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California’s Big House

Sport fanatics are (finally) on the loose at Jailhouse Rock.

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I was drinking pints with two climbers at the Iron Horse in downtown Sonora, California, when a tubby man wearing a “Primus Sucks” hat and T-shirt approached. “My name is Mud,” he said, “like the Primus song.” Mud gave us an elaborate history of the band. At the height of his speech, he ripped off his shirt and exposed a keg of a belly as well as a tattoo. “Primus Sucks” was also etched across his fat gut.

Fanaticism of all kinds runs deep in the Sierra foothills. On the outskirts of Sonora, a sign for Saturday-night strip shows at a hotel sits a hundred yards from one promoting Sunday-morning service at the Sonora Cowboy Church. Diehard climbers blaze past these disparate venues on their way to Jailhouse, one of America’s best sport crags, until now “secret.”

On November 16, permanent access to Jailhouse was secured thanks to the efforts of Tom Addison, an environmental lobbyist working with the Access Fund. Though climbers have been visiting Jailhouse for over 20 years, the crag officially sits on access-sensitive private property. A short-term $100,000 Access Fund Land Conservation Campaign loan to the current landowners secured a conservation and access easement agreement, essentially ensuring that Jailhouse Rock will remain open to climbing permanently.

“For over two decades, I’ve had a great time falling off routes at this cliff,” Addison said. “I am delighted that people are going to have the same experience into the future.” Addison, a 48-year-old environmental lobbyist, recently earned the Bebie Leadership award from the Access Fund for his work.

These efforts represent a huge step in the history of Jailhouse Rock. When property owners first discovered that a handful of people were climbing on their land in the early 1990s, they closed the crag. Climbers, with legal assistance, worked to reach a tentative land-use agreement, and instated a “no guidebook, no publicity” policy.

On its website, the Access Fund gives special thanks to Marta and Steve Weinstein, “who have graciously allowed climbing at Jailhouse for the last 12 years and will continue to own the property and work with climbers to ensure that Jailhouse Rock remains in its current and natural state.”

Jailhouse boasts nearly a hundred showstopper routes, from 5.11 warm-ups to Brad Johnson’s recent 5.14+, Yoga High. The best and largest concentration of grades is in the 5.13 range on routes that head up the center 200-foot enduro cave. The setting is pleasant and rural, and though the rock is fractured and scruffy looking, it offers great physical, athletic climbing. Hummingbirds buzz between bright California fuchsias, and the skies are filled with swallows, osprey, turkey vultures, hawks and crows. Horses graze the surrounding land and blue herons fish in the waters of nearby Tulloch Lake.
The definitively blocky stone defines the climbing style at Jailhouse. No place, not even Rifle, lends itself better to kneebarring. In fact, Jailhouse is the birthplace of the sticky-rubber kneepad. Troy Corliss of Tahoe and Tommy Herbert of Reno, two early developers of Jailhouse, are both argued to be the inventors of the kneepad. Corliss, according to Addison, stitched rubber pads onto a pair of baseball pants in the early 1990s. Herbert claims he was the first to glue sticky rubber on a neoprene pad. The California climber Chris Knuth imported the gear and its associated technique from Sonora to Rifle, where it was popularized in the mid 1990s.


Jailhouse’s three-dimensional basalt encourages climbers to press their thighs into the wall, both to rest their arms and to ratchet their bodies higher to better holds. Every route at Jailhouse has a kneebar, knee scum, or some kind of leg press. Show up at the crag without basic kneebarring skills and it’s like arriving at Yosemite without knowing how to hand jam.

“Jailhouse is amazing,” says Alex Honnold, who grew up in nearby Sacramento. “It definitely helped me develop as a climber, and taught me how to kneebar really well. It has a remarkable concentration of hard sport routes and it has one of the longest climbing seasons in the world. I’m a big fan.”

