North American Classic Climbs


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 with this project. 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.