Roadtrip Part 2: Smith Rocks to Lake Tahoe

October 22—Lava Beds National Monument, CA

After six straight days of climbing at Smith Rocks we left this afternoon and motored south through fields of sagebrush. A melancholy feeling filled the car.

We were leaving a place we had grown to love but had barely explored. We had climbed many beautiful and difficult lines up the pocketed stone, including a multi-pitch traditional route called “Moscow” that ascended steep cracks on Red Wall, and a slightly overhanging pitch called “How Low Can You Go?” on a solitary block called Rope De Dope. We had come face to face with a baby rattlesnake and lived to tell the tale. (As Freya was lowering me down a route called “Bunny Face” she noticed the snake hiding in a shadowy cave in front of her. At that moment, my immense weight began pulling her towards the rock and she screamed, “Holy Shit! Rattlesnake!” I was sure she was going to drop me. Thankfully a nearby guide grabbed the belt of her harness and prevented her from being pulled into the snake. A Brazilian climber shooed the snake away with a Stick Clip and we continued climbing not long after that, slightly shaken.) We had met wonderful people from Slovenia, Brazil, California. We had improved our strength, sharpened our skills, and focused our minds. We had experienced the variety and quality that Smith is all about.

At the same time, there were still hundreds of routes left to climb. They were all aesthetic and inspiring. They were warm and steep and challenging. We were not finished at Smith, yet we were leaving.

Walking down the river valley towards some incredible climbing.
Sunset behind Smith.
The deadly rattler rearing it’s head.
Unknown climber on very difficult climb.

The wheels spun and the odometer ticked away miles. We started listening to a book on tape about Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition down the uncharted River of Doubt in the Amazon. Our adventure paled in comparison to his. The people of that era were harder than we’ll ever be. We made our last gas station stop in Oregon, sitting in the car while the attendant filled the tank. We ate dinner at Applebee’s in Klamath Falls because we couldn’t find anything better. The general manager gave us our appetizer on the house because he was from Washington and I was rooting for the Huskies who were playing Stanford on primetime. The servings were too big to eat so we took the leftovers in Styrofoam and drove into the night.

Crossing the California border by moonlight, we drove south and then turned right into the Modoc National Forest. It was too dark to see the lava fields, but street signs promised caves, towers and camping. The road wound on forever. The park gates were unmanned when we drove through. The campground was filled with RVs and Boy Scout groups. We hung our tent under a lonely tree and threw our sleeping bags inside. Now we’re brushing our teeth and cozying up for the night. I’m excited to wake up in a new place. Night obscures the dry wilderness from our view. What will morning reveal?

Racked for crack.  
Intrepid explorers discover spelunking.
Another incredible sunset.

October 24—Kings Beach, CA

This would be an amazing place to spend the winter. Evenings are frosty. Orange and brown leaves fill every yard. Afternoon sunshine paints Lake Tahoe gold and the sand feels hot between the toes. We arrived yesterday and, already, we want to spend a lifetime.

After a morning spent exploring the humid depths of an endless cave at Lava Beds National Monument, we piled into the Subaru and chased the sunshine south. We crossed train tracks, passed through rundown towns full of broken windows, and rustled the roadside sagebrush going 80mph. Roosevelt’s adventure continued just as ours unfolded. His son, Kermit, had a brush with death in a series of intense rapids as we filled the gas tank in Reno and bought ice cream sandwiches at the mini mart. We departed California, arrived in Nevada, and then returned to California on a different road. Officials asked if we carried fresh vegetables or fruit. Our cooler was full of them but they didn’t have to know.

Soaking in a hot spring near Bridgeport, CA.

Freya called her friend Robyn, who lives with her boyfriend, Kit, in Kings Beach on the west shore of Lake Tahoe. We knocked on their door but no one answered. We heard voices in the yard out back. Discarded materials, old bicycles, copper tubing, and eclectic automobiles surprised both Freya and I when we peeked around the corner, but Robyn and Kit welcomed us with wine, fire, and burritos. As it turns out, Kit is completely remodeling his house and the interior is beginning to take shape. He is installing radiant heat in the floors. The kitchen has bird’s eye maple cabinets. We talked carpentry, climbing, skiing, and adventure, sitting around the fire until it was too cold for imagination.

Kit left early for work the next day. Robyn and her dog, Pork Chop, took us to a rock formation called Big Chief. We warmed up on two steep but juggy 5.9s and gradually increased the difficulty of the climbs as the day went on. Robyn and I both led a 5.10a sport route and she continued pushing harder into the afternoon. The day culminated with a 5.10d that left us all pumped out and satisfied.

Pork Chop (A.K.A. Porkie, Pig, Piggie, Porker)
Robyn leads a climb at Big Chief.
Robyn making the crux look easy.  
Author making an easier crux look much harder.

From the belay, we could glimpse the manicured hillsides of Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows ski resorts. Robyn talked powder and carving and avalanches. I imagined pristine slopes, floated on flakes as light as air, painted trenches in the groves. These dreams replaced the throbbing memories of the routes we had just climbed and my emotions levitated higher and higher, into the twilight.

We’re comfy and warm here in the guest bedroom, a trailer behind the house perched amongst brick and sheet rock. The cushions are soft. The neighborhood is quiet. My stomach is full of curry and quinoa. My head is full of powder and granite.


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