Tag Archives: Buttermilks

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.

Breakfast in Reno and Arriving in the Buttermilks

These are the first inklings of warm weather the Autohome is experiencing. Wrapped with an insulator the inside holds a steady 5 degrees warmer in the winter (output of occupant body heat) and seems to keep it about 7 or 8 degrees cooler in the warmer months (our curious minds snagged an indoor/outdoor digital thermometer). This morning’s sky is threatening release and we’re both craving in-town coffee – the last vestiges of leaving urbania. So Reno it is and an ensuing drive leads us to exit right and pursue breakfast. Searching my iPhone for “breakfast” reveals three likely options: Peg’s Glorified Ham & Eggs (an antsy crowd out front – we’ll pass); Pluma’s House (turns out to be a bed and breakfast – mental note next time traveling to Reno… stay here); and Stone House Cafe (promising with upscale Reno folk who obviously know a good atmosphere…. but we haven’t showered for two days and the point of this trip is escape).

And so here we sit, two Seattleites on a Sunday morning occupying a strip mall Reno Starbucks. Sigh. We’re really tapping those last vestiges of urbania aren’t we?

Fed and full we leave Reno via Interstate 431/ SR 27 Hwy. This is my first trip to Lake Tahoe but I’m intimately familiar with the ubiquitous “Keep Tahoe Blue” bumper stickers.  Doing a bit of background research on the iPhone, I find the lake has been loosing its clarity at a rate of one foot per year and, since the 1950s, the amount of algae has increased three-fold in some estimates. By the accounts I can find, these are symptoms of a fixable source – logging and new construction near the lake’s shore – which the city seems to be intently pursuing. We pass three snow lines between Reno and Tahoe – and crest at 8,260′ to the end of season slopes of Mt. Rose. A few winding twists further down the road brings my first glimpse of the lake. Incredible. So this is what all the fuss is about? Gorgeous blue mineral water and beautiful beaches reminiscent of my childhood’s Salmon River lined with age-softened boulders. Even better I spot surfers catching waves in a small cove at the north end. Mentally I’m tracking the snow level with the wave height. I’m curious… could you actually do a morning of plank riding followed by an afternoon of surfing? Its a compelling question and one I’m tightly pursuing. Rounding the lake we take 28 South (lucky timing – 431 is slated to close in less than five hours) and begin the winding descent to the valley floor with the lay of California stretched out ahead and the lure of Yosemite in the distance. We’ve opted out of Yosemite this trip but I can feel a Half Dome I’ve never seen and it’s climber’s mystique pulling the corners of my compass. A hard decision for sure but we’re on the cusp of prime tourist season and a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Its early in the year so our preferred eastern entrance remains closed. I can see why – as we pass the eastern rim hot sun and wildflowers bloom to our left and snow capped vistas with looming veils of storm clouds lurk to our right. I’ll get there…I promise!

Soon we’re past Mammoth and into Bishop, our first destination for three days of bouldering in the Buttermilks which has one of the world’s highest concentrations of bouldering at all levels. The region is named after an 1800’s dairy farm that produced, surprise, buttermilk. I’m used to spending much of my desert time in the wilds of Utah or the middle of Oregon where the dirt runs richly red. Here the hues run in greys and diluted golds accented with a pristine blue sky and retreating streaks of late spring snow.

Setting up for my first route in the Buttermilks bouldering field.

Setting up for my first route in the Buttermilks bouldering field.

And so, arriving in the headstrong wind of evening, we find a resting spot and survey the land we’ll call home for the next three days. Across the campground sage and willow hug low to the landscape and afford little protection from prevalent winds. Here, the Sierra Nevadas thrust in near vertical ascent from the 6,000′ valley floor and provide an ominous background to a field dotted with gigantic, egg-shaped boulders. This is my Alice in Wonderland. Due to my ankle injury, I still consider myself a somewhat novice climber – especially alongside the advanced skills of my traveling companion – and I’m entranced by the idea of picking a project egg that both of us could potentially climb side by side and feel accomplished.

Where to Go:

I highly recommend perusing the local gear shops when you arrive in any town and in Bishop, Wilson’s Eastside Sports has a noteworthy selection of daypacks and women’s climbing attire from Patagonia to more independent brands such as MoonClimbing and Sickle. Visit the White Mountain Ranger Station in downtown Bishop for public recycling and trash bins as well as a fresh water pump to top off your drinkable supply.

What You’ll Need:

At Wilson’s my traveling partner picked up “Bishop Bouldering” a guide by Wills Young – thorough with clear documentation of the routes, parking, camping, and photographs of the boulders, etc. Don’t worry with the others, this is as comprehensive as they come.

Related Links:
Lake Tahoe Area Road Conditions
Bishop Bouldering– Blog on the area’s opportunities managed by Wills Young


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