In the spring of 1850 a few settlers unearthed one of the largest gold deposits in the Central Sierra in the small town of Columbia, California. In less than one year over 5,000 fierce and swearing gold miners inhabited the surrounding hillsides. By 1852 the stone buildings that line Columbia’s small main street were occupied with more than 40 drinking and gambling establishments. Hydraulic mining – a process that involves blasting high-pressure jets of water at hillsides to extract minerals – removed cubic tons of soil from the adjacent hillsides. So much dirt was removed that Columbia’s elevation was lowered by nearly 30 feet.
In recent years, Columbia’s unique marble formations have gained a reputation for fun and interesting climbing, but it is this area’s unique surroundings and labyrinth-like terrain that separate it from other bouldering areas. Talus landings in the tight corridors can turn a 10-foot boulder problem into a risky undertaking. There are boulders that have seen two ascents and three broken ankles. Yet Columbia’s earliest climbers pushed standards up to V9 with astonishingly tall top-outs. The 1970s through the early 1990s saw folks like Dave Yerian, Phil Bone, John Yoblonski, Michael Campana, Preston Birdwell and Chris Falkenstein doing some of California’s hardest technical moves high above those treacherous landings.
The lack of traffic is a direct effect of Columbia’s dangerous and dirty nature, and despite virtually unlimited bouldering possibilities, California’s eastern Sierra overshadowed Columbia in the early 1990s. The easy access, flat landings and clean boulders of places like the Buttermilks only highlighted Columbia’s dangerous talus, poison oak and persistent moss. Everywhere but the most accessible areas were neglected for nearly 15 years. As a result, a large number of established boulder problems vanished into the foliage.
Fast forward to the spring of 2005 when a wiry and motivated Touchstone member named Ben Pope moved from the Bay Area to attend Columbia Junior College. In his two-year stay, Pope brushed and chalked more than 100 problems. Some of his discoveries were certainly first ascents, while others were most likely resurrected from previous generations. Motivation spread and soon local climbers Lance Kimball, Dan Forbes, Andrea Batt, Paul Behee and Anthony Allopenna began scrubbing. Within a year, Ben Polanco realized the potential, and fellow Bay Area-based climbers Ryan Moon, Kalen Rago, Bryan Hedrick, Eric Sanchez, Jeremy Ho, Monica Aranda and Kyle O’Meara were psyched enough to visit during winter’s ideal conditions.
This generation’s discoveries included an area now called Miner’s Bane. The wall’s namesake problem checks in at V7 combining a logical and powerful sit start into a tall, orange-and-black streaked headwall. Reminiscent of a miniature Thailand sport climb, the problem gracefully weaves through steep tufas and in-cut edges to finish with technical ring-locks in a flaring crack system. Another brilliant line called Aries’ Curse (V9) follows a natural weakness through the belly of a 25-foot roof. Huge, technical moves on solid holds lead to splitter finger-locking and laybacking on a massive, horizontal fracture.
Today, Columbia has its own guidebook, an online forum and a Facebook page. Still, many of the newest generation’s problems remain undocumented. But perhaps it’s better this way; because as the moss grows back and the chalk washes away, the next group of climbers will have the opportunity to experience this amazing place as though they were the first. As they thrash through the dense thickets in search of new routes, Columbia will gladly provide them with a sense of adventure and the thrill of a first ascent.
Grave of the Underpants V6
Triple Cracks V6
Miner’s Bane V7
Ultimate Trogdor V8
Grandma Death V10
Look for Columbia Bouldering by Dean Fleming and Daniel Forbes at a Touchstone Climbing pro shop near you!