No matter your ability level, there are plenty of reasons to jump on an excellent 5.6. It can provide an opportunity to hone a certain skill set, like building anchors or perfecting hand jams. It can be a great entry point into unfamiliar and remote terrain. It can also mean cruising up stellar rock with spectacular scenery, removing us from the numbers-chasing game and reminding us why we all came to love climbing in the first place. Here, a collection of some of the country’s best 5.6s that every climber should add to the “must-do” list.
East Ridge, Wolf's Head, Cirque of the Towers, Wyoming (10 pitches)
In the Cirque of the Towers in western Wyoming are striking and picturesque formations, with jagged, pointy peaks rising to almost 13,000 feet. The East Ridge on Wolf ’s Head, just west of the popular Pingora Peak, is a great introduction to the Cirque—and one of the “50 Classic Climbs of North America.” Although given a moderate grade, only the unflinching need apply: exposure lingers on almost every pitch, and you should be prepared for narrow, heady traverses. Guidebook author Joe Kelsey recommends deflating the ego for the East Ridge. “It’s the only route I can think of where a sense of humor helps,” he says. In his book, he describes the route as “unique and ethereal… [and] clean, picturesque, and surprising.” If you have an extra day, do the Northeast Face on the neighboring Pingora Peak, another of the 50 Classic Climbs.
The route’s pitches are relatively short and can be linked; however, the line meanders and keeping pitches short will help prevent any rope drag.
Descent: There are several options, but the best descent is via the west face; a detailed description is available on supertopo.com. Gear: Double rack to 2 inches. Guidebook:Climbing and Hiking in the Wind River Mountains, Second Edition, by Joe Kesley (falcon.com, $25). The third edition is due out spring 2013.
Direct Route, First Flatiron, Boulder, Colorado (10 pitches)
When in Boulder, the gaze turns immediately westward to the sheer formations that form the town’s backdrop. The Flatirons have long inspired and intrigued climbers, who have looked to the looming rocks since the 19th century, thinking, “I must summit those.” The Direct Route is a 1,000-foot-plus climb on the First Flatiron, the northernmost and largest of the slabs. Its line goes straight up the steepest rock, moving across a smooth, center section and then joining the north ridge to the summit. From the top, you can see all of Boulder and the Colorado plains to the east, and the 13,000-foot pinnacles of the Indian Peaks Wilderness to the west. As you cruise the First and enjoy the views, be grateful for your sticky rubber. The first climbers to explore the Flatirons used Keds and old-school Kronhoeffers (some of the earliest climbing shoes ever made), says first ascensionist Pat Ament. Free soloers in approach shoes are a common sight, but for many, even with modern gear, the sweeping slab commands respect, with long, blank sections and scarce pro.
Descent: Rappel with a single 60m to the ground; rap rings are on the summit. Gear: Standard rack. Guidebook:Climbing Boulder’s Flatirons, by Jason Haas (sharpendbooks.com, $32)
Regular Route, Slick Rock, Idaho (8 pitches)
The Regular Route on Idaho’s Slick Rock is a study in contradictions. Its 700 feet of granite isn't slippery, and the varied climbing is anything but regular: You’ll bounce between finger and hand cracks, laybacks, and slabs. The easy approach takes you through a glacial-carved valley in the Lick Creek sub-range of Idaho’s Salmon River Mountains. The climbing is sustained in the 5.5 to 5.6 range, and follows a triple crack system linked by some exciting slab traverses. “There are long stretches of perfect hand cracks to some short sections of old-school offwidth and chimney features,” says Jake Dolence, who has spent a lot of time climbing in the Slick Rock area. “It doesn’t matter how hard you climb—you will be psyched on this route.” Align your ascent with the peak of Idaho’s summer, when you’ll be rewarded by loads of huckleberries in the descent gully.
Descent: After topping out, walk off to climber’s right and follow a trail that snakes down to a fifth-class downclimb through a chimney. Gear: Double rack to 3 inches. Guidebook: Find beta at idahoaclimbingguide.com/id167.htm.
South Face, South Sixshooter, Indian Creek, Utah (3 pitches)
Many climbers find inspiration on looming desert towers. But for others, they can be intimidating: choss, loose screefield approaches, featureless sandstone, and exposure take getting used to. Towers also require a very distinct style of climbing; in most cases, you should be competent with crack climbing, dihedrals, and claustrophobic chimneys. But the South Face, one of the easiest tower climbs, offers a perfect inauguration to spires, following blocks, chimneys, stemming, and the occasional invigorating face move. (There are plenty of variations if you want to up the difficulty.) The crux comes at the final pitch with a tricky mantel move, followed by spectacular panoramic views of Indian Creek’s sweeping red cliffs and the red and white formations of Canyonlands National Park. Congrats, and welcome to tower climbing.
