When I Grow Up
“Blink twice if you’re interested.” In the service vortex of Yosemite, David’s text shows up on my phone a couple of days late, but the corresponding photo of an overhung Goliath-sized prow provokes a quick, “Blink blink.” The next few texts indicate that it is at the very top of the Buttermilks in Bishop, features a rogue bolt on top, and “…it’s chalked but I doubt it’s been soloed.” David knows that I like big boulders, but I don’t really solo; it sounds like it might be too tall, but that’s a judgment call that needs to be made in person. It will have to wait until next year though, because it is fall and I have landed a volunteer position in the Valley - a perfect opportunity to take care of some projects while the good weather is around.
I’m not a morning person, but I gratefully watch the morning rays of promised warmth sweeping east from Mt. Tom towards my knees-to-chest squatting position at the upper tier of the PV Pit campground. Unlike my fellow high school seniors tanning along west coast beaches, I’ve opted for a frigid spring break bouldering in Bishop with my buddy Ryan. Shivering from a deep freeze that I have never before experienced as a central valley kid, I tell myself for the hundredth time in the last few hours that I will never again forget my sleeping bag. Our teenage discomfort won’t allow us to discover which of us is little spoon, so even with Ryan’s graciously spread bag-turned-blanket and seven layers, a teeth-chattering sleepless night and a rarely glimpsed sunrise are what’s in store. Kids, spoon or die.
Almost exactly six years later I find myself caught in an existential crisis on the way to New Mexico. I’ve been lured by photos of seemingly immaculate rock, but I really have no idea if I’ll find what I’m looking for. I’m nearly broke with no job lined up, and the arête I just saw, perched way up at the top of the ‘Milks past The Ninth, feels like a perfect excuse to stay in the Golden State. As my Honda Odyssey rambles east of eden, my mind drifts back to the last couple of days in Bishop. I went up to the promised-prow with David and another good friend, Blake, to have a scope on a rope. It’s quiet up there, and the solitude is a welcome change from the crowds at the main area. Unfortunately, the warmth I’d wished for as a high school senior has decided to show up late to the party, thoroughly baking the boulder so I can only make sweaty single moves at a time before having to re-chalk. Still, the upper bit seems feasible from my feeble attempts, so if the lower bit goes, it is likely climbable.
Famished from a solid full day sesh with minimal hiking because, “Dude I think that’s Iron Man - I can’t believe we can see it from the road!”, Ryan and I have decided to cook a full pound of spaghetti with the naïve belief that anything we don’t eat will be great leftovers for the next day of flailing. A blissfully not-as-freezing night results in an uplifting four hours of sleep, but this joy quickly wears off with the daunting sight of a nearly full pot of Prego-cemented “spaghetti”. Fortunately, my parents have given me $100 to use as emergency money for the week, so we beeline to the day-old section of Schat’s bakery to fill up on Sheepherder bread for PB&J’s.
Evidence of human existence has vanished at the prow; seemingly forgotten, a thin dusting of snow has taken the place of washed-off chalk. Winter crowds have been scared away by the cold forecast in the normally-hectic interim between Christmas and New Year’s. With only one full day on my way to visit relatives in LA, I’ve trudged to the apex alone despite a wave of cumulonimbus capping Mt. Basin with a silver-grey crown. I rappel in from the lone bolt and begin re-cleaning and chalking it in approach shoes. After an hour or so, I lower to the ground to grab a snack and rest. From my exposed vantage, I can see the cloudwall moving towards me in real time, so I quickly put on my climbing shoes, scramble up the back and rap back in. I get a couple of minutes trying the upper section before the gelid wind starts buffeting me around. Soon after, snow flurries sweep by and I can no longer feel my fingers or toes. As rapidly as possible, I clean the rope and pack up with numb fingers. Once past the snow line on the descent, I book it down the hill, running all the way to the van to try and keep my blood circulating. I’d been hoping to start linking the top, and feel a bit disheartened that I wasn’t able to tell how controlled it would feel. I try to remain positive by telling myself I haven’t run that hard since I was in high school.
Ryan and I have decided to expand both our culinary and climbing horizons; stocked up on a half dozen Taco Bell bean and cheese burritos, we head north on Highway 395 to check out the an area known as Pocketopia. As we wind upwards, a bluebird sky beckons us onwards, almost mockingly. After a couple of hours exploring the bizarre passageways and trypophobia-inducing volcanic tuff, we hear two voices amidst the corridors. The first is animated, a little loud, and chattering at a rapid clip. The second is significantly slower, lower, and deliberate; we originally thought the chatterbox was just talking to himself. A few moments later, a scruffy teen wearing baggy striped pajamas and an even bigger grin turns the corner where we are basking in the sun. He is clearly stoked to have found other climbers, and immediately asks us our names (we quickly find out his is Paul); as the owner of the lower voice rounds the corner, Paul introduces his grey-haired, sailor-capped companion in khakis as his father Byron. Like Ryan and myself, it is Paul’s first trip to Bishop and he is out exploring all the different areas in the guide. Paul’s energy is infectious and we hit it off, throwing ourselves at heinous sharp pockets that cut back and threaten to end our trip via popped pulleys. Just as we start to wind down, we are hit with a chilly gale, seemingly defiant of the prevalent sunny blue skies. Moments later, flakes of powder begin to swirl around and patchy clouds move in. Akin to sunshowers, these are the first sunsnowers I’ve ever experienced, and our excitement keeps us warm despite the freezing weather.
