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Flood in the Desert: How a Tidal Wave of Climbers is Reshaping Bishop, California

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An LADWP sign in the Tablelands prohibiting camping; climbers typically use dispersed camping on BLM land in the area or stay at the Pit. James Lucas

For eight days in mid-September 2019, the Owens River swelled in its namesake volcanic-tuff gorge, closing access to the narrow canyon’s 1,000-plus routes. Fourteen miles north of Bishop, the ORG has long been a destination sport area. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) had coordinated the release, making the relatively placid stream swell from 45 cubic feet per second to 680; crossing the river or navigating the gorge’s rugged floor became impossible. The LADWP originally cut off the water supply from the Crowley Reservoir area to the Gorge in 1953 when it bought water rights in the Eastern Sierra, constructing a 233-mile aqueduct through the Owens Valley and Mojave Desert to Los Angeles. Then, in 1991, the LADWP began releasing water back into the gorge with a 30-year plan to repair the riparian environment through seasonal flooding, as happened with 2019’s scheduled floods.

[Above: A busy weekend in autumn 2019 on Fish Slough Road, the parking area for the Tablelands (Happy and Sad boulders) near Bishop, California. The author counted 80-plus cars along the road that day.]

The Gorge, which sees about 30,000 climbers per year according to an Access Fund estimate, is just one of the dozen climbing areas in the Bishop region that has seen significant, recent environmental change. Climbers have been scrambling in Bishop since the 1940s when Smoke Blanchard ran around the Buttermilks on his rock course. In the 80 years since, over 2,300 boulder problems and a few thousand routes have gone in, and in the past decade Bishop has swelled in popularity with climbers. The warm, sunny weather and the abundance of rock, from the volcanic tuff in the gorge and Tablelands to the granite of the nearby Sierra to the quartz monzonite of the Buttermilks, make Bishop a climbing mecca. However, the area is also environmentally fragile: Situated in the rain shadow on the East Side of the Sierra, the ORG and Bishop see only five inches a year of rain. Now imagine what thousands of climber feet trampling through this high-desert environment might do. And consider also that Bishop itself is a small town: With a population of just under 4,000 in two square miles and 10,000 people in the greater area, including the approximate 2,000 members of the Bishop Paiute Tribe, Bishop, as portrayed on the city’s homepage, is a “Small town with a big backyard.” But the recent influx of climbers, hikers, fishermen, dirt bikers, and other outdoor enthusiasts is also reshaping the town’s demographics in ways that not all locals appreciate.

An educational sign at the Birthday Boulders, Buttermilk Road.James Lucas

“It’s probably, in my opinion, the best bouldering area in the world,” said the author of the first Bishop bouldering guidebook, Mick Ryan, in West Coast Pimp, Tim Steele and Steve Montesanto’s 1998/’99 climbing film, which includes a 30-minute segment on the Tablelands and Buttermilks. Even in those early days, when in 1999 the BLM counted a mere 7,000 climbers per year at the Tablelands, climbers aimed to self-regulate to avoid what had recently happened at Hueco Tanks where the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department implemented the Public Use Plan, limiting unguided access to North Mountain only. Hueco’s restrictions dropped visitations from 85,000 in 1996 to 17,000 in 1999—to many climbers, Hueco was all but closed. Lured in by Internet rumors of “the new Hueco,” the bouldering crowd drifted west to Bishop, finding untapped potential and amazing climbing. Meanwhile, the Bishop locals—knowing full well what they had—sought ways to avoid a similar implosion.

“Around the Bishop area, what we’re trying to do is educate climbers on what we call semi-primitive recreation,” continued Ryan in WCP. “That’s basically an extension of the no-trace ethic where when you’re bouldering in an area you leave as little trace [ … ] as possible.” When publishing the iconic, black-and-white foldout Bishop Bouldering Survival Kit, Ryan specifically left out climbing areas on BLM land with sensitive desert ecosystems or that contained native petroglyphs.

