high plains

“I meant to tell mankind about a new state about which I could tell them little or nothing, to teach them to tread a long and lonely path which might or might not lead thither, to bid them to dare encounter all possible perils of nature unknown, to abandon all their settled manners of living and cut themselves off from their past and their environment, and to attempt a quixotic adventure with no resources beyond their native strength and sagacity.  I had done it myself and found not only that the pearl of great price was worth far more than I possessed, but that the very perils and privations of the quest were themselves my dearest memories.  I was certain of this at least: that nothing in the world except this was worth doing.”

-Aleister Crowley

Credit: Jerry Chen Photography

Credit: Jerry Chen Photography

A boulder stands nobly on a hillside strewn with hundreds of his brethren, immovable sentinels posing closely together yet each in their own solitude.  There is no interpretation, no attachment of emotion or understanding of grace.  Shattered and broken piles of decomposing granite lie next to perfectly hewn swaths of stone, both parts of a whole yet individual specimens with personality and style.

The biggest of these oversee their realm with opulent dominance like kings puffing their chests in full battle-armor.  Indeed the quirks of geology that birth such giants come only from immaculately grown crystals seeded millions of years ago in a dense batholith.  The iron-like cuirass of hardened Patina edges offer a line of weakness up the patriarch, daring any to ply their mettle and wage a battle with the giant high above the hill.

“You not only get psyched up but almost become hypnotized or mesmerized to the point where your mind goes blank, and you climb by well-cultivated instincts.  You do it.”

-John Gill


John Gill on The Thimble – from Pat Ament’s Master of Rock

In 1961 there was no sport climbing, no harnesses, no climbing shoes.  The Golden Age of climbing in Yosemite had produced die-hard bad asses like Royal Robbins, Warren Harding and Chuck Pratt.  Outside of California, in a midwest Air Force Base doing pull-ups on nuts and bolts sticking out of the walls, was perhaps the greatest American climber ever to touch rock hiding away from the center stage of Yosemite Valley.  Decades before hang boards and even the Bachar Ladder Gill took functional training to new levels, regarding small boulders not as “practice climbs” as his peers did but as moving meditation.  The collegiate gymnast, capable of one-armed levers and climbing a 20-foot rope in 3.4 seconds, applied his mathematically-inclined mind to complete many of his ‘problems’ including his most famous of all – The Thimble in the Black Hills of South Dakota.

Free soloing a 5.12 over a nasty guard-rail (since removed) when 5.11 had barely been established is ground breaking enough for Gill to retain his legacy as one of the greatest climbers of all time.  That he would later complete other ‘problems’ rated up to modern V9 only adds to the mystique of his character, the soft-spoken math teacher standing over 6 feet and built like a Marvel Superhero.

The experience of climbing is timeless, the mechanics rooted in our own evolutionary growth as fingers grasp small rock holds and branches on the way atop high lofts to see danger and weather approaching.  Yet beyond that, there are those for whom the climb and the vistas are more than tools for scouting danger or prey.  Like arrowheads found on top of the highest Sierra peaks our own history dictates that mountains without any merit aside from their uniquely difficult summits draw adventurous few to solve a problem in their head.  Can I get to that place?  Is it meant for me?

Heavenly Path

Heavenly Path

Gill often describes his experiences as a type of meditation, or kinesthetic awareness.  Rehearsing the movement, climbing up and down higher and higher into a fever pitch, the Thimble was completed in what was likely perfect performance art.  When the conscious mind sets the series of movements the unconscious executes.  The flow and rhythm are just as much as the process as the motions they occur between, blending confidence and spirit as spirit wills body.  Doubt isn’t indulged in at the base of these climbs, and meditation can put one in the midst of the battle.

The king lay before, a sword in hand.  A swift blow to his weakest point, where the armor is split and invites the blade, and the skirmish is won.  Parry his blows, swing the blade and kill the king, stand on his shoulders and shout in triumph.  For a warrior there is no one battle, not a singular foe to leave driven or wall to overcome.

“Today is victory over yourself of yesterday; tomorrow is your victory over lesser men.”

-Miyamoto Musashi, A Book of Five Rings


Miyamoto Mushashi

If you want to know what that feeling is like, find the boulder fields.  Find the hill sides speckled with lumps of tall monoliths calling your name.  Walk up to their knobby surfaces, battle-worn and brushed smooth from a hundred others flaying their skin on it’s carapace.  From under his belly there is no glory and the rounded lip obscures a summit.  What might that summit be like?  Can I get to that place?  Is it meant for me?

(For further reading on John Gill check out Master of Rock by Pat Ament


#TBT My First Trip to Joshua Tree

Nine years, almost to the day, I drove down park boulevard in a snowstorm on my first trip to Joshua Tree.


The day before I sat at my friend Andrews dining room table, penciling out whatever rations I thought might be important for this trip, while he nervously paced behind me brainstorming.

“Teddie Grahams!” He kept asking as I went down the list.

“Sleeping bags… firewood… can opener…”
“YES we can pick up Teddie Grahams. Christ.” I wrote it down.

“You guys might want to chains, a big storm is coming in.”
His fathers voice came from behind, a voice of reason.

Maybe Brandon has chains, he should be here any minute. After all, he IS from Texas.


As we drove up the final hill up into the park we were in the thick of a snowstorm. The huge SUV we had borrowed from Andrews’ Parents drove like the queen Mary on the slick road. Even staying under the 35mph speed limit clouded silhouettes of rock formations would appear as if out of nowhere to our right and left, ghostly apparitions of Monzonite hiding their size and detail in a blur of wet white snow.

I had just only begun climbing outdoors that year, having been the typical gym rat through high school and thinking there had to be something more. Ever the pied-piper for bored youth I would promise stellar weather and good meals to shoe-horn as many of my buddies into a group car and head out camping. Up to this point they had no reason not to trust me, as our trips to Refugio state beach and Cuyamaca had clear skies and all the Teddie Grahams Andrew could eat.

This time, however, I wasn’t a camper. I fancied myself a rock climber, and we were in my mecca. While the boys tried to fit my torn Coleman tent into the cave below the Old Woman I hiked off to the nearest rocks that might be dry, just to slide my fingers over ‘real rock’ and revel in the first real world stage of climbing I had been to. Mount Woodson had nothing next to the Left Ski Track, a style and difficulty that seemed like a foreign language.


