Caleb engaged in the most simplistic form of climbing. Black Magic V5, the Happys Bishop CA. Photo courtesy of Jaime Bohle
It has been 5 weeks since I touched real rock, the last time I climbed outdoors was over Thanksgiving break. A good crew of Portland folks made the trek down to Bishop for a few days of block climbing. My first time down to Bishop and my first ever bouldering trip. I was a bit skeptical going into this trip and had all the usual negative stereotypes about bouldering in my head. Why would you want to climb on little rocks when you can climb big rocks? All those bro-bras that boulder are so annoying, my clothes aren't cool enough to boulder in, there's no risk in it so it isn't exciting blah blah. After four days of fun routes and sore tips I'm starting to think that these little bouldering punks might be on to something.
Jodi climbing one of the tall ones at the Buttermilks. Don't even think about falling off this one, broken bones for sure.
Normally when I close my eyes and think of the the purest form of climbing I'm thinking of myself free climbing up a huge dihedral system on a remote wall far away from other people surrounded by unspoiled wilderness, that's my dream. This is in stark contrast to the typical scene in Bishop, I recall one problem had a gang of 20 teenagers standing around screaming (and I do mean screaming) beta as each person lined up to take a spin. Wow,that sounds like hell! My version of climbing (alpine rock climbing) is so much better. Maybe I've been taught that alpine climbing is the holly grail of climbing, or maybe just because I'm good at jamming cracks and bad at making dynos, but if I really had to think about it, perhaps bouldering (or free soloing/deep water soloing) is the most honest and pure form of climbing?
Typically we think of alpine climbing as being risky, I mean nobody writes books about people freezing to death while bouldering! Although I just about did freeze to death camping at Bishop. For some reason the fact that people die while doing an activity somehow makes it bad ass and more respected. I'm not aware of anyone that has died bouldering so it is "safe" and less bad ass. Certainly all the bouldering kids would say things like "Wow leading on gear looks so scary." Yes, for bouldering the really short problems, there isn't much risk with a good pad and spotter. However, once we start looking at the taller problems, and there is many of them at Bishop, the chances of getting injured are high. While climbing down there I often pussed out and jumped off before I got too high up. I enjoy soloing easy crack climbs, but the problems at Bishop are often at my limit with a slim chance of success. Exciting! Reminds me of my youth when I skated and snowboarded a lot, those brief flashes of adrenaline where the only thought is how much the ground is going to hurt if I botch this trick.
In the alpine realm the risks are often more sustained and subtle so it feels safer. (or maybe I've grown numb to the danger) Yeah getting hit by lighting on the summit would suck, but there is nothing exiting or bad ass about getting struck by lighting while eating lunch. Getting hit in the head with falling rock while slogging up an approach gully, ouch that would ruin the day but again there's no adrenaline there. So yes, there's tons of risk alpine climbing, lots of it you can't control so it doesn't feel exciting. Sort of like going through daily life, sure I might get hit by a bus but that's just part of life. On the tall boulders the danger is short lived and very real, I make this move or I hit the ground from way up here. The danger seems more amplified because I'm 100% at my limit making moves that seem impossible. Sure, I've had to red line it occasionally on a long alpine climb, but usually there's a rope and gear between me and the ground.
Two of the world's hardest and boldest boulder problems on full display. The Grandpa Peabody Boulder, home to "Lucid Dreaming" and the highball, "Ambrosia." At 45 feet tall, I'm not sure if you can really call this a boulder problem anymore but oh my what a thing of beauty.
Bouldering is for the proletariat, Alpinism is for the bourgeoisie.
Increasingly alpinism is becoming a sport for rich folks and kids living off the trust fund. The thought first hit me when I was in Bugs this summer packing my bag, when fully loaded my backpack contained about 5k in kit. (shit, I shouldn't brag on the internet, someone is going to rob me again) Most of this gear will last a few years before I break or lose it. Sure, you could climb with less fancy gear, hell people climbed Mt Hood in wool skirts 100+years ago, but let's face it climbing with crappy gear is no fun and might be unsafe. I'm not keen to run it out with a rack of Hexes while wearing leather boots. All this gear and the money is in conflict with why I go to to the mountains in the first place, to get away from all that crap.
The cost of gear is small potatoes compared to the cost of traveling to world class alpine climbing destinations. AK, Patagonia, the Himalayas, these places all cost thousands of dollars and require a job that would let you take off huge amounts of time. There is the rare soul that makes these trips happen with with a blue collar job, but mostly this is reserved for sponsored climbers and the rich. Now compare this to bouldering. I want to climb the best, most aesthetic boulder problem in the whole world! I'm going to train my ass off and be ready to crush it. Total cost: $120 in gas, $130 for climbing shoes, $250 for crash pad. Done! Bouldering seems like the American way, show up strong and try hard and you'll succeed. Whereas for alpine climbing it doesn't matter how fit you are, or what skills you have, you still needs lots of cash. There is significant barriers to entry for hard alpine climbing. Unless I win the lottery, I'm never going to climb the Rupal face.
The Portland crew watches Jaime taking a lap on the"Iron Monkey." Three dollar campsites and a few tanks of gas were the price of admission for this famous boulder problem.
Given a choice I'd rather make the 2nd ascent of the Rupal face then top out some ten foot boulder problem, however lately I've been thinking about the costs associated with my hobby, and the impact that climbing has on the environment. Every type of climbing has negative impacts, although I've always thought of alpine climbing as the low impact version of climbing. Certainly all of my partners practice leave no trace while alpine rock climbing, but even then the impact is there. That tat anchor I left behind while bailing, or how about my fancy tent that got destroyed the first day I used it and had to be thrown away? Thinking about the hundreds of climbers that go bouldering every day in Bishop, nobody is leaving behind webbing and I didn't see any garbage out there. The simplistic nature of bouldering makes it low impact.
I don't see myself trading in my rack for a crash pad anytime soon, all of my dreams for the upcoming year involve long routes away from the hordes. Still, at the end of it all climbing is just that, climbing. Going up a steep face, the sensation of moving my body above the ground, that feeling is the same no matter what I'm climbing. It is reassuring to know that when it all goes to hell, I lose my job and have to sell the rack, global warming melts off the glaciers, that I can keep a pair of climbing shoes and some chalk, go bouldering and feel that same rush. Yay!
You don't get to do fun moves like this while trad climbing! The Sads, Bishop CA. Photo courtesy of Jaime Bohle