Not so long ago, Yosemite climbers relied on belay systems that might hold a fall, carpentry nails for protection and shoulder stands—not bolts—to bypass blank sections. The techniques and equipment from the 1930s would horrify a modern climber. These were truly the days of “the leader must not fall.”
Not many of us know what it was like to friction climb in tennis shoes without a harness and with a hip belay or make overhanging rappels using the Dülfer rappel method (with the rope wrapped under the groin and over the shoulder). Today, climbers can choose from a stunning selection of ultra-strong gear and even download detailed route topos from the Internet. In addition to these high-tech advantages, a modern climber who starts a Yosemite classic knows that hundreds of others have gone before him, and lived to spray about it.
Despite the advantages a new-school climber enjoys, Yosemite’s towering granite walls are still a worthy challenge. Even though we have the luxury of knowing the rope will hold us if we fall, the exposure and views are just as mind-blowing as they were on the first ascent. These climbs remain the pinnacle of achievement for any average Joe and anyone who does them will be psyched.
Even after numerous ascents up the Big Stone, the Regular Route on Higher Spire grabbed my attention. Following the last pitch, I traversed under a large roof to face 1000 feet of stomach-turning exposure. Moving timidly up the wild 5.8 arete to the summit, it was a relief that my belayer, Randy Spurrier, was out of sight and could not see my death grip on the final holds. Make no mistake, these climbs are moderate, not easy.
Because I knew the history of the route, the climbing experience was enriched. Rather than an aesthetic-looking rock with some good climbing, my ascent of Higher Cathedral Spire became a re-enactment of a chapter in history. And unlike a roped-off museum display, I was able to jam, crimp, and summit this piece of history.
It was the pinnacles, not the big faces, that appealed to early Yosemite climbers. Therefore the Higher Cathedral Spire, the tallest freestanding spire in North America, was a natural attraction.
The first attempt made in 1933 by Jules Eichorn, Bestor Robinson and Dick Leonard was well-planned, yet lacked essential technology: they had 10-inch nails instead of pitons. This problem was solved the following year with a hefty supply of “state-of-the-art” gear: 55 pitons specially ordered from Europe, 13 carabiners, manila hemp ropes, and tennis shoes. The ascent was cutting-edge in many ways: it featured one of the earliest uses of a pendulum and was at the highest free climbing and aid climbing standards.
Sixty-seven years later, Higher Cathedral Spire remains a challenge. Unlike most rock in Yosemite, the Southwest Face contains numerous face holds and fractured, loose rock. The wild and exposed moves around the “Rotten Chimney” are terrifying even with sticky rubber and cams. Imagine navigating this pitch with tennis shoes and ropes made of manila hemp.
Lower Cathedral Spire – 5.9
Though not as classic as its neighbor, Lower Cathedral Spire is a must-do for any historical trophy collector. Only months after climbing Higher Spire, the same team returned to Lower Spire and started up the Southeast Face. The route turned out to be less sustained than the Higher Spire but more risky due to one large feature on the third pitch: a menacing, thin flake detached ten inches from the wall. The mindset necessary to climb the flake bordered on insanity. First, a sharp projection on the flake was lassoed. Then the rope, hanging vertical, was climbed hand-over-hand until it was possible to mantel the projection. If liebacked, the fragile flake would have broken so out came the hammer. The leader then delicately chipped footholds into the flake while balancing his weight in an effort to keep from pulling the feature—and himself—from the wall. This was Yosemite’s first instance of chipping, a practice that was not repeated until the sport-climbing boom in the 1980s.
Today, even with the security of modern equipment, the detached flake looks suicidal and all climbers avoid the original direct line with a variation to the right. The rest of the route does not have any magnificent pitches. However, the summit and overall experience make this a worthy outing.
Royal Arches – 5.10b or 5.7 A0
With the major Valley spires climbed, the pioneers of the 1930s turned to the unclimbed faces. Climbing Half Dome and El Capitan was unthinkable. The 1400-foot Royal Arches, however, was covered with just enough features and ledges to forge a route.
While the first part followed large, 4th class ledges, the upper half of the route looked more challenging. The first difficulty, encountered halfway up the wall, was a ten-foot blank section that was overcome by using a “swinging rope traverse.” Even today, 99 percent of climbers pendulum rather than free climb the desperate 5.10b slab moves. A few pitches later, the climbers encountered the second major difficulty: a gap separating the major features. Miraculously, a dead tree trunk had formed a perfect, albeit terrifying bridge. This feature, dubbed “The Rotten Log,” sadly departed from the wall in 1984, removing the most classic and frightening part of the climb. Not to worry, the route still has plenty of exciting sections, most notably the last pitch. Here, with the easy walk-off agonizingly close, the team faced a 50-foot blank section covered in pine needles. Pushing the limits of friction on polished granite with tennis shoes, the first ascentionists pulled through a section that dismays many present-day climbers using sticky rubber.