Word of a sport-climbing mother lode a mere two hours from both Yosemite and the San Francisco Bay Area first traveled to Camp 4 in the early 1990s after Dave Schultz, a leading Valley climber, thrashed through poison oak above Tulloch Lake to stand in the enormous basalt cave. Schultz bolted a steep section of the wall ground-up, and began his longtime project Life Sentence (5.13b). The jail motif continued with the cliff’s first routes: Cell Block (5.13a), Iron Junkie (5.12c), and the classic Soap on a Rope (5.12d). The only route to top out on the 200-foot wall is the Mountaineers’ Route, also known as Three Strikes (5.13b), which climbs the extension of the extension to Cell Block. It’s a seasonal rarity to see someone successfully top out on the big house.

The cryptic climbing makes onsighting difficult. But with good beta and a pair of kneepads, you’ll find that no route has a move more difficult than V7. Rests abound. In December 2006, a fit 20-year-old Emily Harrington put in a stint at Jailhouse, eventually sending Burning Down the House (5.14b) and flashing Jailbait (5.13c) on the same day, an impressive effort that locals still talk about.

The Jailhouse community is relatively small, with a core crew commuting two hours from the Bay Area every weekend from fall to spring. All are passionate. During an extremely wet season, one desperate climber waded through the four-foot flash-flooded river to clip a towel to a bolt on The Juice (5.14a) so he could dab the wet spot on a hold.

At the crux of the 50-foot power-endurance route Fugitive (5.13a), Sean “Stanley” Leary clipped in direct to a six-foot-long in-situ chain draw to de-pump. After resting, Stanley forgot to unclip. He grabbed a backwards L, crimped his right hand, brought his foot above the roof, threw for the next slot, and hit the end of the chain. The long static fall bent the carabiner open and nearly crushed his family jewels.
“They’re small,” Stanley said. “They got out of the way.”

While the initial phase of saving this world-class crag is over, difficulties remain. The current parking lot and trail cross private land, which is up for sale. A different access point to the crag has been found but $40,000 is needed to build a new parking lot and trail, and begin a stewardship fund. The Access Fund and the Unlock Jailhouse foundation need support.
Addison plans on a number of fundraisers including slideshows, online auctions and donations from climbers. Once that funding has been raised, and the new parking area, gate and trail are built, the original access point will be closed. Climbers will need a gate code to visit Jailhouse due to grazing horses. The code—along with all other current access information—will be available on
As Jailhouse has shown, when climbers apply the same fanatical obsession that they climb with to crag access, great things can happen.

Stand Out Routes

Soap On a Rope (5.12d), the center-stage line, is a classic warm-up and introduction to the main cave. It is the fourth route to the right of the large sections of trees, which are in the center of the wall. The first three bolts are equipped with chains and climb a pillar.

Fugitive (5.13a) is an awesome test of power-endurance with a 5.13b extension. The first bolt of Fugitive is three feet above a freestanding pillar on the right side of the crag. It is located between Soap and the 5.11 warm-ups on the far right.

Alcatraz (5.13b) begins up a stem corner on the second route to the left of Soap.

Jailbait (5.13c) is a classic not to be missed, located between Soap and Fugitive on the right side of the cliff.

Overhaul (5.13d), the extension of Hall of Justice (5.13b), is one of the best long climbs at the cliff. Hall of Justice begins out of the left side of the big bush system in the center of the wall. Enter the bushes from the left side and it is the second route.

Getting There

Jailhouse is located between Chinese Camp and Cooperoplis, California, on O’Byrnes Ferry Road. This historic road is best accessed from Interstate 108, which essentially connects Modesto to the east and Sonora to the west. The old parking area was originally located on the north side of the road between the bridge that crosses Tulloch Lake and the Sierra Conservation Camp—the jail. The parking area is being relocated, and a combination gate to protect the grazing horses will be in place. Please go to the Access Fund’s website for current access info. The crag is a 30-minute hike from the parking lot. As part of the agreement with the owners, there will be no dogs, no fires and no camping on the property.