Front country cragging under the shadow of the High Sierra Crest

Words and photos by Bruce Willey

To be frank, I thought about starting this story with an epic. Some hanging on the thin edge thing: frozen fingers grasping for a nub, a hair-raiser of a lightning storm scrubbing the inside of your helmet, being skinned alive by a fall on run-out slab. It sells magazines and stokes campfires, not to mention touches the void that is ego.

But I’m happy to report that climbing is more fun when you manage to avoid these stories in the first place. When fear is replaced by experience (see above), or when you find heightened conviction with vigorous hands and feet, and the common assurance of such things as a rope attached to a good, maybe even loving partner.

And my epics have left me with more laugh lines than grey hairs and are pedestrian anyway. Stories that come screaming down out of the Andes, Alaska, or prodigiously out of the Himalayas, are best experienced from the comfort and privacy of a water closet accompanied by a long Mahleresque movement.

Thanks to the Sierra Nevada, where the weather vacillates most often between perfectly fair to even more fair, and the rock is, for the most part, constitutionally solid, California stories scuff the edges of the pastoral. No wonder Muir went up a pine tree in the midst of a windstorm or soloed Mt. Ritter in shepherd boots. It sold stories and fueled lowland awareness to preserve something that made it difficult for Muir to keep his feet on the ground.

This is not to say Sierra climbers are, as a bunch, cowards. It’s just that they operate in a medium that is a perfect mixture between a Mediterranean and desert clime. Try finding a book titled Minus 148 Degrees or The Savage Mountain regarding the Sierra. Won’t happen. Instead, one is more apt to find something more akin to John Tyndall’s Hours of Exercise in the Alps. Doug Robinson’s apt title, A Night on the Ground, A Day in the Open comes to mind as does Smoke Blanchard’s Going Up and Down in the World, both of which are actually about the Sierra, both low and high. After all, the Sierra forgives most of the time and even loves you back with all the loyalty of a good dog.

But in the interest of keeping your attention (and to show how swashbuckling I become under stress), I would like to get one story out of my system. Plus, it begins at the south end of the front country Eastern Sierra climbing continuum—where this story begins.

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My wife and I were climbing in the Alabama Hills, as we do many an evening after we finish our work. It’s cooler then as the long shadows from Mt. Whitney and Williamson splay across the monzonite domes, slowly chilling the rock that has been baking in the summer sun. Topping out on a dome, sometimes it’s very possible to feel as though you’ve landed in Joshua Tree minus the rangers, the picnic tables, the expensive camping, and, well, the Joshua trees. Some have gone so far as to call the Alabama Hills the “poorman’s Joshua Tree” which is sort of true considering the general lack of good crack climbing and the non-existent entry fees. But after climbing here a few years, we’ve begun to question the wisdom of the maxim, not to mention question whether we want to ever go back to Joshua Tree when the Alabama Hills is, for lack of a better term, so much a wonderland of rocks.

Mostly comprised of sport climbs on cinematically beautiful domes (enough westerns, car commercials, and music videos have been filmed here to cross the Sierra Crest several times over), the Alabama Hills is slab climbing at its near best. Some call it crumbly choss. And yes there is a bit of that. Nevertheless, we find ourselves continually drawn back to the sharp edges of granite plates exfoliating into the desert scrub.

So here we are in the Loaf area, so-called because Meatloaf filmed a music video while at the height of his fame and limitless passion to rock! with sweaty abandon. I unpack the rope bag and leave it on the ground underneath the climb when I realize I’ve forgotten the water. No big deal: sometimes it’s more than practical to belay on the tailgate of your truck with a cold drink in the other hand. While I fetch water, my wife Caroline explores the base of the domes, ticking off climbs she intends to do.

When I get back, she picks up the rope bag and carries it from one dome to the next, to a climb that looks good to her. She ties in, chalkes her hands, and begins climbing. After clipping three or four bolts, I look down at my feet—clad in my usual summer attire of snake-proof sandals, mind you—and see a western diamondback slither out of the rope bag.

I yell up at Caroline: “Clappeschlonge, Clappeschlonge,” a word I recently acquired in her quest to teach me her native language. Stepping backwards a few feet, I count seven rattles on its tail. But the “clapping snake” (rough translation) is well behaved, crawling casually away into a stand of bushes. He’d gotten a free ride in the rope bag, carried by Caroline next to her chest. Without plunging too far into anthropomorphic serpent behavior, the snake probably thought the rope was a skinny 10.5mm cousin of his and crawled in to say hi. As with most things, climbing’s most horrendous moments are experienced in hindsight.

