With winter fading, Lake Tahoe locals say it’s time to climb (video)
Gantt Miller gazed at the granite handhold for a moment, summoning the courage to dyno — or make the leap.
He checked his footing and made sure he was in good position. Wearing just a T-shirt and pants with spring-like temperatures in the middle of winter, he let out a low growl, a couple of deep breaths, and then jumped.
Miller made it look easy. He snagged the hold, clipped another bolt and pulled the rope through it to protect his move. Had he failed to make the grab, he would have landed hard on unforgiving rock and likely had a face full of granite before his belayer, Michael Habicht, could stop the fall.
It wasn’t a mandatory move on the route, Gimpy Old Men (10a), a climb Miller and Habicht established in 2016, but it sure made it more exciting.
Miller finished cruising the 70-foot route he and Habicht established on their Middle Aged Wall at the Pie Shop climbing area off Sawmill Road in Meyers.
With winter, and snow, disappearing for weeks at a time, it’s perfect weather for climbing. And the two South Lake Tahoe residents are among many taking advantage.
On the same day last year in early February, they definitely were not climbing rocks.
“Last year all this was socked in 5 to 10 feet of snow,” Miller said. “I did come up once, with a tarp and rope, but it was a lot harder to get here. Last year was an amazing ski season, this year we just have to look for other things to do.”
Miller’s preferred method of recreation is climbing, maintaining and establishing routes, but says if he doesn’t get a few decent powder turns in every year he feels it “deep within my soul. It’s an empty place.”
On this particular 60-degree day, Christmas Valley mountaineering veteran Will Cottrell showed up to climb.
“I’m glad I still have a job and can play,” said the 73-year old climbing guidebook author who has been mountaineering for about 40 years and made the 111th ascent of Mt. McKinley back in the day with no fixed ropes. “The only bad day is when it’s raining, and that means it’s snowing somewhere.”
Miller, 41, and Habicht, 44, visit Pie Shop frequently. They are stewards of the area and are making it safer with every visit. They keep the trails clear and develop more convenient paths to different climbs, and they maintain the routes by replacing old, “manky” hardware. They also are making first accents and establishing new routes.
“I turned 40 and bought myself a present, a rotary Bulldog Bosch drill, that thing is amazing,” said Miller who’s climbed for 20 years and moved with his wife to Tahoe in 2005 after scouting other mountain towns including Park City, Durango, Moab and Taos. “I love this area. Pie shop, in my humble opinion, is the best quality climbing in the Tahoe Basin. Period.”
Lover’s Leap is an iconic climbing destination located about 25-30 minutes west off of U.S. 50, but is not in the basin.
Miller worked to remove a bolt and hangar from the granite that looked older than the rock itself, while Habicht belayed and helped this journalist struggle up a classic crack, Hands Masseuse, that was first ascended in 1976.
Miller feels lucky to be cleaning routes and replacing bolts and anchors on climbs that legends of the sport like Paul Crawford, Dan Osman and T.M. Herbert established. He hopes new, safer equipment encourages others to climb them.
Miller and Habicht established, and published, several new routes in 2016 on what they called the Middle Aged Wall. Miller’s motivation is the driving force behind the maintenance and new route development, said Habicht, but he couldn’t do it without plenty of help.
Habicht has been climbing for 22 years or so and he and his wife drag their two boys, 9 and 11, all around the Sierra to climb. Before Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park was closed for the season, the family made a team ascent of Cathedral, a classic climb first ascended by John Muir in 1869.
Habicht and Miller checked off another classic Yosemite valley route this past fall, The Nose of El Capitan, which took four days and they were passed almost twice by Brad Gobright, the speed ascent record holder for the route.
Habicht said establishing new routes and maintaining old ones is a natural process as his climbing career evolves. He got to the top of a route at Pie Shop about five years ago and noticed an old anchor that didn’t inspire confidence.
“When you reach a certain age and you’ve done a certain amount of accomplishments that you’re satisfied, you just look for the next step,” Habicht said. “The next step is do something new that nobody has done. It’s hard to find new cracks but they do exist. We found some new face climbs nobody has ever done. It feels like we’re giving back to something we’ve taken from for 22 years.”
Habicht is an emergency room physician who has lived in South Lake for about seven years. Maybe climbing with a doctor gives Miller more confidence — that Habicht could perform a MacGyver-type of emergency surgery using climbing gear like a nut tool and cams.
But when it comes to replacing bolts and developing new routes, Miller and Habicht make sure they, “honor and preserve the legacy that’s here while simultaneously expanding access.”
Miller went to some basin climbing veterans and made sure what he and Habicht were doing wouldn’t cause a stir.
“You don’t necessarily ask for permission but you make sure what you’re doing is keeping with the local ethics. You wouldn’t want to do something to disturb the legacy of someone like Dan Osman,” Miller said. “We just want to be good stewards and as much as we like to keep it to ourselves, I think we also understand that what we have here is a tremendous resource, that I’d like more and more people to appreciate.”