Prologue“Watch me”, I said, as I felt the strength fading in my arms; perhaps the result of six straight days of climbing; perhaps because I’m old and weak.
Five or six seconds later……
Thunk! The sound of my body slamming into the rock.
“Augghhhh!” The sound I made as I flipped upside down and slammed into the rock again.
“Are you OK? Aaron, are you OK?” my wife Lisa asked with obvious concern.
“I don’t know yet, lower me down.” And so ended a week of climbing at Owens River Gorge.
The trip started out really good though. Lisa and I arrived in Bishop, California on May 8, 2010. We’d flown from Edmonton to Denver, and then from Denver to Las Vegas. From Vegas we rented a car and made the scenic drive north (primarily on Highway 95) to Bishop. The weather was sunny, with more decent weather forecasted.
We had booked an inexpensive motel ($55/night with kitchenette) from our home in Hinton, Alberta, and were anxious to see what it was like. We sort of got an advanced flavour for the place, when we turned onto the street the motel was on and were surprised to see a vintage GMC Blazer permanently parked on the street, with signage and directions to our motel.
Having said that, the motel was clean, but rustic; certainly good enough for us, and the owners were very nice and helpful. Why not camp, you might say. Short answer – my wife doesn’t camp on vacations. Also, you reach a certain point in your life, let’s say around 40, and dirt bagging doesn’t seem as glamorous as it once did.
What brought us to Owens River Gorge? Well, Owens River Gorge is somewhere that I’d always had on my list of places I’d like to visit. I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps, because most of the people I know who have climbed at the Gorge were all very complementary of the place – loving the rock, the desert atmosphere, and the concentration and quality of climbs (a plethora of natural hot springs in the area also doesn’t hurt). But there were also others who had said they didn’t like the industrial feeling of the place, or the sketchy approaches, or the distance to the first bolt.
Sunday (May 9th) was to be our first day of climbing and we were about to form our own opinions on the Gorge. I’d been scoping the guidebook out for a few days and decided that I wanted to sample a bunch of different areas and different climbs. Because our first day of climbing was to be on a weekend (and the place can be busy), we opted to climb in the Upper Gorge. The guidebook had said this area isn’t as busy as the Central Gorge (the most popular area). Well, when we arrived at the parking area at 10:30 a.m., we were a bit surprised to see about 15 vehicles there already!
The approach down into the Upper Gorge was pretty straight forward – about 30 to 40 metres of steep downhill class 3 and then you hit a nice path. The weather was sunny but still a bit too cold to climb any of the west facing walls, as they were still in the shade. The closest east facing wall was the “All You Can Eat Cliff”; however, it appeared pretty much packed with people. A quick inspection of the guidebook revealed a couple of mid 5.10 climbs that had no one on them – we were soon to find out why.
So, the first climb we did in the Gorge was called “Szechwan Bambi (5.10c)”. It was a slab climb with the crux at the top. I found it a bit tricky and wouldn’t recommend it; but we both did it with no falls. Our second climb was called “Stay Hungry (5.10b)”; another slab climb. I fell on it. I can’t remember the last time I fell on 10b while cragging. For anyone keeping score, my wife styled it (but didn’t like it). Hmmmmm - so far I (and my ego) was not digging Owens River Gorge.
Looking around the place, I could tell that slab climbs were not what drew folks to the Gorge – all around I could see beautiful steep featured orange rock; it was time to ditch the slabs. We moved to the east side of the Gorge (west facing climbs) to a tall steep wall called “Gotham City”. From here our day improved considerably, as did our opinion of Owens River Gorge.
At the “Gotham City Wall”, we climbed Tall Dollar ****, Flex Your Head *****, Double Flipper ***, Dr. Evil *****, and Grindrite *****. The guidebooks rates each climb on a star system, with 5 stars being the absolute Gorge classic. We found this to be a big help in choosing climbs and definitely liked the four and five star climbs the best. I had two falls on Flex Your Head (11c), but did on-sight Grindrite (11b) and Tall Dollar (10b), so my ego was making a comeback. Lisa on-sighted Double Flipper (5.9) and Dr. Evil (10a) – Dr. Evil in particular was definitely not-for-free and a good on-sight for her. All of the climbs we did at this wall were great and I would highly recommend them.
