Flooding in Bishop, CA has closed access to many popular crags. (Photo: Evgeny Vasenev/Getty Images)

This California Climbing Destination Is Closed for Spring Break

Bishop recently suffered catastrophic flooding, and officials are asking visitors not to travel to popular crags

Evgeny Vasenev/Getty Images
Hayden Seder

from Climbing

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California has been hit with unprecedented blizzards, floods, avalanches, and atmospheric rivers this winter. Some ski resorts near Lake Tahoe have received so much snow that they have temporarily closed due to the moisture. While this is good news for California’s drought status (and for skiers and snowboarders), rock climbers are not so lucky. One of the state’s most famous climbing towns, Bishop, is likely to be off-limits this spring due to flooding. 

Located on the eastern slope of the Sierra Nevada range, Bishop is a climbing mecca. Most famously known for its Buttermilk boulders, Bishop has plenty more to offer, including the Happys and Sads and Rock Creek bouldering areas, and the Owens River Gorge for sport. This time of year, temperatures in town are typically in the high 60s, making it the perfect destination for spring break—those itching to get on the rocks after a winter indoors. A report using data collected from 2019 and 2020 estimates that Bishop and Inyo County receive 88,890 climber-visitors annually (noting that this estimate is visits, not persons, and that one person can account for more than one visit per year).

A flooded road in the plains with snowy mountains in the background.
Buttermilk Road on Mar 11. Courtesy of Inyo County Sheriff’s Department (Photo: Courtesy of Inyo County Sheriff’s Department)

On March 11, when many climbers were preparing for spring break trips to Bishop or to attend the following weekend’s annual Flash Foxy Climbing Festival, the area was hit with extensive rain. Floods closed many climbing-access roads, including Buttermilk Road, Chalk Bluff Road (used to access the Happys and Sads), and Lower Rock Creek Road (used to access Rock Creek bouldering). The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power also closed all access to the Owens River Gorge area.

A paved road with a large section of it collapsed due to flooding.
Lower Rock Creek Road on March 11, 2023. (Photo: Courtesy of Inyo County Sheriff’s Department)

The Bishop Climbing Rangers posted devastating photos of each of these roads, first advising where to park if one wanted to walk several miles to the crags, then ultimately sharing that there was nowhere to park to access climbing and advising visitors not to even try. As Inyo County and Bishop are still under disaster declaration at the time of this article’s publication, several local agencies, including Bishop Climbing Rangers, the Inyo County Sheriff’s Department, Visit Bishop, and Bishop Area Climbers Coalition, are taking to social media to ask that people stay off of these roads. Despite the shocking photos, the city’s hashtag #TurnAroundDontDrown, and pleas to not strain emergency-personnel resources during this time, people are still attempting to drive on closed roads and in flooded areas. 

Carma Roper, Public Information Officer for Inyo County, says they are trying to mitigate traffic by informing drivers of the risks of crossing flooded roads. Bishop Climbing Rangers posted several photos on March 20 of off-road tire tracks in the Tablelands area by those attempting to drive around flooded and rutted-out areas, which damages the fragile desert vegetation.

(Photo: Courtesy of Inyo County Sheriff’s Department)

As one of two climbing festivals to take place annually in Bishop, the Flash Foxy Climbing Festival (formerly known as the Women’s Climbing Festival) has a big impact on Bishop, both physically and economically. As the days to the festival counted down this year, attendees (myself included) waited to see if it would be canceled and the tickets refunded like it was in 2020 due to the pandemic. Ultimately, Flash Foxy confirmed on March 13 that the festival would not be canceled, but rather just not include any outdoor climbing. Organizers emphasized that their festival is about so much more than climbing—namely community, learning, and fun. 

While climbing festivals without any actual rock climbing due to weather aren’t a new phenomenon, Flash Foxy ultimately decided not to issue any refunds, which is rarer. There were many (including myself, ten hours away) who decided that the long journey to Bishop wasn’t worth it without any climbing, while others decided that the community aspects and events that would still take place made it worthwhile. 

One Flash Foxy ticket holder who ultimately decided not to attend said she was a bit taken aback at the refusal for refunds. “After a couple back-and-forth emails with them, I almost felt like they were guilting me [for] even requesting a refund in the first place,” the ticket holder, who asked to remain anonymous, said. Climbing was unable to reach Flash Foxy for comment.

Other climbers felt the festival was still worth attending. Hannah Hawley traveled all the way from Vermont, booking both a plane ticket and a rental car for driving around Bishop. This was her first time attending the festival, which she ultimately decided to attend “because climbing is about more than just climbing. It’s about community, it’s about respecting the land and being a good steward. I was able to experience all of that, talk climbing, watch climbing movies, and learn about the land we were choosing to protect by not climbing this weekend.” 

The importance of climbers and events like the Flash Foxy Festival to the local economy is certainly noteworthy; the report, conducted by Eastern Kentucky University’s Division of Regional Economic Assessment and Modeling (DREAM) with support from the Access Fund and Bishop Climbers Coalition, estimates that climbers visiting Bishop spend an estimated $15.6 million annually and that climber expenditures support $5.1 million in local wages in a typical year. Tawni Thomson, Executive Director of the Bishop Area Chamber of Commerce, said, “We are very grateful that the organizers of Flash Foxy decided to go ahead with the festival. It definitely helps the local businesses and also gives people something fun to do downtown that’s climbing related, but does not send them out to the areas that have been impacted by flooding, rockslides, etc. It actually helps keep our emergency personnel from having to rescue stranded climbers.”

It’s doubtful that many more climbers will travel to Bishop this spring considering the lack of, well, climbing, so this spring’s weather is sure to negatively impact the local economy. As for when the roads to the crags will be repaired and accessible, representatives for the county could not estimate or ballpark a timeline, as there are still storm systems coming in and the county is still in a state of emergency. Current road statuses can be found on Inyo County’s website with daily updates. 

“Most of the roads to the most popular climbing areas are not passable right now,” said Thomson. “Most of the campgrounds utilized by climbers are closed. It’s just not a good time to be out there on the rocks.”

Lead Photo: Evgeny Vasenev/Getty Images