It is a well known fact that the Buttermilks of Bishop, CA are known for their highballs. It only takes one visit, or one glance at a photograph, to realize how big the granite boulders are and how unique the geology is. However, had it not been for the events of the mid to late 1980's, and a climb called Transporter Room, the Buttermilks may be known for the country's shortest sport climbs instead.
From the history update to the latest edition of the Bishop Bouldering guidebook, Wills Young describes the scene at Buttermilks in the late 1980's and early 1990's:
"The Grandpa Peabody is a massive boulder by any standards and its east face is its most unrelenting. Sure, there are bigger free standing boulders in the world...but not many. The well-featured, steadily overhanging east face of this monster was once a top-rope project that Tom (formerly Tommy) Herbert had been working back in the early 1990's. Recognizing its beauty, he even named the line Ambrosia, food of the immortals, fitting with the Buttermilk theme. Herbert wrestled with the idea of bolting the face, knowing it would make a fine sport route. However, he had already set a precedent for the area: he had removed bolts once placed on the neighboring Transporter Room (5.12), as a point of protest against the sport-bolting of Buttermilk climbs. Bolting was not an option. Moreover, the Buttermilks was a lonely, surreal backwater at the time. No place to be seen. Or unseen. Consequently, Herbert moved on to cliffs elsewhere. He left the spectacular wall chalked but unclimbed. In a sense then, we have Herbert to thank for steering the Buttermilks to its current path, one that left the great unclimbed lines for future generations, sparing these climbs the humiliation of a one-way trip to rap-bolted obscurity. "
Dale Bard first explored Transporter Room as a boulder problem by bouldering up to an obvious flake at the 20 foot height before down climbing. In 19878/88, having never fully climbed Transporter Room, Dale bolted the climb for his girlfriend at the time, Bobbi Bensman (PS thanks for this background info/history Bobbi!). While Dale was sinking 5, 3/8" bolts in, there were two kids in the parking lot watching. When Dale got down, they started to give Dale a hard time, saying they were "going to tell Tommy (Tommy Herbert)," who was a staunch opponent to rap bolting. After listening to all this, Dale walked back up the hill, booted up, and soloed the first ascent of Transporter Room. Back at the parking lot, Dale apparently tells the kids, "There! Now it's a boulder problem!" and walked away. A few days later, Tommy chopped it and Transporter Room sunk into Buttermilks history as the first mega-highball of the area.
In 2007, I first rappelled off the top of Grandpa Peabody looking for Transporter Room. I was keen to see this piece of Buttermilk history and try my hand at it. Unknowingly, I rapped off the wrong anchors and down the face of what would become, a few years later, Ambrosia:
By the way, if you have not seen his book, Stone Mountains, you are missing out!
Fast forward to last week, I'm at the Buttermilks and wondering what to try. I remember Transporter Room and, knowing the correct line this time, rappel off to check it out. After a good scrub on rappel to wipe off almost 25 years of neglect, I was psyched to follow in Dale's footsteps.
The climbing is straightforward, yet interesting. After 20 feet of fun 5.12, you get to two BIG sloping hueco's in the middle of the wall. These features mark the edge of the steep climbing and the friction slab. After a balancy and finger intensive sequence, you are standing in the two hueco's and are able to look up at 30 feet of 5.10 granite friction! In the photo below, I am finishing the mantle off of the flake that Dale (presumably) down climbed from before deciding to bolt the climb.
In classic Buttermilk style, the climbing at the top is not terribly difficult, but demanding of your composure and footwork. Over 5 minutes after leaving the ground, I was elated to have made the second ascent of the original Buttermilks highball.
Honestly, I'm a little ashamed it's taken me this long to repeat Transporter Room! I don't mean that in a pretentious way either. I'm honestly disappointed in myself! It is a right of passage to complete the testpieces of the past...a nod of the hat if you will to the visionaries before us. Every time we (climbers under 30) start to think we are the shit, let us not forget: we stand (humbly and gratefully) on the shoulders of the climbers before us. Without their vision and balls, we would be nowhere near where we are today.
Photo credit: Jim Thornburg