Paul keeps raving about how big the boulders are, so Ryan and I soon find ourselves beneath Grandma Peabody’s large overhung face. There are a lot of traverses and drop-offs in the guide, but Paul is bent on climbing the middle line. Even though it enters the no-fall zone at the top, it’s only V2 in the guide, so we assume it won’t be too much trouble. Byron rented a pad from Wilson’s, so with my small Asana we have about 30 square feet of landing area. Paul starts onsight climbing statically and easily. As he nears the angle change to the slab, Ryan and I stack the pads; the concept of a smaller landing area doesn’t seem to cross our minds. Now at the crux, Paul suddenly lunges right, full-span, for a presumably good crimp. The black-and-green lichen has deceived him and Paul boomerangs back left with an “OH SHIT!” Ryan and I stand agape, arms upstretched but useless, as he flies just left of the stacked mats and craters to the ground. Springy teenage limbs and a two-footed landing fortunately leave him merely with a racing heart while Ryan and I awkwardly look down at our feet and mumble apologies.
Heading out from another full day I glance eastward and am greeted with an oceanic purple-pink sky. The White Mountains in seafloor-form glow extra bright, illuminated by a hidden anglerfish’s lunar lantern. The moon’s fullness parallels my enthusiasm and psych for the day, as I finally managed to do all the moves on the prow in overlapping parts. Docking my drifting van to snap a photo of the evening’s luminescence, I notice a plastic Von’s bag whipping the sand, weakly anchored by an abandoned Coleman stove. The strewn remnants of a trash bag surround it; crackers and other various boxes of snacks have been ravaged; pots and miscellaneous cooking items litter the ground. My mind pulses back to the first time I stopped here and hiked out to Dale’s Camp; there were no other cars, no fire rings, no crowds with unleashed dogs and their unburying owners; I am suddenly flooded with a wave of sadness. Memory has a way of washing out negative aspects of the past; it was never perfect before this unsightly scene and I ride revery’s sails back to shore. I’ve had my ups and downs (physically and metaphorically) throughout my journeys here: skidding off an icy Buttermilk Road and getting dug out with the help of a kind local on a 4x4; putting on cheap chains for the first time, subsequently snapping them and buying functional link chains; getting my first flat and changing my first tire. Arguably more influential than the climbing, these non-climbing lessons molded my respect for this vast, rocky, desert terrain. From rare teenage glimpses of sunrise to unbelievable awe felt by winds strong enough to snap two tents on consecutive nights, the little links that spark joy and humility for such a special place ultimately create a binding chain of appreciation.
January’s only three-day weekend brings an eclectic slew of college students, gym rats, and city dwellers from all over the state; I count over forty people at the Fly Boy boulder. Fortunately, crowds can be avoided if solitude is desired, and I still have not seen more than three cars parked at the Pollen Grains in as many weeks. The road-blocking line of vehicles along the main area, illegal camping, and rampant disrespect of trail use, however, greatly jeopardize future access to Bishop climbing. As I slog uphill to the project, I wonder how this path will look in a decade. Will I still scratch my way through spiny bushes or be stepping over dog shit? How do golden eagles respond to dubstep? Will there be guided access, like Hueco Tanks, to reduce impact (and, for many, motivation)? Most importantly, will we be able to climb at all?
We threw out the crusty vat of spaghetti a few days ago, but without running water, Ryan and I have left it in the back of the van, hidden under seven layers of clothes and a single sleeping bag. Out of sight, out of mind, right? Half of the emergency cash has gone towards gas and we’re down to the last twenty. Fortuitously, Schat’s has had a bunch of day-old two-dollar loaves, so we should have enough sandwiches to hold us over until we get back home. We cruise out to the Druid Stones to make sure we’ve toured all of the areas and seen the (presumably) easy-access gems. After some concerning scrapes along the bottom of the van, we manage to make it to the parking lot. Still, boulderers are rarely hikers, and when I’m about three quarters of the way up, I look back and see Ryan sitting down a few hundred yards behind. Apparently, our PB & J diet is not the most sustainable source of energy, and it is only with some serious coaxing via the last of my chocolate and offering to carry the pad that he finally stands up and silently trudges behind me. I still haven’t been back to the Druids (I’m still mainly a boulderer, and definitely not a hiker), but that hike flashes back more clearly than many others I’ve done multiple times. Why it remains clearer is unclear; perhaps it was due to its difficulty at the time, or because we ended up having a great day climbing, or if I just reminisce about it more than other rambles. Regardless, when we returned to town later (splurging on KFC for our last night and last dollars), we both felt a deep sense of satisfaction from our week of adventures.
