The Oscar-Winning Cragging of Malibu Creek
BRITNEY BUYS GROCERIES IN CALABASAS! BRANGELINA TAKES THE CLAN TO THE BEACH IN MALIBU! FERGIE CAUGHT SPEEDING IN TOPANGA CANYON!
The soulless headlines jumped from the cover of Us Weekly, their Hollywood glamour only driving home the fact that I was having a bad day. I was at Oakland’s Great Western Power climbing gym on a rainy Sunday, leafing through old magazines while I rested between flail attempts on my project: pink-and-green tape. So far that day, my then-boyfriend had spanked me yet again at Texas Hold ’Em, Happy Donuts on San Pablo was out of my favorite rainbow-sprinkle cake doughnuts, and the proj wasn’t giving an inch. I was whipped.
Forget this Bay Area bad-weather pattern—I needed to be in those headlines: Nicky eats tacos in Calabasas! Sport climbers send the gnar in Malibu! Boulderers speed recklessly through Topanga!
I needed a mega-dose of SoCal sunshine. Climbing at Malibu Creek, on the northern edge of the LA sprawl, was the only cure for these Bay Area blues.
Camped out at Malibu Creek, I could lose my troubles on more than 100 sport routes, from 5.8 to 5.14, lining a narrow canyon on either side of a boulder-strewn creek bed, itself home to dozens of problems on water-polished blocs. Some say the Creek’s steep, athletic tugging on monster-jug pockets is a lot like New Mexico’s Enchanted Tower—but I’ve never been there. If you ask me, I’d say that Malibu Creek is the punky little brother to the glamorous limestone jug hauls of Kalymnos, Greece.
The Malibu Creek vibe is decidedly urban. On warm weekends, you’ll share the flat, sunny, 20-minute approach with local families, their coolers, and their second cousins twice removed. The non-climbing hordes will be impressed by your fancy footwork on the 5.3 traverse around the greasy swimming hole (the Rock Pool, about a mile from the parking lot), which blocks access to the higher reaches of the canyon and the bulk of the climbing. This is usually the end of the road for the flatlanders, who stop to drink beer or hurl themselves off the tatty rope swing. Expect plenty of inflatables and electronics to go around, and have faith that the clamor will die down as you continue up into the cool, shady canyon to your SoCal sport-climbing paradise.
Quality leads start at 5.8 in the everyman’s Stumbling Blocks area. The Swiss-cheesed, caved-out Ghetto, the hardman’s grotto right on the creek, is home to the area’s classic 5.11 (Johnny Can’t Lead), 5.12 (Urban Struggle), 5.13 (Ghetto Blaster), and 5.14 (Lateralus, Shawn Diamond’s Ghetto Blaster extension), all rife with Euro-style pocket moves. The Dam Area, accessed by scrambling over sinuous, water-carved boulders and gurgling rivulets, hides magical routes from 5.9 to 5.13a on bulletproof rock. Fans of sandbagged topropes uber-dialed by middle-aged locals needn’t look farther than the Planet of the Apes Wall, the first zone you encounter on the short, flat approach from the parking lot.
That approach seemed eerily familiar, even on my first visit. Before Malibu Creek State Park was patched together in 1974, the land was divided into three parcels belonging to Bob Hope, Ronald Reagan, and 20th Century Fox. Hollywood has been filming here since the 1930s, and it’s fun to stroll right onto the sets of “M*A*S*H,” “The Biggest Loser,” Pleasantville, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Tarzan Escapes, and Planet of the Apes as you get ready to climb.
Climbers can thank Hollywood for Malibu Creek’s first fixed anchor, the giant eyebolt atop the 50-foot Planet of the Apes Wall, originally used for the rigging in the movie Planet of the Apes in 1968 (most notably for the scene where human captives strung up on the wall make fearless escape dives into the creek). The Planet of the Apes Wall was one of the first areas climbers developed. Once-local Mike Gardino remembers rappelling the wall in 1981, cleaning off giant dinner-plate flakes for the routes’ first ascents. Inspired by John Bachar’s minimalist ethic, Gardino and friends happily kept Planet of the Apes a toprope area, and it still is. They also explored the bouldering just upstream, awed by the super-solid rock and decent water landings. Sadly for modern boulderers, the water level has since dropped, and once-safe falls into deep water are now riskier.
