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Climbing Mammoth Lakes With the Old Gang

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Marie Jose Gimenez on Benton Crags near Mammoth Lakes; Photograph by David Roberts
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The Minarets, from Minaret View, Mammoth Lakes, California; Photograph by Matt Hale

You don’t normally think of Mammoth Lakes, California, as a climbing mecca. I’d never been to Mammoth, in fact, before last September, when the Outdoor Writers Association of California (OWAC) invited me to be their “keynote speaker,” where I held forth about the joys and woes of 33 years of freelance writing. During those few days at Mammoth, along with epicurean wining and dining, halcyon hiking, and a solo round on the highest golf course in California (Sierra Star, at 8,000 feet), I recognized at once that Mammoth should be the next destination for our Old Gang of climbers.

The Gang has been meeting for the last 20 years, as we seek out a new romping ground each year for our rendezvous. The tradition was launched in the early 1990s, when, after a magazine assignment in Las Vegas, I persuaded my buddy Ed Ward, with whom I had mountaineered in Alaska and taught at Hampshire College, to come out for a fling at Red Rocks. Our core group soon included Matt Hale, who had been on Mount Huntington and in the Revelation Range with me way back when; Jon Krakauer, my writing colleague and Ed’s and my former Hampshire student; and longtime friends from western Massachusetts Chris Wejchert and Chris Gulick.

For several years we returned to Red Rocks, which offers some of the finest sandstone challenges in the country. But over the years we’ve also hit City of Rocks in Idaho, Smith Rock in Oregon, the Uintas in Utah, Tuolumne Meadows in California, Skaha in British Columbia, and even the Dolomites of Italy and the Calanques in southern France. And gradually we’ve expanded the club to include newer friends, mostly younger, including women, who regularly put us oldsters to shame on the crags.

During a week this June, eight of us congregated in a pair of swanky condos at the Snowcreek Resort, a mini-village of its own with stunning views of the cliffs just west of town, as well as Mammoth’s other golf course, called simply Snowcreek—a tricky and delightful nine-hole layout that wends its way over manicured hill and dale through the heart of the resort. Five of the six of our core contingent showed up—all except Krakauer, who was off gallivanting on Denali with Conrad Anker and a crew of expert snowboarders and skiers. (Jon had never quite gotten over failing to get up McKinley in 1987, when, on assignment for Outside, he’d written his classic comic riff, “Club Denali.” That article, in turn, led to the assignment that morphed into Into Thin Air. This year, Jon reached Denali’s summit.)

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Michael Wejchert on Iris Slab, Mammoth Lakes, California; Photograph by Matt Hale

Our junior members this time around were Anne-Laure Treny, Maria José Giménez, and Michael Wejchert. Ed had befriended the two women at climbing gyms in recent years. Anne-Laure, from France, is a big-shot engineer now based in Florida who nonetheless climbs with the Gallic grace inspired by such idols as Patrick Edlinger and Catherine Destivelle. Venezuelan-born Maria José, an ambitious young climber and a poet in her spare time, makes a living translating texts from Spanish to English. She had recently landed the job of turning Catorce Veces Ocho Mil, the memoir of Edurne Pasaban, the first woman to climb all fourteen 8,000-meter peaks, into English for the Mountaineers Books. Michael, Chris’s son, was fresh off a brutal Alaskan expedition during which the cold, never rising much above forty below, had precluded attempting the breakthrough new route he and his partners coveted. In California, he was overjoyed to bask in the sun as he got up 5.12s and scary runout 5.10s with impeccable nonchalance. Ranging in age from 26 (Michael) to 70 (me, the geezer), we reveled in the sort of cross-generational badinage that graces far too few human activities.

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Clark Canyon near Mammoth Lakes, California, David Roberts climbing; Photograph by Matt Hale

We climbed for seven straight days on seven different crags made of four different kinds of rock (granite, quartz monzonite, basalt, and tuff). What makes Mammoth an ideal climbing destination is that if the weather’s too hot, you can bop up to subalpine Tuolumne (as we did on two days), and if it’s too cold, you head down and east to Owens River Gorge or the outcrops and boulders near Bishop. If the weather’s perfect (as it was throughout our stay, sunny skies with temperatures ranging from low 60s to low 80s), you can dip your toe in several lifetimes’ worth of excellent granite routes near town.

