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Californication

By 7 am the sun had already started to transform our tent into an oven, set at gas mark 9, my pit was awash with the torrid grime from days of sweaty cragg’in, camp fires and dusty walkouts. Slithering out, desperate to coat my skin with the gentle cooling drafts of pine scented morning air, enjoy a scratch and gaze skyward at the alluring walls of granite. Miss out on a tooth scrub and breakfast, head straight for the rock and another inevitably perfect days climbing. Calm down, calm down, chill out, what’s all the rush, it’s not going to rain, no cloud for weeks!, no midges, no panic to queue for some one pitch crap Euro style polished bolt route, take in the atmosphere, slurp a few chilled dregs of Budweiser left in cans around a smouldering campfire, the remnants of another magic session of fire talk and scoff the night before. The morning sun illuminates the metallic blue feathers of a Stellar Jay raiding another sleeping campers food stash and as the thermic breezes start to waft gentle through the pine trees, it’s time to raise the troops and plan the agenda of fear and fun for “another day in paradise”….. In the words of the Chillies this regularity is Californication.

I’m convinced that the ‘wanado’ book, 50 classic Climbs in North America, must have been the hardest climbing guide ever to write. Pumped full of routes to die for, it merely introduces then seduces you into realising that an infinitum hit list of classics await you in each of the 50 climb locations. Now sadly out of print, the front cover laughingly portrays a close up image of a 70’s youth in go fast colours appearing to be at grips with the last pitch of Lavaredo on Carreg Alltrem on a rare sunny day in North Wales all far from the truth and guts of the book and photo. 50 of North America’s plum death and delight routes, from the massive granite walls of Yosemite, the Bugaboos and the Lotus Flower Tower to the serious snow routes like the Hummingbird and Cassin Ridge and Waddington’s south face, to the towering tasties of Pingora, Shiprock, The Devils Tower and Fairview dome with a smattering of regular mountaineering classics like the East Face of Mt.Whitney, the Diamond on Longs Peak and Exum Ridge on Grand Teton, many from personal blood and struggle are masterpieces which deserve a reprint of the book. But even the lure of such classics would probably not warrant a reprint in an age when more than a short walk from the car requires navigation and any bigger than a boulder demands a safe line of bolts marking the way to the top. The sensation of discovering the route ahead, placing runners and overcoming the simple psychological barriers like “how will we get down if we can’t get up” are all traditional skills in the spirit of dare. Without risk there is no reward.

California boasts 5 of the 50 classic big routes in the book, one of these the stunning line of Traveller Buttress 5.10b (E1/2 5c) at Lovers Leap certainly warranted a campfire celebration well into the previous night, but what of today? Late morning, battle wounds licked and taped, aching limbs still need exercise, inspiration has to strike, it’s time to play once more. Where better than Lovers Leap, the epitome for inspiration, the finest granite, with horizontal dykes like a huge Campus board and perfect sinker protection cracks (no bolt policy). This a place where climbers stand below the crag and visibly drool, gagging to touch it’s perfection. Way to the left of the imposingly vertical Traveller Buttress, on the shorter but equally steep East Wall, is a route called The Line, as it suggests, this 5.9 (HVS 5a) is described in the local guide as “one of the finest crack climbs anywhere, ideal for the dim witted”! It screams so straight for 600ft that as you pull up the finger crack, splitting the final roof at the top of the last pitch, you can spit between your legs and hopefully see it land on the marmots at the foot of the climb as they rip through your rucksack in search of fast-food. But, Bears Reach, the climb we’ve chosen to stumble towards with throbbing heads, ascends the wall to the left, gripping your attention even from a distance is a delicate alliance of flakes, steep walls, hanging grooves and cracks which finally peter out in shallow slabs amongst the majestic Redwoods that border the rim of the valley. Chosen by Dan Osmond for his 4 minute solo of the whole route in the stunning Speed Solo film. At 5.7 Bears Reach appears far bigger than its 4 pitches, from the base it appears more immense and even steeper, until finally at grips you realise it holds no punches running out a full rope on each pitch, 600ft of sustained vertical pleasure, no midget gem!

Once you’ve tied the marmot paws together, steep face climbing stuns you immediately into the prospects ahead, searching for hidden cracks and thin dykes, you wind backwards and forwards across the lower walls to a tiny perch belay with marginal anchors. The intimidating crux start to the second pitch is a near vertical fingery wall, a 30ft stretch to the first decent runner below a roof exaggerates the potential tandem flying lesson with you and your belayer into the landing zone 200ft below as the marginal belay rips. “Watch me, just bloody watch me, keep the rope slack it’s dragging me offfff…..actually it’s not that bad you’ll be all right, honest!” Once at the comfort of a good runner the Bears Reach is a thug move over the roof on huge hand sculptured holds opening the path ahead, a fantastic corner system of finger jams, pulling on layaway flakes, bridging wildly above the abyss and with protection that begs to look after you every step of the way, the prize for the necessary determined effort below, NOW’s the time to relax and enjoy. For me a mid afternoon start in fine weather always captures the best part of any day, fanatically boring early birds miss out, and a perfect California High Sierra evening is no exception, mellow-ness to be savoured. As we pad up the final slabs the sun dips through the trees on the opposite rim of the valley. In the valley the temperature has already started to drop triggering off rising air pockets loaded with the hypnotic aroma of Juniper bushes, pine sap. A true mountain atmosphere perfect for ‘topping out’ on the best VS in the world, time for another late night celebration around the camp fire me thinks!

Published in 1979 it seems ridiculous that a mere 50 climbs represented a Continent that boasts Himalayan scale peaks, deserts, one of the longest rivers and highest rock walls on the globe, but also routes of less than a 1,000ft weren’t even included, such was the kudos and demand for big and scary in those days. Alas, 50 Classic climbs in North America will never be reprinted and unless Steve Ashton gets the nod or Paul Williams gets reincarnated nor will it be revamped into a much needed modern CLASSIC 100, adding 50 bomber Trad’ routes under 1,000ft. Be assured if you visit the west coast to climb Bears Reach has to be the finest mid grade trad’ route I’ve yet encountered and certainly - Californication at its finest.

Stuart Cathcart.


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