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A Bouldering Affair – Still in Love After All These Years

Against all the odds, as well as my cheating climbing heart and the endless mountain passes separating us, I'm still head-over-heels for the bouldering in Bishop, California.

This love thing, if you’ll allow me a bit of judicious insight, is complicated.

I’ve loved girlfriends, my family and friends and even my country, I suppose, in the most ephemeral way.  And bouldering areas, too, I really like a handful an awful lot.  But, love?  Like, do I really know their secrets?  Do they know mine?

I’ve dated Hampi, India. Had a fling with Korea and a seedy romance with Koh Tao in Thailand.  Definitely sealed the deal with Joe’s Valley in Utah, if you know what I mean. Truth be told, I’ve been a bit of a strumpet in Colorado. In the end, allegorically speaking, I’ve never taken any of them home to meet the folks.

But love at first sight, baby, I believe in it. Driving 15 hours in a Ford Explorer with two buddies, rolling through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and driving straight into Buttermilk Country, I fell for her right then and there, way back in 2001. Against all the odds, as well as my cheating climbing heart and the endless mountain passes separating us, I’m still head-over-heels for the bouldering in Bishop, California.

The way I figure it, the love connection between boulderer and destination relies upon two ingredients.  Without these co-mingled components, a burgeoning love affair with a bouldering area can begin with a bawdy infatuation that fizzles over the years, or perhaps a pleasing one-trip-stand that you gloat about but probably won’t remember for so long.

Bishop, with magical alchemy, brings the two most important ingredients together in one beautiful bombshell, if you’ll allow me to unpack my metaphor a bit longer.

California is a special place. I don’t know if it’s the alpine air smacking into the salty surf or the hippies co-mingling with Silicon Valley suits or if it’s simply the geographical extension of America’s great drive to always move west, towards assumed freedom and its head-swimming possibilities.

Whatever it is, the people drawn to California are the most spellbinding and disparate mix of dreamer and pragmatist, vacationer and vagrant. And the folks you meet on your way to wherever, are always a major ingredient to a flourishing love affair with a bouldering destination.

I believe, besides the gaggles climbers milling about, the first thing you’ll notice about Bishop is that most of these fine small-town folk do not climb.  The fellows in the barbershop, where I once came dangerously close to getting an Army regulation “high and tight”, look just like the old-timers that trim hair in any other western outpost town. These old geezers do not buzz 16 crew cuts a day because they graduated beauty school in Sacramento. They got sick of ranching or trucking or whatever else and just happened to own a pair of scissors. The cashier last year in Bishop’s decadent Erick Schat’s Bakkery owned a ranch but worked at the bakery part-time because she needed more contact with people. A gelding is not much to talk with, apparently.

These little towns tucked into the ruffles of the Sierra might seem chalk full of ornery old farts and ranchin’ ladies, but that’s not to say the hippies and hipsters, the hikers and birders, the skiers and climbers haven’t carved out a slice of Bishop for their own consumption.

For climbers not going straight to the crag, mornings in Bishop often start at Schat’s or The Black Sheep coffee shop, both on Bishop’s Main Street minutes away from the camping. Laptops whisper climbing porn from every table, while Gore-Tex clad hard-bodies order their coffees and quiche amid locals streaming through on their way to work. A block away climbers stock up on chalk and beta at Wilson’s East Side Sports. You can’t walk down the street without bumping into some climber on road trip, wondering if you look as totally stoked as she does.

Bouldering in Bishop, California. It's always great to have a trained chef in camp. Anthony Tarascio.  Anthony Tarascio culinary muscles for the gang in "The Pit."
It's always great to have a trained chef in camp. Anthony Tarascio flexing his culinary muscles for the gang in "The Pit."

It’s always great to have a trained chef in camp.   Anthony Tarascio culinary muscles for the gang in “The Pit.”

