12.02.2010

These Tumultuous Times

California. Such a strange country of its own; or more precisely, several small countries. Every time I go there I'm always surprised by the geographical diversity and by just how fucking huge the state is. From the rainy north coast to the agricultural center of the San Joaquin Valley to snowy Donner Pass to the dry and cold high mountain desert of the Bishop area, I find it hard to process all the different climates and visual data of the past three weeks. The immensity brings with it, for me, both a sense of freedom and a strange subtext of discomfort, almost as though I will vanish into the vastness of the surroundings.

Part of this trip was a week in Bishop, a place to which I had not been in several years but that remains one of my most favorite climbing destinations. Specifically, the Buttermilks area, with its oft-giant quartz monzonite boulders, is a very special place for me. With some of the most inspiring bouldering and an incomparable setting below the eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, it truly is magical. Despite the ridiculous hordes of crash-pad toting hoodlums that throng the areas around and between the boulders, I find it difficult not to feel incredibly free while climbing there. I had the good fortune of being able to stay with my friend Patrick for a few days in a small apartment in Bishop that he rents for the winter before spending a few more nights in the famed pit campground with my friend Dobrisa. Patrick definitely has the right idea, as winter in Seattle is clearly not conducive to dry rock climbing.

After a couple of days in the volcanic tablelands, beautiful but with slightly less inspiring climbing, I set my sights on the Buttermilks and spent three great there as well as a day at the similar but more remote Druid Stones area. Not having climbed much in the last three months due to my ligament injury and not having bouldered in at least six months, I had no expectations of how I would perform. I climbed moderate favorites, including the 50+ foot Northwest arete of the Grandma Peabody boulder, essentially a route. I didn't have access to a camera so I will shamelessly use other images to make this post more visually interesting:

Climber on Northwest Arete of the Grandma Peabody. Not me climbing and not my picture.

A new favorite in this range was Jedi Mind Tricks, a tall problem in the Pollen Grains area of the Buttermilks. Most of the boulders in the area are around 40 feet (although this one was probably around 20 or so) in height and feature beautiful and highly committing problems. This was the only boulder there at the time without significant ice and snow on the top and it was the only problem I did in the area. A place of amazing potential that begs a return trip in the spring!

To my surprise, I was actually able to try some more challenging problems. On a supposed rest day, I instead found myself climbing. A few attempts at Saigon, a classic in the main Buttermilks area, found me pulling to the top of the tall, beautiful line. Afterwards, I joined in with a fairly large group to try Soulslinger, a classic arete problem. Having failed to complete this problem several years ago, I really had no intention of trying it seriously this time around. However, after watching some other folks try it, I changed my method and found myself cruising through the last few moves. The final slopers felt like sandpaper in the 32 degree air temperature and I latched the side of final ice-filled bucket and pulled over the top of the boulder with disbelief. Not the hardest problem around, but proof for myself that I can still rock climb!

A day in the Druid Stones, although lacking in any specific climbing accomplishments, was still amazing. The area is beautiful and the 45 minute approach keeps away 99.9% of the crowds present in the other bouldering areas. The rock there is a little more reminiscent of Joshua Tree monzonite: good but grainy.

Day three in the Buttermilks had crystal clear skies and air temperatures in the 30's to 40's, but with the intense California sun it felt all but warm. I had looked at a boulder called the Checkerboard several years ago and noted the beauty of the eponymous boulder problem: a steep line of varnished patina edges leading to an airy topout on good holds. Trudging through the snow, we arrived at the boulder to find ourselves alone. The contrast was incredible: at the main area huge groups of twenty or more people were visible moving amongst the boulders, while a sense of calm pervaded our immediate area. Four crashpads offered plenty of incentive for me to try the somewhat tall problem, but an air of intimidation still poured through my senses. With some advice on the move sequence, I pulled off the ground and immediately had the feeling that a successful attempt was all but certain. This feeling, accompanied by laser-like focus, isn't always present in climbing; but when present it demands one's full attention and offers many possibilities. I found myself going through the sequence of holds if not perfectly smoothly, then at least with an assured economy of movement. I managed to pull over the top of the boulder on that first try and thought that it had to be one of the most beautiful problems I've had the fortune of climbing.

The rest of the day was comprised of a little tour of some of my favorites. I climbed High Plains Drifter and it's companion, Change of Heart, in front of an incredible peanut gallery of about 20 or 30 people. I wasn't sure what to think of the scene, but I just decided to ignore it and perform for the audience. It turned out alright, of course, but that was by far the closest climbing has ever come to public entertainment and spectacle in my experience with the activity. I felt like a monkey doing a circus trick. I later tried Saigon Direct, which features hard climbing about 12 or more feet off the ground. I had commitment anxiety at the top and bruised my bicep with my knee when I landed, but it's definitely something I would go back to: a nice line with a somewhat consequential crux section!

One of the highlights of a rather crowded yet enjoyable day had to be the moustachioed, black-jeans-clad hipster complete with technicolor Five Ten shirt, who effortlessly trounced V10 problems but backed off the tall 5.8 arete very slowly while I waited patiently below for my 'turn'. What did he say to me when he reached the ground? "Batter up." Ah, the priceless irreverence of the bouldering community as it crosses over into so many refreshing genres of people. The witticisms. The fame and fortune. The egomania. Yawn.

To end on a positive note: this had to be one of my best weeks climbing in recent memory. Coming off of this frustratingly persistent injury pattern, I find joy in the simple act of moving on the rock and, to my surprise and delight, moving up some intermediate-level rock as well!

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