“Originally, there was a wave of skiers that came here back in the 1970s and ‘80s, so there was a little bit of an outdoor influence,” says Steele, who moved to Bishop shortly after making WCP. “There’s just way more climbers here now—just so many more.” While Steele thinks the climbing scene overall has remained positive, in the last couple seasons there have been hard feelings. “A lot of people don’t have an outdoor ethic, and that’s a huge difference,” he says.

Downtown Bishop on a sleepy, off-season morning.James Lucas

* * *

“Have you been here?” Shondeen Chavez asks the half dozen preteen kids, all fellow members of the Paiute tribe, sitting in the spring sun at the Tablelands. It’s March 2019, and I’m out with Chavez, cultural affairs director for the Bishop Area Climbers Coalition (BACC), and the kids for some bouldering along Fish Slough Road. Most of the kids respond that they haven’t, and Chavez explains why: “We don’t come out here anymore. We live in an 800-acre box [the Paiute reservation] because we were removed from these spaces so that the rest of the world could enjoy them.” He goes on to explain the trauma of the native eviction and then emphasizes their role as stewards: “We’re the only people that are always here, the people that will take care of the land.”

Later, the kids run around the red and brown rocks, wearing oversized shoes and falling onto crashpads bought by the tribe. A few adults spot, while Chavez and pro climber Nina Williams instruct. The kids’ excitement at topping out the five-foot boulders lights the rock, making the scrappy climbing suddenly seem appealing. Chavez sees climbing as a way for these kids to go beyond the tribe, to see the world. “Climbing unlocks a whole world to them that they didn’t know existed,” he says.

Colette McInerney on Sabres of Paradise (V7) at the Happy Boulders. Members of the Paiute tribe used to hunt small game in the area, but climber impacts have destroyed the vegetation where the animals once hid.James Lucas

Bishop climbing comprises a complex patchwork of land ownership and management: The Tablelands are on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land, the Buttermilks are on BLM and LADWP land, the Gorge is on LADWP land, and other areas like Pine Creek are on Forest Service land. Locals thus saw a need to organize themselves to preserve these largely unregulated spaces. After several failed attempts at gathering the climbing community, nine local climbers formed the BACC in spring 2018, creating a “unified voice for climbers to support the Bishop, California, area through stewardship, education, and community engagement” as per their mission statement. Many issues were pressing, including informally expanded parking areas at the Tablelands, social trails at the Buttermilks, and rogue, climber-built bridges in the Owens River Gorge, which had angered the LADWP. And so the BACC got to work, trying to bring the various parties together.

In April 2018, Chavez started a self-funded program to introduce Paiute youth to climbing. “A lot of the spaces where we used to go and do things are no longer accessible,” says Chavez. He recalls bunny hunting in the Tablelands as a youth—part of a tribal tradition—and remembers when vegetation amongst the boulders allowed small game to hide. However, today, “There are climbers camping all over the place,” Chavez says, citing the BLM’s policy of dispersed camping, which allows climbers in Promaster and Sprinter vans to drive onto the mesa tops, where they often congregate by the dozens, creating impact. At the boulders, where sagebrush and other desert shrubs once flourished, sand now covers the base of many climbs—the cottontail rabbits, huge-eared black-tailed jackrabbits, and desert woodrats stay away due to climbers and their crag pets.

In 2010, Chavez started climbing as a way to return to these places where he’d spent his youth, and quickly realized the value in it. He began taking youth groups to the Alabama Hills and to the Sunny Slopes by Crowley Lake. However, his initial efforts saw little support amongst the Paiute. “People in the tribal community don’t believe in climbing,” says Chavez. “They don’t believe in what it can do because all they’ve seen is the negative impact on the land.” Many tribe members take a militant view, wanting climbers—whom they perceive as intruders on a land that once belonged to them—to leave entirely. After Chavez, beginning in 2018, organized five climbing camps in which the kids immersed themselves in the history and culture of their native land, received nutritional education, and climbed, the tribe’s view on climbing softened—it even began allocating money to buy equipment. Chavez hopes to expand the program in ensuing years.

