Holcomb Pinnacles & El Cajon Mtn.


This is a dual post after back-to-back weekends on the rock.  Last week, I ventured out to the Holcomb Valley Pinnacles with climbing friends Johnny and Wei.  Holcomb is a popular sport-climbing area near Big Bear Lake.  I should note that these are Wei’s photos, since I left my camera at home on both trips.  After a fun day of climbing at Holcomb, we felt ready to attempt a multi-pitch route at El Cajon Mountain, a fantastic sport crag just outside of San Diego.  The three of us climbed a 2-pitch mixed route called Bright Eyes (5.6).  I’ve followed a handful of multi-pitch climbs, but this would be my first-ever lead.

Holcomb Valley Pinnacles

We drove out Friday night and camped on the side of road, not far from the main parking area.   The next morning, we ate a hearty meal of breakfast burritos and then hiked the short approach to Coyote Crag, where Johnny had climbed a few weeks earlier.

Jason, Johnny, & Wei

The approach

We planned to warm up on Bye Crackie, a 60-foot 5.7 that the guidebook calls a classic.  Unfortunately, a party of three were already on the climb, so we chose the slightly more difficult Coyotes at Sunset (5.8) to start the day.  Johnny had been on this route before, so he went first and set a top-rope for Wei and I.  The featured rock and positive holds made for some really fun moves.

Coyote Crag

Jason on Black Magic Poodle (5.9)

Nearing the crux

Johnny on lead

Wei felt confident after the TR and decided to go for his first-ever sport lead.  The vertical face and closely-spaced bolts made this route a perfect choice, and he sailed up the climb without difficulty.

Wei on his first lead

Johnny on belay

We met a bunch of other climbers from San Diego.  I ran into Paul from Mesa Rim, an instructor at my lead climb course a few months ago.  It was a strange feeling to look over and watch my instructor on a route that I planned to climb.  Over the next couple of hours, we worked our way across the face of Coyote Crag.  The climbs getting steadily harder, with Johnny going first to suss out the moves.  A little hang-dogging, but he was braver than either Wei or myself that day.


Coyotes at Sunset

After we exhausted the routes on Coyote Crag, we tramped up to Motherload Rock and I scoped out a 60-foot trad route called Fool’s Gold (5.6).  I wanted to lead a gear route, but there were lots of other climbers milling around at the base and I started feeling nervous.  I felt stupid as I racked up with enough gear to get me to the top of El Capitan, and I knew I would be going slow as hell.  Oh well, if I look like a kook, so be it.   Johnny was happy to belay and I started up the route.  I got some more practice setting nuts in opposition and I tried to place a variety of pieces (instead of relying only on cams).  Down low, the climbing was really easy and the stances were huge.  After 15 minutes, though, I was feeling tired and I realized that futzing around like a sloth was starting to take its toll.  Near the top, the crack thinned out and I found myself a few feet above my last  placement, a medium-size nut.  The solid footholds all but disappeared in this last section, and it looked like I would be placing protection while hanging on by my fingertips.  As I contemplated the difficulty of placing pro, and the security of that single nut, I felt my confidence recede like a dropping tide.  That’s when I noticed a big, beautiful bolt about 4 feet to my right.  It must have been the top bolt for the adjacent climb Golden Nugget (5.10).  Poor style or not, I carefully reached over and clipped the bolt (no one else was on the climb) and then topped out.  A fun day.

Heading home

El Cajon Mountain

This tall, wedge-shaped wall of granite is less than an hour’s drive from downtown San Diego, but it’s the approach that must keep people away.  We parked along El Monte Road, near the gated entrance to the El Capitan Reservoir, and then started up what I thought was the climber’s path.  After 20 minutes of painful bushwhacking, I admitted with some reluctance that we were off-route.  Instead of turning around, I used my somewhat shaky “wilderness sense” to guide us back to the path.  A few more minutes of thrashing around in waist-high brush and we were on the trail.

Bushwhacking - my fault

The approach

The guidebook calls this approach 3 miles with 1,800 feet of elevation gain.  That sounds about right.  The weather was overcast and a thick layer of fog obscured the crag, but this helped us stay cool as we hiked up the hill.  A little more than an hour later, we were standing at the base of the cliff.

Almost there, guidebook in hand

We followed the climber’s path along the base of the crag, moving from east to west.  Looking up, I saw many unidentified routes; most of which appeared to be liberally bolted.  As an inexperienced climber with a decided aversion against running it out, this is exactly what I like to see.

We were looking for the start of Bright Eyes, and having scoured the internet for beta (route info), I knew what it would look like.  One of my fears, as a new trad leader, is the thought of getting off-route and onto sketchy territory.  It hasn’t happened yet, but the thought of casting off onto some unknown face is really very frightening.  For this reason, I brought along pictures of the route from various angles, as well as the description from a couple of guidebooks.  One day, I hope to acquire the skills to safely lead up some adventure route in the Sierras.  For now, I’m content to stick with the easier stuff.

Racking up

Ready to climb

A bit about climbing.  The Yosemite Decimal System was developed by the Sierra Club in the 1930’s, as a way of classifying the difficulty of a hike or climb.  It goes something like this:

Class 1 – Walking on a trail.  Little chance of injury.

Class 2 – Easy scrambling, occasional use of hands for balance.  Still pretty safe.

Class 3 – Scrambling with some exposure.  A fall might be fatal, but not always (still trying to figure that one out!)

Class 4 – Easy climbing, with increased exposure.  Falls will usually be fatal, and ropes are often used for protection

Class 5 – Technical rock climbing, use of ropes and gear, an unprotected fall would result in serious injury or death.

