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September 14, 2006

Off the pavement, photo of rock climber

Vertical world

story & photos by BENNETT BARTHELEMY


Labor Day weekend at Paddy's with full campgrounds that can accommodate half a thousand, other day trippers like us. We stopped first at the visitor's center and saw that we could get a tour of the re-constructed Yurok village, Sumeg, or become junior rangers and make agate jewelry. We had taken the tour before (highly recommended), and didn't think we would pass the height requirement to be junior rangers, so we decided to find inspiration out on the rocks.

Inside 20 minutes we were doing our best sea lion impressions on a huge flat-topped boulder of greywacke overlooking the Pacific. Our lack of blubber forced us to lie close together to cut the bite of the onshore wind. Our closest neighbors were the other pinnipeds, and well beyond them were a few people on boats hunting for wild salmon -- the only people in sight on one of the State Park's busiest weekends of the year.

Circumscribing our perch was a tangle of purple thistle offset with dark green lupine bush that had long-since flowered. Legions of bracken fern and yellowing horsetail mingled -- I tried to imagine what it would have been like in ages past to see forests of horsetail five stories tall. In a sense, we too were on a boat in a sea of cellulose, casting out and reeling in incredible images of the wildness around us.

Strings of pelicans with small knots of cormorants ornamenting their ranks headed north while a tipsy turkey vulture headed south, with a crow giving chase. The tide was slowly rising. Sea palms rolled hypnotically with the surge of incoming waves while a curious sea lion bobbed up and down in slow arcs, resurfacing every 10 yards to eyeball us as she made her way south to join the others at Rocky Point.

Snoozing at our present aerie for a while we eventually rekindled our desire for higher vertical perspectives. Like much of the North Coast, what Patrick's Point lacks in sheer numbers of climbs, solid rock and solid protection, it more than makes up for in breathtaking views. For me, as a climber, the location is paramount to the actual stringing together of physical moves. There are probably less than a dozen climbs here, with only a couple of those suited to beginners, so the crowds, so far, have remained exceedingly thin and the adventure factor high. They require not only advanced skills but a heightened mental stamina.

The routes are scary and some are even dangerous. To replace the aging bolts to make them safe again in this ecologically and culturally sensitive environment is not necessarily impossible but very expensive from a park standpoint, and very time-consuming. This has proved too daunting for most climbers who volunteer their time and money to repair routes. When many of the North Coast climbs were first done in the late 1980s, climbers pretty much kept to themselves. Since climbing was a legitimate recreational activity in county, state, and federal parks, questions that maybe should have been asked, weren't. Back then the total number of climbers was relatively small, so much of the activity went unnoticed. Today, with tighter environmental controls, cultural concerns more loudly voiced, and climbing steadily growing in popularity, climbers are now more fixed in the public eye.

Here in Northern California native groups have been active for years helpPhoto of beach cleanup crew at Adopt-A-Beaching guide public park policy and working in the capacity as stewards to the public lands. I believe climbers and all park users could benefit by emulating this practice. For climbers, though, coming out of the shadows is hard not only because they may have to forego some freedoms they now enjoy, but because the word will be out to other climbers and places will likely get more crowded. Perhaps most intimidating is stepping up to the negotiating table to be involved with policy decisions in management plans and talking with other interest groups, like Native Americans, that may not really understand where climbers are coming from (cross-cultural education opportunity).

Left: Adopt-A-Beach clean up crew.

Locally, a climbing organization that I am part of advocates for informed and responsible use of the North Coast climbing resource. To date, the Bigfoot Country Climber Association (www.bigfootcountryclimbers.org) has sponsored local events and clean-ups of popular climbing areas like Moonstone Beach to pick up garbage left by partiers, to wash chalk off the rocks and to help instill a sense of stewardship for the lands that climbers recreate in. As part of a climbing culture that exercises its freedoms to climb, nearly all climbers find it imperative to also try and give something back to the areas they use. This may be through volunteer work, or through sharing local knowledge about the sensitive nature of certain areas. There are examples of climbers being part of the dialog with Native Americans and land managers regarding cultural issues and then voluntarily giving up freedoms in specific areas where official policy has yet to be enacted.

On the macro scale, moving from local grassroots to national, is the Access Fund (www.accessfund.org), which has worked closely with the BCCA.

Its vision statement reads: The Access Fund envisions a future in which climbing and access to climbing resources are viewed as legitimate, valued and positive uses of the land; where climbers respect and appreciate the places they climb so that the climbing environment is conserved for current and future generations.

But today my wife and are content to simply climb together -- sharing the intense connection that comes from being tied together with a thin rope and a few pieces of protection between us, on a fractured and slightly contoured chunk of vertical and slightly overhanging plane of grey-green stone. With the roar of waves at our back and birdsong overhead, we are honored that we have the ability to be in such a magical and improbable place, reading the stone like a secret map to unlock a treasure of dynamic motion in an ever-challenging vertical world. l

dingbat dingbat dingbat

Send email to bennettbarthelem@hotmail.com,
or write in care of the Journal at 145 G St., Suite A, Arcata, 95521.


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