The following day was a weekday, so we felt free to explore the Central Gorge, apparently the most popular area at Owens River. The approach to the climbs in the Central Gorge requires a little bit more concentration than the Upper Gorge approach. Basically, from the top of the Gorge until you hit the bottom, you are walking down a large talus filled gully. One needs to be careful, especially not to knock rocks down on people below.
For the start of the day, we again wanted to climb in the sun, so were looking for east facing walls. We ended up doing four pretty nice climbs at the aptly named “Warm-Up Wall”. Lisa led “What’s Up”, a two-star pumpy 10b with a nice crux about ¾ of the way up. She almost had the on-sight, but couldn’t quite figure out the crux before her power gave out. She got it next try though.
Lisa also hung the draws on Crowd Pleaser (5.9)**** and Babushka (5.8)*****. I led Humbly, Mumbly, Jumbly (10b)**** and promptly got my assed kicked again, falling off on the bouldery start described in the guidebook. After climbing here for a day and a half, I started to notice that there is chalk on absolutely every hold that can be reached from the climb; but chalk on the hold doesn’t necessary mean that the hold is required. Because of this, on some of the more tricky cruxes, one can get drawn into sequences that just don’t work. I lowered down and got it on the next go.
It was at this wall that we met a very friendly “older” American couple. It always warms my heart when I see someone older than me out climbing at the crags – it doesn’t happen that often anymore. I just had to take this picture because I was digging the old school climbing digs – oh, how I fondly remember the 1980s and my lycra tights. They say all fashion trends eventually repeat…
By the way, these two were one of the nicest couples we met on our trip to Owens River Gorge. They were very friendly chatting with us while we climbed beside one another, and happily encouraged Lisa on her 5.10 flash attempt.
Speaking of friendly climbers, we were curious to see what the vibe would be at ORG. We had climbed at Smith Rocks about five years ago and were a bit disappointed with the “friendliness” factor. The only people who made any effort to carry on a conversation with us for the week we were there was another Canadian couple. ORG was a pleasant surprise – although not quite as friendly as Kentucky climbing (so far that’s the gold standard), we found most folks to be quite nice, helpful, and down-to-earth.
From the “Warm Up Wall”, we followed the sun and crossed to the other side of the river to climb at a wall called “The Solarium”. This place was awesome. It consists of three large rectangular columns, allowing climbs on three aspects, with a number of spectacular arêtes to choose from. The first climb we did was called “Split Decision (11a)” – this climb followed a sharp arête for about 25 metres, ending at a belay station half way up the cliff. There were a number of tricky moves about half way up.
The next climb (and last of the day) was right next door and called “Sendero Luminoso” – a five star 10b. Boy what a climb! I highly recommend this to anyone; although the grade did seem like a bit of a sandbag. It’s 35 metres long and overhangs almost the entire way – there are no good rests until you are about 25 metres up. The crux comes right at the top of the overhanging climbing and consists of small side pulls and crimpers. We both really liked this climb.
Walking back out of the Gorge in the evening light was beautiful. We were both really enjoying the area – loving the desert flora and fauna, the big vistas, and the friendly climate. We don’t see a lot of lizards or cactus where we’re from.
After piling in the rental, Lisa and I headed back to our “basecamp” at the Village Motel in Bishop. We were happy to be staying right in town and loved being able to walk downtown (one block) to see a movie (Ironman), go spend money at the climbing store (Wilson’s Eastside Sports), visit the bakeries, or eat out (we ate three times at the Whisky Creek restaurant - recommended).
