Who Did The First Ascents At Big Rock- A Historical Survey

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DonC

climber
CA
Sep 13, 2013 - 07:49am PT
Phil - I remember that Topo. English Hanging Gardens at 5.9?? I recall the Giant Step moves to be pretty tricky also for 5.10. Left Flake at 5.8 seems high, a few others done't seem right either.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 13, 2013 - 08:18am PT
Nice topo Phil!

Is this the first one that anyone put out?

What is Pat Merrill's story?

DonC- How many routes existed at Big Rock when you first visited to climb there?
PhilG

Trad climber
The Circuit, Tonasket WA
Sep 13, 2013 - 10:14am PT
Steve,
As far as I can recollect, this was the first Topo. There might have been a route list compiled prior to Pat's topo. Lee might have a better idea. As he said, his house was the climbing center for the group. If anyone had a different, earlier guide, he would have seen it.
Largo

Sport climber
The Big Wide Open Face
Sep 13, 2013 - 10:33am PT
I'm just getting down with a big project co-written with Peter Croft called the Trad Climber's Bible. I included a short chapter about our early, high school visits to Big Rock. Here is what I included in the book.

Haunted House

Big Rock was a longtime practice climbing area frequented by the local military base, the Sierra Club, and the Riverside Mountain Rescue Team, comprised of a few big-ass Jeeps and several dozen mountaineers dispatched to find lost hikers and cars that had driven “off the edge.” Legend has it that Big Rock saw its first activity in the late 1940s, when soldiers from the local Air Force sieged the water-trough running up the middle of the 150-foot high face. In the ensuing years, several generations of Los Angeles and San Diego-based climbers filled the gaps, mostly via bolt protected face climbs on the smooth diorite slab. When we finally showed up, the innovative work had been done. The place was largely abandoned and felt like a lost wing of the Smithsonian, the forty something routes so many relics of the pioneers who used Big Rock as a testing ground for evolving face climbing techniques.

We were still in high school, anxious to follow the chalk marks of the cast of knights who had dominated Southern California climbing for over a decade - then largely and suddenly vanished. We’d heard all about these guys and yet rarely saw or had met one. Naturally they became mythical figures in our young minds.

Their numbers included Paul and Phil Gleason, Pat Callis and Charlie Raymond, who developed Suicide Rock when both were grad students at CalTech, the preternatural Phil Haney, who cranked V10 boulder problems in the late 1960s, Keith Leaman, John Gosling, the ebullient, chain-smoking Don O’Kelly, and a few others (many were members of an ambitions Eagle Scout group, we later learned). On the gritty Big Rock slabs this gang had established a score of difficult, and in a few cases, desperate face climbs, right into the 5.12a grade, including the improbable English Hanging Gardens. Then they moved on and apparently never returned or looked back. Where were they now? What had gone on here?

Photo by Doug White
Photo by Doug White
Credit: Largo

Problem was, by the time my generation started climbing, the public was locked out of Big Rock while county workers built the Perris Lake Recreation Area. That never stopped us. We’d park out on the road and sneak in. We were well out of the way of the derricks and skip loaders so by the time a foreman was bothered to chase us off, we usually had ticked a handful of routes and were good to go. When the same cranky boss kept catching us, we worked out an arrangement of leaving a half pint of Old Forrester (in a brown paper bag, of course) on the boulder near the base of the slab. Then we were free to climb all day – no questions asked. These were simpler times.

Several of the more notorious formations, such as the Trapease, had been destroyed, the rock used for dam ballast. But the majority of the routes were still en tact. Giant Step and Let it Bleed – to mention a few - felt like stiff 5.11 in the lug-soled Kronhoffers and Robbins boots fashionable in the 1960s, were a touch easier in smooth soled Varappe boots that appeared around 1970, got easier still with the EBs of the mid 1970s, and ultimately were moderate 5.10 in the modern sticky rubber shoes of today. It was always an ego boost to return to Big Rock once every couple seasons, with the stylish new slippers, sticky as a chameleon’s tongue, and waltz up routes that spanked us silly in the hard-soled articles. Man, we were sure were getting better . . .

Credit: Largo

Above: Early 1980s, when you could drive your car to the base of the wall, tape deck blaring.

