Alright, so it’s pretty obvious what this post is going to be about: my little affectionate history with a piece of rock in the mountains. Our guides want to gush about their favorite routes in our backyard this summer in the same vein as our online Adventure Presentation Series Spring 2020. We want to keep you all–our readers and guests–motivated to get back into the hills as soon as it works for you during COVID-Era. There’s no rush–we want you all to feel safe, healthy, happy, and go when you’re ready.

In the meantime, I’ll try not to wax poetic about what is ultimately just a geological anomaly. When Sierra Nevada climbing greats like Peter Croft write stuff about the peak known as The Incredible Hulk like

“coupled with the quantity of climbing is the stunning quality–the worst routes here are merely good, and the best are world-class”

it’s hard not to slip into a Muir-esque monologue-turned-sonnet when I write about this peak.

The Hulk as seen from popular campsites

I first discovered the ‘Hulk’ while sitting in a dorm room in Ohio, close to 10 years ago now.  I had just been belay-certified at the Ohio University rec-center climbing wall, was totally, totally obsessed with rock climbing, and was deep in the magazine and video binge that comes with any new lifestyle-hobby.  After a while, I came across a Black Diamond Equipment video of two tanned and smiley women, Kate Rutherford and Brittany Griffith, gleefully styling their way up seemingly endless cracks and corners in brilliant white rock somewhere out in the Sawtooth Range of California (seriously, watch the video: https://vimeo.com/channels/494945/26281400 ).  They had hiked heavy packs into the peak (dubbing it “The Incredible Hike”), set up a luxurious and simple campsite directly beneath the route, and sipped coffee in puffy jackets while they cracked jokes to the camera and described the climb (Venturi Effect, 5.12+, Grade V) with its best, hardest, and scariest sections.  I tucked the video away in my brain as something to revisit when I wanted to dream big, and vowed from my little cluttered desk to some day be capable enough to climb the feature, even if only by one of its more mortally-attainable routes.

The gorgeous Little Slide Canyon, Home of the Hulk

Fast forward 5 years, and somehow I found myself working in Bishop, CA having hopelessly oversold myself to Sierra Mountain Center as an intern and apprentice guide. I was now positioned only an hour and half south of Bridgeport, home of the Sawtooth region.  I was surrounded by peers and mentors with good information and support for big adventures.  Even better, my buddy Travis Powell was en-route to the Sierra from Kentucky with a packed bag and enough motivation to will us up any peak I could point him at.  We were half-way decent rock climbers and wanna-be alpinists, and were hell-bent on a trip to the Hulk.  When he arrived, we spent a couple of days getting Travis acclimated, climbing some of the smaller training routes around Bishop like the West Face of Cardinal Pinnacle, and then headed north to Bridgeport.

That trip totally set the hook.  We hoofed heavy packs up into Little Slide Canyon, complete with stream crossings, soft green meadows, all the good stuff.  We slept out under the stars on a brilliantly clear and mild night, with the Hulk lit up by moonlight above us.  In the morning, despite having left the stove in the car and starting our day with cold instant coffee and oats (um, ew…) we set off at a break-neck pace up the Red Dihedral route (5.10).  Whooping and pumping our way up the brilliant red namesake forever-corner, Travis took the lead and exlaimed “this is the best climbing I have EVER DONE!” in the midst of the upper 5.10 crux pitch. We ran the rope out pitch after pitch, and kicked on the afterburners on the upper ridge to gain the summit well before mid-day under clear skies.  We high-fived, snapped photos, and wrote something useless in the summit register.  Rolling on our momentum and high spirits, we nailed the route-finding on the descent and had the afternoon to stick our feet in the creek and sip snow-chilled Pabst Blue Ribbon as we looked up in awe at what we had just stood on top of.  Was that it?  Yeah, that was it!  Major life-goal accomplished.  I had climbed the Hulk, and in great style, AND with a great friend.  what else was there to do besides hang up the shoes and tell the youth of tomorrow about our grand accomplishments?

