Climbing in Bishop

Having not set hand or foot on an honest-to-god rock in well over a year, I was full of uncertainty last weekend as Tony and I left San Francisco, bound for four days of climbing near Bishop. A few flurries of snow in Tuolumne Meadows forced us to detour over Sonora Pass. Not having passed through that portion of the Sierra Nevada before, I was impressed by both the beauty of the scenery and the quantity of climbable alpine-style granite that seems to receive little traffic. On the steep descent towards Highway 395, we were surprised to see a number of groups of heavily-armed troops lining up for food in the few relatively flat areas off the sides of the road. Their presence lost its brief at lower altitude, when we drove past a US Marine winter warfare training camp. Even with the miles added by the diversion, we completed the drive in a respectable six and a half hours. Friday morning began with the long scramble down the blocky central gully into the Owens River Gorge. On my first visit as a neophyte climber, around seven years ago, I had found the descent intimidating. Subsequent experience has relegated it to “comparatively trivial” status in my mind, as it would require considerable creativity or astounding bad luck to kill oneself on the descent. The only feature that remains constant across the years is that the descent is guaranteed to turn the quadriceps of your ill-seasoned weekend warrior into a twitching rubbery mass. Starting the first day of a trip in such a state after a long furlough makes for unnecessary excitement, as events at the Great Wall of China quickly demonstrated. China Doll (5.8) is a typical Owens climb of “moderate difficulty”. What “moderate” means in Owens is that the climbing is at a low angle, the holds are mediocre, and traffic has polished everything you might prefer to trust to a slick, confidence-sapping sheen. After quivering through three bolts to the crux, I found my will to continue sapped, my arms pumped, and my ability to think clearly enshrouded in fog. I backed off, took a break while Tony led the route, and re-led it cleanly a few minutes later. The poor start didn’t cloud the rest of my day, though, as we spent the following five hours treating the Wall area as an almost empty gym. The snow over the Sierra must have kept a number of climbers at home, as I have never seen the Bishop area so empty of climbers. It was wonderful to have the run of every climb we wanted for three solid days. On the morning of day two, we took ourselves to the Buttermilks, the famous (among boulderers, anyway) granite boulders east of Bishop. My outdoor bouldering experience is minuscule, so I found the tiny features and harsh crystals of the Buttermilks absolutely overpowering. I thrashed through perhaps two easy problems during our visit. It’s a beautiful area, but not a good destination for the casual climber, I think. Much more to my taste were the Happy Boulders, which we visited after lunch. The volcanic rock features many newbie-friendly problems where you can gain a bit of experience without feeling like you’re wearing down your fingertips on a coarse cheesegrater. Even here, I was stumped by mere V2-level problems, as my poor condition and lack of outdoor bouldering know-how conspired against me. This failed to dampen my enthusiasm, as I simply dropped back to overhung routes with huge holds. On the evening of the second day, we attended a fund-raising screening of the Reel Rock Tour, a pair of climbing movies made by Josh Lowell (“Dosage IV”) and Peter Mortimer (“First Ascent”). Dosage was a moderately entertaining formula film (being the fourth in a now-annual series), featuring many of the “usual suspects” climbing hard routes. The only eye-opener (for me) was a sequence involving ridiculously talented teenagers free soloing hard routes over water on Thailand’s limestone pinnacle islands. Wow. Mortimer’s “First Ascent” was a much more personal movie, as Mortimer blatantly inserted himself into the narrative, making it a highly engaging and entertaining show. We returned to the Gorge on the third day, focusing on more difficult routes in the Pub Wall area. As my endurance is negligible, Tony led every route (taking some fine falls), and I did my game best to follow them without floundering too much. The highlights for me were Hammered (5.11b) and Hardly Wallbanger (5.10c), both of which feature steep climbing of stellar quality. For a small town, Bishop has surprisingly good food. I’ve long been a fan of Erick Schat’s Bäkkery (one of the better bakeries I’ve ever visited) and the Whiskey Creek restaurant. Another of the great pleasures of visiting the Eastern Sierra is Wild Willy’s hot spring next to Crowley Lake, where we had a good soak. The old trail has recently been replaced by a boardwalk to prevent damage to the surrounding salt flats, and it remains an incredibly pleasant place to spend a few hours on a chilly October evening. Had we conceived of the trip more than a few weeks in advance, I might have trained for it, and hence been able to climb at a more respectable level, but what a fantastic weekend it nevertheless was! My previously flagging enthusiasm for pulling plastic at the climbing gym has received a shot in the arm as I remember why I do it. Right, back to daydreaming about when the next climbing trip might happen…
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One comment on “Climbing in Bishop
  1. Matt Morrow says:

    Nice to see another {climb,haskell}er!

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