By the mid-1980s, pictures of lycra-clad Euros climbing impossible faces had made their way to California. Those posers would blow chalk off their hands while holding on by one finger. Like Ricky Bobby in Talledega Nights, we Californians harbored an instant dislike and immense jealousy for our European rivals. We even coined a derogatory term, “French Free,” that effectively, in our small minds at least, discredited Euro climbing altogether.
As is often the case, jealousy bred imitation, and we began looking around California for a cliff we, too, could pose on, wearing lycra and puffing chalk. We looked high and low, in every scruffy canyon and quarry. We found limestone and welded tuff, basalt and granite; we bolted and dogged and chipped; and our crags bore many similarities to the ones in Europe, save one: ours sucked. Now countless sport crags sit rusting throughout our state, from choss-piles like New Jack City and Big Chief to razor-blade pain fests like the Trinity Aretes. The whole experiment would be a total loss if it weren’t for the occasional brilliance of our one great sport-climbing crag: the Owens River Gorge.
The Gorge is a deep 10-mile gash cut by the once mighty Owens River, and centered in the Owens Valley just north of the bouldering mecca of Bishop. In 1988, however, when its first sport route went up, the Gorge was about as godforsaken as a place could be. For almost 50 years, Los Angeles had sucked every drop of precious desert water from the canyon, leaving a parched wasteland strewn with three modern power plants (that light up about 75,000 L.A. homes), and the abandoned wreckage of older plants dating back to the early 1900s. Despite the carnage, blank walls of dark volcanic ash welded into compact tuff, and hundreds of feet high, called out to climbers. Ironically, one of the first to heed the call was none other than the arch tradster John Bachar. Bachar, one of the greatest free climbers and perhaps the most visionary free-soloist ever to live, was the antithesis of a sport climber. Yet his classic route Pick Pocket (5.11a) was the first completely bolt-protected climb (established ground up, of course) in the Gorge, and the starting bell for the bolting frenzy that followed.
Within a few years, the Gorge supported hundreds of routes from 5.6 to 5.13, with the vast majority falling into the 5.10 and 5.11 range. The brown walls, sometimes chossy and sometimes diamond-hard, offer surprisingly diverse and unique climbing on pockets, cracks and ubiquitous mini-ledges.
Amazingly, just as the Gorge was coming into its own as a climbing area, a landmark pro-environment decision was made to allow some water to flow through the canyon again. The effect was instant, sublime and green: plant and animal life returned to the Gorge, and it became something of a sport-climbing paradise. Fashion is fickle, however, and just as the Gorge blossomed fully, sport climbing began to lose ranks to the bouldering craze that hit Bishop like an avalanche. Yosemite also returned to kinghood, and the Gorge fell by the wayside. Locals like Marty Lewis continued to buff the walls out with killer new routes and river crossings, and by the mid- to late 1990s the massive Eldorado Roof area housed dozens of wildly overhanging clip-ups.
Perhaps the Gorge’s strongest endorsement comes from its almost inexplicable roster of devotees, a veritable Who’s Who of trad superstardom, and some of the last people you might expect to see at a sport area.
John Bachar, a trad icon if ever there was one, is famous for defining and defending trad values since the 1970s. He’s been coming to the Gorge for over 20 years, coolly and quietly clipping or soloing routes into the 5.12 range. Peter Croft, Canada’s star free soloist, perhaps the first to establish trad 5.13 first ascents on sight, has spent years establishing a bevy of classic sport climbs in the Gorge. The hardcore aid-man Eric Kohl has taken considerable time away from his Yosemite A5 horror shows to slam bolts and routes into the big Eldorado Roof. And now, young Lonnie Kauk is putting the steel fingers he inherited from his dad, Ron, to use on the Gorge’s hardest lines.
“It’s just so damn fun down in there,” says Kevin Daniels, another talented trad climber. “I used to think I’d never do sport climbing, but the Gorge just lets you get so much climbing in.”
These days the Gorge offers more than ever. Great new routes are still going up as second pitches are ferreted out and harder, blanker walls are attempted. The latest guidebook gives over 50 routes the highest star rating. And if you need a break from the pump, world-class bouldering is a stone’s throw away at the Buttermilks and the Happy Boulders.
Jim Thornburg, a wanna-be poker pro, has made a precarious living as a climbing photographer for nearly 20 years.
Season: Spring and fall have temps in the 70s. Winter can have excellent conditions during high pressure, and summer afternoons and early mornings in the shade can also be OK.
Camping: The BLM climbers’ campground (aka The Pit) is a 10-minute drive from the Gorge and only costs two bucks a night. From Bishop, drive north on US 395 to the Pleasant Valley exit and turn right. After 0.9 miles, go left on a dirt road for 0.5 miles to the campground. There are toilets, but no water.
Primitive camping is also available on Inyo National Forest land at the Pinyon Campsite. Drive north on the Gorge Road and look for a paved road on the left just before the North Parking area. Follow this for a mile and a half to some nice sites along the road.
Dining: The Great Basin Bakery at 169 Lagoon St. has super-yummy croissants for breakfast, and bagel sandwiches for lunch.
The Black Sheep Espresso Bar at 124 South Main St. is the climbers’ choice for coffee and wireless Internet.
Amigos’ Mexican Restaurant at 285 North Main St. has great, cheap burritos and enchiladas.
Climbing Shop: Wilson’s Eastside Sports on North Main.
Guidebook: Owens River Gorge Climbs by Marty Lewis (Maximus Press).
Text and Photos By Jom Thornburg