Descent: Two double-rope rappels. Gear: Standard rack. Guidebook:Indian Creek: A Climbing Guide, Second Edition, by David Bloom (sharpendbooks.com, $32.95)
Thin Air, Cathedral Ledge, New Hampshire (4 pitches)
The heart of long multi-pitches in the Northeast, Cathedral Ledge holds everything from aid testpieces to intro climbs, including the ultra-classic Thin Air. “It’s the route everyone goes for,” says local guide Mark Synnott. But don’t take the grade lightly: “This route should not be underestimated. Nothing at Cathedral should be,” Synnott says. Thin Air follows a blank and seemingly improbable line up the center of its namesake buttress, but positive edges and cracks litter the granite. You’ll feel some exposure at the sometimes-wet, but well-protected, traverse on pitch two, but the moves are more daunting than difficult. The crux comes on pitch four, following a crack to a small but airy overlap, which earns the route’s grade. Summiting gains you views of the pine forests and hay fields in the Saco River Valley, with the White Mountains in the background.
Descent: Walk down the ledge to the right, which leads to an auto road leading back to the base of the cliff. Gear: Standard rack to two inches. Guidebook:Rock Climbs in the White Mountains of New Hampshire, Third Edition, by Ed Webster (rei.com, $29.95)
Central Gully (aka Regular Route), Super Slab, Sawtooth Range, Idaho (4-5 pitches)
The Sawtooth Range often gets overlooked by rock climbers, perhaps because of its vast ruggedness, or the isolation, or the high-country alpine setting. Their loss is your gain: Buck up for the approach, and it’s likely this 680-acre wilderness will be all yours. Single out Central Gully for a couple of reasons—it’s a great introductory climb, and its approach is an easy hour of hiking, since most folks pay $15 for a round-trip ferry ride that will cut five miles each way. Still, it’s significantly more accessible than other climbs in the range.
Gleaming with glacier-polished granite, Central Gully is fairly straightforward and has a little bit of everything: laybacks, slabs, stemming moves, and a small overhang. “This is a pretty varied and interesting great first trad lead,” says Dave Bingham, who has guided in the Sawtooth Range for several years. Most climbers will take around four hours to complete the four to five pitches, which culminate with views of jagged 11,000-foot peaks and couloirs; you’ll also see the popular Elephant’s Perch, Goat Perch, and Chockstone Peak.
Descent: Take the obvious walk-off to the east, or rap Bacon and Legs from the ledge on top of pitch three. Gear: Standard rack up to 2.5 inches. Guidebook: No modern guide exists for the Sawtooths. Dig on the Internet for beta; start with summitpost.org or check in with the local guiding outfit, Sawtooth Mountain Guides (sawtoothguides.com), for more beta. Tom Lopez’s Idaho, A Climber’s Guide (amazon.com, $35) has a good overview of the range.
Steorts' Ridge, Big Cottonwood Canyon, Utah (3 pitches)
With quality quartzite, a 15-minute approach, and plentiful holds, Steorts’ Ridge is a northern Utah classic beloved by local climbers of all abilities. “It’s one of the best multi-pitch climbs in the Wasatch,” says local climber and Climbing’s senior contributing photographer Andrew Burr. Move between face climbing and cracks on fractured rock on pitches one and two. The route saves the best pitch for last, with a beautiful and exposed arête. Gear placements here are scanty—a single bolt might ease your mind—but ample holds and pretty views of Big Cottonwood will dissuade any hesitation. “Follow the arête and feel the air beneath your feet,” Burr says. “It’s super fun.”
Descent: Traditionally, the climb required a walk-off with a bit of downclimbing. Recently, a bolted rappel line has been added (three raps with a single 60m rope). A path at the top of the arête leads to the rap station. Gear: Double rack to 3 inches. There are no fixed anchors. Guidebook:Rock Climbing the Wasatch Range, by Stuart and Bret Ruckman (falcon.com, $35)
Southeast Buttress, Cathedral Peak, Tuolumne Meadows, California (5 pitches)
The Southeast Buttress is less of a defined route than a choose-your-own-adventure line. It also offers some of the most user-friendy climbing in the High Sierra, with a relatively short approach (1 to 1.5 hours) and featured, low-angled granite. (There’s also ice cream just three miles away at the Tuolumne Meadows Grill.) The climbing on this Yosemite gem is delightful, with many route options up a plethora of moderate cracks and easy face climbing, gradually increasing in difficulty from 5.3 to 5.6 on the last pitch. Because you can climb virtually anywhere on the face, it’s a breeze to pass other parties, and the odds are high you may need to do just that: The Southeast Buttress is one of the most popular moderate routes in the area. Still, you won’t want the route to end, even when you arrive at the top. “It’s right at that elevation where the trees thin out and the landscape of snowfields, peaks, and meadowy alpine rivers open up to the horizon,” says Sierra legend Peter Croft. “It’s like someone chucked mountain climbing and Middle Earth together.” After reaching the route’s 10,940-foot summit, you’re bound to agree.
Descent: Downclimb fourth-class terrain about 20 feet, and then scramble on third- and fourth-class to the north ridgeline. Just east of the ridge is a trail that will take you back to the base. Gear: Standard rack. Guidebook:Tuolumne Free Climbs, Second Edition, by Greg Barnes, Chris McNamara, and Steve Roper (supertopo.com, $26.95)