The Alabama Hills are like that; the good and bad sink in later. It’s a wild paradise despite its John Wayne reputation of shattered beer bottles, ATVers dusting up the roads, and above, F-16 fighter jets that dogfight in and around the clouds. On one climb in the Ghosts area called Elephant Hunting (5.10b) you smear and pinch on small craters produced by men pretending to be movie stars pretending to be cowboys shooting at the wall with rifles.

Late evening, as usual, finds us squeezing one more climb out of the dusky light. Bats swoop by in the utterly quiet air and always a great horned owl can be heard asking the question of who we are. By then we know it’s time to shed our harnesses and grab a beer out of the cooler before heading home to Big Pine for homemade burritos.

Or not. The other night, post snake encounter and under a full moon, we kept climbing. I’ll venture going up the Shark Fin Arête (5.7) to peer at Mt. Whitney lit up in lunar light is one of the best things one can do on the Eastside. From here the Owens Valley, flanked by the White Mountains and the Sierra Nevada, stretches for as far as the eye can see by the moonlight. And time, finally, for that midnight burrito.

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For the last three summers, my wife and I have made our home in Big Pine, thirteen miles south of Bishop. We’re climbers by trade, writers and teachers by profession. The latter leaves us a lot of freedom, the former not a lot of money. But from the moment we met each other in Joshua Tree (of all places to meet another climber) we were already planning on living large and deep in the Owens Valley. Somehow we’ve managed to pull it off and will continue to idly dig deeper roots until we are, without sentiment, buried here in the warm ground.

When we first moved here we focused on classic peaks and climbs in the backcountry. Having both climbed in the Sierra for at least one collective lifetime before meeting, we brought together a long list of have and have-nots. Yet beginning the first month of our first summer in the Sierra, we began to see that elevation and proportion is single-minded.

That certainly is the case with the High Sierra, where the eye draws upwards whether you’re a peak-bagger, rock climber, or mountaineer. It’s fair to say more people have summitted Mt. Whitney than have climbed in the Alabama Hills or the sweeping aprons of white granite of the Whitney Portal in plain view on the way up. It’s understandable. The “eye on the prize” blinds our vision.

Aside from the occasional bouldering session in the Buttermilk, I too neglected to see the front country climbing possibilities. I came to the Sierra with only two or three days off from work and I wanted something big, something that would stick to my lowland memory. Or more truthfully, something that would justify driving through Los Banos in the Central Valley on the way back to Santa Cruz, gas station coffee rattling my tired bones at three in the morning. Begging St. Christopher for a shower, a bed, shut-eyes, real food—never sure which should come first.

So why not just live here? A twenty-minute drive to the trailhead into the Palisades was all it took to sign a lease on a one-bedroom cottage, a cottage so close to Highway 395 it would be quieter if you slept in the sleeper of a semi—and sometimes it feels as though you are.

“Never mind,” says my German mother-in-law, her favorite expression, one that she uses to mean your priorities are in order.

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With afternoons free for climbing we began seeking things that wouldn’t take all day to approach, or climbs we could do when the proverbial July thunderstorms threatened to thump the high country. Peter Croft’s The Good, the Great, and the Awesome dipped occasionally into front country climbing and for us, gave the inspiration to start exploring. Cardinal Pinnacle seemed a good climb to start.

Croft’s description is apt: “A half hour drive from downtown (Bishop), a twenty minute hike to the base and you’re there: 500 feet of fine grained granite perched at over 9,000 feet, offering the highest quality multi-pitch climbing in the Bishop area.”

We’ve ended up climbing it more than half a dozen times since, and it’s the first place we take visiting friends on the wonders of the Eastside tour. The West Face, in particular, is, for its grade, one of the best 5.10’s anywhere. Perfect crack climbing goes up four pitches of blindingly white granite that gets nothing short of the “awesome” rating in Croft’s book.

The West Face is tacked together from a few routes, joining the last two pitches of Cucumbers (5.10a) midway. So last July, when a friend of Caroline’s came up from Las Vegas we took her up it. And since I’d promised Mike Gable, a local physical therapist that I would also take him up Cardinal as he slowly tortured my frozen shoulder (a side-effect of climbing without rest, he tells me) into submission, we made a party of two rope teams.

Elizabeth Tai is an accomplished and determined climber who is comfortably at home in Red Rocks, Nevada. Gable has recently just picked up climbing since he moved here through Bishopian osmosis. He treats a lot of climbers, and already is climbing hard 5.10’s. But little trad experience. So I gladly accepted the sharp end.