Steck Salathé – IV 5.9
Unlike most large faces, there was no mystery in piecing together the line that would take John Salathé and Allen Steck up the North Face of Sentinel: wide cracks and gaping chimneys cut up the face from bottom to top. While such an obvious line meant few route-finding problems, it also meant wild climbing and lots of it.
Steve Roper refers to the time period around the first ascent as the “technical age.” By today’s standards, however, Salathé and Steck used archaic gear. On a climb filled with wide cracks the largest piton they had were only an inch wide. They also carried the old-school ration of water: one quart per person per day. The climb was so difficult that Steck wondered if there would ever be a second ascent.
Today, the route is popular, though still considered a stout outing. For all but the honed off-width climber, the route is solid and terrifying 5.9.
When Eric Beck, Jim Bridwell and Chris Fredericks returned from the first ascent of Snake Dike, the Camp 4 climbers were in disbelief. These climbers had put up a new 800-foot route in a day from Camp 4 to Camp 4 and proclaimed the route trivial. At the time, only one other route graced the face: the challenging 5.10b R southwest face. According to Steve Roper, “disdain [from other Camp 4 climbers] evolved to thoughts that the three men should be committed.”
But the Snake Dike first ascentionists were telling the truth. They had climbed one of Yosemite’s most wild features: a 600-foot-long vertical dike that rarely was harder than 5.4. Part of the reason the team moved so fast was that they didn’t bother to place much pro. On the entire eight-pitch climb, only six bolts and two pitons were placed—including belays!
Fearing that they had put up a death route for beginners, the first ascent team gave the second ascentionist, Steve Roper, permission to add bolts. Few modern day climbers will complain about the added bolts as almost every pitch has a huge 5.4 runout and some pitches have no protection at all.
Nutcracker – 5.8
Like most Valley climbers, Royal Robbins did not instantly embrace nuts. For a time nuts were thought to only be useful in England and not the parallel-sided cracks of Yosemite. However, after experiencing the utility and non-destructive quality of nuts in England in 1966, Royal returned to Yosemite a believer. Not only did he accept nuts, he set out to influence others to stop the destructive use of pitons. What better way to encourage nut use than to climb a first ascent using nothing but nuts?
Not only did Royal and his wife Liz put up a climb using solely nuts, they put up perhaps the best multi-pitch 5.8 in Yosemite. After their first ascent of Nutcracker Sweet (later shortened to Nutcracker), virtually all climbers who followed only used nuts. This act along with the 1972 Chouinard Equipment Catalog and the first hammerless ascent of Half Dome’s Northwest Face, would seal the fate of pitons forever.
Nutcracker offers two starting lines. The right line is 5.9. The normal start is 5.8.
Yosemite Valley has all the good and bad that comes with an urban destination. The good news is that if your car breaks down or you’re craving filet mignon, Yosemite has you covered. The bad news is that it is hard to escape the car traffic and tourists. The Valley is relatively empty from November to April but unfortunately most long routes will be unclimbable then.
For the most detailed topos for these routes, check out the “Yosemite Valley Free Climbs” guide from Supertopo.com. Each route comes with a detailed topo, route history by Steve Roper and strategy section.
Many climbs require an alpine start to avoid the crowds. Of the routes covered here, only Royal Arches has enough variations to easily pass slower parties. The best time to climb these routes is in the spring and fall. About the only time Royal Arches does not have crowds is in the winter and early spring when much of the route runs with water. The wet rock is not bad if you remember this key bit of advice: take off your shoes to get better friction.
During the summer, you will have to start at dawn to avoid the heat, especially on the Cathedral Spires and Nutcracker. If the Valley is sweltering, consider heading to a great swimming hole about ten miles west of the Highway 120 entrance station. You can choose whether to jump off the 15-foot or the 25-foot cliff. Check out the Supertopo.com Yosemite page for directions to get here and other swimming holes.
Other rest day activities include filling up the cooler, renting a raft from Curry Village and floating down the Merced River. Or just heading down to El Cap Meadow with a pair of binoculars to either watch climbers or pick out the next new squeeze job (there are still a few 50-foot sections of unclimbed rock).
If you arrive in Yosemite in the summer, chances are Camp 4 will be full. If you are having trouble getting a site, consider camping next to the Merced River outside west of El Portal or at any of the other park entrance stations. There is also more information on extra camping on the SuperTopo Yosemite page.
Yosemite Free Climbs provides detailed topos on Yosemite's most classic climbs including all five of these classics, and many more.