Guide to Bay Area Climbing Groups

When I first started climbing in 2004, I knew no one that climbed and all my friends thought I was completely insane.  I relied a lot on guided trips to gain skills and experience, but that was expensive and the fabulous people I met on those trips were scattered around the country.  In the years since, I have slowly built a network of great climbing partners, many of whom I have met through local organizations.

As I often get the question “How can I meet climbing partners?”, I thought I would write this brief guide to Bay Area climbing organizations and provide my personal perspective on them.  I welcome others’ perspectives on these groups as well as any groups I may be missing.

American Alpine Club Sierra Nevada Section – this regional section of the AAC is chock full of super experienced climbers who are also very social.  It can be difficult to break into the AAC community as you need to attend one of the periodic events such as the Pinecrest Climb In or the ice climbing weekend at the Lost Trail Lodge, but as a climbing groupie, I appreciate the opportunity to meet legendary climbers such as Royal Robbins, Jack Tackle, and Allen Steck.  They also have a great annual holiday dinner at Spengers in Berkeley.  The AAC offers many other great member benefits such as Global Rescue insurance for the nominal $75, but you can sign up and attend most of the events as a non-member as well.

Legendary Fred Beckey and Allen Steck at the annual holiday dinner

Annual ice climbing weekend at Coldstream Canyon near Donner

American Himalayan Foundation – although not a true climber organization, the AHF is increasingly reaching out to the climbing community to raise awareness of the issues faced in the Himalaya.  I never miss their annual AHF dinner as a chance to meet others, both climbers and non-climbers, who are passionate about the Himalaya.  They typically put on a good show with interesting speakers and this year they’ll be featuring Ueli Steck, Alex Honnold, and Jimmy Chin.  The dinner price is steep at $200; however, you’ll get a receipt for the portion of your dinner that is tax deductible (it was ~$135 in 2011).

Everest summitters John Gray, Tom Burch (former AAC SNS Chair), and Apa Sherpa (world record holder for # of summits) at the AHF annual dinner

Jim Wilson and author Emilie Cortes with Sue and Phil Eshler, the first couple to climb the seven summits together

Bay Area Mountain Rescue Unit  – a mountain rescue unit for climber networking?  Indeed, if you are interested in putting your climbing skills to good instead of evil, consider joining BAMRU or another mountain rescue team.  The trainings will keep you fresh, you will meet lots of other civic-minded and technically competent folks while building positive karma by helping locate lost hikers and climbers.  If you don’t want to join, don’t forget to donate in case you need their help some day!  Membership is $40 (yes, you pay for the honor to rescue others!), but the community is priceless.

Personal Rock Skills training in Tahoe

Rock Rendezvous – I have been a member of RR for a few years, but truthfully have failed to take full advantage of their benefits.  They are focused more on technical rock climbing, offer a monthly slideshow meeting, and priority camping in high demand locations like Tuolumne Meadows.  I have met some other great partners that were members of RR.  Their membership fee is very reasonable at $35.

Sierra Club Peak Climbing Section – this activity section of the Sierra Club focuses on non-technical peak bagging, although technical rock, snow and ice trips may be offered as private trips.  They hold a monthly slideshow meeting the second Tuesday in Palo Alto which gives you a chance to learn about a new region or climb, get to know other members, and hear about upcoming trips.  Amazingly, membership and trip participation is free.  It’s a friendly open community and most of the members are extremely active climbers.

Peak climbers at the annual PCS BBQ & Gear Swap

At the top of Mt Morgan with PCSers

Sierra Club Snowcamping Section – since when was snowcamping considered climbing?  Well, having mad snowcamping skills is critical on a snow or glacier climb, and could just save your butt if you ever get stuck out in a freak winter storm.  Many of my best friends and climbing partners have come from my involvement in the snowcamping section.  Seems like folks that have a penchant for suffering also have a lot of patience, tolerance, and are easy to get along with.  They offer an annual snowcamping training series for as low as $100 (Sierra Club members early sign up) to $125 (regular sign up for non-members) and alumni trips for a nominal fee of ~$25 (note: you may be able to attend alumni trips if you can demonstrate mastery of skills elsewhere).

Snowcampers on Echo Peak summit during record breaking low temps

A few others I know exist, but haven’t had much direct experience with, are Rock Ice Mountain Club in Santa Rosa, Bay Area Mountaineering Meetup, Berkeley CHAOS, and Stanford Alpine Club.