In the 1980s, Neil Kaptain and John Sherman put up Hot Lips (5.12), another classic toprope (or, today, a highball) up-canyon from Planet of the Apes. Then, around 1985, David Katz handdrilled the canyon’s first sport classics, at the Ghetto: Kathmandu (5.10b), with Mark Bowling, and Johnny Can’t Lead (5.11b), with Tom Grimes. At the time, drilling, and even chalk, was frowned upon by rangers, but by the early 1990s, climbers and rangers had come to a friendly understanding. The rock in Malibu was too fun for climbers to leave alone, and if they bolted respectfully, then rangers wouldn’t mind.
The real sport push started in the early 1990s, when John Mireles and Bill Leventhal, psyched local climbers who left their mark all over the Southern California climbing scene, began filling in the plentiful gaps at the Ghetto, much to the amusement of earlier climbers, who’d been plenty satisfied with Johnny Can’t Lead and the handful of 5.10s there. One Mireles-Leventhal classic is the 5.12b power climb Urban Struggle, today the wall’s defining testpiece.
Leventhal began bolting routes in the Stumbling Blocks in the late 1990s, when power drilling still took place on the down-low. It took three climbers to put up a route: one to drill, one assistant on the ground, and one scout with a walkie-talkie to watch for rangers. Leventhal, Matt Oliphant, and Mike Draper named their 5.10a classic in the Stumbling Blocks Guerrilla Drilla after their stealth technique.
Climbers continued adding routes through the early 2000s, at the Dam Area (in the Century Lake Canyon, just west of the main canyon) and Mount Gorgeous (just uphill behind the Stumbling Blocks). The Dam Area climbs follow water-polished white rock. Here, high in the canyon, you feel even more removed from the craziness of L.A. The freeway is at last silenced by the big hills and falling water, and you rarely see tourists. Maybe that’s because to get here you need to tap into your latent water nymph-cum-Indiana Jones and commit to a magical journey through, over, and between huge boulders and canyon walls. Satisfy yourself on sensuously polished 5.10s at the Power Wall, or the big, steep, and scary climbs on the White Trash Wall and Tombstone. (You get bonus explorer points if you can find the three hidden routes on Little Cheops, behind the Drifter Wall.) Stonemaster and legendary storyteller John Long put up many of the routes in the Century Lake Dam area, on the White Trash and Tombstone rocks, also perfecting his ranger relations. Caught with drill in hand one day, he and his fellow offenders got off without charges in exchange for a few free climbing lessons.
Dimitrius Fritz is probably the best bouldering guide in Malibu Creek. Matt Oliphant put up many more of the routes in the canyon, but only a tour by Fritz finishes off at the Candy Cat topless bar, 45 minutes away in Chatsworth, where his enterprising mother, Evelyn, bartended for his entire youth. If you can keep up with Fritz’s pace and puffs, then prepare yourself for a rock-hopping whirlwind. Warm up on the 30-foot V0 South America Face, then scamper up to the steep, long, pocket moves on the classic arête of Niagara Fist (V3). Go for a lap on the V8/9 Even Flow traverse, if you can, and stay dry on the pond-landing problems Sink or Swim (V1/2), Swim Lesson (5.10 traverse), and Lunge or Plunge (V4/5). Get the spray-down and power spot on Recluse Roof (V4), then step aside for a modern history lesson on the Malibu Roof Project, aka Chubbs (V11 to V13, depending on who you ask), whose first ascent went to a visiting Yankee, Ivan Greene.
While the park’s boulder problems are noteworthy and (mostly) frightening, even more adventure can be had at the Tunnel Boulders, a few miles west on Las Virgenes Road. In general, this area offers better landings than the boulders in the park, on the same bulletproof rock, though with fewer pockets. There are just over 100 problems at the Tunnel Boulders, all within a 15-minute walk from the road. Bill Leventhal waxes romantic about his FA of Avalon, a classic V6 here. He had landed the dream job: rigging for an Old Milwaukee beer ad that featured Swedish bikini models rappelling the Planet of the Apes Wall. One of the Swedes, Avalon, was the lovely muse for Leventhal’s send.
