[This article and the accompanying photographs originally appeared in the July 2007 edition of (the now defunct) Gravity Magazine]
My name is Peter. I write climbing articles. For the past three years I've been travelling around the world with some OK climbers, trying to capture the spiritof our sport and some of its fairly average moments. Between trips, I'm here in London, tied to a word processor, torturing myself with photos of all the amazing climbing out there.
In late March 2007 I got a call from Jenn. She was spending the Spring in Bishop, California, working her way through all the low- to mid-grade projects. On the ‘phone she said she was "really psyched", so I bought my ticket. One thing I've learned about Jenn, if she says she's "psyched", something is going to happen...
OK I can't keep up the accent, but Jenn and I had always been intrigued by the prospect of climbing around Bishop. Watching DVDs, from Josh and Brett Lowell's Dosage series (apologies to Big UP Productions for the intro.) to Paul Dusatko' Soul Cal, had whetted the appetite, if not quite convinced us that climbing in bandanas was that cool. Surely we would quickly follow in the footsteps of Sharma, Rands, Graham and Barnes and be flashing high V-grades within only a few days. Well there was only one way to find out. This is the story of our journey of discovery.
Bishop lies in the Owens Valley in the central part of Eastern California, close to the border with Nevada. The valley is something of a geological wonder; a graben, or rift valley, bounded on the east by the Sierra Nevada (including Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet the highest point in the contiguous US) and on the west by the White Mountains. The mountain ranges are still moving slowly upwards and the valley floor slowly downwards. In the early 1900s the area was caught up in the water wars that were the inspiration for the Roman Polanski / Jack Nicholson film Chinatown. At that time, much of the water rights in the valley were bought up by the city of Los Angeles, sometimes by dubious means, and a giant aquifer runs from the area to LA. Today, partially enforced judicial orders mean that a trickle of water is again allowed to flow into the Owens River, tingeing some surrounding areas green, but much of the rest of the Valley remains a dustbowl. The local feeling about this is reflected in stickers such as "LA sucks! the Owens Valley dry", which appear in many places. Bishop itself has a population of around 3,300 and is at an elevation of 4,000 feet. For many people it is just a place to stop, rest and buy gas while on route US-395 going to or from the ski resort of Mammoth Mountain; something that is reflected in the number of motels and fast food stores. For others, it is one of the very best places in the US for all sorts of outdoor activities, not least climbing.
Twelve hours is a long time to be cooped up in a metal tube, it makes the East Coast transatlantic travel we more frequently do seem pretty trivial really. A night's sleep (or as much as our messed-up body clocks would allow) at a hotel near LAX; pick up the rental car the next morning; a five hour drive with lots of opportunities to say "hey, another Joshua tree"; and we arrive in the mule centre of the world and small-town America (to use the phrase from Wills Young and Mick Ryan's excellent Bishop Bouldering Guide – printed by Wolverine Publications and available at all good bookstores – well Wilson's Eastside Sports at least). The views of the Eastern Sierra on the way were pretty stupendous, rearing up from the edge of the Owens Valley as if some one had drawn the demarcation line between horizontal and vertical world with a very fine pencil. Lots of Alpine fun to be had up there, but we had our sights set somewhat lower.
As we were going to be in Bishop for two weeks, we had booked into a motel with self-catering, there are lots to choose from we went with the Best Western Creekside Inn; see any of the Bishop guides for alternatives and camping. Having checked in and unpacked on the evening of our arrival, we still had some daylight left and decided to see what all the fuss was about. A short drive out of town and onto some unpaved roads deposited us at the foot of the Happy Boulders canyon; a shallow ravine carved out of the thick layer of volcanic tuff that covers much of the area around Bishop and chock-a-block with boulders. Our first surprise was how hard it was to force oxygen into your lungs at 4,500 feet while toiling upwards through unhelpful sand and gravel on the approach path; no high-altitude mountaineers us! We managed to make it as far as the first boulder in our guide and, after collapsing for long enough to recover our breath, found a fun V1 to play on; the name – Paranormal in the West Country – conjuring images of Devon and Cornwall. There is in fact a distinct anglocentric feel to much of Bishop bouldering, and the credit / blame for must surely extend beyond the occasional itinerant ex-pat from Blackburn.
Bishop volcanic tuff; now how to explain this? Well in the world of friction, Bishop volcanic tuff is to Grit as Niagara is to Kinder Downfall; but that doesn't really cover the other characteristics of the rock, from giant wind-blown huecos to razor-sharp finger pockets. It is rather like someone put the pumice stone from your bathroom into one of those mad scientist machines that causes objects to grow exponentially; taken the output and somehow twisted different parts of it through implausible angles to create the standard tuff boulder. It has also been described as climbing on coral. Whether the problem is easy or hard, the holds often seem to be quite a way from each other and there is a real gymnastic feel to the moves. And talking of things being quite a way from each other, the foot of the climb and the top-out seem to mostly fit into this category. Over half of the documented problems are what would be described as high-ball in most of the UK. It seems like a problem is not worth recording unless it is at least 6 metres high; and many of them are twice as high as that. This took rather a lot of mental adjustment and also the hiring of a second bouldering mat (thanks to the nice people at Wilson's Eastside Sports again – that's two name-checks so far, surely that qualifies for some free gear!). In fact my main recommendation for many Bishop problems, at whatever grade, is to have as many mats and spotters as you can manage.
