Perfect Substitutes: Ditch the crowds with one of these under-the-radar climbs

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Julie Ellison
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What do you do when you hike to a classic route and find a line six climbers deep? No one is better prepared to answer this question than professional climbing guides, whose job is to salvage the day when a client’s dream route is occupied or out of condition. We asked guides around the country for their favorite “second-best” routes—alternatives to classic climbs that are close by, similar in grade and style, and every bit as good.

Adam Greenstreet samples some of the runout and technical climbing on the 800-foot Orbit (5.8+), Leavenworth, Washington. Photo by Dan Holz

Adam Greenstreet samples some of the runout and technical climbing on the 800-foot Orbit (5.8+), Leavenworth, Washington. Photo by Dan Holz

Orbit (5.8+), Snow Creek Wall, Leavenworth, Washington

The 800-foot Snow Creek Wall is the premier crag outside Leavenworth, on the east side of the central Cascades, and its centerpiece is Outer Space, a much-loved (read: crowded) six-pitch 5.9. If you arrive at the base after the 1.5-hour approach and Outer Space is crawling with life forms, head into Orbit, a slightly easier but exposed and somewhat spicier alternative. Jeff Ward, co-owner of North Cascades Mountain Guides (ncmountainguides.com), says, “Orbit has interesting crack climbing and face climbing protected by gear, and it doesn’t attract the crowds like Outer Space, which is widely regarded as the area classic."

Put up by Fred Beckey and partner Dan Davis in 1962, Orbit starts with some slabby fourth-class scrambling (many parties rope up), followed by four pitches of varied 5.8/5.9 granite climbing. The technical crux comes on the second true pitch of fifth-class climbing, where it follows beautiful finger cracks. The psychological crux comes on the next lead with exposed face climbing. Above, brave the runouts on a couple of pitches of knobby chickenheads (bring long runners to sling the knobs for pro) until the route gradually eases in difficulty near the top. Beware that this route is wandery, so communication may prove difficult.

Season: Spring to fallGuidebook:Leavenworth Rock, by Viktor Kramar ($36, secondascent.com)

The Classic

The Alternative

Rebel Yell (5.10), Chianti Spire

Direct East Buttress (5.11a), South Early Winters Spire

Liberty Ridge (snow and ice), Mt. Rainier

Ptarmigan Ridge (snow and ice), Mt. Rainier

West Ridge (5.6, snow), Forbidden Peak

North Ridge (low fifth-class, snow), Forbidden Peak

Liberty Crack (5.9 C2), Liberty Bell

Clean Break (5.10), Juno Tower

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Ptarmigan Ridge of Mt. Rainier. Photo by Andrew Burr

Henderson Ridge (5.4), Huntington Ravine, Mt. Washington, New Hampshire

Huntington Ravine is most famous for its frozen winter gullies—some of North America’s earliest, pure ice climbs were done here. But the buttresses between those gullies make for short, adventuresome “alpine” routes in the warmer months. Right of the North Gully ice route is Henderson Ridge, an easier alternative if the classic Northeast Ridge of the Pinnacle is crowded. “The grade (5.4) is out of sync with the grade of Pinnacle (5.7), but given weather variables in the ravine, it can be nice to have an easier option if you suddenly find that you need to climb quickly—or with boots and gloves!” says Kelly “Kel” Rossiter, lead guide of Adventure Spirit Guides (adventurespiritguides.com).

Henderson Ridge follows a spur of broken granite for up to a half-dozen pitches. Find the best climbing by sticking close to the edge, just above North Gully. After about four pitches, you’ll discover the Diving Board, a prong sticking out over the gully to the left. Shimmy out to the tip for your photo op (stay roped!), and then continue scrambling up. Head across the tundra to find the Nelson Crag Trail, which you can follow up to the Alpine Garden and—if the wind isn’t too fierce—the summit of storm-blasted Mt. Washington.

