Climbing in a Winter Wonderland

Rocky fun on the Eastside

Words by Leonie Sherman • Photos by Bruce Willey

Getting happy in the Happies, Schaumann rises above the rim.

Getting happy in the Happies, Caroline Schaumann rises above the rim.

For California climbers the intersection of the Owens Valley, the Great Basin and the Mojave desert form a dramatic paradise of stone. whether you want to boulder, clip bolts or belay from your bumper, you can scratch that itch on the quartz monzonite and volcanic tuff between the friendly towns of Bishop and Lone Pine.

The Alabama Hills, Owens River Gorge and Happy and Sad Boulders showcase the diversity and quality of climbing available during the coldest darkest months in the rain shadow of the fairest range. Marty Lewis and Peter Croft have penned several Eastern Sierra climbing guides, which provide detailed and hilarious beta. What follows is only intended to whet your appetite and stoke your enthusiasm to drop whatever you’re doing and head for the Eastside.

The Alabama Hills
With their shaggy quartz monzonite boulder piles and cliffs, laid back regulations and abundance of well protected sport routes, the Alabama Hills have something for every style and level of climbing. The rock can be crumbly, scabby, rough, like crunchy peanut butter spread on a brittle cracker. But it can also be sharp hardened patina plates. The weather is sunnier and milder than Bishop. The approaches are rarely more than ten minute strolls and a decent espresso is less than 15 minutes away.

You can fill many happy days clipping bolts or scrambling around in the Hills. Locals have worked out intricate bouldering sequences they’re happy to share. But the real charm of the Alabama Hills is in the lack of crowds. You’ll rarely have to share a route.

Amy Ness is the perfect ambassador for this surreal wonderland. She can tell you where to climb when it’s howling down from the mountains or blowing in from the south, which corridors will provide protection and which will turn into roaring wind tunnels, and which faces get morning and afternoon sun.

She’ll happily rope up with competent strangers or you can just hire her for the day. When I met her almost a decade ago she was enthusiastically exploring and studying the area; now she’s the founder and chief guide at the Whitney Basecamp Climbing School. She taught me to love the Hills. Now that’s her job.

Though on their way to National Monument status, the Alabama Hills are currently managed by the BLM. You can help preserve these lands by staying in established campgrounds. Tuttle Creek on the Horseshoe Meadows Road is popular with climbers. And when life in the Hills gets too gritty, windy or cold, you can find the best tea selection on the Eastside, a decent fish taco and a bar with a genuine shuffle board just a short drive away in the charming town of Lone Pine.

A raven keeps an eye on Caroline Schaumann as she climbs the Shark Fin in the Alabama Hills.

A raven keeps an eye on Caroline Schaumann as she climbs the Shark Fin in the Alabama Hills.

The Owens River Gorge
A hundred and ten miles north of Lone Pine is one of the Earth’s largest calderas – a valley 20 miles long, ten miles wide and up to 3,000 feet deep. Like all calderas, it was formed following a massive volcanic explosion that caused the underlying magma chamber to collapse. The Long Valley eruption lasted only a few days, but it covered an area larger than Cuba in stifling ash, which quickly hardened to welded tuff. Then the Owens River carved a gash through it, leaving sheer walls 600 feet high. Forty years ago some dirtbags with harnesses wandered onto the scene and now it’s one of the most popular sport climbing areas in the state.

So, of course, climbers love to complain about the Owens River Gorge. How the sunniest routes are often crowded, it’s really just a damp hole in the ground and the Sierra is all about granite anyway.

But volcanic tuff features positive holds and sharp edges, and the Gorge offers California’s longest routes on the stuff. The climbing is unremittingly steep and the rock is super polished, almost glazed. That means you can climb all day without chewing up your fingertips. Most routes are well bolted, so if you pop off while working a sequence, you’re not going to slam into anything. This allows even an inexperienced climber to safely engage with the pure athletic challenge of perfecting technique.

Moves are well marked by the chalk of those who have come before. There’s only blank smooth tuff between holds, so climbing in the Gorge is reminiscent of following tape in a gym. Tiny crimping holds require hand and foot strength. Climbing here is not in powerful dynamic bursts, but more like a delicate sustained ballet.

There are some moderate climbs, but the best are in the 5.10-5.11 range. For someone of my modest abilities the Gorge offers the opportunity to pump out my forearms, watch the incredible grace of skilled climbers and be humbled as I thrutch, flail and grovel my way up long vertical routes.

Mary Devore reading her self-penned book in the Owens Gorge.

Mary Devore reading her self-penned book in the Owens Gorge.

The Happy & Sad Boulders
If you want to fondle volcanic tuff but the weather has turned foul, head for the Happy and Sad Boulders. When the wind howls through the alpine zone and the temperature plummets in the Alabama Hills, chances are you can comfortably explore quality problems just outside of Bishop. The sheltered valley and low elevation means these areas tend to enjoy decent winter weather for a hundred miles.

The tuff here is deeply pocketed with sharp edges, burly jugs and a wealth of positive holds. After four decades of love, all the breakable stuff has already been broken off, so the rock is solid unless it has rained directly on the boulders. In that case, you’ll want to wait a few days for things to dry out; tuff becomes saturated quickly.

There’s a huge range of problems to accommodate all abilities. Where the Buttermilk is famous for sphincter-tightening highballs, the Happy and Sad Boulders feature fun gymnastic problems not too high off the ground, making it a friendly area for transitioning from indoor climbing to the real thing.

On a busy winter weekend you may find over 100 cars in the parking lot, but the supply of boulders is nearly endless and there’s more to explore on the rim. It’s rare to find yourself alone at the Happies or the Sads, but you won’t ever feel crowded. And the people who do show up are respectful of the environment and each other; there’s hardly any trash and climber care has preserved the plants and petroglyphs in the area.

Much of the land around Bishop is owned by the LADWP, whose early century theft of the region’s water decimated the farming communities of the Owens Valley and transferred the horrors of overpopulation 250 miles south. Camping is prohibited on their land, but the BLM and climber volunteers operate the conveniently located Pit Campground, which offers sweeping vistas of the Volcanic Tablelands and distant snow capped peaks. For $2 you can park your vehicle and socialize with an international array of climber dirtbags.

Whether you’re escaping the rain of the coast or the snow of the mountains, you’re an experienced pebble wrestler or just learning the lack of ropes, you want to pull hard on polished patina or learn to love tuff, the Eastside offers a winter climbing bonanza for anyone willing to make the trek. See you out there!

Boulders that make all of the Owens Valley Happy.

Boulders that make all of the Owens Valley Happy.

Doug Robinson warming up the Smoke’s Rockcourse in the Buttermilk

Doug Robinson warming up the Smoke’s Rockcourse in the Buttermilk

High fives after one of Matilda Schaumann Willey’s first climbs.

High fives after one of Matilda Schaumann Willey’s first climbs.

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