Consulting the Druids

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Ask any Bishop local about the bouldering at the Druid Stones and you’ll likely hear the same two things, a long hike to sharp and crumbly rock. While that is mostly true, it is on crisp patina edges and inside the steep heucos that beautiful movement can be found along an incredible vista.

However, before you can converse with it’s oracles the quads are pounded hiking up an unreasonably hot canyon and the skin must be sacrificed to their protruding crystals.

A boulderer is a strange creature. I’ve heard some say trad climbing is “too scary” while polishing off femur-shattering highballs off the couch. While the Druids are substantially shorter than the neighboring Buttermilks, the 45 minute uphill hike is the ‘wrong kind’ of suffering for the average pad person.

For a part-time boulderer, full-time foodie like myself the idea of bringing baked goods up for a lunch on the hill mixed in with a short session seemed the thing to do. The temperature was climbing just outside of Black Sheep Coffee while a morning session became an afternoon session. It was time to grab the pad and take a pleasant hike uphill in hot mid-day sun.

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Well, ‘pleasant’ might be a stretch. Loaded with a quiver of climbing shoes, a veritable buffet of snack food and a topped-off water bladder the hike from Bir Road felt more like a high sierra mountain approach. Unlike the broad peaks tucked away in the distance the switchbacks curved up from chaparral to Junipers as the dusty gulley soon became a rolling steep climb past micro boulders dashed with hard patina. The breeze picked up, temperatures and 3G coverage dropped and ahead lie a tight crop of apartment-sized domes and flakes among soft sand and Desert Hares. A group of Celts worshiping mother Earth wouldn’t have seem out of place in the ageless vegetation and monolithic pillars.

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I walked up to the first big boulder and began groping the lower hand holds, when a red shirt popped in to my peripheral. A woman strolled into view, carrying a pair of triple-thick crash pads.

“Carrying those up must have been fun, eh?” I asked slowly and articulate.

I hoped I didn’t startle her, or creep her out, but it was at the gear shop I worked at the day before where she grabbed those two giant pads in the first place for rent along with her French-speaking Swiss friends. The group had come from Yosemite, after the government forced shut-down closed the Park to climbing, and the wee boulders scattered about Bishop were to be a consolation prize in place of the epic walls of El Capitan and Half Dome.

“Oh it’s no problem! It is much better to have the pad and fall than to hike out with broken foot no?”

We shared a few short words and off she went to join the six friends amassed underneath Arch Drude (V5).

Her big smile didn’t lie – she was psyched. The last few weeks working at the local climbing shop was a constant bombardment of Yosemite Refugees flooding in the door scrambling to find a way to pass their hard earned vacation time. Drawing topo’s and sharing driving beta was the least bit of hospitality I could show to people willing to spend their dollars in my State, and I’d like for them to return.

Almost across the board the feedback was the same – Visitors the world over had no idea the gems hidden in our crags and mountains outside of the National Parks. El Cap and Half Dome are unique in the world, but just as a Frenchman might roll his eyes at an American Tourist asking about the Eiffel Tower or the Louvre, the Californian in me couldn’t help but wax poetic over the treasure found in the lonesome East Side of the Sierra Crest. Far from the crowds and transit of highly-publicized attractions like Yosemite and Zion, the canyons and valleys hidden in the steep escarpments of thirteen and fourteen thousand foot peaks are solitary expeditions into an accessible and pristine back country. Keeler Needle, Pratts Crack, Temple crag all conjure images of high adventure just a few hours from Los Angeles.

The guidebook told me I was standing next to the Sacrificial Boulder, and a few dabs of chalk on its Eastern Face drew obvious lines to warm up on.

True, the rock was damn sharp, and my legs were filled with blood and my lungs still gasped for air after a 45 minute hump up the trail. However, moving over the stone, high-stepping on plates and edges was a blast and abundant shade kept me in a sweater.

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I sacrificed some skin on the namesake block and walked away in search of something else – not harder, or scarier, but to get a feeling of what the Druids had to offer unique to the neighboring areas.

