A climbing route is a path by which a climber reaches the top of a mountain, rock, or ice wall. Routes can vary dramatically in difficulty and grade; once committed to that ascent, it can sometimes be difficult to stop or return. Choice of route can be critically important. Guidebooks, if available, are helpful in providing detailed diagrams and photographs of routes.
In the earliest days of hillwalking and mountaineering, climbers got to the top by whatever means got them there. Little information about how they did it is available. During the 19th century, as explorers of the Alps tried ever harder summits, it became clear that choosing an eastern face over a southwestern ridge could spell the difference between success or failure. One example was the first ascent of the Matterhorn, which had been repeatedly and unsuccessfully attempted via the southern side. The strata there tended to slope down and away while the rocks of the northeastern ridge (the one closest to Zermatt) tilted up - a steeper, but safer route.
As technique developed, and mountains of the world were ascended via easy routes, climbers began to challenge themselves by looking for and trying harder routes. Once all the obvious lines had been tried, climbers looked for more technically challenging routes (e.g. an all-rock route threading between icefields or a single thin, fissure running in a continuous straight line from base to summit). An aesthetic element came in, as well. An easy, but confusing route, weaving back and forth across a face was less desirable than a direct route along a scenic ridge. Safe routes that yielded to good technique were more desirable than routes with loose rock and awkward climbing.
Climbing routes that were overlooked or required greater technical skill became associated with the climber(s) who first climbed them. It became common practice for the first climber to choose a name for the route. Inevitably, there were climbers so energetic that they established multiple routes on a single mountain or cliff, and named routes based on a theme. This opened up a new outlet for creative overkill. Some climbing areas have a bewildering variety of curious and amusing names for their many routes, as seen in the list below.
An example of interesting route-naming can be seen on the Southeast face of El Capitan in Yosemite Valley. The Nose was the first route on the main part of the cliff, so called because it is shaped like a 3,000-foot-tall (910 m) nose. A list of routes to the right of The Nose includes:
Names often incorporate puns or pop-culture references. For example, in Joshua Tree National Park, route names include Coarse and Buggy, Cranking Skills or Hospital Bills ("cranking" being the use of upper-body strength), Rockwork Orange (after A Clockwork Orange ), Fist Full of Crystals (from A Fistful of Dollars ), and Dangling Woo Li Master (from The Dancing Wu Li Masters ).
Another reason for the large number of named routes is the desire to indicate precisely where routes go. For high mountain routes, rockfall and snowfall would significantly change the mountain landscape over the years such that it is only possible to give a general idea of a route (i.e. "Climb the southeast ridge to the black tower, pass below it on the right side, and go up a snow-filled gully to the summit ridge").
Established rock climbing routes are more predictable, and good descriptions help keep climbers on-route and out of trouble. For example, an incorrect choice of a crack could leave the climber stranded in a very precarious position. Guidebooks, if available, can be helpful in showing routes drawn over photographs or a topographic diagram ("topo" for short) showing a view of the climbing route with specialized symbols indicating important characteristics of the route, and marking helpful climbing gear such as pitons and bolts. For routes longer than the climbing rope (usually about 60 meters), a good topo will also indicate the recommended belay stations.
Scrambling is "a walk up steep terrain involving the use of one's hands". It is an ambiguous term that lies somewhere between hiking, hillwalking, mountaineering, and rock climbing. Canyoning often involves scrambling.
The Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) is a three-part system used for rating the difficulty of walks, hikes, and climbs, primarily used by mountaineers in the United States and Canada. It was first devised by members of the Sierra Club in Southern California in the 1950s as a refinement of earlier systems, particularly those developed in Yosemite Valley, and quickly spread throughout North America.
Carolynn Marie "Lynn" Hill is an American rock climber. Widely regarded as one of the leading competitive sport climbers in the world during the late 1980s and early 1990s, she is famous for making the first free ascent of the difficult sheer rock face of The Nose on El Capitan in Yosemite Valley, and for repeating it the next year in less than 24 hours. She has been described as both one of the best female climbers in the world and one of the best climbers of all time. One of the first successful women in the sport, Hill shaped rock climbing for women and became a public spokesperson, helping it gain wider popularity and arguing for sex equality. Hill has publicized climbing by appearing on television shows and documentaries and writing an autobiography, Climbing Free: My Life in the Vertical World.
In mountaineering, a first ascent is the first successful, documented attainment of the top of a mountain or the first to follow a particular climbing route. First mountain ascents are notable because they entail genuine exploration, with greater risks, challenges and recognition than climbing a route pioneered by others. The person who performs the first ascent is called the first ascensionist.
