Numbers Game: Master the classic sandbags at four historic crags
We’ve all been on the receiving end of sandbagging bastardry at some point. “You should climb Horrible Direct Route (5.scary)—it’s totally your style,” says your buddy. True, it might be your “style,” but it also has no gear, is usually wet, and feels three grades harder than what you typically lead.
But not all sandbagging comes in the form of a cruel joke from your friends. Some of it was born from an era where the Yosemite Decimal System (YDS) topped out at 5.9—once believed to be the limit of climbing abilities. In the 1960s, many hard routes were given a 5.9+ rating even when moves soared well beyond that pay bracket. (An extreme example is Boulder Canyon’s The Umph Slot, which was originally rated 5.8+ in 1965. Consensus today says 5.10+!) Some routes are notorious and bear a reputation that precedes them, while others lay quietly in wait to shut down an unsuspecting punter.
How routes are graded can also contribute to the sandbag. Some are rated by the hardest move, and some by the overall “pump factor.” Sure, a climb might only have 5.9 moves on it, but after 120 sustained feet, it sure feels like a 5.10. And sometimes it’s simply a matter of style. When you climb in an area with an unfamiliar type of rock, it’s going to feel tough.
To get in touch with history or experience different rock, hit up these stiff, old-school areas. Be warned—and let your partner lead the first pitch!
Shawangunks, New York
School yourself on airy roofs and Herculean horizontals
Located 90 miles north of New York City, the Shawangunks are the crown jewel of the state. The area’s colorful history began in 1935 when Fritz Wiessner, climbing pioneer and all-around badass, climbed Old Route (5.5), the Gunks’ first established line, with John and Peggy Navas. A lull in activity followed until the early 1940s, when Wiessner and Austrian Hans Kraus developed many of their best routes; later, members of the Appalachian Mountain Club got involved in the new routing. And then things got interesting in the late ’50s when the Vulgarians—an infamous group of rebel climbers hell-bent on challenging the Club’s authority in the area—put up dozens of stellar routes (between wild parties, hash, and hangovers), forcing the Club to loosen their grip. The clean climbing revolution of the 1970s led by the likes of John Stannard and Henry Barber ushered in more hard routes.
Nowadays, climbers flock to the Gunks to test not only their gear-placing skills, but also their wits on the cliffs’ notorious sandbags. Brad Heller, a former Gunks local, credits this to the area’s development, which was fairly isolated from the hotbed of free climbing in the West. “The [Gunks] guys were pushing standards early on, especially in the 5.10 grade,” Heller says. “But they didn’t have anything to calibrate against, and they developed their own grading system that isn’t harmonious with the rest of the country. Remember, it’s the Yosemite Decimal System, not the Gunks Decimal System!”
New York local Jim Lawyer has been climbing in the Gunks since the mid-1980s and explains the sandbagging saga a little more: “A lot of routes were put up by just a few people,” he says. “If all the grading is controlled by one strong person who happens to underestimate his ability, then this will certainly create sandbagged routes.” Take Rich Romano, legendary strongman and one of the most prolific developers in the Gunks (primarily in the Millbrook area), for example; one of his most notorious routes is the unprotectable Time Being (5.11- X).
Lastly, the Gunks’ climbing style is distinct. “There are no vertical cracks,” which confounds many trad climbers, says Lawyer. “Instead, you find horizontals, roofs, and big air, protected by good but usually fiddly gear. This combination can freak people out.” He recommends starting out a full number grade below what you are comfortable leading during your first visit. “Don’t overlook the ‘easy’ climbs,” says Lawyer. “One unique aspect about the Gunks is its high concentration of high-quality, lower-graded routes with clean rock, giant holds, exposure, and dramatic situations.”
- Double Chin (5.5)
- High Exposure (5.6)
- Modern Times (5.8+)
- Birdland (5.8+)
- Directississima (5.10b)
- Graveyard Shift (5.10d)
- Guidebook: The Climber’s Guide to the Shawangunks: The Trapps, by Dick Williams ($32, rockandsnow.com)
- Fees: $17/day/person or $90/year
- Get there: From New Paltz, take Route 299 to Route 44/55. Turn right and continue to the
- Mohonk Preserve Visitor Center. Park and grab a map
- Stay there: The NY State DEC multi-use area on Route 299 is free but has no amenities (845-256-3024); there are only nine sites, so get there early on weekends. Camp Slime (free) is near the Steel Bridge on Route 44/55; park in the West Trapps Trailhead lot. Creekview Campsite ($20/night) is 15 miles down the road; make a reservation at 845-658-9142. The New Paltz Hostel is $30/night for a shared room, offering Wi-Fi, a kitchen, indoor bathroom, and more; reservations recommended (newpaltzhostel.com).