It’s important to understand these grades, because the guidebook might casually mention a “Class 3 approach” or a “Class 4 descent”.  If you’re not comfortable with exposure, or if you have a heavy pack on your back, a class 4 descent is something you want no part of (trust me).  In 2009, I attempted to backpack into The Enchantments (Washington’s Alpine Lakes Wilderness).  I was carrying a 60 lb. pack, it was snowing, and I found myself skating across icy slabs in bona-fide Class 3-4 territory.  Screw that!  I tucked tail and ran, only to return the following year, under better weather conditions.

Technical rock climbing is Class 5, which starts at 5.easy all the way up to the current ceiling at 5.15 (expert climbers are constantly pushing the grades higher, in the same way that swimmers or runners are always breaking old records).  Someone who is in reasonably good shape should be able to claw their way up a 5.6 or 5.7 climb without too much difficulty.  Athletes might manage a 5.8 or 5.9, depending on the length and type of climb.  I’ve heard it said that “real” climbing begins at 5.10.  If you’re going to climb at that grade (or higher), you probably have some experience, and decent technique, or you possess uncommon natural talent.  I’ve met people who, after years of climbing, have yet to break into the 5.11’s.  I’ve also met people who were able to cruise up an 11 after a few weeks of experience.  It’s really variable.

The first pitch

Entering the chimney

Approaching the top of the first pitch

There is a lot more to it, though.  Aside from the grade, or the difficulty of the climb, there is the ever-present fear of falling.  The number grade gives no indication whatsoever to the availability of protection or the consequences of a fall.  Thus, there are 5.13 climbs that can be climbed safely, and 5.4 climbs where a fall would result in serious injury.  There are no guarantees on the rock – you’re responsible for your own life and you had better have a clue what you’re doing.

I started climbing in 2005.  During those first few years, I did a lot of indoor top-roping and bouldering.  When you’re climbing on top-rope, there’s very little risk in taking a fall.  The rope runs from your harness and up to an anchor, so if you slip, you only drop a few inches (assuming your belayer is paying attention, and I hope he is).  I’ve always been able to climb my best while on top-rope, because it allows me to concentrate 100% on the moves.  Top-roping is fun, but there are lots of climbs (most, in fact) that have to be led from the ground up.  Lead climbing is more complicated, and requires more skill.  It’s also more exciting and fun.

The semi-hanging belay

Johnny and Wei

Belaying off the anchor

Sport climbing, which only became popular in the late 70’s and 80’s, is also considered relatively low-risk (as compared to traditional or adventure climbing).  Here, the climber ascends the rock and clips the rope into sturdy bolts, which have been strategically placed to protect against a fall.  Every route is different, but a typical sport climb might be bolted every 8-10 feet, limiting the length of a fall.  The bolts themselves are usually considered bombproof.  As in, they simply will not fail.  This offers some extra peace of mind, because there’s few things worse than falling and having your protection rip out from the rock.  It’s worth noting that you never really know if a bolt is bombproof.  It’s one of those things that, inevitably, you just have to take for granted.  The climb here, Bright Eyes, is a mixed route (a few bolts, but areas where I also placed protection).

Starting the second pitch

Looking down towards El Capitan Reservoir

At the top

Traditional or “trad” climbing is the real deal (IMO).  Until recently, all rock climbers were, by necessity, trad climbers.  You ascend the rock, placing specialized gear (protection or pro) into cracks and crevices, safeguarding against a fall.  Pro doesn’t prevent a fall, it just limits the length of a fall – preventing you from hitting the ground (the deck).  Climbing trad is a lot like sport, except there aren’t any pre-existing bolts to follow.  The climber is responsible for choosing where, when, and how to attach himself to the rock.  It’s nerve-wracking business, to say the least.  When climbing on top-rope, or even a bolted sport route, it’s possible to focus solely on the movement.  Climbing trad is more of an adventure; a puzzle that you’re forced to piece together while you’re hanging on by your fingertips.  There’s so much going on; route-finding, the art and science of placing gear, fear management, and of course, the climbing.




My first exposure to rock climbing was during a family vacation to Yosemite, in the early 80’s.  I was young and impressionable, and I was fairly awe-struck by those crazy people we watched through binoculars.  Little specks on the rock, half a mile up.  This was back in the day when people were allowed to base-jump off El Cap with parachutes, and we watched a movie in the visitor’s center about the Camp 4 dirtbags and their alternative lifestyle.  I was a clean cut little kid from Los Angeles and to be honest, I couldn’t quite wrap my head around the sport.  It seemed to be a mix of pure athleticism, love for adventure, and unabashed crazy.  I must have filed the experience away as being “cool” but I never got a chance to actually try it.  Thankfully, my uncle got me into backpacking and I found an outlet for my thirst for outdoor adventure.  I still remember perusing the REI mail order catalog (pre-internet, of course) for hours on end.  The climbing and mountaineering gear, in particular, always interested me, even though I hadn’t a clue how it was actually used.

The climbing trio
On rappel

So here I am, age 36, and I’m finally living out some childhood dreams.  A bit silly and nostalgic, but true.  I’ve grown tired of pulling plastic (gym climbing) and I’m really interested in getting on some adventure routes.  This will take some time, and I’ve got a lot to learn, but I figure I’ve got at least 25 more years to tick off some of the classics.  In the next year or two, I hope to get on Yosemite’s Half Dome (Snake Dike route) and to the summit of Cathedral Peak.  We’ll see…

Rapping down

The end of a long day







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