El Capitan, also known as El Cap, is a vertical rock formation in Yosemite National Park, located on the north side of Yosemite Valley, near its western end. The granite monolith is about 3,000 feet (914 m) from base to summit along its tallest face, and is a popular objective for rock climbers.
Climbing guidebooks are used by rock climbers to find the location of climbing routes at crags or on mountains. Many guidebooks also offer condensed information about local restaurants, bars and camping areas; often include sections on geology and local climbing history; and may contain many pictures to inspire climbers. Guidebooks may range in size from pamphlets detailing dozens of routes up to tomes that document thousands of routes. The library of the American Alpine Club contains over 20,000 books and videos, a majority of which are such guidebooks. In the Alps the Alpine Club Guide series is very comprehensive.
Rock climbing is a sport in which participants climb up, down or across natural rock formations or artificial rock walls. The goal is to reach the summit of a formation or the endpoint of a usually pre-defined route without falling. Rock climbing is a physically and mentally demanding sport, one that often tests a climber's strength, endurance, agility and balance along with mental control. Knowledge of proper climbing techniques and the use of specialized climbing equipment is crucial for the safe completion of routes.
Grand Teton is the highest mountain in Grand Teton National Park, in Northwest Wyoming, and a classic destination in American mountaineering.
Cerro Torre is one of the mountains of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in South America. It is located in a region which is disputed between Argentina and Chile, west of Fitz Roy. The peak is the highest of a four mountain chain: the other peaks are Torre Egger, Punta Herron, and Cerro Standhardt. The top of the mountain often has a mushroom of rime ice, formed by the constant strong winds, increasing the difficulty of reaching the actual summit.
Tommy Caldwell is an American rock climber accomplished in sport climbing, hard traditional climbing, big-wall speed climbing, and big-wall free climbing. Caldwell made the first free ascents of several El Capitan routes in Yosemite National Park.
Royal Robbins was one of the pioneers of American rock climbing. After learning to climb at Tahquitz Rock, he went on to make first ascents of many big wall routes in Yosemite. As an early proponent of boltless, pitonless clean climbing, he, along with Yvon Chouinard, was instrumental in changing the climbing culture of the late 1960s and early 1970s by encouraging the use and preservation of the natural features of the rock. He went on to become a well-known kayaker.
Warren Harding was one of the most accomplished and influential American rock climbers of the 1950s to 1970s. He was the leader of the first team to climb El Capitan, Yosemite Valley, in 1958. The route they climbed, known as The Nose, ascends 2,900 feet (880 m) up the central buttress of what is one of the largest granite monoliths in the world. Harding climbed many other first ascents in Yosemite, some 28 in all, as well as making the first true big-wall ascents in the Sierra Nevada range of California.
The Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome was the first Grade VI climb in the United States. It was first climbed in 1957 by a team consisting of Royal Robbins, Mike Sherrick, and Jerry Gallwas. Its current aid climbing rating is VI 5.9 A1 or 5.12 for the free climbing variation. It is recognized in the historic climbing text Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and considered a classic around the world.
Wojciech Kurtyka is a Polish mountaineer and rock climber, one of the pioneers of the alpine style of climbing the biggest walls in the Greater Ranges. He lived in Wrocław up to 1974 when he moved to Kraków. He graduated as engineer in electronics. In 1985 he climbed the "Shining Wall" Gasherbrum IV, which Climbing magazine declared to be the greatest achievement of mountaineering in the twentieth century. In 2016, he received the Piolet d'Or for lifetime achievement in mountaineering.
The Nose is one of the original technical climbing routes up El Capitan. Once considered impossible to climb, El Capitan is now the standard for big-wall climbing. It is recognized in the historic climbing text Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and considered a classic around the world.
Tom Frost was an American rock climber known for big wall climbing first ascents in Yosemite Valley. He was also a photographer and climbing equipment manufacturer. Frost was born in Hollywood, California and died in Oakdale, California.
Charles Marshall Pratt was an American rock climber known for big wall climbing first ascents in Yosemite Valley. He was also a long-time climbing instructor and mountain guide with Exum Mountain Guides in the Grand Tetons.
Alexander Honnold is an American rock climber best known for his free solo ascents of big walls. His 2017 accomplishment of free soloing El Capitan, in Yosemite National Park, is regarded as one of the greatest athletic achievements of all time.
Mayan Smith-Gobat is a professional big-wall climber from New Zealand and, as of 2019, held the record for fastest all-female team ascent of El Capitan's The Nose in Yosemite, California at four hours and forty three minutes. Smith-Gobat, along with climbing partner Libby Sauter, completed the climb in October, 2014. Other notable ascents include her 2012 first female ascent (FFA) of Punks in the Gym (5.14a) in the Arapiles climbing region of Australia, and the first all female Half Dome/El Cap link up in Yosemite in 2013.
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