- Season: Spring and fall
Eldorado Canyon, Colorado
Get ready for proud, technical cragging
A capital of traditional climbing, Eldorado Canyon’s stunning red sandstone is lined with complex multi- and single-pitch routes. Known for its old-school grades, Eldorado has knocked more than a few experienced climbers down a peg. Climbing in the canyon really took off in the late 1950s with a group of enthusiastic locals, spearheaded by the late Coloradan Layton Kor. By the early 1960s, many of the prominent lines had been ticked with aid. When the clean climbing revolution hit in the 1970s, Jim Erickson and others began routinely free climbing the great aid routes. The “free and clean” ethos became the generally accepted method until controversy flared in the mid-1980s with bolts springing up; a heated debate among locals ensued. The state park administration ended the argument in 1989 by imposing a bolting moratorium to preserve the park in its natural form.
Roger Briggs, one of Eldo’s foremost climbers, made his first trip to the canyon in 1964. “Eldo has a reputation for stiff grades,” he says. “But these grades reflect the time during which they were put up. After all, 5.9 was at the top of the grading system, and it was a big deal in the ’70s to call a route 5.10 or 5.11. Take The Naked Edge [5.11b]—we just called it 5.10+. And that was our way of saying this was the hardest climb imaginable.” With this in mind, Briggs advises to look at the date of the first ascent: “If it was put up in the ’60s or ’70s, it’s very likely to have a stiffer rating… unless it has since been re-graded.”
And some routes have been upgraded, including The Diving Board, first free climbed by Briggs in 1972. “When I first did that, I rated it 5.9+ because I thought it was really hard,” says Briggs. Today, most consider it 5.11a. Or Rincon, originally 5.9+ after it was free climbed in 1969 by Erickson and Dave Meyers. Briggs still thinks the third pitch—with steep, runout 5.11 moves—is harder and more serious than the current rating of 5.11a.
Briggs is also keen to point out that “different areas have different ratings, some stiffer than others. The guidebook author needs to make a decision about the level of grading and be consistent across the area. While the history of a climb is important, if the rating says 5.11, then it should be very similar to other 5.11s in the area.” Eldorado might be stiff, but climbers can find solace in its consistency—and the current guidebook author, Steve Levin, would know: He’s climbed about 95 percent of Eldo’s routes.
- Green Spur (5.9+)
- Grand Giraffe (5.10a)
- Rosy Crucifixion (5.10a)
- Rincon (5.11a)
- The Naked Edge (5.11a/b)
- Guidebook: Eldorado Canyon: A Climbing Guide, Second Edition, by Steve Levin ($39.95, sharpendbooks.com)
- Fees: $8/day for car, $3/day walk-in, or $70/year
- Get there: From Boulder, take S. Broadway/CO-93 south. Turn right onto Eldorado Springs Drive and follow to the state park.
- Stay there: While climbing abounds in Boulder, there is a dearth of camping. However, about 45 minutes out of town in Nederland, plenty of dispersed camping and sites sit on U.S. Forest Service land (970-295-6600).
- Season: Spring and fall are best. Chase sun in the winter and shade in the summer.
Yosemite National Park, California
Sack up for tough highballs and compression climbs
Climbing in Yosemite unquestionably tops every climber’s life list. But it’s not just traditional and big wall folks who have all the fun. With hundreds of blocks littering the valley floor, the 700-plus boulder problems are equally worth the pilgrimage. Bouldering here began in the 1940s as training for the soaring granite, and as the emphasis on free climbing grew in the 1950s, so too did the popularity of bouldering.
By the late 1960s, bouldering was emerging as a sport in its own right; Pat Ament—a gymnast and well-known boulderer on Colorado’s Front Range—played an important role in developing the area. In 1968, he introduced chalk to the slick, polished granite in the Valley and made the first ascent of Ament Arête (V6), with its powerful moves hinting at the possibility of future bouldering styles. In the early 1970s, climbers began to dedicate time solely to bouldering, showing a shift toward modern lines that were chosen for aesthetics or features, not just a means to the top. In 1978, there was a significant milestone in the bouldering mindset. Ron Kauk made the first ascent of Midnight Lightning, originally labeling it V7; it’s now considered the standard for V8.
Unlike the decades-old YDS, with its heritage dating back to the 1930s in California’s Sierra Nevada, Hueco Tanks pioneer John “Vermin” Sherman didn’t develop the bouldering “V” scale until the 1990s. The bouldering godfather John Gill’s “B” system, developed in the late ’50s, had only three grades (B1 = difficult, B2 = very difficult, and B3 = limit, or a problem done only once). The “V” hierarchy, on the other hand, is open-ended and not a victim to the old-school grading failure, which is a defined top end that results in extremely sandbagged routes, including here.
