Big Rock - a little history


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Topic Author's Original Post - May 3, 2007 - 10:52pm PT
In a recent thread I noticed a number of people mentioned doing their first lead at Big Rock. I recall reading in Climbing Free by Lynn Hill, that her first climbing was done at Big Rock.

I first started climbing at Big Rock in 1968 when I was a sophomore in high school. This was the era of 1” swami belts, gold line, Kronhoefers or Pivettas, hip belays, hand tied slings, and iron. If you used chalk, a small piece was kept in your shirt or pants pocket. Usually I just grabbed a handful of dust at the base of the climb and put it in my pocket. It was before the lake. A dirt road led almost to the base of the rock and on days when we had the place to ourselves we would play an 8 track of the Stones, belay from the bumper of our 1957 Chevy woody, and have a blast. An occasional ice chest would even make its way to the big ledge under the flakes. We had fun.

I was a “regular” for a few years and Doug Tilleskjor and Wilbur Greg were my frequent climbing partners. Doug was a dental tech in the Navy stationed down at Miramar. He did one tour in Vietnam, was very laid back, and a great slab climber. Wilbur was unlike anyone I had ever met. He was in his mid twenties, lived with a harem of beautiful girls, and helped people figure out ways to avoid the draft. I heard stories of him cutting off fingers and toes to keep people out. He was positive that his house was bugged by the FBI. Wilbur was not the strongest climber but he had the prettiest knickers and his RR’s were always clean and blue. For a naïve teenager, hanging out with these two guys was quite an experience.

For several years the 3 of us would meet nearly every weekend and climb at Big Rock, Tahquitz, Joshua Tree, etc. At Joshua Tree we did lots of cracks and slabs that later sprouted 3 – 5 bolts and first ascents claimed by others years later.

I remember meeting Paul and Phil Gleason. Phil Haney was an incredibly stronger boulderer, amazing us with his one arm dynos. Don O’Kelly and his son were frequently there and to this day I can visualize the gobies and blood that always seem to cover Don’s hands, elbows, and knees. I will never forget Keith Lehman’s flaming red hair and great style. Bernie McIlvoy and his partner Mike were also great friends. I went to high school with Terry Goodykuntz and John Mokri. John died during an early free ascent of the DNB, and an early edition of the Joshua Tree guide is dedicated to him. I can visualize the faces and hear the laughs of many others; I just don’t remember their names so many years later.

A number of us later worked at Alpenlite, a small backpacking equipment manufacturer. Alpenlight was owned by the same people who owned the Backpacker, a short-lived climbing shop in Upland. I dated the owner’s daughter and often hung out at the store. I remember one day a kid comes in and wanted to take some climbing lessons. He didn’t look like the thin and wiry climbers I hung out with. He was strong and muscular, but we signed John Long up anyway, sure that he had no future.

When I first visited Big Rock in 1968 most of the routes were already established. During the few years I frequented the area Cheap Thrills and Let it Bleed were added. Someone (Don O”Kelly?) drilled bat hook holes for Cheap Thrills and hooked his way up, and shortly thereafter Phil Haney plugged a few of the holes with bolts and did it free. In 1969, with sewing machine legs Doug and I climbed the face between the two flakes, putting in a few bolts, and established Let it Bleed. Edger Sanction, Pudnurtle, Hard Trough and a few others were put up long after I left the area.

We had done all the routes many times (actually I could seldom make the move on Giant Step until about 20 years later with better shoes), so we would make-up grand traverses trying to touch all the routes, or do all the routes in a day. But for many of us, our day at Big Rock was filled with bouldering. Unfortunately the lake buried great problems like The Rings, The Butcher, The Fin, and many many others. Doug, Phil, Don and I would work on a problem together all weekend encouraging each other, laughing, and having a blast. There were also a few other lead faces including Limp Dick and The Nose. The top of The Nose can still be seen sticking out of the water, near where the trail leaves the dam and ascends the hill.

I remember some great falls and with a hip belay the belayer would often scream as loud as the climber. Add all the iron jangling around and it was quite a scene. Other than battered foreheads, noses, chins, fingertips, elbows, and knees, from sliding 50 feet or more on the low angle rock, I don’t remember any serious injuries. Bernie did take a huge whipper, which I unfortunately missed, breaking his leg. A few weeks later he hitchhiked to Mt Whitney and made it up the mountaineers route, leg cast and all.

