Backcountry climbing expert Niko unlocking the translation on a boulder problem at Pine Mountain

Backcountry climbing expert Niko unlocking the translation on a boulder problem at Pine Mountain.

Sandstone Stories

Authoring the impossibly possible

By Bennett Barthelemy

Springtime transit from distant continents delivers me jetlagged and finally coming to — on the cement picnic table in a Pine Mountain campsite on Enlightenment Ridge. My choice of bed the night before had been comfortable enough but I remember vivid, restless dreams.

I sit in my sleeping bag and survey the slow bleed of reddish-dawn light upon the clustered boulders and sturdy pines. It’s nice to finally be in our backyard again in the mountains, among these sculpted, natural stone fortresses. In the soft dust surrounding my table-bed, I see them. Mountain lion tracks and quite large. They circle the table and then head out of the dust to the paved road.

 I drink my morning tea and grab my rock-climbing shoes to follow the tracks, cross the road and wander into the forest. I am seeking to stitch together improbable features of textured sandstone with delicate precision, boulder ‘problems’ (small climbing routes) to decipher and ascend. There are many options here, thankfully, as I have no guidebook to the scores of labyrinthine boulders and problems that drop down Enlightenment Ridge. At this early hour as I round a boulder, slipping on the steep slope covered in pine needles, I am surprised to meet another person.

 Loaded down with two bouldering crashpads and a backpack, this stranger introduces himself as Niko. It is instantly clear that he is a coiled spring of explosive energy and intensity, scarcely contained in his slight frame. His enthusiasm for climbing, and unguarded sharing of his vast knowledge of the Ridge and its secrets, make the day fly by, as does seeing him float up a dozen ridiculously steep, tall, and seemingly blank rock canvases. I am happy to have found an attentive spotter and crashpads to help keep me safer.

Niko on another first ascent of a problem on a set of large boulders above Highway 33

Niko on another first ascent of a problem on a set of large boulders above Highway 33

These hills surrounding Ojai have been my backyard, offering countless adventures over a few decades. But for Niko, I quickly learn, this vast, roof-less pocket of California is more akin to his house. He lives and breathes this vast wilderness. In many ways each entity seems to bleed into the other as each become scarcely discernable at times — a connection at once enviable and enigmatic …  a focus and intention that begins on the far side of extreme and collides at the intersection of realized impossibility.

On the myriad boulders that bristle largely unnoticed across the backcountry of Ojai, Niko has been the author of scores of first ascents of all difficulty, but many are wildly high and improbable problems. Niko may practice sequences for weeks and finally climb a problem, totally alone. These are problems that when you combine the difficulty, height and landings, exist in their own surreal realm — imposing, yet offering a challenge and a roadmap to the possibly impossible — offering access to a deep connection to landscape that is difficult to access in this modern world.

By |2018-04-07T00:35:41-07:00March 1st, 2017|Columns, Health & Fitness, Outdoors, Outside In, Outside In|0 Comments

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