The Legend of "Smoke's Rock Course"

The mountaineering test piece kept alive by old school mountaineers and good old fashioned personal interaction.

Smoke Blanchard stumbled into Bishop, CA in 1937, long before it became the highball bouldering and sport-climbing Mecca it is today. It didn’t take him long to discover his new training ground, the Buttermilks. Over many years, Smoke worked out a winding path through the granite pinnacles and narrow chimneys: Smoke’s Rock Course. Hitting 12 summits, the Rock Course was a mountaineering test piece and training ground for legendary climbers such as Doug Robinson, John Fischer, and Galen Rowell.

Smoke was old-school, and the Rock Course was hard. "Please don't call it practice climbing, this is the real thing." he once said, cautioning would-be followers. He had the Rock Course committed to memory and never wrote it down. Unfortunately, Smoke passed away in 1989, as did many of his followers in the years after that, and Smoke’s Rock Course was nearly lost to time.

Nearly, but not quite. I had the opportunity to meet up with Doug Robinson at last year’s AAC Highball Classic in Bishop, CA. He is one of the dwindling few who knew Smoke Blanchard and personally followed him through the Rock Course. He wants to keep it from slipping away forever.

We met Doug early in a dirt parking lot just before the Buttermilk Boulders. Aside from a new jacket and shiny sunglasses, Doug looks like he stepped straight out of a 1950s mountaineering ad. He shows us a thin old nylon rope and explains this is what Smoke carried with him for safety while doing the Rock Course, although he rarely used it. We will be doing the same. No harnesses. No ATC’s. No safety backups. Only 9mm accessory cord tied around our waists and a mountaineer’s belay at the top. This dude is a badass.

We set off and encountered the first moves of the Rock Course: “The Porcupine.” Without hesitation, Doug starts soloing up the blocky arete. He flows over the rock with a confidence and grace that can only be attained via a lifetime of climbing. He leaps across “The Flying Squirrel”, skips up “The Rubber Tester”, and squeezes up “Charcoal Chimney” – all names coined by Smoke himself – while we scramble along behind him. It felt like stepping into a history book. Something felt right about it. This is the way a route should be learned, not on a computer or cell phone. I tried to soak it all in, memorizing the way through the maze of sand and rock. Who knew when I would get the opportunity again – if ever.

For lunch we stopped in Picnic Valley, ate cheese and crackers, and passed around a bottle of wine. "It's what Smoke would have done," explained Doug as he swigged the last of the bottle. Their friendship was tangible, even 25 years removed. I was starting to get a picture of who Smoke Blanchard was, and I liked him. I want to be friends with this dude.

We only had time to make 4 of the 12 summits that day. Scratched up, dusty, and exhausted, we followed a still-fresh-looking Doug back to the parking lot. I asked how he planned to preserve the course for future generations and Doug said he was working on a guidebook. Turns out he had written about it in 2011:

“This course was the creation of a guy I knew. A fascinating human being, and he left us a unique kind of climbing. Smoke liked to share his creation, to spread the wealth in the very best way— personally. I find myself wanting it to not fade away… But it’s possible to strip away too much of the adventure, and I balked at the thought of people following their screens instead of reading the rocks themselves.”
-Doug Robinson, Mild Mountaineering

Seven years later and he’s still talking about it. I think I understand his hesitation. We’ve left behind the days of unbridled adventure, of wandering hikes without a trail map, of wild climbs without a guidebook. Part of me hopes he never finishes the guide. Part of me hopes that whoever wants to follow Smoke’s Rock Course has to meet up with an old guy in the desert at the break of dawn, wrap a thin rope around their waist, and physically follow in his footsteps. I think that's what Smoke would have wanted.

Published: January 15, 2018

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Aaron Rickel

Los Angeles

Climber. Writer. Filmmaker. Traveler. Musician. Currently has base camp set up in Los Angeles, CA.