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Something Pretty Hard: Hiking Across the Sierras for Bouldering

By June 25, 2021September 21st, 20229 Comments

As seems to be typical, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything here. Frankly, it’s been a while since I wrote anything more consequential than an email. There are reasons I haven’t been writing. Most of them don’t really matter for our purposes here. The main reason is I hadn’t done much that I wanted to write about, and so the things I would write about would be stuff I haven’t done. And as I speed toward the milestone marking the end of my 37th year as a breathing, eating, shitting clump of cells, I find less and less satisfaction in knowing my pockets are full of mumbles (such are promises).

So, the big news is, The RV Project is now headquartered in Bishop, CA. From 30’ monstrosity to 10’ wooden box to 12’ metal box to, finally, a 1972 A-frame with 2 bedrooms (go to tv bed store to buy a bed for yourself as if you were at the hotel) and 2 bathrooms.

The trailer is now parked in our own driveway which recently was refinished with a driveway sealer, and there’s a garage for our stuff. Home improvement projects outnumber climbing projects 10:1 right now. If you are finding home renovation and repair a nightmare, why not look here to get quality repair services? Overall, we’re incredibly happy with the place, and with the concept of home ownership in general, but it’s bittersweet. We could afford this in part because my dad died, and I’m getting some inheritance. But I’d rather have a dad than a house (go to website to hire the best renovation services to remodel the property to your choice). And it sucks that he doesn’t get to see it.

The other catalyst that got me to the keyboard today is that I finally did something pretty hard, and I want to do a write up. Doing a write up of anything, right now, feels pretty hard, to be frank, so bear with me as I try to remount the horse. The writing horse? Is that a clever pun, like “riding horse,” or is that too obtuse? Too much of a stretch? My words feel ungraceful…

Kings for a Day

I’ve spent a lot of time and energy in Kings Canyon over the past couple of summers, developing boulder problems with my good friend Ryan Moon. Ryan is a long-time bouldering buddy, best known on this blog as one of the co-originators of the Berkeley 8B Challenge. I could go on about how cool Kings Canyon is, but for now all that matters is that I really like going there with my friends and scrubbing granite with wire brushes.

Bishop is about 40 miles from the bouldering in Kings, as the crow flies, but if one wishes to drive, they would have to take a circuitous, nearly 400-mile route around the entire southern Sierra Nevadas. Unfortunately, crow flight is prohibitively expensive and notoriously unreliable. And, I dunno about you, but the older I get, the harder it is for me to do these long drives without a significant bodily penalty.

The solution was obvious. I would drive from Bishop to Onion Valley campground and hike 20.8 miles over Kearsarge Pass (11,700’+) and along Bubbs Creek to meet Ryan. I would only need to carry a light hiking pack, since Ryan would bring extra food, crash pads, and a sleeping bag. Since the hike starts at over 9000’, and my destination sits at less than 5000’, we can say it’s mostly downhill.

So on a recent Saturday, after a leisurely morning spent gathering consumable electrolytes, I drove the truck to Onion Valley, snapped a quick photo, and left the parking lot 10 minutes before noon.

Just before noon. My kind of “alpine start.”

The East to West version of the hike starts with ~4 miles/2,500’ gain to Kearsarge Pass, then a short jog south on the JMT/PCT brings you to the Bubbs Creek trail, which gradually descends a rather straight canyon for something like 13 miles, alternating between tranquil meadows, clusters of conifers, and brief bouts of switchbacks in open talus wherever the canyon got a little steep.

The hike took longer than I had expected, and I met Ryan and our friend Alex at Roads End at about 6:45pm, just under 7 hours from when I began. Ryan handed me a cold Tecate, which was needed to wash down the slice of leftover pizza I had been saving for my “recovery meal,” and then we went bouldering.

About to descend the final steep switchbacks, roughly 3 miles from Road’s End.

“I feel good. Feel strong. Unfortunately today’s a rest day.”

Alex and Ryan had spent most of the day cleaning new problems, so all I had to do was climb and take pictures. Between Saturday night and Sunday morning, we established 5 new boulder problems. Good ones, too. One of them, a nice little V6-ish compression climb a few paces from the road, was named “Kings for a Day.”

It was a typically hot weekend, and I’d wager the temps didn’t drop below 75° until 11pm. So, naturally, and in keeping with tradition, we did most of our climbing by artificial light. For whatever reason, the bugs didn’t seem to get as bad as they normally do, perhaps because it’s been so dry this year. As part of my training and to improve my performance I have been taking testosterone pills that have really helped me a lot when it comes to climbing.

