If you were to ask a child to draw a prototypical boulder, the chances are they'd sketch something similar to the Buttermilks. When combined with the alpine backdrop, this must make Bishop one of the most aesthetic places to boulder in the world, but it doesn't stop there. Add into the mix other nearby venues such as the Happy + Sad Boulders, a whole load of hot springs, a climate that leaves most British minds boggling, countless classics across the grades, and all of a sudden there seems like very few reasons not to go.
Buttermilk Country is characterised by large, egg-like boulders, situated within a majestic alpine arena. Globally, I can't think of anywhere that matches it in terms of aesthetics: the lines are striking, the problems pure, and the style requires an exacting blend of strong fingers and good technique. Were there to be a down-side it would most undoubtedly be that the problems have a habit of taking a pound of flesh, most of which is from your fingertips! As such, it's a place to take heed or else you'll likely lose a digit to the sharp stuff.
The grading in the Buttermilks can feel a little stern upon first acquaintance, particularly among some of the 'easier' grades, where the number doesn't always correspond to how difficult you're likely to find ascending the piece of rock. That said, it can't be overstated how high the quality level is amongst problems of all grades. Someone operating from V0-4 would easily have as good a time as someone operating at V5-7, although clearly the harder you climb the more problems and scope you'll have available. Another factor in Buttermilks grading is the height of each individual problem, as a V0 that is low off the ground will feel very different from a V0 that features a single, double, or even the dreaded triple fluttery heart symbol, which denote the level of seriousness within the area's extremely good guide. As if getting up these highballs wasn't enough, getting down off them often requires just as much - if not more - cool, as you really don't want to slip. In fact, it's worth checking your descent before making the ascent and talking this through with your climbing partner/spotter so they drop a pad somewhere if necessary (note: descents aren't always mentioned in the guide, so this really is worth doing).
The Buttermilks are split into several areas, so here's a quick overview of each:
This is likely to be the first area you visit, partially because (as the name suggests) it is the main area, but also because it has a long drop at the parking area - as such is a convenient place to 'lighten up' before climbing. Unsurprisingly this is a popular area, which acts as both a curse (if you're after quiet) or a blessing (if you're after pads and beta). Even on weekends you'll find relative solitude early-doors (up until around 10:30am), when most American climbers are either in bed or still sipping on their first of many lattes.
All that aside, it can't be understated just how high quality a circuit this is and it's an area you'll keep coming back to again and again throughout your stay in Bishop.
Just to get you started, here's a few 'greatest hits' from the area:
V4: Iron Man
V5: Leary/Bard Arete
V7: High Plains Drifter,
V8: The Checkerboard,
Around the back of the hillside you'll find a little more solitude, plus a different ambience/feel to the Buttermilk Main Area, not least because there is a five minute walk-in (shock horror). The boulders here are a little more thinly scattered, but perhaps that makes it all the more magical, with some standing (very) proud whilst others require a little bit more searching out. There's a lot more flora around too, quite possibly because of the reduced footfall, which also acts as a nice contrast to the more barren feel of the main area. For this reason, it's worth keeping to the existing tracks wherever you can, because otherwise it'll all end up as a dustbowl - something climbers should be actively trying to avoid.
V3: Lidija's Mouth
V4: Jedi Mind Tricks
V6: Drone Miltia
V10: Golden Shower
V13: The Spectre
This could well have been my favourite area, more because of the landscape than the boulder problems. It oozes mystery, with boulders clustering around a confused canyon. This is a place you could explore for hours. If anything, it's worth walking up just to see the holds on The Swarm, a crimping test piece put up by British climber Matt Birch.
Thankfully there's a bit more than that, with the area's notorious highball namesake Secrets of the Beehive (post hold-breakage) ranking as one of the most alarming of its grade within the area. The crux mantle just beneath the top is enough to give even the boldest of climbers a moment's pause for thought. Other choice climbs are Queen Sweet Nectar left, which is a three star outing at a (thankfully) more modest height, and Luminance, which makes Secret of the Beehive look positively lowball...
For those that don't want to climb V7-9 or endanger your life, drag the pads up to do Natural Melody and Natural Melody Direct.
