Well, the sunny weather finally got the best of me. If Mother Nature wants to thwart my winter expectations with warm, sunny days, then I’ll play along. The last time I wrote you all I was tracking down some pretty good winter corn. As it turned out, we didn’t have to look too hard to find buttery descents on southern aspects. We had a great time of it, too. Yet, with a persistent high pressure parked right off the coast my mind started wandering off towards summery past-times. Before long I was planning a trip into the foothills for some climbing.
As I worked out the details of my jaunt down to the little town of Columbia, I started to think about Tahoe in a different sort of way. For many, Tahoe is a destination in and of itself. It’s a place that is so unique and featured – in terms of outdoor activities – that it satisfies visitors from around the world. Yet, for many living here, Tahoe is a hub of mountain activity that makes for the perfect platform to launch into other adventures across the west. In a word, Tahoe attracts people who are doers. And, there is no lack of recreational opportunities – regardless of what the weather is doing – for those motivated to seek them out.
Tahoe’s centralized location in the Sierra allows people to make casual trips down the eastern side of the range, or head south to Yosemite, or even west to the ocean. Oh, and don’t forget the desert landscapes to the east that round out the variety of environments that are within day-trip range from our driveways here in the basin. So, as I made plans that better fit the weather, I realized that I was falling in with a strong tradition of taking the outdoor skills honed here in Tahoe and applying them across the rocky, rugged terrain that defines much of the American west.
After I re-checked the weather to make sure that no storms were going to arrive upon my departure, all that remained was to throw the climbing gear in the car and head down the hill. As it turned out, my willingness to embrace June-uary resulted in a little weather bump that cruised on down the coast and deposited a modest amount of snow in the Tahoe region just to remind us all that it’s actually still winter here in the Sierra. More about this later.
With the car all packed, my brother and I headed past Kirkwood, down to Jackson and then turned south onto Highway 49. Passing through foothill gold rush towns that maintain quaint, historic sectors, we finally reached our host’s house in Sonora, which is just a few minutes drive from Columbia.
Dean Fleming, our host and guide, was born and raised in Sonora and has been climbing on the ample supply of rock that surrounds the city since he was a wee boy. Encouraged by his father – with whom he shares an adventurous streak – Dean has been developing new climbing routes since he hit puberty. He isn’t sure about the exact number of first assents to his name, but suffice it to say that it’s in the hundreds. That’s no small feat when one considers that Dean is only twenty-six years old!
Dean and I are old friends from back in Berkeley and we have shared many an adventure (some that were more terrifying than we care to recollect). So when he told me of a new development of highball boulder problems in Columbia State Park, I knew I had to make it down there for a look-see. I wasn’t disappointed.
Before I continue, I think it is important to discuss some of the lexicon used by climbers so that those of you who don’t participate in this activity can follow the drift of the story. First of all, bouldering is a type of climbing that focuses on small chunks of stone, or boulders. Originally used for practice, boulder climbing has boomed into its own sub-sect of the sport. Bouldering allows the climber to engage in short burst of climbing with somewhat less commitment than in a rope climbing scenario. At the same time, bouldering creates a social dynamic not found when isolated up on a cliff with only a single partner to share your thoughts with.
Highball bouldering is a further sub-division of climbing that focuses on very tall boulders that require a level of commitment that creates the sensation of isolation and risk that is more regularly found when on a rope. However, this feeling is mitigated by shorter durations of exposure and with the vocal encouragement of your friends standing at the foot of the route. Finally, bouldering is a simplification or rather, a refinement of climbing that is unencumbered by safety gear and focuses solely on the movement on the rock.
That being said, Columbia is developing into a bastion for sketchy highballs. Yet, this is not the only reason that Columbia is beginning to stand out as a destination for California climbers. Columbia hosts the largest concentration of fine grain limestone this side of France! This is no exaggeration. The area boasts over four square miles of exposed limestone, much of which remains undeveloped.
Columbia is a strange place. At one time it was listed among the biggest gold mines in the west, which put it in the running for the state’s capital when California was working its way into the Union. The limestone that now projects from the earth like jagged teeth is only exposed because of the aggressive hydraulic mining preformed by get-rich pioneers of the nineteenth century.
Don’t let this historical reality lead you to images of a landscape ravaged by open-pit mining or rocks shaped by the hands of men. With the exception of a few rock retaining walls and the occasional mine-cart tracks that hang dubiously atop some of the rock faces, the efforts of these miners are now nearly overgrown by the oak and pine that abounds in the sink.
What interested the miners is what was deposited between the limestone, and what remains is beautifully textured stone that is unique in California. Moreover, Mother Nature has done much to heal her wounds over the last hundred or so years since the excavation ceased. We are now left with a maze of limestone corridors; a wonderland for climbers to explore.
We spent two summer-like days working on Dean’s new projects and repeating area classics. In short sleeves, ball caps and sun glasses, we taunted the weather with our embrace. Of course our reaction yielded another reaction from the north. As we drove home tired and satisfied, a storm was pushing south that required us to yet again adapt to Nature’s will. And, like so many Tahoe residents before us, we conformed to what the weather had to offer and made ready to ski some freshies the following day. And it’s all good, because it’s all mountain.