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

#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.

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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…”
“TEDDIE GRAHAMS!”
“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

SAB

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.

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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.

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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

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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.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6dBJXD0adKw

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.

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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.

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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!

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.

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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