But I am getting ahead of myself. After getting a couple of problems before sun down, we returned, rather dusty, to our motel, retired to the local sushi bar and plotted the rest of our campaign. The plan was to be sensible about our climbing; take it easy; have rest days between bouldering days; go and check out Yosemite; see some Sequoia and Bristlecone Pines; wallow in the natural hot-springs; and get involved in the many other attractions of the area. Well the passes to Yosemite and Kings Canyon were buried below 30 foot of snow, which didn't help, but even if they hadn't been we probably wouldn't have taken them. In our 15 days in Bishop we did have two rest days, if hiking at 10,000 feet (to see the aforementioned Bristlecones) and in 100°F temperatures (in Death Valley) count, but were much too excited by the climbing to rest much on the other 13. This kids-in-a-sweetshop approach was perhaps a bit OTT and we would do it differently next time, but it led to a lot of fun; albeit at the expense of a commensurate amount of skin-loss.
Over the next two weeks we were to return to our original venue of the Happys (and the adjacent Sads) a further five times; it is the sort of place that you want to go back to again and again. On three days, we visited the climbing Mecca that is The Buttermilks; with its giant boulders and bullet-hard quartz-monzonite ranging from rough to glassy in inverse proportion to the characteristics you want the next hand or foothold to exhibit. At first it is really difficult to take in the size of these outsized glacial moraines that have been dragged down from the Sierra by long-receded glaciers. We mostly got cricks in our necks trying to make out the distant final moves of death–problems like Evilution (V12); it's tough doing this when the top holds are obscured by cloud and circling condors.
The Happys and the Buttermilks are both world-famous bouldering areas and we did focus most of our energy on them. However, at other times, and especially during the weekend invasions (mostly from Portland – Oregon, not Dorset – to judge by the SUV number plates), we cast our net wider to encompass such Bishop esotercia as The Dreamers, The Catacombs and Pocketopia; all at above 7.000 feet on the Sherwin Plateau but geologically akin to the Happys. Here, rather than tripping over other people's mats and bumping into Lisa Rands as we had at the Buttermilks (I had to get the name-dropping in somewhere), we spent our days surrounded by just really tall boulders and really tall pine trees. Most days we were undisturbed by any other human beings. Finally, by way of variation (and also seeing as we had bothered to drag our harnesses, rope and quick-draws with us to the US), we even spent a day tackling some sports climbs in the Owens River Gorge.
So how did we get on? Well selecting from my extensive list of climbing-related excuses: no. 145. we were both pretty weak going into the fortnight after illnesses and a lack of training; no. 204. the rock was rather different and took a while to get the hang of; no. 481. as mentioned above, we never really let our bodies recover in between sessions; and no. 18. (an old, reliable favourite) it was way too hot, at around 80°F about 10-20°F higher than normal at that time of year. On this last point, the Bishop bouldering season normally lasts from October to April. While winter can be cold, this season sees some of the hardest ascents. The area is essentially on the edge of a desert and summer temperatures of 90-100°F mean that this is a time for mountaineering (or chilling out at the Black Sheep espresso bar behind Spellbinder Books) not bouldering.
Despite these major challenges we managed to do a ton of stuff, get a lot stronger and even resurrect long-forgotten and deeply-buried climbing techniques like drop-knees and flagging. I have never been happy with pinchers, but you can't avoid them in Bishop and now I treat them the same as any other hold, progress I guess. Regarding specific problems, Jenn sent V3s like Rendevous with an Alien, Pirate Booty and Monkey Hang Traverse (flashed) at the Happys and Problem 2 at The Alcove section of The Dreamers; the V4 Impulse Control, again at the Happys (which she nearly flashed); and came close to V5s at both the Happys and the Buttermilks. As per normal, my own achievements were rather more modest, but you know some of those VB's were really, really hard. Climbs that stood out for me included Grant's Christmas Present (V1) at the Happys – if I could transport that to London as a training aid, I'd be very happy – Bourbon IV (surely harder than V0-) at The Dreamers, Doubletree (V0) at Pocketopia and Cossaboom Bang Bang (V0) at The Catacombs.
However, perhaps one of my most abiding memories was only tangentially related to climbing. As I was spotting Jenn on Hero Roof (V0) at the Buttermilks, I heard a strange rattling sound behind me. The volume was increasing and seemed to have a certain urgency to it. Some vestigial memory of watching Westerns as a child returned to me and whispered "rattlesnake". I conveyed my suspicions to Jenn, now back on terra firma and we cast our eyes around to find a brown and black checked "rope" coiled round in a crack in the boulders behind us; a "rope" with eyes and who wasn't very happy with the two of us. We now know that Panamint Rattlesnakes hibernate, apparently in some numbers, behind the Iron Man Traverse area at The Buttermilks. They are normally asleep in March / April, but the unseasonably warm weather seemed to have woken this one up prematurely, either that or it was the smell of boulderers. It was quite a small snake and we weren't too freaked out until it decided to wriggle down to join us a bit later. That evening, back at the hotel, we read that the bite of a juvenile Panamint Speckled Rattlesnakes is about as bad as rattlesnake bites get. We aren't entirely sure whether it would have been better or worse to have known this beforehand. Anyway, I guess the rattlesnake wasn't too impressed with our climbing skills and it slithered off under a more distant boulder, but not before stopping to pose for some photos.
Beyond snakes, I suppose what sticks most in my mind are two things. First the climbs I almost sent, top of this list is Green Wall Essential (V2) at the Buttermilks, described as an old-school technical test-piece. I had the final jugs in my grasp twice only to rather lose it both times and fall rather a long way. Second I remember the problems I looked at and thought I'd come back to. The perfect arête of The Church of the Lost and Found (V1) at The Catacombs, the crimpy high-ball of Jedi Mind Tricks (V4) at The Buttermilks and many others. I guess if you did everything you wanted on a trip, you would have no reason to return and I am delighted to have many reasons to want to return to Bishop. Now all I have to do is to wait for the temperature to drop low enough to be bearable – I'm thinking September 2007 maybe.