In the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada lies Buttermilk Country. It’s a land of brush plateau, wide horizons and rich sunsets. Squatting on the dusty earth, spilt like great marbles from a bag are huge freestanding boulders, some more than 20 feet high. The place is legendary among boulderers who scale the unforgiving quartz without ropes, using only crash mats for protection. This is Lisa Rand’s office. She works these rocks, chalk-laden fingers finding purchase on seemingly smooth overhangs, feet discovering grip on unforgiving holds, routes giving up their secrets as shadows revolve around the boulders.
It’s not a bad place to earn a living.
‘I never intended to be a professional climber!’ says Lisa without a sense of the inevitable, like Da Vinci saying he never meant to be a painter. ‘After graduating I had a full time job in a snowy part of Colorado and occasionally my husband and I would drive to Utah to boulder. I wanted to do more climbing and have a chance to travel so we dropped out nine-to-fives, moved our stuff into storage in Bishop and went to Europe for the summer while we figured out what to do next. Somehow we are still in Bishop today.’
“the bottom line is I’m more interested in the pleasure and thrill of climbing than anything else”
Bishop is the gateway to Buttermilk Country, the small town earning a reputation for adventure, a mecca for rock climbers the world over. The problems on the rocks surrounding Bishop are graded from V0 up to V14. In 2008, Lisa became the first woman to climb The Mandala, an extraordinary V12 route in Buttermilk first set by Chris Sharma in 2000. It sealed her reputation as one of the most dynamic, groundbreaking and accomplished boulderers in the world. She became a game changer. ‘Definitely I have been motivated to be the first, to take a step that no other woman has taken, in an effort to push the boundaries of the sport,’ shrugs Lisa. ‘But the bottom line is I’m more interested in the pleasure and thrill of climbing than anything else.’
You could rack up Lisa’s ‘firsts’, tick them off one by one: First American woman to become number one in the world, first American woman to climb V11 (Plain High Drifter, Buttermilks, 2001), first female ascent of Thriller V10 in Yosemite, first woman to lead a traditional E8 on British gritstone and so on and so forth. It’s a list that draws a picture of dedication and drive, of passion for climbing, for seeking that symbiosis of human and rock, that moment when the world falls away and you’re left with the cool touch of rough stone on your fingertips. Because despite the impressive competition wins, Lisa remains a ‘dirt bag’ climber. She muses on this. ‘When I grew up climbing we learned outside on rocks. It was an alternative sport which drew a solitary crowd of people. Going to the crag was a chance to commune with nature and escape the rat race.
‘Climbers in the past seemed to live more of a ‘’dirt bag’ lifestyle. Most of my friends did not have a lot of money so we climbed at crags we could drive to and camp at.’ This dirt bag lifestyle still survives in places. Squamish in British Columbia with its huge granite Chief attracts these soul climbers, people who work for months so they can climb for months. But many places now limit how long you can camp at specific crags, ruling out summers of living out of your car and while you’ll never make yourself rich from climbing, indoor centres have changed the nature of the beast. ‘Today climbing gyms are making climbing more accessible to the general public but they are also breeding mutant kids who travel the globe in pursuit of climbing competitions and climbing areas,’ says Lisa. ‘Climbing is growing and becoming mainstream and now when I’m on trips I meet people from all walks of life including children of wealthy parents who pay for their travel.’ It’s hard not to pick up a touch of wistfulness in her voice for those halcyon days at the start of her career.
Lisa’s own climbing has benefited from the competition circuit, picking up sponsors including The North Face and Evolve along the way who remain supportive and enthusiastic despite her withdrawing from regular competing to focus more on beautiful lines outside. Jay Peery, director of sales at Evolve is effusive in his praise: ‘Total commitment and her own unique vision seem to drive her to never let up until she gets what she wants. Lisa naturally creates a stealthy buzzing energy. She’s an icon and really we’re still punk kids but the synergy is there and we all get a lot out of the relationship.’
‘I’m psyched if I can inspire other climbers to push beyond their limiting mental barriers so they can improve their climbing,’ she says. ‘I used to buy into the stigma that I shouldn’t be able to climb as hard as the guys because I’m smaller and slighter but eventually I realised it was my way of thinking that was limiting my abilities. I’m especially happy if I can inspire women to realise we can physically and mentally be very powerful in our climbing.’
“Regardless of the level they climb, I admire anyone who climbs from his or her heart and who is honest and encouraging”
Her own inspirations are varied, ranging from such rock pioneers as Lynn Hill who free climbed the Nose of El Capitan in Yosemite and renowned big crack climber Peter Croft, both climbers whose athleticism and style make them spectacular to watch. Lisa is democratic in her praise: ‘Regardless of the level they climb, I admire anyone who climbs from his or her heart and who is honest and encouraging. I find it encouraging when a woman does a climb that is pushing the barriers of the sport but I don’t think women should be judged against their male counterparts because we are built differently. ‘Ultimately climbing should feel fun and rewarding, not demoralising.’
Despite her building her name on competitions it’s this love of the purity of climbing which shouts so loud when you chat to Lisa, this old school love of being out in the mountains climbing a spectacular sequence of moves. ‘Often people are driven to be the first to do a certain thing even though the quality of the line or the beauty of it are lacking.‘Style is very important to me – for a really proud line just doing the climb will provide a sense of achievement that goes beyond its value as a first ascent. One of the boulder problems I have done many, many times over is High Plains Drifter at the Buttermilks. I always love being out there in the view of the mountains and climbing that line. It’s a classic.’
There’s something breathless about Buttermilk Country, about the way the boulders seem to sit in suspended animation, climbers specks on the large sides like flies on an elephant’s backside. There’s poetry written on the rock in the movements of those who attempt their summits. At 34, Lisa has etched her name indelibly in the annals of climbing, one of the most inspirational women and accomplished athletes to put chalk to rock. It’s not something she worries about.‘I climbed before I made my living as a climber and I will climb after I am no longer a professional rock climber. I’m sure there’s a lot more adventure to be had.’
Word: Susan Greenwood. Images: Wills Young