Summer in the Sierras Part 1 – Lover’s Leap

Why do I always think I’m training when I run? That’s not it at all. I’m simply easing into my natural state. – Steph Davis

As I laced up my running shoes that Wednesday morning, I reflected that, after today’s classes, I would have only three more weeks left of my undergraduate career. I glanced at my watch – 6:30 AM – and checked the weather. It was already above 60 degrees and the forecast high was well into the upper 90s. Still,  I often managed to drag myself out of bed early to run while the air was still crisp and the sun was not yet too powerful.

 

I skirted around the corner, carrying nothing but a light tank-top covering my chest, sunblock smeared onto my face and a pair of shoes on my feet. The simplicity of running always appealed to me; all you need are a good (or not so good) pair of shoes and some motivation. Four miles later, I managed to enter that transient, intangible world where I delve and find solitude, surrounded by what we call the “runner’s high” like a swimmer is surrounded by water. I take the plunge underwater and, instinctively, give my mind and body completely to the simple cadence of my feet along the dirt and pavement, to the beat of my arms and to allowing my body to warm up with the pure ecstasy and satisfaction that can only come by doing what you know you have been built for.

Still, though, I’m tired. I hadn’t been sleeping much and that morning I noticed a lack of energy deep within my bones and knew that what was pushing me was all mental, my legs didn’t want it, my mind did. So, I decided to shorten the run, content with lulling in the trance for only a short time longer.

About 20 seconds later, I ended up face first on the pavement.

Sometimes, the runner’s high can be dangerous; instead of being some ethereal, almost spiritual experience, it can morph into “auto-pilot” mode, where you start to run at a comfortable pace, content and with an unfocused gaze toward your surroundings. To put it simply, you become inattentive.  “I must have tripped” , I thought, “over something  I didn’t see.” As I stood to get up I felt an intense pain in my right ankle and knew that I had twisted it, maybe sprained it. However, my attention was on my throbbing shoulder, from which a pretty large chunk of skin had been scraped off. A nice old woman stopped her car and asked if I needed help, but with the adrenaline rushing through my blood I stubbornly told her I was fine, probably thinking that accepting help meant that I was injured, that I couldn’t make it back home . Impossible, I naively told myself.. impossible two days before “mission: become a badass trad climber” would be set into motion with the arrival of my partner. As she drove off and I tried to jog slowly back home, though, I wish I hadn’t refused the help.

I was able to walk home and for the next two days, save going to school, I stayed off of my foot and tried not to feel too sorry for myself.  The timing was terrible, my climbing partner was coming and we had big plans to climb as much as possible in July (around my school schedule) and then to take a 14 day climbing trip in August, when neither of us would be plagued by any work. “Maybe,” I thought “if I stay off of it for a week or 2, we can still climb in August.” the idea of salvaging the most important part of our trip kept my hope alive, especially because I could walk and bear weight without pain.

 

Looking sexy in my ankle brace

Looking sexy in my ankle brace

Luckily, my expectations were met and my ankle healed up pretty quickly. I would not run for 7 weeks, but after about a weeks rest I was back in the gym , and in two weeks time we finally made it outside to Lovers Leap, a granite cliff near South Lake Tahoe. Hiking didn’t pose too many problems and as the weeks passed I was able to do pretty much everything I wanted, save for running.

Lovers Leap is a great playground for trad-climbers. It offers mainly 2-4 pitch trad climbing routes that are concentrated in the moderate grades. There are plenty of classic routes below 5.9, however, and that is mainly what we focused on.

