It is 11 pm and the sharp cold of the alpine desert evening is seeping into the weather sealing around the windows of the rental minivan. My boyfriend Chris and I, however, remain undisturbed in the makeshift bed of our rental minivan converted to camper van. We’re warm and sleeping beneath the questionably clean comforter included with the van and the weight exhaustion of a sleepless red-eye flight from Alaska followed by a three hundred mile drive.
What does rouse us, however, is the unsettled creaking of the van roof, a violent rock to the side, and the subsequent double buzz of a phone on the dashboard. It takes a moment for my eyes to adjust to the bright blue light and read the text from Tommy.
“Dude, it’s cold a.f. up here.” He means the Tepui rooftop tent, which we opted for on the rental in order to sleep all four of us.
I grumble into my pillow and sleepily reply back, offering up my spare down sleeping bag now bunched uselessly at our feet. I hit the send arrow then type out an afterthought, not really thinking about the repercussions.
“Worst comes to worst, you guys can cram in here with us just for tonight.”
No sooner does my thumb release the screen, when the van shakes violently for a few moments, the side doors fly open, and Nick and Tommy, two grown boys come piling in the minivan, thoughtlessly crushing our legs.
It is night one in the Buttermilks. We have fifteen more to go.
The next morning, I “wake up” after minimal sleep, my few brief lapses into slumber always disturbed by being shoved into the icy window or by pure claustrophobic panic. Chris and I together are spoon crammed into less than 1/3 of the van space while the other two sleep flat-backed, broad shoulders shamelessly sprawled to maximum comfort. I should memorize that moment because it will become a metaphor for the next five days.
The morning only gets worse when I go outside and find Chris and I’s cold-brewed oatmeal, which we set out the night before, has frozen into the solid blocks of chunky, milky ice.
Though a rocky morning and a late start, our agitation dissolves into the granite crystals of the Milks. Chris starts the trip strong by sending Change of Heart, potentially one of the area’s hardest V6s, and subsequently flashes the mega classic V7, High Plains Drifter. I send nothing above V3, but for my first time in the Milks, I’m stoked to just touch as much granite as possible.
Back at camp, which consists of a small dirt dead-end set back 100 yards from Buttermilk Road, agitations rise again quickly. Tommy insists on trying the rooftop tent again and proceeds the messy process of pitching it. The rest of us set to work gathering firewood. As Chris and I return with armfuls of dead sage branches, we find Nick and Tommy standing with hands in pockets, a few measly sticks between them.
“We can’t find any more sticks.”
I look around at the sea of sagebrush and can’t even muster a response per my frustration. I am hungry bordering on the point of hangry and considering we forgot to buy propane to fuel the Coleman stove included in our rental van, this campfire is the only thing standing between me and a swift beheading of one of my cohorts.
Chris and I grit our teeth and dutifully continue to gather armfuls of the scratchy sage until I have deemed we have enough to last us through the quickly falling night.
“Are we ever going to stay in a hotel?” Nick asks.
“Fine, we can get a hotel tonight,” I grumble over a mug of weak coffee at The Village Café in town for breakfast the next morning, exhausted after a third consecutive sleepless night.
First, it was the inclusion of a fourth body, as I knew would happen, when Tommy once again decided the tent was too cold. Then it was the howling wind that shook the van and whipped the tent on top so loudly I thought I would wake to find it shredded.
This very wind had also been strong enough to spark the dead embers of the night’s thoroughly doused fire back to life. Not wanting to be responsible for California’s next great wildfire, I threw myself twice into the icy, windy night to bury the blaze, finally piling so much dirt and rock on it that it stayed down. Still, I remained watchful and wary for an orange glow for the remainder of the night.
To top things off, the morning started with a rude run-in between the rental van bumper and a particularly nasty rock. Goodbye damage deposit.
Though I don’t want to agree with Nick, a hotel for just one night actually sounds nice. A few measly hours of sleep a night surely can’t be making for good sending conditions.
“Alright, guys, I booked us a double bedroom in the Mountain View Motel. It’s only like $40 a night so that’ll be super cheap split four ways.”
“Oh,” Nick says quietly. “I already booked a nicer hotel for myself tonight. Just to kind of reset, you know. Tommy is going to stay with me.”
I don’t but I nod anyway, irked that the main reason I booked a now non-refundable room in the first place was because of him and he didn’t have the decency to tell us before it was too late. Now, Chris and I alone are stuck paying more for a room we didn’t even really want in the first place. The van bed was perfectly luxuriously for two, after all.
“How much was your hotel?”
“I kind of don’t want to say,” he says sheepishly. I would later discover that was because he had booked the swankiest, most expensive hotel in Bishop.
“That feels terrible!” Nick says, peeling off the sharp volcanic pockets of a V6 traverse in the Happy Boulders. The night winds are still raging at the Buttermilks, so we have opted for the more sheltered canyons splintering off Chalk Bluff Road, but Russ is displeased with the somehow even sharper nature of this rock. Even the climbing is subject to complaint today. He examines his fingertips closely. “This is miserable.”
No, this is outdoor bouldering, I think.
