it.

This year would be different, I told myself. All my other climbs at Joshua Tree would be about building strength for this climb.

I had a plan. It just didn't work out quite the way I hoped.

Weird trees, hot desert

People have strange perceptions of Joshua Tree, known for its Dr. Seuss-esque plants with spiny tops. Every time I talk to someone about heading to the park for winter camping and relaxation (ha!), I get a ton of questions.

"Is it cold or hot there?"

"Does it have just one weird tree?"

"Is Joshua Tree a town?"

Joshua Tree National Park is a former U.S. National Monument (since 1936) turned National Park in 1994. It hugs the borders of two California towns, the hippie-arty town of Joshua Tree and the military town of Twentynine Palms.

And it contains not one but two deserts, the low-lying Colorado and the high-desert Mojave, the latter of which is home to thousands of the sometimes majestic and oftentimes odd-looking Joshua trees.

Because the park is mostly desert, it gets hot — really hot — in the summer. Like way more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit on some days. In the spring and fall, the park has an average high of 85 degrees and low of 50 degrees. During winter, the park is about 60 degrees with freezing nights. Winter and spring are the busiest seasons.

A favorite for bird-watchers, the park has more than 250 species. Car tourists, hikers and naturalists love it too, especially in the spring when the flowers are blooming.

During the winter, the park is a magnet for all skill levels of rope rock climbers and boulderers (who execute short climbs without ropes), mostly because it is too hot to climb the park's attractive rocks during the summer. Also, many climbers' favorite northern mountain climbing routes are snowed over in the winter, while Joshua Tree gets only occasional snow.

Preparations begin

It's noon on a mid-December day. Waiting at the base of Wilson Regular Route, I am warm in my long-sleeve cotton shirt and wishing I had brought along a T-shirt.

I stare at the rough quartz monzonite rock in front of me as if it were a long-lost friend.

I love climbing the rocks at Joshua Tree. It amazes me how I can stand straight up on a nearly flat wall of rock. The texture of the rock seems to ease this clumsy, skill-less beginner up it, even when my weak muscles are struggling.

My climbing partner, Ralf Burgert, a veteran climber of 20 years, suggests I start at a skill-level 5.5 climb, which is on the easy side. I have to build strength for my favorite route, a 5.7 climb called Black Tide or Stichter Quits, depending on which guidebook you're reading. I prefer the name Black Tide because it describes the black ribbon of rock that defines the route and gives it texture.

The route also comes with a story. The first time I visited Joshua Tree National Park for winter camping in 2004, my climbing partner and I were literally snowed out of climbing. We were freezing cold. It rained incessantly. When we woke the first morning, a thick layer of snow covered the place, which is unusual for the park.

On one of our walks, we passed by Black Tide and I fell in love. I wanted to climb the route, but it was too cold and too icy to attempt.

My thoughts about Joshua Tree during the next year were all about Black Tide.

When I returned the following year, I tried climbing it. I stumbled. I fell. I cheated. I wept.

This year, I am going to do it without any trouble. At least, that's what I tell myself.

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