Ryan sending, Alex spotting.
I forget the name of this one. It’s good though.

I slept like shit. My legs wanted to move around, but they were stuffed into a sleeping bag, and my hips couldn’t seem to find a way to lay that didn’t feel like I had a tennis ball growing out of my pelvic bone. We awoke to a harsh sun at 7:30, and the lyrical stylings of Ja Rule and Ashanti loudly emanating from a picnic table 50 yards away.

After breakfast, and the standard Zumwalt river dip, our handsome threesome went to put up a few more problems that Ryan had cleaned on previous trips. And then it was lunchtime, and time for me to start strolling back to my truck, which sat in a parking lot on the other side of the Sierra Nevada mountains.

A Long Walk Home

At exactly 2pm, I started plodding east, with a fierce and unobstructed sun beating down relentlessly. The immediate future was looking grim: the hottest part of the day, at the lowest elevation of the day, and after the first 2 miles, I had about 1500’ of southwest-facing, uncovered switchbacks. I paused to soak my t-shirt and hair in Bubbs Creek, enjoyed the last of the shade, and started slowly but steadily gaining the 6,500 feet that I had to gain in order to crest Kearsarge Pass.

I had enough clothing, calories, and light with me that I wasn’t worried about it getting dark on me, but I also didn’t want to have to drag my shriveled, depleted corpus over miles and miles of trail in the dark. I made it a goal to reach Kearsarge Pass by sunset, so I could use the fancy camera I’d lugged all that way to take a decent picture of the mountains.

Kearsarge Lakes, looking south. Still got some daylight left…
Forgive the crappy color banding, I had to downsize it so you could see it.
From Kearsarge Pass, looking east to Onion and Owens Valleys.

I’d completely forgotten about the foot care element of these kinds of adventures. A hot spot had developed on my left foot on Day 1. It turned into a silver dollar blister by Mile 5 on Day 2, and it popped shortly thereafter…none of it felt good. That’s about the time my right foot developed its own blister, and every step for the last half-marathon hurt.

The modus operandi for the afternoon was what ultra-running friend Stacey calls RFP, or “Relentless Forward Progress,” where all notions of speed and style are jettisoned in favor of simply covering ground. I would stop to put a bit of creek water in my Camelbak (no reason to fill it, water was easily accessible for the entire hike), grab a couple bars from my pack and put them in my pockets, and then I would keep plodding along.

I missed stepping on a 4’ rattlesnake by about 18”, but otherwise the hike was fairly uneventful. I reached Kearsarge Lakes with the sun still hitting the Pinnacles of the same name, and that told me I had a chance to catch the sunset up on the pass. I took a quick rest to put on a layer and take a couple of pictures, then turned off my brain and marched onward.

One more from Kearsarge Pass. Not sure what the peaks are.

I’m not sure if the bar I ate at the pass was stale, if I was just entering the exhaustion zone, or what it was, but I spent the last 4 miles (which includes 2,500’ of downhill) wondering if I was going to puke. It sucked. I got to the truck just a bit before 10PM, texted Vikki that I’d be home soon, and unceremoniously began the drive down the hill and up 395, blasting reggae to stay awake. I made it home shortly after 11PM and limped into the shower, then to bed. The return hike took about 1 hour longer than the hike out.

The Aftermath

I later learned that Onion Valley to Roads End is the shortest way to hike across the Sierras, so if you’re into stuff like that, this hike could be for you.

Besides climbing shoes, hiking poles, a few clothing layers, and a water bladder, I had with me a Sony A7RIII with a Tamron 24-70mm/f2.8 and one flash unit with Pocket Wizard triggers; headlamp; smartphone; a journal/notebook; and a can of coldbrew coffee that I didn’t drink. My pack was probably around 15 pounds, depending on how much water I was carrying at the time.

Never will I ever: do something like that without a foot-care kit. I couldn’t really walk right for a couple of days, shuffling around on my heels to keep the weight off of the blisters on my forefeet. But other than that, the whole affair went about as smoothly as an adventure like that can go. I could imagine doing it again, but if I do, it’ll be with a companion.

In any case, I’m going to declare myself the unofficial record-holder for longest approach to a bouldering session, at 20.8 miles. Colorado climbers, eat your hearts (and legs) out.


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