5.9: The Crossroads

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The grade is a vertical rite of passage, traversing some of the most beautiful stone on the planet.

5.9 is the grade where things get crazy. It was once the top end of free-climbing difficulty, the ultimate on a decimal scale where “five-ten” was illogical and unnecessary. The best climbers in America in the 1950s imagined nothing harder as they pimped up dime edges and ran out dark and desperate chimneys that only the very best and boldest could follow.

This feeling lives on. Out of unspoken tradition, certain 5.9s from the 1960s and ’70s lurk like wolves in sheep’s clothing, luring new and cocky climbers into harrowing and sometimes dangerous hazings. The ultimate sandbag grade, 5.9+, should be printed in caution orange whenever it appears in guidebooks. Don’t think so? Go climb the endlessly strenuous and run-out chimneys on the Steck-Salathé in Yosemite. Or visit the Shawangunks and try the arm-destroying 15-foot roof on Modern Times. Modern sport climbing tends to discount the grade, but on the physical cracks and slabby faces of traditional leads, you’ll earn that next belay.

In Europe, the equivalent of 5.9 climbs started appearing just after the turn of the century, in eastern Germany, the limestone Alps, and Great Britain. In the U.S., the grade was officially opened by Royal Robbins, with his 1952 free ascent of The Open Book at Tahquitz Rock, ushering in the modern era in free climbing.

5.9 is the portal to the world’s greatest rock climbs. The towering South Arête of Cima Piccola (11 pitches) in the Dolomites, Italy, or The Pillar of Dreams (nine pitches) in Meteora, Greece, are two of Europe’s most prized big routes, and both 5.9. In America, iconic Grade VI Yosemite routes like the Nose of El Capitan and the Regular Northwest Face of Half Dome succumb to 5.9 free climbers—with the help of liberal aiding. If you never climb any harder, your climbing career can still be complete. And no matter how hard you climb, you’ll always make time for the 5.9s. Either way, you can find the 5.9 mojo wherever you look. The grade is a vertical crossroads, traversing some of the most beautiful stone on the planet.

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SPOOKY, THE NEEDLES, CALIFORNIA

A fine route to the summit of the Charlatan—if you don't mind a short stint of crux offwidth. You can see that OW here, looming above the belayer. If you just can't deal, skip over to the Witch and climb Inner Sanctum (face climbing), or the incredible hand cracks of Igor Unchained (old-school "5.9+"). At the low end of Needles 5.9, try Imaginary Voyage on the Warlock.

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IN PURSUIT OF EXCELLENCE, TENNESSEE WALL, TENNESSEE

T-Wall is the sandstone belt's signature trad crag, but the 5.9 grade is poorly represented here. There are classic 5.8s and 5.10s galore, splitters and corners, roofs and slabs, but only a few top-tier 5.9s, most of the scary arête variety. Here, Jennifer Jenkins climbs the exception to the rule, one of the South’s prettiest corner cracks.

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YELLOW SPUR, ELDORADO CANYON, COLORADO

Located on the tall, complex Redgarden Wall, the Yellow Spur is one of the longest routes in Eldorado, at six pitches. A cruxy start leads to varied 5.8 pitches that meander ever upward to the exposed, delicate “pin ladder” (5.9), pictured here in the capable hands of Casey McTaggart. A few bolts of 5.10 lead straight up, but the wilder, easier finish takes a traverse line to a belay on the sharp summit arête. Feeling good on long Redgarden 5.9 and want to explore more terrain? Try Anthill Direct or the Green Spur/Green Slab link-up, to start.

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TRAVELER’S BUTTRESS, LOVER’S LEAP, CALIFORNIA

An unknown climber follows pitch three. This airy face pitch and the easier cruising above require a serious entrance exam: a slick and burly 5.9 offwidth on pitch two. Other memorable 5.9s at the Leap run the gamut. From the arrow-straight, 400-foot crack of The Line to the wild and runout face of Fear No Evil.

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TULGEY WOOD, DEVILS TOWER, WYOMING

Ok, we cheated: This route is rated 5.10a, due to some finger cracks and laybacking on the first two pitches. But the actual crux, pictured here, is 5.9. Wait, does that make any sense? Maybe not, but top out pitch three and you'll know it's the truth. For mellower Devils Tower 5.9s, try Walt Bailey (fingers to hands), Assembly Line (endurance thin hands), and Soler (as soft as 5.9 gets at the Tower, which isn't very soft).

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NORTH OVERHANG, JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK, CALIFORNIA

If you've camped at Hidden Valley—and if you haven't, you need to get your road trip on—then you've ogled this impressive roof crack looming near the top of Intersection Rock. If you first dismissed it as a 5.11, sorry, no excuses. Take a breath, head out past a couple of bolts, and gun for a nice crack at the lip, as Stephanie Antezana demonstrates here. Other Josh 5.9s not to miss include Pope's Crack and Touch and Go on Echo Rock, Breakfast of Champions (5.8 in the book, but you decide) in the Wonderland, and Direct South Face of Moosedog in Indian Cover (another roof crack).

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RECOMBEAST, CATHEDRAL LEDGE, NORTH CONWAY, NEW HAMPSHIRE

Add this variation to one of the Northeast's most classic lines, the four-pitch Recompense, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a better 5.9 anywhere. Here, Sara Reeder busts a move on the big, booming beast flake. Want more? For long Cathedral 5.9s, Diedre is the next one to hit, while classic one-pitchers include Bird's Nest and They Died Laughing (don't worry, not at you) on the Practice Slab, and Nutcracker and Chicken Delight on the Barber Wall.

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LE TETON, SHAWANGUNKS, NEW YORK

It's a bit of a scramble to get to the money pitch, but, oh, what a payoff. Here, Dan Schwartz is past the stout 5.9 section and onto one of the most exposed arêtes in the area. The Shawangunks, New York's best-known crag, is a true 5.9 paradise. Among the classics of the grade are Bonnie's Roof, Directissima, Roseland, CCK Direct, and MF.