Climbing The Owens River Gorge

Raw ochre mountains, steep dry and bony desert reaching up for the blue of the sky. From the valley, the high passes and rocky summits fade into the haze, and the long slopes are hidden by rocky foothills. To the East, over the White Mountains, is the lowest point on the continent. To the West, at the top of the imposing rock wall, is the highest. Here in the depths of the rift valley; one of the deepest, widest valleys in the world; the sky seems infinite, and the mountains endless. Southwards lies desert, to the North, the briny Mono Lake. But here, in a parched paradise, tall trees rise, with roots reaching down to the memories of saner California water policies, and simple scrub disappears to the horizon in every direction.

There was a river here once - mighty even, after the spring snowmelt. Now there's a pipe; regularly spaced access hatches follow the pylons and service roads South. The river's mark remains - a deep gorge carved into the rocky wasteland. And below a rough turnout, crowded even early this morning, with dirtbag cars and rentals with warranty waivers, a dusty trail winds steeply down a loose scree slope, towards the cool shade where a stream still flows between verdant trees.

The Owens River Gorge; a reputation for some of the best sport climbing within a day's drive from the Bay has drawn us here; a long Friday nights drive through the Sierras; first of November, snow already lies along the sides of the pass. A dawn start with frost on the sides of the tents, a big fried breakfast in a greasy spoon, and then here, to the rim of the Gorge.

We head to our first wall: Banana Belt. An old plank is balanced across the stream, and some climbers give us the beta. In fact, we take pictures of their guidebook, because it's more up to date then ours. The leftmost wall is open and some of the group start setting up. I find a small ledge running to the right to the base of Paradise (5.9), and sling an anchor for belaying. It's a nice corner chimney that pops out onto the wall, and just keeps going, up out into the sun that has been creeping down the cliff.

After that I put a rope up on Nuke the Whales (5.9+) and belay for a while in the heat. We're all fairly relaxed, not pushing ourselves too hard, and enjoying the nicely bolted rock, and the exposure on the tall routes.

Next I top-rope Wedge-O (5.10b). It's a long pillar, and there's a possibility of a big pendulum, but despite some choss, it's a nice route, and I'm happy to dangle off the anchors at the top in a slight breeze while I clean the route.

Somehow the day has run away, it's already late afternoon. We want to check out another wall, so we head further up the gorge to The Great Wall of China and run up Enter the Dragon (5.8). By the time we clean the route, the valley is in shade and our bellies are rumbling ominously. It's time to head back to Bishop and stuff our faces with barbecue.

The gorge has one last trick to play, the dirt road out of the car-park is deeply pitted with the ghosts of wheel-spins past. It takes some delicate work to edge our two-wheel-drive city-slicker cars over the bumpy terrain.

By the time we're done sating our appetites, it's dark, and the sun-kissed warm ache of a day's exertion fills our limbs, so we pick up some cold beers and head off in search of a hot-spring.

Just south of Bishop on the 395 is a turn off to Keoughs Hot Springs, a developed spa that looks expensive and closed. But some Internet lore tells us that if we turn early, onto a dirt track, then the hot creek flows out under the power-lines, free for the taking for dirtbag climbers. Sure enough, there's vehicles parked into the scrub, and happy talking and bottles clinking coming from pools of torchlight in the creek.

So we grab the beers and find a secluded pool; warm water, cool air, cold beer. The night is clear and still, above us the powerlines hum and spark, above them the stars shimmer in the dry air. Big-rigs drive headlights down the distant highway. The mountains rise up on either side of the wide autumn valley, and everything is right in the world.