In what feels like one of the longest mornings of my life, Parker and I have been waiting all morning at the Pollen Grains for our friends Kevin and Juliet to arrive. Morning has turned to afternoon, and after a couple of false alarms in the form of other cars, I finally see Kevin’s long brown hair waving about behind the windshield as they bounce uphill. It takes me a moment to recognize them because they are not in Kevin’s usual navy van, but in a white Tacoma that has tragically replaced his recently-totaled Westy. With only three days left before moving to New Mexico, I can feel self-pressure mounting to try bouldering the prow, but have been waiting for support from both friends and foam. We all haven’t seen each other in a while, and after exchanging hugs and grievances for Kevin’s recently-lost house-on-wheels, we make some delicious sandwiches: almond butter with apples and cinnamon, smothered in honey on moist rye, to provide a solid energy boost for the pad-full hike up the biggest hill in the Buttermilks. Even with the added bulk and weight of the pads, the hike feels significantly easier than it ever has; maybe I’m just trying to trick myself, telling myself I’ve gotten more fit over the last month, perhaps sharing the hike has distributed the effort involved, even the gentle breeze is helping push us towards the summit. Don’t forget the power of the sandwich, either. Whatever it is, my psych is higher than I can ever remember. After a brief rest at the base, I rehearse the sequence, focusing not just on the moves but when to breathe and when to punch it. Methodically, meditatively, I arrange the pads in what seems to be the safest fashion. I try to maximize thickness in areas I’m most likely to fall, also making sure to keep a large surface area to counteract wide human-boomerang swings like Paul on Grandma Peabody. Finally, I top the whole zone with a blubber pad to prevent an ankle roll. After another rest, this time for a solid half-hour where every minute feels like an eternity, I tie my shoes squeaky-tight and make sure they’re solidly double-knotted. Chalking up below, I take deep breaths and remind myself that I have done all of these moves, and that it is possible; now is the time to execute.
I pull on the opposing start crimps and step high to a small right foot; feeling solid, I skip an intermediate and make a long reach with my right hand to a slopey crimp. Suddenly, there is nothing around and I find myself in a golden bubble straddling the prow. Breathing calmly yet maintaining tension, I bring my left foot to my hand and reach up to a good left hand sidepull. Matching in close, I find myself at the most dynamic move, a full-span left hand lunge to a decent edge. Swaying to get extra momentum, I strike diagonally and quickly snatch the edge on tiptoes. I remember to take a deep breath as I set a pretty solid right heel hook. Another deep breath and finds my right hand on the sharpest hold, and I let the razor bite deep into my index as my thumb crowns it. As I step wide to a well-positioned left foot, I hear Parker’s voice enter my little bubble, noting that the next left hand, “is the best pinch in the world.” My favorite hold, this slightly off-horizontal smooth patina sticks out from the wall and has a perfect thumbcatch oriented almost exactly ninety degrees from the fingers. Her calmly-spoken words bring forth a burst of confidence, and I bring my feet up, right, left, and right again, noting somewhere in my head that I feel fresher than I ever have rehearsing it. I put the thought aside, and focus on the next move, a punchy right hand stab to another slopey pinch, quickly followed by a high step and a deep left foot flag. Staring down the ticked jug, I hold my breath and tense my core. As the fingers of my left hand sink behind the mini-bucket, my body sags slightly while a flood of adrenaline, excitement, and realization settle in. A few very deep breaths later, I climb the last big moves on relatively good incuts robotically, until I grab the huge jug a couple feet past the lip. Suddenly, it is over, and I am on top of the boulder yelling shouts of joy; something I had only imagined has grown from a dream to something I have done; Terminus has been born.
My eyes open in the desert, but this time I’m not shivering outside. Instead I wake slowly in fresh sheets, bathing in the filtered glow coming through the half-curtained tenth story window of our room at the Caesar’s Palace in Vegas. Thoughts begin to melt together as the sun inches toward its zenith, but somehow I can picture Byron and Paul, goofy-grinned and crazy-haired, buying Ryan and I breakfast at Jack’s diner on our last day in Bishop all those years ago. It was such a nice switch from PB & J’s, but I still love good sandwiches. Last night, Parker and I drove through hundreds of miles in darkness, leaving California, Bishop, and golden monzonite boulders behind, arriving around 2 a.m. In my dazed state, the last few days are extra blurry as I run through them in my mind. Hiking down from Terminus amidst another perfect sunset, buying everyone dinner at Thai Thai as a thanks for their support, somehow scrambling my way up another dream line, Spectre, mere hours ago. Wonderful people, great places, and so many memories. If treated right, Bishop will retain it’s ability to foster such positive experiences. I hope it remains wild when I’m all grown up.