Lover’s Leap sits at 6,000 ft, but in the sun it can get blistering hot in the middle of summer. In the summer, the entire cliff goes into the sun after noon, so the best  plan is to wake up early and climb as much as you can between 6:00-12:00. Luckily, there is a great campsite (10 bucks a night, with a bench, bathroom, fire pit) located right at the base of the cliff and the approach is never longer than 15 minutes. The descents usually involve a 10-20 minute walk off. Three or four times, we would arrive late (at around 6 PM), and be able to squeeze in a climb as the temperatures cooled off a bit. Then we would camp out and wake up early, getting in usually around 3-6 pitches before the sun hit the crag and we started to boil. A few times we got lucky with the weather and were able to climb during the entire day due to cloudy skies from not so far-off thunderstorms that kept the thermostat down. Luckily, the American River is only a short walk from the crag and offers a nice respite from the summer heat.

Lover’s Leap is split up into eight main sections, The East Wall, Central Wall, Main Wall, West Wall, Lower Buttress, Hogsback, Hogswild and the Dear John Buttress.  Most of the action is concentrated in the East Wall, Central Wall, Main Wall and at the Lower Buttress. We climbed at all of the areas save for Dear John Buttress (the only place at the Leap that gets afternoon shade but that houses most of the hardest routes) and the West Wall. If you are in a rush, check out the Lower Buttress; it has a bunch of sport and trad routes and that is only a 5 minute approach from the camping parking lot. But, as I mentioned, the approach is never longer than 20 minutes to any of the areas of Lover’s Leap.

The Central Wall, as seen from the East Wall

The Central Wall, as seen from the East Wall

Lovers Leap has something for both the developing noob trad-climber (aka: me) as well as for those with years of experience, taped hands, and old, old gear. The routes are varied and fun, can boost your morale or completely humble you , are easily accessible and are located in a beautiful montane setting. Really, it is a very convenient place to have 2 hours from your home and I am grateful that I was able to tick off most of the classics 5.9 and under during my summer. Not only did my technique with every visit improve, but my confidence in placing gear and building trad-anchors sky-rocketed. Also, my comfort zone expanded; instead of only climbing routes I was fairly certain I would not fall off of, I began to push myself. Okay, maybe not nearly to the same degree I push myself sport-climbing, but the process is a slow but steady one (as was my accumulation of confidence as a sport leader) and I am proud of the progress that I made.

Some notable routes we did were:

Surrealistic Pillar (5.7) – a nice, easy face climbing route. We did it in 2 pitches, but had a decent amount of drag on the second pitch/it was hard to communicate with the belayer.
The Groove (5.8)- Characterized by its unique first pitch; a long crack separated by bulges. A very fun, varied first pitch. The second pitch is pretty unremarkable and you can rap from the first one if you want to skip it. If you do both pitches, though, you end up pretty close to the base of the Central Wall.  In fact, it is fun to climb a route at the Lower Buttress and, after a very quick scramble from the top, reach the base of the Central Wall to climb a route there.
Haystack (5.8) – What a crazy roof on the first pitch!  I had never led anything quite like that on trad before, so I hesitated and took forever (my usual defense mechanism) but managed to pull through. Very memorable route; highly recommended.
Better with Bacon (5.8) – I really enjoyed this route on Hogsback. We did it in 4 short pitches. Involves lots of very thin cracks and some fun and easy slab climbing
Bear’s Reach (5.8) – THE classic 5.8 at Lover’s Leap. Very nice 3 pitch climb, the “crux” of the route comes on the second pitch, which involves a long reach to a jug – hence the name, Bear’s Reach.
Scimitar (5.9)- In my opinion, the best route I led at the Leap. Pitch 1 was definitely the hardest pitch I have ever led up to that point. It was tough, and I was scared but I am proud to have sent it.
The Line (5.9) – The classic 5.9 route at The Leap. My partner graciously let me tie into the sharp end for the crux pitch. I used up ALL of the gear (sewed that puppy up!), was scared and took forever- but I on-sighted it. Quite hard for me.
Hospital Corner (5.10a)- A two pitch wonder; all of the fun is on the second pitch, where you start with a tough hand crack and finish in a beautiful position, stemming a totally wicked corner. It was very impressive to watch Manu led it, and following it was a LOT of fun. I intend to return to give this one another go. Out of all the routes we did, this one had my favorite moves and was probably the most spectacular.
Direct start to Surrealistic Pillar (10b)- I just TRed this one, after witnessing a very good, brave lead attempt. It was tough, I did it cleanly but I was sweating and am glad I was just on TR! 🙂