We lazily made our way up the route, stopping to take pictures and hang out at the belays made more beautiful by Evolution Range on one side and Owens Valley on the other. Caroline and I had spent many a fine day on this rock and it was good to be showing it off. Most climbers, when they reach the top, rappel off the Prow. In four raps (with two 60m ropes) you can reunite with your proper shoes and snacks that you left at the base.

But Mike had failed to mention that he’d only rappelled maybe thirty feet in his life, and now he stood at the exposed tip of the prow, fingers shaking, and scared silly of the sudden exposure. I coaxed him with about the same voice he’d used on my arm. And off he went, spinning in mid-air. I could nearly hear his heart beating over the wind. Coiling rope at the bottom his smile returned and didn’t stop until I dropped him off at his small home on a leafy downtown street in Bishop.

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It’s been said that Sierra gentleman mountaineer, Smoke Blanchard, was the first to discover some of the front country secrets. Though no stranger to alpine climbing in the Sierra and elsewhere, including Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the Himalaya, Smoke took special interest in the Buttermilk and Pine Creek a tad bit above Bishop.

One the few Buddhist truck drivers to grace 395 (hence the nickname), Smoke saw new possibilities in the boulders and crags like no one before him. Maybe it was a Zen thing, but soon Smoke had created a grade III or IV climb in the Buttermilk that roamed over boulders and small peaks. Now part of Bishop lore because only a few people are alive to remember it, the route is simply called Smoke’s Rock Course.

Doug Robinson knew Smoke back in the day and he offered to show me the course, or what’s left of it as committed to memory. The sixties were good to Doug, and he actively took part in the Golden Age of Yosemite including the honor of being considered the father of clean climbing in America. But his experience is finely misted by so many other climbs, not-to-mention all the late night imbibes around a campfire, that his own history sometimes fails him.

Nevertheless we set off for what he believed was the start of the route (or maybe the middle) and soon found ourselves in a dirty chimney on the Skindiver, a prominent rock that stands sentinel as you drive into the Buttermilk. Topping out on the raven guano summit, we looked over at the Peabodies that Doug had discovered to be an excellent source of fun three decades before Bishop became the bouldering Mecca of the West. “Back then bouldering was one of the laziest things you could do and still be climbing,” I remember Doug saying, accompanied by a laugh that tilts his whole trunk dangerously to the side, especially on sharp summits.

For most of the morning and afternoon we meandered up and down the rocks until we came to a place where both of us couldn’t remember the time of day or the rest of the route. It didn’t matter. Smoke called our activity “Buttermilking” and would lead large groups of people on the course while the more gentrified members of the Bishop community had a picnic in the granite sands below. Forty, even 50 or so years later, climbers are still “Buttermilking” and Smoke would no doubt been both perplexed and positive about all the crashpads, sticky rubber, and chalk. He climbed in leathery mountain boots and a cane, after all.

“There is no way that I know of to pass on by paper the feeling that permeates the person who steps out of the shower with epidermis cleaned and tingling from crystal scrapes, muscles pleasantly tired, joints well-oiled, and mind and spirit glowing from a full day of Buttermilking,”

Walking back to the car, this quote from Smoke was fully recounted verbatim from Doug’s memory. And that a shower was every bit as good as Smoke had described.

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Bishop wasn’t always that world-class climbing destination that it is now. Back in the sixties, John Fischer, local longtime guide and owner of the now defunct Palisade School of Mountaineering, remembers that “most, if not all of the climbers in Bishop could fit inside Smoke’s small living room.” Not so much anymore, though there’s still probably more people that own mules (or want to, like me) than there are climbers here.

Much of the climbing back then was done in a humble, quiet manner much as it is done today. Locals climbers like Robinson, Fischer, Gordon Wiltsie, Jay Jensen, Dave Sharp, Tony Puppo, Dale Bard, Marty Hornick, Marty Lewis, John Moynier, James Wilson, Alan Bartlett (who along with Erret Allen, wrote the first guidebook to the area, now out of print) and many others too important not to mention, immediately saw the potential in their backyard. They pushed all the obvious lines, and then some.

Later, as sport climbing came into fashion (and what a fashion statement that was), the Owens River Gorge got worked over with over 700 routes going into the volcanic tuff. Lycra gave way to crashpads in the early 90’s with Chris Sharma coming over the hill to put up some of the most iconic and sought-after bouldering problems in the world.

Indeed, this very brief, glossed-over history does no justice to the Bishop climbers who were bold and visionary. But even now, there is a flurry of new route development, taking guidance and inspiration from those who came before. And with the new guidebook, Bishop Area Rock Climbs: The Climbing Guide to the Eastern Sierra—South by Lewis and Croft, climbers are, once again, about to have their focus wholly rearranged.

