This article appeared in Rock and Ice issue 212 (September 2013).
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.
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.
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.
The High Sierra
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.
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.”
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.
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.