Bouldering in Bishop
California, USA

Bouldering in Bishop - California, USA (© A. Gatta)
Bouldering in Bishop - California, USA (© A. Gatta)

Introduction to Bishop

When it comes to bouldering, Bishop is probably one of the best places in the World but its reputation of highballs may scare many climbers. When we started thinking about bouldering there, we were wondering if we could enjoy it and survive two weeks of intense climbing. After a memorable trip there, we definitively can answer yes to these two questions!

If Buttermilks highballs fascinate and well deserve their scary reputation, there are tons of world class problems that are not so high and have good landing. In fact, you can even send hundreds of problems and traverses without having your feet above 2 meters from the ground.

With over 2,000 problems recorded and even more unrecorded or unclimbed, the potential is phenomenal. Add to that a favorable weather 7 months a year (October to May), an easy access and many lodging options and you will understand why Bishop is a top bouldering destination. Keep in mind though that you may need some time to "acclimatize" to the elevation, temperature, style of rock and eventually jetlag...

Buttermilks area, Bishop (© P. Gatta)
Buttermilks area, Bishop (© P. Gatta)

Lodging and weather

Bishop is located in the Eastern Sierra region of California, at northern end of the Owens Valley, halfway between Death Valley and Yosemite. Big cities like Los Angeles and Las Vegas are about 435 km (270 miles) away, while Reno is at 320 km (200 miles). There are about 10,000 people leaving in Bishop area with many lodging, dinning and shopping possibilities. In our case, we decided to stay in Mammoth Lake which is halfway between Bishop and Yosemite.

Bishop is at an elevation of 1,260 m (4,150 feet) and has an arid climate with limited precipitation and important diurnal and annual temperature variations. The best months for climbing are between October and May. We were there early October and could climb from the sunrise (7°C) to 1pm (37°C). The temperatures remained high in the evening and the boulders were too hot to climb. The good thing though, is that with variety of areas, elevations, sun exposition, caves...it is possible to climb within this range of temperature.

Anna in Mothership Connected, V6. Ice Cave, Sad Boulders (© P. Gatta)
Anna in Mothership Connected, V6. Ice Cave, Sad Boulders (© P. Gatta)

The guidebook and the grades

Trying to understand and use a guidebook is sometimes harder than sending the routes or problems it describes. This is not the case here and the Bishop Guidebook from Wills Young and Mick Ryan is one of the best I have seen. Almost the weight and thickness of a crash pad, its 428 pages and countless photos perfectly shows the problems, access and all necessary information. A must.

Figuring out the problems... (© A. Gatta)
Figuring out the problems... (© A. Gatta)

Over the years, I noticed that climbers often have two passions in common: the loves for rocks and... polemics about grades. Once again, I must say that the grades given in Wills and Mick's guidebook seemed pretty accurate to us with a few comments though. It is in the grade V5 that we found the most discrepancies. Some V5 were more like V3 and some others harder than V7. All other grades seemed more consistent. It also depends on how famous the problems are, some became so polished that they are getting harder and harder. Lastly it may be worth checking hold breakages.

No polemics please (© A. Gatta)
No polemics please (© A. Gatta)

The different areas

Even though we all say Bishop, there are in fact multiple bouldering areas, which are anywhere from 11 km (7 miles) to 50 km (30 miles) away from Bishop city. They are also at different elevations; from 1,370 m (4,500 feet ) for Happy and Sad Boulders, up to 2,620 m (8,500 feet) for Rock Creek. Some areas are somehow in forests (Rock Creek) while some other are fully exposed to the sun (Happy and Sad Boulders). The nature of the rock varies also; from volcanic tuff (Happy and Sad Boulders) to granite (Rock Creek). This great variety is another asset of Bishop and makes it easier to play around with the weather and temperatures.


Map of the the different areas


West rim of Happy Boulders (© A. Gatta)
West rim of Happy Boulders (© A. Gatta)

Happy Boulders

Among the different areas, Happy Boulders is where we spent most time and it is probably our preferred place for the quality of problems. Happy Boulders is easily accessible and just 11 km (7 miles) from Bishop. There is a good parking place and the access to the first boulders take less than 10 minutes.

Happy Boulders area, Bishop (© P. Gatta)
Happy Boulders area, Bishop (© P. Gatta)

There are over 500 problems there, all located in a small canyon that is 600 m long by 80 m wide. The rock is volcano tuff which sometimes requires some attention. There are many boulders in the center of the canyon plus many problems on both rims. Overall the climbing style of the boulders in the center of the canyon is very similar and the boulders are of different heights with good landing most of the time. The West rim has many more pocket problems with some awesome traverses, while the East rim has tricky landings and some scary problems.

