Owens River Gorge
Also posted on Summitpost here
Go home, get yer stuff
Hmm, what to work on today? Maybe I should refactor that test code from last week. Chai tea in hand, I wandered in to work. “Michael! Jochen’s office, now!”
One hour later, fully briefed, I was rushing home to get a change of clothes. My plane leaves for LA in two hours. I wasted 30 precious minutes in the bookstore first. No way I’m getting on a 12 hour flight without a good book!
It was my first time to visit a customer, in this case a tv studio in Hollywood. I had an amazing time over the next few days, learning much more about our product and how it gets used than I could in weeks back in the office. And, thanks to great co-workers, our server patch deployment Friday afternoon was successful. I was free for the weekend!
I had one idea in mind: call the Chief and see if he can go climbing!
Like many of us here on summitpost, I’ve enjoyed his by turns amused, angry, sometimes dead-serious posts on climbing. And I found myself agreeing with many things he had to say. I’m pretty good with getting along with folks I guess, but I do have some core beliefs that are important to me. I couldn’t help but think “hell, yes!” when Rick (aka the Chief) would wade into some issue like bolting, and lay down a diatribe that expressed a true love of wilderness, and was motivated by a desire to preserve something good for the future. Plus he doesn’t care who the hell he offends. So anyway, I was psyched to get a chance to climb some rocks with him.
He had to check if he needed to work this weekend. In case he was busy I was thinking about hiking Whitney, posting some brain-dead questions about it in the California forum. But he could make it. I arrived in Bishop around 8 am Saturday morning after the 4 hour drive from LA. Over breakfast, I kinda surprised Rick that I was American. I rented some shoes at 9 and we headed for the middle part of the Owen’s River Gorge.
We started in on about 6 hours of great climbing, pitch after pitch of steep face climbs on volcanic tuff. It didn’t take long to burn my forearms pretty good, and by late afternoon my fingertips were trashed. But before that we managed to do:
“Watch for Roack” (5.8) - A great warm up, giving me confidence for more. Small holds on a less-than- vertical face.
“Boating Prohibited” (5.10a) - just to the left, there is a tricky move when the face steepens to vertical.
“PG13” (5.9) - Steep face with good fingerlocks in a crack.
Caption: Michael on PG13
“Valley 5.8” (5.10a) - Named by John Bachar, the legendary soloist. I’m sure he’s right, this is an old school valley 5.8. Really nice lieback crack, turning to an undercling, then climbing a shallow corner to an exposed face with eyebrow-sized holds for hands and feet. Really great!
Caption: Rick below “Valley 5.8”
“If I told you I’d have to kill you” (5.11a) - We top-roped this one. I was completely puzzled at the crux, but Rick found the correct way around to the right, benefiting from a helpful knee-lock along the way!
“Scorpion” 5.10b, 2 pitches - Pitch one climbs an arete, with a crux move at an overhang. I rested on the rope here after a failed attempt to turn the roof on the right. Going right on the crest turned out to be better. Pitch two goes up fairly easily then enters a memorable glass-polished slab that steepens as it goes. Thanks to the tiniest holds and imperfections, the anchor is reached.
Caption: Looking down on “Scorpion” on the hike out.
By this time my fingertips were trashed. I backed off of two leads, feeling a bit intimidated by long run outs to the second bolt of each climb. Rick led “Extreme Caffeine” (5.10b). But he had injured his shoulder earlier and it bothered him. He took a decent fall and then just powered his way to the top seemingly one armed, resting at bolts on the final dead vertical headwall. I followed the climb, finding it much easier than I expected. I’d let excuses like hurting fingers and worn-out arms sap my ability to lead. Oh well, it’s a good lesson for the next day!
We got some pizza for dinner, pretty darn good pizza coming from a little general store that seemed like the only economic activity in isolated, beautiful Crowley Lake. I was getting to know and like frisky Sage and loyal Bandit, and Rick introduced me to his wife Michele. She had raised her boys as a single mom, and reminded me of my own mom who raised me in similar circumstances. Despite me being pretty tired from my 3 am alarm clock that morning, I had a great time talking with Rick and Michele about many topics, from the thrilling presidential election to raising kids. I was amazed to learn about all the places Rick has been and how he’s lived life. I didn’t think it was possible to be a super-motivated climbing bum AND live a military life at the same time, but he did. Heck, he joined up specifically so he could go climb in Antarctica. And he was 17 too. And did he do all that? Well yes he did.
I thought back to the convictions and dreams I had at 17, and how much they changed and morphed beyond recognition. So when I think about Rick I’m thinking about how you should be true to yourself and respect your dreams.
Well that’s about enough a’wailing and carrying on and horse pies and such…let’s climb!
Caption: Rick’s “backyard”
The next day we headed to the Upper Gorge, first eager to get some sun in the cold morning. Rick put me on a 5.9 slab called “Don’t Kid, Minibike,” helpfully pointing out that the crux is at the second bolt just as I’m starting to shiver and shake with fear. “Holy crap, there is nothing here!” I’m saying.