It’s difficult to say sometimes why we us climbers are drawn to a particular feature on a boulder or crag. A month earlier a photo in the guidebook stuck out, a short and slightly overhung wall with red and gold patina edges that was begging to be climbed. After walking a short distance it came into view, and the North face of the Thunder Wall had the type of smooth rock and flat landing a lonely boulderer dreams of.

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The far right side of the shaded boulder had the biggest holds – hopefully big enough to hold a store clerk who had an obsession with Breakfast Burrito specials. After trying to interpret the movement and brushing old chalk off the sharp edges I gave it a solid try from the ground. A big move here, an insecure move there… the top was just out of reach as I stalled out crimping on a high sloping shelf. A big throw and I slapped what I thought was the end. The lip was sloping and grainy, and despite pawing and groveling along the rim looking for any incuts I couldn’t find a way to flip myself over. A long minute of half hearted shrugs and I was off, ass over tea kettle back to terra firma.

A few more feeble attempts, but no luck. I decided to cut my losses, save some skin on my palms and see what the harder routes had to offer.

Bouldering has many facets, and while some days I’m interested in easy flawless movement often I find myself below something fiendishly hard trying to make impossible become probable.

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The center route had a fierce move off the ground that I wasn’t about to bother with after feeling out. From the highest holds I could reach, the moves off of slick edges might just go for me. In a short 30 minutes the delicate move to get off the standing start and a pair of big throws were worked out, and at least half of the climb was solved. Sometimes bouldering is about winning battles, leaving the climber to come back better armed to win the war.

My skin was cooked. The forearms swelled up like they had hematomas and my feet were screaming from pressing hard onto wee crystals in tiny shoes. It was time to slow it down, do some more exploring and take in the awesome energy of this unique outcrop of rock.

I walked further East, to the edge of the bench the boulders sat on and saw the silhouette of a climber on an egg-shaped rock. Another group of Europeans, probably Czech, were crawling out from underneath a wild cave out into the light via awkward heel hooks and insecure pinches. The climb itself was a bit above my pay grade, but watching people from across the world give their best I felt oddly connected. The fails and wins, the dejection and glory of topping out an insignificant bump on the landscape, they had it too.

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We bid each other farewell and I took some inspiration South along the ridge to a face with a low angle and flat landing. Up, down, across – dancing on the stone with my thoughts and reflections was the perfect ending to a killer day.

The druids are quiet but alive. Far out yet familiar. Hidden up on the mountain above Bishop was big adventure, something I long for in climbing.

Sometimes it isn’t about grades or names, and eschewing the ego and chasing around the inner child there are a few guarantees. Adventure, excitement, discovery. That is climbing.

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Warm Days, Cool Crags

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An article of mine was featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Escondido City Magazine, and I’ve included the piece below for those that missed it the first time ’round!  It’s written for non-climbers, so please excuse the pedantic jargon ;D

Photo credits: Tehara Tweed

It isn’t often in April that the sun shines like it has been all day, and though only partway through my shift I can’t help but think I could make some afternoon climbing plans. Unfortunately, the local resources have been tapped and I couldn’t scrounge out a partner to hold the other end of the rope.

Just as I was resigning myself to an afternoon of laundry and grocery shopping a familiar face walks into the climbing store I work at off of Grand Avenue.

“Hi, Mom. Looks like you got the afternoon off?”

It looks like I found a climbing partner!

My Mom, Kit, and I started climbing together quite some time ago and are 100% climbing addicts – who else could I expect to have a harness and rock shoes in their trunk on a Tuesday?

A short while later we are parking at the Trout Cove parking lot at Dixon Lake. Ten minutes from Nomad Ventures, Daley Ranch and Dixon Lake are a great resource for anyone local looking to squeeze an adventure in remaining daylight.

I’ve been visiting this crag for years, and many of my first climbing adventures were here – coming back again, for the first time in a few months, I got to replay in my head what it was like the first time I put a rope on and clawed up (somewhat clumsily) these steep rock faces. My family started climbing 11 years ago, and this could be the fiftieth time that this Mother/Son combo are out at this local cliff.

