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):
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.