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Elegy for a Boulder

The boulder, right in San Diego, was like no other and became a testpiece hang where visitors were welcome to be punished.


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Mission Gorge is not much of a gorge, but a place where the San Diego River runs between two escarpments for a few miles on its journey to the Pacific. Coastal chaparral and rock, most of which is fractured and crumbling, cover the canyon walls. Yet stout little outcrops and cliff bands stand amid the rubble, high above the peaceful riverbed, the water little more than a stream.

About 50 feet above the river, a narrow and winding road cuts into the east side of the gorge, and from this road sometime in the 1960s climbers spotted a small crag atop a gorge wall. This mottled brown cliff, where the longest route is under 100 feet tall and most are 40 feet, crowns the 700-foot eastern escarpment.

If you learned to climb in San Diego in the 1960s or 1970s, it was at Mission Gorge. I did, with a tight-knit group of friends who were devoted to the sport and the lifestyle. When I started in 1973, climbing was not considered a sport, and climbers were certainly not seen as athletes: more as fools with a death wish who would not be missed if one day they disappeared. We were an unsavory fringe element doing things the general public could not comprehend. Standard attire was baggy cotton or wool pants and a stretched-out wool sweater. We were loud, irreverent, and full of energy; we scared people. It was a wonderful time to be a climber.

Our gang of climbers worked through all of the 80-odd routes at the crag, then added a dozen or so of our own. The clammy brown stone was rounded and slick as snot, the cracks dirty and sometimes inhabited by bats or snakes. Hand drilling in the flinty rock was desperate, so bolts were few, and leads tended to be serious. We typically toproped the hardest climbs many times before attempting the leads. Visiting climbers swore that everything at the gorge was rated two number grades too low. We liked it that way.

"The way I see it," he said. "You have a hop, a pop, a mini-pop, and a micro-pop, and it's all bullshit."

The climbing was hard, probably verging into 5.12, but we found our biggest challenges on a single boulder in the riverbed across the road. Pink Boulder is 40 by 20 feet, roughly rectangular, and 12 feet at its highest point. We heard about the boulder from some of the older climbers at the gorge, but their description—Ed George called the climbing on Pink “ungodly, tendon-shredding mantels on glass-slick rock”—at first kept us at bay.

When we finally did visit Pink Boulder, beginning in 1975, we found that the horror stories were true. The rock is highly polished from eons in the riverbed. Holds are sparse and shallow, so most of the problems used a variety of scoops, dishes, and humps to overcome a severely undercut start. Pink Boulder was the realm of really hard mantels. If we were to have any success on that rock, we would have to get much stronger and more disciplined. The first generation of Pink climbers had dispersed before we rediscovered the boulder, so we had to learn how to climb there on our own.

This second-generation crew included some powerful climbers: One was Greg Epperson, who went on to become a preeminent climbing photographer, and who possessed great strength as well as unusual flexibility in his hands and wrists. His piston-like ability to press out mantels made him one of the best mantel climbers then and, I believe, ever. Others were Michael Paul, world-class crack climber; Rick Allenby, he of ridiculous arm and shoulder strength; and Jeff and Adrian Amondovar, Paul Smith, Brad Huys, Tom Scott, Todd Trimble. Each of the Pink crew had some type of individual ability that stood out and added to the aggregate.

The mantels on Pink were brutal, and we were not interested in cheater stones or jump starts. If someone started with a little help or push off from the ground, he would cop to a “mini-pop” or “micro-pop.” Allenby defined violations of a static start one day after a long session.

“The way I see it, “ he said, “you have a hop, a pop, a mini-pop, and a micro-pop, and it’s all bullshit.”

We didn’t just want to send the problems, we wanted to send them in proper style. Greg thought that anything less was disrespectful to the boulder, and we all agreed. We hung from meager or no holds, then conjured up a mighty burst to lock out the elbow. Pressing out the mantel and somehow getting a foot up completed the problem. The mantels required a mix of precision and power that we found intoxicating.

Once we discovered Pink, we hit it as often as we could. It was a relaxing place with shade, a creek, and clean white sand around the boulder. After a session we would kick back on the spacious, flat top and drink beer, talk shop about the problems, and rag on each other. Sometimes non-climbers would wander down, and we tried to be considerate, but the crude and boisterous way in which we interacted usually made them head elsewhere.

The surface of Pink Boulder was so slick that we went through chalk by the bucket. Chalking up properly was critical here. The entire hand had to be chalked to well above the wrist. We vigorously worked chalk into our hands, including the back and sides and between the fingers, which helped us stick to the rock a tiny bit longer. That extra half second of grip could be key to the send, but no matter how much chalk we applied it melted away in a matter of seconds. The limited time we could hang on before greasing off the holds prevented adjustments or corrections on the fly. The timing, sequence, and hand placements had to be memorized beforehand and perfectly executed.

