Being in Bishop, CA is like attending one of those antique car shows that periodically take over sleepy, rural towns. Except the antique cars are sprinter vans, the retirees are all in their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, and the show lasts from October to May. The town, and the adjacent Paiute reservations have a small permanent population, but are generally inundated with transients and nearly always busy. Largely relying on the ‘tourist industry’ that these visitors represent, the people and businesses of Bishop seem to have accepted them; the wealthy passing through to go skiing in Tahoe to the borderline-vagrant folks bouncing between BLM sites. One can certainly find ways to spend money here, but no one seems to mind if you live in a parking lot for free – provided you move on before the welcome has worn.
Climbers, despite our ‘dirtbag’ mythology, exist in a middle ground here. The changes in Bishop in recent decades, and even since our previous trip in 2014 speak to this, and fittingly, to the broader shifts in climbing as a lifestyle and sport. A lot of dirtbag brows have been furrowed over this topic, so I won’t linger on it here. Suffice it to say that as bouldering explodes in popularity, the Mecca of Bishop shows the impact, the benefits and the growing pains. Since one of the benefits includes a climber-friendly brewery (Mountain Rambler, that we have yet to visit, but soon will), I’ll try and keep my complaints about tick marks and glassy footholds in perspective (but seriously, the central canyon of the Happy Boulders is devoid of friction).
One of the Bishop institutions that has changed little is “The Pit”, the $2/night BLM campground on the outskirts of the town. While there are a multitude of free options in the area, we have found that access to the vault toilets, a picnic table, and fire ring more than justify the price. The Pit also offers the opportunity to mingle with fellow travellers, and observe the meshing and collisions of climbers, people fishing (beyond people interested in mules and hot springs, the two largest categories of tourists in the area), and various devotees to frugal camping. As long-term living in a campsite provides an, at times, uncomfortable level of intimacy with your neighbours, The Pit is an immersion into the complex feelings you may hold for your fellow human critters. For every couple having tent-sex at the decibels and duration that falls short of obnoxious, restoring your belief in love or at least passion in dirtbag surroundings, there is a chain-smoking, mucus-filled yokel that reminds you humans are truly revolting.
Merissa and I have often remarked that Bishop would be on a short-list of places we would ideally live – though preferably not in The Pit if it was much longer term. From our perspective, it is idyllic. The Black Sheep is a great coffee shop-hangout; Spellbinder books provides an excellent blend of used sci-fi, contemporary lit and poetry, and progressive/feminist political commentary to keep our minds busy on rainy days; the weather is near perfect, and this is a good thing because there is so much to enjoy beyond bouldering (if you ever get beyond the bouldering). This, of course, is a visitor’s perspective. The people of Bishop face problems similar to many rural areas and tourism-oriented towns. While we see paradise, it is important to keep the tensions and challenges of the area in mind while we visit, and consider the ways that our climbing here is a practice in building relationships, especially if we wish to consider ourselves a ‘community’, and one that is growing.
So the relationships we build through climbing are substantial, and at times profound. Approaching each problem, respect must be given to these multiple relationships we are immersed in, which allow our climbing to happen, as well as to the climb itself – lest we fall in overconfidence. Balanced with this respect is the playful side of bouldering. Never taking climbing or oneself too seriously. This state of mind might seem paradoxical, but both elements encourage a practice focused not on individual success but on the work of liberation; not temporary freedoms but continual immersion and embeddedness. The intensity of working a boulder problem can provide the opportunity to pursue this sort of respect, but can also easily lead to a narrow obsession that overshadows the context and experience. As Merissa and I work towards practicing our climbing in the best way we can, this is the challenge we try to meet.
We are extraordinarily fortunate that the playing out of this challenge for us involves the experiences shared here.
-K and M