The Stonemasters Climb at Pirates Cove
John Long relives the adventures of the Stonemasters when they first began rock climbing at Pirates Cove at Newport Beach, California.
If Rick Accomazzo hadn’t gone off to college at the University of California at Irvine, highball bouldering, and the wave of free soloing that swept through Joshua Tree in the 1970s, might not have hit the So Cal climbing scene for another decade.
The adventure began near the university, at a seaside pueblo called Corona del Mar, where Rick and local climbers Mike Graham and Robs Muir (also a UCI student) discovered a seaside bouldering area they called The Beach, aka Pirates’ Cove. As soon as Ricky phoned us at home in Upland with directions, Richard Harrison and I drove the hour to Irvine for a look. I still remember jogging along the old cement staircase leading to the sand, and thinking how odd it was that we’d come to the beach to go rock climbing.
From the waterline I gazed back at a gray cliff rearing straight off the beach, sweeping around left like a 100-yard-long breaking wave. The rock was peppered with knobs, flutes and squiggly tan intrusions that looked like they’d snap under bodyweight but turned out to be solid after all. Several caves—flush with driftwood, wine bottles and soiled diapers carried there by high tides—extended into deep shadows at the base of the wall. When Ricky crabbed back into the biggest grotto and started powering out by way of heel hooks and sketchy lunges, finishing up on the 20-foot high face above, Richard and I were amazed.
This was in the early 1970s, when the So Cal rock scene was basically the grainy Josh domes out in the desert, or the slick granite and tall trees at Tahquitz and Suicide. Pulling out roofs on juggy sandstone, with a sand landing, seagulls squawking and waves crashing nearby, felt rare and fantastic. So did climbing 20-, even 30-foot-high problems without a cord, a standard Beach practice that spilled over to Josh in the following years, when classics like White Rastafarian, Up 40 and So High were first climbed.
Ricky, Mike and Robs had the place to themselves only long enough to bag all the classic lines, then we all joined in and on weekday afternoons The Beach started looking like an ant farm. As gaps were filled and variations bagged, a few eyes panned toward the left side of the amphitheater, where the rock got higher and the falls more serious. The left margin of the wall is pretty much garbage, bottom to top. But every Stonemaster was expected to handle his trash rock with conviction.
A notable ascent on this tall wall, and a tick mark in the annals of So Cal highballing, was Mike Graham’s Ordinance Crack. The route is a natural seepage and typically ran water, was slimy, loose and just plain awful. When occasionally it would dry out, we’d all screw around with the initial, overhanging jams, but nobody had mustered the sack to commit to the upper headwall, with its sandy flutes and junk rock. When we caught word that Mike had actually climbed the thing, Richard, Tobin Sorensen and I made a special trip to The Beach just to give the crack a go. About the only thing Richard and I knew about Tobin was that he and Mike had recently made an early ascent of Valhalla (one of the country’s first 5.11 face routes), out at Suicide. But so long as he was a friend of Mike’s, he was a friend of ours.
The left-side rock is sketch to begin with. Perpetual onshore winds ensure that holds are sandy most of the time. A problem could see hundreds of ascents, and shite would still bust off and send you flying. And after a rain or a foggy day, the chalk-caked holds felt like wet soap. You wanted a dry spell, no wind, and a cool winter day before you cast off on the high stuff. Fortunately, we had those conditions when Tobin, Richard and I booted up at the base of Mike’s Ordinance Crack, so named because of a yellow metal plaque (“No Jumping or Diving”) bolted onto the rock adjacent to the crack. Today, only a few rusty bolts remain of that sign.
Our jamming skills were solid but nevertheless the bottom of the Ordinance Crack was the business—grainy rattlers soaring up into a soggy pod. But it was the exit, treading up crumbling ribs with your boots a genuine 25 feet off the sand, that lit our lamps and make the Ordinance Crack a task even now, 35 years later.
Anyhow, when Richard was traversing off the wall after climbing Ordinance Crack, he noticed a line of chalked holds leading up and right onto a pocked, overhanging headwall called The Brain. The climbing didn’t look too hard (it’s barely 5.10) but the rock appeared dreadfully shitty, and after a recent high tide, a few boulders were sticking out of the sand at the base of the wall. Richard no sooner mentioned the phantom chalk marks when Tobin suddenly lost his own brain, scrambled up from the left, traversed in and started yanking like mad up the filthy headwall, following the chalk marks and hoping for the best. Naturally he was too fired up to test the holds; the first one broke at about the 25-foot level and he windmilled straight into the sand, barely missing the exposed rocks. This was before Tobin had established his reputation for taking giant whippers, and Richard and I watched in a kind of reverential daze as he pulled straight down on stuff that broke, and kept pitching off from prodigious altitudes. It’s fantastic to sit here and realize that the young man we were watching fly through the air would go on and distinguish himself as the greatest all-around climber of the 1970s. Now, almost 30 years after his death, we’re still trying to appreciate the extraordinary things Tobin did—from early repeats of Tales of Power and Astroman in Yosemite, to the first ascent of the Dru Couloir Direct in Chamonix, to legendary first ascents in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and later, the Himalaya. That day at The Beach, and even after his technique caught up with his boundless drive, Tobin Sorensen was the greatest show on earth.