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There isn’t much light so first up is a hard one – The Shoulder. A thin crack that weaves back and forth across a dead vertical buttress of rock, down below the Aeries that are visible from El Norte. At one point I had hoped to just get up it, hanging on the rope if need be, but after hundreds of laps it gets reduced to muscle memory. Every hold I grab feels familiar, every placement of my sticky rubber shoes exactly as it was the last time. Soon I am on top, having started from the ground and using the rope only to catch me in the event of a fall and placing temporary anchors that the rope gets clipped to. In this style of climbing, Leading, I am more susceptible to a longer fall but is a very pure way of climbing, that is starting at the bottom and ending on top without a safety line from above.

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Anchoring a top belay, I tell Mom to tie in to the rope and start when ready.

“I may not finish, this one is still hard to me.” She warns.

“You’ve done it before, you can do it again!”

I know she is very capable and, despite the warm sun causing slick sweat on the hands, shouldn’t have much trouble. Even still, with the rope anchored from above instead of being held behind her, a slip will not result in a fall any longer than available slack in the system, which I am very adament about keepign taught!

From my vantage there isn’t much to see, but the periodical stop-and-go movement of the rope through my locking belay carabiner tells me when she is in a tough spot.

“I might come off here!”

“Jam your hands, thumbs down, just above the little constriction in the crack!”

By offering advice (or what climbers call ‘beta’) another climber can assist… if it is warranted! Some prefer the on-sight, bottom-to-top adventure into the unknown…. I, however, don’t mind a little help, and soon Kit finds the hidden hand-hold and is up on top.

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Summit high fives were exchanged, and I could tell she too has reconnected to the elation of what that first time up The Shoulder was like, all those years ago. We gather our rope and gear and head out to the next objective.

This small cliff, next to Dixon Lake off La Honda, has on it about 20 (worthwhile) climbs, all documented in a Guidebook to San Diego Rock Climbing. Along with Mount Woodson and Mission Gorge it is one of the more traveled East County locations, and despite the occasional beer can or spray paint is a great afternoon getaway into a pristine area. Whether a rock climber or just a hiker, scrambling to the tip of the escarpment with care can afford great views – just practice leave-no-trace tactics and clean up behind you!

Already tapping into nostalgia gets me excited for a climb, or route, I hadn’t tried for a while – Overhanging Buckets. It is a good deal more physical than The Shoulder, consisting of long reaches on an overhanging bulge just around the corner from the trail. The holds are small, the rock is sharp and it packs a punch in just 6 climbing moves – a veritable 100 yard dash as opposed to the calm, methodical techniques a vertical crack climb requires.

Owing to a nagging shoulder injury Kit opts out of the climb, and being that Overhanging Buckets is devoid of cracks or crevices to place temporary anchors I choose to top rope the climb with the rope anchored above me. Attempting to climb it without a rope is out of the question, as a fall from even the first move would put one tumbling down a rocky hill.

So instead of starting from the bottom, I start from the top, and anchor the rope and toss it to the start of the climb. Using rappel devices we slide down the rope from above and I tie a knot around crucial points of my harness and a fist-bump sees me off. The moves right away are steep – and hard, for me. I realize as I reach for a pocket in the rock that can only accept 3 fingers that the last time I put my hand in that hold George Bush was still on his first term as president and Friends was still on the air.

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Another climb, another memory. Light was beginning to fade as the rope was put away and there was time left to squeeze in some bouldering.

Not requireing any gear, bouldering is my usual option for climbing when I can’t scrounge up a partner. All one needs is shoes, chalk and strong fingers – though portable gymnastic pads designed for absorbing impact from short climbing falls are often recommended. One of the great things about Bouldering is the ability to focus on doing the most difficult moves possible, because there is no consequence to most falls and a difficult section can be worked over and over again if it is right off the ground.

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Crimping fingers over an edge, smearing feet on tiny nubbins of rock, all techniques used by climbers to ascend blank looking granite slabs. If I look close I can see my home from on top of one of these boulders, and I look back and reflect in this fading light. How lucky I am to have this in my veritable back yard, I wonder, and more so I am reminded that I needn’t travel to Yosemite, Joshua Tree or the Grand Canyon to have a quick adventure. All you need is motivation, and sometimes, your mom.

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