In 1941 the city of Los Angeles drained the Owens River in the Eastern Sierras to divert water to the San Fernando Valley and to provide electricity to homes near L.A. Beginning in 1991 a court ruling allowed for releases from the dam to dewater the drained reach and restore riparian habitat, as well as establish a brown trout sport fishery. Around the same time, in 1988, the first bolted route in the Gorge was put up and sport climbing in the Gorge was born. I had heard several times that the Owen’s River Gorge was the most concentrated sport climbing crag in California and was filled with quality, five star routes; however, with the Gorge being 5 hours away from Davis, I’ve never found the opportunity to make the trip. So, for my spring break I decided to go with my friend Gabriel, a Colombian climber who recently moved to Davis to do his PhD and who was itching to get out of Davis and see the Sierras. Vamos!
First, we decided to stop off in South Lake Tahoe since it was on our way. Everything besides Sugerloaf and Phantom Spires seemed to be covered in snow, (even in this drought) so we went to try some routes at Sugarloaf, Tahoe’s premier winter crag. The place is known for its trad climbing, but there are also quite a few sport routes to try there as well. By the time we got there it was already around 1, which was fine since the whole intent was to climb a few routes and continue en route to Bishop. In the direct sunlight it was actually pretty warm, but climbing in the shade was quite comfortable and a breeze picked up later creating some nice conditions. We ended up running into a climbing buddy from our gym who recommended a 10c route called “Blue Velvet” on the East Face. The idea was to warm up on Blue Velvet and go try Galow’s Pole (11b) or maybe “Beast of Burden” (12a).
Yea, that plan didn’t work out. Turns out 10’s at Sugarloaf are really, really hard. I mean, pretty damn hard. Just the first two moves of “Blue Velvet” perplexed me at first and the whole route, though I on-sighted it, took me around 40 minutes to complete. It was slabby technical, had spacey bolting and glassy feet. It was different, challenging, engaging, technical and enjoyable (in the way that slab routes are “enjoyable”.. for making you think and use technique, not for the way my feet felt after climbing for 40 minutes). In addition, it was a great warm up for my head. After I lowered and Gabriel tried the route ,we decided that 12’s weren’t exactly on our radar at Sugarloaf and were perfectly content trying another 10. Luckily, the friends we ran into recommended that we go check out the 10d route “Make that move” on the Sugarbun crag, which is a short hike down the hill on the way to the road. The route came highly recommended from the book as well. In fact the first move is listed as “11a”… on a “10d” route. Thanks, Chris McNamara :). I’d say that the first move was definitely the crux; it tested my balance as I made a, delicate move on some very, very small holds. After a few slabby moves you get to pull over a small roof and once you get above it you see a massive arete that seems to climb on forever. This arete isn’t nearly as imposing from the road, so it’s a nice surprise in the middle of the route. I spent the rest of the climb hugging this arete up to the top. The bolts again, were spacey enough to grab my attention, so it was good mental practice.
By the time we had both finished we were hiking out of the place in the dark. Yes, Sugarloaf routes demand some time. We decided to drive halfway to Owen’s River Gorge and find some place to camp along the way. This plan seemed legit and we had scoped out Topaz Lake quickly on the map as a good place to stop- it was an hour and a half from Tahoe and 2 hours from the Gorge- sounded perfect. Once we got there, however, we were informed that the campsite was closed until April. As were all of the other campsites in the near vicinity. We were kicking ourselves because we had passed a bunch of campsites on the way to the lake (and a bunch of free BLM land). We drove south a bit to see if we could find anything (and stopped at some random benches to cook a quick meal). But, once midnight crept about we decided to check into the first motel we could find, partly because we were tired and did not want to risk some stupid ticket for camping in a random spot and party because Gabriel was feeling pretty sick and the thought of sleeping outside that night wasn’t super appealing. So, we succumbed and spent the night at a Super 8. Not the best “outdoorsy” decision, but we got a good night’s sleep.
I woke up the next morning with an unyielding desire to get to Owen’s River Gorge as soon as possible. I wanted to climb, and I wanted to climb hard sport routes. I also just wanted to be outside. This Super 8 was located right next to “Topaz Lodge and Casino” and we went inside for some free coffee. The place smelled of cigarettes and I have always hated places like this for their blatant promotion of all types of consumerism and wasted resources. The contrast from the open landscape that surrounds highway 395 and the crisp morning air is striking when you walk into the casino and the suffocating smell of cigarettes hits you as you try to make your way through the exterior, whose darkness is only penetrated with flashing, fluorescent lights. In other words- instant headache. Who in their right mind would decide to put a casino, here?! (or a casino anywhere for that matter) But, I have to admit that the entire situation was pretty comical, (we had some fun taking some fake casino photos- see below) and the area where breakfast is served is surrounded with large windows showcasing a gorgeous view of the lake. I indulged in some free coffee but besides that simply used their hot water to make my oatmeal. Still, the smell, the consumerism, the false messages all made me want to get the hell out as soon as possible, especially with a destination like Owen’s River Gorge on my radar. We fueled up and hit the road.
