Stranger in a Strange Land

Bishop, CA has always been a sort of fantastical land for me since I spent a few weeks here years ago and a couple of days or weeks on a few other occasions. The town itself somewhat resembles other small mountain towns, although with a few charms that elevate it, especially around here in mid-to-southeastern CA. But the real greatness is in what surrounds the town: on both sides of the broad Owens River Valley, mountains soar thousands of feet above the valley floor. To the west are the eastern Sierra Nevada; to the east are the White Mountains. All are currently blanketed in snow and against the blue skies of the desert are truly awe-inspiring. I've never stayed long in a place like this and it's exciting to finally have the chance to do so.

The other attraction here for me, obviously, is the vast amount of climbing within a mere 20-30 minutes of downtown Bishop. The Owens River Gorge, with it's almost nonsensically twisted volcanic formations; the bouldering areas of the volcanic tablelands, warm canyons filled with crazy boulders that are absolutely festooned with sharp pockets, edges and all manner of strange holds; the Buttermilks and its outlying areas: the most idyllic of all the local areas here, with huge, gorgeous monzonite boulders reminiscent of Joshua Tree but with more of the coveted 'patina', a varnished coating of rock that provides the most solid holds and the most aesthetic climbing experience. In warmer months, the high Sierra provide endless challenges somewhat at altitude (13,000 feet) and many canyons lower down have larger granitic formations accessible once the snow melts. Higher country areas to the north like Mammoth and the Sherwin Plateau offer similar respite from the hot temperatures of spring and summer. In short, the area is paradisaical for a climber. Being able to stay here for a winter without camping in the sometimes single digit nighttime low temperatures is an incredible blessing for which I am most grateful.

Bouldering has always been a key aspect of my climbing but in recent years has fallen out of favor for me for a number of reasons. One of these is the persistence of finger injuries that make it difficult to use the often desperately small holds on harder boulder problems. Another is the absolute horde of people often found at popular areas like the Buttermilks. The attitudes of the worst of the boulderers are often even more flippant and arrogant than those found in other climbing pursuits because bouldering has so much more of that cool kid cache: the hardest moves on rock are being done in the context of bouldering and the basic level of commitment required is extremely low. That isn't to say that really good boulderers aren't good climbers; rather, bouldering attracts many people to the sport who, for better or worse, don't want to deal with ropes, gear, falling at great heights (even though roped falls are often safer than bouldering falls), etc. At best, bouldering offers the freedom to try very difficult moves and to develop creative new movements that are often dynamic and sometimes completely counter-intuitive. At worst, it means standing near a popular boulder or problem and watching the absolute lamest example of a dick-measuring contest ever conceived.

Alright, I'll allow that it's far from the lamest, but it can still be pretty lame.

Yes, it's possible to just avoid this type of situation entirely, but at an area like the Buttermilks it is almost impossible not to witness the occasional hipster boulderer wank-fest. Whether it's a sponsored professional doing a photo shoot that cock-blocks the boulder problem you really wanted to try for hours or a group of gym kids playing too-cool-for-school while they fall repeatedly off the same move on some famous V12, the scene is guaranteed to weigh heavily on the psyche of even the most hardened veteran of climbing. Beta will be sprayed at you indiscriminately from buffoons who can't even climb the problem they're describing; holds will have tick marks the length of shoelaces radiating outwards from the best usable surfaces; trash will be cast casually to the ground by callous weekenders that hail from cities near and far; kids with strong fingers will purposefully hike your projects in front of you while photos are taken for their sponsors. Yes, bouldering is no country for old men who want a quiet, contemplative experience. The purity of movement on the rock, the ingenuity of the human body at deciphering incredibly challenging movements: these are mere vestiges of a stodgy past, a reliquary for all sentiment and insight and other things dusty and old. Instead the inexorable progression of difficulty rules, the hip and cool compete in a vast outdoor arena where free gear and sponsor branding are the spoils for pulling on some small holds and grading the problem as high as possible without risking too much deflation thereafter. It is yet another chance for hipsters with handlebar mustaches and ass-tight black jeans smoking hand-rolled cigarettes to try to establish dominance over you, as laughable as the outcome often is. Just as frequently it is a forum for the relatively inexperienced to make a splash in the world of climbing news: get strong enough, climb the right problems and you just might be the next ! There has to be at least one gear company desperate enough for publicity to give you a free t-shirt with their brand name on it!

If you haven't guessed, I'm being relatively facetious here while adhering somewhat to the truth. Bouldering really is a scene at the popular areas, but elsewhere it is often a study in solitude and freedom from the confines of protective equipment and belayers. I love bouldering. I dislike the crowds it brings and their oft-dismissive attitudes. That aside, I will say that this trip has been the absolute best for me in terms of finding good situations even on the most crowded days around here. Almost every time I've gone out alone I've ended up climbing with posses of boulderers from all over who not only weren't outlandishly annoying but were even supportive and fun to climb with! Maybe there's some credence to keeping an open mind, whatever that means! Anyway, I really have had some great experiences, the net result of which is an improved attitude towards boulderers in general! I actually believe these experiences to be the rule rather than the exception. I never thought I'd say this, but I don't hate all the annoying hipster boulderers! In fact, their insolent and rockstar-esque behavior is downright entertaining! I know that when I arrive at the Buttermilks on a sunny Saturday in January, it's not going to be a day of solitude in the wilderness. What I used to interpret as somehow threatening, however, this being all the chest-beating and posturing that inevitable occurs, is now pure gold from a theatrical standpoint. This is a sure sign of a relative reduction of the dominance will of my own ego that has heretofore always attempted to turn the joy of anything I did into some sort of quantifiable accomplishment.

Now my only question is: when did I get so fucking old and crotchety?

No matter: when all the young whippersnappers see this old hand crushing the business like I was their age, it will all show its worth! Just so long as I don't throw my back out in front of them or hide it well if I do, my plan can't fail! I just did a hard slab problem the other day that probably gets climbed less than once a year, if that! Take that, kids!

In all seriousness, Bishop is a great place. If my fingers can stand the heat of pulling on all these tiny holds, I really look forward to climbing here. And yes, all the droves of pad people who flock to the hills to make a name for themselves or simply for fun, I love them too, at least in that sort of condescending, faux-enlightened, putting-on-airs fashion so popular right now. Hey: I never said I was perfect either!

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