My most dangerous day at Big Rock occurred when my brother and I were on the face and some drunks drove-up and started shooting at the face, bullets hitting 10 feet or so from us. We rapped down; they confronted us, and took all our money. It wasn’t much, they left, and we had a great afternoon of bouldering.

Big Rock is insignificant in the grand scheme of things, but I think it has meant something special to quite a few people. I’d like to hear other Big Rock stories.
Ed Hartouni

Trad climber
Livermore, CA
May 3, 2007 - 11:15pm PT
Nice story Don, I never made it out to Big Rock in my SoCal climbing career. I do remember Wilbur though, a memorable character with a huge heart. I don't suppose you have more stories about him. I lost all contact after leaving my short lived job at Alpenlite, but that was pretty cool for a 16 year old, quite an eye opener.

Big Rock was a beloved place at that time, and the creation of the lake seemed to change that scene significantly.


Social climber
Joshua Tree, CA
May 3, 2007 - 11:32pm PT
Great thread!! A lot of my earliest routes were at BR... some fun we had in those days!! (early '70's)

Sport climber
Venice, Ca
May 3, 2007 - 11:38pm PT
I almost grew up at Big Rock and memories of the place are very fond. Terry G. and John M., as well as Bernie M., Don O'Kelly, the Gleason bros., Haney (an insane talent) and many others were very influential to our early lives. I can remember as though it were yesterday - driving out to BR with Richard and Ricky, Mot the Hoople on the 8 Track and rag week in the bowl, then onto the big slab for mega routes. We were a few years late for the Golden Age of BR activity and the Stonemasters were in fact a second wave of early California climbing action preceeded by Don C's group. That was a very interesting time and I wonder what happened to all of those guys.

I've always said that English Hanging Gardens was 5.12 and Haney did it around 1968 I think.


Social climber
Joshua Tree, CA
May 4, 2007 - 12:26am PT
You're right John, The English Hanging Gardens seemed a bit harsh for it's grade...

Trad climber
May 4, 2007 - 12:38am PT
I agree, JL and Watusi. Even climbing consistently solid 5.11, and occasional 12s, I never got EHG even once--not on lead, or on toprope. I figure its rating must date back to those days when the imagination didn't go as far as 5.12, so it had to be 11 at the most.

Big Rock is a great place--low angle, but great fun. My memory may be fuzzin' out on me, but JL, did I see you and Darrel Hensel out there shooting some footage for a face climbing instructional video several years back?

Desolation Basin, Calif.
May 4, 2007 - 12:45am PT
That's a really nice story. Big Rock is OK. Would like to have been there pre-lake.

My first run out lead was Puppydog. I was really sweating bullets looking for a bolt! Also got the bejeezis scared out of me going for that first bolt on Africa Flake.

Ah, those were the days. Oh, wait, that was last month!

It's a nice place to climb, relax at the table and watch the action.

Sport climber
The South
May 4, 2007 - 01:04am PT
My first lead also was at Big Rock--the 5.5 "Trough" (I don't remeber if that is correct name, though). I was an undergrad at UCR and I recall doing the route thinking, "Damn, my first multi-pitch." Little did I know. We didn't have a rope long enough, so we had to belay from a bolt or two half-way up. I also remember being frightened out of my head on a 5.11 left of the "Trough." On a Saturday moring, ferociously hungover after a beer-fuled night of drinking in Riverside, I set out on the route--reachy at the beginning, then vertical to slab--and ran out of bolts...that is, bolts with hangers. I didn't have any stoppers to swag the bolt stems, so I ended up running the route out to the top. It felt like climbing on 50 feet of greasy muffins. Scared the sh*t out of me. After the adrenalin subsided, my head throbbed like a pulsating diesel engine. My climbing partner and I gathered our gear, hiked out to the generic campgound, and medicated our hangovers with left over Miller HighLifes. A memorable day for sure; I still remember it nearly 20 year later.

Trad climber
sorry, just posting out loud.
May 4, 2007 - 02:03am PT
The 80s were when I started going out there. I would drag any poor slob I could find out there just so I could touch stone. Back in the day, post lake, you could still drive to the base occasionally, but later it was a walk.

The heat would sometimes drive ya batty, but you at least got to touch the rock after a nasty week with your teachers you simply couldn't fathom why you would draw little 'x's on your book cover.

Even later the gang-bangers that were escaping east LA and living in Riverside Co then, would vacation at Perris. Car break ins became common. What was worse the attendant would leave early and you parked outside the gate so you could climb past sunset. bad news.

Later I went back for a day of cragging solo and had my old man's nissan broken into. dipshits couldn't figure out how to pull the Alpine out. idiots.

