How did we get here? Where are we going?
By Doug Robinson
For a while I fancied that I had invented the Buttermilk. After all, in 1969 I made the first ascent of the biggest boulder by roping up, placing two or three nuts, and even sinking a couple of bolts to protect the 5.8 crux, which edged out above the lip of an overhang. But I soon got schooled. Bob Blanchard had already soloed my route—definitely highball to a 70-foot summit—and not bothered to mention it.
I should have guessed. Bob’s father Smoke Blanchard had become Bishop’s first climber in 1941, coming south as a snow mountaineer after setting a speed record climbing Mt. Hood. Smoke soon found the Buttermilk and began scrambling in the granite maze—the one toward town from the boulders—that eventually became Smoke’s Rock Course. Watch out, boulderers: there’s a curious surge of interest these days in Smoke’s creation. And his “mild mountaineering”—which is actually pretty stout and occasionally serious—may yet threaten the assumption that of course climbing around Bishop means bouldering.
And that’s what Bob was doing on Grandpa Peabody. Before there was a name for highballing, he just soloed up the thing. And tiptoed back down. It’s been the descent route ever since. I’m still happy to use a rope, up and down, but it’s inspiring to see the confidence of the likes of Dale Bard and Kevin Jorgeson, casually coming down after forging routes up other sides that forever raised the bar. Though we didn’t see it that way then, it turned out that we put up a lot of descent routes in those early years when my band of Armadillos were at play among the most popular boulders.
Bouldering itself had already been tempering us before we migrated from Yosemite, and its origins traced back before that. In the early 1950s, a young John Gill emerged from gymnastics onto rock in Georgia, and then singlehandedly spread his new ropeless passion across the country to Southern Illinois, the Tetons, and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Along the way, Gill came up with some fresh ideas about bouldering that may yet inform its future.
Bob Blanchard had neglected to tell anyone he’d climbed the biggest boulder in the Buttermilk. Typical. He was weaned on Smoke’s style, which included memorizing Chinese poetry to recite to himself at work, on the long haul across the Mojave driving a propane truck. And many Chinese poets laughed about how human aspirations were small and fleeting when seen against the vastness of wild nature. Thoughts that nudge your vision upward, to the skyline of the Sierra, soaring above the rockpile of the Buttermilk.
My band of Armadillos developed the Buttermilk boulders from the late sixties through the mid-seventies. Originally a commune of mostly road-racing motorcycle riders in the Haight-Ashbury, a stuffed armadillo (Geoffrey) presiding from their flat’s mantelpiece, they followed John Fischer and me to the Eastside and ditched the bikes for rock shoes. At a peace march down Main Street we met and merged with a spirited group of climbers from Bishop High School, and the band of ‘Dillos instantly swelled. For context, you’ve gotta understand that a rally for peace was the most liberal thing that had ever happened in the redneck ranching center that was Bishop in the sixties. When the Haight-Ashbury longhairs moved into a group of cabins at Cardinal Village up Bishop Creek, the local sheriff would sometimes glass us from the road cut under Cardinal Pinnacle. He had reason to be nervous, having recently busted Charlie Manson near Death Valley. We were soon guiding in the Palisades during the summer and exploring the magnificent boulders the rest of the year.
It wasn’t clear yet that the Buttermilk would become an international destination, or even that bouldering itself would evolve into a leading—possibly the leading—form of climbing. But it was—uh crystal—clear that we had found a paradise of stone: bright eggs of granite, pocked with huecos and scattered with sharp-crystal crimps, sitting on sandy landings, at a mild-climate altitude and posed against a backdrop of jagged peaks that soared to within a cheater-stone dyno of 14,000 feet. We brought along Yosemite standards of difficulty, but there was not yet a whisper of chalk or a hint of pads to stress out the delicate desert plants. Our new Bishop allies, led by Gordon Wiltsie, Jay Jensen and Roger Schley, were simply amazing. Young, strong, spirited, and already begun climbing, their exuberance soon matched our experience, and we became a posse eager to explore the enticing boulders. We sauntered into the rocks, picking lines we could get up and fingering opening moves that would become the future. Chatting and laughing, partying, pulling down hard and whooping with delight—some things are timeless.