As we learned how to climb Pink, we began to tick ever-harder mantels until we had done them all, then we linked them into a desperate traverse.

John Long, another local, later told me, “The Pink Boulder traverse was the hardest boulder problem in San Diego County when I lived there, and may still be.”

Pink battered our bodies and psyche, but we had fun. We rooted for each other, shared techniques and sequences, and pushed each other to the limit.

Immaculate style remained the goal. Rather than start a problem from a standing position, we pulled our feet up and hung from the holds. Some problems were not undercut enough to hang free, so we devised “bathroom scale” starts to eliminate any ground-assisted momentum, meaning if there were a bathroom scale under your feet it should show no movement when you launched. We also had a one-fall rule: If you failed, you went to the back of the line. We rarely wore climbing shoes, since with absolutely no technical footholds to start on, they were no advantage.

Pink Boulder became more than a place to climb; it symbolized our pursuit of ethical purity and total commitment. It was our spiritual center.

Not all of the problems on Pink Boulder were mantels. The upstream side featured a difficult overhang problem, taller than the others. It required hanging from a rounded bulge, then tenuously letting go with one hand to slap to a shelf high overhead. Even when we got both hands on the shelf, we still faced a difficult mantel finish.

One day Greg joined us at Pink with news of a new problem. Certain that we had already discovered every single thing on the rock, we followed him to the overhang. Greg is taciturn, but a bit of a live wire around his friends. He started with his trademark moment of faux meditation, closing his eyes and murmuring, “Ommmm.”

Then he hung from the bulge, rocked back and forth, and exploded upward, cutting loose with both hands. To our amazement, he hit the flat shelf above and stuck it. Topping out, he let out a hearty, “See ya!”—our all-purpose greeting/battle cry/hoot. Before the day was out, we had all sent the double dyno, maybe the hardest problem on the boulder.

Given the amount of effort we put into the problems, we would have been delighted to show off, but Pink was out of the way, so there was little opportunity. When there was, we milked it. We would rub our hands with glee when a stranger sporting a chalk bag wandered down, knowing that no amount of sheer strength or experience elsewhere translated to success on Pink.

One day a well-known California climber arrived while Rick and I lounged on top. The guy immediately let us know about hard climbs he had done, talking a 5.11 blue streak.

“Any problems on this thing?” our guest finally asked, ignoring the many white splotches along the edge of the rock.

“We haven’t really checked,” came Rick’s straight-faced reply.

We all hopped down to the ground, where the guy put on his shoes. I pointed at the heavily chalked shelf closest to us.

The interloper confidently chalked and tried every which way to pull up. He tried jumping, he tried bellying over, he tried everything he could think of and got nowhere.

“Hmmm, let me see,” Rick said innocently. He walked over in ragged sneakers, a cigarette dangling from his lips, hung from the shelf, and cranked the mantel casually. (We were influenced by John Long, who often did difficult problems with a cig in his mouth.)

I said, “Hey, that looks cool,” as if I had not done it a hundred times before, and sent it too.

At that, Rick and I copped to our treachery and began coaching the visitor. We enjoyed the occasional sandbag, but as a quick prank. After doing a mantel for effect we would make friends and share the secrets of climbing on Pink.

Gradually, by the mid-1990s, the Pink Boulder crew drifted away, with no one to take our place. The sport had changed, and there was no interest in short, greasy mantel problems. Pink faded into obscurity. Still, I often thought of it and those days.

Mission Gorge became a regional park, which brought changes. Vehicles were banned from the road, and the river basin became a restoration area—with access prohibited. The unthinkable happened: Pink Boulder was taken from us.

I climbed at Mission Gorge a few times after that. Each time I looked wistfully down at Pink, now barely visible through the weeds.

Six years ago, I decided to see Pink Boulder again. I fought through spiny thistles and vines to reach the rock. Once I got there, I did not recognize it. The once-open area around the boulder was overgrown. Sand and debris had washed up and piled against the sides. Pink Boulder was abandoned, unclimbable; drab, ordinary.

I placed both of my hands flat on the rock, trying to feel some of the old magic, but it felt cold and alien, a shell with no soul. Pink Boulder had left us.

I had wanted to know that it was still there, like an old friend you never talk to but whose presence is important. Instead I gave thanks for the mighty challenges and friendly ambiance Pink Boulder provided us for so many years, and never returned.

Ron Amick of Poway, California, a guidebook author and retired power-plant engineer, has 100-plus FAs in San Diego County.