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The Art of Sierra Climbing

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Galen Rowell captured this sunset over Evolution Lake on the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada, California, in 1997.

Keeler Needle (14,240ˈ) East Face (aka Harding Route; V 5.10c, 22 pitches)

FA: Warren Harding, Glen Denny, Rob McKnight, and Desert Frank, 1960 FFA: Galen Rowell, Chris Vandiver, and Gordon Wiltsie, 1976

The sight of Keeler in alpenglow produces a vision of the ideal alpine rock climb: an 1,800-foot orange torpedo aimed at a cobalt sky. Closer inspection, however, reveals rock that is sometimes good but more often scabby. There are some offwidth sections (including the crux pitch), but these are either short or, in the case of the crux ninth pitch, manageable with hand jams in the back and a number of fixed pieces. High on the route is a steep headwall split by burly finger to hand cracks. Climb them if you have the juice, but if all of your aggro has leaked out, you can do the standard 5.8 weaseling around to the right.

Before Galen freed this plum line, he got the first winter ascent with Harding and Tim Auger in 1972. The east face is a powerful and classic climb, and it’s tough to strike a Sierra hard-man pose without this one on your résumé.

Approach: 5 miles, 4,800 feet of gain; 4 hours Guidebook:The Good, the Great, and the Awesome, by Peter Croft;, $30

Charlotte Dome (10,690ˈ)South Face (5.8, 9-12 pitches)

FA: Galen Rowell, Fred Beckey, Chris Jones

Charlotte Dome is like the love child of Mr. Tuolumne and Ms. Backcountry. Guarded by a 12-mile approach, the South Face route is beautifully featured with orange-granite bumps and grooves, and it reaches a cool summit in a high-country setting.

The original line (probably) starts just left of the lowest part of the face, by a big pine, and ascends up and right, then straight up the center of the face; although the nature of the rock allows for many variations, this is the most popular line. For the first few hundred feet, the climbing is somewhat slabby, but then rears up into an intimidating headwall. At this point, the original grade of 5.7 sounds completely unhinged, like looking up at El Cap and calling it 5.10c. As you start up the headwall, though, you realize the face is covered with holds, from cookie-sized finger grips to elephant ear–sized steering wheels. This, far more than the summit, is why the route is famous.

Approach: 12 miles, 2,600 feet of gain; 5–6 hours. The approach and exit hike both entail crossing the Sierra Crest at Kearsarge Pass. Guidebook:The Good, the Great, and the Awesome, by Peter Croft

Rowell shoots next to Yosemite Falls in 1992. Photo by Ron Kauk

Rabbit Ears (8,400ˈ) The Smokestack (5.10, 9 pitches)

FA: Galen Rowell and Doug Robinson, 1970

This route climbs a prominent buttress on the Wheeler Crest, high above Bishop. Although it reaches a pinnacle top, it could hardly be called a mountain—it’s a bit of a cross between high desert and alpine rock climbing. What makes it special is that, because of the practically galactic-sized rain shadow of the Sierra crest, this 1,000-foot route is often climbable in the winter months.

After an hour-long steep and scrubby approach, the route opens up with a mixture of crack and face climbing. Flaring cracks connect with tricky face sections. It’s possible to avoid a cruxy and poorly protected section down low by coming in on crystalline dikes from the left. All pitches are fun, and the position is right on, with panoramic views of the Owens Valley across to the White Mountains.

Approach: 2 miles, 1,800 feet of gain; 1–1.5 hours;

Mt. Conness (12,590ˈ)Southwest Face (aka The Harding Route; 5.10c, 9-10 pitches)

FA: Warren Harding, Glen Denny, Herb Swedlund, 1959 FFA (5.10c): Galen Rowell, Chris Vandiver, 1976

The mid-’70s were especially bright years in a brilliant decade of Sierra exploration. It was during 1975 and ’76 that the free-climbing quartet of Keeler Needle, Mt. Conness, Dark Star, and the Hulk were done by various parties. That Galen and Chris Vandiver snagged Keeler and Conness in the same summer speaks to their understanding that the dead horse of aid climbing had more or less been flogged and buried, and that the future lay in treating the big walls and buttresses as free routes.

The Southwest Face is a classic, sustained crack route that overlooks the peaked, domed, and meadowed stretch of Tuolumne high country. One should note that Galen and Chris followed the aid line more closely on their ascent and encountered harder (5.11) climbing. Either way, it’s a climb best savored late in the season, as the route is a bit of a drainage for the west side of the mountain.

It’s important not to be put off by the first pitch. It’s often wet and always grungy, and it’s tricky to figure out exactly where to go. Once you’re past that, the climbing improves and provides plenty of good jamming up the center of the face, including a bolt-protected wide crack on the fifth pitch. Take care on the following pitch to avoid going too high before traversing right on face holds into a left-facing corner. From there, cruise steep hand cracks up to the summit area.

Approach: 4 miles, 2,600 feet of gain; 2–2.5 hours Guidebook:The High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails, third edition, by R.J. Secor;, $33. The Good, the Great, and the Awesome, by Peter Croft

Warren Harding takes in the landscape during the first ascent of Half Dome’s South Face in 1970.