But climbers also live in Bishop. On my first trip to the East Side I saw Peter Croft squeezing a tomato in the vegetable aisle at Vons and nearly fainted. I saw Lisa Rands mowing her lawn with one of those spinny-blade manual jobbies while I was driving around town. I did not honk and fist-pump, although I really wanted to. Even legendary Stonemaster John Bachar lived just up winding Hwy 395 in Mammoth Lakes.

Impressive indeed, but perhaps the most peculiar and marvelous are the Bishop local legends. To wit, the Sierra Phantom. This whispy septuagenarian used to roll around town on his bedazzled bicycle waving at anyone he saw. I befriended him during a six week trip in 2003, sharing afternoon coffees on my rest days. I listened to his tales of roughing it in the Sierras for half a century, his acquaintance with Harry Truman after his service in World War II, his invention of the “world famous” Wild Trout Glitter Fly, and a thousand other yarns I can’t recall. He carried a haggard suitcase full of his newspaper clippings which I leafed through every time I sat down at his table, wondering if my generation had lost the folkish dexterity needed to foster these unimaginable characters.

Then there was Benny, the schizophrenic climber who some believe was an initial developer in Bishop but who succumbed to the disease in his late 20s. His teetering twin-blast laugh gave him both his nickname and immortalized him with a couple of so-so problems at the Happy Boulders:  Benny V1 and Ha-Ha V0.  Benny Ha-Ha.

I starkly recall one mid-morning when Benny strolled up to our campsite at the Pit, the uber-cheap campground favored by mostly young climbers.

“What’s the word, Benny,” I’d said.  Although I can’t recall his exact response, here’s the gist.

“Oh, I’m about to go to Seattle for some business. Ha ha. Legal business. Ha ha.  Me and my lawyer have some business with the King of Denmark.”

We didn’t catch a whiff of Benny for the next three days, until he strolled back into the Pit declaring his business done. I have seen neither him nor the Sierra Phantom for years and often wonder what came of the two. Perhaps Benny is a Grand Duke of Denmark by now, the Sierra Phantom fly fishing in the Great Trout Stream in the Sky.

The rodeo clown we eventually introduced to climbing, the Dartmouth climbing club that kept everyone awake with their parties, the crew who drove down from Washington in a gutted ice cream truck, the Quebec fellow who financed his trips to Bishop by peddling posters on college campuses, the fiddle players, endless photographers, dirtbags, old-schoolers, rookies and a million other climbers. All sharing the Pit like some huge Dickensian comedy. How we all manage to make this recipe edible, I’ll never know.

Check that. It’s the climbing, that’s final ingredient for my love of Bishop. Without it, the East Side would be just another pretty town with a lot of horses, seasonal skiers and outdoorsman, and cantankerous barbers.

My love affair began after watching a video called Dosage, a flick that captured a young Chris Sharma’s first ascent of the Mandala V12. I was on the road to Bishop a number of months later. But it wasn’t the people or the scene which had led me to the East Side, not initially. Indeed, it was the sweeping shots of Sharma and Rands cranking hard on the most beautiful rock I’d ever seen.

You just don’t realize the possibilities of Bishop bouldering until you arrive, and then it takes weeks (or years) to properly sample the varied climbing. Basically, you’re torn between the Volcanic Tableland’s pocketed tuff of the Happy and Sad Boulders and the perfect patina and half-pad crimps in the idyllic Buttermilk Country.

You have more than 2000 lines to sample, from the Druid Stones overlooking Bishop itself at 1,875 m to the Sad’s Ice Caves, a serpentine collection of narrow passageways where the temps are always cool and the climbing muscular and stout.

Although the stable of classics could fill a guide of its own, recent development has established Bishop as the world’s premier highball destination. My Bishop rapture, has after this year’s tenth anniversary visit focused on the Pollen Grains, a meandering cluster of massive Buttermilk Boulders deposited – by whatever forces gave us perfect highball climbing – above flat, beachy landings.