Season: Spring through fall (mid-September is primo)Guidebook:North Conway Rock Climbs, by Jerry Handren ($38, northconwayrockclimbs.com)

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Jason Martin, American Alpine Institute

Guide Insight: Picking the right route

Jason Martin, American Alpine Institute Most-Guided Route: Dolphin Safe (5.7), Red Rock, Nevada; “hundreds of times”

“The thing that I love about guiding is that it’s a lot like being a parent. When you’re a parent, you get to view the world through your children’s eyes. Everything is exciting and new. When you choose the right route for the right person, it’s just like that. You get to experience the route again as if for the first time. And when your guest is psyched, you feel the psych, too.”

The Classic

The Alternative

Any crowded classic on Cathedral Ledge

Across the Universe (5.10a), Mt. Willard, Crawford Notch

Moby Grape (5.8), Cannon Cliff

Union Jack (5.9), Cannon Cliff

North Buttress (5.7), Pagoda Mountain, Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado

A bivy in Glacier Gorge, six miles from the trailhead, will position you perfectly below Spearhead, a granite shield stacked with worthy objectives. But let’s say you lingered too long over your morning brew, and three parties snuck by, intent on your chosen route: the 5.7 north ridge. Fear not. Pagoda has your name on it.

“The north ridge of Pagoda takes you directly to a high summit, and the views are some of the best in the park, looking down the Glacier Gorge from its terminus,” says Eli Helmuth, owner of Climbing Life Guides (guide.climbinglife.com). “It’s got beautiful granite with a fun steep pitch in the middle that is the physical and mental crux.” Most parties bypass the slabby lower wall with easy scrambling, and then do about seven roped pitches to the top, with a cruxy, near-vertical step on juggy holds. This is the north face on a 13,497-foot peak, so expect chilly belays and some loose rock and lichen.

Season: Summer to fallGuidebook:Rocky Mountain National Park: High Peaks, by Bernard Gillett ($31, earthboundsports.com)

The Classic

The Alternative

South Face (5.8), Petit Grepon

Southwest Corner (5.9), Petit Grepon

Syke’s Sickle (5.9+), Spearhead

East Prow (5.9), Spearhead

Casual Route (5.10), Diamond

Directissima (5.10a/b), Chasm View Wall

Birds of Fire (5.11a), Chiefshead

Flight of the Kiwi (5.10+), Chiefshead

Cookie Monster (5.7), Pine Creek Canyon, Red Rock, Nevada

Cat in the Hat (5.6, 6 pitches) has to be one of the best entry-level multi-pitch routes in the country. So it’s no surprise that this adventurous long climb also tends to require long waits. However, just around the corner to the right on the Mescalito formation is a great alternative start. “There is almost never anybody on it, which is weird because it’s probably a better climb,” says Jason Martin, director of operations and guide for the American Alpine Institute (alpineinstitute.com). “Cookie Monster makes its way up a stellar corner system, eventually joining Cat in the Hat for its final—and most exciting—pitches.”

Most people do the big open book of Cookie Monster in two or three pitches (there are no fixed anchors, so you can choose your own stance). The sandstone is covered with horns and edges, moderating the steep climbing, though it is slightly harder than Cat in the Hat. With luck, any crowds on the extremely popular route will have thinned by the time you join it, and you’ll have the final pitches—pure cracks splitting beautiful black walls—all to yourself.

Season: Fall to springGuidebook:Red Rocks: A Climber’s Guide, by Jerry Handren ($36, redrocksguidebook.com)

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Climb mid-week and you might have area classic Lotta Balls (5.8) all to yourself. Photo by Alton Richardson

