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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Local Geology and the Question of Exactly How Buffed Are Your Routes?

Most peoples experience in climbing revolves around a steady progression of climbs at lower grades moving to harder as their skills increase. This general progression through the learning curve of grades often results in many people climbing the same routes over and over again, particularly at the low grades. The result? Buffed Routes!

When I say Buffed, I don't mean these climbs have muscles, it means that throughout the years, in some of the older more established areas decades, the routes are slowly but surely cleaned of all loose rock by the passage and pulling of hundreds if not thousands of ascents. This often leaves new comers, and even some picky old timers, with the perspective that all climbing routes are magically clean from the get go. This is most often not the case, and in the case of newly developed routes, is generally the exception, not the norm.

Now there are some routes, most often due to the variety of local geological rock type, that will never be bullet or buffed, but to some, this is all part of the magic of climbing. The Bay and Sacramento area runs the gauntlet of climbable rock in just about every imaginable rock type. This wide variety in local geology can make for a very different climbing experience depending on where you go. From an educational view think of it like this:

Slabby rock generally is subject to more weathering ranging from rain to wind. This often results in cleaner rock which often may be covered by moss or lichen in areas with wetter or shadier climates. Overhanging rock is usually less exposed and therefore often is more chossy. Look at areas like Rifle, CO or American Fork near Salt Lake to see prime examples. The beauty of this rock though is once "cleaned" the "chossiness" provides great climbing features that allow steep expanses of rock to be actually climbable. Local examples include Table Mountain near Sonora, Big Chief, the Bear near Calistoga.

Granitic/igneous rock or other extremely dense rock is usually cleaner from the get go. Think about places like Yosemite, Cosumnes, or Lovers Leap. Most of these areas require little cleaning of moss/lichen on key holds and then kicking the rock to free the few loose areas. These routes often reach "buffed" within a few ascents.

In contrast softer sedimentary rock, like sandstone or limestone, generally are more chossy to start and will require more cleaning as well as more traffic to clean up to "buffed" status. Good local examples of this are Mt. Diablo, Auburn SRA, or Castle Rock SP.

And then there is volcanic rock which can range from dense columnar basalt to breccia of mid-grade density to soft and porous welded tuff. These areas can go from limited cleaning in slabbier areas, to overhanging well featured semi-construction level efforts to clean. The rock quality can range from bullet like Putah Creek, to slightly less bullet but still solid aka Nut Tree, to Big Chief Table Rock semi-chossy that cleans up nicely, to Mount Saint Helena (MSH) grade welded tuff to the north of the 29 aka The Bear and Bubble, progressing (or digressing depending how you look at it) in quality to the Pinnacles in the South Bay to Table Scraps and Table Rock on the south of 29 on MSH.

The bottom line is take time to educate yourself about any area you plan on visiting and adjust your expectations to rock quality factoring density and years established to maximize your experience. If you go to Table Scraps (soft rock that was established in the last few months with little traffic) thinking it will be roughly equivalent "buffed-wise" to anything in the Grotto 5.10 and under which has seen thousands of ascents over many years and is made of much more dense basalt, you are setting unrealistic expectations. Other considerations for choosing your destination over any given trip is weather. Give the rock a day or two to dry out after any rain for softer areas like Mt Diablo, Table Rock, or Auburn. Softer more porous rock absorbs more water and therefore is weakened by rain more so than granitic or dense rock areas which often just take a stiff breeze to dry in a few hours like The Nut Tree Boulders, or Mickeys/Stinsons Beach areas.

Some people will "poo poo" areas based upon rock quality and relative "buffed-status", while others seek out the challenges this type of rock offers. I prefer a wide variety in my climbing diet ranging from choss to bullet. It keeps the experience fresh and will constantly throw new challenges your way. Regardless of your preference, educating yourself about the geology of local areas can be fun, fascinating, and just may help you have a more enjoyable time when you go climbing!

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