New Access Challenges at Owens River Gorge

Access Fund and Bishop Area Climbers Coalition (BACC) have teamed up to address new access challenges at the Owens River Gorge (ORG), a premier sport climbing destination outside of Bishop, California. With nearly 1,000 routes, excellent weather, and convenient access, the ORG is a destination area for climbers from the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and beyond.

Photo courtesy of Bernd Zeugswetter

The history of climbing in the ORG is tied up in the history of the Owens River itself, which for many years did not run through the Gorge at all. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP) manages the Gorge and much of the Owens Valley overall, including parcels adjacent to the Happy, Sad, and Buttermilk Boulders. For many years, DWP diverted all flows from the ORG into a system of aqueducts and power plants, which carried the water that carved the ORG out of the river and to Los Angeles. Following legal action by environmental groups in the early 90s, DWP restored a low level of water back into the ORG.

The reintroduction of water transformed the ORG, and also the climbing experience. The Gorge went from being a dry, largely lifeless place to a thriving riparian ecosystem full of fish, great blue herons, beavers, cottonwood trees, and clean flowing water. While the return of the river did flood the base of a few routes, overall the ORG became a far better place to recreate.

Over the last 25 years, climbers have been gradually installing bridges, catwalks, and belay platforms along the length of the Gorge in order to continue accessing crags now on the other side of a lively river. These structures were often nothing more than an augmented log jam, but over time they grew to include bolted-in plank bridges designed to withstand flood cycles, and eventually, fully engineered, permanent bridges designed to cross large spans.

As the climber-installed bridges grew more sophisticated, they began to attract the attention of DWP. Citing liability concerns stemming from unapproved infrastructure on their property, DWP requested that all bridges in the ORG be removed. Teams of local climbers complied, removing the bridges in December 2018, with limited impacts to climbing access since the flows were still low for the season.

However, DWP is under new mandates to increase the amount of water in the river in 2019 to meet environmental requirements. With flows projected to be considerably higher, certain crags will soon be cut off all together without bridges to safely access them.

Bishop Area Climbers Coalition (BACC) and Access Fund have teamed up and are working with DWP on a long term solution that will allow climbers to access crags on the other side of the river. We met with DWP officials in December to discuss a route forward, and Access Fund shared legal materials relating to recreation liability in California, which are currently under review with DWP lawyers. Access Fund and BACC are also working to create an access proposal and recreation management plan that lays out a long term strategy for infrastructure and climbing management in the ORG to ensure that climbing can continue regardless of the flow regime. This proposal, if adopted by DWP, would be a major step forward in cooperative management of the ORG, and it would go beyond infrastructure needs to create a vision for sustainable recreation.

This will likely be a challenging multi-year process, and travel to certain crags within the ORG will be limited during periods of high water until a cooperative agreement can be reached. During this time it is crucial that climbers continue to comply with DWP regulations to prevent jeopardizing ongoing negotiations. Access Fund is fully committed to ensuring access within the ORG, and we will continue to work closely with BACC, DWP, and other local stakeholders to satisfy the needs of all parties.

Please reach out to [email protected] with any questions.

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