Nowhere is this new route activity more apparent than Pine Creek Canyon. Up a road nine miles north of Bishop, Pine Creek is the de facto local destination for Bishop climbers whether it’s a quick climbing session after work or a weekend’s worth of granite and scrub leisure. Kept cool by the 6,500- foot elevation and the sun that hides itself behind the massive Wheeler Crest in the afternoon, Pine Creek is a perfect summertime crag.

“To find this in my backyard ten minutes away—obviously it was always here—but to rediscover it and start fiddling around and I said ‘holy shit this is another gold mine as far as possibilities,’” says Lewis, while he stands in his yard in Round Valley. His dogs sniff around his legs, and Peewee, Peter Croft’s dog lounges on the porch. “All these slot canyons have interesting things. There’s going to be stuff going on up here for years to come.”

The main attraction is the Pratt’s Crack area, so named after Chuck Pratt, who spied and climbed the perfect offwidth splitter. It’s one of the first things to catch a newcomer’s eye when coming into the canyon aside from the vestiges of what used to be one of the largest tungsten mines in the world. A five-minute walk from the car and you’re passing the Mustache Wall (“It was right under our noses the whole time,” Lewis says) with enough sport climbs to fill several enjoyable days, or in my case, summers. Further around the corner, up canyon, the black diorite is broken by Pratt’s Crack and the stirring yet unattainable (for most) Ecstacy (5.13a), Tommy Herbert’s rap-bolted vision. Around another corner is John Fischer’s masterpiece, Sheila, climbed in 1975 or thereabouts, and probably the first 5.10 on the Eastside.

“I remember putting an old Chouinard hexcentric in there at the crux and working a long time to make it acceptable,” Fischer says. “Jay (Jensen) was amazed. I found the one place in that flared flake where I could cam it. It would probably hold a fall.”

The crux still gives even solid 5.10 climbers a moment of pause before reaching around the corner and liebacking into the tight squeeze chimney.

And Pine Creek keeps going on either side—and up! Robinson once quipped that Pine Creek and the Wheeler Crest has more climbable rock than Yosemite Valley. One day his statement may prove correct. But even now it’s one of the reasons when my wife and I draw straws to decide where to climb, Pine Creek always seems to be the last straw. Often we meet our friends Tai and Mary Devore who own Bishop Yoga and Massage. (Tai is also a manager at Wilson’s Eastside Sports.) It’s always a non-alpine start, but the days are full. We often climb until the sun’s shadows climb up the backside of Mt. Tom, climb until we are satisfyingly bushed.

Tai and Mary are rapidly pushing new lines to the left of the Pratt’s Crack area. Tai spends so much time in one narrow little slot canyon that he’s made a fine talus couch that would make a stone mason proud to belay from. So much time, in fact, he’s given over to calling it the Addiction Gully. This is your brain on granite.

“Out of the Eastern Sierra lowland crags, Pine Creek is the most friendly. The friendliest approach, the good stone,” says Tai as he ropes up to do Gala Tumble (5.10d) that his wife put up last year. “Pine Creek is cool because you can have an adventure even on a sport climb. Battling it out and getting over those fears. We started coming up here enough that I started to want to put up my own routes. So it’s really about choosing your own adventure.”

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Five in the morning and the crust of the Palisade Glacier feels good under the meager four prongs of my instep crampons. The Palisade Crest is the first to receive the day’s light, and reveling in the alpine glow, my wife and I climb towards what the Piute Indians called the “Guardian of the Valley,” Ninamishi, AKA Mt. Sill. This 14,000 peak watches over us at night as we sleep in Big Pine. It would be a shame to let a summer go by without climbing it.

Tramping past erratic boulders teetering on the ice, I let my mind wander over the summer. Always, when we move here in the spring, we think we have so much time. But then it passes and all of the climbs, whether in the high country or front country, meld into one long memory that seems too charitable to remember properly. The only evidence we have to show for it is our sun-rinsed skin, scabbed hands, and the annual trip to the Rubber Room where Tony Puppo will tear off the soles of our rock shoes and cobble them new again.

We solo up the first two pitches on the Swiss Arete (5.7) enjoying the early morning sun that warms us after the glacier crossing. At the headwall we rope up and simul-climb the rest of the route in an hour. We notice that we are faster and more sure. All the front country climbing has translated unequivocally into the backcountry.

By early evening we’ll be home, making burritos. This is how it’s meant to be. And the next day, still feeling the long approach to Mt. Sill in our legs, we’ll be back, back to cragging in the front country. The only problem is deciding what to climb next. Caroline will probably want to go to Pine Creek again, and I’ll push for Alabama Hills if it’s not too hot or Whitney Portal if it is. Either way, it will be good.