The Best Sport Climbing Areas in the U.S.

17 Apr

Setting out to name America’s top-ten crags is a dubious goal. For starters, you just know that somebody is going to get all huffy puffy when their stomping ground doesn’t make the cut. And then there will be the wars over semantics. What qualifies as a crag? What doesn’t? How important is history, aesthetics, rock quality? No matter what, you’re bound to piss people off.

Still, you might as well try. Because YOLO.

For the purpose of this article, I am setting down some ground rules.

  1. By crag, I mean an area used predominantly for single-pitch or Grade I–II routes. You know, the kind of multipitch where you don’t bring a water bottle. That means that even though Alex Honnold can climb El Cap in a cool two hours, for most of us, places like Yosemite, Zion, and Red Rocks are out.
  2. By cragging, I mean not bouldering. 
  3. The past matters. There’s something special about climbing at an area steeped in legend and lore. Places with long and storied histories get an extra nod.
  4. Ambiance matters, too. That includes crowds, proximity to roads, and views.
  5. Rock quality is paramount.

The only other rule you need to know is that this list is inarguable and definitive, and that anyone who disagrees with it, or me, is wrong.

10. The Shawangunks, New York

rock climbing
(Jarek Tuszyński/Wikimedia Commo)

The ’Gunks is the seminal crag for the Northeast. For trad climbing under 5.10, it may be the best destination in the country, if not the world. The carriage road can be packed with gawkers, and popular areas such as the High Exposure buttress can get clogged with hordes of pseudo gumbies trying desperately to place all ten of their pink tricams. But the views of the Catskills will soothe the ire of even the crustiest dirtbag, and if you find yourself in the rarefied air above the 5.10 benchmark, you’ll find far fewer people in line for the routes. Even if you do have to wait in line for a classic moderate, I promise it’s worth it. Where else can you do 15-foot horizontal boulder problems above your pro and still call it 5.6? Add to that impeccable rock quality and a climbing history that dates back to the late 1930s, when European immigrants Fritz Weissner and Hans Krauss brought mountaineering skills gleaned from their homelands to bear on the steep white cliffs, and you have a bona fide worldwide destination.

9. Eldorado Canyon, Colorado

rock climbing
(F Delventhal/Creative Commons )

Eldo, as it’s known, may be a contender for the best worst crag in America. Located a stone’s throw from the climbing crucible of Boulder, Colorado—though we won’t hold that against it— Eldo’s towering walls of red sandstone are truly a climber’s dream. Some of America’s finest climbers cut their teeth here, most notably the infamous and prolific first ascensionist Layton Kor. The rock in Eldo is often friable, and the protection is commonly marginal, but what makes Eldo so great is the sheer volume of climbable rock. Almost anywhere you look, you’re likely to find holds. It may be hard, it may be runout, the gear might be difficult to place (not to mention trust), but the climbing is fun, the approaches are short, and the setting is gorgeous. Such infamous classics as the Naked Edge, Rosy Crucifixion, Ruper, and the Bastille originally put Eldo on the map for American climbers. But it’s the countless variations and linkups one can achieve with a little bit of creativity that truly cements Eldo as a top-ten crag.

8. Smith Rock, Oregon

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When French climbing ace J.B. Tribout came to check out the sport climbing in the United States in 1992, he went to Smith Rock. And when he managed to pull off Just Do It at 5.14c, it stood as America’s hardest route for a solid five years. But Smith Rock and its cadre of pioneers had already earned a well-deserved reputation in the annals of climbing history by the time Tribout got there. The tall, steep fins of conglomerated volcanic rock lend themselves to intricate, technical climbing in the 5.12-to-5.14+ range. And the 400-foot Monkey Face pillar has got to be one of the most iconic monoliths in American climbing. As if all of that weren’t enough, the climbing gods saw fit to bequeath unto otherwise rock-deprived Oregonians a lovely river full of trout and otters, a lower gorge full of basalt cracks and compression arêtes, and a convenient campground that’s walking distance from the climbing to boot. Beautiful, delicate, and climbable for three seasons, Smith Rock is, as I believe Tribout said, magnifique!

7. Wild Iris, Wyoming

rock climbing
(Mia & Steve Mestdagh/Creative Commons )

Speaking of the French, wouldn’t it be great if the U.S. had one, just one, crag full of beautiful, clean, pocketed limestone à la Buoux or the Verdon? Oh wait, there is. Wild Iris is a crag as pretty as its name. Smooth-rolling buttresses of limestone waves cresting atop hills of flaxen grass and aromatic wildflowers—what’s not to love? Rattlesnakes, maybe, and it can get crowded during busy summer weekends. But Wild Iris is really quite a bit more extensive than the Main Wall upon which “greenies” (the name bequeathed by locals to the ubiquitous visitors from Colorado) flog themselves ad nauseam. Locals in Lander might slip rattlesnake venom into my next whiskey if I say the names of the other areas, but they’re out there. The camping is great, many of the routes were established by the legendary Todd Skinner, and most importantly, the routes have that certain ineffable quality that all fine limestone retains. Athletic, bouldery, and yet subtly tenuous sequences are the name of the game. For pure quality sport climbing, there are few places better in the States.