Day three saw us changing venues again to sample the climbs in the Lower Gorge. Perhaps we should have climbed here on Sunday – there was no one in the parking lot when we arrived mid-morning; nor did anyone else climb in the Lower Gorge that entire day. The approach here is easy, but a little more time consuming. You essentially walk down a paved road until you get to the river bottom. The atmosphere here is also a little different, as you are climbing right near a small working hydro-electric power station. You can also see the ruins of other older power generating industry in the river bottom. Lisa and I live in rural northern Alberta and earn our living in the forest industry (me) and the mining industry (Lisa); and we’re in the minority – most other Albertans are in the oil & gas industry. So you can understand that a little hydro-electric plant wasn’t really bothering us much.
Our first climb, called “Valley 5.8” (but 10a) was at the “Powerhouse Wall”; which is, one would assume not entirely coincidentally, located beside the hydro powerhouse. This climb was apparently so named because when local (and world renowned) climber John Bachar first climbed it, he said that if it were in the valley (meaning Yosemite), it would be a 5.8.
The climb followed a nice layback crack up through a small roof onto a face – it was fun and different again from all of the other climbs we’d done to date. This brings me to a discussion about another differentiating characteristic of the Gorge – bolts beside cracks. If you are a hardcore trad purist your sensibilities are going to be wounded at the Gorge, because there are definitely climbs (or portion thereof) here that could be protected with gear, and instead have bolts. A thorough read of the guidebook (recommended) explains why – simply put: the rock isn’t great; many of the cracks are flaring making gear placements tricky; and, those climbs that were put up on sketchy gear were not being repeated. However, once retro-bolted, many of these “gear” climbs became classics.
Having said all that, my favourite part of the guidebook is when the author explains that locals will respect you a lot more if you lead these routes on gear, rather than complaining about the bolts while clipping them. Cowboy up or shut up…
I also climbed a tricky 5.11a right beside “Valley 5.8”. The crux was going over a bulge at mid height. I found it very hard until I figured out I was climbing it on the right side instead of the left – another case of following chalk in the wrong direction.
From here we crossed Owens River on a cool little bridge in order to access the “Warning Sign Wall”. Our first climb there was the 5-star 10d called “Warning Signs”. I lost strength trying to figure out the crux and fell. After Lisa climbed it, we pulled our rope to go to the next climb. At least we tried to pull the rope – it was stuck. One of us had forgotten to take the knot out, while the other one had forgotten to check for knots before pulling the rope. On the bright side, that meant I got to go for a redpoint, which I managed to pull off.
Lisa than led “PG13” a fun 5.9 seam with cool moves on perfect rock. From there we climbed “Enter at Your Own Risk”, a 10d slightly off vertical face climb. I liked this climb, as it required a slow cerebral approach and was consistently hard all the way to the top – I got the on-sight.
The last climb of the day was called “Results May Vary” a 3-star 10b. As we noticed on many ORG climbs, the first bolt was quite high and the climbing to reach it was not straightforward – Lisa was going to lead it but decided it was a bit too risky getting to the first bolt. I must admit I find this practice of placing the first bolt so high off the ground a bit perplexing. I mean you’re going to all the effort to create a climb that you want people to do (and, I would hope, enjoy), yet you can’t put the first bolt closer to the ground? Having put up well over 100 routes myself, it’s a practice that drives me crazy and one I avoid. Anyway – enough complaining; next time I’ll bring a stick clip…
On day four Lisa and I were back to the Central Gorge. We again followed the sun, climbing first at the “Negress Wall” on the west side of the river. This wall exemplifies one of the cool things about the Gorge – that is, the varied rock in such a small area. This wall was very dark (almost black) and very smooth (i.e. it had a polished look and feel). We climbed two 3-star climbs called “Fear of a Dark Planet (10a)” and “Welcome to the Gorge (5.9)”. The first (Fear) started off with a hard boulder move and then was very steep on the top half. The second (Welcome) was a fun climb that wandered around the face.
