CRAGS recently sat down with M. “Petch” Pietrolungo, Lover’s Leap legend and owner of Lover’s Leap Guides, to learn about post-Caldor Fire conditions at The Leap. Caldor Fire burned 221,775 acres through El Dorado and Amador counties from August to October 2021, directly impacting both the Lover’s Leap and Phantom Spires climbing areas.
Petch began Lover’s Leap Guides in 2003. Lovers Leap Guides is a climbing guide service offering full or half day options and will pretty much take you and your friends climbing anywhere along Highway 50 year-round. They specialize in multi-pitch and single pitch climbing, they’ll teach you trad and lead climbing, rescue classes, group outings; you name it they’ll put a rope up for you.
This update will provide a comprehensive description of the fire damage to Lover’s Leap and to detail future restoration plans for later this spring. Please check back here or follow @norcalcrags on instagram for updates and announcements of upcoming trail days.
CRAGS: “Any road construction or delays driving along Highway 50?”
Petch: “The road work and fire work adds a lot of delays mid-week. I’ve had 30-40 minute delays, it is mostly Monday thru Friday. They are cutting down the dead trees, lots of tree removal”
CRAGS: “Can you take us through the main climbing areas and describe the fire damage? Pony Express Trail, Lower Buttress, Main Wall, East Wall, Main/East Wall Descent, Hogsback?”
Petch: “Let’s start with the campground. As you walk into the campground, it looks exactly the same with minimal fire damage just up the hill. As you continue on the Pony Express Trail heading to the boulders, again it is mostly untouched. As soon as you get past the boulders it’s pretty torched. Over 90 percent of the trees and bushes are dead, big ones and small ones.”
“Heading up to the Lower Buttress, about 25-40 feet before you get to the wall, all of the sudden it is untouched. All the trees next to Surrealistic Pillar, all the rock work we have done over the years, that’s all untouched. It’s really crazy once you get to Surrealistic Direct and turn around it looks the same. Continuing uphill towards The Groove and The Farce, it still looks good. At the end of the wall by Blue Wind, the fire came in and burned to the Main Wall. The area above the Lower Buttress where CRAGS did trail work last summer all burned. You can still see the trail work we did. Heading over to Dear John, it’s burned to about 20 feet before the cliff. Like the Lower Buttress, it looks the same next to the wall. Still beautiful with nice shade, trees, moss and lichen.”
“Going up to the Main Wall and Main Ledge only some of the bushes burned. There were no trees on the ledge, so the heat intensity was low. All the rock in all the areas is fine, none of the rock was damaged.”
“Up at the East Wall all the bushes are burned. I walked the base and found a bunch of burned gear. It was sort of like an Easter Egg hunt but all the eggs were rotten. I found about a dozen nuts and carabiners, a cam, some nut tools, and a knife. Eventually I would like to make a display and hang it at the Strawberry Station General Store.”
“On the summit of the Leap, next to the edge most of the trees survived. A little further back it burned hot and a lot of trees were killed. Getting down to the top of the East Wall, it’s kind of sporadic. There are some big beautiful trees that made it. But then you start heading down the East Wall descent and that was torched. One of my favorite trees located on the descent, a giant Incense Cedar covered in bright lichen, was burned. I would take all my clients there and point it out to them. All the bushes and trees are gone below the East Wall.”
“Fire burned from the Pony Express Trail all the way up the ridge to the backside of Hogsback. The fire stopped right before the ridge and most of those beautiful Sierra Junipers survived. Hogwild all the way over to Knapsack is all untouched.”
CRAGS: “How did Caldor Fire affect Phantom Spires?”
Petch: “The fire did go through there. The spires, according to the El Dorado Forest Service maps, are open and Wrights Lake road is closed. I hiked in from Highway 50 to Lower Phantom Wall. The fire burned through there, but a lot of the trees didn’t get burned. It is hard to tell what happened by the main climbing area. I’m sure the rock is all fine, that area burned in the 80’s”
CRAGS: “How do you see us moving forward?”
Petch: “The East Wall descent is going to be our biggest project, that’s going to be where we need to put our focus. It is still under 2-3 feet of snow. Once the snow melts, the ash is so thick we’re going to have to let it dry out. I was up there once after it rained and it was just muck, you couldn’t even walk in it.”
“Plans are to dial in and prepare the new descent route for the East Wall. Once we’re allowed to bring volunteers in, we can get to work. I’m hoping in mid to late April we can get people in there.”
“We’ve got to prevent social trails from happening, especially at the East Wall, because you can go anywhere. We are going to have to really define the trails and find a way to keep people on the trails we want them to stay on. I like signs, if they are done right, maybe a carabiner signs with a couple of route names on them. Joshua Tree and Smith Rock are great examples of using signs.”
CRAGS: “Any last words for the CRAGS community?”
Petch: “Encourage people not to go in there, it is closed. CRAGS and Lovers Leap Guides want to work as hard as possible to get that open as soon as we can. Be patient, climb at SugarLoaf, climb up Highway 80. Know that we’re fighting to get it open.”
If you are heading up Hwy 50, please also support Squirrel at Strawberry Station (Instagram @strawberrystationca). He’s always there and a big part of the community. From hosting parties for Adopt a Crag, storing tools for CRAGS, or just fun Squirrel entertainment. He has a nice selection of climbing gear, ropes, snacks, and beer!”
Note: All photos are taken by Petch.