6. Joshua Tree, California

rock climbing
(Jarek Tuszyński/Wikimedia Commo)

Picture rocks stacked upon rocks. Piles of house- and apartment-building-size rocks. Rocks with cracks, rocks with patina, rocks with caves in them, rocks with huecos. The only thing more ubiquitous in J Tree than the eponymous cacti of Seussical proportions is rock. There are rocks with roofs, rocks with slabs, rocks with bolts, and rocks without bolts. Rocks that were climbed by such golden-age demigods as John Bachar and John Long back when swami belts were de rigueur, and the answer to “Who wears short shorts?” was, apparently, climbers. It would take many lifetimes to climb to the top of all the rocks within the national park’s boundary. And if you ever did, you could just hike a little further and climb the ones outside it, too.

5. The Needles, California

rock climbing
(Steph Abegg)

I add this to the list at the risk of angry locals defecating in my haul bag and slashing my tires the next time I find myself in the neighborhood. I do so because it would be criminal not to. From Lake Tahoe down to Joshua Tree, arguably the finest collection of granite in the world spills down the spine of the Sierra Nevada. And in all of that range, there is no lode of stone finer than that of the Needles. Remember in the rules when I said that rock quality was paramount? Well, you could toss the Needles into the middle of noisy and smog-infested Los Angeles, and I’d still put it on this list. The rock quality is simply without compare. A true trad-climber’s crag, the Needles is not for the recently initiated gym climber, which may be part of what keeps the masses at bay. It’s not exactly a secret anymore, but it’s still fairly quiet. And unless Jimmy Chin and Chai Vasarhelyi make a top-grossing documentary about Bob Kamps and Herb Laeger’s mind-melting yet obscure first ascent of Spook Book back in 1978, I’m pretty sure most visiting climbers to California will still eschew the Needles for Yosemite.

4. Red River Gorge, Kentucky

rock climbing
(Jarek Tuszyński/Wikimedia Commons)

God must be a climber. I mean, just look at the Red River Gorge. Here’s a place that was clearly created by a benevolent being with a giant ice cream scoop. The walls of the RRG feature jaw-dropping cirques of multicolored sandstone that look like an inverted stand of bleachers. But the geology of the gorge is not just staggering on a macro level. Seemingly every square inch of those enormous walls is covered in pockets, crimps, iron rails, jugs, slopers, and climbable features of nearly every variety. When it comes to sheer abundance of quality routes, the RRG is probably America’s only legitimate sport-climbing answer to world-class zones such as France’s Céüse, Spain’s Siurana, or Greece’s Kalymnos. But it’s not just limited to sport climbs—the gorge is home to a plethora of fantastic cracks and traditionally protected routes as well. On top of all that, the RRG is really beautiful, particularly in autumn when the leaves change. I’d say the RRG is America’s best climbing area… if it weren’t for the next three crags on this list.

3. New River Gorge, West Virginia

rock climbing
(David Mark/Pixabay)

To the chagrin and outrage of Kentuckians, I am throwing the NRG on this list in the number-three spot. Why does the bronze medal for American crags go to the New River Gorge instead of the Red? For a few simple reasons: First, everybody and their mom talks about the Red, while the New maintains a much sleepier vibe, making it inherently radder. Second, the Red is so riddled with huge holds that you can climb darn near your limit in your approach shoes (footwork be damned), while the New features spare, devious, aesthetic lines that require not only superb footwork but also sequence-reading skill. And third, the stone at the Red is really good, but the NRG’s Nuttall sandstone is 98 percent quartzite and harder than granite, making it as good as rock can possibly be for climbing. Mango Tango and Proper Soul are two of the prettiest sport climbs in the Western Hemisphere, while Endless Wall may be the best continuous section of cliff in the States. There’s probably only one place in the world (OK, in America) with better stone than the New River Gorge. And that place is definitely not number two on the list.

2. Indian Creek, Utah

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The Creek has a lot working against it: Wingate sandstone is softer than a baby’s bottom, making for horrifying face climbing (not that that matters, since only about 0.00001 percent of routes at the Creek feature face holds at all); if you don’t tape up, you’re going to bleed; if you do tape up, some grizzled old guy is going to hiss at you; all grade objectivity is out the window, since it all depends on the size of your appendages and digits; the climbing hurts; splitters are boring, since you just do the same move over and over for 100 to 200 feet; and every route requires 20 pounds and approximately $500 worth of gear. Pretty lame, when you put it that way.

