Each winter season hundreds of climbers speed through the sleepy Eastern Sierra town of Lone Pine, continuing north on Highway 395 to the popular bouldering destinations outside of Bishop, California. The boulders of Bishop are world-class, and their position in the warm desert climate makes them perfectly suited to winter excursions. Yet the climbing options in the idyllic Owens Valley extend far beyond the Buttermilks and the Tablelands; like the quartz monzonite dome-land of the Alabama Hills, a convenient climbing area just a few miles west of Lone Pine that has been recognized as a lazy climber’s paradise since the early 1970s.
The quartz monzonite blobs of the Alabama Hills resemble a smaller yet much more heavily featured Joshua Tree, with fewer cracks and a much stronger pull toward bolted face climbing. A few of the earliest routes climbed in the Alabama Hills were established by California climbing legends like Norman Clyde, Warren Harding, and Fred Becky. Later on, folks like Mike Strassman, Tim Standing, Marty Hornick, Jackie Carroll, Raleigh Collins, and Tom Ace bolted numerous of fun face climbs in the Hills.
Today the Alabama Hills area is perhaps the most perfectly suited destination for the novice climber in the state of California. While some adventurous lines can be found in the Alabama Hills, the climbing at this location is largely defined by convenient, safe, short, and beginner-friendly sport climbing. The Hills host stacks of well-bolted climbs in the 5.0 to 5.9 range, and almost every route sports convenient mussy hook anchors for easy lower-offs.
The most recent development has been spearheaded by local Lone Pine climbers like Myles Moser and Amy Ness, who have been seeking out and establishing stacks of steeper, harder sport climbs in the Alabama Hills since their arrival in the mid 2000s. The pair has bolted numerous severely overhanging climbs in the 5.11+ to 5.12+ range; climbs like White Trash (5.12b), a thin and technical boulder problem that leads to a nearly 45-degree overhang with giant huecos, and German Sidepull (5.12a), a steep and exposed arête that sits perched a few hundred feet above a stack of boulders in the Cattle Pocket area. These newly established routes have sparked a small resurgence of development and discovery in the Alabama Hills, yet the region is still most noteworthy for its easy access, relaxed feel and incredible views of the Sierra Crest to the west and the White Mountains to the east.
Shark Fin Arete (5.7)
Poodle Chews It (5.9)
The Hole (5.10c)
White Trash (5.12b)
WHERE TO STAY:
Camping at this crag is quite possibly the best part of the Alabama Hills experience. Free camping for 17 days can be found at numerous conveniently located sites, most of which are just footsteps from the area’s best cliffs. It is crucial to note that climbers must respect the area and only camp at established campsites and only drive or park on established roads. Rangers at the Alabama Hills will often patrol the region, and parking or driving off main roads seems to be their main concern.
The Alabama Hills region is most widely known for its role as a dramatic backdrop for nearly 150 films and over a dozen television shows. The iconic western landscape of the Alabama Hills has been featured in classics like the Lone Ranger and Bonanza, as well as modern films like Iron Man and Django Unchained. Although the film history of the Hills is probably the least exciting aspect of the region to the modern climber, the Western Film Museum near the entrance to the Alabama Hills is a great stop for an unusual and interesting rest day.
Look for Bishop Area Rock Climbs by Marty Lewis and Peter Croft at Touchstone Pro Shops.
Trip Report by Dean Fleming.