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Bouldering at Bishop, USA.
Photo by Claudia Colonia & Alessandro Penna
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Photo by Claudia Colonia & Alessandro Penna
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Photo by Claudia Colonia & Alessandro Penna
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Photo by Claudia Colonia & Alessandro Penna
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America, Bouldering, Climbing = Bishop, Buttermilks, California

Claudia Colonia and Alessandro Penna report about their climbing trip to one of the most beautiful, and important bouldering areas in the USA: Buttermilks close to Bishop, California.

When you travel from Europe to the U.S.A., if you’re lucky enough to leave in the afternoon you get the chance to watch the incredible spectacle of sunset transforming into daylight. For us, it was precisely then that we realised we were really flying to one of the most distant destinations on our meridian, namely Bishop, 9 time zone hours away.

After a long day of travels we landed in Ontario, a small and quiet airport, with no traffic at all, three and a half hours from Bishop. The Christmas lights told us that it was Christmas here too, and that consequently it was December here, too... but this was hard to believe: 15°C, neither warm nor cold, just sun, blue skies, even a light breeze... California!

When we arrived at Bishop the sun had already begun to set but we couldn't resist the urge and so we drove towards Buttermilks. As we got out of the car we were astounded: "Are the boulders really so close to the car? And are they really this huge?!" And what about all that sand under the boulders, the paths marked clearly with little stones, the entire area so pristine and immense… We wandered around until night fell, taking pictures as if it were the last day of our holiday, then we drove back to our motel, really psyched.

The next morning we didn't waste any time at all as, still jet lagged, we got up early and at 8:00am sharp we were already at the bouldering area... somewhat unusual for us used to our classic winter boulder sessions in Italy! But Buttermilks faces south and is such a wide open expanse that it receives the sun right from daybreak.

We started on the glossy and sharp boulders at Buttermilks Main. The climbing here shows no mercy, above all if you’re not used to its demanding style and this kind of rock; supreme footwork is needed otherwise you won’t get far, and sometimes going up proves easier than going down! These boulders are the result of a volcanic eruption that took place 740,000 years ago and the ash which covered them created a smooth and glossy layer, which at first seems impossible to hold. But the lines are crazy (and never straightforward) and we attempted almost everything, from vertical and smooth slabs to the severe Green Wall, and the (few) cave problems, to end with the super classic Iron Man’s Traverse. This boulder is split in half and the granite inside is similar therefore to the one we’re used to, with awesome, thin crimps on which we felt at home.

The landscape is gorgeous: just this alone makes the entire trip worth the while. And the climbers, mainly North Americans on holidays, were really friendly and almost always psyched by the fact that we came from Italy. The weather was absolutely perfect, the landings really good and.. the muffins we came across in every store absolutely awesome! We tried them all: pumpkin, chocolate, blueberries, cinnamon... unmissable! The motel, in classic American vintage style, was perfect too: it had a barbecue outside, lay on the road to Buttermilks, was friendly and, most important of all, was warm... not such an obvious thing lately! We spent Christmas Day in rather unusual (at least, for us) Caribbean-style weather, with people dressed in shorts and T-shirt going to cafes decorated with Father Christmas on motorbikes. Starbucks offered an exclusive December selection that included Peppermint Moka and Gingerbread Frappuccino… this was all new to us!

Days passed by and we started to feel at home. We checkd out other sectors such as Happy boulder, that greeted us with its more athletic, funner style of climbing, with overhangings, roofs and pockets. In short, a wonderful "playground" with a lot of people and without an entrance fee! The Secrets of the Beehive sector proved quite the opposite: small and isolated, overlooking the beautiful Bishop Creek canyon. Its Brown wall is worth the approach (a mere 20 minutes, but these seemed a lot compared to the other sectors!), both because of the perfect problem The Swarm and for the other easier boulders. Absolute silence reigns supreme here. We also spent a day at Dale’s Camp and Painted Cave Area, a beautiful boulder starting in a roof and ending up Fontainebleau style: Lamiche smiled at us with ease from the guidebook, I failed to even comprehend the stand start… but it didn't matter... a herd of mule deer stared at us and we spent the rest of the time shooting photos…

The weather remained perfect, we kept getting up early and climbing until sunset and we soon ended up with completely trashed skin. We needed a rest day and so we travelled to Death Valley, the driest and warmest place in the world, located as it happens below sea level... that sounds incredible, especially if you think that Bishop is located at an altitude of 1500m and the route you drive to get to Death Valley seems totally flat for 150 km. It was warm, for sure.. it was New Year’s Day, but the sun was hot and all the public toilets contained severe warnings about dehydration. The road leads on to Las Vegas (5 hours) but we decided on a shorter trip, with more stopovers, listening to the slow rhythm of the desert.

The second half of our holiday began and we returned to Buttermilks, where by now we felt more at ease with the rock. Even Stained Glass looked less glossy now and surprisingly the "patina" seemed to offer more friction than before. We also returned to Happy Boulders; the Heavenly Path boulder is one of the best in Bishop and, even if it is not "hard", it is a must--do for everyone. High, with holds (eventhough these don't appear at first glance!), beautiful and quite simply perfect. We had no choice and climbed every day, ticking the odd line, overcoming our fears and climbing our own personal highballs.

As always, the time to return home came far too early… Three plane trips, 9 time zones, 24 hours flying and waiting around all seemed less fun than two weeks ago. Even the flight, which travelled through a very short night (4/5hours), was no longer that poetic. But it was really worth it.

We would like to thank the following for their technical support: Metolius and Brooke Sandhal, Five Ten, Chillaz and Instrapiombo.com. And Wills Young for the precious info.

by Claudia Colonia and Alessandro Penna

TOPO: Buttermilks, Bishop, USA

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