Mammoth Lakes owes its existence as a resort to Dave McCoy, a hydrographer who noticed how much snow fell there every winter and started a ski area on Mammoth Mountain in 1953. The place is still best known as a skiing paradise in the same league as Aspen and Sun Valley. But it’s a terrific place in which to cavort in summer as well, a hip, upscale town as sportif as Boulder, Colorado, or Bend, Oregon. Among the activities we simply didn’t have enough time to sample were some of the finest fly fishing in the West (on the Owens River and Hot Creek), mountain biking on hundreds of miles of designated trails, visiting nearby Devils Postpile National Monument (a prodigy of columnar basalt), and hiking the labyrinthine trail system that spiders through the evergreen forests surrounding Mammoth.

Indeed, in a week there, I don’t think we saw a single out-of-shape resident. Everybody we ran into seemed to be an outdoor athlete. Chris Wejchert and I paired up with a stranger on the Snowcreek golf course who turned out to be a climber happy to recommend specific routes to us, as were the waiters in two of the restaurants where we had dinner. And corny though it sounds (especially to my jaded Eastern ears), everyone we talked to was downright friendly. (If there’s a Mammoth town grouch, he must hibernate in the summer.)

The year before, I had befriended two locals, both of them freelance writers. One was David Page, who had invited me to speak at OWAC. We had dinner with him on our last night this June, as we tried to scheme up a next-year’s destination that could match Mammoth. (Bariloche? Page was all for it.) The other, Monica Prelle, supplements her writing career as the wine director for the Westin Hotel, where she hosted us for the most Lucullan of our several banquets in the town’s good restaurants.

Monica, who writes for some of the same sites and magazines as I do, is an ace extreme snowboarder and mountain biker, but she’d never really climbed before. When we invited her to our first cliff, she took off work to join us and dubiously tied in for her first foray up vertical rock. In four successive days, she progressed faster than almost any beginner I had ever been out with. By the last day, she’d bought her own harness and rock shoes. She’s now hooked on climbing, and has officially become the newest member of the Old Gang. (Bariloche next February, Monica?)

Our reunions are all about climbing, but the glue that holds them together is the story-telling and reminiscing that flow from too much wine around the campfire. Yes, about half the time we’ve camped out during our annual rendezvous, and there’s nothing like a campfire to spark the boasting and joshing that careen long into the night.

There are plenty of good Forest Service campgrounds near Mammoth, but we couldn’t resist the sybaritic temptations of our Snowcreek condos, where it was so pleasant to hang out that we several times forwent the restaurants in favor of home-cooked breakfasts and barbecues. Maria José, who worked for several years as a chef, whipped up frittatas in the morning. Chris Wejchert orchestrated a nonstop mixed grill of sausages, chops, and steaks, washed down with a jeroboam of zinfandel blend provided by Monica and a flagon of good rum smuggled up from Miami by Anne-Laure.

During our reunions, we slip into our by-now prescribed personae. Ed is the strongest climber among us oldsters, blithely leading trad 5.10s and the occasional 5.11 at an age when, thanks to missing knee cartilage, he can climb better than he can walk. Matt has become the Weegee of our outings, sneaking around the cliffs with his Nikon lenses and catching us in poses we never knew we struck. Chris Wejchert, burstingly proud of the fact that his son has become one of New England’s top mountaineers, at the same time wonders whether it was wise to infect his kid with the hazardous summit fever that animated his own youth. Chris Gulick is an inexhaustible source of stories about our hijinks in the 1970s and ‘80s, tales that only get more Rabelaisian each time he tells them. (All the more fun, as Maria José, Anne-Laure, and Michael had never heard them before.)

What’s great about it all is that we’re still climbing, some us more than half a century after we first tied into a goldline rope with a bowline on a coil. Still climbing rock, long after we’ve abandoned our dreams of glory on the touch football field or the basketball court.

All too soon this June, it was time to leave. In seven days together, we hadn’t had a cross word or a leader fall long enough to scare either climber or belayer. A month later, scattered to the corners of our ordinary lives, we’re still e-mailing each other and trading photos, closing, as often as not, “Yeah, Mammoth was great.”

Hey Gang, I have a proposal. Bariloche can wait. I still want to climb on Psycho Killer Rock and Gong Show Crag, and I want to see Ed leading 5.10s after he’s turned 70. Let’s head back to Mammoth in 2014. Whaddya say?