After passing through incredible Eastern Sierra vistas, with the white mountains to our east and the Sierras to our west, we found ourselves at the parking lot for the Northern gorge at around noon. The approach is kind of wild and fun. You have to do some 3rd class scrambling down a steep gully and you eventually make it onto a trail that cuts through the gorge. Everything looked so good but we held in our temptation to try whatever we saw first and went to the most famous wall of the Northern area, the “Gorgeous Towers.” We did..
- Started on Gorgeous the classic 10b line that goes right up the arete of the tower. It has great exposure, a unique position and some fun but challenging moves. For a 10b, it definitely made me think!
We then moved onto the “Holy Trinity Wall ” which is just north of the Towers.
- Here we tried the classic line “Pick-Pocket” (11a) This line screams at you to climb it. Just hiking through the gorge it sticks out since it is highly chalked (something I don’t really like, actually). It looked beautiful and it was. It starts on a slightly overhung face with shallow pockets and crimps and takes you to a fun flake and right up to the anchors. Very, very sporty and just a lot of fun.
Our time was running out for the day (due to the time we left we only started climbing at about 3), and we wanted to try something hard so we went north some more to the “Trestle Wall” ( very easy to find since it sits right above some old trestles)
- We tried “Bazooka Country (12a)”. I was able to on-sight right up to the crux (which was not easy!) but fell trying to pull through the crux. I gave the crux one or two more tries but lowered off as the sun was setting so Gabriel could get a shot too. We both left without sending it, but the beginning moves were quite powerful and fun.
We headed out and got a campsite at the Pleasant Valley Campground, right across from “The Pit” which has free camping and often is used by climbers. Pleasant Valley was only 10 bucks a night, though, and had potable water and some nice pits for fires, so we splurged… in all of the ways you can splurge while going camping on BLM land. Yay!
The next morning I was so happy to wake up in a tent vs. in a motel room. The air was crisp and chilly but the sun was powerful. Oh, and the views were alright…
For the next five days we pretty much did the exact same thing. Wake up, make breakfast and coffee, head to crag, climb until sunset, go back, eat food, repeat. Eventually we brought out Gabriel’s Dutch Oven (giant Iron cast pan) and started to make some legit meals over the fire that involved some very creative ways of getting the iron cast out of the fire. Basically these meals consisted of tons of veggies, protein and of course some wine and chocolate. One night Gabriel charcoled an eggplant whole and we covered it in parmesan cheese and put the whole thing in the iron cast oven. I don’t eat this well at home! Another fun digression from our day’s routine was when we finally took a shower in a laundromat. I lead a classy life and I love it.
Okay, moving on from my digression about food.. here is a brief rundown of the areas in which we climbed and some of the best routes we did.
On our second day we returned back to the Northern Gorge.
At the “Gorgeous Towers” again we did,
- 11b- Knucko’s Pride onsight. Another five star climb. Physical and pump but with some technical moves near the top, this is a must do at the Gorgeous Towers.
- 10a- “Giveaway” Originally the plan was to warm up on this but it was taken so we started with the 11b. Very, very nice climb. Honestly the first move is the hardest and the nit leads up to a gorgeous arete littered with jugs on a cool position.
Then we moved onto The “Holy Trinity Wall” with the intent to try to insight the classic 11d “Sex”. It was taken , though so I tried the 12a next door called “Sex Packets.”
- “Sex Packets” I gave it a very good on-sight go but fell a move or two from the real crux, pumped out due to some inefficient beta. Once I got to the crux, though, I fell again. Eventually I figured it out some pretty interesting beta involving a large throw to a good pocket, but I lowered off of the route and didn’t try it again. Despite its quality, I had an “on-sighting” mentality at the Gorge. Since I was only there for a limited period of time and there were so many good routes to choose from, I didn’t wan to spend too much time on any one given route. With that being said, if I return to the Gorge (and I will) I will definitely get on “Sex Packets ” again.
