Category Archives: Rock Climbing & Bouldering

Invitation: A View West | Photography Exhibit March 4

The ad Johnston Architects created for the exhibit opening.

This winter I was offered the opportunity to exhibit photographs of my travels throughout the American West. Now, after a couple months of selecting, editing, printing and framing, the show is coming to life.

I’m looking forward to seeing everyone there:

Open Invitation: A View West
Featuring landscape photography by Jonna Bell

Opening: Friday, March 4 from 6 to 8 p.m.
Exhibit: February 25 through March 25
Johnston Architects, Seattle (map)

View Featured Images

The American West has long sparked our collective imagination. Its expansive landscapes take many forms, frequently succumbing to human presence but resisting occupation. It captivates our senses and defies our comprehension.

The following photographs offer viewpoints of a range of natural forms that endure – rolling prairie hills, a distant mountain range, a frenetic tide – and humble our repeated efforts to intervene. And yet, we persist in engaging. Fields are plowed to the shape of rolling loam, a season of speed waits for water to dissipate, a boardwalk leads to primitive hot springs, a fishing village becomes the backdrop for winter’s churn.

Despite our repeated efforts to negotiate with the land, it persists at setting its own terms… All the while tempting us with an infinite horizon.

In preparing, my respect for those who exhibit regularly has grown significantly. Special thank yous for my exhibit go to:

Mom “Cat” Bell
Anna Bell
Jody Jahn
Richard Beall
David Blair
Stan Laegreid
Sean Watson
Brian Greller
Min Cho
Wyn Bielaska

Black Mountain Dharma

The water tank perched beneath Black Mountain Lookout

The water tank perched beneath Black Mountain Lookout

The drive into Black Mountain was harrowing.

After dozing off on portions of the drive between Joshua Tree and Idyllwild I came too as we ascended the San Jacinto Mountains. Disoriented, a neon hotel tower perched alone in the valley below slipped me into a David Lynch mood. First to my left, now to my right as we navigated the hairpin turns, its hues ran green to pink, blue to red.  

The vast horizons that define the west are frequented by these curious outcries of commercial humanity and I’ve always been loathe to entertain them. They appeal to a taller order of an assertion, though feeble, of humanity’s conquest of the west and its desire to stamp beacons of order and control onto the wild remains. Thankfully its electric totem diminished into the vast horizon as we pursued our flight into the empty quarters of natural space and the forests of Black Mountain emerged as nature’s last word.

Either the GPS inaccurately designated the route or we just reached the tipping point of a long, long day but we wasted almost an hour whittling down our meager measures of sanity, cruising back and forth on the dark cliff sideroad that, come to find out, was miles away from the entry to the OK Corral and Boulder Basin Campground. It is what it is. Harrowing in that taxed mental state sorta way.

But as the coin flips we found our way and I came too on Saturday morning, the campground on display, a shiny new cooking pot just birthed from its shrink wrap. I don’t think… ever? I’ve been in a campground so … new. Fresh dirt, fresh paint, freshly shorn stumps, shiny locks on the bathroom doors. I half expected a set of pillow mints crushed under our front tires. In the center of camp, the caramel scent of Jeffrey pine replaced the last vestiges of desert air and the air carried the chatter of a shadowy corvid mocking the searching bill of a woodpecker.

An imminent sunset viewed from the lookout tower

An imminent sunset viewed from the lookout tower

Here the mountain breezes waft between lodgepole, ponderosa and alpine granite boulders cooling the climbers seeking respite from the valley below. The Black Mountain area lies along the Pacific Crest National Scenic Trail, near the San Bernadino National Forestand part of the Santa Rosa & San Jacinto Mountains National Monument – a world that has inspired the likes of Ansel Adams, John Muir and Maynard Dixon. USGS analysis shows two separate periods of volcanic disruption in the region birthing alkali olivine basalt aged nearly 12.3 million years in some areas and 3.6 million years in others. And two endangered species remain keen to the terrain: the Southern yellow bat and the least Bell’s vireo a grey-winged songbird of the sweetest note.

Nine Cahuilla Indian tribes still inherit the peaks, the valleys, the agave roasting pits and the network of ancient trails through the area by their ancestors for almost 2,000 years. 1774 brought the first European explorers seeking a trade route between Sonora and Monterey and eventually paved the way for gold miners, cattlemen and in the 1930s peakbaggers destined to conquer the nearby Tahquitz Mountain.

We climbed for a fair portion of Saturday in the OK Corral hugging low into the shade and steering clear of the snakes other climbers aroused. Riddled with overhang climbs the field varies from easy warm-ups to super technical grinds, the hardest being the OK Arete a v7 or v8 – way way beyond my finger capacity.

A pink glow settles over the rock, effects of the Southern California wildfires

A pink glow settles over the rock, effects of the Southern California wildfires

Once evening hit we migrated to the lookout tower to catch the sunset in our own Dharma Bums way.  The wildfires sweeping Southern California cast a hazy net over the western horizon wrapping a pink tint around everything within our vision. The pines to pink, the grey granite to pink, the walls of the watchful tower a petal pink.

Watching intently, our faces remained aglow and bore witness to the sun’s last rays as he dropped from the sky and slipped the last long arm under the blanket of the waiting horizon.

Update 07/16/09: Came across the Black Mountain Blogwhich states: “A Black Mountain bouldering guide is on the way… Wolverine Publishing…” You can reach them at

Getting to Black Mountain:

From the I-10, between Redlands and Palm Springs, exit on 243 towards Idyllwild. Continue up the road for about 19 miles. You will see a sign for Black Mountain that leads you to the left up a winding dirt road (NF-4S01). Follow this road for about 4 miles to reach the turnout for OK Coral. Continue up the road a few more miles to reach Boulder Basin and the other camp grounds. Boulder Basin Campground features some of it’s own climbing.

The Forest Service lookout tower is a short walk from the BB Campground and offers stunning views of Idyllwild and the surrounding region. A short distance from there is the Summit. Another climbing area is located another mile or two past the BB Campground near the group site.

You can camp at Boulder Basin for a fee, or a few free spots exist a few miles past on Rt 243.

Related Links:

Idyllwild Ranger Station: 909.659.2117 – when we arrived the campground was closed but we were still able to camp two nights. Call ahead just to make sure the gates aren’t closed:

Nomad Ventures– The closest shop for climbing gear is a full-service shop in Idyllwild.

Climbing Magazine’s feature story on bouldering at Black Mountain. – free download includes OK Corral, Boulder Basin, Lookout Tower, Town Square, etc.

Ventura Outdoor Store’sblog entry about the Idyllwild region.


The Southern California Bouldering Guide (by Craig Fry) has most of the old problems at Black Mountain along with other Idyllwild bouldering areas.

You can also try Bouldering in Southern California (by Joan Bertini) which does a pretty good overview of the available routes in the Black Mountain field but the images are hard to translate into what you see before you. We spent a fair amount of time wandering and just picking what looked inviting.

Snakes, Scorpions and a Cholla Cactus

Venturing into the Joshua Tree wonderland

Venturing into the Joshua Tree wonderland

Joshua tree has always lent some measure of mesmerizing mystique to my understanding of southern California. I admit I feel last in line with this foray being my first excursion into it’s borders. The park houses three eco-regions with almost 558,000 acres of wilderness and six mountain ranges. And nestled in it’s womb is the Wonderland of Rocks. Looking back on the day I do wonder at our ability to cram so much exploration into one 24-hour period (though not surprised). Climbing was to be the main focus of our tenure here but the heat and a crappy guide book put a cinch on those intentions. This area instills an uncanny dejavu, like the gunslinger towers of southern Utah so ubiquitous in travel lore we’re all instantly feeling familiar.

There's certain security in knowing your crash pad is scorpion free

There's security in knowing your crash pad is scorpion free

My travels are usually accompanied by frequent appearances of the local wildlife but this trip my path has only crossed with a mild tempered rattler in the Buttermilks. Until now.

While assembling the day’s amenities my climbing partner was introduced to the Joshua Tree version of the desert scorpion, quite at home on the black canvas folds of his crash pad. A minute guy to be sure but not for tampering. The smaller the claws the bigger the sting!

After shaking him out and searching the rest of the pads and pockets for hitchhikers we headed to boulder. The Joshua Tree region plays residence to a number of creatures that earn their keep in the desert solitaire. Today I logged a California Common Kingsnake taking refuge from midday sun; a desert rattlesnake stalking a Chuckwalla (and not thrilled to see me, these rattlers are much bigger than their Idaho counterparts); a desert tortoise and four desert jack rabbits.

While bouldering and trying to sort our anything but guidance book we met a rep for Flashed climbing gear based out of Calgary, BC. Flashed is assembling maps, photographs and beta for climbing spots around the world and compiling the info into downloadable iPod guides. View available ‘Podguides’ here. Cool idea. My heartrate elevates when I see technology tracking back to nature in such a simple way.

The Cholla Garden under a rising moon

The Cholla Cactus Garden under a rising moon

A few hours in, thwarted by the guidebook and the heat we move to do a roving tour of the park. That would be roving tour with a backdoor entry of course! Check out our route on the Google trip map and note, you’ll definitely need 4-wheel drive and high clearance. Nothing the FJ couldn’t handle but anything less… This scenic route begins at Gold Crown Road off Hwy 62 a few miles east of Twentynine Palms. Here you’ll find a 4X4 playground with short ascents that keep the tires churning and will break your hitch if you can’t get traction (Utah was the scene of the first broken hitch, and now somewhere in Joshua Tree lies another). Gold Crown Road passes through the Old Dale Mining District (a few site remains can still be spotted) and crosses from the Mojave Desert into the Colorado Desert while ascending a saddle in the Pinto Mountains. There it turns into Old Dale Road and hairpins its travelers on a steep high clearance descent into Pinto Basin. Once onto Pinto Basin Road you’ll pass the Ocotillo Patch and the Cholla Cactus Garden.

A nice little personal story: The Cholla Cactus Garden entrance hosts a dire warning sign to steer well clear of the cholla cactuses. Which I did. But caught up in my enthusiasm of photographing the rising moon behind their scruffy arms I may (or may not) have touched my right tush cheek to the ground. A few shots later what started as just the tiniest of pricks became an uncomfortable itch accompanied by a needle-like poking. There’s a certain comedy in spending the next 15 minutes with your already short shorts hiked to expose your tush to the bright halogens of an FJ’s headlights so your climbing partner can diligently inspect the area for a cholla’s transparent little stinger. Just imagine if you will. On a dark desert road. As the moon rises. And laugh.

Vas-y Fille!

A very vas-y fille moment!

That sucker extracted we pulled over as the last rays of sun became just a distant memory on the desert horizon and set up shop for some starry night photography. This eve is quickly stacking up as a highlight of the trip thus far. Setting the shutter speed on my camera to it’s longest exposure I got some incredible night shots and will post them here to share. I’m certain a handful of them are prime Vas-y Fille imagery!

At this point we’ve decided to forgo spending a Friday night in Joshua Tree – judging by a pass through the campsite the crowds have descended – and head to Black Mountain. We’re used to long haul late night drives as you already know and this one will put us into the Black Mountain campsite around midnight to 1 a.m. I guess I’m still a bit out of whack with the days of the week I still feel like we have a whole trip extended before us even though we’re nearing Saturday. We’ll spend the rest of the weekend climbing and camping at Black Mountain – two nights in a row at the same campsite? A novel concept! And then Sunday eve venture into San Diego.

Related Links:

Flashed: Climbing gear
Joshua Tree National Park
Joshua Tree National Park Map

Camping under a Joshua Tree moon

Camping under a Joshua Tree moon

Racetrack Eureka

This particular morning breakfast was prepared with the assistance of a  squadron of flies intent on sampling whatever we pulled from the cooler. Enough! At that rate breakfast was no longer ours and, derailed from our appetites, we packed up and left quickly. Here, just inside the borders of Death Valley we get our first glimpse of the Yucca (or Joshua) Tree. It starts with one, stumpy lonesome questioning his choice of root and soon a few more parade into view. At an elevation of about 3,000 ft. we hit the nirvana of Yucca, healthy and vital sprawled across the land until, as we descend, their numbers dwindle and we’re left with a few stragglers and our last man standing at just under 2,500 ft.

Our choice of backroads into Death Valley National Park takes us first into Eureka Valley (home of the 700-ft Eureka Dunes) and past the comically named Crankshaft Junction and Hanging Rock Canyon and onto Big Pine Road. Crankshaft Junction is aptly adorned with a number of rusty, you guessed it, crankshafts and… I’m going to say some of those items are not crankshafts. Our first stop is to check out the sulphur mines which means we return to the truck coated in a fine green dust. Eureka Valley and it’s national park namesake attachment, Death Valley, stretch on forever to the horizon and even though we’re doing roughly 50 mph, I can’t shake the sense that we’re making no progress across the valley floor. So, having scoured the scenery and finding that it doesn’t change much right now, I shift my curiosity to crawling the Web. Here’s the most intriguing tidbit I found: the mystery of the moving rocks.

To my right sits Racetrack Valley, a dry lakebed whose north end boasts a rock formation known as the grandstands. Rocks from this outcropping and others often break off and fall to the lakebed below. Once having fallen, a number of the rocks meander their way across the lakebed. That’s right, they meander. And though no one has actually witnessed these journeys, their tracks are well documented. Here’s a large photo of a series of tracks. Early explorers in the 1900s attributed the movement to magnetic fields but later speculation points to rain as the culprit. Apparently if enough rain wets down the lakebed and is closely followed by a strong wind, the surface of the lake (a fine clay) becomes extremely slick. And voila! I’m a smidge skeptical on this theory since a number of the photos you can find show rocks of the same size very near each other, yet moving in different directions. Mystery it is.

View to Artists Palette on Artists Drive

View to Artists Palette on Artists Drive

Once entering Death Valley attractions abound. Though stark and rather nondescript other than ‘dark’, the Ubehebe Crater and it’s cohort are a quick, recommended detour – let’s face it, craters of this dimension are a less than frequent site for most of us.

Further down the road you can pick up a guide at the visitor’s center and pick through what is most interesting to you. We linger at the Artists Palette and swing by the crystallized salt field of the Devils Golf Course. Note the accompanying photos. At Badwater Basin – named by a miner whose mule wouldn’t drink the water from the pond – the elevation sits at 282 ft below sea level, the lowest in the U.S. When you arrive look east across the highway to the cliff wall and you’ll see the line marking sea level. It makes me smile because less than 36 hours before I was eating a Cinco De Mayo dinner in Mammoth at 8,000 ft and passing by Mt. Whitney at 14,000 ft.

If you look west across the flats to the mountain range, you’ll see Telescope Peak which sits at 11,049 ft. Rumor has it that a few lucky souls have skied from the top of Telescope Peak to the final snow line, picked up a waiting mountain bike and rode to the bottom of Badwater Basin. I’ll keep researching that opportunity!

Looking south across the crystallized salt landscape of Devils Golf Course

Looking south across the crystallized salt landscape of Devils Golf Course

The backroads of southern California are a mecca for dirt path adventures and off road vehicles abound. A few miles past Badwater we’re flagged to the side of the road by five dirt bikers lingering at a crossroads. They’d somehow lost contact with their chase vehicle and spent the last three hours parked at that intersection in 107 degree heat. We hadn’t seen their chase car and my concern peaked when I spied empty soda bottles leaning against their bikes. Having spent a fair portion of my own childhood on dirt bikes in the desert, dehydration is a risk you don’t want to take while operating a motorized vehicle. We refilled their containers to a round of thanks and a bit of wonderment. They were Canadian and apparently we were the first non-rental, U.S. plates vehicle to pull over when they waved. They’d consumed their last drops almost two hours earlier and were loath to tell the number of cars that had chosen to pass them by.

Baker and the Greeks

Shortly thereafter we returned to our own off road excursion, thankfully leaving the freeway to follow a ribbon of dust leading out of the park. Between the Black Mountains and Confidence Hills at Ashford Mill ruins we headed south on Harry Wade Road to bypass Shoshone en route to Baker. This 26 mile washboard stretch doesn’t necessarily need high-clearance, just a clenched jaw and good suspension – the faster you travel over washboard, the smoother the ride!

If you’re viewing the horizon at this moment yes, that is the world’s tallest thermometer rising up ahead. If you’re browsing the map instead then you’ll note a marker for The Mad Greek’s Diner in Baker. And if you do a Google search you’ll start to see the fame this joint has acquired. It’s a mishmash of Greek, Mexican and some threads of Americana and, come to find out, the wait staff speak a fair number of languages to accommodate the tourists. We stopped, we ordered from the sky-high menu behind the counter, we ate. And I would say the sight and scene is more intriguing than the food. Among the myriad signs extolling the virtues of ancient Greece sat tourists, truckers, a few migrant workers and a sprinkling of transvestites. Mishmash indeed.

That’s our dinner for the day and shortly outside of Baker we turn into the 1.6 million acre Mojave National Preserve. This is the last leg before we reach our next destination: Joshua Tree.

Related Links:

National Park Service: Map of Death Valley National Park (PDF)

More information about the Death Valley region – pictures, background etc. And, if you’re of the off-road intent they feature a 4X4 page.

4X4 Routes in the Mojave National Preserve: Over a thousand miles of off road routes are open for exploration.

Refuge from the Sun, Refuge from the Wind and Getting Clean

Last night we sought reprieve from the finger-piercing holds of the Buttermilks region and headed to the cooler climates of the Sherwin Plateau. After a luxury soak at Whitmore Hot Springs we crossed over the Crowley Lake Dam to the south of Lake Crowley on the Owens River in search of Pocketopia and The Catacombs boulder fields. The road in, under a waxing moon, was eerie. Sharp drop offs and tangled chain link fences emerge in our headlights and after spending the last few days on the valley floor, entering the forest in the middle of the night gave me a sense of nervous wonderment. Temperatures are expected to reach the mid 90s for the rest of the week in this region so heading into the woods seems like a welcome break. My morning wandering across the barren forest floor kept me stumbling across scattered remains of former mining sites and homesteads. I wonder at the difference in what’s deemed trash – a Pepsi can or a pot belly stove?

Jeffery pine and volcanic monoliths create the landscape of Sherwin Plateau

Jeffery pine and volcanic monoliths create the landscape of Sherwin Plateau

We’re slow to get started in The Catacombs because we’re certain a Wednesday morning will leave us to ourselves this far out in the woods. Which is to say I was surprised to see three rental vans materialize while finishing my chai and choosing a route. They pass, heading straight for The Church of the Lost and Found. Disheartening because that’s where my climbing partner’s finger rests in the book. Guess we’ll be staying near the truck.

Here the landscape takes on the curious shapes of lava monoliths worn by water and weather. Rock spires are joined by a roofless maze of soft pumice walls where the holds are perfectly matched to slip in one or two fingers and the corner of a toe – not the greatest for me at this point since I’m focusing on climbing from my feet. But I definitely appreciate the challenge this entire region has presented with it’s pinchy holds, it’s a style I don’t truly get access to in Washington/Oregon or over the winter in the gym. Just be careful the spiders and other small creatures who call these small features their home. I quote my mother here to ease my fears, telling myself they’re as afraid of the tip of my fingers as I am of them. Riiight.

I pick out a few routes in the main wash area – The Weekend Retreat is the first open cavern on the eastern side of the wash and consists of a number of warm-up, unnamed routes.  And a few routes later I’m soon surprised to see the mini-van contingency returning so quickly. The Church of the Lost and Found is free so my partner and I make a beeline for the path. No wonder they left, the wind is fierce and is whipping our crash pads in every direction while strapped to our backs. Our intended destination is located on the canyon’s cliff edge. A little nooklike area about 20 feet down from the Sherwin Plateau. My partner is intent on getting the V3 of the Church of the Lost and Found arete scaled at least once and so I’m in charge of keeping the pads from blowing out into the Owens River Gorge below. He hits it and nails it the second time – note to self, the guidebook wasn’t as accurate in its harrowing account of this project, or my partner is simply that good (the later). While he’s perusing the nook for any last opportunities, I’m content to crabwalk around on the pocketed and porous face of the opposing wall. That done we follow the hasty retreat of the tourists and head back to the area around the parking lot.

This region is beautiful and despite the wind, I steal a few moments to linger. It’s unlike the rest of the Bishop region we’ve seen on this trip and so unlike the thick tangled Washington forest floors I’ve become accustomed to. The Owens River Gorge to my right was formed with the Owens River cut through the Bishop Tuff, a layer of welded ash from the eruption of the Long Valley Caldera. Huge Jeffrey pines reign over a desolate desert floor of sparse sagebrush and stark rock outcroppings and lava fingers carve an enticing labyrinth towards the canyon’s edge. Columnar rhyolite formations are enticing project routes like fingers jutting from the earth. As we drive out I see, in the daylight, the eerie path from last night’s drive. The chain link protects the Long Valley Dam and the water that once must have raged through the canyon walls has now been reduced to a mere trickle. Eventually, winding our way back to the highway we pass through a small neighborhood of rural dwellers who enviously have the fortune of climb-worthy boulders located just feet from their porches and driveways.

Wednesday is our designated shower day but before we post that to our agenda we head back towards Bishop intent to find the Happy Boulders field. Located about seven miles north of town near the Pleasant Valley Pit Campground I’m picturing it as a field like the Buttermilks, visible from the gravel road and just moments from the truck. Not so. The valley has now hit temperatures in the mid-90s and the path to Happy Boulders is a half mile ascent in dust and sand. The trail meanders around a few corners – I keep thinking this has to be it – and then a few more. But it’s worth it. We’re rewarded by an intricate garden maze of boulders and rock walls that provide welcome, solid, wind-free shade from the blistering sun. Peak around corners and you’ll see locals and their crash pads wedged into protected caves and distant travelers watching their companions tackle routes from adjoining shelters. It’s more tightly packed here than the Buttermilks and hard to see from one boulder to the next but the routes are fun and soft on the hands. It’s just incredibly incredibly hot and so we only manage to put in a short hour, no more than two and then head back to town.

Dusk settles on the road leading to Eureka Valley

Dusk settles on the road leading to Eureka Valley

We close down our Bishop excursion at Keough’s Hot Springs, a developed site and home of the Bishop swim team according to their wall of fame. The amenities are a bit stark but definitely fitting for a rural hot springs. It was established in 1919 and still boasts much of its early century structure. In the 20s and 30s the establishment was a popular health and leisure resort and social attraction for the valley residents. They have two mineral water fed concrete pools in the high 80s and three guest showers. At first we’re a bit wary on such a hot day but end up enjoying it. We don’t soak long though, showers here are the main purpose.

Once clean, we’re wrapping up this day by embarking on the road to Death Valley. Of course we plan to take a back road in, it wouldn’t be another of my adventures if we didn’t. And as we leave the main highway we’re bid farewell with a lonesome final sight: An inky corvid perched stoically on a wire strung between two towering gateposts and adorned with a fractured cow’s skull. How apropos.

Our chosen back road takes us east to the northern most tip of the state park. We cross into the region as the sun begins to set and I’m tracking on the GPS and map for potential dirt roads that could host our camp and provide a scenic vision for our morning coffee. I’m not believing my eyes but here and there I’m seeing one or two struggling yucca trees. Joshua Tree is our destination after Death Valley and the trees provide a sneak peak of the days ahead. Finally picking a road not to far past the protective range of the Inyo Mountains, we maneauver the FJ up into a level spot just as the sun sinks below the horizon. It smells amazing out here. Different than the Buttermilks, less mountain, more desert. I collect a few night shots of our campground and ponder what I’ve seen in the Bishop region and the coming change in scenery. Even though it’s all one trip, here I sit, wrapping up one adventure and moving in pursuit of another. Goodbye Bishop, hello Death Valley.

Getting There

The Catacombs: From Bishop take Highway 395 north. Exit opposite Tom’s Place and right at the sign for Owens River Gorge Road. Cross the Crowley Lake Dam and turn right onto road 4S03 / Casa Diablo Mountain (just over three miles in is the turn off to Pocketopia South) and go about four miles and turn right staying on 4S03. Continue another mile to a major fork. Stay right until the road ends at The Catacombs parking.

Happy Boulders : From Bishop take Highway 395 north to the Highway 6 junction to Tonopah. Go straight onto Highway 6 for just over a mile. Turn left on Five Bridges Road and follow for just over 2 miles past the gravel works. Turn left onto Chalk Bluff Road and follow for jus tover two miles. Happy Boulders parking is on the left and hosts a large wooden notice board opposite the trail along with Porta-toilets.

Fingertips and Hot Springs

The allure to bouldering in Bishop lies in the variety of options – from the Buttermilks’ finger pricking quartz monzonite on boulders the size of houses to the Sherwin Plateau’s highly pocketed volcanic tuff. Not to mention the many moments I’ve spent just staring to the horizon over the Owens River Valley or up toward the sheer western faces of the Sierras.

Yesterday we picked out a few choice boulders in the Buttermilks for today’s tackling. The wind has died to a murmur but the heat has increased. I’m recovered, or at least learning from, yesterday’s struggle and spent most of the morning teaching myself to let go and fall to my trusty crash pad.  I’ve gone from letting my left foot bear the brunt of my weight to consciously forcing my right heel into the ground and sucking up the impact with my knees. With each fall I’m better but it still requires a conscious decision to land correctly which may be the case for a very long time. I’m also taking it easy – forcing myself to climb with my legs and solidly place my feet before ascending the next move. It’s annoying, but certainly less stressful and in the long run a better way to help me progress. It’s also a smart move in these parts where I imagine the holds are what it would be like to climb on coral.

We pull a few more lazy routes and soon our minds start shifting to one of my first loves – maneuvering high clearance roads. Ugh, I write that and admit, it seems so ecologically unsavvy but we’re always careful to stay on the (somewhat) beaten path and the purpose never boils down to speed and spinning tires, but usually how many wheels we can have off the ground at some stomach-defying angle. And as a frequent FJ passenger, not an owner, I’ve had plenty of opportunity to experience these occasions firsthand.

Looking west from the Buttermilks

Looking west from the Buttermilks

But the Buttermilks don’t lend too well to these sorts of adventures and after a few stream traverses and a circuitous route in search of the Hall of Mirrors we decide a hot springs soak is next on the agenda.

En route to Bishop, the Sierra Nevadas were framed in my passenger window moving quickly to the rear view mirror. If you have a chance to head back north and see the scene from a different angle, take it. I spent most of the 45 minute drive north toward Whitmore Hot Springs with my eyes rooted to the near vertical rise the range seemed to span. From 7,000 to 11,000 feet and from mid-80’s temperature to snowcapped peaks the scene is humbling in the least.