Wet holds be damned – I was going rock climbing. Despite the slick, snotty holds and my absolutely dreadful footwork attempts were made on old classics I had gleaned from a guidebook during my job as a theater Projectionist. Realizing right away that ratings of boulder problems in a gym were hardly a yard stick I wandered all over for features, ANY features, that I might be able to get up. I don’t think anything was topped out that day.

The learning curve in winter camping can be ruthless, and that first night in a tent with torn sidewalls was a memorable shiver-cuddlefest as the three of us crammed into a teeny tent I had borrowed from Mom. I wore all my clothes, including a thick leather jacket my dad had given me as a high school graduation present, and spent the wee hours of the night alternating between Brandon and Andrew, whoever would let me snuggle up close and not freeze to death. They didn’t find it as amusing as I did.

The long winter night eventually ended, and I have a vivid memory of separating my eyelids and feeling warm sun melt the ice that had built up on our feet from the tear in the tent fabric. Less than an hour of sunlight had melted almost all of the snow deposited the day before and the morning beamed warm and seemingly friendly.


Rock climbing was now plan B. We set out into the sun-lit playground like school children on recess. No plan in mind, no crashpad strapped to us, we hiked with the sun on our backs due west towards Turtle Rock. The little coves and oasis of flora were awesome pockets of biodiversity, reminding me of summers with the family exploring tide pools on the beaches of Santa Barbara. Small oak and short yucca would be hidden between behomoth boulders, and behind Turtle Rock an unlikely maze of escalated staircase-like talus lead us up onto its Southern shoulder. The desert floor lay out before us, stretching on out like the Savannah. We sat in a makeshift love seat and marveled at the peace from a wilderness of uniform yucca dots.


We went back for lunch, and after scaring mac n cheese I made one last-ditch effort to do some real rock climbing. After all, I was a rock climber, and if I didn’t do some of that here what good was I? Back out West, back to warmth and away from crowds we traipsed looking for any features big enough for our grubby paws to latch onto. I spied a sloping arete, not listed in the guidebook I brought along. It was rough and covered in large grains, typical for East-facing rock.


Desperate for some success I hucked big at the top.

Lessons are hard learned in the desert.Image

With one hand taped up like a mummy it became that much more daunting to find any objective worth jumping on. It didn’t matter much anymore, because my experiences were rich and the sun was warm – anything was success, even abject failure.


My climbing-genes were sated; mom would be proud. I did some rock climbing. After all, she had her first trip to the park a few weeks before with my little brother, climbing Loose Lady with a group of friends from the gym in epic winds. I had to come back with some sort of battle-scars to share at the dinner table.

We went back to camp, traded the crash pad for Teddie Grahams and went to do more exploring.


Most of my first trips to Joshua Tree the majority of the time was spent scrambling, and the few intermittent ‘boulder problems’ were fairly forgettable. I won’t forget that view on top of the Patagonia Pile, after 45 minutes of harrowing gap-jumps and a gravel shower in a chimney. The park was so massive, so intense, and the epic battles we had on its ramparts were but a small fraction of a small portion of a small part of the park. Here was real wilderness, not like the hillsides of San Diego I played on back home. There was no view of the town from the summit, no feeling that we were on an island of the natural world set in a sea of civilization. We were in the thick of it, adventure left and righ, for a thousand yards.


Not long after we would all go seperate ways as life pulled us to our own center. For Brandon, his passion for knowledge and intelligence put him on a course to teach High School History, trading a thick beard for a bow-tie and spectacles. Andrew is raising a beautiful family and learning the crux moves of Fatherhood.

For myself, it seems almost nothing changed.


These days my trips have more purpose, but though a hundred trips have bettered my understanding of that world of Yucca and Stone little has doused the flame of adventure. My eyes still wide, I make my own future in that desert.


Going out on Your Shield

lembert dome

I can see a fold in the rock above that might be a ledge big enough to stand on.  Below my feet lay a huge swath of stone, a low-angled slab littered with little Feldspar knobs just big enough to stand on.  These small knobs were my islands as I crept from one to the next, far from the sanctuary of the last bolt and further still from a smattering of boulders at the base of the cliff where my partner stood holding a useless belay.  I was perhaps sixty feet above the bolt, itself forty feet from the rocks below and into virgin territory equidistant from either of the routes 30 feet to each side.  Even if by some miracle the bolt were high enough to help me I’d be scraped to sinew in a sea of aggressive Feldspar bumps, sharper than those that grace other routes in Yosemite where the pounding of multiple feet have dulled their bite.

The climb was called Cryin’ Time Again, and it was late summer in 2013.  It wasn’t the first time I had been caught off-route, and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last. Having to navigate oneself up a rock face should be a skill to have in the High Sierra, just as those who trod before you had to aquire before themselves making the first ascent of whatever it is you are repeating.  As most climbers repeat already-established climbs, conveniently in the front country and assessed for quality, this skill is like the knobby faces they climb on the weekends – considerably more dull.

Hoping for that ledge I realized that my interpretation of the rock was a bit rushed.  I had climbed it before, dammit.  This wasn’t supposed to be difficult.  Everything is in control, that ledge above will allow me to stop and think.  I can get myself off of this.

Half Dome

Mid-summer in 2011 the high passes were just opening from snow-melt to allow a rare glimpse for a motorist to catch the real Alpine.  Everything was still frosted with receding patches of old snow from a heavy winter of Pacific Storms as the cascades of Lee Vining Creek below billowed fat and full.  My partner Lucas and I had just come from spending a week in Yosemite Valley repeating a classic from the Golden Age of Yosemite climbing, the North-West face of Half Dome.  The heavy snowfall gave way to vibrant springs flowing out of the cracks at the bottom of Half Dome’s huge North face and we drank it full, embarking on our greatest adventure yet.


A second time we were heading up Tioga Pass, yet not to haul and suffer ourselves up an imposing North Face – this time to enjoy the cooler High Country air and plod unceremoniously up quality routes near the road and burger shack.  With Half Dome now a month behind us we hastily threw together a plan to tick off some classics in the short season of mid-summer.

The climb Cryin’ Time Again went by like clockwork, itself meant as a warm-up before Lucas and I climbed the Hulk and the Third Pillar of Dana.  Each climber had his crux pitch as we swapped leads up the soaring face of Lembert Dome, coasting from a long summer of training well spent.  Uneventful yet fulfilling, the kind of climb that get done again and again.

