People of NAC

This project was assembled by Gary Clark with assistance from his wife and climbing partner Lynn Clark. We have been using classic climbs as an excuse to tour the mountain regions of North America for over 20 years, while holding down full-time jobs to pay for our adventures. We do some climbing instruction, have written a few magazine articles and local guidebooks, and play other outdoor games, notably bicycling, river rafting, nature study, and skiing.

Gary has climbed 72 of the routes in this collection, all of the 54 ‘Fourteeners’ in Colorado, and visited the high points of over two-thirds of the states; Lynn a few less in each category. We have also climbed in the Alps, the Andes, and the Himalaya. In 1977, Gary was technical climbing leader for the first American ascent of the highest mountain in the (former) Soviet Union: Pik Kommunizma (7450m). In 1997 we travelled under muscle power from the lowest point in the U.S. (Death Valley, -282′) to the highest point in the contiguous states (Mt. Whitney, 14,495′), reaching the summit on New Year’s Eve.

 

Motivation for the Project

I’ve found that one of the biggest challenges in preparing for major climbs is obtaining reliable information that allows me to make decisions about (1) whether or not I want to do the route, and if so (2) the best strategy and logistics. I’ve participated in the Usenet site “rec.climbing” for many years, and noted that a significant percentage of the messages are related to obtaining information (also known as “beta”) about the best climbs in a given area. Many of the requests are related to the routes in this collection. From the old adage that “a picture is worth a thousand words”, the images here should be the equivalent of about 2.5 million words of description. I would have found the web site and CD very useful when planning these climbs, so I built it in the spirit of sharing information on these superb climbs.

The proceeds from the CD-ROM go into ever improving the project, and towards public-spirited organizations, such as the American Safe Climbing Association. Check the web site at regular intervals for new information, and note that there is a discount for repeat customers.

This project was not intended to be a guidebook. There are many excellent guidebooks already out there that contain essential information for planning your climb. However, the most frequent feedback I’ve had from customers is “More topos!” I’m working on adding more route diagrams (topos) and descriptions, particularly when the existing ones in the guidebooks are not very well done. My recommendations for the most useful guides are listed with each climb. Guidebooks are great for text, maps, and topo diagrams, but lack the room (and budget) for useful photos. Photos give you a better flavor for the actual nature of the climbing, since they can’t be biased by the author’s subjective impressions. I hope you find the site and CD useful.

Gary Clark, Los Alamos, New Mexico

Why These Climbs?

A “classic” is a paradigm of excellence. To be designated as such, the thing should have been around long enough for a consensus to develop among those qualified to judge. Classics have lasting value. Turn on the radio to hear music selections that have endured for decades or even centuries, with listeners never tiring of them. These are the classics. Look on the road for cars that have been lovingly maintained, or restored to original condition and a monetary value often many times the original purchase price. These are the classics. Visit the Louvre in Paris to see huge crowds still admiring cracked and faded paintings done by the great masters of previous centuries. These are the classics. It is not usually difficult to find the classic climbs at a crag. Just look for the most trampled trail leading to the base; climbers vote on the classic routes with their feet.

The idea of collecting a list of classic climbs of the North American continent originated with Steve Roper and Allen Steck in their landmark book “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.” They write in the introduction section: “Our routes are not the fifty classic climbs of the continent, but rather our personal choice of the finest routes . . .”

This collection represents my personal choices, but with significant input from others. These include the Roper & Steck classics that have stood the test of time, plus a selection of newer routes I feel belong in such esteemed company. The criteria for selection are similar to those espoused by Roper & Steck (in order of importance):

  • Excellent climbing

  • Striking appearance when viewed from afar

  • Significant climbing history

The last criterion might seem to have little to do with quality, but the student of climbing history will note an exceptional correlation. The outstanding climbers of any period tend to seek out the best unclimbed lines, which then turn into classics with time as others follow.

Some of the Roper & Steck routes have not stood the test of time. An example is the “D1” route on the Diamond of Colorado’s Long’s Peak, which has historical significance as the route of the celebrated first ascent, but today has very few ascents due to a reputation as having unexceptional climbing compared to other, more recent routes on this wall. I have chosen the Casual Route for this collection. This is the first route on the wall for a majority of Diamond climbers because it provides a totally free route up the line of least resistance with consistent, excellent climbing at a moderate difficulty level (5.10-.) Quality must take precedence over history alone.

