Rock of ages

A hidden local gorge south of Placerville is a springtime Mecca for climbers in the know

Joshua Foster hangs on by his fingertips on Fingerprint.

Joshua Foster hangs on by his fingertips on Fingerprint.

Photo By Eric Whalen

Cathryn Perkins stems up the Great Chimney. Bracing her feet against opposing rock walls, she chalks up her hands, reaches into an undercling and pulls herself up. Finally Perkins tops out at the anchors and lowers herself back to the ground, grinning.

“Oh my God! This is the most awesome climb ever!” says the 21-year-old, a senior at Stockton’s University of the Pacific. She’s just completed her first chimney—a crack big enough for one person to climb—this one a nearly 40-foot route at Cosumnes River Gorge. Her belayer, sophomore Eric Bostard, says, “If you like chimneys, you should do Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. It’s nothing but chimneys.”

Devil’s Tower is a 1,300-foot monolith, so Perkins won’t be making a road trip there this spring break. But with regular climbing at crags like Cosumnes, it may not be too far off.

Cosumnes River Gorge is a granite-walled canyon south of Placerville. Local climbers and a private landowner’s generosity have created an accessible training ground for thousands of climbers throughout the last four decades. During those years, the canyon and river have been threatened with plans for development or closure. A recent deal between a conservation group and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) should protect public access in the future.

Just 45 minutes east of Sacramento, the area is hard to find without a guidebook or a friend to show you the way. On weekends, the only sign that a climbing area is nearby are the cars lining Buck’s Bar Road.

Fool’s gold glitters on the trail down to the climbing area. Manzanitas bloom with pink bell flowers, and lizards scamper into crevices. Hiking in, you can hear the north fork of the Cosumnes running wild through the small canyon. The green river gets its name from indigenous people who made the area their home. They were known as Cosumnes—the people of the salmon. When the water’s high, there’s a fierceness to the Cosumnes River that calls out its place as the last untamed river flowing west out of the Sierra Nevada.

The canyon’s 170 routes draw climbers in the fall, winter and spring, especially when higher-elevation climbing areas are choked with snow. Many climbers avoid the sun-baked gorge in the summer; others climb in the morning or evening.

Free soloing, or climbing without a rope and partner, has been glorified in recent movies. Few people actually climb that way. Most climbing requires two people using harnesses, ropes and other gear. Rope is managed with a safety technique called belaying, to catch a falling climber.

A few multipitch climbs can be found on the gorge’s 400-foot Gutenberger Wall, a black-streaked cliff containing the only bolted sport routes in the canyon. The majority of routes ascend 30- to 40-foot domes where many people get their first chance to climb on real rock or to practice crack-climbing techniques needed for bigger walls. In an area dominated by traditional climbing—where a lead climber will have to place his or her own gear in the rock for protection from a fall—Cosumnes gives people a place to merely set up anchors and ropes and climb. Previously placed anchor bolts are used to set up topropes, so beginners can climb without gear-placement skills and experienced climbers can build rock technique and grip strength without a trip to a pricey climbing gym.

“A lot of them, it’s their first time. Or they’re gym climbers, and they’ve never been outside,” says 30-year-old Beth Chasnoff, a University of California, Davis, grad student setting up ropes for an Outdoor Adventures climbing class. “It’s a really good place to come when you’re just starting out, and even when you’re more advanced, because there are so many good climbs and the rock is really solid.”

Close to 40 climbers pour into the gorge on this bluebird Saturday. They head for Buck’s Bar Dome and Ten Minute Cliff. Beginners come with an experienced friend or a group like Outdoor Adventures. Mark Cicak, 56, of Carmichael, sets up a rope for three friends from a local climbing gym. Two have never climbed outside. The four take turns climbing a route named The Pod in Dinkum Gulley.

“We’re mostly gym climbers,” he says while belaying Sacramento attorney Chris Wee, 42.

Wee finishes and says, “I thought I liked the gym!”

