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May 28, 2020 4 min read

two climbers on a snow field with ice axes and crampons, mt. leConte, Sierra NevadaThe Eastern Sierra has taken its rightful place among the world’s favorite climbing destinations – Chamonix, France; Yosemite, California; The Tetons in Wyoming; even Patagonia in South America. So, why the draw? What’s so great about the Eastern Sierra for climbing?

The Eastern Sierra has long been known as a climbing Mecca - the history of climbing here probably goes back to pre historic times. Did ancient people of the region climb for pleasure? Certainly they reached summits for the view, to scout ahead and surveil. Petroglyph evidence that takes climbing skills to reach indicates that native people if not climbing for pleasure at least were willing and able to climb to access rock that made for good petroglyph making. Modern climbers came with the arrival of Europeans to the Valley, first for the purpose of surveying the area, later to be the first known person to climb the highest summits, later yet to climb the hardest and most direct routes to the tops. Eventually it became convenient if not wise to practice for the hard parts on shorter, climbs that were closer to town. Short “practice” climbs and bouldering evolved and now both have diverged to become ends of their own.

To non-climbers climbing probably seems like a strange thing to do. Why climb a rock? Certainly there are as many motivations as there are kinds types of climbing but getting that view, succeeding at a challenge, camaraderie, being fit, and getting out of town are all part of the draw. Like yoga, it’s fun to move your body in ways that stretch and challenge. Climbing is as much a puzzle as it is a wrestling match: the brain has to plan tactics, put together a sequence of moves and keep track of the big picture. News flash: very few climbers think of themselves daredevils or risk takers; climbing is actually very safe. I wholeheartedly believe that a day at the crags is far safer than a day driving in city traffic. When teaching climbing I often joke about how absurdly simple the climber’s safety system is: in essence: if you fall I catch you with the rope. I fall, you do the same for me. Protection that anchors the rope is placed and removed by the climbing team. Of course there are details, but that’s the essence. Bouldering is the highly gymnastic version of climbing that takes place on shorter climbs, without a rope, where the protection system is based on how high you climb – generally not high enough to sustain serious injury should a fall occur. Pads on the ground and a crew of “spotters” complete the bouldering safety system. Add a rope, lengthen the climbs a bit and pre-place the protection and that’s called sport climbing.

The Eastern Sierra’s list of classic climbing areas is as lengthy as it is diverse. The Happy Boulders, The Sad Boulders; The Druid Stones, Heaven; The Buttermilk and Grandma and Grandpa Boulder. The Palisades and Temple Crag. Charlotte Dome. The Ritter Range. The Evolution Traverse, Pine Creek Canyon... Climbers are as obsessive about naming formations and routes as the most dedicated baseball fan is about following stats, and it’s all kept track of in guidebooks. The stack of current and out of print climbing guides to the Eastern Sierra would reach floor to ceiling. On any given day in spring the license plates at the Happy Boulders tell a story: Colorado, New York, New Jersey, North Carolina, Alaska… and the obvious assortment of rental cars out of Vegas. Some days five or six languages can be heard. From multi day mega-long climbs to intensely difficult climbs no longer than 25’ in length and everything in between, when it comes to climbing, the Eastern Sierra has it all. Back to the question: what makes Eastern Sierra climbing so great?

The shear abundance of climbing is part of the answer, and with abundance comes diversity. With over twenty named mountain ranges within its boundaries, including the Sierra Nevada, geology has been generous to Inyo County. Up high in the Sierra climbers are attracted to what many have called “flawless” alpine granite. In places it has been smoothed by ancient glaciers, other times, exposed to the elements, fantastic knobs have weathered out; either scenario leaves a spectacular mountain experience with grand views, good protection, fun moves and generally easy climbing. Lower down, near the valleys, volcanic activity has left a rock called Welded Tuff – for climbers this makes for a playground of relatively short, steep rock full of pockets and edges, a regular wonderland of rock. To boulderers just a mention of the Happy Boulders, or the Buttermilk Country, both near Bishop, can make their hands sweat in anticipation.

Because of the elevation variation in the Eastern Sierra there’s climbing pretty much year round, expect perhaps for brief mid-winter cold snaps. So, for climbers there’s something for everyone in the Eastern Sierra. Feel more like a hike with a bit of climbing added in? Check out the Druid Stones. Too hot to go there? How ‘bout Heaven, up towards Mt. Humphreys. Want something a bit longer? The sport climbing in the Owens River Gorge is legendary. Longer yet, and perhaps cooler? Try out the abundant climbs of Pine Creek Canyon. Maybe some low-key top roping up in the cool air of Rock Creek Canyon? Check out Iris Slab. Ready for some backcountry climbing? Hundreds of “Sierra Classics” await your touch.