Acid Wash Right, V9. Acid Wash Cave, Happy Boulders (© A. Gatta)
Acid Wash Right, V9. Acid Wash Cave, Happy Boulders (© A. Gatta)

The canyon is very dry, hot and dusty. Fortunately, it is easy to play around with the boulder expositions, caves and rims to find the best conditions depending on the temperatures and seasons.

Amazing traverse of Hand to Hand combat, V7. The West Rim, Happy Boulders (© A. Gatta)
Amazing traverse of Hand to Hand combat, V7. The West Rim, Happy Boulders (© A. Gatta)

The flip side of all these advantages is that many problems are very polished, especially the ones with 3 or 4 stars in the guidebook. That makes some problems very hard for their grades, especially by hot days. Sometimes we had more fun climbing problems without stars or not even in the guidebook than climbing totally polished classics.

Groundwater, V5. More Water Less Power Boulder, Happy Boulders (© P. Gatta)
Groundwater, V5. More Water Less Power Boulder, Happy Boulders (© P. Gatta)

Our preferred problems in Happy Boulders area

Weekender, V4. Slow Dance Cave, Happy Boulders (© A. Gatta)
Weekender, V4. Slow Dance Cave, Happy Boulders (© A. Gatta)

The Queen of Savannah boulder. Good problems up to V4. Happy Boulders (© P. Gatta)
The Queen of Savannah Boulder. Good problems up to V4. Happy Boulders (© P. Gatta)

Of course there are many more great problems. Also there are some very famous ones that are not in this list, mainly because we found them too polished (Hulk, Redrum...)

Dance The Night Away, V11. Slow Dance Cave, Happy Boulders (© A. Gatta)
Dance The Night Away, V11. Slow Dance Cave, Happy Boulders (© A. Gatta)

Sad Boulders

Pretty much everything we wrote about Happy Boulders is true for Sad Boulders.

Looking toward Bishop with the Sierra Nevada in the background (© A. Gatta)
Looking toward Bishop with the Sierra Nevada in the background (© A. Gatta)

The parking is 1.3 km away along the same road. The canyon is a bit smaller, around 400 m long by 50 m wide. The boulders are a bit more messy, often on top of each other which makes the landing sometimes dangerous and walking around with the pad...interesting.

Walking with the pads in the chaos of Sad Boulders (© P. Gatta)
Walking with the pads in the chaos of Sad Boulders (© P. Gatta)

The Sad's has 250 problems with some masterpieces, especially in the caves. Climbing in these caves is a good way to escape the heat or the snow but we wonder sometimes why the hell did we travel thousands of kilometers to spend the day, laid down in the dust, below a boulder without even seeing the sky...

Taking a break in the Ice Cave, Sad Boulders (© A. Gatta)
Taking a break in the Ice Cave, Sad Boulders (© A. Gatta)

Our preferred problems in Sad Boulders area

Honalee, V8. Dragon Cave, Sad Boulders (© A. Gatta)
Honalee, V8. Dragon Cave, Sad Boulders (© A. Gatta)

Note that we haven't climbed in Strength in Numbers Boulder which seems to have nice problems.

Cow skull, V5. Cow Skull Boulder, Sad Boulders (© P. Gatta)
Cow skull, V5. Cow Skull Boulder, Sad Boulders (© P. Gatta)

We really enjoyed the Ice caves, lots of good problems, totally in the shade all day. We wish we could have spent more time there.

Water Hazard Right Start, V9. Passageway, Sad Boulders (© P. Gatta)
Water Hazard Right Start, V9. Passageway, Sad Boulders (© P. Gatta)

Mothership Has Left Sit Start, V8. Passageway, Sad Boulders (© A. Gatta)
Mothership Has Left Sit Start, V8. Passageway, Sad Boulders (© A. Gatta)

Buttermilk Country

After Happy and Sad Boulders, Buttermilk Country is our third preferred bouldering area. Buttermilk Country region lies at 2,450 m (8,000 feet), East of the Sierra Nevada and 16 km (10 miles) of Bishop.

Buttermilks (© A. Gatta)
Buttermilks (© A. Gatta)

It is the largest bouldering area with around 1,000 problems and very good landing most of the time. This place is beautiful with open views over the mountains, meadows and its amazing giant boulders.