Names, though, seemed to come and go. Tim Harrison, a brilliant new recruit from South Pasadena, christened the boulders the Peabodies for their shape, but the Buttermilk stuck. Old topo maps going back to the thirties already showed Buttermilk Country (singular, please) on the lush cow pasturage that sweeps upslope toward Basin Mountain. For the two biggest boulders, I tried to go matriarchal with Big Motha Boulder and Split Pea, but male dominance overruled. Fine. Grandpa and Grandma, if you must. One of my best problems was the Monkey Dihedral, around the corner from Saigon on what we called the Circle Boulder, commemorated in a Gordon Wiltsie shot that became a poster for Ascent. Underground comix, a major art movement from the sixties, had come with us from San Francisco. Raunchy characters like the Checkered Demon were memorialized in naming an ice climb above here, and a gritty crack problem I worked on with Jay Jensen, which took weeks of healing the backs of our hands between attempts but not a shred of tape, became Angelfood McSpade. Who was so cheeky as to rename it The Buttocks, anyway?
It was intriguing to guess where the boulders came from. They were not glacial erratics. Water-worn huecos on the undersides were certainly a clue. Finally bedrock up on the ridge filled in the story, where the natural cracks between big blocks are gradually weathering, rounded from blowing sand, waiting for a big rocker quake to begin trundling them downhill. And it does shake here: the little-known Lone Pine earthquake of 1872 was bigger than San Francisco’s famous 1906 teeth-rattler. After we figured out that one, we quit sleeping under the boulders.
Nosing around, the Armadillos band found Little Egypt but not the Druids. We went to the Bardini Boulders for their isolated valley and the camping, though Smoke and Dave Sharp, the beloved civics teacher at Bishop High School who was already being demoted for associating with us, had combed Grouse Mountain and roped up The Claw.
Soon we found volcanic bouldering too. Out in Round Valley an alluring dihedral right off of Highway 395 was painted with Jesus slogans. It revealed a Yosemite favorite: offwidth. And that led us to vertical pocket problems. Driving the river road back toward Bishop, the crisp edge of the Volcanic Tablelands wavered alongside, with dark blocks spilling toward us. Here were more steep problems facing the winter sun, with a texture merciful to Buttermilk-enflamed tips. We wandered around delighted, pulling down where it appealed, naming nothing and soon forgetting where we’d been. Back up on the Tablelands we read the occasional block of petroglyphs, and coming back down I stumbled upon a four-inch obsidian spearpoint. Inspired by these links to the past, one day we paddled a canoe out to an island in the Owens River and built a sweat lodge. Emerging dripping, we squatted on our haunches in a circle, passing a knife to feast on a baby goat roasting on a willow-branch spit over the fire.
Bouldering generations go quick. The Armadillos were in our prime when we were simply blown away by a 17-year-old foreign-exchange student from Germany, Helmut Kiene. Lanky and always smiling, he seemed mildly amused to find climbers in a Wild West town. He went straight to Grandpa Peabody and catapulted the standards by roping up to lead the Cave Problem and toprope Transporter Room. Peter Croft summarized the reaction in Bishop Area Rock Climbs:
This was a giant leap—perhaps the biggest jump in grades the area has seen. Some will be quick to point out that this is a bouldering area and both of these ascents used ropes and, so, don’t really count. But looking at the totality of Buttermilk climbing history and in an effort to be fair, I think those people should be punched in the face.
Hot on our heels were Galen Rowell, gentle giant Bob Harrington and the ever-stylish Chris Vandiver. And as our efforts dwindled, Dale Bard came to town. He had an old UPS van all tricked out with teak cabinetry. Where he parked in the Buttermilk, for years, became Dale’s Camp. It was a radical idea, like the first climbers to hunker down for a full season in Camp 4 at the end of the 1950s, honing themselves on the stone that littered the landscape. Dale had done the Valley, and now he was here, relentlessly raising the standards. I remember one day trying to hold an undercling on the Sunshine Boulder when he said, “just lock off.” Yeah, easy for you to say. Dale was a whole new kind of strong.
No need to get into the more modern history, eighties onward. Others have it wired. The Armadillo’s time was past, though we still love to come out at twilight, a magic hour when even now there’s occasionally no one else around, and do our circuit of V0 to V2 problems—what I like to call the Milk Run.
