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Chasing Shade in the Sierra

My So-Cal friends are always planning weekend trips, and we have all convened in Bishop occasionally throughout the years.

The Eastern Sierra is a special place, and Patrick and I spent almost a month there last Fall at the tail end of a 3-month climbing road trip from Colorado. When it came time to pick destinations, I knew I wanted to visit two of my favorite crags: the Buttermilks and the Owens River Gorge. I also saw an opportunity to explore a crag where I hadn’t spent much time: Alabama Hills near Lone Pine, CA. My friends were psyched to revisit such a timeless place. Lately, some of my friends have taken to off-roading, and with tons of 4x4 opportunities at each of the crags above, everything seemed set up for a perfect weekend romping around the Sierra.

Our first objective was the Buttermilks, a legendary bouldering area made up of massive golden granite eggs speckled across a gentle alpine hillside. The scenery is unreal by itself, and the climbing is world-class, albeit sharp.

After a short trail run, we cooked up the classic bacon and eggs at our campsite to start the day. Once at the boulder field, Patrick, myself, and our friends Mike, Bri, and Kate set our sights on classic moderates. With a long trip ahead of us, we focused on mileage rather than difficulty, attempting to save skin and psyche (precious commodities on a climbing trip).

As the sun rose high into the sky, we opted to do some off-roading up Buttermilk Road instead of roasting in the exposed boulder field.

Our goal was to reach the snow line and explore a new area in the shadow of the tall Sierra guarding the horizon. A ton of snow this Winter meant tons of runoff, and though this made the Spring landscape even more lush and beautiful, it also meant a lot of mud. Mike’s 4Runner promptly got stuck.

Luckily Hannah and Jack were there to hoist it out of the mud with their Jeep's come-along winch. Not long after, Hannah’s Jeep started having engine issues.
Frustrated and hungry, we drove back to the campsite and cooked up sweet potato and veggie burritos. More friends showed up: Eric, Bobby, Jackie, along with mountain pups Brutus and Ozzie.

The day wasn’t perfect, and tomorrow we would have to deal with the Jeep, but at least there was a campfire to stare at and friends to laugh with. 

The next morning, I ran by myself and kept it extra short so we could spend most of the day climbing at the Owens River Gorge, 20 minutes down the road. Homemade granola and almond milk made for a refreshing breakfast, as the day was already getting quite hot.

Hannah’s Jeep needed to be fixed pronto, so our group was instantly divided for the day. This is where things got a little emotional for me. I wish I had known there were going to be so many more people showing up. The majority of them came to off-road, yet here Patrick and I were trying to plan all this climbing. Everyone went to town to eat out and help work on the Jeep, while Patrick and I made the journey to the Central Gorge alone.

To be honest, I was sad. Everyone knew the purpose of this trip, they knew about my scholarship, yet now we were all doing separate things. In hindsight, I should have kept my expectations in check and taken the trip for what it was, but at the time I couldn’t help feeling a little disappointed.

We chased shade for the majority of the day at the Central Gorge. Since it was just the two of us, staying motivated in the hot sun became a challenge in itself. We ended up revisiting a few of our favorite (shaded) climbs, as it was really too hot to explore. We ended our day at the Warm-Up Wall, hiked out, and began the hour drive south to Lone Pine and the Alabama Hills.

Mike and the crew had apparently driven North to Mammoth to find some new hot springs, so Patrick and I met up with two other friends, Liane and Nico, camping at Tuttle Creek Campground near Alabama Hills. They have a super cool RV and pay a seasonal fee to live at the campground from Spring to Fall.

Liane made us some pasta and we caught up, then chatted for a while about what to climb the next day. Myles Moser, a local and a main developer of Alabama Hills, happened to be visiting with Liane and Nico, and he gave us notes for some newer undocumented climbs. The rest of the gang was finally on their way, so we left to meet them at a BLM site near the Alabama Hills Recreation Area.

The morning was even hotter than the previous one, so I didn’t even bother with a run. Looking back, I should’ve just gone for it. The mountains were spectacular and the morning was slow-going, so I definitely would’ve had time.

After pancakes and more bacon, we drove to The Corridors, a really cool sport climbing area within Alabama Hills where huge granite fins jut out of the desert floor, leaving perfect shaded fissures to climb in-between. 