It took only two years before spontaneous plans put me on that tall knobby granite dome.  In that time an accident I was involved at on Tahquitz Rock forced me to re-evaluate the role climbing took in my life as I watched it take the life of Lucas in a rappelling accident.  Every day is a struggle, a struggle to lose weight or to find success or to find love.  I needed the struggle of rock climbing, to have a dedication that taxed me physically and mentally and emotionally.  I liked who came out in climbing, the boy who once cowered before the wolf only to become a man and wear its hide.

Feet from the little ripple of rock above that offered respite I was grappling with a wolf, but my sword was sharp from a season of striking it against whetstones like Tahquitz Rock and The Incredible Hulk.  I found the holds I needed easily and executed.

In Rock Climbing you get to make the Big Kid decisions, putting other ones in perspective.  It’s hard to really give a shit about taxes or jury duty when it’s getting dark and your headlamp is in the car ten miles away.  A hundred different decisions come into play from a hundred different scenarios when I get into a rough spot.  The reality of Rock Climbing is that getting off-route or having to run it out far above protection are part of the game.  Granted, they aren’t often an aspect sane climbers solely seek.  Yet the reality of climbing big mountains is that they need to be respected, approached objectively with wide scanning eyes.

While hastily stashing gear in a pack that morning I took no more than a cursory glance at the topo, a newer edition to replace the one I had lost at some point, and remembered seeing an alternate start to the right of the original line of well-spaced bolts.  Fifty feet below the stance I was trembling on and soon after passing a bolt via moves I could not reverse, the thought popped into my head that perhaps I was not far enough to the right.
No matter.  I could get myself out of this.

An easy move, not unlike many I had done completely ropeless on long training runs up on Tahquitz that spring, and the fold above turned into a slightly-lower angled slab that from below gave the illusion of a ramp. My heart sank deep into my chest – this isn’t a ledge.  I can’t stop here.  I have to keep going.  Before I can decide which way would lead me out of harm I saw a bolt above and to the right just above the steeper parts of the rock, with another down and right another fifteen feet.

The climb was almost within reach, yet like the inmates on Disneyland’s Pirates of the Caribbean ride I was woefully lurching.  Every-which way petered out into lichen and shrinking knobs – the only good ones lead straight up to that bolt, steeper and more brittle than those below.  If I could just get to it, I could get myself on-route and finish the pitch and go home, seemingly another world away.

Deep breaths slowed my heart as I focused on one thought at a time.  The situation could easily overwhelm my tiny brain, so I inspected the holds that may hold my life.  The small pink knobs were on clean rock, the first few above my head held well in place.  Past that a handful of baseball-sized knobs appeared, likely where the party who first climbed that right variation stopped to hand-drill the 3/8″ bolt.

I can’t recall how much time had passed on that ledge, only that as soon as I noticed my calves getting tired I knew it was time to move.  If I were to wait for a rescuer to come from above, hiking the long mile trail along the back carrying what would have to be a 400 foot rope, there was no guaruntee that my toes could hold up on the small little dimples I intermittently tap danced between.  The point of no return was far below, where hubris first questioned my decision to cast off ahead despite no bolts in sight.  My skills indeed saw a way up and out, yet the margin too slim. A handful of bad decisions had put me in a place where I had to make one really, really important one.

I remember a few weeks before when I had visited my parents and watched a UFC title fight.  The challenger hadn’t hurt the champion in 4 long rounds, and as the fifth bell sounded I wondered what the contendor might do.  No sane judge would vote a round his way, the only path to victory by knockout or submission, yet for the next five minutes he coasted along with the champ who was content to spar the time away with jabs from a distance.  No big moves from the young prospect, down on the cards, nothign that woudl resemble an attempt at ending the fight.  As I sat there watching him go through the motions, I wondered to myself what I might do.  Could I swing for the fences if defeat was anything but a home run?  Would the odds against me stack so heavy I collapse, or would I go out on my shield?

The holds are brushed off in-between breaths to keep from shaking.  As good as they were this was not territory often travelled and even the cleanest knobs had bits of lichen and grit.  I felt the first two knobs above and assessed – if the ground were at my feet instead of a hundred-plus foot header into talus this would be trivial.  I can do this.  Relax, use good technique.  If I just use the right technique I can come away, I know that.  100%.

Pull. Press. Step.  Step.  Reach. One last move as I trust a lone foot on a hold I scoured with a toothbrush and stood up.

From far away it might have looked casual, that some nut was obviously just taking a fairly dangerous variation to Cryin’ Time Again.  Immediately after I clipped the bolt I doubled over and dry-heaved hard into my lap.


Cryin Time Again

It took about two days before I stopped feeling empty.  A weird, shameful feeling that I had gotten away with something.  I didn’t consider the consequences too much then and still don’t, but the point was clear.  I swung my sword blindly and got the kill.

A few hours later I was sipping a Mango Margerita down in the town of Lee Vining, watching the clouds roll over the Dana Plateau.

That first time up Cryin’ Time Again in 2011 wasn’t nearly as exciting.  A few days later, after hoofing it up the Red Dihedral of The Incredible Hulk, a line of parties descending to the base of the Third Pillar of Dana deterred Lucas and I from our last objective.  We walked down the drainage, content with ourselves as we watched thunderheads build up above the heads of intrepid Alpinists hacking their own crowded ways up the Dana plateau, deciding not to race against time and squeeze a quickie in before the storm.

At the time, it didn’t bother me that we were turning back.  It bothers me less now.

Back at the Car

Back at the car, off to Mango Margerita’s and thinking about nothing.

Virtual Tour: Mount Woodson Classic Cracks

Virtual Tour: Mount Woodson

Classic Cracks

Ah, Mount Woodson.  Home to so many pea-sized boulders you’ll think  you are a giant in Yosemite.  Though the high walls hidden in the Sierra might make El Cap and Half Dome seem a more grand objective, wee little adventures can be had tromping among the oak and manzanita high in the San Diego front country.

To Get There

Take Hwy 67 East out of Poway via the I-15.  I come from North County and exit Camino Del Norte, taking it to Espola and Poway Road.  If coming from the South, you can take Poway Road from the 15, just outside of Mira Mesa.  Either way, once your off the freeway the rolling hills offer awesome views not far from The Gaslamp and Oceanside Pier.  Ah, the glorious East County…

Warm up boulders

Park along the West Side of the 67 on the Shoulder.  This highway in particular is (or was, before renovations) the 6th deadliest highway in the nation.