We climbed a few more moderate peaks that week  before Travis went back to Kentucky for the remainder of the summer (though he soon moved full-time to Bishop to climb in the alpine more, go figure), and I went close to a year without revisiting Bridgeport, only occasionally thinking back to that Black Diamond video…

All smiles on top of the Red Dihedral, Summer 2016

And so, the next summer in 2017 when a new friend, Dennis Lim, asked me if I wanted to come help him work a project on the Hulk, I practically shouted “yes!” at him.  “What are we climbing on?”  I asked.  Dennis smirked–“the Venturi, bro!”  I vibrated with excitement and nerves.

Dennis wasn’t (recent reports indicate “isn’t”) into camping, though. We bivied outside of Bridgeport on BLM land, and set our alarms early. Dennis had stashed an 80 meter rope and most of his climbing equipment near the base of the Hulk earlier in the season via skis to facilitate repeated visits to the Venturi Effect, and so with a pre-dawn start and light packs, we were able to blitz the approach, reaching the base of the Hulk by 9:00 a.m.

It wasn’t the worlds’ most successful day of climbing.  We took big falls, bled a lot, and ultimately chose to rappel three pitches below the end of the route. The Venturi was everything I had dreamed it would be, however.  I giggled as I climbed straight-in finger cracks for entire rope lengths on a brilliant shield of sun-splashed, clean white stone. I onsighted pitches that were really, really hard for me, sometimes well above protection and with gritted teeth. I pulled my hood up over my helmet against the famed rising winds the route is named for as I pasted my rock-shoes out wide in an immaculate granite corner, and dug the tips of my fingers into sharp but barely usable crevices. I gaped my mouth wide-open as I stared up at the vast expanse of vertical, shining, story-book-level alpine playground terrain above me. The kid behind the desk in Ohio was grinning ear-to-ear.

Venturi Effect with Dennis Lim, Summer 2017. Dennis took a big fall onto a small stopper just after the last photo was taken…

Since Dennis and I went up the Venturi, I’ve tried to make a trip up the Hulk at least once every summer. It’s hard to make it happen. Guiding full-time in the Sierra during the prime season for Hulk missions not only makes time, but also reserve energy and motivation hard to come by. I’ve sort of made a little promise to myself that I’ll make the pilgrimage each summer.  That makes each visit really special though, and I’ve been able to climb some amazing, difficult, clean rock with a bunch of good friends, dream big about future goals, and even share belays with Kate, one of the smiley women from the Black Diamond video (she lives across town, and her husband is from–you guessed it–Ohio!)  Unreal.

It’s a little atypical for alpine climbing, and at times leaves a bit to be desired in terms of a scruffy, “out-there” adventure feel. The rock quality is otherworldly, the belays often have beefy bolts for anchors, and you can pretty much get off of the thing whenever you decide you’ve had enough. When you factor in that on the approach hike alone, you can see shy, goofy black bears, quiet groups of deer in misty meadows, cranky, sweaty fisherman, crystal-clear streams, gorgeous stretches of shady aspen trees, and if you choose to, sleep under a cathedral of American climbing history and rising technical standards… see what I mean about waxing poetic?

I don’t always have a lot of success up there. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve finished more than a couple of routes, and often find myself rappelling a few pitches from the top. Last summer, the short, punchy “Blowhard”, an early-established test-piece on the left side of the formation almost wrecked my partners’ shoulder for the season after a poorly-positioned slip, forcing us to turn around. “Wind Shear”, a more recent addition with unbelievably clean rock which weaves in and out of the moderate and sought-after “Positive Vibrations” boasts no less than seven pitches of 5.12 climbing, several of which come back-to-back, and sent SMC guide Krystina Maixner and myself packing after 8 of 14 pitches. It’s not a particularly pretty resume, and maybe I’m a glutton for punishment. But these routes make me dream, and I always get back home only to tear open the guide book and start scheming about my next visit, which I know could be easily another year away. If I know anything to be true though, it’s that I will certainly come back to the Hulk for as many summers as I can, even if only to bleed, punt, and be humbled on the best chunk of alpine granite I’ve ever seen.  Can you blame me?

incredible hulk climbing routes

Route map of the extensive climbing on the Hulk formation.

“Wind Shear” and climbers on “Positive Vibrations,” Summer 2019.

Oh yeah, and a quick shout-out to the tanned and smiley Bishop hard-men Brendan Cathcart and Abel Jones, who successfully climbed the entire Venturi Effect last week, making their own multi-year dreams come true.  Way to go, fellas, and thanks for the inspiration!