The Labyrinth of Strange


Photo Essay by Dean Fleming


In 1850 Mexican gold miners excavating a swath of blue stone in the Central Sierra Nevada foothills unearthed a gold nugget the size of a man’s fist. Soon, the small town of Columbia, California, bustled with over 5,000 miners who blasted the area with high-pressure jets of water, unearthing gold and sculpting the rock into a haphazard landscape of intricate spires, cavernous pits and vertical scoops.

The strange features span three square miles from Columbia State Historic Park to Columbia Junior College, and since the early 1970s climbers have been mining gold of their own. Today, the Columbia boulders yield the highest concentration of high-quality moderate problems in California.

Visitors will note that climbing here is an archetypal expression of the unconventional, eclectic and just plain strange—it demands a unique ability to imagine movement where it doesn’t seem to belong.

The Tuolumne resident and long-time Columbia boulderer Phil Bone began bouldering in the Lower Arboretum while attending Columbia Junior College in 1979. Since then Bone has established many prominent first ascents in the area, although he never rated or named many of his problems.

“We knew there was a generation [of boulderers] before us—they never claimed anything, so why should we?”

Phil was gracious enough to let the latest generation of Columbia boulderers fill in the blanks on many of his climbs, including adding names to routes like Trogdor, which was originally done as a V4 stand start from an obvious jug. In 2009, the prolific Columbia route developer Ben Polanco added a 20-move sit start of slapping and heel hooking the massive double arête. Ultimate Trogdor was born.

The Columbia region represents the largest mass of marine limestone, dolomite and marble rocks in the Sierra Nevada.

At Columbia State Park, deep blue-and-white bands conjoin into surreal swirls and waves, evidence of eons-old horizontal layering. On occasion this layering also produces some of the most featured roof climbing in the Central Sierra.

From a bird’s-eye view, the strange corridors constituting Columbia’s Upper Arboretum twist through the foliage like a mass of snail shells, winding inward until they culminate in large circular chambers. One of the most dramatic examples is the hollow that quarters Cellar Door, a shallow tombstone-shaped scoop with pockets, crimps and pinches. The problem requires the use of palms, back steps and gut-busting body tension.

Columbia has become equally regarded for its beautiful rock architecture, excellent stone and dangerous highball bouldering. When Ben Pope first climbed The Minotaur in Columbia’s Labyrinth Main in 2007, he established a problem that highlights all three attributes.

Rising steeply above a rugged landing formed by a tailings pile, the horned spire that is The Minotaur overhangs just enough so that a penny dropped from the apex of the boulder would land directly on a jagged rock and roll into a 20-foot pit. The smooth marble on the overhanging belly of this boulder has brilliant hues of blue, ivory and orange, yet it also rounds and rolls across the face, forcing you into precarious layback positions on slippery sidepulls.

Columbia’s history of hydraulic mining exposed thousands of marble boulders, but the process also carved deep channels and pits. In the wet winter months, water floods around the boulders, filling the low points. Although many of the boulders can remain dry and climbable, the pools that surround them add additional challenges to approaches, pad placement and spotting. On the coldest winter mornings, just before daybreak, a layer of mist rises from these eerie swamps to join a thick bank of fog rolling in from the Central Valley.

A one-acre swath of enormous towers between the Lower and Upper Arboretums near Columbia Junior College, Middle Earth is one of the least developed zones, with good reason. With no easy way in or out, and engulfed in thick brush and moss, the climbing mandates a rack of brushes, hedge clippers, bug spray and tarps.

The problems usually fall in that tempting height range of “I got this” to “Get ready to call an ambulance.” To uncover safe and fun climbs in Middle Earth, you must think outside the customary interpretation of a boulder problem. While local climbers have sent many of the obvious faces and arêtes, they have also scrubbed many creative drop-off problems and traverses.

The first ascent of the Upper Arboretum’s Grandma Death went to the Oakland resident Ben Polanco in 2009, and is a model example of Columbia’s difficult bouldering. At a glance, the steepening prow looks relatively harmless, as many of Columbia’s hardest blocs do, yet even the strongest boulderers usually seem bewildered as they grope the frightful sloping dishes and bumps used to shimmy up this knife-edge arête.

Grandma Death can be climbed with heel hooking and finesse, or in a shimmy similar to ascending a coconut tree. Even though the lower portion of the feature is considered the physical crux of the route, once would-be ascentionists reach the good sidepull on the arête, they face a typical Columbia exit maneuver—a sloping horizontal slash across a massive scoop and a terrifying mantel.

A Columbia route developer, Ryan Moon, once said, “If you blindfolded a person and then abandoned them at The Behemoth, they might die before finding a way out.”

This small chasm, deep within the Waterway Boulders of the Labyrinth, is one of Columbia’s most difficult zones to access. Although the approach requires fourth-class scrambling, pad tossing and poison-oak-laden bushwhacking, the problems here are among the best. Among these hidden gems, The Behemoth is the crown jewel: a 20-foot tongue of marble with dynamic compression moves on perfectly textured holds.