In addition to having to play Frogger if the left side of the pavement is packed on a weekend, arriving very early or very late in the day can lead to desperate passers-by looking on your seat for a cell phone or wallet.  I’ve been fortunate enough in dozens of visits to avoid either problem, but I make sure to leave my car devoid of valuables, taking anything I like up the hill with me.  Take care as well pulling out into traffic, as cars careening past the Golf Course on Sunday Night might as well be Patriot Missiles.

The Warm-Up

Warm Ups Close Up

The first three problems in this video are on the “Practice Boulders” – aptly named.


The lieback flake is about 5.7*, and has a mantel move off of a good sloping bread loaf just at the top.  Get a spot if you are uncomfortable, as with any mantel it can put you off-balance and a fall may not be controlled.

There is no ‘easy’ way off, so I would suggest climbing these double cracks up-and-down first, as they are my favorite downclimb:


Or, consider downclimbing this wide crack on the back, which has a very low crux and can be squirmed pretty easily:IMG_2348

The boulder with the other two problems has an easy walk off. The second problem is a 5.10A mantel problem – getting established up on it can be a bit tricky, and trust the friction for the press.  It isn’t too high and isn’t too difficult.  The final problem is a 5.6 flake that feels easy, though the slick texture might make the feet pop unexpectedly (while filming, I came off the first time I hopped on!)

Mantels are a great way to warm-up as they work the antagonistic ‘pressing’ muscle groups, getting the blood warm without taxing the shoulders/fingers/forearms for harder problems later in the day.  As with any exercise in climbing, a pushup is better done as part of a rock climb to learn technique simultaneously, so try to incorporate strength and conditioning on the rock for better (and more enjoyable) results!

There are a handful of other problems in this area** to try and I’ve highlighted them in “yellow” on the maps above and below – except for the “Baby Robbins Area” (there’s just too much to bother color coding!).

The “5.10B/C Face” and “5.10D Thin Crack” are CLASSIC Woodson problems – they might feel impossible at first if unfamiliar with the subtle techniques hard, thin granite problems require.  Impossible one day and a warm-up the next – that’s the magic of technical climbing.  Learn to trust rubber on small edges and keep body tension for these guys!

Further up the road, take the first Left up a steep faint trail just after the Gate to reach the Sunday Afternoon Boulder.

Sunday Afternoon Boulder 

Sunday Afternoon Boulder

The Sunday Afternoon Boulder is comprised of two large, toprope-sized blocks with a handful of problems ranging in difficulty from 5.7 to 5.12.

Sunday Afternoon Close Up

The Sunday Afternoon boulder is shown in the video, via a popular top-rope problem.  The yellow text are problems not covered in the video.


The 5.7 Flakes/5.9 Jam/Flare can be reached by hiking up around to the right to reach the SECOND pair of toprope bolts – the first are above a 5.12 tips crack.  On the opposite side of the boulder, around to the left of the ‘5.7 flakes,’ is a 5.8 wide crack.  This can be top-roped via long slings and a directional from the bolts, thought it is an awkward angle.  Beware if bouldering out any of these routes, as there is a somewhat-tricky mantel move after the climb to get on top of the formation – it is only about 5.7, but feels insecure, though easier than the climbs to get to it.

I Hear My Train A Comin‘ is a world class finger crack, made famous by its first ascentionist John Bachar who (in the 1980’s) onsight-soloed the route.  Even if the climb is above your level, walk up to it and imagine in the days before crash pads hiking the route first try.  That should give a good impression of the standards those who developed this area held themselves to. PROUD!  To the right of the boulder is an awesome 10D lieback flake that can be toproped called “Razors Edge” – a great consolation prize, and with a good spot not a bad boulder problem as well.

Heading back to the road and going uphill some more, one encounters a water tower shortly on the right – Just BEFORE the water tower is a short trail heading ~30 yards to the Blackfinger boulder (10A toprope or boulder problem, fingercrack), which isn’t covered, but worth checking out.  At the water tower, turn and look right (like in the video) and you’ll see the obvious hand crack on the Elephants Trunk.

Elephants Trunk/Butt

Elephants Trunk Boulder

This pint-sized boulder offers a lot of bang for it’s short stature.  The obvious hand crack is a fairly highball 5.10, the face to the left a fun 5.6-7 problem.  Multiple warm-ups or downclimbs can be found on the Southwest side of the boulder, and look carefully to the left of the elephants trunk for a really cool face climb.  It’s mid-5.10, dynamic, and a real blast.


Robbins Crack

Robbins Crack Approach

We’ll skip straight ahead to the best 5.10 splitter in the area – Robbins Crack!  It’s about a 10 minute walk past the water tower, past the Seminar Wall/Lizards area (tall blocks on the first major switchback past the water tower), the playground (flat spot with a spray painted boulder when the road opens up and looks South towards Downtown San Diego) and underneath the mighty Uncertainty Principle (link).

Robbins Close Up

This problem shouldn’t be difficult to see from the road.  From the cracked rock you can see the problem at there is a path going around to the left to reach it – the cracks right on the road as well are good warm-ups, if you’d like to head straight to this area and skip the bottom stuff.  The giant overhanging face is Don’t Rock The Boat, more groped than any other 5.13 on the hill.  Missing hangers and epoxied holds make it seem a bit less enticing than other testpeices in the area, and modern crashpad/spotter technology might relegate it to a new-age boulder problem.  For now, it attracts the eye of the gym rat who sees steep crimps and big moves with bolts – not something too common at Woodson.


The crux of bouldering Robbins is, of course, down-climbing it.  I suggest trying the problem first on a rope to make sure you are comfortable.  If you’ve got a good spotter (and, perhaps, a crash pad) it can be lead with a #1 camalot – place it while standing on the good edge about head-high and cruise the final 5.8-5.7 moves to the top.  Toprope bolts on the left make a directional useful for doing laps and are conveniantly right on top of an awesome 5.11 thin-face climb, Eric’s Face.  A common toprope problem, this isn’t to be missed!  Check out the top half of Lie Detector, which is only about 5.9 – the bottom is hard, thin, old school pin scar jams and pretty damn difficult!

This problem is named after the climbing legend Royal Robbins, who famously onsight-soloed this route for it’s first ascent in hiking boots – the locals had told him it was the best route in the area, just not that it hadn’t been done yet!

