SoCal Goes to Sugarloaf

By GearCoop Athlete Nolan

My biggest concern about moving to Tahoe wasn't, "Will I—a SoCal native—survive the cold winters?" or "Will I make new friends and fit in 500 miles away from home?" or "Will I find a place to live?"

It was, "Can I maintain my climbing fitness over the winter in a mountain town renowned for its skiing?"

Living in southern California, I had grown very used to the convenient reality of having Tahquitz and Joshua Tree just a few, easily day-trippable hours away. And I often took advantage of that! I had been going to one or the other once or twice a week for most of 2014. Sometimes I probably managed to hit Tahquitz three days in a single week, and still couldn't get enough.

It paid off. I was finally seeing some improvement in my climbing and most importantly, feeling comfortable and having a good time on the rock. With my main partner for the year being fellow GearCooper Jake, it was easy to keep the psych high throughout the year. We've had some amazing days together, most of which was type 2/3 fun.

One fear I never had about Tahoe was Morgan not enjoying his new environment. I knew Morgan would have a blast up here; he came ski touring with me last February and killed it! He was breaking trail in two feet of fresh pow and logged about 4,000 feet of vert his first two days in the snow—and all for his first birthday! Talk about a natural.

So, flash forward eight months. I'm getting settled up here in my new digs, and the itch to climb needs to be scratched. I was able to check out a local sport crag, and while it was super fun, my heart longs for the cracks. My psych was further diminished by my injured ankle and the cold conditions of Lover's Leap and Eagle Creek (the only places I had climbed in Tahoe previously), and then it happened: a good friend and partner of mine took me to Sugarloaf.

I had fairly high expectations as I had read quite a bit about Grand Illusion, possibly America's first 5.13, but I still ranked Tahquitz much higher in my mind. Tahquitz is without a doubt one of the "most classic" crags in the country if you factor in the history there; I'll spare you the rambling list of its 5-star routes until another day.

Let me start by saying that I still hold Tahquitz in very high regard, and it will always be one of my favorite places to climb, but I'll finish by saying, "Wow!" Sugar Loaf is incredible. Stunning cracks, absurdly fun flakes, pristine face climbs: it has it all, and much closer to home!

Since I was still working with a bum ankle, Alex and I spent the day cruising the classic 5.10s to get the feel for the area. Alex is a good friend of mine: we went to the same high school, we played in a band together for a while, and I was fortunate enough to introduce him to rock climbing all those years ago.

We took some warm-up laps on a cool two-pitch 5.8 calledPony Express. It's this series of liebacks and jams that's nothing but fun for about 90 feet. I was a bit hesitant at first with my ankle giving me grief, but it felt fine as long as I didn't twist and jam it. Good thing I can edge in my shoes! For such a fun climb at an easy grade, I'm surprised there wasn't a line at the base of this route, as it's very protectable and conveniently located.

Next up was Hyperspace (5.10b). This is a seriously fun rock climb: delicate fingers with tricky feet for the first 20 or so feet, and then 60 feet of pure flake climbing. I don't think I stopped talking the entire route. "Dude! How good is this! Let's run laps on this thing!" And so on. It's just that good.

If you find yourself at SugarLoaf and a 5.10b is within your abilities, you'd be doing yourself a huge disservice not to send this line. For the grade, I'd say it's very attainable. Spoiler alert (onsighters, look away!)—the crux comes right out of the gate in the first 10-15 feet, so give it a burn even if it seems a bit intimidating.

Moving on, we hopped on a route called Dominion (5.10a) that had a nice flow to it and was super varied through the pitch. The fact that it topped out right under Grand Illusion was just a bonus. A nice long pitch clocking in around 120-130 feet or so, you really get to spend your time on the route. Killer finger locks, hand jams, and even a little bit of face climbing, plus some of the best nut placements I've had in the last year were all on this route. It really just gobbles 'em up. I'm not sure what I enjoyed more, climbing the route or marveling at the incredible line above me.

While I'm on the topic, it is just thoroughly impressive to me that Grand Illusion has been free climbed. That thing is seriously steep and sustained, not to mention thin. Just picture strenuous overhanging stemming, while trying to jam your fingers into #2/#3-sized pin scars. One day, I'd like to get served by that bad boy.

Just when I thought our day had already reached maximum levels of badassery, Alex walked me over to one of the best cracks into which I've jammed my fingers. I know I hyped up Hyperspace pretty hard, which it deserves, but let me surpass that hype about five times for this next crack. In fact, a picture of me on the route has become my new phone background because it is just such a pleasant line to look at. I'm thinking about having a picture of the line on it's own framed to hang. Ok, maybe not, but it really is that good.

It's called The Fracture (5.10d). It ascends a splitter finger crack that begins down low on the right with a powerful undercling to gain the start, and then arcs up and left. It has the perfect series of black knobs to walk your feet on—until the crux, that is. My buddy Alex was down below me giving me all the psych and encouragement I needed, and it helped. I was feeling great and climbing well. This is exactly the type of climbing I thrive on. I pulled through the crux with style, and continued to have a borderline-creepy smile plastered across my face for the remainder of the day.

My only gripe is that I wish this line were about 1,000 feet longer. Seriously, I would pay at least a grand to make this climb last for 10+ pitches. (It's 2015; can we do that yet?)

The Fracture provided easily some of the best locks I've had the pleasure of hanging on. I was more than stoked to get the insight! While not the hardest route I've onsighted, it really was a stellar line, and that means more to me than the numbers tacked onto it. The experience I get from being able to climb a new line and figure it out on the way is one of the most pure joys I've ever been lucky enough to marinate in. My fingers haven't been that happy since Jake and I did Beckey Route (5.10d) on Bastille Buttress. (Stay tuned for a writeup of that!)

Feeling totally satisfied with our day, I couldn't care less what we hopped on next. The sun was getting low and we decided to find our friends who had been playing on some routes around the corner.

There, we got on a new slab route—unfortunately, I don't know the name—but that was also very enjoyable. You wander through a puzzle of giants to lime-sized knobs and tiny crimps. It was very cerebral, and super fun to unlock the sequences between bolts. Managing to get up it without a fall (though I was incredibly close on the very last move), I clipped the chains and that classic ear-to-ear grin was back. I'm blown away at how many quality routes the area had. I didn't touch a route all day that was even remotely mediocre.

We finished the day with seven pitches, innumerable stars, and no falls!

I think that maybe, just maybe, I can get used to it up here.

Nolan is one of Gear Coop's strongest climbers and all-around athletes. He and his dog just decided to give Tahoe a try and moved up there to explore the world class skiing and climbing. Learn more about Nolan here.


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