“Trust your feet,” is the predictable reply. I hate hearing that! I tried to get by on the left, but was getting way too far from the 2nd bolt, and didn’t think I would make it back. Rather than risk a groundfall, I jumped off. Rick caught me 3-4 feet above the ground. “Okay, try again straight up” he said.
Caption: Looking up the “Don’t Kid, Minibike” slab.
I read all that stuff about commitment and how it unlocks a mystic portal and stuff like that. Now was the time to put my money where my mouth was. Tiny “eyebrows” for the fingertips. Trying to stand up on polished nubbins that feel like they’ll blow at any second. Eventually I reached a chalked-up pinch hold, and floated my feet up to my waist with a “grip of death” that wouldn’t last long at all. Clipped! No sprained ankles today!
That had been stressful, but it seemed to unlock extra power for the rest of the day. Something that I used to know but I have forgotten, is that you just have to go for it. Rick encouraged me to climb through that “I think I’ll back off” feeling. That helped me get a groove a few steps closer to “the rock warrior way” or whatever they call it nowadays.
I was starting to feel bad because Rick was showing me around his domain, often skipping even following climbs because he wanted to make sure I climbed as many classics as possible. But we set a top-rope on a slab climb he was working on last time out, called “If I told you I’d have to kill you,” rated old-school 5.10d. I got up to the first of three cruxes, and it just spit me off repeatedly. Rick found the sequence. He didn’t get the first crux clean, but the second and third were fired. I really think these kinds of slabs are only suitable for people who defuse bombs in their spare time. He was pretty psyched on that, and seemed to be pantomiming the crux moves the rest of the day.
Next was a beautiful climb, “Slip n’ Slide,” 5.9. Well protected, it goes up a slabby face and then follows a finger and hand crack up glass-smooth slabs to a vertical finish. Great fingerlocks and burning toes are the dominant memory.
Caption: “Slip n’Slide” goes up the slab to a thin snaking crack.
We trekked back north to “Machine Gun Jumblies,” a long 5.10a pitch up lieback cracks and slabs.
I had to rest before really committing to the second lieback. “Fire through!” said Rick. “Yes sir!” I thought. Hey, it worked :D. Rick followed this one, being careful to avoid hurting his shoulder. I lowered him then made two rappels to get down.
Caption: Looking down “Machine Gun Jumblies”
Caption: “Machine Gun Jumblies goes up the center of the photo, tackling liebacks.
Now Rick sent me over to “Delicate Mechanism,” at 5.10b it’s his favorite climb in the Gorge for it’s variety. I nearly came to grief after the second bolt, forced to scrunch up in a cave and traverse left on rattly undercling holds. My feet were eager to fly off of greasy nubbins, and I didn’t breath easily again until locking my fingers around the lip of the cave and reaching a bolt.
Caption: The scary, clever route “Delicate Mechanism”
By the middle of the climb it was my favorite too. A series of meditative left-and-upward moves in fingerlocks and eyebrows took me to the last bolt. With a nasty shock of recognition I locked my fingers into the fingerlock Rick had warned me about: “Don’t use the fingerlock!” he’d said below, relating how some poor soul had lost his ring finger when he fell during the next move. Rick was there the next day, and the long streaks of sticky blood were visible from the ground 100 feet below. “Don’t. Use. the Fingerlock!” he’d repeated. Gulp.
Something funny about Rick is that he’s seen this kind of thing play out a few too many times. We didn’t do routes in crowded areas because he was wary of so many people. I heard other stories, like the woman slaving a sketchy, heavy partner, chewing gum and reading Vogue, doing her best to ignore her Gri-gri. Rick and his partner were already beating a retreat from the volatile scene when all hell broke loose. “Falling!” quavered the heavyset man high above. Before you could say “Jack Russel” the belayer was slammed into the first bolt 15 feet up, even somehow wedged into the bolt with bits of metal and cloth. So much wailing ensued.
Rick saw a dozen such situations a mile away. But it doesn’t seem to help to tell people about them. Over time, the best strategy became…stay away.
So he was friendly to folks, but we did stay away from crowds. Fine with me! Though if I did lose a finger trying to reach the anchors it might be nice if someone else can go get it for me!
Anyway, I took a deep breath, used the fingerlock as a sidepull instead, and made some delicate foot moves to stand up left of the crack. Another two moves and I reached the anchor. Whew!
“Life During Wartime” followed. I took the 5.10a easy exit to the right, finding burly moves to escape a chimney plenty exciting. This great climb featured lots of stemming, jamming and even chimney technique with my back on one wall, feet on the other for a time.
Caption: Looking up at the “Life During Wartime” chimney and cracks.
Then was the gear route “Not Proud Enough to Name” (5.8), my first time in a while to climb such a straight ahead crack. I miss such cracks in the Eastern Alps!
Caption: “Not Proud Enough to Name” is the crack on center left.
It was getting time to go. Rick sent me up “Gangsta Lean,” an easy 5.8 but enjoyable because of big flakes and a pleasing leftward traverse.
Caption: Time to go home!
We hiked out. Rick was an amazing host for an out o’ towner. I hope to go back one day and do a climb deep in the Sierra with Rick. Something with a little bit of everything: aid, cracks, chimneys even (shudder) slabs! Thanks for showing me around Chief!
Caption: Til next time…