They Wanted a Bouldering Area To Call Home, So They Bought and Developed One
The Boulder Farm offers private instructional climbing via toproping and bouldering, along with a WiFi-enabled Airbnb and an outdoor grill. All on the outskirts of Yosemite.
Glacier-polished slabs, fingernail edges, coarse granite: The bouldering in Yosemite is legend for many reasons. Until now there’s never been another place nearby that teaches the balance and subtleties of climbing in the Park. Yet an hour west of Yosemite, nestled in the Sierra Foothills, six acres of granite boulders provide a perfect training area: crisp, lightly traveled granite, with climbs of all levels.
Following winding dirt roads for 10 minutes south of the town of Mariposa to find the new Yosemite Boulder Farm, I drove through a gate and was surrounded by golden blocs: rolling slabs, blunt arêtes, and sharp overhangs.
With cropped, sandy hair and frameless glasses, Dean Pollard stepped out of his house, followed by his dog Luna and son Willie. Willie’s wild brown hair and unkempt beard blew in the wind. Luna, a mixed-breed dog with a tiny head and rotund body, came up and sniffed me. For the next hour, Dean and Willie, owners and developers, took me through their outfit, a combination of bouldering area and BNB on a 6.3-acre tract. They pointed out a few entry-level climbs they’d done and the potential for more.
Dean chimed in on local wildlife viewings as well. “We’ve seen a bobcat and a full-grown black bear,” he said. “A roadrunner came into our house once and hopped around.”
That day I ticked off half a dozen first ascents up to V4, and that night I called my friends Ken Yager, founder of the Yosemite Climbing Museum; Alex Smith, graphic designer for the Museum; and Dean Fidelman, longtime climber and photographer. For the next six months—until Covid-19 chased us into our isolated worlds—we kept our group small and climbed there several days a week, establishing 35 lines. Over this past summer, however, as the place opened, the crew grew and a friendly Wednesday night scene arose.
Some nights I’d stay out well past midnight, sharing stories and sessioning the boulders by portable lights until I fell asleep under the stars on my velvet crash pad.
“There are 50 more to be pioneered,” Dean said early on as he and I worked out the moves on a new line called Wicked Slab Direct (V5). “We still have untouched boulders.”
For three years, Dean and Willie have cleared brush from their land, leveled landings and power-washed dozens of boulders. They cleaned out offwidths, roof cracks and seams. They also used car jacks to split and tumble away rotten rock, clearing away the outer layer to reveal hidden edges and ripples of fresh stone. Today the rock is so clean that it glimmers in the sunshine.
“There are two seasons, wet and dry,” Dean said, referring to the long summers and short winters in Mariposa.
The Boulder Farm offers private instructional climbing via toproping and bouldering, along with a WiFi-enabled Airbnb and an outdoor grill. The Pollards have also built a nine-hole disc golf course that wraps around the boulders.
Dean purchased the land in October 2016. Before that, he hadn’t climbed 5.10 in 30-plus years, but back in the 1980s he’d put in time in Yosemite, climbing El Cap’s Shield in 1986. Prior to moving to Mariposa in 2016, he lived in his Sprinter van in Santa Cruz for 18 years and taught Eurythmy dance at Waldorf schools.
Since being stabbed in the leg while a teen in the Navy, he has experienced PTSD. Though his leg healed, the emotional trauma remains, but he says working on the farm and climbing with his son ground him. “Since 2011, I’ve been on disability and I focus on my art and my healing path on my terms,” he said.
Dean is comparatively quiet, while Willie is more outspoken.
“It’s not always smooth and we don’t always see eye to eye on projects here,” Dean said. “I’m 62 and he’s 29. There’s a large generational difference.” Mostly though, the work has strengthened the bond the two developed from previous years surfing together.
Born in Switzerland, Willie lived in Sacramento, Santa Cruz, and Viroqua, Wisconsin, before settling in Santa Barbara, where he worked odd jobs. “My dad offered for me to partner with him at the Boulder Farm and make it a climbing place,” he says. “I quit my job and came up.”
Working side by side, Dean and Willie have turned a moss-covered hillside into an outdoor gym. Every time I show up, they’re working, with their new blue heeler puppy Lola nearby. As the sun sinks lower in the sky, they put down their shovels and pry bars and pull out their crash pads and climbing shoes.
To get the word out, in autumn 2020, Dean visited the Mariposa Museum during the monthly Yosemite Climber Speaker Series, where we met, and later that week I visited.
Dierdre Wolownick (mother of Alex Honnold), whom he met as well during the series, also regularly visits the Boulder Farm, to toprope and write articles from the Airbnb.
“It’s a magical place,” she said. “It’s beautiful, pure granite … that black speckled granite they use on tombstones, the best granite. And it’s for anybody—5.14 climbers can play on the huge rocks, and kids can play on the small rocks.”
My climbing partner Alex Smith appreciates the climbing’s technical footwork, where she’s learned to drop her heels to get maximum friction between her shoes and the stone.
“I’m used to bouldering in Tennessee where it’s all roofs, but here I’m learning to do the exact opposite,” she said. “You can’t muscle your way through these boulders. This place gets you in touch with being coordinated with your whole body.”
Today there are more than 20 boulders with established lines—from overhanging ships’ prows to 360-degree traversing lines around giant eggs.
Last spring I invited the longtime Yosemite climber Tom Herbert, his wife Sondra, and their son Tommy to come out to the Boulder Farm for a tour. Tom senior, who has climbed hard since the 1990s, raced up everything and was eager for more. As we rushed to another boulder, he stopped us at a blank, round, untouched rock. We threw the pads down, and he and Tommy got to work on a direct line that climbs like something out of Fontainebleau, a balance of wrestling and delicate precision on slopers. The problem is yet unclimbed, but they named the formation the Hard Boiled Boulder.
“Dad and I think it will be V6 or V7,” Tommy said.
“The rock feels like a combination between Camp 4 and the Buttermilks,” he continued. “Climbs are based on movement, not grades. It’s about trusting yourself. I think it’s one of the coolest places I’ve been to, with owners that want climbers to be there and can accommodate them. Good energy, cool place. I’m excited to see where The Boulder Farm goes from here.”
The Farm is a peaceful and private place, with views of white oaks and brownish-red manzanita. Since the property runs north to south, sunrises and sunsets glow purple-hued over the area. Willie and Dean have a vegetable garden on the property, where they grow carrots, broccoli, spinach, lettuce, eggplant, potatoes, kale, and melons. In the spring, purple lupin and yellow fiddleneck bloom. Mariposa and the boulders get early- and late-season sun, making climbing possible when it is still a little too cold and wet in Yosemite.
The nearby town of Mariposa contains yoga studios, gyms, a skydiving center, and my favorite, The Grove House, offering not only craft beer on tap but also live concerts.
When not at his desk writing, Chris Van Leuven can be found in the Mariposa backroads on his e-cruiser or among the boulders and walls of Yosemite Valley.