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The Great Outdoors: A GUIDE TO ORANGE COUNTY RECREATION
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No Idyl Thoughts

Climbers Seek Challenges in Some Pretty High Places

May 23, 1997|BENJAMIN EPSTEIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Here we are, perched 600 feet off the ground, secured by the merest of slings, rope dangling down a sheer granite face, incredible forested vistas and a miniature road far below, munching the last of our ahi jerky and Power Bars, and pondering the inescapable truth:

There sure ain't no climbing like this in Orange County.

So it is that when summertime comes, local rock climbers' thoughts turn to Suicide--the rock, not the act--and to the even more imposing outcropping called Tahquitz across the way; both are located above the mountain town of Idyllwild.

Why not climb closer to home?

"Because there's no place to climb," explained Justin Bastien, 23, of Laguna Hills one of dozens of climbers at Tahquitz on a recent spring weekend; despite a somewhat grueling hike (only about 20 minutes, but steep) just to get to the base of the rock, those numbers swell considerably on any given summer day.

Probably the most celebrated climbing venue in Orange County is Pirates Cove in Corona del Mar, but as Bastien noted, "It's short. And the holds break off." A spot called "The Falls," near the Ortega Highway, is also limited in scope, and indoor artificial wall climbing, such as that found at Rockreation in Costa Mesa, is considered by most climbers to be best suited for training.

Real climbing, they say, takes place outdoors.

And in Southern California in the summer, real climbing means Idyllwild. Suicide and Tahquitz, also known as Lily Rock, offer quality and quantity, with enough variety to keep a climber busy ticking off routes for decades. They also offer history.

"This is where rock climbing [in the United States] began," said Gavin "Jason" Bagby, 27, a budding actor from Hollywood and a climbing partner of Bastien's. "This is where [legendary climbers] Royal Robbins, John Long, all those guys came." The rock is beautiful enough to begin with, he pointed out, but for climbers with an awareness of tradition, "It's an amazing feeling to climb here."

Indeed, climbing at Tahquitz parallels the birth of the sport in the United States. The first technical route up Tahquitz--that is to say requiring ropes and specialized protective gear--was ascended in 1936; "The Trough" also ultimately proved the easiest way up, and today is often used as an introduction to multi-pitch climbing. (One pitch is equal to or less than one rope length, about 165 feet; climbs at Tahquitz can be up to seven pitches long.)

Several more routes on Tahquitz, including one called "Angel's Fright," followed soon after. Dick Jones led up "The Mechanic's Route"--an exposed, steep face with virtually no protection possible and one of the most difficult climbs in the country at the time--in tennis shoes! The route still gives pause to climbers, who now have the benefit of special shoes with the stickiest rubber technology has to offer. In the 1950s, Robbins provided a new benchmark in difficulty with his still-revered "Open Book." Also active at that time were Chuck Wilts and pioneer climbing gear and clothing manufacturer Yvon Chouinard.

According to Irvine attorney Randy Vogel's "Guide to Tahquitz and Suicide Rocks," the focus shifted to Suicide in the '60s and '70s. Topping out on a route there dubbed "Valhalla" was required by a counterculture group of hotshot climbers calling themselves "The Stonemasters."

Among its "members": Long, author of numerous fiction and non-fiction rock climbing books (on one of which the movie "Cliffhanger" was based); celebrated free soloist John Bachar, celebrated for climbing extremely difficult routes without any protection; and Tobin Sorrenson, a colorful character who provided Long and succeeding generations of climbers no end of amusement and inspiration. In 1975, according to Vogel, Sorrenson led "what is arguably the most outstanding first ascent ever made in the Idyllwild area. 'The Edge' . . . remains one of the most psychologically demanding routes in Southern California." Among a later generation of climbers, Tony Yaniro, featured in the IMAX movie "To the Limit," started climbing at Tahquitz as a teenager. Bob Gaines, who teaches climbing locally and who collaborated on Vogel's guidebook, made a number of first ascents.

As for very recent history, Bastien and Bagby considered a reporter's climbing "credentials," and magnanimously allowed him to tag along for a day on the rock. Bastien flew up "Angel's Fright" and harder climbs including "Human Fright" and "El Camino Real." Bagby (with the reporter in tow) linked pitches of several historic routes--"Dave's Deviation," "Piton Pooper" and "Upper Royal's Arch," all first ascended by Wilts or Robbins or both--to get to the top before hooking back up with Bastien.

All three routes featured classic, thin crack climbing; the final arch is spectacularly exposed--meaning there's not a whole lot beneath you except air--and proved the high point of the climb in more ways than one.

A third friend, Ryan Mitchell of Mission Viejo, 23, climbed one pitch, then relaxed with his dog, Daisy, read, and simply enjoyed the crisp mountain air and stupendous scenery. And hey, it doesn't get any better than that.

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