Similarly, The Kain Face on Mt. Robson is one of the most beautiful and sought-after routes in Canada. The North Face is one of the finest big snow/ice faces at a higher difficulty level. Both of these have significant histories: the former is the route of first ascent (1913) by the legendary guide Conrad Kain; the 1963 ascent of the North Face by Davis and Callis was a historical standards-raising ascent. The Wishbone Arête on the same mountain, on the other hand, has a reputation for uninteresting climbing on dreadful rock. Ask the locals about the Wishbone, and they’ll tell you to stay away from it unless you just have to “bag the Fifty Classics Route.”

For the sake of completeness, and for all those climbers who have been dedicated to chasing the Roper & Steck list, here are the other routes from that collection that you will not find here, and the reasons:

  • Mt. Logan, Hummingbird Ridge: Has produced more deaths (4) than successes (1) since the first ascent.
  • Mt. St. Elias, Abruzzi Ridge: Changes in the glacier and the difficulty of avoiding huge, deadly avalanches on the Newton Glacier render this route almost unapproachable; very rarely done in recent years.
  • Hallet Peak, Northcutt-Carter Route: The lower two pitches of this route were erased in a large rock slide in 2000. Never considered a truly outstanding route, it will probably fade into obscurity. Try the Culp-Bossier Route instead.
  • Middle Triple Peak, Kichatna Range: This route has had only a few attempts since it was first climbed in 1977, and seems to be just too remote and too serious to ever gain classic status.
  • Shiprock, Sierra Club Route: Originally in the collection, I decided to remove it so as not to encourage climbing it illegally. This climb has been closed by the Navajo Nation for about 25 years now, with no expectation of ever opening again.
  • Moose’s Tooth, West Ridge: I have heard of no repeats of this route since the North American Classics project began in 1998. Climbers are avoiding it in droves because it trades technical difficulty for objective danger, in the form of miles of horribly corniced ridge. In contrast, the newer Ham & Eggs route is becoming a “must do” route in the area.. It has excellent alpine ice climbing, and reaches the summit along the final, safer section of the West Ridge..

Any list of classic climbs should logically evolve as exceptional new routes are developed and as older routes are found to be lacking in comparison. Several such examples included in this collection are located at Red Rocks, Nevada, an area almost undiscovered in 1979 but clearly now one of the continent’s finest rock climbing areas. The collection will continue to grow as routes like these become widely known. I have selected my list of the “best of the best” by marking the top 25 routes in this collection. Due consideration was given to balancing this list among the various categories (rock vs. ice, etc.), technical difficulty, and overall seriousness.

Routes for which we do not yet have adequate photos are an open invitation to those who have climbed them and have high-quality photos that they are willing to share. I also invite comments on my route selections, which were not made in isolation. I have consulted with about a dozen other climbers who have been very active in collecting classic climbs; this list represents a surprising level of consensus in that group, both as to the new routes and the ones to leave out. The editor and several of the consultants have climbed over two-thirds of the Roper & Steck routes.

A list of candidates for the collection can be found here. Many of these were suggestions from visitors to the site, and others I have known about for years, but haven’t gotten around to climbing them yet nor found anyone with the requisite materials.

Why climb the classics?

For those of us with full-time jobs and a lousy few weeks of vacation per year, it is nice to know that the climbs to which you are committing your energy and money are nearly guaranteed to be quality experiences, and not be overly life-threatening due to unknown hazards and difficulties. The flip side of this is the possibility that a lot of other people will have the same idea at the same time, and you’ll end up spending your time in a queue instead of climbing on those precious weekends and vacation days. This is an ever-increasing problem, and has given rise to the cynical designation the “Crowded Classics”. I have no solution to this problem, and indeed may be contributing to it by publishing this web site and CD. However, the effectiveness of the “grapevine” in spreading information about climbs is remarkable. Few climbers can resist telling a few friends about a great climb they just did, and they each tell a few friends, and this geometric progression rapidly brings the knowledge to the entire climbing community. I thus firmly believe that “the word will get around,” whether formalized by publishing or not.

