Climber's campsite with van and tents.

Expedition Report: Mornings In Small Town California

A boulder pad makes a far better couch than it does a mattress. This is one of the many lessons I’ve learnt on this exploration of perspective. Today it is rather pleasant in Bishop. The wind is no longer squalling and the sun—which on previous days in this very location, didn’t have the strength to warrant spending time outdoors—beams warming rays upon my forehead.

The campsite we’ve inhabited has a number of granite boulders dispersed randomly along a stream. These blocks, of mainly washing machine size, allow multiple opportunities for back support, however only one combines optimal sunshine time and holds the boulder pad at the ideal angle of 115 degrees. Multiple mornings have passed in this spot, and much like I have my routine of caffeination and reading on my sun-facing pad-lounge, the avian life too has their own morning routine.

Two crows join me, sitting high in one of the few dead trees which line the stream next to us. Possibly willow trees (I’ve never been too sharp at identifying trees), they stand far above the rest of the foliage with their skeletal fingers twisting and contorting out into the desert air. One tree in particular has been chosen by the crows as their morning perch. From there they watch me watch them ruffle their feathers and call their noises—which seem to be created by a different combination of body movements. Their classic 'caw' starts from their gut and rolls up their body, culminating in a joint movement of their head curling upward and their tail flicking footward. Another one of their calls, which sounds much like a gargle from the dial up tone, seems to come from a hunching of their wings that then compress their chest, combined with a downward tilt to their head results in the peculiar sound. A number of subtle changes in the choreography of these movements results in changes to these sounds.

I am yet to identify the ten or twenty birds which fly over my tent as the sun first hits the top of it. Their flute-like warbles have been my alarm each morning, although by the time I’ve escaped the grasps of my fully cinched up sleeping bag, they’ve already moved onto their next location in their morning routine. Before we leave Bishop I hope to get the opportunity to witness these little musicians.

Boulderer on roof
Isaac Buckley on the classic Evilution (V10), on the front face of the Grandpa Peabody Boulder. Photo: Matt Corbishley

The rental car we’ve acquired, a slick European number, compared to the local trucks is a tadpole in a sea of whale sharks. This vehicle has become home to the latest member of the sub-alpine team. We are yet to meet him face to face, but he leaves in his wake half-eaten muesli bars and rice grain poops. Our attempts to capture him have so far involved a 2 litre pickles-less jar of pickle juice containing a paper boat delicately hanging from its rim, which had his favourite berry oat snack bar seductively sitting inside of it. With the dawn of a new day, our trap was as we left it, with the one subtle difference being someone or something had replaced the berry oat snack bar with six small droppings. Such disrespect. Our friend has earned himself another night in the vehicle with luxury leather interior, surround sound audio and heated seats.

This morning I awoke to the familiar sound of those unidentified birds flying overhead. I hastily fiddled with the drawstring which held my sleeping bag shut and poked my head out of the fly of my tent. I saw nothing that eluded to what the maker of those noises were, and so after admiring the halo which donned the rising sun, I went back to the warm safety of my sleeping bag. Without any real desire or ability to fall back to sleep, I put on my headphones and listened to a John Coltrane record while I figured out how to explain the happenings of the previous day.

After I’d written the start of this report, where I talked about boulder pad couches, crows and rodent intruders, we lounged around our camp reading, conversing, eating food and drinking coffee until we decided it was about time to go climbing. Somewhere in the early afternoon, Alec and Jonty went rambling around the large scale boulders and tower formations of Bishop, as far as I’m aware they had a fantastic outing. Myself and Isaac ventured to the far side of the boulder field to attempt to climb one of the hard iconic boulders of the area, Spectre (V13). What occurred on that boulder I am still struggling to explain.

I think first I must mention that throughout this trip we’ve talked about finding more satisfaction in climbing through having a quality performance on rock, where your every move is perfect, being less focused on getting to the top, instead preferring to do it well. So far we’ve had brief moments of this, mainly on mid-range boulders. What Isaac did on Spectre I can only describe as the best performance of high level bouldering I’ve seen. His movement and body positioning were perfect and the show of strength he displayed on this steep, eight move boulder were effortless.

