Roadtrip Part 4: Sport Climbing in Owens River Gorge and Driving Through Death Valley

November 4—Bishop, CA

Evenings grew colder, announcing November. While we cooked dinner, a storm brewed in the twilight. Each frigid gust was stronger than the last. The wind soon pulled our stakes from the dusty ground and we were obliged to strike the tent. We packed it haphazardly into the driver’s seat, lay our pads down in the rear of the car and closed the hatchback.

The car rocks gently in the gusts, but it’s quiet inside. We are warm and cozy, if a bit confined. Freya edits photos and video while I write. Each photo tells a thousand-word story of adventure. There are so many stories to tell.

We’ve been camping near Bishop and climbing in the Owens River Gorge for the past three days. Without a guidebook, we relied on instinct and other’s generosity to find the climbing area. The first day we drove gravel roads north of town, U-turning at dead ends and peering into the deep canyon, until we spotted a parking area filled with Toyota trucks, grubby vans and a dusty Subaru. An older couple soon appeared at the corner of the parking lot, where the approach trail began, and Freya bluntly asked them if she could take photos of their guidebook. They happily suggested a few walls that might sate our ambitions and let Freya capture the details with her camera.

Morning near Bishop.
Eating dinner. Pasta with red sauce.
Fresh snow on the mountains.
Trying to wake up on a cold morning.

The rock here is so different than Yosemite. Faces are steep and pockmarked; holds are numerous and slick. My forearms were pumped after a single climb because it felt like my fingers and toes were about to slip off every feature. Freya had the same trouble, but problems are quickly solved through cooperation. Thanks to some unlikely companions, today it felt like we finally figured out the rock

Three Canadian women—a mother and two daughters—have been tailing us across the country. I chatted with one of them while washing dishes in the basin at Smith Rocks. I glimpsed her again at Camp 4 in Yosemite. And we ran into them a third time, climbing in the sun on China Wall in the center of the Gorge. We’ve been sharing leads and sharing ropes since then, which is good for Freya and I because they climb harder than we do.

Their journey and their goals are nearly identical to ours: have fun, enjoy life, learn, grow, adventure. I talked with the mother, Tanya, as we both belayed one afternoon. She told me she had lost her husband recently and her closest friend to cancer not long after. She said it was a “wake up call.” She realized what she had been missing out on in life. She wanted to really live. The way she said “live” made me realize that she really meant it. I could tell how much she loved to see her daughters climb, and how much she loved to climb the same routes right after them.

Tanya’s story is rare and inspiring. Freya and I fit tidily into a sub culture of young climbers living frugally and enjoying the road. Tanya gave up her 9-to-5, sold the farm, and struck out. She made the choice to change her life. Few people are so courageous.

Tanya’s daughter, Tina, belays Steve in Owens River Gorge.
Pat climbs a problem in the Happy Boulders.
Jeff attempts a V1.
Working on another dinner with salad already prepared.

It’s getting cold in the car now and the windows are fogging from our breath. The light from the computer screen is hurting my eyes. The second toe on my right foot is blistered and swollen from being jammed into climbing shoes for too many days in a row. My cuticles are ravaged, caked with chalk and rope grease. Maybe we’ll take a rest day tomorrow. Maybe. It’s hard to stop when there is such a wealth of climbing to be done. Will Tanya and her daughters take a day off? I somehow doubt it. I expect we’ll see them tomorrow, chasing the sun to the warmest walls of the deep and pockmarked gorge.

November 6—Death Valley National Park, CA

We’re 100 feet below sea level and I’m still not warm. Winter creeps south and we creep with it, accomplices in the burglary of summer. In June, Death Valley has an average high temperature of 115-degrees. It’s not close to that now. Where has the heat gone? Freya and I want to feel real heat one more time before winter settles in. It was night when we arrived and, although the air lacked the bitterness to which we had grown accustomed, it was still too cold to take off my long johns. We’re curled up in our sleeping bags in the back of the car now. RVs surround us, their generators whirring. An eerie country vocalist is singing in Furnace Creek, the village next to our campsite, and the music reverberates throughout the entire valley. Freya thinks its religious. I think its just country.

Our last few days in Bishop consisted of sport climbing, bouldering and hot springing. Freya and I each led a route in Owens River Gorge on Friday morning before it started to snow. When the flakes began sticking we hiked out of the Gorge and drove north, following a map that a stranger in Yosemite had rudimentarily drawn in my notebook. Driving for a solid hour on a maze of dirt roads, we finally discovered a single hot pool and commenced to soak our sore bodies until our fingers wrinkled and our faces glowed.

The next day we met Natalie and Jeff, young climbers from Bend, Oregon who just so happened to be hiking towards the Happy Boulders at the same time we were. Since they had a crash pad and we did not, we asked if we could tag along. They said “Of course!” and we all worked out the hard problems together, grunting through overhangs and wincing through crimpers. That evening, Natalie and Jeff invited us to their hotel, the Ramada, which was equipped with a scalding hot tub and a rather cold pool. After soaking for a good hour, we took showers in their room and thanked them profusely for their generosity. Freya and I were still warm inside when we went to sleep that night.

Cooking breakfast in a parking lot.
Airborne in Badwater Basin.
Geology lessons.
Bad Water.
Old Borax Works in Death Valley.
Lowest point of exposed land in the United States. Badwater Basin.
Barren landscape.

Sunday morning was spent in Starbucks using the free Wi-Fi to respond to neglected e-mails and catch up with what had been happening in the real world. Then we drove, drove, drove through the desert, the parched hillsides, the rundown reservation towns. As night flooded the salt flats, we finished our book on tape, and turned into a dusty campground.

We’ve climbed every day for the past week, except today. I think the sitting has taken a harder toll on my body than has the climbing. Tomorrow promises more sitting. We’re heading to Joshua Tree National Park and, since daylight savings time has kicked in, it will probably be dark by the time we get there. No matter. I know what the rock looks like. I know it’s gritty and bulbous and clean. I just hope it’s warm as well. There must be a little bit of summer left, hidden amongst the yuccas, woven into the roots of the Dr. Seuss trees.

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