The boulders around here are big, and soon people started decking. Hard. Gordon Wiltsie broke his calcaneus bone—an extremely serious foot injury—when he popped off of Good Morning Sunshine, where it only looks sandy underneath. Gin and tonics may have been involved; pads certainly weren’t. Sometimes that break gets called “Roofer’s Heel.” Many limp ever after, though Gordon lucked out: he went on to climb for years and photograph many striking covers for National Geographic. Modern boulderer Marty Hornick, with a pad, a spot and a short drop, still managed to twist off the edge of his pad and mangle his knee. An excruciating limp down from the Druids, three operations, and over a year later he’s working hard toward a full recovery.
In the mid-eighties I came down much harder. Soloing, exploring a new line, I got stuck. A rounded, shaggy topout and irreversible moves below. Overhanging, so I could clearly see the landing, a rolling granite slab 40 feet below. Long minutes of stark terror, contemplating death as I pumped out. Finally, with my hands inches off the rock, I conveniently blacked out so I wouldn’t have to watch. My melon could so easily have split open right there. But instead I was ridiculously thankful, coming to with only a broken back … and numb nuts that lasted for weeks. Highballing has its stark realities.
Kevin Jorgeson agrees. He had already put up two of the hardest highball problems in the world on that biggest boulder when he wrote in the 2015 American Alpine Journal:
I’d constantly put myself in positions like this. I was obsessed with pushing the standards of highball bouldering, rolling the dice with each sketchy first ascent. Ambrosia pushed the bar even higher, not just blurring the line between highball and solo but crossing it. To continue meant becoming a free soloist, and I was unwilling. Not only did I need a new project, I needed a new discipline of the sport.
When someone like Kevin calls out the spiraling mortal edge of a style he himself had pushed to new levels, you tend to listen. Maybe there are other directions for bouldering to evolve. We pretty much owe this whole genre of climbing to John Gill, right? And way back in 1961, on a 30-foot climb of the Thimble in the Black Hills of South Dakota, Gill ushered in the era of highballing. But in spite of training ruthlessly, in spite of driving 500 miles to the Thimble three or four times, he was uncomfortable with what he had created. “The Thimble, to me, is not really a boulder problem …it’s a little too high, a little too dangerous.” He turned away, and for the rest of a simply amazing career, he added other dimensions to the challenge:
So things haven’t turned out quite the way I envisioned. This is true with regard to style, for I thought style as important as difficulty. I know few boulderers who fully appreciate this feature of our sport… Only a handful will spend as much time repeating easier routes with the sole objective of polishing their performance as they will working on hard new climbs.
Sounds a little like old Smoke Blanchard, eh, running laps on his Rock Course “to smooth a technique.” We all struggle for words to express what flows out of our discipline. To Gill, bouldering became a “consuming practice” in “kinesthetic awareness.” What, divert the goal from successful topout? Focusing on graceful movement slides emphasis away from mere difficulty to the enjoyment of a rhythmic sweep upward. From grunt to dance. And toward the reward of Gill’s other pregnant word, awareness. Heightened, it changes everything. “I felt serenely alive,” Gill said, with “an uncompromising zest for life that lasted for days.”
And then there’s Ron Kauk, who we have to thank for the world’s best-known boulder problem, Midnight Lightning. Ron wrote a deceptively simple line about “getting inside the move.” It jumped off the page from his small book Spirit of the Rock in 2003. Ever since then, Ron’s challenge has informed my bouldering more than anything else. Maybe I look like a sloth, warming up with one-arm hangs from a generous knob, feeling the small shifts among muscles as my body tilts around, relaxing into adjustments in its attitude. A little like yoga, maybe; climbing has definitely become a practice.
John Gill, Ron Kauk and Kevin Jorgeson, three of the finest boulderers ever, agreeing across many generations on a different approach than higher. Or even harder. There’s something rhythmic, answering the invitation of flow, in the direction they suggest. Perhaps a touch more mindful. And certainly gleeful. In a curious way, together they may point back to the future.
Note: A short excerpt from this piece was printed in a good new guidebook, Bishop Bouldering Select, by Airlie Anderson and McKenzie Long, published February 2016 by Wolverine Publishing.