The Fortress Black Wall Wheeler Gorge Potrero John
The town of Ojai, California, has been a hub of cultural activities for decades. You find famous authors, musicians, painters, sculpters and movie stars calling this charming little town their home. What’s not obvious, however, is that Ojai is the gateway to many back country wilderness experiences such as hiking, biking, camping, hoseback riding, and yes, rock climbing.
There are many rock formations in the mountains of Ojai; five of which I have submitted “Mountain And Rock” pages on. These five formations are, Wheeler Gorge
, Foothill Crag
, Black Wall
, The Fortress
and Potrero John
. In this “Area And Range” page, my attempt is to make a brief introduction to this area with hopes for many more supplimental submissions in the future.
Four of the major rock climbing areas covered in this page are located along a winding two lane Maricopa Highway, just to the north of the town of Ojai. One of the formations, Foothill Crag
, also known as “The Foot” is within walking distance of the town itself. During the 1990s you could drive to within a five minute walk of “Foothill Crag.” Following the major improvements and route development, mostly by the late Reese Martin, the popularity of this crag soared. This flux in activity brought with it many discontented and angry neighbors. The city of Ojai was forced to ban parking anywhere near Foothill Crag. Nowadays you are forced to hike some thirty minutes on an access trail running along private properties and people’s backyards. I’m not sure if the neighbors came out of this set up any happier.
Driving north on Maricopa Highway, the first formation you come to is Wheeler Gorge
. This formation is next to Wheeler Creek, a pleasant place to climb. there are a number of formations here that have never been touched. Driving further up Maricopa Highway your next stop is Black Wall/Sespe Wall
, some twenty miles from the town of Ojai. This is the oldest and the most popular crag in this area. Black Wall offers many easy to moderate routes.
Unfortunately, the highway noise can be deafening. On some weekends there may be motorcycle races up and down this highway.
Foothill Crag Foothill Crag
The next two formations are Potrero John
and The Fortress
. These two formations are so close together that you may think they are connected, but they are not. Potrero John offers a number of sport routes on a clean and steep face. The Fortress, in contrast to Potrero John, is a complex formation with nothing but trad routes, never mind the sparsely spaced bolts. It is not clear why this formation lagged behind in route development for decades. The rock still requires a great deal of cleaning and the approach trail is in bad need of improvement. There are, however, a number of climbs in the 5.8 to 5.9 difficulty range that have been established on The Fortress.
Wheeler GorgeWheeler Gorge
Barring the highway noise, climbing on any of the Wheeler Gorge formations can be fun on easier routes and pretty tough on the harder ones. The route difficulty ratings range from 5.9s to 5.12+. Much of the credit for cleaning and bolting the routes can go to a handful of climbers such as Reese Martin, Steve Edwards, Arvind Gupta and D. Gould. During his too short residence in Ventura, the super climber Stuart Ruckman put up a route, Stu Boy, 5.9, well below his ability. My guess is that Steve Edwards named the climb, not Stuart.
It is interesting that you can choose from three different kinds of rock to climb on neighboring formations. Your choices are sandstone, conglomerate or shale. Unlike Foothill Crag, the routes on Wheeler Gorge have a more reasonable number of bolts. Some of the local climbers such as Mathew Fienup have gone to great lengths establishing precedents using the best bolts and anchors available in the market. These local climbers take pride in keeping Wheeler Gorge a safe sport climbing area.
Walking around under the bridges and taking a bit more time to hike up the nearby canyons will reveal the great potential for expansion and route development in Wheeler Gorge. Looking up from the second bridge, the northeast one, will bring into focus a huge and well-featured rock formation further from the highway. As far as I know, that formation is yet to be explored and developed. The approach may be the most difficult part.
There are many more climbs at Wheeler Gorge than those listed in the routes table or the digram. Unfortunately, it’s not easy to get a reasonable distance from the crag to take photos.
Climbs of Wheeler Gorge
|A||Sunshine Dust Bunnies, 5.9, bolts, lower off
|B||Exodus, 11a/b, bolts, lower off
|C||Little Buckaroo, 11a, bolts, lower off
|D||Blush, 11a, bolts, lower off|
|E||Not sure but I think it's Roadside Distractions, 12b, bolts, lower off|
|F||velocity Boy, 11b, bolts, lower off|
|G||Danger Boy, 11a, bolts, lower off|
|H||Stu Boy, 5.9, is to the left of Danger Boy. There is at least one variation; if you stay to the right of the bolts and climb through a roof and face, 11b, bolts, lower off|
Foothill Crag/The FootFoothill Crag
The Main formation
On my latest visit to Foothill Crag in 2009, I was impressed by the amount of the work that local climbers had put into developing this crag. The bolts looked safe and well-placed. The anchors are made of the latest and safest hardware available in the market today. Typical for any sport climbing area, the anchors are placed just below the top of the rock. On Foothill Crag additional bolts have been placed on the large boulders on the top to secure a belay or for setting up a rappel station without bending over the top to reach for the face anchors. Safety seems to have been the main concern on the minds of these few local climbers.