The crowding problem may not be as bad as commonly assumed. I can only relate my personal experience on the routes in this collection: I have encountered other people on less than half of those I’ve climbed or attempted. Of these only a handfull required any modification of plans, such as waiting for or climbing through other parties. The others we had completely to ourselves. I haven’t done some of these climbs for a couple of decades, so the situation has doubtless worsened. It is also true that there can be large random fluctuations in traffic on a given climb. In April of 1998 we traveled to Zion National Park to try the “Moonlight Buttress. When we arrived, there were already 14 climbers on this 10-pitch route! That night there were 3 porta-ledges set up, including one at the top of the first pitch! This was apparently the only way everyone could guarantee their place in the queue. We left without setting foot on the climb, but friends told us they climbed it completely alone only two weeks later! If I had told a few others not to go near this climb, and they each told a few others, etc., a reputation for crowding might grow that was undeserved.

It is quite clear that the most crowded climbs are and will continue to be the most accessible and easiest. The more serious and remote climbs rarely attract much traffic. Besides graduating to the harder routes, one can lessen the probability of a compromised experience due to crowding by:

  • Getting out of bed before everyone else.
  • Choosing an off-peak time (mid-week/early or late season).
  • Being totally prepared for the climb so you can climb fast and efficiently. Starting first and accelerating away will avoid all hassles.

When you decide to climb a route that is already occupied, certain rules of etiquette apply in North America that are different than perhaps found elsewhere (certainly than in Europe). These should be observed or conflicts will arise and nobody will enjoy their climb:

  • If it is clear you are considerably faster than the party above, ask politely if you can climb through. The answer is almost always “yes,” but if it is “no,” either be patient and stay a pitch behind, or go down. It is not socially acceptable in North America to climb over other parties, and/or use their anchors or protection, without first asking.
  • If it is clear you are considerably slower than the party below, offer to let them climb through. Also offer use of your anchors and protection if it will speed the process.
  • If you do end up sharing the route closely with others, be friendly; learn their names and where they are from. Some of the nicest people I’ve ever met have been at belay stances, and you may end up wishing for their empathy if hardships or an accident occurs.

The main motivation, then, to choose a “classic climb” is the near guarantee that, given reasonable weather and conditions, you’ll experience all those things many of us climb for – superb scenery, quality rock/snow/ice, a good exercise of our climbing skills, exhilarating exposure, and enough safety factor that you’ll be likely to report for work on Monday morning to regale your indifferent and unknowing fellow workers with tales of your adventure.

Do you have photos of these climbs?

If you have high-quality images of any route in this collection and are willing to share them with the world, contact us after reading the rest of this page. You would retain all rights to your photos – I only ask for a “single use” license to publish digital versions of the images on the web page and on the CD.

Advantages of contributing photos include:

  • sharing information with fellow climbers
  • recognition for your photography and climbs
  • advertising for possible sale of your work

Since the routes are already well covered, I’m interested only in outstanding images that will improve the quality of the collection, or that have unique information content. Do not send any slides or negatives without contacting us first to see if they might qualify. To start, images must be well composed and exposed, and free of damage. The procedure is to mail the slides or negatives (use certified mail for extra security if you wish) in protective packaging. I will scan and return them as quickly as possible and reimburse your mailing expenses. For digital images, please e-mail low-resolution versions (~640×480 is suggested). I’ll then ask you to send any high-resolution verisons of images I choose for the collection, either via e-mail, or on a CD.

Rewards for contributing:

  • 1-20 images: A free copy of the CD.
  • over 20 images: Free CD, plus any one guidebook from the “references” page.

Legal Caveats:

Contributing photos to this project does not imply relinquishment of copyright. However, I can’t be responsible for copyright violations by others, or for any other liabilities that might result.

Mount Robson Kain Face

A superb outing on one of Canada’s most important mountains. You will nearly circumnavigate the mountain in the 4 days (minimum) needed to pull this one off. Weather and snow conditions are fickle, making this an oft-attempted but seldom bagged objective. The route was name for the legendary Swiss-born guide Conrad Kain, who pulled off the first ascent with two clients in 1913 – certainly a landmark climb in the history of North American mountaineering.

Location:

Robson Prov. Park, British Columbia, Canada

References:

G15, G21, I2, I9, W21

Type / Rating

Snow & Ice / Major outing (3-4 days) with extensive snow & ice to 45 degrees

Route Description:

See references

Seriousness:

Trip Reports (pdf):

None yet – submit yours

First Ascent:

W. Foster, A. McCarthy, C. Kain, July 1913

On the CD-ROM:

29 high-res images of this climb