This solitary boulder en route to the Pollen Grains is a popular stop off point for one particular problem - Seven Spanish Angels (aka: The Ruckus) - which has to rate as one of the finest V6s in the area. Whilst there isn't a lot more to go at, there are some of the area's more punchy classics (A Scanner Darkley and Michael Cane Sit Start - both V12), plus a couple of easier highballs (Gromit, V4).
Even though this might seem quite exhaustive, we've only just scratched the surface, with Dale's Camp, Sherman Acres, the Bardini Boulders, and a whole host of other areas not being mentioned so far. However, I figure it's still worth a little bit of mystery, so will just leave this map here and leave you to explore it alongside a few choice problems from within these various areas:
V8: The Checkerboard, Solitaire
V9: Hueco Wall
V10: This Side of Paradise
V11: Xavier's Roof
Before leaving for Bishop I'd heard mixed reports about the Happys, with some people being scornful of their quality. Whilst they certainly lack the beauty of the Buttermilks, their quality can't really be called into question; furthermore, they offer a good contrast to the Buttermilks, with more jugs, pockets, and pulling. If anything they're the perfect companion, working different muscles and giving the skin on your fingertips a much needed rest.
Another major benefit of their existence is that they offer an extremely favourable climate, with the volcanic tableland they are located on being at a substantially lower altitude than the Buttermilks, not to mention that bit further away from the mountains, too. As a result they receive a whole lot of sunshine and a fraction of the wind up high. Clearly this is a boon on bad days, but on warm days things can get very hot very quickly. Still, the fact the option is there is a real blessing...
V2: Big Chicken
V9: Toxic Avenger
The Sad Boulders are (perhaps unsurprisingly) located just beside the Happys, but where the Happys are located in a relatively open valley the Sads are all jumbled within a much tighter canyon. As such, it can be quite an awkward place to navigate upon first acquaintance. Looking at it a different way it can also be a really fun place to explore, with surprises around every corner, and another very unique vibe different to anything described above. Don't leave the area without having a look around.
The Druid Stones are akin to Buttermilks in character, insofar as it's the same rock type - it's just that the boulders are over on another hillside. Here you get the same magnificent formations, with perhaps just a little more graininess. That said, the problems are only one of the things that draws you up to the Druid Stones - it's mostly about the place. Due to the hour walk-in it sees a fraction of the people (maybe even a fraction of a fraction) and in all likelihood you're going to have the place to yourself.
V1: Head Butt
V2: Pretty in Pink
V5: Arch Drude
V7: All Fired Up
If you've read all the above and still think the area is lacking, look no further - here are two more areas to go at! That said, we didn't manage to get to either during our time so will leave you to explore all by yourself.
A whole other destination article could be written on the Owen's River Gorge and if you fancy mixing things up with a bit of sport climbing it's supposed to be amazing...
Other things to do
I have never been a believer in 'rest days are the best days', but hot springs have come the closest to changing my mind. Being a lover of baths, hot springs immediately appealed not least because of their warm temperature, but also due to the fact that they never get cold - how good is that?! The closest spring to Bishop is the Keogh Hot Spring, where you've got the choice of a proper swimming pool which you pay to get into or a variety of natural pools just downriver that are free. It's reasonably warm and a nice intro, but the presence of power cables above and in close proximity to the road mean it's not necessarily the most aesthetic.
For the cream of the crop you'll have to drive around 40 minutes north towards Mammoth, where you'll find a plethora of springs that will keep you entertained throughout the entirety of your stay. Here's a quick breakdown of some of our favourites:
Wild Willys - not only does this have one of the best names but it was also one of the nicest, being located in the middle of the plains with 360 views of the mountains beyond it definitely feels quite out there, particularly on a windy day. The water temperature is around 35 degrees, with the hottest being in the tub at 40.
Hilltop - whilst this man-made tub may not be much to look at, it is probably one of the hottest and most comfortable, coming in at around 42 degrees. The panorama is pretty unbeatable too, but as a result of these factors it is likely to be busy so be sure to get there early.
Little Hot Creek - the USP of this particular spring is that it is HOT (46 degrees) and that if you haven't got a 4x4 it can be quite difficult to reach, requiring a short walk from the junction. The venue is a little different too, being in quite a distinct creek as opposed to out on the plains. As a result it is more sheltered, so is a good option for when the wind is whipping down the valley.