Like the Gunks, Yosemite’s style is unique, unparalleled, and takes time getting used to. A creative mind and body positioning will aid your success—don’t expect to simply pull on holds like ascending a ladder. The rock is smooth, and there are few obvious hand- or footholds. James Lucas, a Yosemite regular, says the grades are fairly stiff compared to other areas, but well worth the effort. He describes the bouldering as both technically and aesthetically outstanding. “You’re climbing interesting lines on arêtes, corners, cracks, and slabs,” he says. “You’re not just climbing holds—you’re climbing a feature.” Beth Rodden, another Valley veteran, says, “From the walls to the routes to the boulders, you’ve got to earn it. I always heard and then found out myself that 5.10s in the Valley were vastly different than 5.10s elsewhere, and the boulders follow that same trend. A V5 in Yosemite will feel a lot different than a V5 elsewhere,” at least until you become familiar with the style. Oh, and many of the boulders are highballs, adding a separate pucker factor.
- Mr. Pink Eyes (V0)
- Initial Friction (V1)
- No Fur (V3)
- Cocaine Corner (V5)
- Guidebook: Yosemite Valley Bouldering, by Matt Wilder ($27.95, supertopo.com)
- Get there: Many access the Valley via Hwy. 120, aka Tioga Pass Road, which is open late May until November. There are several other major roads; check supertopo.com for detailed directions.
- Stay there: Of the 13 campgrounds in Yosemite, about half take reservations. By far one of the most popular for climbers is Camp 4; it’s only $5/night and first-come, first-served. For a more mellow experience, try one of the Pines campgrounds ($20/night, nps.gov/yose/planyourvisit/campground.htm).
- Season: Spring and fall
Seneca Rocks, West Virginia
Run it out on wildly exposed rock
The rugged, towering fins of Seneca Rocks stand testament to traditional climbing in the East. Climbers have been exploring the area since the 1930s. Paul Brandt, Don Hubbard, and Sam Moore established the first documented climb with Skyline Traverse (5.3) in 1939, using just three carabiners, a hemp rope, and a handful of pitons. Visitors can still see evidence of the 10th Mountain Division, which used the area for battle training in 1943 and ’44 and drove thousands of pitons into the hard Tuscarora quartzite. The climbing trend continued after the war with a flurry of activity in the 1950s, and the number of difficult routes rose dramatically in the 1960s. Seneca saw its first 5.10 in 1966, with George Livingstone’s Madmen Only, but climbers resisted extending their grades past 5.10 even when other areas were establishing 5.11 and 5.12 routes. Finally, in 1971, clean climbing advocate John Stannard created Seneca’s first 5.11 with Totem.
As with the Gunks and Eldorado Canyon, Seneca falls victim to the bygone era where 5.9 capped the scale. While developers applied YDS grades, some have argued that the ratings aren’t even in the ballpark. “Seneca’s climbs are severely underrated compared to most areas in the United States,” wrote Bill Webster in his 1990 book Seneca: The Climber’s Guide.
Arthur Kearns, owner of Seneca Rocks Climbing School, has been climbing in the area since 1987. He says it has beautiful, proud lines, and as for sandbagging, “We’re not harsh, it’s just that everybody else is easy,” he jokes. “We have routes that are 5.5 with a slightly overhanging crux, and 150 feet of air at your heels. I think this exposure contributes to some people getting a little bit wiggy.
“Routes were often rated for the hardest move, not the overall pump value,” he continues. “If it was sustained 5.8 from the moment you stepped off the ground to the moment you clipped the anchor, then it was 5.8. In modern days, it would be at least 5.9. However, a standard was set, and people continued to grade routes accordingly.”
And it’s not just the airy feeling or pump factor. Finding protection is sometimes challenging, and many routes are dead vertical and strenuous. Most of the cracks aren’t parallel, which requires a higher skill set than simply plug-and-go camming. “There are lines that if put up today, they would have bolts on them,” says Kearns. “They are very bold and committing. You’ve got to have the lead head for the exposure. But when you get to the top, you feel an awesome sense of achievement.”
- Ecstasy (5.7)
- West Pole (5.7+)
- Triple S (5.8+)
- Bring on the Nubiles (5.9+)
- Malevolence (5.10)
- The Bell (5.12a R)
- Guidebook: A Climber’s Guide to Seneca Rocks, Third Edition, by Tony Barnes, will be published in late 2013. Find older editions on amazon.com
- Get there: From Elkins, take US-33/WV-55 east until the three-way intersection where 55 goes north and 33/WV-28 heads south. You’re there!
- Stay there: Seneca Shadows Campground is one mile east on 33 and has flush toilets; reservations are required ($15/night, recreation.gov). Yokum’s Vacationland offers tent sites, along with cabin rentals and a motel. Camping is $6.50 per person, no reservations required (yokum.com)
- Season: Spring through fall