Weekend Warm-Up: Obsessed and Mustachioed on the Last Gem in the Buttermilks

Climbs in the Buttermilk Boulders don’t surrender easily, even to the world’s best pebble wrestlers.

At first sight, it’s easy to figure out why. The quartz erratics hulk over the broad playa of the Owens Valley in eastern California. Savage crimps in steep faces guard top-outs that soar above 15 meters. Around icons like the Grandma and Grandpa Peabody Boulders, generations of hopefuls have steadily pounded the landscape into dust by throwing down palatial crash pad carpets.

people crowded around a boulder with a climber nearing the top

A crowd at the Happy Boulders. Photo: Greyson Howard, Tahoe Fabulous


When a climber scores a first ascent in the Buttermilks, it’s a big deal. Jared Roth pulled off an unthinkable ascent with Rastaman Vibration (V12, 15m) in 2002. Roth started Rastaman from a standing position, skipping some entry moves too radical for the time and place. Eight years later, Paul Robinson finally unlocked them, forcing a sit start after two years’ work: Lucid Dreaming, V15.

A similar saga played in the Sierra foothills above the Peabodies. Bouldering luminaries Chris Sharma and Jason Kehl started clashing with the Golden Boulder’s steep, soaring face in the early 2000s. But neither climber could solve its puzzle of crimps and contortions. In 2011, Sonnie Trotter finally skipped half of it, creating the shoulder-start rig Standing on the Shoulders of Giants (V9). But the ground-up line remained one of the Buttermilks’ last unclimbed centerpieces — until this spring.


View this post on Instagram


A post shared by Keenan Takahashi (@keenantakahashi)

Freefall veteran

Keenan Takahashi is a gamer. The 30-something-year-old has invested the majority of two decades into the climbing game. Takahashi is as recognizable for his unkempt mustachios as for his gung-ho style on rock. He’s tamed big rigs and exacting projects all over the world. He has been called “obsessive,” and he’s probably spent more time in freefall than most people have spent on the couch.

In April, he added another notch to his belt.

The Gold Standard (V15) is the long-deferred completion of Trotter’s Shoulders. Watch Takahashi wage and win the first ascent war here — in painter’s pants and gondolier shirts.

To psych up, he invokes a Soundcloud rapper.

“Chicken f*ckin’ bone, now it’s on!”

Firmly. Consistent with the Mellow label, this joint is a familiar chronicle of the ups and downs of high-ball prospecting. Alongside partner-in-crime Katie Lamb, Takahashi frets, focuses, and fumes through the effort.

If the central Californian sometimes seems overstimulated, it’s a short leap to guess why. Takahashi’s investment in The Gold Standard spanned years. His tendency to fixate obviously fueled progress but increased the pressure.

All part of the process. Photo: Eric Bissell/Screenshot


Insipid chatter

Also get ready for insipid chatter from spotters (admittedly, I cannot control this when I am the spotter) and Mellow’s vulnerability to dramatization. Some will struggle with disjuncts between production elements and on-screen events, like when a yearning, tense musical crescendo intensifies as a headlamped Takahashi proceeds up the rig but falls — uneventfully, from a height of about five meters.

Anyone who’s done it, though, knows that climbing a worthy project feels more intense than post-production could ever make it seem.

ExplorersWeb couldn’t reach Takahashi for comment as of this writing, but his Instagram post caption is a can’t-miss. Want a drive-by tour through the strange, standout mind at the top of the Buttermilks? Here you go.

“The only difficulty was self-imposed, and to see it for what it is allowed me to step away from the outcome and focus on the moment. The wind rose, and I just felt excited to give it hell…I’m not really sure how to write a caption about something that I’ve been looking at for 12+ years, trying for six seasons, and thought I might never send. But… I’m f*cking psyched to have seen this one through!!!”

Chicken bone, Keenan.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson spent his 20s as an adventure rock climber, scampering throughout the western U.S., Mexico, and Thailand to scope out prime stone and great stories. Life on the road gradually transformed into a seat behind the keyboard, where he acted as a founding writer of the AllGear Digital Newsroom and earned 1,500+ bylines in four years on topics from pro rock climbing to slingshots and scientific breakthroughs.