A normal, busy weekend on Iron Man Traverse (V4) at the Buttermilks.James Lucas

Just south of Bishop in Big Pine, Steele also began taking groups of students to the Tablelands and Buttermilks. (Steele teaches English to grades 7 through 12 in the Big Pine Unified School district.) With 63 percent of the high school students at Big Pine being Native American and a significant portion being economically disadvantaged, bouldering has provided an accessible way for local kids to connect with the land. “There have been so few native climbers in the Payahuunadu [the Paiute name for the Bishop area] up until now, and it will help immensely with cultural-monitoring needs,” says Steele. This is especially important as the tribe seeks changes in access to the climbing.

According to Chavez, the Paiute tribe wants to restrict access to the Tablelands in a Hueco Tanks–style plan that would allow for regrowth of the flora and fauna. Namely, this would involve having a single point of entry by the confluence of Fish Slough, Casa Diablo, and Chalk Bluff roads. (At present, you can drive to the boulders from either side of Fish Slough Road. The proposal would control the flow of climbers into the Tablelands—beyond X number of people already recreating in the area, you wouldn’t be allowed to enter, like in Hueco.) The tribe has a conferral and consultative relationship with the BLM: Whenever the BLM has a proposal for land use, they are required to consult with the tribe in a government-to-government relationship. While the tribe can put proposals in front of the BLM, it is ultimately up to the BLM to decide what to do. “It only takes a few people a year to really do some damage to [the Tablelands],” says Chavez, suggesting that there could also be a curfew on climbers to mitigate dispersed camping. In addition, ticketing would also supply revenue to the tribe, which is partially funded by the town’s casino. While these measures seem extreme, petroglyphs in the Tablelands have been stolen, with thieves—almost certainly not climbers—using ladders, power saws, and generators to steal four petroglyphs and destroy two others in 2013.

Bishop local and Big Pine schoolteacher Tim Steele hanging out at Black Sheep Coffee Roasters in Bishop.James Lucas

Chavez, who grew up in Bishop, notes that the changing demographics of the town’s residents have helped the tribe. In the past 20 years, the increase in recreation has attracted a younger, more liberal population. Not only are these younger folks more concerned with preserving the land, but they’re making greater efforts to communicate with the tribe. This shift has also had a large economic impact, though it’s unclear to what extent. The BACC plans on doing an economic-impact study in 2020 with William Hobbs, who wrote one such study on the communities surrounding the Red River Gorge, Kentucky; meanwhile, the Bishop Chamber of Commerce hopes to complete their own study as well.

* * *

In 2006, the Bishop climber Tai DeVore grabbed his copy of Peter Croft’s Sierra Nevada guidebook The Good, the Great, and the Awesome and climbed the Pine Creek classics Pratt’s Crack (5.9), Sheila (5.10b), and Rites of Spring (5.10d). He soon became obsessed with the area’s featured granite, establishing the seven-pitch Fischer Memorial Route (5.10) and the 10-pitch Mainline (5.10), and compiling a guidebook, which was published in autumn 2018. When Climbing featured Trevor Hobbs on the August 2009 cover climbing It’s Not the Wheat, a 5.11d at Pine Creek’s Mustache Wall, the area, some 16 miles from town, became a known destination, prized for its banana-belt weather. A wet spring in 2019 kept people out of Tuolumne and Yosemite, bottlenecking them into Pine Creek. “If this is the new reality, I’ve fucked this place over,” thought DeVore, surveying the crowded crags. For years, he’d just handed out his own paper guides while working in town at the gear shop Wilson’s Eastside Sports. But now, having authored an official guide, he felt responsible for the impact. Luckily, Tioga Pass opened quickly, and one of Bishop’s “secondary” climbing zones returned to more manageable visitor levels. However, this instance had shown DeVore just how busy Bishop was becoming—and could become.

Bishop Area Climbers Coalition (BACC) President and local guidebook author Tai DeVore training on his home wall.James Lucas

“It seems like every other week, another professional climber is moving here,” says DeVore, today the president of the BACC, of the exponential increase in pro athletes, doctors, tech workers, and others moving in. The younger demographic has led to new boutique-style businesses like the Bishop Cowork, the Mountain Rambler Brewery, Good Earth Yogurt, and the Sage to Summit climbing gym. Part of the appeal comes from transportation improvements, too. In fall 2020, the Bishop airport will open for commercial flights. While small planes fly into Mammoth, the winds make for a high cancellation rate—14.5 percent in the winter of 2018/2019 according to Mammoth Tourism Executive Director John Urdi. This often leaves travelers to the ski town stranded, having to drive to five hours to LA or to Reno to fly out. The Bishop airport, which once served as a military airport, has stable weather and a larger runway, making it attractive as a hub for skiers and snowboarders. The hope is that the new airport will make accessing the Eastern Sierra easier for visitors and residents alike.