From this wall, we crossed to the east side of the river to climb at the “Great Wall of China”. This, according to the guide, is the most popular cliff in the Gorge. And I can see why – the climbs are long, steep, sustained, and the rock is perfect orange volcanic tuff.
Here we climbed: Yellow Peril *****, Tsing Tao****, Heart of the Sun*****, Child of Light****, and Mandarin Orange****. Each of these climbs was excellent, but highlights included:
1. Yellow Peril (10c) – A 5.9 vertical jug haul until a steep dihedral at the top must be negotiated. I was getting way pumped at the top, but managed to hold it together..
2. Tsing Tao (10b) – Harder than it looks.
3. Heart of the Sun (5.9) – Deserving of the 5-star rating. A slightly overhanging wall – fight the pump baby! A good on-sight by Lisa.
4. Child of Light (5.9) – While climbing “Heart of the Sun”, we got to see (and hear) a woman take about a 30 foot whipper; she fell while trying to clip the bolt. Lisa on-sighted it in style.
5. Mandarin Orange(11b) – Just missed the on-sight, gassing out 10 feet from the anchor chains after having climbed the crux. Rats!
Rather than heading back to Bishop after climbing, on this day Lisa and I drove to Mammoth Lakes to check the place out and hit a Mexican restaurant that was recommended to us (Gomez’s). The food was great, the town was cool, and it was fun to see the Minaret’s looming over Mammoth Lakes – but we were glad we were based in Bishop; there was still four feet of snow on the ground in places!
On Day five, we headed back to the Upper Gorge to climb at the “Dihedrals”. However, like each day before, we needed to climb on an east facing cliff first, in order to catch the sun. This day, we did a number of climbs at the “All You Can Eat Cliff”. Lisa led the first climb of the day; a 4-star 5.9 called “Cinderella”. It was a beautiful (steep) stemming corner. Next she also led “Step Right Up (5.8)”. The guidebook notes that this is the most popular 2-star climb in the Gorge – due to the grade and the closeness of the bolts. It actually wasn’t that good of climb – skip it if you can.
Finally, I tried to climb “Posers on the Rig (11b)”, but was thoroughly and decidedly rejected. This ego-deflating experience leads me to another observation about the Gorge – the grades seem to be somewhat inconsistent. I regularly (and at lots of different areas) on-sight 11b and have as recently as last year on-sighted 11d. My best red-point is 12d. I only mention this because I couldn’t even hangdog my way up this 11b; and believe me, I tried. I finally had to rap off the 4th bolt. Perhaps I missed something; perhaps a hold had broken off; or perhaps I just suck, but both of us did notice a pretty big discrepancy in the grades. For example, while one 10b might feel reasonable, another might feel considerably harder. Given the large number of climbs and the large number of first ascentionists, this is probably to be expected.
Anyway, tail firmly tucked between my legs, we walked across the river to the “Dihedrals”. For me, this was my favourite wall in the Gorge; not so much for Lisa, who isn’t as enamoured with dihedrals and arêtes as I am. The guidebook says it all, “a series of monolithic dihedrals, with amazing rock quality”.
The first climb we did was a large flaring left facing dihedral called “Slackjaw (10a)”. The climb was great, with a pretty tricky and awkward crux, right near the top. The bashing of my ego continued, when I slipped on the layback; thereby setting my record for the easiest climb I’ve fallen off of in at least the last 10 years. Lisa did not like this climb and vocalized this fact a number of times on her way up.
Next we did “O.R.G.asm (11a). I loved this 5-star climb – it had it all; difficult stemming, thin laybacking, a few gear placements, fun face climbing, and a great name (get it? – the ORG stands for Owens River Gorge). To top it all off, I on-sighted it; allowing some of my self respect to creep back.
From there we climbed “Chossman of the Desert (10d)”. This 4-star climb ascends a stunning arête for 30 metres; it’s never too pumpy and has some good technical climbing. Another on-sight for Aaron; and Lisa almost followed it clean, with only one fall. A super cool climb!
