Climbing is likely at it's best, then, when all of these aspects are combined in some way.
This fall, Kyle and I headed south to the American deserts on a trip that would combine a little exploration with (hopefully!) a lot of climbing. For years, I have wanted to explore the deserts of northern Nevada for climbing potential, after having driven through the area years ago and being impressed by what looked like a broad expanse of granite boulders. Kyle had agreed to drive down and explore the area with me, and we had discussed other areas we could check out and climb at as well; City of Rocks (SE Idaho), the Boulder Batholith near Butte (Montana), and perhaps The Channel in central Idaho. (Full Disclosure: Kyle was largely humoring me by driving to Nevada; I suspect he would have been happy to spent the entire trip in Idaho.)
Friday afternoon I scrambled to gather all the material required for a road trip; sleeping bag, tent, pillow (!), potato chips, extra chalk, climbing shoes, passport, and a handful of American cash. Eventually, I was ready to head out, and when Kyle arrived we packed his car, and headed south in the fading light of a fall evening.
We drove through the night, and after a break to take a nap (somewhere in Idaho) and another break to have breakfast (in Twin Falls), we finally arrived in northern Nevada. We drove out to look at the boulders, and they were exactly as I remembered, brown-patinaed granite blocks scattered across low sagebrush-covered hills.
I had done pretty extensive 'scouting' of the area on Google Earth, and on satellite images of the area, large boulders could be seen. Driving on a dusty track through the boulders, however, it became evident why satellite images don't tell the entire story. Much like other deeply-weathered granite batholiths, many of the largest boulders were perched high upon small domes, making it impossible to climb upon them. The more accessible boulders often had fantastic landings, but tended to be somewhat small. After a brief survey of the boulders, we decided to try climbing some problems. The first block we pulled up to would turn out to be the perfect warmup boulder, with cracks and face climbing, slabs and gently-overhanging bulges from V0- to V2. We climbed six problems on perfect desert varnish, then moved up the hill to check out an overhanging face. Again, we were thrilled with what we found; a fun steep problem with committing movement on thin but bombproof patina flakes. When we first saw the problem, we dismissed an obvious low start (on a good but sloping rail) as likely too hard, but after sending the stand start we set to work on the low start. After a little work (to understand how to engage the start hold with only one VERY poor foothold in evidence), we were surprised to both send the line, a four-star granite belly (about V5? or so).
Packing up our mats, we decided to walk up to four large boulders on the hill above us. Like many areas in Nevada, the batholith is an old mining area, and as a result we walked by two old and abandoned mine shafts as we headed up to the boulders. We found a nice collection of large boulders with overhanging faces, but weren't too excited by most of the lines (small edges seemed to predominate). I did climb one tall face problem on small edges, which proved to be a full-value (i.e. slightly scary) experience, but we moved on to continue exploring the vast collection of boulders scattered across the desert.
As we hiked through the boulders, it became apparent why Northern Nevada isn't a bouldering mecca. While there are literally thousands of boulders in the area, and the rock quality is generally quite good, several factors limit the number of 'actually-climbable' problems. First, while there are many overhanging faces (and many perched boulders), few of the steeper roofs had many holds (or the holds tended to be loose, likely due to differential weathering on these faces). Second, many of the boulders were smaller than we would have liked. Third, most of the holds tended to be crimps (although there tended to a lot of ear-shaped patina edges that were amazing to climb on, and incredibly solid). A lot of people love climbing on edges (though it isn't my favorite genre of bouldering), and if crimpy faces is your thing, Northern Nevada might be place for you! (Full Disclosure: we did see many tall boulders as well, and two of the quality lines I saw included a Mandala-looking line on perfect varnish and small edges, and another one climbed a huge 'chevron' feature. Both remained untried, unsent).
An unexpected bonus of visiting a completely undeveloped desert bouldering area is the abundant wildlife. In just a few days, we saw snakes, jackrabbits (big and fast!), vultures, ravens, lizards, and a golden eagle (!); every few minutes it seemed we were encountering new animals as we turned the corner around yet another cluster of boulders. As I was exploring the boulders, I came upon a fresh-looking deer ear sitting on top of a boulder. A few minutes later, I met up with Kyle; it seemed he had been hanging out, chatting with a coyote sitting on top of a boulder. It was only when we went to take a photo of the "coyote" that he realized that he was talking to a cougar. The cougar slowly vanished, and Kyle suddenly thought it best that we explore the boulders together. A good idea, but a great experience! (Full Disclosure: I was sad I didn't get to see the cougar...)
The next day, we drove up a dusty track that crawled up into the mountains. On Google Earth, Kyle had seen what looked like a nice group of boulders high above the valley, so we headed up into the sagebrush and cactus. We spent a few hours hiking through many clusters of boulders, stopping occasionally to climb a line that looked especially fun. I was thrilled to finally (!) have the chance to climb on chickenheads (bucket list item!); one of the first lines we climbed in the area was a funky line that used four widely spaced knobs to climb up an otherwise fairly blank steep slab. Kyle sent another line that jumped from one protruding knob to another (while stabilising with a heel-hook in a shallow hueco), but as we hiked down to the car we decided that although the area was beautiful, it didn't really offer huge amounts of problems.
We drove back down to the valley bottom, and headed back to the area we had explored the previous day. There was one nice-looking cluster that we had driven past the previous day (ironically, we could park quite close to them), and I wanted to check them out to see if there were any decent-looking lines. We were quite satisfied to see that the rock was both solid and well-featured. We climbed a handful of moderate lines, including a nice arete on hollow-sounding but solid patina plates. Looking for something a bit harder, we arranged the mats beneath a gently overhanging face with nice edges. As we started to work through the moves, it became apparent that the line was fun, but definitely challenging; a long move to (and then off of) a thin gaston needed to be very precise. After a bit of a session on it, I began to grow a little skeptical. However, after dialing his footwork in, Kyle sent the line, and I sent it next try as well. Sometimes, a little careful footwork can go a long way!
Even though the sun was getting low, we were keen to try one more line. One of the giant granite spheres in the area had split in half (which seemed pretty rare, I only saw a few like it), leaving a prow with a perfectly cleaved right-hand arete, and a series of left-hand slopers. The half of the boulder that was upright was still perched on a stone 'pedestal', so a climber pulling onto the problem would already be 3 feet off the ground. We tried the problem for a half-hour, trading high-points. The problem was tallish (15 feet?), so falling began to feel a little rough. Finally, using some supreme heel-hooking mojo, Kyle climbed all the way to the top of the boulder. I was certainly impressed... but since the top third of the problem looked incredibly committing I decided to throw in the towel. Feeling a little spent, Kyle and I did another fantastic 'mantle-a-rail-and-reach' line on the split side of the boulder, then packed up for the day.
The next morning, as we headed north out of Nevada, we stopped for breakfast at a casino in Jackpot, which sits right on the Idaho-Nevada border. I decided to spend a little money on Blackjack (since I had never really gambled before), so after a bit of a introduction to the niceties of the game by a very helpful dealer, I promptly lost $10 in three hands. (I'm not sure what the lesson here is, but I am sure there is one...). A little poorer, we headed north into Idaho, eager to track down an area we had heard a lot of rumours about - The Channel.