Finally he made it, scaling the entire Brain in a big rush. When Richard and I ventured up there as well—Mike G. had delicately soloed The Brain a few days before—we spent many tense minutes testing holds, pulling straight out on alarmingly thin spouts and knobs rather than pulling down for fear of stuff busting and us taking the big one.
Decades later, Ordinance Crack and The Brain remain rites of passage for all Beach aficionados; the stories are legion and multigenerational of crumbling holds and titanic plunges into the sand. Most of the proper climbing is on the roofs and faces across the way, but it’s those harrowing choss piles that give The Beach much of its lore and character.
The Beach remains a classic urban bouldering crag with a long and rich history. Most serious So Cal climbers have had their epics there, and that adventurous reputation keeps luring new bodies onto its cave walls, faces and aretes. Ever since Mike, Rick, Robs and the boys first started soloing around on those sandy holds, a fresh and eager band comes along every decade or so and makes the place its own. There’s an enchantment in climbing at the edge of the sea. And to every visitor, the tall problems call out, eager to again deliver the big rush when you start pawing up that choss with your feet so high above the sand.
Pirates Cove Now – By Nathan Smith
Arriving in Newport Beach I immediately felt inadequate. Everywhere I looked, I saw Beamers and Benzos, Rolls and Bentleys, Ferraris and Lamborghinis. Other than my trusty beater with 150,000 miles on it, the least expensive car I saw was a Lexus. For a moment I forgot about the nearby climbing and just thought, “Don’t get in an accident today.”
Famous for stars, fashion and excess, Newport Beach in Southern California does have a more practical silver lining: Tucked away at the back of a beach in this land of silicone-enhanced glitterati lies a natural beauty, Pirates’ Cove. The Beach, Corona Del Mar or whatever you’d like to call it, is a seaside nook that was once a proving ground for Stonemasters such as Mike Graham, Randy Vogel, Richard Harrison and John Long.
And when you are done, you can kick back on your beach towel and admire the jiggling handiwork of the area’s countless plastic surgeons. Indeed, a stint at the Cove is like touring the pages of a men’s magazine—a magazine with superlative bouldering.
The amphitheater of Pirates’ Cove holds everything from steep caves to slabby faces, all spackled with funky sea-carved holds that look as if they came straight out of your gym. Pockets, crimps, pinches, tufas and jugs all come together in unusual and uncanny combinations.
As you climb, barking seals occasionally break the surface and taunt passing boats, while gulls and pelicans gather on the rocky outcrops off Newport Bay, where they seemingly enjoy a stint of people-watching. Unhurried waves slap at the beach. When you pitch, golden beach sand cushions your landing better than any pad, but bring a towel to wipe your feet and a good brush to clean the sand off holds.
You won’t see the Stonemasters much, if ever, but a small, dedicated local crew climbs regularly here each week and is happy to spill the beta beans about all of their local variants. At the end of a long evening session, cap off your visit by admiring the blazing sunset over Balboa Peninsula.
While not one of the largest bouldering areas around, Pirates Cove is a unique experience in a location as beautiful as the stars that live around it.
Southern California Bouldering Guide | by Craig Fry
Directions | Pirates’ Cove is at Corona Del Mar of Newport Beach, California. Follow the Pacific Coast Highway to Marguerite, then turn west (toward the ocean). Go to Ocean Boulevard, turn right (north). Use the fee parking for Corona Del Mar State Beach, or free roadside parking on Ocean Boulevard farther north. The climbing is on the northernmost part of the beach, accessed by stairs descending from a small grassy knoll.
Where to stay | Newport Dunes Waterfront Resort offers tent and RV camping for those with larger vehicles; 1131 Back Bay Drive, off Jamboree Road, near the Pacific Coast Highway; (800) 765-7661. Crystal Cove Newport Beach offers reasonably priced historic cottages. They also offer dorm-style cottages for those wanting an even cheaper alternative. Crystal Cove State Park; 8471 PCH; Laguna Beach; (800) 444-7275 or visit ReserveAmerica for reservations.
Access/Conditions | The climbing is on a public beach—and is not allowed during the busy summer until after 5:00 when most visitors head home. Check tide charts as the water can cover the entire beach during high tide. The sandstone absorbs a lot of moisture; the best conditions are sunny days from spring to fall.
Eats | Sprinkles Cupcakes: Just minutes from the bouldering. Stop in and try one of these amazingly decadent deserts. Corona Del Mar Plaza, 944 Avocado Ave. between Macarthur and Avocado off PC; (949) 760-0003. Ruby’s Diner: A longtime local hang. Ruby’s burgers are award winning; 2305 E. Coast Highway; (949) 673-7829. Rusty Pelican. A little on the pricier side, The Rusty Pelican makes up for it with fresh seafood and waterfront dining; 2735 W. Coast Highway; (949) 642-3431.