A Davis-based youth climbing team, Summit Party, climbs elsewhere on Buck’s Bar Dome. The crew is amped on sunshine and choice climbs. Coaches Rob Trelford and Evelyn Liu set up ropes, teach safe climbing techniques and offer beta, or advice.

Trelford is leading a traditional, or trad, climb on a corner crack dubbed Test Piece. Because he is leading, he takes the rope up behind him, places protection gear, or “pro,” in the crack and clips the rope into gear.

Nearby, Davis Senior High School student Joshua Foster jams his hands into another crack on a climb called Unconquerable. Liu belays him, taking slack out of the rope by pulling it through a belay device called an ATC, an “Air Traffic Controller.” Between moves, Foster says, “You guys have no idea how greasy this climb is.”

Evelyn Liu belays a climber while Jimmy “Jimbo” Ford and Joshua Foster relax.

Photo By Eric Whalen

He and Trelford finish about the same time, lower themselves and high-five. Foster has shredded a cuticle in the crack. The 17-year-old senior shows his bloody appendage to anyone who asks. He smiles, “Oh, man. What a good day.”

They rest at the base of the climbs. Racks of trad gear are slung over a rock. Shoes and backpacks lie all over.

They are already talking about their next climbing trip in Northern California. Liu and Trelford want to hit Lover’s Leap once the snow melts.

“You know what we need? A trip up to Phantom Spires,” says Jimmy “Jimbo” Ford, 16. He and Foster trade more trip ideas, grabbing each other’s attention with the honorary title “Dude!”

Ford is a buzz-cut, independent-study high-school student who discovered climbing seven months ago. His mother’s already complaining that he’s obsessed.

“If I’m not climbing, I’m thinking about climbing, reading about climbing or watching climbing on TV,” he says.

Ford works full time at Quizno’s Classic Subs and lives with his mom. He knows he’s got a sweet setup for a climber. Climbers may shell out $250 just to get started, for basic climbing gear: shoes, a harness, a belay device, a locking carabiner (a metal hoop that attaches to rope and protection) and a chalk bag. For a rope, add $150 to $200. A set of quickdraws for sport climbing, $150. Gear for trad climbing, just hand over your wallet.

“I have a job, I pay no rent, I pay no bills, and I spend all my money on climbing gear. I’m going to do that for as long as I can,” says Ford, who used some of that cash to buy a wicked chalk bag covered in skulls.

The climbing obsession isn’t the only thing his mother doesn’t understand. She’s also confused about the things he’s been saying.

“I was like, ‘Mom, what’s the beta on this cooking?’” he says.

Trelford is having the same problem. He noticed it in a recent conversation. “I said, ‘My life is just basically run out on scant pro without any beta.’ They’re like, ‘What?’” he says.

The four continue to run up routes while more climbers drift in. Susan Welsh belays her husband, David, up Unconquerable. Then he hops onto Fingerprint, one of the hardest climbs in the gorge.

She’s 50, and he’s 40. They’re longtime climbers who have been coming to Cosumnes for years. In fact, they met here about 15 years ago. They started talking and found out they had more in common than climbing: Both were recent Oregon transplants, both had geography degrees, and they even had lived on the same street in Davis. They got hitched. They return to Cosumnes each year.

Cosumnes’ original longtime owner not only allowed climbing but also filed a document with El Dorado County, promising access as long as he was not liable for accidents.

Twenty years ago, he considered building a hydrodam to generate electricity and revenue. He changed his mind and decided to keep the canyon wild. He later put the canyon on the market. A potential buyer planned to keep climbers out because of concerns about liability and privacy. The American River Conservancy trumped that plan with its own bid. About a year ago, the conservancy bought 61 acres, including the climbing area, for $286,000 and gave it to the BLM, says conservancy land-protection specialist Marc Landgraf.

The land is now public. BLM recreation planner Jeff Horn says the agency wants climbers’ input for a management plan.

That means a lot to climbers like Berndt Stolfi, a 36-year-old Midtown resident at Cosumnes for the first time.

“I think it’s really important that places like this are kept accessible to the public and not locked up one way or another,” he says. “It makes living in Sacramento worthwhile.”