The Legend Grows and Black Mountain

Black Mountain seems to be living up to its reputation as an area with limitless potential.

My first trip to Black Mountain was in the summer before my junior year in high school, 1994. We piled into my best friend’s brown ‘79 Ford Courier — its hood freshly pimped out with a custom flame paint job applied only days earlier with masking tape and a few cans of Rustoleum — and made the hour-long drive from Lake Elsinore, blasting the Butt Trumpets and NOFX and infused with a zeal that most people grow out of. We blew past Idyllwild, home of the legendary crags of Suicide and Tahquitz, and bounced up the long dirt road to Black Mountain.
Rumor had it that Black Mountain’s bouldering potential was limitless, but foremost in our minds were the rocks at the appropriately named Boulder Basin Campground. These were the proud home of Where Boneheads Dare and Moroccan Roll, John Long’s ultra-classic 1970s B1s that were first revealed to the world in Long’s vintage 1980 Climbing Magazine article “Pumping Granite.” We rolled into the campground, warmed up — and got scared shitless. We drove home knowing that this place was the shit, but we just weren’t. Yet.
Black Mountain, situated high in the San Jacinto Mountains above Idyllwild in Southern California, is literally covered in high-quality alpine granite boulders. In summer you leave the scorching 100-degree heat of the valleys and climb to 7000 feet, where bouldering temperatures are much more reasonable. The granite that awaits varies from smooth Yosemite-style, to rougher, larger-crystal, Joshua Tree type. Overhanging climbing abounds. It is no wonder that the Stonemasters used this area to escape the slabs of Tahquitz.
After Long and crew’s first climbs in the mid 1970s, a second generation came and went in the early to mid ‘80s, including the likes of Mike Paul, who claimed the OK Corral’s roadside prize OK Arete, a super-technical and strikingly beautiful rib which checks in at V7 or V8. Other standouts of the period include the scooped overhang NRA and the striking diagonal line Cracker Boy, both in the Lookout Tower/Summit area. Then there was stasis. There are rumors of Tom Gilje and the late Dan Osman spending time at Black Mountain, but their deeds are unrecorded.

 

Bruce Andreau melding with Morphic.
My first trip to Black Mountain was in the summer before my junior year in high school, 1994. We piled into my best friend’s brown ‘79 Ford Courier — its hood freshly pimped out with a custom flame paint job applied only days earlier with masking tape and a few cans of Rustoleum — and made the hour-long drive from Lake Elsinore, blasting the Butt Trumpets and NOFX and infused with a zeal that most people grow out of. We blew past Idyllwild, home of the legendary crags of Suicide and Tahquitz, and bounced up the long dirt road to Black Mountain.
Rumor had it that Black Mountain’s bouldering potential was limitless, but foremost in our minds were the rocks at the appropriately named Boulder Basin Campground. These were the proud home of Where Boneheads Dare and Moroccan Roll, John Long’s ultra-classic 1970s B1s that were first revealed to the world in Long’s vintage 1980 Climbing Magazine article “Pumping Granite.” We rolled into the campground, warmed up — and got scared shitless. We drove home knowing that this place was the shit, but we just weren’t. Yet.

 


Roving on the Round Boulders: Struthers set solid on Bang On.
Black Mountain, situated high in the San Jacinto Mountains above Idyllwild in Southern California, is literally covered in high-quality alpine granite boulders. In summer you leave the scorching 100-degree heat of the valleys and climb to 7000 feet, where bouldering temperatures are much more reasonable. The granite that awaits varies from smooth Yosemite-style, to rougher, larger-crystal, Joshua Tree type. Overhanging climbing abounds. It is no wonder that the Stonemasters used this area to escape the slabs of Tahquitz.
After Long and crew’s first climbs in the mid 1970s, a second generation came and went in the early to mid ‘80s, including the likes of Mike Paul, who claimed the OK Corral’s roadside prize OK Arete, a super-technical and strikingly beautiful rib which checks in at V7 or V8. Other standouts of the period include the scooped overhang NRA and the striking diagonal line Cracker Boy, both in the Lookout Tower/Summit area. Then there was stasis. There are rumors of Tom Gilje and the late Dan Osman spending time at Black Mountain, but their deeds are unrecorded.
In the mid 1990s Idyllwild local Matt Beebe discovered the Visor, just downhill from NRA, and the pace quickened. The Visor soon sported three excellent problems: a body-length-and-a-half horizontal roof climbed on incut crimps at V6, a V3 lip traverse on the left, and the Can Opener, which busts out the right side of the overhang at V8. The Belgium climbing star Arnould T’Kint and the dyno master Greg Loh both took jobs at FiveTen shoes in nearby Redlands, contributing plentiful enthusiasm and skill to the Black Mountain bouldering scene. This surge of interest turned out to be just the warm-up for the intensive activity that was soon to follow.
The summer of 1998 saw an explosion of energy that continues to this day. The Upland climbing gym, Hangar 18, bore its first fruits, producing a motivated crew. Greg Loh and others at FiveTen were still stoked to discover new lines. I moved to nearby Riverside to finish school and start more than a few projects at Black Mountain. Even Chris Sharma dropped in — with a well-funded camera team following his every move and antic as if shooting for a Boys Gone Wild video.