What Indian Creek has going for it, though, is that it’s unique in the world. There is literally nowhere else like it. If you want to learn to crack climb, there’s no better resource on the planet. And once you do learn the dark art of crack climbing, there’s nowhere better to test your mettle. The climbing’s really quite fun (once you kill the nerve endings on the back of your hands). It can even be pretty cerebral if you branch out from the plain-Jane splitters. But what really makes the Creek the number-two crag on this list is simply how beautiful it is there. The desert has a way of taking you in, holding you, making you feel all warm and fuzzy inside. You can (and many people do) spend weeks in the Creek just wasting time, not climbing at all.

1. Index, Washington State

rock climbing
(Steph Abegg)

And let the social-media shitstorm begin. Oh, trust me, I know what’s coming. I’m going to get it from all sides: From folks who have never heard about Index and can’t believe what they’re seeing. From Index locals who are convinced I’m ruining all that is sacred by giving away their secret paradise. From people who went to Index and got shut down by the stiff grades. From people who think the season is too short, the moss too thick, and the car break-ins too common. Will anybody be happy about this choice?

The problem is, Index is, objectively, the best crag in the United States. Honestly, it’s probably the best crag in the world. Imagine the texture of New River Gorge sandstone layered over a smattering of 100-to-800-foot-tall walls of perfect, featured, spectacular granite. Index literally has it all. Sport, trad, and aid, single pitch and multipitch, cracks and faces, knobs and pockets, patina, edges, jugs, slopers, and tufas, corners and arêtes, slabs and overhangs, roofs and ledges. The whole nine yards and then some. There is nowhere else in the world with as dense a concentration of four-star climbs. The Skykomish Valley is jaw-droppingly beautiful. And the sandbag, oh, the sandbag! I’ll say this much: nobody goes to Index to pad their resume. You can straight-up forget about grades there since 5.11 on the Index Decimal System covers everything from 5.11a to 5.13c on the more commonly used Yosemite Decimal System.

The best thing about Index is how few people get it. This article will do nothing to change that. The cat has been out of the bag, so to speak, for decades now, but climbers visiting the Pacific Northwest still fall for the tried-and-true traps of Smith Rock and Squamish again and again. What protects Index is the shroud of hyperbole that surrounds it. The harder Index aficionados like myself spray, the better. It just makes our opinions easier to discount and, ultimately, discard. And that’s fine, because it will keep Index nice and quiet.

It’s Time to Rethink Climbing on Devils Tower

25 Jul

In the sparsely populated northeast corner of Wyoming, a massive pinnacle of stone explodes, for no apparent reason, out of the prairie. The name that the monolith was officially designated when Theodore Roosevelt made it America’s first national monument in 1906 is Devils Tower. But for thousands of rock climbers who flock to it each year, there are few things as heavenly. For nearly two decades I’ve traveled all over the world to climb, and I’ve never seen a feature quite as captivating. Its pull is almost irresistible.

Climbers aren’t the only ones who revere the Tower. American Indians have been drawn to it for upwards of 10,000 years. For the Crow people, it is the place where a rock rose beneath two sisters, delivering them safely from the attack of an enormous bear. According to the Kiowa, it was seven sisters, and the rock that grew beneath them was actually a tree stump. The Lakota Sioux call the Tower Mato Tipila (Bear Lodge), and claim it is where Hu Nump (The Great Bear) imparted language and healing ceremonies to the human race. There are many different sacred narratives surrounding the peculiar hunk of stone. But whether you’re talking to a Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa, Crow, Shoshone, Arikara, or at least 14 other tribes of American Indians, one commonality emerges: the Tower is incomparably sacred.

When two ranchers—Bill Rogers and Willard Ripley—completed the first recorded ascent of Devils Tower in June 1893, it is likely they didn’t have the faintest clue what the formation meant to Native Americans. It’s equally likely, given that the treatment of the Lakota by Americans at that time was characterized by broken treaties and forced starvation, that they wouldn’t have cared. Finally, it is almost certain that Rogers and Ripley would have been flabbergasted to learn that in 1994, a little over 100 years after their ascent, 1,225 people from all over the world would climb the Tower in the month of June alone.

In 1992, spurred by the recent boom in climbing’s popularity, the National Park Service began drafting a climbing management plan for Devils Tower. One of the things that plan attempted to address was the question of what to do about climbing in June. With long days and relatively stable weather, June is an excellent time to climb the Tower. But it is also an especially sacred time for the nearby tribes. After three years of public comment periods, focus groups, and planning sessions with Native Americans, the Sierra Club, and the Access Fund, the Park Service released its final climbing management plan (FCMP) in 1995.