Baby Robbins

Baby Robbins Approach

Quite possibly my favorite area for a quick circuit is the Baby Robbins/Jaws area.  There is so much packed in so close, almost all short enough to be considered boulder problems, and in a cool little grove to boot.  Take the faint trail JUST BEFORE the sharp switchback that overlooks San Diego a second time – inside the bend of the road is a group of boulders making a cave-like feature hiding a popular 5.10 toprope and the V-Hard testpeice False Eppulator (or Rails Problem – the real ‘eppulator,’ named after Greg Epperson, is around the back on the West side, facing the road, up a short and fierce 5.12 dike).

Baby Robbins Close Up

Too Much Stuff!  Baby robbins is a great toprope, if you can keep the rope out of the crack (hint – run it over a shoe or a pack), and Jaws is the real gem of the area though the landing make it more of a solo than a boulder problem.  Other topropes include Girls Climb (10D) and Corn Flake (5.7) – Corn Flake can be started all the way down and right to add some mileage.

perfect slab area


With an open mind you can find more than a dozen climbs in this short area and the Perfect slab area above.  The Perfect Slab spot has a handful of awesome rails, mantels, highballs, friction climbs and knob-presses to round out Granite Technique, all doable with a single crash pad.  The face climb in the Virtual Tour Video is the “5.9” to the left of Baby Robbins, and just to the left of the “5.9” is another cool problem starting with a hop to a heart shaped hold.  Spend time here and learn the circuit, it will be a favorite spot to hit on the way up or down the hill.

The Cave

Cave Approach

The most obvious feature when hiking past this popular area is going to be the giant, overhanging Cave (11a).  This spot has a large grouping of problems to warm up on or work out.

Cave Area

The Cave is a gnarly highball or a toprope, but an easy escape off to the right at about half-height make it a reasonable boulder problem.


The first problem I cover is Fisticuffs, a 5.8 fist crack/offwidth that has some face holds to mitigate the jamming needed. At this point in filming the video I was pretty beat.  Wearing socks and sweating hard in the heat I used some of those face holds instead of jamming – cheater!  Not really cheating, as it’s all climbing, but again – a great problem to try different techniques.  The “Aguille De Woodson” is a pair of featured fins that have a handful of fun warm-up face climbs.  If comign to work on this part of the hill consider jumping on these first.  To the left (East) of the Cave is an arching hand-to-fist crack called Bat Crack.  It feels insanely physical and is a problem worth bringing a few rolls of tape on.


The last problem climbed in the video is Johns Crack, not to be confused with Long’s crack (named after climbing legend John Long).  John’s crack feels easier than Robbins, but harder than baby Robbins.  A hard pull off the ground gets you established in the deeper, easier jams, so though it is tall and over a weird landing it’s not a very dangerous boulder problem.

Heading down hill you will find Alcoa and Stairway to Heaven, two test piece highballs/solos that see few ascents.


Up the road a tiny bit, at the sharp switchback, leave for a trail heading towards San Diego and head to the obvious giant overhanging block of Big Horn.  This boulder has toprope bolts to work out the myriad face climbs and variations, a great place to get a pump on granite.

So there it is, my first installment of Virtual Tours.  I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and more so I hope it has inspired you to explore more and have more fun.  That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

A Note About Grades*

I spent some time thinking about how best to provide information about grading these climbs – for the most part I used what Dave Kennedy called routes in his guidebook, but sometimes I took the liberty to give my own interpretation.  There is no real consensus, just personal interpretation, and I suggest climbing them and letting me know what you think – the climbing is the fun part, anyway!

A Note About Other Problems**

I know, I know.  There are a LOT of problems I missed, even right by the spots I covered.  I know, they are your very very favorite-ist climbs in the world.  This was just a sampling, and be sure that future posts will cover more areas and more classics, but feel free to let me know which you prefer – might add them into my next post!

5 Reasons Why You Suck at Crack Climbing

Matt upside down

Hang in there, this post will get you through it!

“I don’t like crack.”

I’ll avoid the pedantic analogy to Crack Cocaine except to say that, like any drug, you just don’t know if you like it ’till you try.  Of course ‘trying’ to learn crack climbing often leaves the newbie in a bruised pile of humility.  That’s where the failure part comes in – the road you are taking sucks, your car is fine.

This article aims to deflate some preconceived notions of The Way to crack climb in place of easier, more bite-sized steps for success.  Just like any approach to training, one should check the ego at the door and keep in mind the word “Objective” when it comes to adding things to the plate (or scrapping all-together).

Started at Dixon

19 Year Old Greg

I started climbing in a gym in 2001, as a sophomore in high school, at Solid Rock Climbing Gym.  Unlike those before me I had the advent of Climbing Gyms to train and learn the craft, and back when I began that was exactly what one did – gyms were little more than steep concrete walls with bolt-on resin holds arranged by high school kids to give weekend warriors a way to get pumped on a Tuesday.  Posters all over of heroes on heroic routes – Chris Sharma on Realization, Tommy Caldwell on the Salathe, Fred Nicole on Slashface – lined the locker rooms, a reminder of ‘the real thing’ and why we were there .  The gyms were uncomfortable, dirty, and run amok by birthday parties for 11 year olds, a patron that was a necessary evil to keep the bay doors open for the handful of broke climbers in the area.  Real rock climbing was the point, and most everyone who shivered in the few abandoned all winter knew that.

Before my time there wasn’t a culture of gym climbing, and not long after the appearance of high-tech facilities there arose whole scores of climbers happily enjoying entire careers on plastic rock.  Granted, as a form of exercise a climbing gym is a bit more rad than blandly hefting  weights at 24-hour fitness or thudding on a treadmill watching TLC.  The idea, however, that one must attain a certain proficiency on indoor climbs before venturing outside seems silly and a bit too progressive a thought for my taste.  In the bright light and softly padded floors of a 70,000 square foot mega-gym the realities of rock climbing can seem harsh and unfriendly, and that feeling only grows the longer an expedition to the local crag is put off.

Climbers today do have tics on their side of the scoreboard, as all the steep terrain that is easily accessed in a gym makes them freakishly strong. More and more climbers are capable of climbing the BEST routes in the area, as the old-school hippies who trained by toproping laps on finger cracks don’t have the power-endurance for the relentless jug-hauls of the Red River Gorge.  Grades once thought elite are being climbed by children, and there in lies the problem – grades.