I just remembered a time when Jack Wygal saved my ass (a high school bud and member of the climbing club I started with friends at Orange High), I thought I would be cool and solo The Trough on one of those early trips. Got to near the first belay and didn't have the stones for the stone. He dropped a rope, and I made my way off. easy climbing really. But jeebus that scared me. One of those experiences that trains the brain not to 'show off'.

The chickenhead features were the coolest out there. That and you could lead and climb with little gear, which back then, i had little of.

The first time I got the updated topo, I thought, 'wow, look at all the new routes i can go back and do' but never really did because about that time I started doing other things like bouldering at Rubidoux (closer) and later going to Owens, a trip to the Buttermilks, or other areas like bouldering at Corona Del Mar.

Brutus of Wyde

Old Climbers' Home, Oakland CA
May 4, 2007 - 12:24pm PT
Big Rock and Rubidoux figured large in my early climbing career as well. Climbed the Trough once in Mountaineering boots, clipping only one bolt, in preparation for the East Face of Mt. Whitney.

Bought my first climbing gear at Highland Outfitters: blind-gate eiger ovals and goldline rope. This wasn't the earliest days, mind you... Red P.A.s were new on the market. I remember getting there at 4 am one morning to be in line for their annual rental sale. Seems to me Largo and Tobin may have been a few places back, waiting for the goodies as well.

A month or so after this Roy Naasz took me up my first multi-pitch: Open Book at Tahquitz. All these decades later, I still can't believe I led the second pitch of that climb.

My most memorable evening at Big Rock was when Pat Brennan and I were driving out the afore-mentioned dirt road, and low and behold in the evening twilight we spotted a rope and rack laying in the middle of the road!

Left our names and phone numbers with the rangers, and the day after, we returned the gear to its rightful owners, who had arrived at Humber Park (the start of a road trip) before realizing they had set the gear on the roof of the car, and driven off without further thought.

Good times.

Off White

Tenino, WA
May 4, 2007 - 12:55pm PT
Here's a couple of shots from the base of big rock circa 1977

BVB with the lake in the background

Part of Team Scumbag taking possession of the picnic table at the base of the rock

We made a number of forays up there, we all had a weakness for that slabbing stuff. I've got some grotty black and white butt shot slabbing action pics floating around somewhere, but I don't think they really capture the flavor of the place. It would have been grand to see it before the lake.
Bart Fay

Social climber
Redlands, CA
May 4, 2007 - 01:25pm PT
Plenty of great memories from Big Rock starting around ‘82.

There always seemed to be some kinda MoPed/Fat-Chick stigma about that place.
Sure it was fun, but we never talked about it when you were at JTree or Idyllwild.

Never could get English Hanging Gardens.

Social climber
So Cal
May 4, 2007 - 03:16pm PT
Started out there too.

It was 70 and they had just baracaded the road but hadn't started construction on the dam yet. We just thought they'd crated our own personal motorcycle drag strip. When it was hot we'd climb for a while and then blast down to a roadside fruit stand a couple of miles back. Eat a mellon bare handed in front of the stand driping all over and then blast back down the closed road at 130mph+.

Got busted once when a CHP pulled up when I was almost up the overhanging side of the big bolder that was straight west of the main face. He demanded that I get down and I protested that the only way down was up. We got escorted out, but no ticket.

We almost always had the place to ourselves and the only time I remember running into anyone out there, one of the other party was leading with a swammi tied around a body cast. He'd broken his back in a fall not to long before.

anybody know who that was?

I never got EHG either.
looking sketchy there...

Social climber
Latitute 33
May 4, 2007 - 03:20pm PT
Ah yes, Big Rock (or as we would later derisively call it : Big Joke). My first foray to BR was with Dave Evans, Mike Raab and someone else (maybe Angione). They all had EBs whilst I was still climbing in my Red PAs. They danced up (or so it seemed) Let It Bleed and Cheep Thrills and I got to the top only with generous application of T&T (tension and toprope). I blamed the shoes -- still one of my favorite excuses.

Over the subsequent years climbed there with a host of others: Bernie MacIlvoy, Bud Bruce, Maria Cranor, Darryl Hensel, Kevin and Tim Powell to name a few. Great memories.

Boulder climber
Bishop, CA
May 4, 2007 - 03:35pm PT
Great thread. I started climbing there in the mid eighties, learned my ropework there, and found it a good place to go when I didn't have a partner. Soloing Rat Crack was a pivotal point in my early climbing daze.