Routes of the satellite formation
The rock itself is sandstone and faily soft on the hand. The routes are, for the most part, under 90 degrees and slabby. There are, however, a few overhangs for those looking for a greater challenge. With five anchors on the left formation, and two on the right one, you can set up top rope on virtually every climb on Foothill Crag. The majority of the climbs on Foothill Crag are in the 5.8 to 5.9 range. There are, however, two 5.10s that seem to win the greatest praise from climbers. These two climbs are “Ruthless Poodles, 10a” and From The Ashes, 10b” both put up by Reese Martin with “ground up” and self belay technique.
Although Foothill Crag could be considered as a sport climbing area, the bolts are quite sparce and the distances between them greater than you expect. Taking a supplimentry rack is highly recommended.
The best way to get to the top of the rock is via a great trail on the left side of this rock. There is a gully that divides the two larger and smaller formations. Forget about using that one for descent. It’s loose, steep and dangerous.
Climbs of Foothill Crag
|A||Bijou, 10a, 2bolts to a ledge. If you climb to the top past two more bolts, it will be 10c, Standard rack |
|B||Chummin' For A Splatter 11b, two bolts and a standard rack |
|C||I Love LA, bolts and a standard Rack|
|D||Ruthless Poodles, 10a, bolts and standard rack|
|E||The Crack, 5.6, standard rack|
|F||Clean Sweep, 5.9, 3 bolts and standard rack|
|G||Sob Story, 5.8, 2 bolts and standard rack|
|H||Blown Out, 5.9, standard rack|
|I||Overblown, 5.8, Rack up to 3.5 inches|
|J||Moon Doggies, 5.8, Rack up to 3.5 inches|
|K||Teetering On The Edge, 10d, a few bolts|
|L||From The Ashes, 10b, a few bolts, standard rack|
Black Wall/Sespe WallBlack Wall
My best guess for how far back the history of climbing on Black Wall may go, is the late fifties.
I have no doubt that Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and a Ventura resident, played a role in establishing some of the routes on Black Wall. I started climbing on Black Wall in 1969, and I always came back with at least one tick stuck to my body. In the old times we did not have fixed anchors to rap down the face. We climbed to the top and came down the brush-covered east shoulder. I figure I picked up the ticks on the way down. In fact, for many years I called this rock “Tick Wall.” Thank to the efforts of the local climbers, there are bolt anchors on the most popular routes here. No need to go to the very top and pick up ticks. You can get to the bottom with two raps.
|Climbs of the Left Side
|A||Half Ascent, 5.5, standard rack
|B||McTavish, 5.6,standard rack
|C||Chip's Block, 5.6, standard rack
|D||Slime Climb, 5.3, standard rack|
|E||Wasp, 5.8, standard rack|
|F||Sting, 10+, standard rack|
|G||Mrs. Murphy's Rusty Old Packard, 5.5, standard rack|Right side
There are several reasons for the popularity of Black Wall. The twenty mile drive from Ventura is really very pleasant. You may just want to go for a drive through the mountains, even if you are not interested in climbing. Another reason could be the easy approach. The approach to the base should not take more than 30-60 seconds. Black Wall is just across the creek from the road. Yes, I did say creek. The belayer stands right next to a creek. If you are climbing a route on the left side, your belayer has to find a rock to stand on. Finall, the rock itself, Black Wall is low angle and very slabby. If you have dropped out of climbing scene and want to get back on the rock, Black Wall is your ticket. The “Tree Root” is only 5.5 and as the name indicates, you have a tree at the end of every pitch. You also have a crack that you follow the entire way. You can sew up the climb if you wish.
Note: We are trying to preserve the trees. There are anchor bolts for belaying and rappelling. Please use them and use the trees only for shade.
The other extremely popular route is “Ending Crack, 5.7.” There are now two bolt anchors at the end of each of the two pitches. The first pitch is very well protected. The second pitch follows face moves with sporatic thin cracks here and there. Take some thin pieces for the second pitch. The anchor bolts are a welcomed sight and can be used for rapping to the bottom.