The next day we decided to check out the Inner/Central Gorge, undoubtedly the most popular and well-known area of the entire Gorge.
We started out at the most popular wall, “The Great Wall of China” which is in the Central Gorge. A tall, imposing wall that juts out on the western side of the Gorge, you can see even from the trail that the routes are probably going to be good.
Notable routes at the Great wall of China.. well, we only did two and they were both pretty damn good
- Heart of the Sun 5.9 – best warm-up ever. Super long, slightly overhung and full of jugs. Climbs really well.
- Mandarin Orange 11b- Again, another 5 star route. Long and pump with good holds leads to a technical crux right before the anchor. There are some really fun moves scattered along this one. I was smiling the whole way up.
To get from the Central to the Inner Gorge is pretty simple.. you just walk along the established trail and cross the river if you want to get from one side to the other (there are logs, some bridges etc. Some more sketchy than others). We decided to go to “Dilithium Crystal” to try some more overhung, short roof problems. As the name suggests (or maybe just to me because I am a nerd) most of the routes in this crag are inspired by Star Trek. So, we got on…
- Enterprise, 12b – This thing was burly, which is not usually my style. Not to say I don’t like it (I do, I think it’s a lot of fun), it’s just my body type, strength, and technical abilities all contribute to me excelling at long, slightly overhung routes with small holds versus short, powerful routes with huge holds but on a 45 degree overhang or even a legit roof. That being said, I did much better on this climb than I thought I would. I pumped out during the roof and fell but was able to finish it after a rest and I even threw a cool heel hook on to help me get over the lip, something I rarely do. I owe this all to the roof at Rocknasium (my local gym), which usually I assume has no immediate outdoor benefits; I enjoyed being proven wrong in this case. After the roof comes a slabby section. I did all the moves and was fine with the run-outs because everything seemed solid, but there was one point in which I felt so much rope-drag that I was concerned it would literally pull me off the wall. I Ended up backing down after doing all the hard slab because I was significantly concerned I wouldn’t be able to pull up the rope to clip the anchors while being maybe 20 or 15 feet above my last bolt. (Yes, the drag was that bad.. if you’re going to do this climb I would clip a very long sling to the bolt before the roof’s lip)
Usually, I don’t like to climb more than 3 days in a row outside. Preferably, I like to have 2 really hard days, followed by a rest day. But, due to delays etc. Gabriel and I were only climbing around 4 routes a day, 2 of which were warm-ups, and woke up every day with plenty of energy left. So, we just kept on climbing.. (not advisable for injury prevention, but evidently it’s okay every once in awhile). On our fourth day on we went to the Inner Gorge. On our way there, we definitely saw Peter Croft and talked to him for a bit, which was pretty cool. At the Inner Gorge we first went to the “Staying Powers” crag.
- Members Only – 10d. Pitch 1- 10d. The first pitch started with a small overhung section and then went into sustained technical climbing on a vertical wall. Spacey bolting kept it engaging. Pitch 2- 5.9. Well, you can tell no one ever does this pitch. It is pretty run-out and there is no chalk anywhere. A lot of the time I couldn’t see the next bolt and with no chalk to guide me I had to do some route-finding, which was kind of adventurous and fun. The pitch itself isn’t spectacular but the first pitch makes up for it, as does the adventurous style of the second.
- Thieves in the Temple- 12a. Onsight, baby!! The guidebook describes this route in the following way “Sustained gently overhanging face.” AKA “Jasna, please climb me.” The crux comes right after a small roof and I legitimately thought I was going to fall about 10 times on this thing, but I was always able to hang on until I found a better hold. This was my first 12a on-sight in America (I had done two 12a on-sights in Spain). It felt great to have a hard on-sight under my belt that wasn’t in Spain, since the routes there tend to be longer and some may say are graded a bit softer. I feel like I am really breaking into becoming a solid 12a climber now :).
Gabriel wanted to get on something steeper and shorter so we headed back to Dilithium Crystal because all of the routes at El Dorado Roof looked gnarly/long (and it was freezing underneath the roof). I tried Enterprise (12b) again but was too tired to do much damage on it. Gabriel impressively got its 12d neighbor to the right on his second go!! Whoo… it was send day for everyone !
For our last day of climbing we decided to go bouldering since Bishop houses some of the world’s best bullring and it would be a shame to not go and at least sample some of the problems.
But! First thing is first.. we had to pay a visit to the famous Schaat’s bakery in downtown Bishop. This place is world-famous for its bread and its extravagant decorations. Schaat’s doesn’t allow any photography so I don’t have any photos to share, but we did leave with three loaves of bread in tow, and they were goooood.
