“No word is oftener on the lips of men than Friendship, and indeed no thought more familiar to their aspirations.”
– Henry David Thoreau
I left Los Angeles early in the afternoon of a cloudy Thursday after surfing the morning in Santa Monica. I dropped off my rental board at the Rider Shack on Washington Boulevard and made my way out of the nightmare that is L.A. traffic, north on the 405 towards Palmdale. Past Mojave, I rolled onto the Eastern Sierra Scenic Byway. I would follow it from there to the Nevada border where it ends in Topaz, on my way to skiing in Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe. Mammoth Mountain is on that stretch as well and my pass allowed me to go to both resorts any day of the week. I tried my best to avoid weekends and the crowds. This meant I had a few days to kill before hitting the slopes.
The East and West aspects of the Sierra Nevada take on distinctive characters. Elevation rises gradually from the west and the Great Central Valley, at an elevation of about 1000 feet, to 14,505 feet at Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous United States. The fall down to Lone Pine and the Owen’s Valley in the east, at about 3000 feet, is more rapid. While the Western face of the range rolls through towering hills covered in vegetation like the giant sequoias found nowhere else in the world, and only occasionally showing off the pure granite below like in the glacially carved Yosemite Valley, the steep faces of the Eastern Sierra are sharp monoliths, like grey teeth cutting through the brown desert.
Along the impressive route are a few well-known rock climbing areas that offer a great diversity in style and test the ability of all skill levels, from beginners to seasoned experts. Mt. Whitney’s bold face offers alpine style mountaineering. Bishop, a town north on the byway, is home to bouldering: climbing short problems without a rope, and often more technically difficult. In Lone Pine, and the Alabama Hills directly below the Whitney Portal, there are countless trad and sport routes, climbs that require a rope and light equipment, what you would typically think of as rock climbing.
The Alabama Hills are maintained by the Bureau of Land Management and are a popular camping site, relatively close to L.A. County. Below Mt. Whitney are clusters and hills of round, alien looking rocks similar to those found in Joshua Tree, but brown and deceptively large – like pebbles dropped by the gods. I had heard about the area, and thought it would be a perfect spot to wait out the weekend. I am an intermediate climber, though at the time I had only climbed indoors in bouldering gyms. My plan was to hang out and wander with my climbing shoes trying whatever looked fun and safe.
Near twilight I hit dirt on Movie Road, where there were campervans and RV’s tucked in the rocks. I drove around for a while before I found an unoccupied site and settled in for the night. After a few months on the road I was used to the evening routine of reading in the dark while making dinner. Having the space to think, I felt like I had gained a heightened comfort with myself, and had ironed out many ideas I had jumbled into tight, convoluted knots.
On Friday morning, it was apparent the weekend crowds were getting an early start. I noticed some anchors and bolts on the walls, signs of climbing routes and, apparently, I had made my camp right in a prime climbing area called the Cattle Pocket. An hour later people were up on the wall behind me, families and friends enjoying the craft and the company. On my walkabout I had found a couple bouldering problems, but I quickly realized this was not the right spot for that. I returned to my campsite to soak up the sun and the rest of my beers while watching others climb, jealous of the state of flow they must be feeling.
Saturday morning, I woke up early to try to capture photos of the sunrise hitting the eastern faces. By noon, seemingly every rock had someone hanging off it. Seeing these people on real rock unearthed a deep longing in me. I was determined to find some rocks to climb. Amongst the boulders, I found a few problems I could complete and returned to my campsite pleased, but not satisfied.
Watching the climbers right above me, I chatted with some of the groups nearby. A climber from Seattle named Eric was living out of his van for the time being. He had found a few people to climb with for the morning, but they were leaving soon. He asked if I climbed.
“A little bit,” I said. “I have my shoes here, but my experience is in bouldering, and even then, its limited.”
“Have you done any here?” he asked.
“I’ve messed around, but I think the real action is up on the big rocks, and I don’t have a harness.”
“That’s okay. I have an extra one, and I need someone to belay me. Want to go climb?”
Being a boulderer, I was not practiced in belay, tending the rope while your partner is on the wall. I explained this to Eric, but he said it was no problem. He had been taught by people more experienced than him, and he was happy to take part in the tradition. We walked over to an easy route in a nearby section called the Corridors. He led the climb, placing the carabiners and coaching me on how to use a gri-gri, a belay device, from up on the wall. He flew up, and after slowly and nervously letting him down, it was my turn.
For some reason he seemed to be comforting me into trusting him, though he was the one taking the risk. Once the ropes were tied, I got on the wall and started going up. Compared to bouldering, especially in a gym, the climbing was easy, but it inspired a wholly unique experience. It was as different as running through the forest is from being on a treadmill. There was an intimate connection with the space I was a part of.
Earlier in the day I overheard a man say to his daughter, “Indoor climbing isn’t real climbing. Some people think it is, but it’s not.” In the moment I had taken offence to the comment, but now I understood.
Granite, especially the variety found in the Alabama Hills, is gritty. It sticks to hands and shoes. It means smaller holds give the same security. It stokes a confidence that everything is climbable. But as I rise, my body is aware that I am high above the ground and any mistake could be catastrophic. With each movement, my breath and heart rate accelerate, and my mind must work to settle my body before using it to reach the safety of the top. My spirit hangs inside me as my body hangs above the ground. A deep breath. My right foot moves up, make sure its secure. Okay, find something to grab with my left hand. Move up, and so on.
When I reached the end, I leaned back on the rope Eric held firm on the ground and took in the setting sun and the orange light it casts onto nearby peaks.
When I got back to the ground Eric said, “Now you’ve climbed in California.”
We spent the rest of the night exchanging stories and staring up at the bright stars of the empty desert sky. Eric was on his way to Red Rocks, outside Las Vegas, to climb with some friends before heading to Alaska to fish with his dad for the summer as he usually does. He had biked through Asia and lived in South America. He understood the life of a solitary nomad.
The next morning, we climbed the routes above my campsite that I had been a spectator to in the days before. We talked for a while after, but soon it was time for me to move on to Mammoth Mountain and another experience in the Eastern Sierra. We hugged, exchanged numbers and wished each other well. I turned on the car and pulled out onto the dirt road. When I rolled onto pavement, the road began to drop in elevation until I reached the byway where I continued north up the Owen’s Valley.
JOHN ALPAUGH is from Barrie, Ontario. He attended Dalhousie University and received a degree in physics and philosophy. His work has been featured in Blank Spaces magazine.