Wrecked on whitney

Beat and Altitude Sick at 14,000 feet

My first time outdoors, my first time to Joshua Tree, my first big wall, were all horrible failures and soul-crushing realizations of what I really was as a climber.  At Dixon Lake, my first day crack climbing, I huffed and gasped my way up a 5.7 wide crack despite climbing mid-5.10 at the local gym.   Later on, a 5.8 slab told me I really didn’t know that much about rock climbing.  The idea then was to climb the fun climbs, and walking up to a crag one wouldn’t scan a guidebook and toss aside anything naturally protected because “I’m a sport climber, not a trad climber.”  You were a “Climber” and climbed rock climbs, and California is a Granite state – that means that our 500-mile long Sierra Nevada Batholith is split easily by cracks and flakes as volcanic activity echoes onto the cold rock and exfoliates itself.  By looking very, very carefully one might find rock climbs that resemble the moves typically found on gymnastic rock climbs, but to do so would be to look through a vary narrow telescope and ignore the real quality and unique formations our state has to offer.

That long stretch of Granite, those hundreds of miles of splitter cracks offering the best rock climbing in the state by popular consensus, they are a drug worth toking.  Trust me on that one.

I hope to shed some lights on the Do Nots and give an alternative approach – with the usual amount of callous humor and some ridicule for good measure.

Heart of Darkness

Rope-Harness, Ideal for belaying a buddy on a 5.11

So, why do you suck at crack climbing?

1.  You aren’t conditioned

Illusion Dweller

A chubbier version of myself losing a war of attrition on Illusion Dweller

Would it be wise to walk into a martial arts dojo, up to a stack of thick concrete cinder blocks, and smash your forehead against them with all your might?  What if a guy on Youtube did it? What if your core muscles are even stronger than his because of intense abdominal training?  After you are revived and told why there is a hematoma sticking on your forehead, I’d hope the Sensei would say that the man on the video had spent years slamming his dome into a number of increasingly dull objects.

You don’t do this, so don’t expect to climb cracks at your grade and not get hurt.

The idea of Conditioning shouldn’t be unfamiliar to anyone who spent more than a few months learning to climb in a gym. When we started our skin would quickly rot on our palms with blisters and a few short toprope laps would leave us completely gassed.  It hurt, then, to learn.  It hurt to learn how not to pendulum into the wall, how to wear snug climbing shoes, and it seemed as though getting tougher was an accepted facet of the game.  Just the same, crack climbing puts wear and tear on your body in another unique way, one that I can attest after enough practice is hardly noticable.

2.  You really aren’t that great at rock climbing

Split Finger

Huh. All that time spent in the Gym after High School didn’t get me ready for sharp Joshua Tree rock

Now, there are two problems going on with that last statement.  One, people try to climb the same grades on varying crack sizes as on top ropes in the gym.  A difficult reality, two, is that the perceived skill is actually much lower on even non-crack climbs because of the propensity of climbing gyms to inflate the ego’s of their patrons by inflating the grades on their climbs.

To put it simply, someone who climbs solely in a gym, who thinks they should climb a 5.11, should really climb a 5.9 crack – and may only climb 5.10 at best on any terrain.  Just like I was shut down just as handily on an offwidth as a climb with actual holds on it at Dixon Lake all those years ago, you can’t pick a route too easy. There is just too much to learn and mileage on real rock should trump it’s difficulty for the transition stages.  All forms of climbing should be practiced and a useful tool in a climbers quiver of techniques.  A few trips here and there can round out a skillset, much faster than re-learning how to climb all together.

3.  You dork around too much with tape gloves

Big Bobs

Big Bob’s Big Wedge – upside-down fist jams in an Iron Maiden, one of the few times I’ll tape up

It’s a classic sight, the 7am Campground Tape-Up at Joshua Tree.  In fear of losing skin (likely because of reason #1 and #2) hordes of weekend warriors from the nearby cities slap ounces of sticky restrictive tape at breakfast, only to be seen all over the park climbing the flared awkward face holds that appeared from a distance like jam cracks.  Buying tape, making the gloves, pulling them off carefully, discarding trash properly, are all things that get in the way of doing rock climbing – something I like to do the most of possible.

Now, before this is taken to the extreme by the Tape Religious out there, I don’t mean to say NEVER tape.  I tape on hard cracks, ones at my limit where I will lose skin going for the move or forcing myself on lead, as well as roof cracks.  However when top roping, running laps on classics, or getting mileage in on cold days, I prefer to leave the tape at home and learn to use my feet and finesse the route instead of bear down.  Sometimes, at least on toprope, that means I’m falling – but falling and learning is much better than cleanly climbing a route wrong.

4.  You don’t climb enough of them

elsas crack

Running laps on a Woodson 5.6

This one should be self explanatory, but there is a short bit of information that I’d like to share.  The sad reality of Trad Climbing is that it is a double edged sword, in that it takes a TON of mileage to become proficiant yet the logistics of all the gear and preparation for each route make it damn near impossible to fill a day at Joshua Tree with anything less than a handful of crowded classics.   By climbing with less, and learning the craft to a quick and efficient level, there is ample opportunity to climb 3 times as much terrain in a calender year with the same amount of climbing days.

5.  Your ego needs to be checked


Five 5.10 pitches down, five more to go. Whose idea was this anyway? Oh, mine. Oops….

People hate to look at their own faults.  Our ego will do anything and everything to protect itself, to compartmentalize what should and shouldn’t matter into boxes of familiarity and comfort zones.  The first breakup, the first job you lost – all those things likely gave you the tools to survive the next ones.  If they didn’t, then you’re likely learning them to this day.  The 5.14 climber who lives in San Francisco yet won’t climb The Astroman because “it’s a trad climb” is scared to fail.  The rock is oblivious to how it is protected, and I’ve long held the belief that a climber should be able to do the same moves above a crash pad as a quickdraw as a well-placed Camming device.  Refusing to run laps on easier routes in order to learn will hurt his chances of success, as some 5.14 climbers wouldn’t be caught dead spending time on a 5.8 hand crack.

Chris Sharma has done multiple trad climbs up to 5.13 and Daniel Woods can be seen on a North Face special learning to hand jam on a river rafting trip.  Try it out, and try it out with the same open mind you used getting into the sport – you just might like it.

So, how can I get better?