Shondeen Chavez, the BACC’s cultural affairs director and a member of the Paiute tribe, in the Tablelands where he’s been introducing kids from the tribe to climbing.James Lucas

The changing demographic has also led to a change in demand for housing, including for more temporary lodging. A number of climbers support themselves through Airbnb rentals. Lisa Bedient, who bought a house in Bishop 13 years ago, supplements her work as a traveling chef by renting a room in her home, making nearly $15,000 a year. According to the Bishop Real Estate Annual report, home prices peaked in 2006, declined until 2011, and then in the past seven years have stabilized and recovered. “You can come here and buy a cute little cottage for $350,000” says Bedient, “which is nothing for people who have jobs.” (The median price for a home in Bishop is between $323,250 and $345,000.) Bedient, however, notes that many climbers looking to move to town have lost home offerings to cash buyers. “People from the Bay Area are coming here at a pretty good pace,” says DeVore. “They sell their shithole for, like, eight hundred million dollars over there and they can buy a pretty nice spot over here.” This leads to new residents who are willing to spend more money on food and services, pushing the economy to expand and change. As DeVore puts it, “Gentrify baby!”

Cedar Pidgeon shows fingertips chafed raw by the rough quartz monzonite of the Buttermilk Boulders.James Lucas

Meanwhile, after 2005, Bishop hoteliers began earmarking 2 percent of their revenue for a marketing fund, which, not surprisingly, brought more visitors. “So we have more climbers but we have more of everything else too,” says Tawni Thomson, executive director of the Bishop Chamber of Commerce, adding that “The sales-tax revenue and hotel tax revenues are very healthy.”

“I love that Bishop has become so much more diverse,” continues Thomson, who grew up in town. Thomson then points to the Toggery, which has been operating on Main Street for nearly a century, providing locals with Stetson hats, Wrangler jeans, leather boots, and work clothes. “At the same time, we haven’t lost our Western roots,” she says. Nothing exemplifies this better than the town’s famous Mule Days, during which Bishop swells with attendees who come to watch competitive cattle working, coon jumping, gymkhana, shoeing, chariot racing, and other rodeo activities that highlight the East Side’s outfitter and packer community. While Mule Days and the Tri-County Fairbring money into the town during the summer months, it’s climbers who spend money during the slower months—the winter, when tourists have moved on. On a busy weekend in Bishop, a hundred climber cars might line the Buttermilk Road, with another hundred at the Tablelands. Meanwhile, 300 climbers attend the Flash Foxy Women’s Climbing Festival each spring, with some 600 attending the American Alpine Club’s Bishop Fall Highball Craggin’ Classic.

“We get major support and collaboration from the Chamber of Commerce, the police chief (who insists on buying a ticket and tells me every year how much he loves this event), and the town itself, allowing us to shut down some popular streets and alleys,” says McKenzie Long, the event coordinator for the AAC festival. But it’s also “a true double-sided coin,” she continues, pointing to the 900 festival attendees and their respective organizations. “There is an increasing amount of climber impact as well.”

* * *

In May 2011, an unattended campfire burned a large area at the Coral Boulders, on LADWP land south of the road just before the Buttermilk Boulders. Over the years, the site had played host to weddings for Bishop locals. Further uphill at the Peabody Boulders, the Paiute used to gather for similar ceremonies. Now, however, you’re hard-pressed to find anyone but climbers at the Buttermilks, in numbers often so large that it keeps the Paiute away. A decade ago, fewer than 20 climber cars lined the Buttermilk Road in high season. Now you’ll find at least 100, and maybe more on holiday weekends. While the BLM in conjunction with the Access Fund has installed bathrooms at the Tablelands parking and at the Buttermilks’ Birthday Boulders, it’s still an all-too-common experience to find used toilet paper flapping around at the rocks. And though official trails have been designated at the Buttermilks, there’s still a spider web of social trails—as well as in the Tablelands. A 1977 Chris Falkenstein photo of a conspicuously chalk-free Ironman (V4) printed in the Bishop guidebook shows how 40 years of climber hands have stained the rock white.