Bouldering in Bishop, California. Katie Pegg turning the lip on the classic and always crowded Solarium V4 at the Happy Boulders
Katie Pegg turning the lip on the classic and always crowded Solarium V4 at the Happy Boulders

Katie Pegg turning the lip on the classic and always crowded Solarium (V4) at the Happy Boulders

Numerous spotters, a scandalous number of double-wide pads and a big ole’ can of stoke (metaphorical or not – both might work equally well) create some facsimile of safety on these tall lines. Adding to the artificial peace-of-mind is the vast breadth of highballing options in the area. The steel-tendoned freaks have Dave Graham’s Spectre V13 as well as the stunning Golden Shower V10. Fledgling highball maestros can tackle the terrifying and beautiful Mesothelioma V7 and Matt Wilder’s relative newcomer to the highball party, The Ninth V6.  For my money, Suspended in Silence V5, on the planet-sized Lidija Boulder, is the quintessential climb of its grade in our terrestrial sphere. Jedi Mind Tricks V4, John Bachar Memorial Problem V1, and even the down climb off the Lidija Boulder, Original Line V0, round out just a few of the moderate and easy towering plums to be found at the Pollen Grains.

Listen, I’m starting to shake and weep a bit here at my desk in Denver, an entirely ludicrous proposition when expounding on the firm-lipped enterprise of highballing, but that’s what a faraway Bishop does to you. It’s like the night you spend staring at the ceiling shortly after the first kiss with the person of your dreams, all shaky and emotional and pretty much a fuzzy ball of bubbles. The silver lining here is that Bishop will never break up with you. It’s waiting, forever tucked amongst the Sierra foothills, smitten and full of bursting secrets, just waiting for a new romance.

Bouldering in Bishop, California. The last thing you'll see pulling off of Buttermilk Road is a not-so-subtle reminder to "Never STOP Climbing"
The last thing you'll see pulling off of Buttermilk Road is a not-so-subtle reminder to "Never STOP Climbing"

The last thing you’ll see pulling off of Buttermilk Road is a not-so-subtle reminder to “Never STOP Climbing”



EATS AND DRINKS:  Groceries are easy to find in Bishop, but the big three options are Vons (north end of Main Street), Joseph’s Bi-rite (centre of town on Main Street, across from Wilson’s Eastside Sports) and Manor Market (2.5 miles west of Bi-rite along West Line Street). For those looking to imbibe, the Manor Market features an excellent array of beer and wine, while Vons and a number of other establishments also peddle booze. Restaurants are plentiful if you’re in the mood for a night away from the camps stove. Experiment with the pizza joints and you’re sure to find a winner.

ACTIVITIES:  You won’t find a lot of night life in Bishop, but there is a ton to do on your rest days.  Keough Hot Springs, located about 7.5 miles south of town on highway 395, is a great place to catch a shower and relax in the hot pool. You also have a theater in town, located across the street from Wilson’s. For a more active rest day consider trail running, hiking, mountain biking, alpine climbing, fly fishing, photography, skiing/snowboarding and the fantastic sport and traditional climbing, all found within an hour of Bishop.

ACCOMMODATIONS:  You’ll find a number of hotels/motels in Bishop, from the B&B set to the Holiday Inn Express and everything in between. For more info concerning your varied lodging options, visit the Bishop Chamber of Commerce website: www.bishopvisitor.com. There are also excellent camping opportunities during the prime fall/winter/spring season. The Pleasant Valley Climbers Campground (“The Pit”) charges $2 per vehicle for a maximum 60 day stay. There are pit toilets here, but no running water or electricity. A number of other campsites dot the area, ranging from roughly $10-$25 a night.  Also, free camping is allowed in the Buttermilk Country, although with Bishop’s popularity the added numbers in this fragile ecosystem seem to be having an impact. If you decide to rough it in the backcountry, please take care to leave no trace.

GUIDEBOOK:  Bishop Bouldering, written by Wills Young and Mick Ryan and put out by Wolverine Publishing offers world class reading for the coffee table and the pack.  Buy it. Use it.

Dave McAllister is a climber living in Denver. While he may have the occasional tryst with other bouldering areas, Bishop remains his one true love.

Photos by Kyle Deutmeyer