I don’t claim to be a master crack climber, yet in my time spent I’ve learned some tricks that allowed personal growth for my own game.  Whether it was planned or inadvertent I came into the habits I have because they WORK, objectively – I don’t care how I look or what route I’m caught on, I just want to have the most fun possible!

1.  Climb easier cracks

Climbing easy cracks, preferably of lower angle, can allow you to feel out the friction on the jams and understand how much pressure should be placed on the backs of the hands.  A jug can be gripped with all your might without discomfort, yet a flared jam will only tear skin and bruise bone.  It is important to learn how to hold on with jams just enough to stay in it but not too much to unnecessarily pinch nerves and, more importantly, not get too pumped.  In addition the movement will help condition an athlete’s skin – and bones – to deal with the rigors of hand and foot jams.

Some of the best times I’d had climbing so far have been on cruiser splitters high in the mountains, where I wasn’t thinking “Left hand-Jug, right foot-edge, right hand-undercling” but moving thoughtfullly along a line cut across stone.  Protection can be thrown in whenever and on those easy big climbs you can get the full-mountain adventure at a fraction of the cost, left skipping back to the car with energy to do it again tomorrow.


5.7 Offwidth for Breakfast!

2.  Toprope quality cracks of different sizes 

The key word here is quality, and I have a theory on that.

Awkward crack sizes are VERY important, and being able to stuff various body parts into differing fissures with the full bag of imagination is vital to success trad climbing.  However, that kind of movement isn’t conducive for learning repeatable technique.  A quality crack shouldn’t be too grainy, should be fairly paralell to force real jamming skills, and should be fun – so you enjoy doing it and will do it again.  Even offwidths and chimneys can be rewarding when viewed as breakthroughs in technique. Getting stuck, having the climb feel impossible, only to make a small adjustment and breeze up the route is the heart of Crack Climbing.


Gloves, a jacket and a beanie at the ready!

3.  Climb when it’s colder

Slimy, slippery jams are no fun, and neither is losing skin to them.  Sweat can act as a lubricant for crack climbing, sometimes much worse than steep routes with big holds.  While you can go though gallons of chalk and buckets of tape to stay in the crack, it’s a better idea to walk around to the other side of the formation to climb in the shade.  Crack climbing is often very physical, especially in the learning phases and in wider cracks, and the staccato, conservative movements that make progression possible favor heavy layers.  Just make sure to hike up the sleeves past the wrists, lest they get in the way of a deep hand jam.

Where can I practice this?

For those in Southern California, you are in luck.  We are in a bastion of crack climbs and have to our disposal a plethora of options across a wide swath of San Diego and Riverside counties.  With a light rack of cams and a patient partner there is ample opportunity to get your skills up to where you’d like them.


Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree – A great place to camp and lead classic climbs

B2/B3 5.3 – Toprope or lead.  Trash Can Rock has a handful of great easy cracks to start out on.

The Bong 5.5 – Lead or TR.  One of the absolute best routes in the park for easy jamming.

Granny Goose 5.7 – Lead.  Hand cracks, offwidths, and a bit of liebacking to boot.

Sail Away 5.8 – Lead. one of the more clean splitters at the grade.  Great protection and movement, an ideal first lead for the grade as well.

The Flake 5.8 – Lead. Offwidth, hands, a chimney and face climbing.  This is the graduation ceremony to 5.8 in Joshua Tree.

Dogleg 5.9 – Lead. Yes, it’s 5.9 not 5.8. Physical, long, warm – a great option for a winter day.

Popes Crack 5.9 – Lead. If you are a 5.10 sport climber as well consider the direct finish – it’s bolted and fairly easy for the grade.

Exercist 10a – Lead or TR after leading Nuurns romp.  An excellent finger crack.

Left Banana Crack 5.10B – Lead or TR. A great steep hand crack through a weird flare.  An easy first lead at the grade because of the awesome protection.

Illusion Dweller 5.10B – Lead.  An amazing testpeice of leaning fist jams, steep hands and finger-jam layback.  Worth every star the book gives it.

Tax Man 5.10B – Lead or TR. Glorious finger and hand crack with face holds to an awkward wide crack at the top.

Spiderman 5.10B – Lead or TR. everything from fingers to offwidth.  This one is a dousy.

Meteorite Crack 5.10C – Lead or TR. A steep burly hand crack.

Clean and Jerk 5.10C – Lead or TR.  Be careful running laps on this ultra-classic, as the sandbagged route is a popular one and it sucks to walk up to a conga line on the thing (trust me).

Jumpin’ Jack Crack 11A/B – Lead or TR.  Chimney and a hand crack through a roof.  Glorious and tough.

Hobbit Hole Offwidte V0 – a damn difficult proposition for your average boulderer!


Mount Woodson

Mount Woodson – The best place to learn harder cracks, offwidths, and climb with only a crash pad

Elsa’s crack 5.6 – Lead/Solo/TR. A toprope often gets stuck, so if you are planning to use a rope take care.

Corn Flake 5.7 – Solo/TR.  Don’t place gear behind the awesome hand/fist sized flake! Multiple crack boulder problems nearby.

Sunday Afternoon Boulder 5.7-5.9 – several topropes available, bring long slings.

Milkbar 5.8 – TR/Lead. think finger jams and layback around a roof. Sweet.

Baby Robbins Crack 5.9 –  Boulder/TR.  Often the scene of broken hearts.

Big Grunt 5.9 – Solo/TR.  An awkward start leads to spooky chimneying…

Johns Crack 5.9+ – Boulder/Lead/TR. not to be confused with Longs crack. Low crux and flat landing make it a great boulder problem.

Robbins Crack 5.10a – Lead/TR/Boulder.  A MUST do.

Blackfinger 5.10a – TR/Boulder.  I actually led this the first time I got on it.  I don’t recommend bothering to.

The Crucible 5.10C – TR/Lead. A good place to start using tape.  An ass kicker.

Jaws 5.11A – TR/Solo.  One of the best splitters at the grade in the area.

Drivin’ South 5.11D – TR/Boulder.  A killer finger crack and the first of many 5.12-ish in the area.


Tahquitz Rock

Idyllwild – A great place for mileage on easy routes and to climb the best stone in So Cal.

The Trough 5.4 – A great first longer route.

White Maidens Walkway 5.4-5.7 – good luck staying on route, a glorious cruise up an awesome buttress.  Varied, fun.

Angels Fright 5.6 – The best 5.6, but heads up – the slab at the end spooks people out, but its 5.5.

