On October 20 and 21th from 10 am until 4 pm, a group of local climbers will be organizing a raffle, free food and a chance to clean up the famous Indian Rock area. The climbing there is well known to Bay area boulderers. It’s been well documented as the place where Berkeley climbers developed the dynamic belay. Just above Indian Rock is the infamous Mortar Rock.
“It’s like Cresciano but better,” said Bay area climber Ethan Pringle. Pringle’s tongue in cheek comment of the local climbing area represents the common view of Mortar Rock. There’s a solid history of climbers who are unable to resist the park’s charm.
Set in a residential area in the Berkeley hills, Mortar Rock hosts the largest concentration of difficult climbing per square foot in California. Approximately 100 feet long and 25 feet tall at its apex, the median boulder problem on the sharp rhyolite falls in the solid double V digit range. “As a boulderer in the bay area, it’s a pretty awesome place to work on advancing your skills. Some seriously stout problems, and a shit ton of climbable days throughout the year,” said Mortar rock first ascentionist Randy Puro. Perhaps the most interesting bit about Mortar is the history of the bouldering there.
A small posse of climbers started the action at Mortar Rock. Scott Frye, Nat Smale, Harrison Dekker, John Sherman, Chris Vandiver and others, tired of the regular circuit down at Indian Rock walked up the hill to Mortar Rock. “We suffered through years and years of eliminates,” said Frye. “Like the kids got tired of street tricks and found swimming pools to skate board in, we found more physical more dynamic climbing after we’d put in our years working footwork and crimp strength.”
The initial development of Mortar Rock included just a few problems on the rock itself. The crew stole a bench from a nearby park and placed it beneath the right side of the wall creating the appropriately named Bench Wall. When the city moved the bench, the climbers moved it back. “The bench was an immediate hit. We even jokingly used to refer to giving each other “psychic spots” because we were too comfortable on the bench to get up and give a proper spot,” said Harrison Dekker. On a small boulder next to Mortar, Dekker and Vandiver competed for the first ascent of the Pipeline Traverse. A few days after working the problem with Vandiver, Dekker found a matchbook cover folded inside out and placed on the starting holds. The words “Done –CV” and the date marked the completion of the coveted ascent. A few weeks later, Dekker sent a TR problem above the Pit at Indian Rock before Chris was able to do it. He scrawled “Done” in 12-inch chalk letters on the wall. These types of competitive tactics were common in the early days. The boulderers were young and prone to hassling each other. At one point Steve Moyle chalked a couple of desperate holds, thinking the line was impossible. He lied to Nat Smale, telling him the boulder problem had gone. A few weeks later Nat climbed the problem and Nat’s Lieback was born.
The boulderers continued to try to keep up Nat Smale when he made the first ascent of Nat’s Traverse, which in 1976 was one of the most physically difficult climbs in the United States. John Sherman added the top rope problem The Impossible Wall and the group continued with a series of difficult eliminate problems. The locals focused heavily on repeating Nat’s Traverse and when they had that problem dialed, they climbed it backwards, they climbed it while drinking a beer, and they climbed it placing a cookie on each hold and stopping to eat the cookie.
Just to the right of the Ramp, the finish to Nat’s Traverse, sits Jungle Fever. Frye named the boulder problem after the root he grabbed at the top when he completed the problem in 1977. Vines covered the entire wall from Jungle Fever to the Bench Wall. “The vines were weird thick things and over the Impossible Wall they arched away from the wall then curved back in towards the base,” said Harrison Dekker. You could get inside them and see that there were holds and problems to be done.”
The thick vines remained for many years until Greg Loh arrived at Mortar. Loh worked his way through the established problems, climbing Nat’s Traverse, the Pipeline, and making a rare boulder ascent of The Impossible Wall, which had a large tree underneath it at the time and a dangerous landing. “One rainy afternoon I got a wild hair and decided to pull a few of the vines down. Once I started to see the wall, I began to pull more down. All told, I spent about 2 weeks digging, cutting, and removing any trace of vegetation on the wall,” said Loh. In the summer of 1996, Loh completed New Wave, the first problem on this uncovered section of the wall. “New Wave to me was literally that,” said Scott Frye, “A new wave.”
The removal of the vines brought about a whole new area. “This opened up new possibilities for “fresh” lines, a pretty rare opportunity at an urban bouldering area that has been climbed on for several decades,” said Tom Richardson. Richardson added Egypt Air, a highball finish to the Impossible Wall and the difficult Don’t Worry Be Snappy. Loh continued his development with The Kraken, Mission Impossible, and Beached Whale. Further deforestation, this time the removal of the tree beneath the Impossible Wall by the city of Berkeley, resulted in another flurry of new problems including Loh’s lower start to Impossible Wall dubbed the Chinese Connection and the ascent of the obvious and extremely difficult Impossible Wall Traverse, a line that has seen only two ascents by Chris Sharma and by local Mortar rocker Brian Hedrick. Randy Puro added a few additional lines in most recent years, “I myself have added a handful of sit starts to the existing lines. Simply additional challenges, more of the same really, a toolset for developing a descent blend of finger strength, technique, and power (and skin) which can go a fair distance in helping someone move forward in the sport.” To a large extent the plums of the newly cleaned Mortar had been picked.
“I hear you’re developing a new wall in Berkeley,” a Bay Area climber said to Scott Frye. There was some truth to the rumors. In the past few years, Frye has utilized the French Fry, the Putting Green, the Milk Shake, and the Lettuce Leaf to create hundreds of different combinations of eliminate boulder problems on the ten foot wide section of Mortar called the Garbage Can Wall. “There had been a garbage can and we removed it,” said Frye, “We called an ultra eliminate session garbage canning. It became about the lowest sit start. That’s how we grew up at Indian rock. If we did it with our left hand than we’d do it with our right.”
While the limits of variations and eliminate boulder problems are endless, there remains a few proud test pieces including a link of Nat’s Traverse to the Impossible Wall Traverse, estimated at a solid 9a+. Randy Puro stated the best part of the Mortar Rock experience, “Most anyone who gets the genuine bouldering bug can find a real growth experience there as a climber, and still to this day, you’d have to be something pretty special to climb the place out, even after years of trying.”
Come out to the clean-up. Please be sure to register online at the Indian Rock Clean-up event page. We want to make sure to have enough food and tools for everyone who is volunteering.