Climbing The Bear

September 7, 2009

The climbing adventure this weekend was to The Bear on Mount St. Helena near Calistoga California.  The first climbing I ever did was actually just down the (fire) road from The Bear on a formation called The Bubble, so it was kind of nice to return to the area with some sharper skills.  I went with a small group of climbers from the gym which made for a nice and relaxing day on the wall.

View From The Bear on Mount St. Helena

View From The Bear on Mount St. Helena

At 4,342 feet, Mount St. Helena is the tallest point in Napa County and marks the intersection of Napa County, Sonoma County and Lake County.  It also happens to be the site where Robert Louis Stevenson spent his honeymoon writing The Silverado Squatters.  The mountain itself is roughly a 2.4 million year old volcano that had it’s origins a bit further north by Clear Lake.  I found the rock at The Bear to be quite beautiful with streaks of reds and black mixed in with earthy browns.  It also had some of the largest crystal structures I’ve seen in rock and am now wishing that I took some photos of them.

The guide book for the area (Rock Climbing the San Francisco Bay Area) is a bit out of date in that there are some new routes and bolts that change things up a bit.  There is also a much easier climbers trail that leads to the wall than what is described in the book.  The book describes a trail on the left hand side of the fire road marked by a 16′ pine tree on the right side of the road.  This trail is easy to find and can be scrambled up with some effort but it’s much easier to continue walking up the fire road for a couple hundred more paces.  You’ll reach a break in the pine trees where there is only shrubs and a very distinctive trail off to the left, use that one.

There is roughly 20 routes setup on The Bear that range in difficulty from a 5.9 crack to a couple 5.12b’s.  There is even a few of routes that are a couple pitches tall.  Pretty much all of the climbs have a steady and slightly deceptive overhang to them and I was surprised how pumpy I felt at the top of a couple of them.  The first route we setup was Jeckyl & Hyde (5.10b).  This route used to be runout by sharing the same anchors as Rampage but now has its own set that has removed the runout.  The route has plenty of very solid hands and feet but I found some of them to be kind of elusive at first.

We also setup a rope on Rampage (5.10c) and had a report that a new line had been established just left of the bolt line that was a 5.10b but the rating on that climb might be a bit off.  I intended to give this route a go but instead found myself with a very strong desire to try the next route to the right and with a name like The Beast (5.11b) how can you blame me.  The bottom section of this climb is fairly straightforward.  It features some great underclings and generally easy 10c moves.  The fun starts to kick in between the second and third bolt.

I decided to tackle the problem by continuing to climb straight up after the second bolt and then traverse to the right over to the third bolt.  I didn’t make the moves cleanly but it felt like a solid enough sequence for me.  After this point I found myself resorting to a series of layback moves alternating between the left and the right.  The sequence was really quite fun and while I managed to make it through all of the moves, it took a few tries and a good amount of problem solving.  I’m anxious to try it another day.

After a little break and a quick snack Tyndall asked if I wanted to try leading Mark’s Moderate (5.10a R).  The climb is described as a chimney and while a couple moves fit that description, I found that the majority of it was stemming.  The climb through the first half is quite solid with fairly obvious moves.  However, around the top of the climb the crack starts to narrow and you have to move onto the face a bit.  Because of the runout in the top section I decided to do a slightly shorter traverse over to the anchors for Black Hole Sun and setup a top rope from there.  Maybe it was just the rush of onsighting the climb but I found it to be kind of fun.

So now we had a rope setup for Black Hole Sun (5.10d) which happens to be rated as one of the best climbs in the area, naturally we had to try it.  Up to the first bolt it shares the same section of rock as Mark’s Moderate but then traverses a bit over to the right.  Because of this the route features a number of different climbing techniques.  You’ve got some chimney/stemming in the beginning, a short traverse to some larger pockets and a sections of overhanging rock as well.  On the top side of the overhang I even found some very handy heel hooks that allowed me to recover from a couple moments of hanging by one arm.  So when I reached the anchors with my third onsight for the day I was feeling pretty pleased.

We left the mountain just as the sun was starting to set and I think all of us would be happy to return for more fun in the future.  There is still a bunch of climbs that look like fun and I’m feeling pretty determined to get a redpoint on The Beast.  Add in the fantastic shade that the entire wall gets after 2pm and it gets pretty easy to spend a bunch of time climbing The Bear.


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