Half Dome (8,848ˈ) South Face (5.9 A3, 19 pitches)

FA: Galen Rowell, Warren Harding, 1970

This 2,000-foot wall is unique for Yosemite Valley. Where all the others glower over the Valley, Half Dome’s south face looks up into the high country. Given Galen’s predilection for mountains over lower-elevation rock climbing, it’s no coincidence that his one major Yosemite first ascent points away from the cars, hotels, and hot competitive scene and instead toward the High Sierra, where he spent so much time adventuring.

No description of this route would be complete without a nod toward the epic first attempt that Galen and Warren Harding made in November 1968. With 700 feet to go to the summit, a hellish storm moved in and stranded the pair for several days. Wet and frozen, they eventually were rescued by a helicopter that dropped Royal Robbins on the summit to rappel down to the pair. Royal, the leading light in Valley climbing, had been cartoonized as a caped crusader for his strict ethics, but I hardly think that a cape could have increased his superhero stature as he descended to Galen and Warren with dry clothes and hot soup.

The first half of the route follows an immense, left-facing arch involving a bunch of nailing. (Although a good chunk of it has been freed recently, big-wall thugs will still be whacking a fair bit.) After the arch, the route breaks onto the blank-looking upper face. Intermittent nailing coupled with featured rock and an angle around 75 degrees means that the route is less about massive bolt ladders than tricky aid and beautiful face climbing, as well as bat hooking.

The vantage from the south face is magical. Gone are the sounds and sights of the Valley floor. Instead, golden granite sweeps away toward tree line, and the only sound comes from waterfalls and wind.

Approach: 6 miles, 2,500 feet of gain; 3 hours Guidebook:Yosemite Climbs, by George Meyers and Don Reid;

Bear Creek Spire (13,720ˈ) North Arête (5.8, 6-9 pitches)

FA: Galen Rowell and Jeane Neale, 1971

This high summit in the Rock Creek drainage is one of the classic peaks in the range, and the combo of a high trailhead, alpine scenery, and fine granite makes this a dreamy climb. Between the jagged skyline above and the meadow- and lake-lined terrain under your feet, the area is head-spinningly beautiful. Set up an awesome camp at Gem Lakes, three and a half miles in; good camping can also be found another mile and a half in, but it’s more exposed to the elements and would entail gnarly talus-groveling with a big pack.

The route takes the rib coming directly at you on the approach; it’s not the classic lower-angled Northeast Ridge on the left skyline. Follow the crest up moderate cracks for seven or eight pitches (when in doubt stay closer to the arête) to the gendarmed final ridge and the bouldery summit block. This climb is best from early summer through August; it faces north, so fall ascents are hand-numbing. If conditions seem too chilly, opt for the Northeast Ridge (5.5). It catches a lot more sun and allows faster climbing.

Approach: 6 miles, 2,100 feet of gain; 3 hours Guidebook: The Good, the Great, and the Awesome, by Peter Croft

A rising sun illuminates the Owens Valley, adjacent to the High Sierra, in 2000.


Mt. Russell (14,086ˈ) Western Front (West Face to New Era; 5.10c, 6 pitches)

FA (West Face): Galen Rowell and Chris Jones, 1971

The approach past the south side of Mt. Russell reveals a convoluted and very broad facet of the mountain, but as one rounds the corner to the west side, the wall grows taller and morphs into a Fitz Roy–esque tower. It’s an incredible sight from camp at tiny Arctic Lake just below. These days, much of Russell’s traffic occurs on south-side routes like Fish Hook Arête and Mithral, and around the corner to the west it feels like you’re on a different peak. This route combo follows the best-looking line in the center of the wall.

Although the West Face is a fine route by itself, the best way to climb this side of Russell is to ascend half of the West Face and then sweep up and left to join New Era. I first climbed this link-up with Galen when, despite his having done the West Face route twice before, he got completely lost about halfway up. Lucky for me, the climb ended up being brilliant.

The first pitch is the crux: pumpy finger jams on flaky rock. But the difficulty then eases and the climbing improves. Higher up, where you merge the West Face into New Era, the route encounters an amazing 60-meter corner— the best pitch I’ve climbed on the peak.

Approach: 6 miles, 5,200 feet of gain; 4–5 hours Guidebook:The Good, the Great, and the Awesome, by Peter Croft

Mt. LeConte (13,930ˈ)/Mt. Corcoran Pinnacles South Ridge (5.7)

FA: Galen Rowell, 1970

Galen did this one as a solo trip from the east, gaining the crest at the Sharktooth, an easily distinguishable sharp pinnacle. From there, he headed north over a half-dozen pinnacles separated by notches, eventually finishing on the high point of Mt. LeConte. These peaks, although only separated from the Mt. Whitney zone by a few miles, see next to no attention despite airy summits and good rock.

As with a lot of traverses, one could start at either end. I began at the north end by starting on the north ridge of Lone Pine Peak, which leads into the north side of LeConte. The advantage is that it allows one to add another Sierra classic into the mix. The cruxy section will still be in the Corcoran pinnacles away to the south. Although Galen self-belayed and rappelled some sections, the climbing (up or down) never needs to exceed 5.7. If daylight, desire, or wimpiness dictate an escape, there are numerous places to drop off the crest to the west. Whereas nearby Mt. Whitney sits surrounded and half-blocked by neighboring peaks, the view from the LeConte ridge is one big gulp of exposure—a 10,000-foot swoop to the dry desert lakebed just south of Lone Pine.

Approach: 6.5 miles; 4,800 feet of gain; 4 hours Guidebook: Limited info at