Four friends descend upon Owens River Gorge in Bishop, California, for some climbs, great grub, and sun-soaked adventure.
As a young man of merely twenty years old, I live a rather dynamic life. A steady balance of work, play, love, and practice is an artform I have yet to master. But every so often, the incessant clouds of responsibility give way, and the sunshine that is “absolute freedom” peeks through the grey. One of these marvelous gaps presented itself to me in the late days of May, 2019. Plans were made, details were hatched, and a crew was formed to hoof up Highway 395 and off to the promised land that is The Sierra Nevada.
My dynamic life mirrors my climbing pattern. The drive to pebble wrestle(1) hard boulders fades into my stoke(2) to send(3) stout finger cracks. The latter is just as easily overwhelmed by the potential pride of bagging a highly rated sport route.
The Sierra Nevada houses all disciplines of climbing in and among her peaks and valleys, and it was in her foothills that this particular venture unfolded.
Our party consisted of four able bodies: Myself (John-Thomas); John, the strong boulderer and virgin sport climber; Jonathan, the designated chef of the trip; and the highly stoked token woman of the crew, Sophie.
This trip was of the sport climbing discipline, and what better hub to spend our time in than the Owens River Gorge of Bishop California? Due to its plethora of routes, styles, and grades, the gorge is widely recognized as being the climbing gym of Bishop. This reputation was soon endorsed upon the sight of four parties at the base of a single wall, all of whom outfitted a technicolored pair of belaygles and toe-strapped chacos.
There are two main entrances to the gorge. The first is a low-angle paved road that winds down to the crags(4) along the southern end of the Owens River (Lower Gorge). The next is a steep and chossy(5) tumble of talus and makeshift stepping stones that spits climbers straight into the heart of the climbing area (Central Gorge). Our initial tactic was to hike down the former path and assess the walls as we headed northward and up-river.
Late spring temperatures in the Owens Valley kept the air and volcanic rock in the moderate 70-degree zone (this is slightly warmer than the ideal climbing climate, but 70-degree weather is nothing to complain about).
Aspens, pines, and small white flowers lined the roads. As we made a steady trek down the path, hundreds of brick red, Monarch butterflies emerged from the flora. They brushed our exposed skin and sparked a trivial conversation about where they might go in the night.
Thousands of these little fellas flutter along the river in thick clouds during the day, but in the early afternoon they seem to vanish. Do they sleep in the trees? Does their lifespan and reproduction cycle lie on a 24-hour clock? Maybe they flock to one of the hundreds of bolted crack climbs in the gorge. Imagine that . . . slot a bomber hand jam(6) that provokes thousands of butterflies to rush all around you in a dense, living cloud.
Day one consisted mostly of figuring out how to properly read the guide book. Slowly we made our way up the river and climbed a few small routes on the west-facing wall, bushwhacking our way up the apparently more treacherous side of the river.
Upon reaching the central gorge my eyes widened with glee to see that the walls at least doubled in size. By the end of the day we had an adequate idea of what the rest of the trip had in store for us. And figured that the best course of action would be to hike in and out of the gorge by means of the heinous slope that spills out into the central portion.
An essay could be written alone on the meals that were prepared and devoured in the evenings of this trip; but instead I will merely say that we ate and drank remarkably well. In the mornings we had oats or omelettes and drank large cups of coffee. A hot dinner complete with meats, vegetables, herbs and spices was a nightly occurrence; and all was topped off with a delightful beverage to warm the soul.
There is something about the spirit of the outdoors that rids any need for an alarm clock. One could attribute the early mountain mornings to an uncomfortable, half deflated, crackling sleeping pad or a Princess-and-the-Pea-type pebble that found its way into the foot of your bag. So, when the question of, “When shall we wake up tomorrow?” was posed among the glow of a modest campfire, the group consensus swiftly showed the answer to be, “Whenever the sun wakes us up.” This is not to say that we would remain in our sleeping bags until the sun made our goose down too unbearably hot in which to remain swaddled; rather that a shimmer of light in the sky was all we might need to rally and start the brewing of coffee.
Day two at the crag was a relatively uneventful one. We climbed upwards of five routes each, while John and I matched each one with a grueling game of chess. Either I was severely dehydrated, or something in the mountain air favored John’s cognition, because he succeeded in check-mating me on every occasion.
In the mid-afternoon we ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches below the shade of the westward facing walls. The most exciting part of the day was coming across my “mega proj”(7) of the trip.
Flash Flood (5.12-) dashes straight up the slightly overhung face of a 200 foot volcanic pillar. The dark grey rock is gradually falling away from the rest of the eastern wall, and is being held together by literal tons of rebar and cement blocks that have been bolted into the back of the formation. This is no jimmy-rig, duct tape and plywood set-up one might expect to see from a bunch of rock climbers. No, the pillar is held up by thousands of dollars worth of material and labor costs. Just as we eat our sandwiches sprawled out in the late-day shade of the face, so too does a corporate power plant with coils, towers, and wires lie in the direct line of fire posed by this precariously perched rock.
The day concluded with an afternoon trip to the bishop hot-springs. A growler of craft beer, sore muscles, a small bluetooth speaker, and sulfurous hot water is a good mix at the end of a cragging day(8).
In the morning, we again rose with the sun, and warmed our muscles, minds, and spirits with a bit of yoga on the marshy clay near the springs. The practice was very much initiated by Sophie, but ultimately appreciated by all. The climate on the third day was similar to the ones prior, and we had the same lunch in the same patch of shade as the day before.
Fewer games of chess ensued, though the ones that did occur concluded in the same fashion as formerly noted.
It rained a bit during our fourth and final day in the Owens River Gorge. The change of weather was quite nice because the air was hot and the drops were cool. The only downside to the showers was that the moisture soiled the quality of the “mega proj,” and turned the otherwise relieving top-out(9) into a delicate endeavour on tired muscles.
The final 30 feet of Flash Flood lie at a lower angle than the first major portion of the climb, and typically serve as a section to breathe and recuperate before the final push.
Even in the light of such abysmal conditions, I was able to find my groove on the third run, pull hard and make the anchor(10). The top-out brought forth no screaming, crying, nor any Adam Ondra(11)-style thrashing at the chains. Rather, a proud grin and a feeling similar to that of finishing a short book.
- Pebble Wrestle: (verb) Lead climber’s slang for bouldering
- Stoke: (noun) Excitement. (Verb) to build excitement.
- Send: (verb) To complete something with style. Typically used in terms of bold physical feats, especially in, but not limited to, adventure sports.
- Crag: (noun) A steep rock face.
- Choss: (noun) Chossy: (adjective) Loosely held together or crumbling rock.
- Slot: (verb) To place a piece of one’s body into a constricting crack.
Bomber: (adjective) Very, very good
Hand Jam: (noun) When the width of one’s hand cams into the width of a natural crack.
- Mega Proj: (noun) (Mega – Huge, Proj – Project)
- Cragging Day: A day spent at the crag.
- Top-Out: (noun) The top of a climb. The finishing point at which a climber will usually pull themselves on top of the rock, after which there is no more vertical rock to climb.
- Anchor: (noun) Two or three bolts with fixed steel rings that mark the end of a climb.
- Adam Ondra: (Proper Noun). Professional climber. Absolute beast. 10/10 could outclimb you https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adam_Ondra
- Route Grade: (noun) The difficulty rating on a climb. The person who climbs a climbing route for the first time (first ascent) gets to assign a number grade that marks its difficulty.