It feels like we coast all the way from Oakland to Malibu. The barren roadscape along I-5 smoothly gives way to L.A.’s luscious, healing mix of smog and palm trees, and I know that salvation from the winter rains is nigh. My days in Malibu settle into a sweet rhythm: waking in a frost-covered tent, followed by a morning swim at El Matador Beach, a 20-minute drive north. By 10 a.m., the frost is gone and the day hikers arrive, so as we head up to climb, we guide them across the approach traverse at the swimming hole and maybe watch a few fall in. After shredding the gnar, we eat tacos in Calabasas just like Britney, then dance all night in Santa Monica, just like Britney. Sleep until dawn and repeat. How could I spend another wet, fame-free, no-doughnut weekend cooped up in Berkeley, when Malibu’s calling?
Every time Nicky Dyal visits Malibu, she is tempted to move there. Writing this article has increased the odds.
Season: It’s SoCal, so winter has the best temps, from the low 50s to mid 70s. Chase shade in summer at the Stumbling Blocks, Dam, and Ghetto areas.
Getting There: In Malibu, heading north on Highway 1, turn right on Malibu Canyon Road just before Pepperdine University.
Camping: The park campground is $20 per night for up to eight people (www.reserveamerica.com); each additional car tacks on $10. Showers are 75 cents for three tepid minutes. If you’re feeling rich, rent a movie-star beach house, sleeping 10, for $500 a night (vamoose.com).
Parking/Day Use: Parking is free with your campsite, or $10 for a day pass at the park’s main entrance. Free entry beta: exit as for the park off Highway 1 and continue up Malibu Canyon Road away from the ocean; turn left onto Mulholland Drive, and then park along the wide shoulders on either side of the trailhead to the left. You can come in here on foot, free and legal, the trail taking you up, up, and over a grassy hill before linking into the wide, main trail toward the visitors center and the climbing.
Guidebooks:Sport Climbing in the Santa Monicas, 2nd Edition, by Louie Anderson ($30, maximuspress.com). This guidebook also covers other worthy nearby destinations, including Echo Cliffs and Point Dume, the latter featuring oceanside cragging. Southern California Bouldering, 2nd Edition, by Craig Fry ($24, amazon.com).
Tony Sartin on Ghetto Blaster (5.13a).
Chopping Block (5.8): A perfect first lead up a low-angled face, rewarded by cool canyon views in the Stumbling Blocks.
Gorgeous (5.10a/b): Tucked up onto the hillside behind the Stumbling Blocks is the Mount Gorgeous sector, mostly established by John Long in the early 2000s. This route is long and sustained with nice views.
Kathmandu (5.10b): This 1985 Dave Katz and Mark Bowling route in the Ghetto can have a watery start, depending on the season, but it’s a perfect warm-up for the rest of the steep, powerful routes there.
Rolling Blackout (5.10d): Wind your way up the scooped-out, white rock at the Power Wall—the climb is aesthetic and fun.
Planet of the Apes (5.11a): You may feel instantly sandbagged on this toprope at the Planet of the Apes Wall, until a local gives the spray-down.
Johnny Can’t Lead (5.11b): Too many pockets to choose from! They all have chalk, and they are almost all good!
Drifter (5.12a): The three-foot roof might seem intimidating, but just wait for the face above. It’s nice to have a spotter up high to keep you off the boulder behind if you fall close to the top.
Hot Lips (5.12): Located on the right side of the canyon up from Planet of the Apes, this short and feisty toprope is now often done as a highball.
Urban Struggle (5.12b): The pocket moves are fun and big on this Ghetto climb—my favorite route there.
Ghetto Blaster (5.13a): Less pocketed than the other routes at the Ghetto, this seems like a favorite for the local gym kids.
Rest Days: Malibu is a dirtbagger’s paradise. Everything listed below is within a 25-minute drive of the canyon.
The New Getty Center: Wind up through the Pacifi c Palisades hills to take a free monorail to the free art museum (getty.edu). Breathtaking views and inspiring art abound. Muscle Beach Adult Playground: Don’t be intimidated by the muscle men who take this outdoor jungle gym, just south of the famous Santa Monica Pier, so seriously. Just kick back and watch them chalk up, tape up, and then jump for the dangling rings.Sleeping on the beach: Count airplanes blazing across the orange sky as you drift to sleep (free) on Santa Monica beach’s white sand. Your neighbors might look homeless—but so are you tonight.