 

Adrienne Septimo cranks for a crisp sidepull on an unnamed OK Corral problem.
It was as if Black Mountain took Viagra and sprang to life. Faces we had walked by countless times suddenly had grips. On the boulder next to OK Arete, we brushed off a few leaves and quickly sent Peeping Thomas, named for the man I awoke to looking in my second story window back home in Riverside. At a moderate V4, the rounded top-out of Thomas offers one the opportunity to either style to the top or hump like a beached whale. The Austin Powers boulder, up the hill from the OK Corral, has five new problems from V0 to V7. A British kid, Chris Savage, passed through and pulled a major coup, battling it out with Sharma in front of the cameras to snag the first ascent of the much attempted Arnould Special, a classic one-move-wonder on a 45-degree-overhanging wall first envisioned by T’Kint. Savage renamed the climb Dark Horse.
Ben Moon stopped by after visiting his brother in Los Angeles, hiked the second ascent of Dark Horse, and added his own gem of a testpiece, Bang On, climbing perfect incut slots out a 45-degree overhang. The first sequence is the hardest. You can either reach out with your right hand, to be faced with a ridiculous piano match, or roll out with your left in a contortionist cross-over. Both ways put most aspirants on their backs. If you make it through this, a couple of set-up moves leave you about five feet from the lip. Your only option is an all-out chuck. At V11, Bang On stood as the area’s hardest for two years until Regeneration went up in the OK Corral. This obvious sit start to Gimme Some (V8) doubles the number of moves on that jump-start problem and bumps the grade to stiff V11.
Chris Sharma’s eye for a subtle line is as rare as his climbing ability, evidenced by his 1998 new-school problems at Black Mountain such as Smack Down. Through a corridor on the backside of Where Boneheads Dare is a huge, blank, overhanging face. Before it was chalked it looked completely unclimbable — in part because the first hold is about nine feet off the ground. A nice hop puts you on it. With the right momentum you can then campus to the next hold. This quick wake-up delivers you to exit moves that might dish you a smack down, as you reach over the bulge, press your hand on a crystal, and will it to stick. Recently, Lisa Rands and Wills Young deciphered a less exotic sequence, matching and moving out left, which lowered the grade from V10 to V9, but this is part of the beauty of bouldering. Sharma’s flowing campus moves still stand, and Rands’ efficient variant opens possibilities — you can choose either sequence or make up something new.
In a few short months, Black Mountain went from a mostly unheard of local bouldering area to a world-class destination. The last few years have seen contributions at the traditional areas — OK Corral, Boulder Basin Campground, and the Summit — from myself, Tyson Atwell, Mike Snure, Tim Clifford, Lisa Rands, Wills Young, Reed Bartlett and a host of other So-Cal climbers. Even more exciting is last summer’s discoveries on new stone. Zach Shields, owner of Hangar 18, spurred on an energetic group to establish new problems on the ridge lines on both sides of the group camp. He also ventured up six miles past Boulder Basin, to find many new boulders near the spooky and abandoned YMCA camp. In short, Black Mountain seems to be living up to its reputation as an area with limitless potential.

 


Andrea Pesce high-stepping Rockettes-style on yet another anonymous problem.
Logistics
Getting there.
Black Mountain is on Route 243 in the San Jacinto Mountains, which is approached either from I-10 at Banning on the north or via Route 74 about 15 miles east of Hemet. If you take 243 from Banning, the large signed turn-off for Black Mountain, on your left, is about 20-25 minutes from the freeway. From Hemet, turn left onto 243 at Mountain Center, pass Idyllwild, and continue north to the signed turn-off at 12.5 miles, on your right.
About three miles up the dirt road, the first area you reach is the OK Corral, my personal favorite, which features the tightest circuit, the best warm-ups, and the most variety. Boulder Basin Campground is up the road another mile and features the highest highball problems — some over 30 feet, i.e. well past ankles and femurs. Some of these can be toproped with a little creativity. A short walk from the campground toward the Forest Service lookout tower is the Summit, located at about 7000 feet and more exposed than the valley areas, it can have a nice breeze. A fourth area is found another mile or two past the turn off to Boulder Basin near the group campsite. The group camp area has many problems, as does the next turn-out on the left past the group camp. These boulders are smaller and a bit grainier, but may be a welcome relief from the taller, more polished areas.
Seasons.
Spring and fall are best. The Black Mountain road is locked from the first snow in December until the Forest Service gets around to opening it, so even on sunny winter days, chances are you will be hoofing it about three miles to OK Corral. If in doubt call the Idyllwild ranger station at (909) 659-2117. Summers are a bit warm, but the bouldering can still be good
in the afternoon.
Camping.
There is pay camping at Boulder Basin Campground, but most climbers drive out the road to the free spots a few miles past Boulder Basin. Camping is also available at the state and county parks in Idyllwild.
Fees.
All cars parked in the National Forest must display a Forest Service Adventure Pass for $5 a day or $30 for the annual pass. For more information, log on to www.fsadventurepass.org. You do not need a pass if you are parked in the campground and have paid the camping or day-use fee. If you pay the campground fee and drive to the OK Corral you still need an Adventure Pass, unless it is the last Saturday of the month, which is a pass-free day.
Guidebooks/climbing gear.
The closest climbing gear is in Idyllwild at Nomad Ventures, a full-service climbing shop. The old Southern California Bouldering Guide (by Craig Fry, 1990) has most of the old problems at Black Mountain, as well as other excellent Idyllwild bouldering areas such as South Ridge. Dr. Topo. has a free downloadable topo with maps and many of the newer problems.

Dave Struthers has donated his share of skin to Black Mountain, but has recently gone East to pursue a doctorate in American history.

 

 



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