Cooler temps signal the beginning of our favorite time of year and inspire thoughts of climbing trips past, present, and future.
By Joseph Legotte
As October ambles by, one cannot help but incessantly check the weather reports in constant hope for numbers in the 50’s or 60’s. Regardless of how many times a week you type “Buttermilks” into climbingweather.com, the knowledge that Halloween weekend will likely host the first trip of the season is the ever-present thought. The training that was—or was supposed to be—completed over summer looms as the thought of hard sends and completed projects form in the mind. Doubts and uncertainties about strength and fitness weigh down as a childlike eagerness fights against it. The rock awaits and for those like me who unfortunately forget to climb outdoors over the summer, the anticipation is insurmountable.
“There are a multitude of contributing factors that synergistically enable climbing as an activity to provide much more to us than the superficial movement. If climbing was done solely for the physicality it would not hold such sway with us.”
The first trip of the season reinvigorates a state of mind which surpasses the simplicity nestled within the physical side of climbing. This mindset crept back into me during the drive up to Bishop as we neared the town of Lone Pine on the 395. The Eastern Sierras had finally revealed their paramount magnificence and the mileage signs with “Bishop” in reflective white plastered on neon green decreased at a seemingly accelerated rate. In less than an hour I knew I’d drive past the golf course on the outskirts of town, past the local haunts of many a visiting climber: Schats, Black Sheep, Great Basin, Gear Exchange, and around the gentle left bend in the road that turns and heads straight towards the mountains. I had returned. It was all happening again and soon I was to be graced with all the grandeur that the Eastern Sierras offer.
I must say, the climbing part of the trip was fantastic (as it usually is). I felt stronger than ever on the rock, and pushed high points on many of my projects. However, rather than dive into specifics and countless boring details regarding the elemental purity of the climbing in which I was engaged, I want to delve into that overall state of mind that undoubtedly accompanies us every time we embark on our climbing excursions. There are a multitude of contributing factors that synergistically enable climbing as an activity to provide much more to us than the superficial movement. If climbing was done solely for the physicality it would not hold such sway with us. Oftentimes in a gym setting it’s easy to forget that through climbing we can burrow into a deeper understanding and appreciation of the universe and the forces at play. Those who engage the geologic rock—in contrast to polyurethane substitutes—will discover much more than a mere physical or mental challenge. Aspects such as whereabouts, sleeping arrangements, food, and travel companions may seem fringe at best, but I would make the argument that it is precisely this accumulation of minor elements, events, and remembrances that coalesce to construct what is to be experienced as an enlightened joviality.
One cannot help but loathe—outwardly or secretly—the short hike up into the Happies. Nonetheless, it was the first place Rick and I arrived to after 6 hours in the car and a quick stop at local gas station, Giggle Springs, for water. Stopping there to fill up for water even promotes an element of comfort. I cannot help but note the startling power of the hand pump as it overfills my water bottles within seconds; the last rush waning slowly even after disengaging the pump; and the satisfaction in finally learning when to shut it off so as not to waste a drop. Each minute act seamlessly flowed into the next. It was like the beginning of weaving or crocheting a familiar pattern; a slow accumulation of experiences appeared and felt more and more intimate with each move.
Our next move was to pull onto Chalk Bluff Road which leads into the Volcanic Tablelands. Taking that first turn onto it produces instant happiness. Winding down the bumpy dirt road fills one with anticipation, as each bend invigorates a desire to see the lone porta-potty with cars lined past it. Pads are thrown out of the cars, limbs stretched, and gear is subsequently crammed into the pads which are then hoisted onto backs. The gritty sand slides between your sandals and feet as each step takes you a tiny bit further toward the cluster of awaiting volcanic boulders. Enough visits warrants recognition of familiar turns in the path and the procession of boulders that lead up and into the long, gently northwest-curving canyon. It was time to finally resume the life I had longed for all summer—the life as a climber in Bishop.
The solitary, circular beam of my headlamp illuminates a path across the campground at night, flirting back and forth with the gentle bobbing of my head, disappearing occasionally for stolen glances at the Milky Way that stretches and bends across the horizons, soon to be outshone by the rising moon to the east. Orion—one of my most beloved friends and bearer of the fall climbing season stands stately above—reflects another 23 seemingly solitary beams of light amalgamating into form and myth.
Camping is likely one of the only times people are okay to don a head lamp intent on traipsing to a potentially potent pit toilet in the ever enveloping darkness. I cannot reiterate how intensely I realized in that first nighttime trip to what I can only assume to be the namesake of the campground, that it was precisely my head lamp’s circularity upon the dusty, trodden ground that produced a distinct vitality and enthusiasm to be back in Bishop. It sparked a stream of thoughts on which I dwelled for the rest of the trip. This inspired me to make note of the recurrent experiences I was having while concurrently engaging in a cognizant perception of my surrounds and the otherwise forgotten minutia that littered the trip.
“The simplicity of that neon sign functions as a beacon for all, gesticulating what the Bishop area holds not just in terms of climbing, but opportunities for worthwhile experiences beyond the rapacious sensuality with which we approach the rock.”
Suddenly, I could not but help love every single aspect of my time there because it was not only a tribute to past trips, but to future ones as well. Almost missing the green church on the way to the hot springs felt so appropriate. Running into coworkers and Mesa climbers alike was a new yet significant feeling in the Buttermilks. It all contributed something wonderful, whether it was sitting around the campfire as friends jammed on instruments; sleeping on my not-yet-broken-in crash pads; sharing food and eating in a voracious and slightly unhealthy manner; lounging in the delicate warmth of natural hot springs with the mountains and skies gleaming from overhead; or allowing myself to be lured into a night session in the Sads after an already full day of climbing on 4 hours of sleep and 6 hours of driving. I welcomed it all with ever widening arms. It astonishes me how so much can be accomplished with each trip; a surprising amount of excitement and pleasure can be packed into 3 days and 2 nights in Bishop—as long as you’re prepared to take full advantage of it.
Our penultimate stop on the way out was Burger Barn. Nothing in Bishop feels more deserved after a day or weekend of climbing than a great burger, fries, and shake. It’s unbeatable in my opinion when it comes to relatively inexpensive food in Bishop. It was there that I finally saw Kim, another front-desker, out there that weekend with her giant group of friends all packed into a rented 15-person van.
Much in similarity to the Pit or Blacksheep, Burger Barn is one of those communal meeting places where fellow climbers congregate after a day of hard climbing to relax, reflect, and relive. I tend to find equanimity when surrounded by friends new and old at the end of a climbing trip while waiting in line to order.
Burger Barn was one of the final reminders of everything that makes Bishop my favorite place to climb. It is all that I could want in a small-town eatery—the dingy feel of the walk-up window, the cheerfulness of the crew working there, satisfying food in appreciable quantities, and a medley of mismatched tables and seating arrangements strewn about the grounds.
I can recall vividly the bright neon, purplish glow of the open sign, espied far down the road at night driving back from the Milks. It’s shine radiates a warmth signaling a return to something civilized and comfortable. The simplicity of that neon sign functions as a beacon for all, gesticulating what the Bishop area holds not just in terms of climbing, but opportunities for worthwhile experiences beyond the rapacious sensuality with which we approach the rock. That neon light, the other solitary headlamps scattered about each night, the lustrousness of the celestial bodies made more accessible in the mountains, and the lights that are illuminated as the passions we each harbor as climbers, become intermingled and woven into the makings of what is and always will be, the finest climbing trips.