This is what you don’t see on Instagram feeds, the work that goes into the adventure. It’s not as if the pros in all those Reel Rock and climbing videos just magically appear at the crag, red carpet rolled out to usher them in and a fresh seafood bar waiting off camera. Nick doesn’t seem to understand that the moments off rock are just as much a part of outdoor climbing as those on. They make it all possible. It takes work to even get to where you’re going and get on the wall, where you’ll put in even more work.
The problem with gym-bred climbers like Nick is that they are used to suffering only when climbing, not for climbing. Their suffering is confined to achy tendons and joints, and bloody skin at the end of a session. Outdoor climbing is all of that, plus exhaustion from the approach, the constant battle with cold, the consideration of consequential landings, and only a claustrophobic, cold van with a lumpy mattress to welcome you home at the end of the day.
Climbers aren’t in it for the comfort, or if you are, you should maybe rethink some things.
Definitely don’t set your sights on Bishop, because absolutely nothing about the Buttermilks is comfortable. The granite is sharp and often so cold your hands are completely numbed out by the second move. The wind whips across the alpine desert in 40 mph gusts and, even on the sunny days, snares away all heat from under your puffy coat and baselayers.
Every evening becomes a session of nursing ailments: rolling out elbows, massaging and icing fingers, moisturizing cracks and thinned pads, and willing the skin to heal expediently.
“Warming up” is a bit of a misnomer because you’re never truly warm and the easy grades really aren’t much easier than your middle and upper ones. You might as well just hop right on a V6. The Buttermilks are monolithic pieces of granite all too eager to shut you down. Unsuccessful burns far outnumber the sends and flashes are coveted and rare.
It is a place of sun and wind-burnt skin, soggy crash pads, aching ankles, failed expectations, and, more than anything, bruised egos.
In many ways, Nice is right; it is miserable.
And that’s what makes it sublime.
It is our last day in the Milks after two long and glorious weeks of bad instant coffee and baby wipes in place of showers. My clothes are dirty, my hair is greasy and tangled beyond all hope, and I don’t even want to think about how I smell beneath all the layers.
Part of the joy is the anticipation of home, where Nick and Tommy decided to go over a week ago, with less than amicable partings. Friendships often serve as collateral damage to those in the adventuring occupation, unfortunately. I’ve always said travel with someone before you commit to them because traveling has the tendency to expose a person’s most raw, and often ugly, sides.
When push came to shove, the desire to climb wasn’t strong enough to override everything else. For Chris and I, the desire to climb was probably enough to motivate us to jump off a cliff if the guidebook said there were boulders down there. We came to climb. Nothing more, nothing less. Perhaps it says more about me than anything, but I see the friendship as a worthwhile sacrifice for the sake of the trip. It was a long road from Alaska so damn it all if we weren’t going make the most of it. And we did.
In these two weeks, we have seen snow and sunshine and everything in between. We got our rental van stuck on Buttermilk Road, abandoning it in favor of trudging through snow the rest of the way. We used snow scrapers to brush snow off holds and pads and shoes. We got skunked on several fruitless hot springs hunts and got lost trying to navigate the approach to the Beehive Area where would could gander at The Swarm. We have endured bad landings off highball cruxes where feet slipped between pads and all other manner of awkward and graceless dismounts. There’s a reason we’re climbers, not gymnasts, I guess.
But more than the moments of suffering were the moments of laughter, of success. We’ve made new friends, some from surprisingly pretty close to home and others from all over the world, who didn’t even speak much English, but for whom we spotted and supported earnestly nonetheless.
Climbing is a universal language.
During nights at camp, we drank a little too much wine and bourbon and ate way too much junk food with abandon. I cheered Chris on as he sent Evilution to the lip on this last day, after watching him flail on the first move time and time again since day one. Bishop has been all about perseverance and pride, and damn if I am not proud of him. Watching your friends get sends is almost as sweet as getting them yourself.
Me? I’ll be leaving without a send, at least any significant one above warm up climbs. And that’s okay, because I know I’m a stronger climber for having been here and trying.
There is something to be said of just climbing with no goals in mind. To hell with projecting and getting consumed with the concept of a send. What is a send, anyway?
An arbitrary jug some climber once pointed to and said, “This looks like a good place to end this climb.” I immensely proud of the progress I made on so many mid-level classics. I found love on Seven Spanish Angels and trust on Green Wall Center. I worked up an appetite on Smooth Shrimp and ironically didn’t make it very high on High Plains Drifter. I found religion on Pope’s Prow and bravery on Mr. Witty. Despite having shouted my fair share of vulgarities at these chunks of inanimate rock, I love and know them intimately, like dear old friends.
Now, all there is to do is count down the final hours.
My skin doesn’t have much left, but it’s got enough for one more good burn. The send won’t go, I know, but I’m stoked just to be on the rock one more time regardless.
There is always next time. And despite all the struggle of the trip, I am already counting down the days the next one. So I shove my hands in my pockets to stave off the numbness and look out at the snow-covered Sierras, stark against the cloudless blue sky. The alpenglow is beginning to illuminate peak, making the shadows of the Buttermilks long and all-consuming.
How could one not love this?
*Author’s note: Names in this article have been changed to protect the participant’s identities. In the end, it simply didn’t work but I bear no hard feelings and do not intend for this article to tear anyone down. I wanted to write an honest trip report of which I’m sure there are two sides. This is mine.
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