After this we climbed “Delicate Mechanism (10b). I found it kind of entertaining as the moves were quite varied, including one very awkward section around a large roof. Lisa hated this climb, and also let me know, about 5 or 6 times on the way up. Note to self – don’t bring your wife on climbs that have the word “awkward” in the route description.
The last climb of the day was a 5.9 four-star gear climb called “Pumping the Slots”. I thought it was fun, but due to the wide nature of the crack, Lisa declined to climb it.
Our last night in Bishop was spent (again) at the Whisky Jack restaurant, where at “happy hour” food is half price (highly recommend it). For our last day, we were going to climb until 2 or 3 o’clock in the afternoon and then head back to Vegas; as our flight home left early the following day. My main goal for our last day was to climb “Gorgeous”, one of the more well-known and photographed climbs at the Gorge; I also wanted to do an absolute stunning two-pitch 10c climb called “Superfly”.
Day six dawned sunny and warm – the nicest weather of the trip. We parked at the Upper Gorge parking area and made the 20 minute approach, much of it along Owens River, to the Gorgeous Towers.
The 5-star 10b climb “Gorgeous” ascends a “gorgeous” arête on the “Gorgeous” Towers – I need a new adjective. In any event, the climb was excellent – probably in terms of beauty, the best of all the climbs we did. The climb was never really that hard; just a few tricky spots in between pretty good rests.
After that I climbed another arête called “Giveaway”. This 10a climb had a tricky start and really wasn’t that great – Lisa declined to climb it.
Before heading over to the “Gotham City” to climb “Superfly”, I thought I’d do one more harder (11b) 4-star climb – another arête, with the clever name of “The-aretical”. The climb ascended the arête immediately to the left of the climb I just had done (Giveaway). The two arêtes were separated by a large chasm/gully – see adjacent photo.
From the guidebook, I knew the crux was between the second and third bolt. Right off the ground, the climbing was steep and technical. I climbed past the second bolt, through the crux and then onto a pretty good hold – I looked for the third bolt to clip, but couldn’t find it. It looked like the third bolt was still another 5 or 6 feet away, separated by another hard move. I was losing strength, but still felt I could do the move, to what I thought was a good hold. I made the move, but the hold I thought was good, really wasn’t. I was now about 10 feet above the last bolt and losing strength; which brings me back to the start of the story…..
I knew I was going to fall, so just pushed back a little to make sure the fall was clean. Unfortunately, the arête I was on was only separated from the arête behind me by about 3 feet. Believe me when I say I was surprised when after falling for at least 10 feet I slammed into the arête behind me; which in turn flipped me upside down and slammed me back onto the arête I was climbing on.
The initial blow was on the right side of my lower back right above the crack in my ass. After Lisa lowered me to the ground (not very far away, by the way), I had that feeling when you don’t really know how bad you’re hurt. I had some severe pain in my lower back, which was getting worse and which hurt when I put any weight on my right side. Two thoughts immediately starting going through my head:
1. Am I going to be able to walk out of here?
2. Do I need to go to the hospital?
I told Lisa we better get going while I still can walk – we quickly packed up and left (leaving gear on the climb). The walk out sucked and the whole time we are both thinking about the horror stories we heard around hospital bills in the States (try getting travel insurance that covers rock climbing…).
By the time we got back to the car, the pain had subsided somewhat and I was more optimistic. Lisa drove while I sat awkwardly on my left butt cheek. A couple of hours later and a few pee breaks to check for blood in the urine, and I was pretty sure I was just badly bruised. I was also very sure I didn’t want to go to the hospital.
As I sit and write this, eight days after the incident, my back is still sore, but getting less so each day.
I’ve been climbing for 28 years and this is the first time that I have been injured in anyway from a fall (well, maybe the odd rope-burn) – makes you realize that even sport climbing can be dangerous at times.
Where to next? We’re thinking of heading back east to the New River Gorge in West Virginia. While climbing in the Red River Gorge a few years back, we heard lots of great things about it. Any other suggestions?