Kevin Corrigan samples one of the Owens River Gorge’s 1,000-plus climbs. The area, north of town, has seen seasonal access issues due to deliberate floods released by the LADWP to restore the canyon floor to its original riparian state. James Lucas

One of the biggest issues facing Bishop is that of dispersed camping, staying outside a designated campground where there may or may not be facilities like a toilet, table, or firepit. “We’ve been free to do whatever we want, but now things are coming to a head, like the camping out in the Buttermilks,” says Steele, citing, in particular, people camping illegally on the LADWP land south of the Buttermilk Boulders. While dispersed camping is technically legal, the increasing number of people camping on BLM land around town has created impact. In 1999, the BLM opened the Pleasant Valley Pit Campground in the Tablelands, offering 75 sites. To further combat dispersed camping and get climbers to spend more money in town, Bishop will be converting the fairgrounds into a campground with showers, bathrooms, and electricity for $15 a night. However, given that climbers often prioritize stretching their money in order to keep climbing, many may pass.

“What we want is social and environmental conformity,” says Visitor Center Host Supervisor Joe Pollini, who worked with the BLM to create the Pit, “cause that’s the way you manage high numbers.” Pollini notes that it’s easy to restrict access and enforce regulations by following a draconian Hueco Tanks model, but that “It’s a lot harder to ask people to do what’s socially and environmentally beneficial for all of us.”

A grater smoothing out the notorious washboard on Buttermilk Road, with the boulders visible in the background.James Lucas

To move toward this model, the BACC in conjunction with the Chamber will be hiring two full-time, non-commissioned climbing rangers to patrol the climbing areas starting in November 2019. By educating climbers about their impacts and how best to minimize them using Leave No Trace principles, the program aims to help climbers regulate themselves before things get out of hand. With the floods of people coming to Bishop, climbers learning how to be responsible stewards of the land may be the only way to preserve it.

In spring 2019, I hiked back to my van from the huge patina wall of Secrets of the Beehive (V7). The west side of Buttermilk Mountain receives far fewer visitors, and still has a wild, untrammeled feel. That day, the desert was in spring bloom. Desert peach, blue lupines, and yellow blazing star grew beside the small, single-track trail I hiked on, while cottontail rabbits ran through the sagebrush. With cool temps and the smell of flowers, Bishop felt like the perfect place to be.

Ryuichi Ichikawa attempts The Swarm (V14), Beehive Area, Buttermilks. The problem is one of the many classic, iconic Bishop testpieces that draw climbers from all over the world.James Lucas

Six months later, when I was back over Veterans’ Day weekend, it was a different scene altogether. A drone flew over the 80-plus cars parked at the Buttermilks, past a dozen people hiding in the shade of the Green Wall Boulder, over an unleashed puppy wandering by Evilution, and over the two slackliners who had set a line up between the Peabodies. Then the drone crash-landed on top of a blue SUV on the road, losing a propeller and nicking the vehicle’s paint before cartwheeling into the hardpack.

The flood of climbers to the East Side has made the coffee better, the Wi-Fi more accessible, and the town easier to stay in. I wanted to complain about the crowds, the drone, and the noise, but then I realized that simply by being there, I was also part of the problem. As DeVore says, “If it seems busy and crowded, why add to it?” That day, I headed into town and found a few Bishop locals climbing on the MoonBoard at Sage to Summit. Sometimes, it seems, the best way to preserve an area is to stay away.

James Lucas, Climbing’s senior associate editor, slept on top of a Buttermilk boulder in summer 2002. Since then, he’s spent a half dozen winters in Bishop, car camping at the Tablelands and Buttermilks, housesitting off Main Street, renting a rundown apartment on Clark Street, and staying at The Hostel California.

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