The beautiful second pitch of Hospital Corner (5.10a). Photo by E. Léger

The beautiful second pitch of Hospital Corner (5.10a). Photo by E. Léger

 

Stoked after the first pitch of The Groove (5.8)

Stoked after the first pitch of The Groove (5.8). Check out those rope management skills! Boo-yeah (I never take photos when my rope management skills lead to us spending 30 minutes untangling the rope, which happens about 99.9% of the time)

Manu, at the base of the East Wall, getting ready to follow me up the first pitch of Scimitar (5.9).

Manu, at the base of the East Wall, getting ready to follow me up the first pitch of Scimitar (5.9).

One other thing to mention about Lover’s Leap is that, right across the street from the camping, there is a small climbing shop, run by the former owner of the Rocknasium climbing gym in Davis. They have a decent selection of food and a great selection of climbing gear and guides. Also, the owner is just a very nice, friendly and hilarious guy. I dropped my GriGri at one point (fail) while climbing and when I came in to get a new one (which I immediately assumed was necessary), offering my 90 dollars to him, he just laughed at me and listed all of the reasons why my GriGri was still perfectly useable. He could have just shut up and taken the money, profiting from the fact that I am a novice climber, but instead he didn’t want to see me waste money unnecessarily. Even if you don’t need anything, definitely stop by for some good coffee and even better banter.  You can’t miss the place, there is a sweet old, orange VW van out front.

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Lover’s Leap truly occupies a special place in my heart. It is the place we visited most often on our summer trip (a total of six times, most of them being half days) and where I grew the most as a trad-climber. My “South Lake Tahoe Climbing” supertopo guidebook was opened a countless number of times. We examined it with the sun firmly over our heads while eating a simple lunch of bread at our picnic table in our campsite, our fingers, still chalked from that morning’s climb, turning the pages in search of more adventures. With the dim light of our headlamps illuminating the words we would hold it up above our heads, comfortably curled up in our sleeping bags, scanning routes to choose what section of rock would lure us out of bed at 6 AM the next morning. It was crammed (lovingly) into our backpacks and was pulled out again and again by the leader 150 meters off of the ground, who would re-examine it just one last time before heading up another pitch. Now, the laminated spine is peeling, the cover is permanently bent back and there are a countless number of indelible notes and earmarked pages. Its imperfection is not a flaw but instead gives it life and, like wrinkles on a person’s skin, its ripped pages, stains, and jotted notes tell stories, hold within them laughter, joy, fear, some tears and – who knows- probably some blood. Anyone who who tilts it along a light source can see the hidden fingerprints magically appear and then vanish; anyone can see it was used, it was loved, and it was an invaluable source of information and suggestions to two hopelessly zealous climbers. Within its pages are more than avocado stains and messy notes; between the lines live our experiences, are good and bad decisions, and diverse, irreplaceable memories. I’m sure that I will mistreat that book again, asking of it one simple thing- adventure. With the help of some duct tape to hold it together and some patience on my end, I am also certain it will happily oblige.

3 comments
  1. el said:

    I’d like to say that the guy owning the Stawberry climbing shop is really helpful, kind and honest. We accidentally dropped a Grigri and he convinced the authors of the article that it was still useable… We saved money and I’m still alive after many falls on that grigri.

    • jhodzic said:

      Yes, good point. I forgot to mention that the Starwberry climbing shop is right across the street from the Strawberry Inn, which is where you access the parking to the camp-site, and is staffed by friendly, knowledgeable people who have all of the gear you could potentially need. I’ve added in a blurb about them. Thanks 🙂

  2. el said:

    In addition there is the only squirrels crossing sign I’ve seen in US (See on the right of the pic). Just make sure to check the place to see it

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