Here's a shot of the formation, for those interested.

Sport climber
Venice, Ca
May 4, 2007 - 03:39pm PT
From what I understand, we got there a year or so too late (1971??). The dam was being built and they had already destroyed many of the best rock formations including a famous one with a route called the Trapeze. Never seen pictures but have heard the stories. All that's let now is that one big slab but at one time there was much more, I am told.

Right before they flooded the place Tim Powell and I managed to sneak over and make the first free ascent of the Nose, which people had been trying for like 10 years. That was a 5.12 dime project now lost to the water. Best route I ever did there and the top (crux) is probably still climbable if you lowered down on a top rope or startd from a boat.

But I've oftn wondered about those routes that used to be but were destroyed before we ever saw them.


May 4, 2007 - 03:43pm PT
My first lead was The Trough, too! I was probably only 12 or 13, and this was before I terribly misspent my high school years doing cross country and homework instead of taking advantage of Big Rock, Joshua Tree, and Tahquitz, all within 2.5 hours of where I grew up. Several very good memories from Big Rock, which along with the Ortega Falls cliff was where I first learned to climb. Also, anyone know who the guy with dark beard is who was soloing everything at BR every single time I went there?

Social climber
the Time Before the Rocks Cooled.
May 4, 2007 - 04:05pm PT
When I first came down to college at UC Riverside (1970), it was within a few weeks that I found the way to Big Rock. (I'm guessing that Paul Gleason, who was working at Highland Outfitters, told me about it first.)

As I recall, there was a single-page sheet that had the routes marked on the main face. Some of the other stuff ("Runny Nose" and the bouldering) had to be learned by word-of-mouth. I vividly remember driving that dirt road up the valley (now covered in water) and making a right turn into the little box canyon at the base of Big Rock. There was a nice grove of pepper trees and a few picnic tables. There was a fun 15' boulder--called "Circle Boulder", maybe? That thing is now almost totally buried, after that damned dam got built.

Bouldering there was OK, but never as concentrated or as intense as at Mt. Rubidoux.

How many of us would eventually sneek/hike back in to Big Rock, on the way back from Idyllwild? And when the blasting really got serious, that trespassing was pretty exciting.

One Saturday, I remember climbing with Paul and Phil Gleason. Paul and I had done a bunch of stuff, and Phil had just arrived from spending a month, solo, out in the desert near Granite Mountain (the one near Amboy). Now, the Gleason Bros. were always somewhat wild-looking, but Phil especially so with the wild mane of hair and the full beard. Phil spent the afternoon third-classing almost everything on the main face, shocking the rest of the parties who were tightly-lashed to all those fixed pins and bolts. High balling was deemed crazy by the RCSers, but once you'd climbed all those "routes" several hundred times that was the only way to up the Game.

English Hanging Gardens always had a serious rep. And leading that thing could be exceptionally serious. Clipping the first bolt didn't mean you were home free. I vaguely recall that one could still hit the deck on your way to the next clip. Didn't someone shatter their ankle falling on that thing? Quite a few opted for the toprope; but even then, it was quite an accomplishment to snag the moves. [Thanks for the photo, Klinefelter. EHG is the left black streak that crosses the low overhang.]

John Gill's website has a mention of Big Rock in a short piece written by Phil Gleason. Check out

Trad climber
Varied locales along the time and space continuum
May 4, 2007 - 04:06pm PT
Brutus wrote:

A month or so after this Roy Naasz took me up my first multi-pitch: Open Book at Tahquitz. All these decades later, I still can't believe I led the second pitch of that climb.

Hey Brutus, I climbed with Roy about five or six years ago a fair amount. He wanted to take me up the Open Book too, but we got to the start and his head wasn't there that day. So, I think we did Finger Trip instead; good fun.

What a character (Roy goes by a different name now). I learned a lot of good stuff from him on the rock. Off the rock was another story that's best left unsaid.


Edit: now that I think of it, Roy once tried to talk me into going to Big Rock. I'd been at the lake on a weekend once and the whole scene was a big turnoff to me... maybe I should have gone with him. Would have been during the week, so maybe it would have been nicer.

Social climber
the Time Before the Rocks Cooled.
May 4, 2007 - 04:19pm PT
Ah... Roy Naasz, Fall of '70. First lead I ever did at Suicide was Serpentine with Roy, and a pair of Royal Robbins. Naasz had recently broken his foot, and was climbing in some STIFF shoes to lessen the pain.
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