"a very Bishop Christmas.."
by : Matt Keebler
photos : http://blerphoto.blogspot.com
Bishop in winter means different things to different people. To climbers it means bouldering season! Bishop is most popular late in January or February when the temps start to get warmer, but my favorite week is Christmas week.
I choose this time because the people are great. Only the die-hard brave twenty-degree weather for perfect climbing conditions at the Buttermilks. The people are here because they love the outdoors and are willing to give up family time for a great outdoor experience!
Arriving well before Christmas at 'The Pit', the local climbers' campground, I had first dibs on sites. Choosing one that provides a blockade from the harsh winter wind makes getting there early all the better. This campground is called 'The Pit' for good reason. Any old topo maps before 1980 will show this area as a 'gravel pit'. After discovering that people were already camping in the pit, the Bureau of Land Management took put in pit toilets and created an official campground.
The Pit hosts a collection of dirt-bag climbers, some local, some foreign, and some just looking for a cheap place to live for 60 days. This year as I woke up early the first morning to take photos and walk the dog, I noticed about 7 cars with B.C. (British Columbia) plates! Later that morning I met a large group of Squamish locals out for the week, who would become great friends and climbing partners.
Most will wonder why someone would spend a family holiday like Christmas in such a remote part of the country. Everyone is so happy to be outdoors and breathing the fresh air, we couldn't care less about the rest of the world. On Christmas day we all spent a great day climbing in the Buttermilks basking in the sun, bouldering and enjoying life.
Some are so die-hard that they visit Bishop a few times a week, driving all the way from the Redwood coast, travelling a god-awful 1,500 miles and 26 hours just to call Bishop a 'local spot'. One climber that I met had been there for a week and had to head home to visit family for the holiday. I said my fare-well to a new good friend. Two days later, he arrived back from his thousand-mile trip ready to get on his projects.
It is hard to describe the experience of bouldering in Bishop in the winter. S&M comes to mind first and the next thing that comes to mind is numbness! It is a constant battle to keep the toes and hands warm and still climb.
The majority of people are glad to suffer this for the sake of world-class bouldering on very diverse rock. The rock consists mainly of volcanic and granite, with complete opposites in climbing styles. Granite areas consist of both beautiful orange and green patina that is a pleasure to climb on, and usually provides quite technical climbing. Volcanic rock provides a much stronger climbing experience, with steeper rock.
Bouldering at one of the popular areas is quite an experience. I usually relate it to climbing in the gym. Some of the popular boulders will have at least 10 crash pads lined up to provide a 20'x20' landing zone! This can be nice. I can always find a great spot, plenty of pads to work on your newest project, and a crowd to help me on. Sometimes I do not like climbing with a slew of people and want to be alone with a boulder. As much as these popular areas get traffic (Buttermilk’s, Happy’s, Sad’s), there are other areas that are not as easily accessed. The Druid Stones have a good concentration of some of the best rock in Bishop, although the 45 minute uphill hike deters many! There are also many other undeveloped or very lightly developed areas.
I love going to Bishop for photography, because it is a very beautiful and photogenic place. On this trip, I caught a beautiful sunset as I drove up the 395 towards Mono Lake.
I had hoped to get some decent shots of the sun setting behind Mono Lake tufa, but wasn't able to make it on time. I watched the sunset as I drove, and it only got better and better. I had to stop to take some photos that would include the mountains. So I pulled off at the next turn, planning to drive around a hill to get a better shot. As I drove, I came upon a shanty-town, which I decided to avoid for my own safety. So I pulled off and decided to use an old broken down corral as foreground interest. I heard people from the shanty-town on radios talking about me, making me quite worried. I did my best to shoot and run the hell out of there! I was able to grab a great photo and a once in a lifetime photography experience.
Conditions for photography in Bishop are about as good as it can get, which is why I return every year to take photos of the beautiful sunrises over Mt. Tom and sunsets over the White Mountains. The solitude and light move me in an almost spiritual way, it is for me an enlightening experience and to photograph it is something I appreciate being able to do and share.
After a hard day of climbing, a pizza and a cold beer, the next thing I do is find one of the natural hot springs. These appear everywhere on the Eastside, from Mono Lake all the way down the Owens Valley. There are trails of natural thermal vent hot springs all along the Owens River. Some of these have been built up to be commercial bath-houses (like the Keho Hot Springs). The bath-tub style dams (probably built in the 60s) are harder to find.
I keep returning because I believe that Bishop is one of the most beautiful places on earth and provides a playground for outdoor enthusiasts, especially climbers and photographers like me. Bishop feels to be the new hot spot of a movement not seen or heard of in the climbing community since the days Mari, Yabo, Long and others, with their closely-knit group of friends and die-hard climbers just out to have fun in Joshua Tree, the epicenter of climbing in their time. Other places, like Hueco Tanks, can't compare with Bishop because they lack the adventure and freedom that can be found in the Owens Valley.