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Is Your Climbing Trip Worth the Drive? Do the Math

How much climbing do you need to do to justify a road trip? For people with unlimited free time—a.k.a. college students—that’s a silly question. Any road trip is worthwhile. But for weekend warriors, calculating whether it’s worth the time, gas money, and neglected chores to drive to a distant crag can be a tough assignment.

I have to make this decision several times each winter, when the warm limestone of Shelf Road is a tempting target. Shelf is about three hours’ drive from my home. If I have one free day, is it worth driving that far for just a few pitches? Or should I stay home and try to eke out the same pitch count on colder crags—or just go to the gym?

Fortunately, there’s an answer to this question. In fact, there are several answers.

The Quota (Pitches Per Hour)

This simple rule, followed by many climbers, was given its name by Kolin Powick in an article in Climbing265: You have to climb at least as many pitches as the number of hours you travel by car and/or plane. It takes me about six hours, round-trip, to drive to and from Shelf Road, so six pitches is the minimum for a worthy day.

The Floor Equation (Climbing Days Per Mile)

The problem with the Quota is it doesn’t always work well for multi-day trips. Let’s say I spend the full weekend at Shelf, but my finger hurts on day two and I only complete seven  pitches for the weekend. An average of 3.5 pitches a day doesn’t sound too good, even though the total of seven pitches meets the Quota.

To work around this, Wyoming climber Dennis Horning borrowed a concept from mathematics called the floor. The floor function identifies the largest integer (a non-fractional number) less than or equal to x. Horning’s version of the floor is to take the one-way distance for any climbing trip and lower it to the nearest multiple of 100 (235 miles = 200; 575 miles = 500; and so on). He divides the resulting number by 100, and this gives him the number of days necessary for a road trip to be worthwhile.

Example: If Horning plans to drive from his Laramie home to Devils Tower (309 miles one way), he needs to spend at least three days there: 309 becomes 300, divided by 100, equals three days. The Floor works pretty well for both short and long trips. My drive to Shelf Road (about 148 miles) is worth a day trip under the Floor. But if I want to drive to Smith Rock (1,143 miles), I’d better plan to spend at least 11 days there. Sounds about right.

The Five-Star Exemption

The Floor doesn’t work every time, though, because it assumes you’re climbing a lot. But what if you get snowed out of Smith on your spring road trip (it happened to me), and you end up climbing only a few pitches in a week? In that case, neither the Floor nor the Quota justifies the trip.

But we all know that some journeys are totally worthy even if you only climb a few pitches—as long as those pitches are unforgettable. These are the Five-Star Exemptions.

I have a friend who drove all the way from Boulder, Colorado, to Canyonlands National Park in Utah for a weekend. It was a little over 400 miles from home, a 15-hour round trip (including a long section on a dirt road), and neither the Quota nor the Floor would justify that distance. He only climbed seven pitches. But he was perfectly happy because those seven pitches led up Moses, the greatest tower in the desert.

This is a useful way to look at any road trip, whether you use the Quota, the Floor, or some other method to justify your travel. The lesson of the Five-Star Exemption is this: Once you get to the crag, make it count.