But the glorious days out at Big Rock were when we first visited the place and seemed to have it all to ourselves, knowing we were using the very footholds of the climbers who established the spectacular climbs up at Suicide and Tahquitz, where we came of age as adults and as climbers. We might have known next to nothing of these shadow figures, but we came to know their handiwork. Their names were lavishly strew across the guidebook pages of all the local venues, but they were gone now and there was nothing but rusty quarter inch Rawl Drive contraction bolts, widely spaced, to suggest that here at Big Rock they had smoked their Marlboros and told lies and took huge skidding falls, if the rumors are true, taking pictures of each other with Keith Leaman’s Kodak Brownie stuffed in a gym sock inside a Folgers Coffee can as they mastered small hold and friction climbing and learned how to engineer face climbs. Back in the day.

I had visited Big Rock perhaps a dozen times over several years before I was made aware (by former Big Rock regular Don O’Kelly) of another formation called The Nose, a 120 foot high, glass smooth arête with several extreme lines including the supposed “last great prize” (the Roman Nose, which followed the very arête) leftover from the previous generation. Located some quarter mile from the main slab, the lake nearly lapped the lower wall. Of course we had gazed across at this impressive prow many times while belaying from slings on the main face. I was unsure we could ever get onto the rock without a row boat. Turns out we could, and Tim Powell and I snuck over to The Nose one afternoon and managed the first free ascent of the Roman article - by the skin of our teeth.

Such was our crowning achievement at Big Rock, and it knitted us into the continuum with the heroes we silently grew up with. Climbing their routes at Big Rock was another rite of passage and by finishing the work they had started on the Roman Nose, we finally connected with the others whose shadows we’d chased, up all of those slabs, for all of those years.

Of course Big Rock was but a brief aside of the larger drama we all eventually found in Yosemite and beyond. Its charms are mostly lost on outsiders but were dear to us owing to its regional legacy, which read like the college diary of the home team. One’s early history always exerts a special hold on us; and to every successive generation, Big Rock will feel like a wall of phantoms, when the past meets the present where the rubber meets the rock. It’s an unremarkable place but it still feels enchanted, as for a moment in time we had it to ourselves, when the dam was forming up and the entrance fee was a short dog of cheap bourbon.

Credit: Largo

At an old abandoned crag the anxious silence reaches back to the long lost who worked out a way before them on the rock. Decades later at the juncture of back then and not yet, we rope up for a route and climb it right now. Riding old routes into the future. Following the line of phantoms whose bones might well be dust. We are the same ghosts following the same holds. Made real at the short span between our fingertips and a razor edge. We dangle side by side at the belay, paying out the memories. The collected astonishment, engrained in the rock, murmurs to those still on their way. Every route is an enchantment. Every crag is a haunted house.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Sep 13, 2013 - 10:56am PT
Superb offering John!

You do need to include Lee Harrell in your list of pioneers. He was really the first to open this place up and I will happily put you in touch with him if you like.

We are still working through the early routes.


Now, my hair gets longer as the beat gets stronger
Wanna tell Chuck Berry my news
I get my kicks outta guitar licks
And I've sold my steel toed shoes

Now I got this friend and he's a spider west sider
You know, he's hung up on a protection rejection thing
But I have made him see the light

He just wanna dance to
Honaloochie boogie, yeah
I get in time, don't worry 'bout the shirt shine
Honaloochie boogie, yeah
You sure started somethin'

Thanks for sharing!
Keith Leaman

Trad climber
Sep 13, 2013 - 11:40am PT
Largo, You are indeed a gifted writer! Nice tribute to the place. Here is a cleaned-up version of the photo on our FFA of the 'Virgin'.
Paul, Phil Gleason and I did the FFA of 'Virgin' 5.10 ca 1967
Paul, Phil Gleason and I did the FFA of 'Virgin' 5.10 ca 1967
Credit: KL
And this pre-dam bouldering photo of the 'Butcher' reminds me that one of the hot topics of the day was the advent of 'dynamic' as opposed to static moves, and whether such shenanigans were "real" climbing since they violated the three-holds-while-shifting-the-forth corollary to the-leader- must-not-fall axiom. HA HA!
Keith, Big Rock 'Butcher' 1965
Keith, Big Rock 'Butcher' 1965
Credit: Keith Leaman

I remember standing in the hot sun at the base of "White Delight", an aesthetic 1-2 pitch formation which was later completely destroyed, with Merrill and Phil as Pat showed us his first topo. Earth movers were moving in. Jack Schnurr and I attended several meetings with the construction company and various other factions, in an effort to dissuade any destruction of the major formations.

