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Bishop Bound: The Boulders and Beyond

By Ken Etzel

The Buttermilk Boulders are a quick 20-minute drive from downtown Bishop. Bring lots of pads as this area is a highball boulderer’s hang. Evilution Direct (V11), tops out at 45 feet and most people preview the upper 5.9 slab with a toprope. Here, Jeremy Ho elects to leave the rope at home on a ground-up ascent. Photo by Ken Etzel.Rich’s leg stuck straight up out of the dumpster. 

“Dude, anything good?” I yelled from the safety of the truck.  

Rich righted himself and victoriously pulled out a massive bag of pastries. 

This was January of 2001. I had just graduated from college, hitting the road from Wisconsin on my first open-ended climbing trip. Bishop, California, was the epicenter of bouldering at the time, and I made a two-day non-stop drive to a place I knew essentially nothing about. To me, coming from the flatlands where cows and corn were the high spots on the landscape, the words “Sierra Nevada” stood for something you drank from a bottle. I spent that winter learning the ways of the climbing bum—more specifically, the way of the bouldering junkie. Inspired by this new culture, I spent that winter and the following one living out of my vehicle, dumpster diving and bouldering in Bishop. 

Bishop, population 3,900, is a sleepy town with a strong culture rooted in ranching, mining and fishing. Situated in the Owens River Valley between the Basin and Range Province of Nevada and the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada, the town enjoys an impressive contrast of snow-capped mountains to the east and west with a dry (5 inches of annual precipitation) desert on the valley floor that is nearly 10,000 feet lower than the mountains.  

Brian Russell finds solitude on Timothy Leary Presents (V3) at the Pollen Grains (aka Lidija Boulders). Photo by Ken Etzel.

Years ago, folks like Bob Harrington, Tony Puppo, Mike Pope and Peter Croft moved to the East Side for its great rock climbing and easy access to the High Sierra, and as a refuge from the harsh Yosemite winters, but it wasn’t until 2000 that Bishop hit the mainstream and dirtbags (like me) flocked like magpies to the new trove of baubles. The Happy and Buttermilk Boulders started showing up in the mags and online, and many climbers came to see what all the hype was about.  In the frenzy, long-forgotten areas were rediscovered, and new problems and routes went up almost every day.

The winter’s perfect friction and clear blue skies, however, inevitably yield to relentless summer as an almost unbearable desert heat swallows the valley. With this sublimation, the ominous snow-covered mountains that loom over the klettergarten look much more inviting, and it is here that I discovered the joy of summer alpine climbing. At first I resisted, but now I eagerly trade in my crash pad for a helmet and a trad rack, and head for the hills. My bouldering “try hard” has slowly transmuted into an appetite for alpine starts and 15-hour days in the mountains. 

Whether it’s bouldering, sport climbing, multi-pitch trad climbing, or perfect Sierra granite ridges that inspire you, you’ll find your favorite genre here. This variety comes with a price, though—indulgence is often feast or famine. The diversity is in the seasons.

It’s funny how often I hear that someone came to Bishop to boulder, but stayed because of the mountains. I can’t say I dumpster dive much anymore, but I definitely still boulder. Yet as much as I seek the perfect line on a perfect block, my dreams are filled with images of the endless High Sierra and the adventure that lies there.


The Buttermilks

You can see the Druid Stones from town, but a steep 45-minute hike guards access. Like the Buttermilk boulders, the Stones offer crimpy and techy climbing on tall granite blocks. Laura Lingeman gains support from her friends on Skye Dance (V6). Photo by Ken Etzel.Evening beers after a great session with friends, and a little “painting with light” at the Buttermilk upper parking area on a summer evening. Photo by Ken Etzel.My heart rate always picks up when I come around the last bend of Buttermilk Road and see the massive granite blocks perched on the hillside with mounts Tom, Basin and Humphreys looming in the background. I’ve made the drive hundreds of times, but I’m still struck by the juxtaposition of the mountains and the boulders. Memories rush back to freewheeling days of shredding skin and learning how to smear and keep my cool way off the deck, to bonds of friendship solidified at day’s end as we gathered with bloody tips and strained tendons in the parking lot.

Ian Cotter-Brown takes one more lap on Seven Spanish Angels (V7) before joining the party on top of the Get Carter boulder. Photo by Ken Etzel.


The High Sierra

A towering eight-mile wave of granite called the Palisades lies just to the south of Bishop and houses the highest concentration of 14ers in California. Here, Brian Russell tags one of the five 14,000-foot summits on the Thunderbolt to Sill traverse (IV 5.9). Photo by Ken Etzel. 3:30 a.m. It’s going to be dark for hours. I need to drink coffee, but the thought of it turns my stomach. How am I supposed to eat this early? I grab my pack, coffee mug and a piece of toast, and jump in the truck. Luckily, we have a six-mile approach so I won’t have to use my brain quite yet. The hike goes by in a haze.

We arrive at the base of the route at first light—perfect except for the freezing temps—and Ro Sham Bo for the first lead. Paper smothers rock. Looks like I’m up. I’m not sure which is better, freezing at the belay or shoving my swollen and numb hands in that cold sharp crack.  Soon the sun is shining and we’re four pitches up, looking down at the turquoise lakes and across at the seemingly endless line of summits on the horizon. Suddenly, the early start and long hike seem worth it.

Brian Russell on the Thunderbolt to Sill traverse (IV 5.9). Photo by Ken Etzel.

Hours pass and we finally cross the last sections of fourth class to the summit block. Clouds float on the skyline but it won’t storm today. 

“Think we’ll make it back to the truck before dark?” 

“I don’t know, but either way there’s cold ones in the cooler.”

Trish McGuire and Viren Perumal discuss route options at the Hulk. Photo by Ken Etzel.


There are many summer crags near the town of Mammoth Lakes, just an hour north of Bishop. The well-featured Dike Wall, for example, has great granite sport and gear routes from 5.10 and harder. Grim Reality (5.10b) is a good option despite the dire appellation, as Jason Henrie discovers in this sea of granite. Photo by Ken Etzel.The Gorge and Canyons

Downtown Bishop can seem like a living storehouse of climbing history. Whether it’s Galen Rowell’s gallery, Tony and Nan Puppo’s resole shop the Rubber Room, or the plethora of objectves, climbing has become synonymous with Bishop. 

Don’t worry, Bishop isn’t all about pebble wrestling and peak bagging. Just 20 minutes to the north is California’s winter sport-climbing destination, the Owens River Gorge. Getting your pump on is easy, as you’ll find nearly a thousand routes—and counting. Here, Chris Hackbarth cools down on Photon Torpedo (5.11b). Photo by Ken Etzel.

Climbing legends like Doug Robinson, Dale Bard, Bobbi Bensman, John Bachar, Peter Croft, Wills Young and Lisa Rands have established routes of every discipline throughout the region. By doing so, they put places like the Owens River Gorge, Cardinal Pinnacle and the Dike Wall on the map, and have made Bishop a climber’s town.

Who’s stronger? Wills Young, bouldering guidebook author and host of the Bishop Bouldering Blog, gets a beat down from his wife, the pro climber Lisa Rands. Photo by Ken Etzel.

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