Boulderer trying hard
Isaac Buckley on the Bishop classic Spectre (V13). Photo: Matt Corbishley

We’ve talked at end about what occurred there, neither of us quite being able to explain why he was able to execute so effectively. Isaac says he has no memory of climbing the hard sequence, only coming to when he began to hyperventilate on the top out slab. Our best guesses are that he was momentarily possessed by Italian hard-bod icon Niky Ceria, or that there was an act of God that got Isaac up that boulder. We theorise that no other Isaac in any alternate reality fell off Spectre. It was perfect, moments like that are why you travel.

Something I never understood about the term 'Reality TV' was that the shows which got classified under its genre were never what I would call anywhere near reality. The people and scenarios that these people were exposed to were so unrelatable that I would presume the term “reality” to be a sarcastic joke. What I was unaware of, was that the reality TV displayed on my screen was indeed someone's reality and that although I could not relate to it I better believe it. I realised this sitting atop of a boulder in Bishop that we had chosen to warm up on during an incredibly busy weekend day. Usually, as part of my warm up I would climb a lot of easier moves, generally multiple times. What I witnessed from atop that boulder halted my regular proceedings instantly. It was incredibly cinematic, as the slab I was climbing slowly rounded off to the flat top of the boulder, and as I incrementally climbed higher the happenings that were shielded from my vision on the other side of the boulder slowly began to reveal themselves. I counted 32 people congregating around a single boulder, with an estimated 47 pads thrown down underneath it. What I had just discovered is well known and documented as the American ‘sesh’ and more ‘seshs’ were occurring at multiple different boulders all around us. We were in the middle of one of the most extreme cultural experiences we would have. A lot of very loud words of encouragement were being screamed at people two feet off the ground, dogs ran around from group to group stealing food, stoned locals were strung out on boulder pads in the sunshine having had too much of America’s mutant weed, Youtube videos were being filmed of professional rock climbers climbing slabs blindfolded, and seshs were being had. I can’t tell this story without mentioning that I was overwhelmed, amazed and appalled. I had never witnessed anything close to this and was worried that my sheltered little bubble of New Zealand would one day grow and burst into this catastrophe of a scene. There was only one thing for it, much like the other extreme cultural experiences that are available in America (venturing into the Strip of Las Vegas, buying everything from frozen meals to Dickies pants in Walmart, eating an incredibly bland Jumbo Shrimp Taco at Del Taco) we had to get involved.

The American boulderer is incredibly welcoming to foreigners, after short introductions we found ourselves fully involved in a sesh on one of Bishop's many routinely worshipped V7s, and while the climbing was indeed enjoyable on this particular block, what I will remember most was the incredible humans around us. The stereotypes of America are true, the stoned locals will chew your ear off and chuckle endlessly but mean no harm, the suave tech bros have no idea how to drive their hundred thousand dollar Sprinter vans and people do actually yell 'everything you’ve got!' or 'come on beast!' as you’re climbing, but unlike us sarcastic kiwis, they really mean it, they really want you to give it everything you’ve got.

Boulderer with bleeding hand
Matt Corbishley sufferring the effects of Bishop's famously coarse rock. Photo: Isaac Buckley

The team have decided that they’ve had enough of seshing blocks and have chosen to spend their last week in the USA questing about and slotting in wrigglers back in Joshua Tree. Isaac and I head to the land of God’s own stone and Yorkshire pudding after that, while Jonty and Alec continue cruising, for another 151 days, around America in their iconic van: 'The Magic Ram'.

This morning, our last in Bishop, I heard that all too familiar sound. Once again I escaped the thrutches of my sleeping bag and tent and peaked out in an attempt to witness my chirping friends. Eight small birds sat atop the farthest reaches of the skeletal tree where the morning rays reflected off their dark feathers, giving them a shimmering glow. I was only able to witness them for a short few seconds until they determined it was time to move on, taking flight in unison. Flying with short bursts of wing movement, they seemed to bounce in the air as they continued on their way, chirping pleasantly to each other as they went.

-By Matt Corbishley