Among other things, the FCMP detailed a one-month voluntary climbing closure, the first and still only closure of that kind in the U.S. “The voluntary closure will be fully successful when every climber personally chooses not to climb at Devils Tower during June out of respect for American Indian cultural values,” the FCMP stated. In the first year of the plan’s implementation, it looked like that goal might be attainable. In 1995, only 167 registered climbers were tallied—an 86.4 percent reduction from the year before.

The plan’s initial success was short-lived. One of the key elements of the 1995 FCMP was that the June shutdown would be mandatory for commercial rock climbing guides. But in November 1996, the Mountain States Legal Foundation helped several climbing guides file a lawsuit against the superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument, the National Park Service, and then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt, claiming that the ban was implemented for religious reasons, and hence violated the first amendment. Before the court was able to come to a conclusion, the Park Service preemptively revised the FCMP to make the June closure voluntary for all users, including guide services. The courts ultimately upheld the FCMP, but by that time it was a moot point. One year later, the Park Service conducted an ethnographic study that recommended that climbing on the Tower should be prohibited altogether; but no change to the FCMP was made.

Over the next decade, the number of June climbers on the monument oscillated between the high-200s and mid-300s. By 2013, that number ballooned to 434. This year, there were 279. It’s clear that 23 years after the FCMP’s implementation, the monument is still far from achieving the voluntary ban’s initial goal.

“The plan will be successful if we get to zero,” says Tim Reid, the previous superintendent of Devils Tower. “But if that doesn’t happen it’s not the end of the world.” Reid was adamant that, considering where we were in 1994, the voluntary closure has been a resounding success. “If the goal of zero climbers in June is not achieved, several other options can be taken,” Reid said. “You can revise the FCMP. You can write a new definition of success.”

It’s hard for me to see how “writing a new definition of success” would be anything other than the latest in a long line of broken treaties with Native American tribes. But Reid advised me not to think of the ban as a zero-sum game. “We want climbers to understand the reasons not to climb, and to make the decision on their own,” he told me. “That was one of the desires of the American Indians involved.”

But not all Native Americans were, or are, in favor of the ban being voluntary. “It’s disrespectful,” Waylon Black Crow Sr. told Krista Langlois in a recent article for Outside. “It would be like climbing a big old cross. They wouldn’t climb that.” Trina Lonehill, the cultural liaison of the Oglala Lakota Sioux, shared Black Crow’s sentiments, and felt that the ban should be mandatory. “You don’t disturb a sacred space,” she told me. “You have respect for it. To respect it is not to disturb it.”

The Pine Ridge Reservation, where Lonehill lives, is the poorest county in the United States, with rampant alcoholism, a meth epidemic, and underfunded schools and hospitals. Frank Sanders, a prominent guide on Devils Tower and one of the founders of the nonprofit, Devils Tower: Sacred To Many People, cites the state of the Pine Ridge Reservation as evidence that there are bigger local problems to be concerned with than climbing in June. “I could hand out coats, stand on my head, and not climb for a month,” he told me recently as we watched the sunset light up the Tower from the deck of his lodge. “I don’t think but one of those things would have much effect.”

Of course, donating goods and not climbing on the Tower in June, are by no means mutually exclusive. Sanders has done more for the Pine Ridge Reservation (in 2008 he raised $10,000 for the Porcupine Clinic by climbing the Tower for 365 days in a row) than most people will ever do. But I don’t believe that gives him a free pass to do something that many Native Americans find offensive. And while Sanders has assured me that he “has met no resistance among the res about whether or not I climb in June,” that view dismisses the feelings of people like Black Crow Sr. and Lonehill.

While the Oglala Lakota of the Pine Ridge Reservation are one of the most disenfranchised groups in the U.S., climbers have got to be one of the most privileged. They can afford to buy thousands of dollars of equipment and travel far and wide to engage in a sport that introduces them to heightened risk of injury or death. That is telling. This is a case of those who have much being asked for something that amounts to a nominal inconvenience by those who have little. How can it be so hard to comply?

As I walked around the Tower a few weeks ago, I noticed a plethora of signs warning climbers of a closure for nesting prairie and peregrine falcons. The falcon closure, of course, is mandatory. If they made it voluntary, the birds wouldn’t stand a chance. Between the hordes of tourists, buzzing drones, and motorcycles and RVs groaning along on the road below, it was so noisy that I barely heard the peregrine’s telltale scream come shrilly down through the pine boughs above.

What I did not see on my walk around the Tower loop was a single sign that mentioned the voluntary closure out of respect for Native Americans. Nor did I see any Native Americans carrying out spiritual ceremonies. The only hint that they had been there at all was the occasional prayer bundle tucked away in inconspicuous corners, like an afterthought.