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The Girdle Traverse—easily one of the more esoteric, pointless pursuits in climbing—is quite simple: you climb all way across a cliff instead of from the bottom to the top. As Greg Child said (according to Chris McNamara, at least): “The only thing more abstract than climbing up a wall is to traverse it from one side to the other.”
Child pretty much hits the nail on the head. While the strictures and guiding principles that most of us follow when we go climbing are fairly arbitrary, they do all follow a basic, overarching sort of logic: start at the bottom and go up. Deciding to just go across instead? Well, It’s kind of like Tommy Caldwell’s Loop Pitch on the Dawn Wall—yea, technically it’s kosher and all, but that’s not really how it’s supposed to work. Just sayin’.
Paul Ross is the spiritual godfather of the form in the U.S. After completing the first girdle traverse of Whitehorse Ledge in New Hampshire in 1972, he turned to Cannon Cliff, the best chosspile the state had to offer. He enlisted the help of “Hot” Henry Barber, and the duo made the first climber’s-right-to-climber’s-left diagonaling traverse of Cannon in only six hours, topping out on the uber-classic Whitney-Gilman Ridge. They named their creation Magical Mystery Tour after the Beatles’ album of the same name. MMT comes in at an eminently pedestrian 5.9 despite the massive amount of terrain it covers.
Girdle traverses like that on Cannon require a rare kind of inspiration. In addition to Magical Mystery Tour, there are a special few that are so ridiculous in size or scope that we think they deserve some special recognition. With that said, we present to you a selection of the finest, proudest, most bizarre, most useless and undoubtedly ridiculous girdle traverses heretofore completed.
The Great Wall of China (5.9 R), the Gunks, New York (1987)
9,000 feet, 67 pitches
One of the most logical reasons for a a girdle traverse might be the desire for long, continuous climbing in a place with a lack of appropriate cliffs. Much of the country fits this description. Take the Gunks in New York. None of the routes go much higher than a couple hundred feet above the ground. But standing on the Carriage Road in the Trapps, if you look to your left or your right, the cliff band stretches out of sight.
In May 1987, Dave Rosenstein and notorious bolt-chopper Ken Nichols decided to start at one end of the Trapps and keep climbing until they reached the other. What resulted was the Great Wall of China, a 9,000-foot, 67-pitch girdle traverse.
For more than a decade, the Great Wall was likely the longest rock climb on the planet.
Nichols and Rosenstein were never more than a pitch-length above the ground.