The Bristlecone Pine Forest is home to some of the oldest trees in the world and is worthy of a wonderful day trip. The windy drive up through mountain canyon is a contrast to the endless long/straight roads up and down the Owens Valley, but things really kick up a notch once you're up on the ridge line, with stunning views back across towards the Eastern Sierras. Moving further up the hillside there is a nice stop-off/picnic point with a short botanical walk, then further up again you've got the Visitor Centre, which has several loops of varying lengths to match your interest and energy levels.
A link-up of the Alabama Hills and Whitney Portal provides the perfect day out, with the former located on the drive through to the latter.
The Alabama Hills are famous for the 150 Westerns that were filmed there. The landscape is a fascinating jumble of choss intermingled with the occasional good seam which has been developed for sport climbing. That said, we simply drove through, stopping off to see sights such as the Mobius Arch and absorb the views.
Whitney Portal is the gateway to America's highest contiguous peak, Mount Whitney. Depending on the time of year/snow conditions you may/may not be able to reach the Portal, but if you are it's well worth having a short walk up, as the scenery is both dramatic and stunning.
Every town needs their climbers' hangout and in Bishop there is one by day and another by night. By day climbers can be found in Black Sheep Coffee Shop, which aside from coffee sells a mean Breakfast Burrito (meat, veggie, and vegan versions available). It also has wifi, the occasional open mic night, and a nice seating area out back with free parking. By night climbers tend to shift over towards the Brewery, which was opened by climbers a few years back and swiftly became the place to be. If strong IPAs and burgers are your thing then look no further!
In terms of daytime food there are many options, but the two most popular are the world renowned Schatts and the small but perfectly formed Great Basin Bakery. The former is something of a tourist attraction for the town and as a result can be somewhat overwhelming in/around the lunch hours. That said, it does a mean sandwich and a large array of pastries. However, were we to put our name next to one it would be Great Basin, which is smaller, quieter, but arguably better. The sandwiches are a cut above and a real treat for anyone's rest day.
Other places worth hunting out are The Burger Barn, which (supposedly) sells the finest burgers in town and The Smokehouse for cured meats of all kinds.
When do I go?
Autumn and spring are the best, with the summers being too warm and the winters being quite cold. That said, due to the climate the sun is often shining even on the coldest of days, but if you're wanting more guaranteed conditions sometime in/around October-November and March/April would be a better bet.
Where do I fly?
There's a number of options, but the most popular are Los Angeles, Reno, and Las Vegas. San Francisco is another option, but can present problems when the Tioga Pass is shut. From the airport your best bet is to hire a car, as this will be pretty essential in getting to Bishop and from Bishop up to the Buttermilks. If you do decide to go on the cheap there are buses up/down the Owens Valley and once you arrive at The Pit you should be able to find plenty of partners to score a ride with.
Where do I stay?
The classic climbers hangout is Pleasant Valley Campground, which is affectionately known as 'The Pit'. Located just around the corner from the Happy/Sad Boulders it is blessed by the same good climate. It is also a bargain at $5 per pitch per night, a bargain considering each pitch can house a whole party of people! The downside is that the facilities are somewhat basic, with a toilet block and…well…that's about it really. There isn't any running water either.
The other popular spot for camping is up at the Buttermilks, but if you choose to do so please be sympathetic to the local environment (i.e. use the long drop, pick up your litter, and camp away from the main car parking areas). Whilst camping here may be free it does get very cold overnight and bears the full brunt of the weather.
If you're after a little more luxury you can book yourself into one of Bishop's many motels/bunkhouses, with Hostel California being a popular one amongst the climbing fraternity.
Which guide to I buy?
There's two guidebooks available, the Bishop Bouldering Select by Airlie Anderson and McKenzie Long (RRP £28.95) and Bishop Bouldering by Charlie Barrett and Wills Young (released in 2018 and currently unavailable in the UK). The former features 600 problems vs. the latter's 2,300, but let's face it - you're barely going to manage a fraction of each within a single visit. Both are good guides, so it largely comes down to individual preference. I suspect most will opt for the former owing to its availability.
Where can I buy beer and food?
Vons is realistically your best bet for a big shop, having the largest selection and the best prices. If you do go be sure to get a loyalty card on your first shop, because a) it's free and b) provides you with a healthy discount.
Manor Market is also worth checking out for real food (i.e. at the more natural/fresh end of the spectrum).
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