Note: There are several more climbs on Black Wall than the diagram and the tables indicate. There are also many variations to all of the standard climbs. It would be impossible to include all of these climbs without causing confusion. I have tried to include all the climbs that I feel receive most traffic.
|Climbs of the Right Side
|H||Pipe Cleaner, 5.6, standard rack
|I||White Spider, 5.7, standard rack
|J||Ending Crack, 5.7, standard rack
|left K||Wadka, 5.7, runout, standard rack|
|right K||Tree Root, 5.5, standard rack|
|L||Pine To Pine, 5.6, standard rack|
|M||Hairy Airy, 5.7, standard rack|
The FortressThe Fortress
Routes of the middle and right formations Routes of the left formation
At first glance, there are three distinct pinnacle/triangular shaped formations that stand out. These three formations contain the majority of the routes on The Fortress. Upon closer look, however, you will discover a few smaller satellite faces with a few routes of their own and potential for several more. One such face on the left sports a 5.4 route called “Footprints.” Another mini pinnacle on the extreme right offers a 5.9 climb named “Consumption Dysfunction.”
Thanks to the efforts a handful of climbers such as Mathew Fienup, the three larger formations in center of The Fortress complex offer a variety of routes from one to two pitches long. Most of the routes end on a ledge. Look out for the unfinished routes that climb up a few bolts and stop in the middle of the face. The routes are convoluted and you will find yourself weaving around bushes and blocks of rock. It’s a good idea to use plenty of runners here.
The Fortress is generally northeast facing and several of the faces get shade early in the day. This has caused large amounts of lichen to grow on several of the faces. Take a good strong brush to clean some of the holds.
Climbs of The Fortress
|A||Foot Prints, 5.4, standard rack|
|B||Snicker Doodle, 5.9+, standard rack |
|C||Blue In Green, 5.6, standard rack|
|D||Rational Expectations, 5.7, standard rack|
|E||Magali's Arete, 5.7, standard rack|
|F||Natural Rate of Unemployment, 5.10, standard rack|
|G||Permanent Income Hypothesis, 5.9+, standard rack |
|H||Free to Choose, 5.9, 2 pitches, standard rack|
|I||Consumption Dysfunction, 5.9+, standard rack|
Potrero JohnPotrero John
Climbs of Potrero John
|A||El Potrero, 5.9, now bolted, but still a runout|
|B||Zyzzxx, 5.8, five bolts |
|C||Pro Job, 5.9+, variation to route D, three bolts|
|D||Micccis, 5.9, four bolts|
|E||Not sure about the name or rating of this route.|
|F||Menage a Trois, 10b, four bolts, a classic climb, |
|G||Rubber Man, AKA Color Blind, 10c/d, five bolts|
|H||Newly bolted route, unknown name or rating|
|I||Beginnings, 5.5, standard rack, this climb is on a separate rock just to the right of Potrero John, not shown in the route topos|
Potrero John may be considered as the sport climbers’ answer to its immediate neighbors Black Wall
, also known as Sespe Wall and The Fortress
. On Black Wall and The Fortress you find nothing but “Trad” routes, and on Potrero John
nothing but bolted sport climbs.
Sport climbing was not always order of the day on Potrero John. In fact, the history of climbing on Potrero John can be traced back to the 1970s when two of the biggest names in rock climbing, Yvon Chouinard and Henry Barber, climbed a hairline fracture in the middle of the face using thin stoppers of the period for protection. Now, that’s what I call climbing.
Subsequent to the few and far between first ascents on Potrero John, a few 1/4 inch bolts were added on different parts of the rock. In the mid 1990s the old skinny bolts were removed, probably by the late Reese Martin, and replaced by beefier and safer 3/8 bolts. On my last visit to this rock, I noticed that the two old top rope problems on the far right and far left are now bolted bringing the number of sport routes up to seven.
Unlike in the mountains of Santa Barbara, there are a number of campgrounds along Highway 33 on your way to Black Wall. Wheeler Gorge Campground is one. If you want to camp closer to town, there are many State Beach campgrounds along the beaches of Ventura County.
The following links should help you find a suitable spot for camping.
Ventura Beach Camping
Wheeler Gorge Campground/Ventura, Ojai camping
Emma Wood State Beach
How to get there
Directions to Black Wall of Sespe Gorge cannot be simpler. From Highway 101 and the city of Ventura, California, take Highway 33 north for 13.2 miles to its junction with Maricopa Road in the town Ojai. Turn left here onto Maricopa and drive another twenty miles. You will see Black Wall to your left across the creek.