Roadside Rail, V3. Roadside Boulder, Buttermilks (© A. Gatta)
Roadside Rail, V3. Roadside Boulder, Buttermilks (© A. Gatta)

The trails between the boulders are easy and nice.

The Flake, Smooth Shrimp Boulder, Buttermilks (© P. Gatta)
The Flake, Smooth Shrimp Boulder, Buttermilks (© P. Gatta)

Why Buttermilk Country is only our third choice then? Simply because there are many highballs and we found that Happy and Sad's problems have more variety in climbing styles.

Smooth Shrimp, V6. Smooth Shrimp Boulder, Buttermilks (© P. Gatta)
Smooth Shrimp, V6. Smooth Shrimp Boulder, Buttermilks (© P. Gatta)

Our preferred problems of Buttermilks

Gleaming The Cube, V8. Cave Boulder, Buttermilks (© P. Gatta)
Gleaming The Cube, V8. Cave Boulder, Buttermilks (© P. Gatta)

We only climbed in the main one, Buttermilks (Peabodies) but Buttermilk Country has a few other areas and many boulders that we have not tried.

Amazing features of Grandma boulder (© A. Gatta)
Amazing features of Grandma Boulder (© A. Gatta)

Rock Creek

Rock Creek is totally different from the other areas. No more volcanic tuff, desert heat and sand, welcome to some nice granite boulders in a nice forest of Pines and Aspens. At an elevation of 2620 m (8,500 feet), Rock Creek is perfect for the hot days. It is located 40 km North of Bishop and there is a camping nearby as well as lodges (Tom's place resort, Rock Creek Lodge...).

Small bridge betwen the Campground boulder and the other boulders (© P. Gatta)
Small bridge betwen the Campground boulder and the other boulders (© P. Gatta)

There are 11 boulders and around 70 problems and the majority above V5. The climbing style is different, mainly on crimps, slopers and aretes which changes from the aggressive volcanic tuff.

Figuring out Slap Wallick, V6. Campground Boulder, Rock Creek (© A. Gatta)
Figuring out Slap Wallick, V6. Campground Boulder, Rock Creek (© A. Gatta)

Our preferred problems in Rock Creek

One Move Blunder variation, V3. Clearcut boulder, Rock Creek (© A. Gatta)
One Move Blunder variation, V3. Clearcut boulder, Rock Creek (© A. Gatta)

Sherwin Plateau - Pocketopia

The Sherwin Plateau is very close to Rock Creek, on the East side of the highway 395. The Plateau is beautiful and quiet with Pines, sparse vegetation and amazing views over the Eastern Sierra. At an elevation of 2,230 meters (7,300 feet) it is cooler than Happy and Sad boulders.

Amazing views from Pocketopia, Sherwin Plateau (© P. Gatta)
Amazing views from Pocketopia, Sherwin Plateau (© P. Gatta)

There are four areas, two on each side of the Owens River Gorge; Pocketopia, The Dreamers, The Alcove and The Catacombs. In addition to these 4 areas there are tons of boulders everywhere waiting for first ascents. We only climbed in Pocketopia that we describe here. The rock is volcanic tuff, highly pocketed like in the West Rim of Happy boulders.

If you don't like pockets, your are in trouble (© A. Gatta)
If you don't like pockets, your are in trouble (© A. Gatta)

The boulders are 100 meters away from the parking and very close to one another with good landing most of the time. The majority of problems are below V5 and many of them are really nice.

Shiva rising, V4. Everything and nothing boulder, Pocketopia (© P. Gatta)
Shiva rising, V4. Everything and nothing boulder, Pocketopia (© P. Gatta)

Our preferred problems at Pocketopia

Amazing views from Pocketopia, Sherwin Plateau (© P. Gatta)
Frankie says, V5 (traverse). Maximum joy boulder, Pocketopia (© P. Gatta)

Conclusion

We must admit that we were pretty miserable at the beginning of this trip, struggling on most problems, even easiest ones. We probably underestimated the impact of the heat, altitude, specific climbing style, boulders heights and the jetlag. Fortunately we optimized our recovery (muscles and skin) by climbing two days in a row and running the third one. Finally we climbed 12 days over a 3 weeks period, happy to send over 150 problems up to V11. We really enjoyed Bishop, the variety of problems, style, rock and areas. We were sad to leave with so many projects everywhere and knowing that we touched less than 10% of the recorded problems! We definitively have to come back, probably later in the season for another crazy 3 weeks.

I'll be back... (© A. Gatta)
I'll be back... (© A. Gatta)


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