I hope this helps you on your personal quest to form a great group of climbing partners.  Don’t forget though that the responsibility goes both ways – you need to be a great climbing partner in order to foster lasting partnerships.  You don’t have to be the strongest or fastest climber out there, but you should 1) be at your personal best, 2) accurately represent your skill level and fitness, 3) consider the needs of the team/group as well as your own, and 4) follow through with your commitments.

Happy and safe climbing!!!

Baby Steps on a Baby Peak

Pickett Peak stands at 9,118 ft and is a “baby peak” by my standards now.  Funny as I look back and remember training for my Half Dome hike – I was thinking at the time, “Wow! 8,842 ft!!!  I have never been THAT high before!  We REALLY need to prepare for the altitude.”

Now I have climbed above 15,000 ft twelve times and the highest I have reached (and stayed overnight) is 23,000 ft.  However, the last 14 months have been challenging to say the least with my ACL reconstruction recovery.  Learning to walk again, dealing with a host of complications, and frustrated by pain dismissed by the traditional doctors.  Starting in early June I turned to a surgeon for a second opinion and began exploring alternative therapies (chiropractic, acupuncture, and the likely most effective, Graston therapy).  The pain finally began to abate and I was able to venture back into the mountains!

Nevada Beach campground

For my birthday weekend, John and I went to Tahoe for the weekend.  We camped at Nevada Beach – a fabulous campground with great facilities, lots of space, and right on the beach!  Saturday morning we got a ridiculously slow start.  Decompressing from my stressful job and travel schedule seems to take longer and longer, but we eventually rallied and headed south to the Hwy 88 and 89 junction.  As you head south, two pointy peaks jut into the sky – Hawkins and Pickett Peak.

In 2010,  I climbed Hawkins Peak (10,024 ft) with my friends  Sonja and Enrique.  This was the hike I planned as their Death Ride recovery hike.  Boy, were they cursing me as we bushwacked to the base of the summit and then scrambled to the top on class 2/3 terrain.  Ever since then, I’ve kept the other pointy peak in the back of my mind….

Enrique & Sonja lamenting our friendship and they will their Death Ride legs up Hawkins Peak (Pickett Peak in background)

Pickett is shorter than Hawkins and doesn’t get a lot of attention; however, the climb to the top is solid class three.  We didn’t have any beta or a map, but it would be pretty tough to get lost.  From the intersection of 88 and 89, we drove due South on a dirt road.  Doodlebug, my low clearance Mazda 3, struggled along and we stopped once we lost confidence we could safely go on without getting stuck.

It was nearly 3pm by now, but the summer days are long and the weather was ideal with the exception of some strong winds.  We packed our day packs and headed up the fire road with the peak on our right.  We continued until we hit a fork in the road and it became obvious that we needed to leave the fire road and head cross-country due West to aim for the Pickett Peak saddle.

Bushwhacking on the saddle

Once you leave the road and become engulfed in the trees, it’s a bit difficult to keep your sense of direction without a compass or GPS, but we had faith in our route finding and continued until we began to go uphill in earnest.  We began ascending a blocky talus field but then realized we had overshot the saddle to the South.  As we gained the saddle, we were blasted by the wind and intimidated by the better view of the Pickett Peak summit.

We made our way across the saddle, the exposed part of my legs below my capris getting scratched to pieces by the brush.  Thankfully, the good ole foreshortening effect was in force and as we got closer to the summit, the slope looked less and less steep.  It was still bonified scrambling, so we donned our helmets as a precaution against a fall or being hit by a dislodged rock.

John carefully working his way through the rocks

I was still not sure of my limits between my knee and my lack of fitness, so I focused on moving efficiently and conscientiously.  We navigated upward always picking the path of least resistance, traversed a false summit, and surmounted the final summit block.

Happy Em on summit of Pickett Peak

As we found the highest piece of rock, the sense of accomplishment, exhilaration and peace washed over me just as it had with countless summits before.  It didn’t matter that this was a “baby peak,”  this was a true accomplishment and I was elated!  We celebrated at the summit, took care of the obligatory summit shots, and took a few moments to pause and soak in the 360 views of the South Lake Tahoe mountains.

Emilie down-climbing

The summit is only half way, even on a baby peak, so we carefully down-climbed and retraced our steps back to Doodlebug.  I realized it’s a long way from 9,118 ft to the heights I have been and want to return, but every step you take gets you just one step closer to your goals…

We spent the evening cooking on a Coleman stove, breathing in the smell of evergreens, and watching the sun’s rays fade over Lake Tahoe.  It was all that much sweeter thanks to Pickett Peak.

Sunset over Lake Tahoe