Highball

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

Thimble

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

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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.