Okay, back to the bouldering. The drive was nice.
The bouldering was also, as expected, spectacular. Normally, I don’t really like to boulder. To me most bouldering sessions consist of me trying to do some really awkward/hard moves to get over some small blob of a rock and then spending the rest of the day sitting on my ass complaining and eating. Maybe this slight disinterest stems from my complete lack of power and my general tendency to gravitate toward endurance sports/activities.. but I also just don’t find it as inspiring as climbing bigger, longer and taller things. I can appreciate the “purity” of bouldering, as many have cited. Boiling a climb down to a few very hard moves, stripping it of most equipment logistics and seeing how hard you can push is appealing…. when you’re in Bishop. Since we only had one day we decided to go to Main Buttermilks.
We warmed up a bit and then we went over to the Mandala boulder (named after the famous V12 “Mandala” that Chris Sharma put up) and tried a V6 called “Devoted Traverse.” It starts off powerfully but then quickly switches to awkward moves that require excellent balance. I worked this the rest of the day, getting very, very close .Eventually I gave up because my skin just could not handle a dynamic move up to a really sharp side-pull anymore. Meanwhile Gabriel wowed everyone with an impressive ascent (on his second go!) of “High Plains Drifter (V7)” on the Drifter Boulder. He could have easily flashed it, he just got a little unlucky.
As mentioned, one of the downsides with Bishop is that its rock is very, very abrasive. Add that to the fact that bouldering is very tough on your skin in general (since you’re making longer moves, gripping harder etc.) and you get a lovely combination that creates the feeling as if you are supporting your body on sheer glass- lovely. It was particularly bad for Gabriel and I since we had been climbing for 5 days straight. Our motivation was high, though and we were able to boulder for most of the day, though I eventually gave up because i just could not hold onto anything anymore and while Gabriel, who evidently has a higher pain tolerance than I do or just enjoys this stuff more, kept on bouldering I went on a run.
This run is really worth mentioning here. I love to run as much as I love to climb (for various reasons) and I’ve been doing it longer. I hadn’t ran for the whole week so I was itching to move my legs. Luckly, I was in a gorgeous mountain setting and was surrounded by trails. I picked one at random and ran north. My view was.. well, basically my view was this:
I was smiling during the entire run. I couldn’t hear anything but the sound of my feet against the dirt (not the pounding of my shoes on the road) and some chirping birds. It was slightly hilly and at 6,000 ft (I run at 52 ft normally), so it was physically challenging, which contributed to the creation of one of the best running highs I’d felt in awhile. When I ran for 30 minutes I turned around and had to stop to take in the incredible vista that was laid out before me. Instead of the Sierras I saw the Sun setting over the white mountains, bathing the boulders littered all over the landscape in a soft golden hue. With my heart pounding and my adrenaline running I thought to myself this very, very cheesy thought – ” this is it” I need to be in places like this. And I need to protect places like this. I want to understand places like this; I want to understand the science of the ecosystems that are its foundation, but I also want to be able to interact in them, through running, climbing and hiking so I can tap into the mysterious aspects of these that make me feel good, essentially. And hey- guess what- that’s what I’m doing! I’m studying conservation biology, I am climbing, I am running and I am tapping into the mental game… etc. I ran down the hill grinning from ear to ear.
After my run I met up with Gabriel who was just finishing up bouldering. We headed over to a place called “The Burger Barn” which got some high reviews on yelp for our last dinner. I don’t eat beef or really any kind of meat besides chicken (environmental reasons) but I did break this rule and indulged in a Turkey Burger with sweet potato fries… delicious. As were were nomming away I discovered that there was supposed to be a huge thunderstorm that would basically make driving the next day really, really shitty. 12 inches of snow were supposed to fall right in our path. At 8 PM, wanting desperately to avoid having to sit in the snow and make a 5 hour drive a 10 hour sketchy drive, we decided to rush to camp, pack everything up and hit the road that night. We got back in Davis at around 2:00 AM, but we both had nothing to do the next day so were able to sleep in.
As I finish this post (a month later, my bad) school has gotten in full swing. This is my last real quarter before I graduate (I have to take 2 classes during summer session I but that is it) and it feels like this is one of the hardest quarters I’ve ever had. Six class and an internship will do that to you. So, until June 10th, I will try to be a weekend warrior (though even that is looking iffy) but I plan to be back in Owen’s River Gorge in October.
Here are some more random photos from the trip: