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
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
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.
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.