Getting High 
on Highway 33

Getting High 
on Highway 33

Story and photos by Bennett Barthelemy

I pull the rope in, reeling in that perfect fish – Rita. We are tethered together to two shared bolts, 300 feet above Highway 33.

We both look up. There is a ways to go still, the summit not yet visible, and it’s hot. The ants have found us and commence biting our bare legs at their leisure. But Rita is game to continue and we do. We have entered a vertical reality, a place forbidden to normal ambulatory expression. Now we rely on fatigued hands and tender fingers, pinching and pushing pimples of Cenozoic stone and filling the negative space of shallow cracks with our toes for upward momentum. Rita holds onto the rope – my life, should I fall. I slowly pass lichen-covered rock, lichen that has been growing here for centuries. Onward we move to loose stone ears, plates that we gingerly push down on, but not out, lest they explode. We find a less traveled path, and probably for good reason.

Rita Maes rappels at sunset from the Fortress.

This stretch of Highway 33, north of Ojai, draws people for many reasons. The myriad canyons that it winds through are majestically scenic and provide a thrill for motorcycle riders and hot rods alike. Dozens of swimming holes along Matilija and Sespe Creeks provide a cool escape in the hot months; a few miles further takes you to Rose Valley, with its access to day hikes or multi-day backpacks, to waterfalls and hot springs hidden deep in the Sespe Wilderness. Just beyond Rose Valley turnoff, the first summit reveals shimmering views of the Channel Islands on clear days, while over the back it opens up to the wildly tilted slabs of Piedra Blanca and the slopes of Pine Mountain and its sweet camping at 6,500 feet elevation. While all these options are worthy, some of the best adventures I’ve had have been while getting

Zach DiStefano climbs at the Tunnels.

high, really high, above the 33

Sespe Slab, a belayer’s perspective looking down the classic Tree Route.

Roped free-climbing – vertical therapy as I like to call it – is readily accessible along this part of the 33. While driving, you can’t miss these areas. They’re a stone’s throw from the road and offer good spectating from the safety of turn-outs. Three favorites are the Tunnels, Sespe Slab (aka the Black Wall), and the Fortress. Although not a world-class destination for climbers like Yosemite or Joshua Tree National Parks, these spots do offer great adventure climbing and dozens of technical climbs that could suit the neophyte and the shredder alike. Each area has its own unique history, styles of climbing, and rock types, as well. There is a good mix of sport and traditional climbs, grades, single- and multi-pitch routes, and the climbing can be done year round – as long as it hasn’t recently rained.

The Tunnels

The tunnels were completed in 1931, blasted through solid rock to continue Highway 33 on its northward journey. It is rumored that world heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey, when training just a few miles down the highway, would come up to the emerging tunnels to help the crews and swing a sledgehammer. As the legend goes, his trainer put a stop to it because a chunk of rock blasted upward from a blow and nearly blinded him. I like to channel some of that Dempsey intensity when I get scared on lead here, especially on days when the ferocious Santa Ana winds are pushing me sideways and rocks are cascading off ledges and bouncing down into the creek below. The area offers all bolted sport routes of various difficulty and hosts three main types of stone. The more common sandstone, a knobby conglomerate, and a rare blue schist make the climbing here quite unusual and varied. The positioning above the creek in the tall, narrow canyon is exciting, and when ropes are pulled down from the anchors they may often end up in the water. The climbs here are all single pitches.
Sespe Slab

There are local whispers about the indigenous Chumash free-soloing these cliffs, perhaps to gain spiritual awareness or a divine power. Some of the first roped climbers here were Yvon Chouinard and Tom Frost, of Patagonia fame, in the early 1960s. They often tested gear here that they were creating specifically for climbing, which they manufactured in their Ventura forge. Some of the climbs here reach 500 feet, some four roped pitches to get to the summit ridge. However, the best quality rock and climbing is found in the first few hundred feet.

The Fortress

This one is a much newer venue that still has a bit of loose rock on some of the climbs, but it provides a thrilling excursion up vertiginous towers. This area is kind of like a rattlesnake. A rattlesnake is a beautiful piece of evolutionary expression, but also scary and potentially dangerous. Helmets should be worn in all these areas, but especially here, with the amount of loose rock that continually cascade through the gullies. Though mostly sport climbs, The Fortress also includes some traditional and single- as well as multi-pitch routes of all grades.
Local climbing resources

Rita Maes organizes gear before beginning her lead of pitch two at the Fortress.

• Local guiding service: Ojai Rock Climbing ( A good way to ensure safety is with super experienced local climbing guides. For first-time climbers, or those who are traveling without gear, this can be a great way to sample the region’s classics.

• Where to stay: Many local bed and breakfasts, Airbnb options, as well as a few campgrounds along the 33 at Wheeler Gorge, Rose Valley, and Pine Mountain.

• Where to buy gear: Real Cheap Sports at 36 W. Santa Clara St., Ventura, ( has pretty much everything you might need, as does Patagonia (, which has its flagship store just down the street at 235 W. Santa Clara St.

• To find route and climbing info: Mountain Project ( is a free website and phone app that offers some general climbing info as well as a forum describing conditions of climbs which can change over time in this geologically dynamic region.