When I was asked to write a piece about why Gaia GPS might be useful to our climbing readers, I immediately contacted one of my oldest closest friends, Scottie.
Scottie, or “Mr. Scott” as I generally call him, is about to finish an interminable PhD at UC Davis—a seven-year slog that may or may not have been prolonged by the fact that he spends every spare weekend, often solo, obsessively trekking out to Tahoe’s farthest flung bouldering areas. And he loves his Gaia GPS app.
Indeed, during our conversation, he told me that he uses it “more than any other gear accessory or technology when out bouldering.”
Climbing: What is it about Tahoe that makes Gaia GPS so useful? I think it’s important for people to know the scale.
Mr. Scott: Yeah. So right now Tahoe has five bouldering guidebooks that don’t overlap—North Shore, South Shore, East Shore, West Shore, and Outlying Areas—and they’re really designed to be used in conjunction with a GPS device. My guess is that, in total, you’re talking something like 15,000 established boulder problems. It could be less, but it could also be more, honestly. And because of the way the geology works out here, Dave Hatchett, the guidebook author, limits the directions in the guidebook but gives GPS coordinates for every single boulder and major landmark. So you kind of need a GPS to climb the less roadside things. Without a GPS, you’re going to spend way more time lost—or at least not finding the boulders—than you want…. Enough that it’s no longer a fun adventure. Trust me. It’s mandatory as far as I’m concerned.
Climbing: And the thing is, most of the problems aren’t just in one vast jumble, right? They’re in zones and subzones, separated from each other, often not on trails.
Mr. Scott: Exactly. Let’s say, for instance, that you’re looking for a boulder that has a forty-minute approach but is set 400 yards back from the main trail, in the woods, in a small wash or dry creek. The boulder has two high quality V10s on it and a terrifying V5, and that’s it. It doesn’t get visited all that often. It doesn’t have a separate trail to it. Now, that boulder is going to be very hard to find without a GPS—I mean, you could be off by just 30 or 40 yards and never find it—but it’ll be very easy to find with one. That’s what a significant percentage of Tahoe bouldering is like: independent boulders with a few amazing king lines, not linked by trails. Without using GPS coordinates, Dave Hatchett would have had to supply blow-by-blow directions to thousands of boulders like that. And that’s just not viable. The West Shore book alone has something like 4,000 problems in it.
Climbing: You can’t put all that in a reasonably sized book.
Mr. Scott: No. The book would be all directions. Now I should add that if you stick to roadside areas, you probably don’t need a GPS in Tahoe. And Tahoe has some amazing roadside boulders. But it’s such a beautiful place, and so many of the best areas require approaches. One of the coolest parts about Tahoe, in my opinion, is that most people, probably because they don’t understand that they need to use a GPS, resign themselves to only visiting the roadside areas. So if you are willing to do a little bit of prep work and go for a hike, you might be the only person at a 5-star bouldering zone on the busiest weekend of the year. It’s just frickin’ sweet. That’s one reason it’s my favorite bouldering area in the U.S.
Climbing: Is there another reason?
Mr. Scott: The rock quality. It just forms fun boulder problems.
Climbing: How do you use Gaia exactly?
Mr. Scott: If I’m going through a zone I haven’t been to before, I’ll leaf through the guidebook and either identify the problems I’m most interested in or—more often—identify the boulders that will serve as the best landmarks for navigating to other things. I’ll then plug those into Gaia GPS and download a map for that area—usually spanning all the way to the parking. This allows me to go without cell service, which I almost never have up there. Then I’ll go out there. Sometimes it turns out that the approach is super easy and there’s a trail right to the boulder. In that case I might not actually look at the app while I’m out. But I really enjoy getting out to the more distant zones, so that’s pretty rare. Nine times out of ten, when visiting an area for the first time, I’m using Gaia to navigate to and in-between the boulders.