Coffin Nail 5.8 – The best 5.8 pitch in Idyllwild.  Combine with Traitor Horn for an all-time classic.

Long Climb 5.8 – a great 5-pitch jaunt with offwidth, chimney, hand cracks, and even some face climbing.

Daves Deviation 5.9 – Technical fingers with a slick, thin crux.

Flower of High Rank 5.9 – Splitter crack through a roof.  Climb as one pitch, or else!

Whodunnit 5.9 – So Cal’s Nutcracker, this route has it all – a chimney and thin crack crux, 5.8 roof, all on clean north-facing rock.

Consolation 5.9+ – the twin-handcrack crux will sap you, almost as much as the loose awkward 5.8 moves just below it.

El Camino Real 5.10a – The crux pitch can be reached via Coffin Nail with some trickery, and toproped.   A worthy lieback.

Human Fright pitch 1 5.10a – a great warm-up for harder climbs or thing to do laps on after reaching the anchor via Angels Fright.

Y-Crack 5.10B – An awesome, steep, upside-down Y on the North Face of Tahquitz.  A warm route, great for afternoons or shoulder seasons.

Johnny Quest 5.10B – more like a boulder problem on a rope, a classic none-the-less.

Super Pooper 5.10B – An awesome, long, sustained 5.10 pitch. Consider finishing on Price of Fear for an all-time classic link.

The Vampire 5.11a – Often considered the best route in So Cal, and attainable by most mortals.

Etude 5.11a – Sometimes it’s important to learn to climb things that appear impossible and hold-less…

Insomnia 5.11C – Arguably the best single-pitch in Idyllwild.  Go see for yourself ;D

Remember – it isn’t what you can climb, but what people on Facebook think of you.

Visiting My Old Friend Stonewall


I guess the earliest memory I have is sitting in the front yard at the old house, my fist balled up in my mouth and the other hand shoved in my diaper.  Mom was walking towards me, and nonchalantly removed my clenched fingers from my toothless gums along with the crushed snail inside.

“You don’t eat snails.”

I vividly remember watching curiously as she wiped my hand across her jeans.  Huh, we aren’t? Why are they so tasty?

For some reason my deep subconscious decided to hold on to that one.  However there are other ‘first memories’ to have – first bicycle ride, fist friend, first snow.  Most of my other ‘firsts’ are maybe more prophetic than pathetic.

I was always out doing something, whether it was scrambling through tall weeds in the back yard or riding a bike path all the way to its end.  Sewer tunnels, local parks, little nooks in model homes my dad was painting, it didn’t matter.  Exploring was the game, finding the micro in the macro and the rare experience that some place offers unique.

Summers we camped at the beach and winters we visited the mountains local to San Diego’s East County.  Growing up in the of the most temperate climates in the world hardly prepared me for later excursions to bigger ranges, but the little Laguna’s in Southern California gave me a slight idea of what mountain wilderness was to look like.  Big black oaks dropped acorns that could be easily stored in Overall pockets and the puny peaks had soft trails that plodded eventually upward.

There was one such adventure, though, and for a six year old it was pretty extreme.  Two grueling miles up a several-hundred-foot ‘peak’ which was capped by intimidating steel railings and stone-carved steps that felt oddly like ascending to the top of a roller coaster.  At the summit of Stonewall Peak were spooky winds, supposed exposure and the inevitable sunset chasing a Mother down the trail with 6 cold ducklings in tow.

Climbing has taken me places I couldn’t dream of, yet at the same time I rarely take the opportunity to take it to the places I had already been dreaming about.  Late fall afternoons in Yosemite and the Sierra, with black oaks and pine forests set among rolling yellow fields, would inspire old memories from my local back country.  I had been treating it like a friend in another county, too close to make plans for but too far away to visit on a whim.

Though the climbing on it’s western escarpment hardly had climbs worth hiking so far to get up, the amazing position up high in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park and the opportunity to revisit the area with my Mom and Brother had put the idea in my head.


I had visited the park several times since the Ceder Fire in 2003, once with a few college buddies, another on a trip to Julian for Pie and home-made(ish) maple syrup.  The hillsides no longer hid the view of the summit under a canopy of Oak trees and the floor was carpeted thick with new brush.  The skeletons of ancient Oaks stood charred while being overtaken by a creeping array of Manzanita and Azalea.  It felt a bit like the scene in Planet of the Apes where they find the buried statue of Liberty.  There were hints of what it had been but the whole picture had to be assumed, based off memories and dreams.

The trail climbs quickly through a shallow forest before switching back and up via a fire road to a split.  A few of the larger burnt trees had fallen across the trail and their limbs lay trampled into kindling.  Further on the way was dotted with tall wood fences, appearing more aesthetic than structural, and tall lilacs trimmed neatly made a bit of a path North to the saddle.


The steep railing and carved steps were just as I’d imagined, but a bit of the sting of their exposure was lessened by trips up Sierra giants like Half Dome and The Incredible Hulk.  Still, it was harder to find such position, even in those big peaks.  The little thumb is not the highest of its neighbors but it’s predominance gives a unique, 360-degree view.  No ridges or benches hide the surroundings and views from the desert to San Jacinto Peak are shared with that of the ocean blurred into the skyline.

A local guidebook describes the area as “more than a decent climbing excursion for beginner and intermediate climbers.”  I’d wrapped the railing with my lead line and set us to the floor, right down the main face where I’d peered over as a child, and wondered if I were an intermediate climber.  Well, I guess I’ll see how today goes.


With the time in the day there wasn’t too much climbing to be done, so I guess I’m a beginner again.  There was just too much exploring to do, too many hidden corners to peek around and into.


Once again sunset chased us off the peak, back to the car to be greeted by treats bought from the deli earlier that day.  Maybe if we had skipped the visit to Dudleys Bakery in Santa Ysabel on the drive up more climbing could have happened, but no one felt cheated.  Sometimes it’s good to just stuff your face and go exploring.


(Geek notes – I like Mountain Hardwear soft shells for spots like this where wind and hot alcoves are common, and light weight gear from Black Diamond for big approaches.  The Speed pack in particular held everything really well and didn’t annoy me as much as my other packs, but to each his own.  I’d also recommend a bit stickier approach shoes, if you have them, something like the 5.10’s Mom is wearing ;D Always try new stuff and see what you like!)


Consulting the Druids


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.