We were assured that none of the rocks would be damaged. But as the shoreline of the proposed reservoir continued to expand on the drawing board, we knew these were hollow promises. Jack had begun his journey toward becoming an Osteopath, I was headed for Anthropology studies in the jungles of central Mexico, Phil headed to Yosemite and Paul was chasing math problems and wildfires as a career.

Since we know the dam was built in '71, my estimate is that Pat's topo must have been printed around '70.
DonC

climber
CA
Sep 13, 2013 - 12:24pm PT
Keith - I was there the day you guys did the Virgin - great entertainment. The Butcher was a great problem along with the Fin, the Rings and many other problems. I remember Big Rick being a great bouldering area and spent lots of time with Don Okelly, Haney, Schnurr, Jim Barker and others.
looking sketchy there...

Social climber
Latitute 33
Sep 13, 2013 - 02:43pm PT
John, Thanks for the nice historical review of Big Rock. As with you, many of us cut our teeth there.

My first trip was in the company of DE, Matt Cox and Jim Angione. They all sported EBs, while I only had a worn pair of red PAs (my first shoes). The thin slab moves on Cheap Thrills seem near impossible to me. A few months later, after I purchased my first pair of EBs, on a return visit the moves seemed almost easy in comparison. I can only imagine how difficult these routes must have been in the early lug-soled boots used by our predecessors.

It is fair to say that I spent an inordinate amount of time at Big Rock over the years. And though it later became fashionable to denigrate the area, these early memories have a fond place in my heart.
henny

Social climber
The Past
Mar 13, 2014 - 07:57am PT
Revisited this thread after following some links. Can't believe I didn't post this earlier:

Edger Sanction - FA Tom Polk, not sure who seconded, or the year but likely around 74/75.

Out of Sight, Out of Mind - FA Matt Cox, again not sure who with but I think it was a group ascent, probably 74/75. I don't seem to see this route on the topos in this thread, but maybe I overlooked it. It is a right trending ascending traverse starting on the far left. My memory of the start is a little fuzzy as I haven't been to BR in years, but it starts either on Edger Sanction or Rat Crack, then goes hard right, hits the flake on EHG, eventually to the ledge at the flakes/Let It Bleed, then diagonals up right through Mad Dogs and Cheap Thrills ending at the top of the trough.

It was enjoyable re-reading Largo's post on doing the Nose with Tim. I went to the Nose with Tim a couple weeks later to do a repeat. Stealth operation, wait for the personnel to leave the area, then sneak over, haul ass to get up the route, and hustle back out. Good times.

Interesting, but one of my most vivid memories of Big Rock is not of climbing but of a giant rattlesnake. By far the biggest one I've ever seen, at least 50' long and thick as a tree. OK, slight exaggeration, but it truly was a monster. They can grow 'em big out there.

I had a friend that had a snake encounter on The Trough. Half way up the route he was startled to hear a rattle as he started to grab a shelf. A snake had somehow fallen (?) down the face and was apparently stuck there. It must have fallen vs. ascending. Right above it the rock got even lower angle. If it could have pulled the moves to get that high it could have topped out for sure.

Ah yes, some good memories of Big Rock.
Steve Grossman

Trad climber
Seattle, WA
Topic Author's Reply - Apr 10, 2014 - 03:20pm PT
Hey folks,

I am going to engage in a detailed discussion with Lee Harrell about Big Rock history pretty soon and he asked me if I had any good shots of the various formations or an aerial shot so that he can touch on doing some of the more obscure satellite routes here as best he can remember them.

If anyone has aerial photos or good perspective shots please post them up or let me know where to find them to make our discussion as productive as possible.

Thanks for the help. This should be really fun and I will report the findings right here so that we can see what comes of it.

Cheers!
Dave Kos

Social climber
Temecula
Apr 10, 2014 - 03:37pm PT
You can use google maps to get some nice perspectives:

http://www.google.com/maps/place/Lake+Perris/@33.8377834,-117.1768998,495a,35y,90h,39.23t/data=!3m1!1e3!4m2!3m1!1s0x80dca0965cf839b5:0xcf4e4ec105e77400
PhilG

Trad climber
The Circuit, Tonasket WA
Apr 10, 2014 - 04:39pm PT
Sorry Steve, no aerial shots.
Thanks for all your work getting this historical stuff recorded.
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