The Classic

The Alternative

Tunnel Vision (5.7), White Rock Spring

Purlblind Pillar (5.8), White Rock Spring

Lotta Balls (5.8), First Creek Canyon

Algae on Parade (5.7), First Creek Canyon

Physical Grafitti (5.6), Calico Basin

Big Bad Wolf (5.9), Calico Basin

Crimson Chrysalis (5.8), Juniper Canyon

Ginger Cracks (5.9), Juniper Canyon

Rim Shot (5.11-), Bridger Jacks, Indian Creek, Utah

The Lightning Bolt Cracks (5.11-, 3 to 4 pitches) on North Six Shooter Peak is one of the most coveted tower routes in the Utah desert, and for good reason: It’s steep, varied, and it reaches a tiny summit with 360-degree views of Indian Creek and Canyonlands National Park. But if you drive up the rough dirt road to the base of the 1,000-foot talus cone below and find four cars already there, it’s probably not worth making the long slog to the base. Instead, reverse course and beeline to the Bridger Jacks formation a few miles up the road. A 15-minute hike leads to a cluster of great tower climbs, including Easter Island and Sunflower Tower, two popular 5.10s. For 5.11 climbers, one of Bridger Jacks’ best climbs is hidden on the back side: Rim Shot.

“This may be one of the best tower routes out there anywhere,” says guide Matt Pesce of Moab Cliffs and Canyons (cliffsandcanyons.com). “It’s not really a second choice—more like a first choice. It’s just not as widely known.” Like Lightning Bolt Cracks, Rim Shot has a fair amount of wide-crack climbing, which won’t suit everyone. (Bring a No. 4.5 or 5 cam for optimum pro.) But it also has great variety, including face climbing, an airy step into an offwidth, a wild stem box with hand jams in the back, and some loose rock to remind you that you’re in the desert. Bonus: This route is in the shade most of the day, making it a good choice for warm weather.

Season: Spring through late fallGuidebook:Indian Creek: A Climbing Guide, by David Bloom ($33, sharpendbooks.com)

The Classic

The Alternative

Jah Man (5.10), Sister Superior

Lonely Vigil (5.10), Lighthouse Tower

Kor-Ingalls (5.9+), Castleton Tower

Black Sun (5.10b), Castleton Tower

Stolen Chimney (5.10 C1 or 5.11), Ancient Arts, Fisher Towers

Right Chimney (5.10+), Three Penguins, Arches National Park

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Jeff Ward, North Cascades Mountain Guides

Guide Insight: Crowded Route Etiquette

Jeff Ward, North Cascades Mountain Guides Most-Guided Route: Disappointment Cleaver, Mt. Rainier; 150+ times

“Are you the faster party? Don't go for the pass right out of the gate. Stay on the other party's heels for a few pitches.  Once they realize you can pass without slowing them down they will be more willing, which makes the pass much faster. Are you the slower party? Share anchors and do what you can to make the pass safe and efficient. And don't feel bad. No matter who you are, someone else can always climb harder and faster. ”

Sundial Crack (5.8-), Looking Glass Rock, Pisgah National Forest, North Carolina

The Nose (5.8, 4 pitches) might just be the most popular climb in North Carolina. It navigates a line through a sea of eyebrows—the strange, curving horizontal pockets characteristic of this side of Looking Glass. However, says Derek DeBruin of Fox Mountain Guides (foxmountainguides.com), “While it is a historically notable climb, as it was the first ascent of the entire mountain, I think the climbing is relatively uninteresting and only comes down to two moves, with the rest being easy, uninspired slab.” A few hundred feet to the right is Sundial, also four pitches and 5.8. “The difficulty is more consistent for the grade,” DeBruin says, and in addition to the eyebrow-laced slab, Sundial also features a short 5.7 hand crack, a rarity for that aspect of the mountain. “Plus, the position is better, with cooler exposure and a direct line to the summit.”

After a somewhat sandbagged first pitch—probably 5.7 instead of the 5.5 in the guidebook, and not well protected—Sundial takes plentiful pro, using the eyebrow slots and that short crack on the third pitch. The crux comes with sustained face climbing on the second pitch; trend right to find the belay bolts below the crack pitch.

Season: Spring to fallGuidebook:Selected Climbs in North Carolina, by Yon Lambert and Harrison Shull ($25, mountaineersbooks.org)

The Classic

The Alternative

Second Coming (5.7), Looking Glass

Fat Dog (5.7), Looking Glass

Groover (5.8), Laurel Knob

Seconds (5.8+), Laurel Knob

Dopey Duck (5.9), Linville Gorge

Straight and Narrow (5.10a), Linville Gorge