“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 foam boardat 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 here 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, so 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 very different characters. Elevation rises gradually from the west and the Great Central Valley, at an elevation of about 1000 feet, to over 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 scenic route, there are a few well known rock climbing areas that provide great tests for those at all skill levels, from the most novice beginners to the most seasoned experts, as well as a great diversity in style. Mt. Whitney’s bold face offers alpine style mountaineering. Bishop, a town a little further north, is home to bouldering: climbing short routes without a rope, and often more technically difficult climbing. 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. They are all shapes and sizes 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, mostly in bouldering, and knew loosely about the climbing, so my plan was to hang out and wander around with my climbing shoes and try 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 nestled in.
On Friday morning, it wags apparent the weekend crowds were getting an early start. Wandering around I had 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 and 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 area 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 feeling they must be having.
At this point, I had been on the road for three months touring the U.S. and making my way back north to Canada. My mom and my girlfriend had visited me, but for the most part I was on my own. Like most experiences there are pros and cons, and solitude is no different. I felt like I had gained a heightened comfort with myself, and ironed out many ideas I had jumbled into tight, convoluted knots. At the same time, many thoughts ran through my head on repeat and unexpressed, like I couldn’t let them go until I said them to someone. I was excited to return to my home country and meet up with friends I hadn’t seen in months.
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. I had only ever really climbed inside and so seeing these people on real rock unearthed a deep longing. I was determined to find some rocks to climb. I spent a couple hours in the middle of the day getting a small taste of what I was missing and returned to my campsite pleased but not satisfied.
Watching the climbers right above me, I chatted with some of the groups around. Another guy was there by himself, on the road from Seattle living out of his van for the time being. He had climbed with a couple strangers but they were leaving soon. His name was Eric. He asked if I climbed. I said I did but mostly bouldering and I didn’t have a harness. He said that’s okay, I have one; want to climb? I said hell yes.
Being a boulderer I am also not very experienced in the practices of 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 that 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 with me belaying. After a little chatter I got on the wall and started going up. Compared to bouldering, especially in a gym, the actual climbing was easy. But even still there is a different feeling that comes from being high on real rock. 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.” I had taken some offence to the comment, but now I could understand.
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 inspires a confidence that everything is climbable. But as I climb, my body is aware that I am are higher and higher off the ground, and any mistake could be catastrophic. With each movement the breath and heartrate accelerate, and the mind must work to settle the body down before using it to solve the puzzle at hand. My spirit hangs inside me as my body hangs above the ground. A deep breath. Move my right foot up, make sure its secure. Okay, find something to grab with my left hand. Move up. And so on, until the top. When I got there, I leaned back on the rope Eric held firm on the ground, and took in the setting sun and the orange light it casts on the 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. 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 together, attempting some harder routes and having fun on the rocks. 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 and exchanged numbers and wished each other well, and I was off.
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.