We warmed up on some 5.9’s then meandered to the East End, which was now in the shade. Liane and Nico joined us as well, and Myles himself was free-soloing around all day (nerve-racking to watch definitely!) Bobby, Jackie, and the dogs left early, same with Hannah and Jack.

So that left Mike, Bri, Kate, and Eric. Patrick was debating trying a new 5.12b Myles had put up, White Trash. Eventually convinced, he ended up on-sighting the route, but not without a battle. After grunting through a crimpy and powerful start, he leaped sideways, feet cutting, to grab a hueco jug with one arm. It was definitely a highlight of the whole weekend.
Overall, the weekend was a journey both physically and emotionally for me. Since this whole trip was more or less my idea, I felt the pressure to keep everyone psyched and entertained, but boredom seemed inevitable when my So-Cal friends really just wanted to drive around and explore.

Maybe I was too ambitious in my climbing expectations - exploring would have been just as fulfilling. It’s hard to plan things with so many personalities involved, but I’m glad that we all got to see each other regardless. They are friends that have always stood by me and always greet me with open arms when I go home to Southern CA. Mike and Bri, especially, they are family. This trip showed me that whatever craziness ensues, I have a network of adventurous friends right in my back yard to rely on.

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Words & photos: Sara Aranda
Location: Eastern Sierras, CA


Planning a long weekend of Eastern Sierra climbing? Here's a few pointers to make your trip as awesome as possible:

Where to Stay:

Bishop/Owens River Gorge -
  • Pleasant Valley Pit Campground - 75 primitive sites, $2 per vehicle per night. Popular among climbers. Located 0.5 miles off Pleasant Valley Dam Road.
  • Pleasant Valley Campground - 75 sites, $10 per vehicle per night. Good option if the pit is full. Located 1 mile off Pleasant Valley Dam Road.
  • BLM options - There is dispersed camping in the BLM land that surrounds the access road to Owens River Gorge. You can also camp pretty much wherever in the Buttermilks other than the main parking areas for the Birthday Boulders and the Buttermilks. If you choose to camp in the Buttermilks, make sure to pack enough water, as Bishop and the nearest water source are 20 minutes down the road. As always, respect the area and practice Leave No Trace.
Alabama Hills -
  • Tuttle Creek Campground - 83 RV/Tent sites, $5 per night. From Hwy 395, drive 3.5 miles west of Lone Pine on Whitney Portal Road, then 1.5 miles south on Horseshoe Meadow Road. Follow signs to the campground
  • BLM options - once inside the Alabama Hills Recreational Area, you can find dispersed camping all the way up to the base of some of the rock formations, if you have a 4x4 vehicle, scout around and discover some otherworldly camping options amongst the granite potatoes. Once again, use good judgment when setting up your camp, and always practice Leave No Trace.

What to Climb:

Bishop - The Buttermilks
  • The Hero Roof (V0)
    "One of the best warm-ups in the 'Milks. A couple laps on this will get the blood flowing on those crisp mornings."
  • The Hunk (V2)
    "A super classic high slab, satisfying and exciting. Tricky and technical climbing down low on small edges leads to easier, but committing moves on good holds to the top. Superb!"
  • Pope's Prow (V6)
    "This blunt arête has shattered the egos of many suitors. Eek your way up the polished prow by hugging the arête and using some small side pulls for the left hand. Top it off with an adrenaline-infused mantle."
Owens River Gorge - Central Gorge
  •  Babushka (5.8)
    "Really cool sustained climbing. Big holds great to learn how to click bolts on!"
  • Orange Peel (5.10c)
    "Fun, crimpy, relaxed. Excellent warm-up when the Warm-Up Wall is baking in the sun."
  • From Chocolate to Morphine (5.11b)
    "Best 11d at the Gorge! With continuously fun movement, aesthetic position, and long character, this climb typifies all that is fun and scenic about the Owen's River Gorge. DO IT!"
Alabama Hills
  • Muffy (5.8)
    "Certainly one of the best warm-ups in the hills, and certainly the least chossy."
  • Chocolate Pocket (5.9+)
    "What an adventure! 40 feet of squeeze chimney deposits you onto amazing patina face climbing up top. Climb it, then do it again, and again."
  • Alabama Hills Gang (5.10a)
    "Thought-provoking intro moves lead to a sea of patina flakes like only the Alabama Hills provides. Top out the dome for full points."