The boardwalk leading to Whitmore Hot Springs just north of Lake Crowley

The boardwalk leading to Whitmore Hot Springs just north of Lake Crowley

The hot springs are located at the northern edge of Lake Crowley. The directions we’ve inherited tell us to turn right at the green church (and, in fact, there is one), pass three cattle guards and take the immediate right. Indeed. A parking lot and a solidly constructed boardwalk lead us to the tiered springs. As the sun creeps toward the horizon we’re left to our lonesome and witness one of my favorite scenes thus far on the trip. Sunset over Owens Valley, framed by the western face of the Sierra Nevadas. As geese and seagulls ascend to the adjoining lake and the prairie browns turn to pink and gold, the water begins to pick up the high altitude and darkening blues of the eastern sky. I’m rooted for awhile, witnessing the scene, trying to widen my eyes to take in more but yet, in the end, appreciating the fact that the scene will close and the day shutter down, the birds left to nest and us to our truck in search of food and a place for our own little turtle tent.

The Alchemy of Injury

Maybe it’s a common thread through other sports but in climbing it seems the ubiquitous phrase uttered to newbies, tossed about while purchasing gear and published as ominous intros to instructional books is that “it’s not a matter of if but when you’ll sustain an immobilizing injury.”

Warming up in the Buttermilks.

Warming up in the Buttermilks. Photo courtesy Richard Beall.

This trip I’m ten months into recovery from what was simply a slippery hold bouldering 12′ above a climbing gym’s floor. I was advancing as a climber, I’d learned to let go, I’d learned to push beyond the point where I thought I was done, I’d even learned to land. But I hadn’t learned to fall. And almost 40 physical therapy appointments later, barely recovered from three torn ligaments, still battling intense bone bruising and trying desperately to untwist a confused and weary knee, I was nearing the end of my PT. And so the last three months I pursued my own admittedly tentative steps to recuperation: I jumped from roping in on a humbling 5.7 to attempting to tackle 5.10s. And from steering well clear of the bouldering walls to facing down V2s.

But I had yet to make it past the 12′ mark and this morning I realized this too late as I found myself on the third day of our trip, in the middle of a California bouldering field, four moves into an easy as pie V1 that peaks just three moves past my own personal crux…frozen in fear.

I hung, one arm’s reach away from the point where every cell in my body was acutely aware of it’s unquestionable fragility and one retreating step away from the absolute assurance that my body will remain intact. And the worst part is, I couldn’t even trust myself to drop to the crash pad.

The full kaleidoscope of what came pouring from my heart, my head, my soul while hanging there I don’t think I’ll do justice in one blog posting. And stating that, maybe the point is only to do it justice while in the moment, faced with the full potential of finite mortality and the weight that burdens an over-analyzing mind. The slip was unavoidable and the injury itself I’ve come to accept. I escaped blame or guilt, I refuse to accuse myself of not being attentive or of taking a hold too fast or for climbing too far beyond my skill.

But, looking back,  I realize I hadn’t processed the secondary impacts: Always an explorer, my inability to get up and go at a moment’s notice; used to being the leader and the visionary, I was now the lagging follower. How much time had I lost, needing to restart my climbing at the most base level? Once so powerful, the architecture of my frame now portrayed destructibility. And I would even admit that each time I stepped to a route, I disengaged. Fearful of another injury, another six months restrained, another unsuccessful attempt, I was thwarting myself even before placing a hand by refusing to apply myself with the fullest intent.

I clung to that crux hold, my partner steadfast and unwavering in his encouragement, tears suffering the corner of my eyes, knowing full well the route was well below my most solid skill level.

And I climbed down.

Three times I climbed to that hold and three times again, I climbed down. And then, somewhere in those moments, four was finally the limit where my emotionally ragged yet still trusting, humble heart said enough and made a mutinous decision to push aside my analyzing, disengaged mind and move to the next hold.

I can’t tell you the details of my next few moves. I’m certain I forced my climbing partner to guide in detail every inch of my ascent but the final move to crest the boulder’s top I completely owned. And as I tugged myself over the crest I let everything break and sat staring at the face of the Sierra Nevadas crying my heart out and completely happy to be doing so.


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