Zach Veach | February 18, 2016
Editors’ Note: Joshua Tree POV provided by Zach Veach, an Indy Lights racecar driver who decided to venture into the wilderness with two of his top competitors. Veach hopes to win the Indianapolis 500 and completely free climb The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley.
“Zactus,” that’s my new nickname after the past four nights in the Mojave. How does someone get a name like that? Well, it’s pretty simple. First, your name has to be Zach. Secondly, you have to collide with cacti, not once, not twice, but four times in three days… But we’ll come back to that.
When I moved to Indianapolis a couple years ago for racing, I also started getting into rock climbing at an indoor gym. Surprisingly, training is pretty similar for racing cars and climbing rocks. Both rock climbers and race car drivers need a strong grip strength and core, along with a quick reaction time. So after a few sessions, it turned into a passion with the same intensity as motorsport. And since then, my dreams have evolved– scaling massive walls at Yosemite ranks as high up as seeing my face on the Borg Warner, the trophy awarded to the winner of the Indianapolis 500.
I fell in love with rock climbing, but given that all of the people I knew in Indianapolis were also my competitors on the racetrack, it was a challenge to find a trustworthy belayer, if you know what I mean. Then one day, I decided to invite fellow Indy Lights driver Dalton Kellet to the climbing gym. Fortunately, he took it seriously and was hooked right away, and I finally had my full-time climbing partner. Trusting a competitor in this way is a funny thing, but it’s actually comparable to the trust required to race wheel-to-wheel. I know his skill, and I know that he’s not going to punt me off the track to go for the win. He’s an honest racer, and fortunately that means he’s an honest climber.
As the days got shorter and colder here in Indy, Dalton and I began itching for warm weather to come so we could climb outside. Then while scrolling through Instagram, I noticed a picture posted by fellow Indy Lights driver, Neil Alberico, and in it he was climbing outside in California.
Honestly, I had only spoken with Neil once at a charity event in 2015, but we’re now part of the same racing series so I decided to reach out. Within a few Facebook messages we made a plan.
Our destination was the rough quartz monzonite granite at Joshua Tree National Park, a popular winter training area when places like Yosemite are covered in snow. We had about a month to gather the extra gear we needed and then on January 8th, I was on a flight racing the sun to the west coast to put myself to the test.
Neil is the most unique of all the drivers. I mean, his job is racing the fastest cars at beautiful and exotic locations, so you would imagine that this means he lives some exotic and glamorous lifestyle. Fortunately, he really doesn’t. When I arrived at LAX, Neil picked me up in a 2001 E350, a big ol’ white van large enough for the three of us to call camp with the slight smell of fuel. After an REI gear run and a necessary stop at In-N-Out Burger, Dalton arrived and we jammed to Neil’s surfer music on our entire three-hour journey east.
It was late when we set up camp and as we attempted to get some rest in our makeshift van-sleeper, we had no idea that where we stopped for some shuteye would be so incredible. As we woke and swung open the double-doors, it felt as if we were on a completely different planet. By far the most mysterious place I’ve had breakfast.
Our plan for the first day was an area called ‘Eastern Siberia.’ This place was a good start for our trip because the 100-foot routes were in line with our skills. I led the first route, and then Neil and Dalton followed. As they say, time flies when you’re having fun, especially on a short winter day. By 5 p.m. we were packing up our gear, turning on our headlamps and descending back to the desert floor.
As we started the hour hike back to the van in the dark, I had never felt so isolated from the world as I did then. It was extremely peaceful, but a little eerie as well. Just sand, Joshua Trees, my competitors turned friends, and my first of many encounters with cactus needles.
Day two will always be remembered as the “day of humbling” for our little group. After feeling confident with the successful first day we had, we decided to turn it up a notch, and instead, spent most of that morning getting shut down over and over again.
After finally getting about sixty feet up, I looked down at what would have been a forty-foot fall and stood a huge chance of decking on a ledge. I saw Neil and Dalton solemnly staring up at me. Their faces were familiar and I thought of that time I saved my car from a huge crash on an oval by the skin of my teeth. The thought alone was a good enough reason to retreat, and I was reminded that driving my race car is a lot more important to me than a climbing injury I can brag about.
On the hike back to the van with our egos slightly bruised, cactus No. 2 and 3 decided now was the time to strike. Thankfully Neil dedicated the next 15 minutes meticulously pulling needles out of my right leg. With about an hour of sunlight remaining, we decided to take one more shot at a send, and as we scrambled up to the belay ledge, we saw the outline of a person waving to us on the desert floor, about a half mile away. We politely waved back and started preparing for our climb. Neil made the first ascent and by the time he was on his way down, the stranger who waved from afar had scrambled his way up to us, hands in his pocket.
The three of us exchanged glances, and then I turned to greet the desert wanderer.
He nodded and introduced himself. He let us know that he was on a four-month-long spiritual journey to find himself and discover the meaning of life. At one point he asked the three of us if we were actually real or not, which is a reasonable question when you’ve been wandering alone in the wilderness for a few months.
We had a pleasant conversation with him about racing and life, and as quickly as he appeared, he was gone.
Hungry and cold, we decided to cook right on the ledge as darkness fell before our long hike back to the van. The wanderer was on all of our minds and quickly became the topic of our conversations. Unfortunately, that was the last time we saw him, but I bet it’s safe to say he’s still out there: climbing, hiking, and enjoying the land we often take for granted, and I hope by now he’s discovered the meaning of life.
By our third day we were really starting to adapt to this style of climbing and we went wild at ‘Solarium.’ The routes proved to be very fun and adventurous, Joshua Tree classics. As the day kept speeding away, I stopped often to look around at the scenery, taking it all in and feeling the peaceful presence of nature. Knowing that only 36 hours later, I would be back in Indiana where my focus would return to winning a championship, and the three of us would face the challenge of balancing friendship and competition.
When we drove out, Neil behind the wheel, Dalton in shotgun and me, in the middle behind them on a bench. We didn’t say much, because we didn’t have to. We all shared the same emotion that nature forces upon you if you’re lucky enough. It was one of those sad because it was over, but happy because it happened kind of feelings.
Wilderness wasn’t the only thing I appreciated on this trip though. Even more so, I appreciated the camaraderie. Spending time with Dalton and Neil was a chance to bond with their true character and to see them as much more than just competitors. It has always been exciting to race alongside these guys, but now I know what they’re capable of on the wall. Our love of racing brought us all together, and our love of the outdoors brought us closer. And with all of their strengths in mind, Indy Lights competition will be tighter than ever in 2016.