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The People’s Playground: Tahoe’s Donner Summit

Emily Harrington falls in love with Tahoe's Donner Summit while learning to place gear.

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I stared at the #2 Camalot placed in a crack two full body lengths below me. Sixty feet up Nova Express (5.9) at Donner Summit’s Snowshed Wall, I stared at the committing hand jams above as I tried to force myself to leave my comfy stance, a no-hands ledge where I had wedged my upper body into the crack. The cam was solid, but it still wasn’t a bolt, which is what I was used to. Having spent the previous 15 years in the gym and at sport crags, I had only recently taken up trad climbing after moving to the granite crack wonderland of California. It was one of my first dates with renowned climbing guide Adrian Ballinger, and the 10-minute approach, mountains peppered with green and yellow lichen, and the views of Lake Tahoe made it the perfect date spot—besides the fact that the climbing style made me feel like a total gumby, of course.

Emily Harrington climbing Donner Summit Tahoe
Emily Harrington climbs the classic Panic in Detroit (5.12b/c) at Snowshed wall, Donner Summit. Photo: Tara Kerzhner

Adrian and I met while climbing Mt. Everest in 2012. He was a lanky mountain guide with a strange accent from his combined British and Boston upbringing, and he loved everything from skiing the world’s tallest peaks to trad climbing at his home crags near Lake Tahoe, California. He was aware that I was new to trad climbing, but he encouraged me to embrace the awkwardness and intimidation factor of the slippery granite climbing.

“Donner is one of the easiest places to learn,” he had said. I desperately wanted to impress him on that day four years ago, but my discomfort and fear were overpowering. Up on that ledge, my frustration boiled over, and tears ensued. I got embarrassed, then angry at my emotional self, but Adrian coaxed me back into a strong mindset, and I finally decided to commit to the hand jams. Although they felt rattly and insecure, I reached the chains and along with it, a serious wake-up call. Granite, trad, cracks—how had I climbed more than half my life and never gained any knowledge of these demanding styles?

Emily Harrington belaying Donner Summit Tahoe
The author belaying during an evening session at Donner. Photo: Tara Kerzhner

Although not much is known about the history of Donner climbing before 1970, rumor has it that Yosemite big wall pioneers Warren Harding and Royal Robbins, who was a ski instructor at Sugar Bowl Ski Resort, frequented the summit along with Alvin McLane, a geologist who taught a climbing class at the University of Nevada in Reno. Jim Bridwell, Kim Schmitz, Eric Beck, and Rick Sylvester, other old-school Yosemite hardmen and El Cap first ascensionists, ski patrolled at Squaw Valley in the winter, climbed in Yosemite in the spring and fall, and escaped the heat in Tahoe in the summer. The majority of the original routes at Donner were put up by one or more of them.

“No one can remember, but it was surely one of those guys,” said Gary “Bullet” Allen, a fixture in the Tahoe climbing community since the early 1970s and one of the most prolific developers of the Summit, when asked who did the FA of Nova Express. Albeit vague, Bullet’s response reflects one of the central components of the area: Credit for its development and continued preservation is communal. No single person claims to be fully responsible, or cares enough to take ownership over a route’s development. “It has a lot to offer: trad, sport, adventure stuff. It doesn’t seem to get old, no matter how many times I climb the same routes,” Bullet said. “It’s a special place because it’s been home for a long time, and I have this sense of community. I’ve travelled a lot and I always find myself wanting to be here.”

Arriving in Tahoe from upstate New York in the early 1970s to ski race and climb, Bullet played a pivotal role in the development of Tahoe climbing. During the ’70s, Bullet and Max Jones pioneered the first ascent of Imaginary Voyage at Black Wall, a 500-foot featured granite wall home to some of the best and most classic multi-pitch routes in Tahoe. Imaginary Voyage was one of the country’s first multi-pitch 5.11s and is still considered a testpiece. Soon after the pair established the route, Yosemite legends Dale Bard and Ron Kauk made the quick four-hour drive from the Valley to repeat it. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s Donner Summit was a training ground for the world’s best; they came to this relatively small but dense climbing area to push the limits of hard free ascents.

Dan Urban Tahoe Donners Summit
Dan Urban climbs at Star wall on A Steep Climb Named Desire (5.13d). Photo: Tara Kerzhner

The 1980s ushered in the era of sport climbing, and along with it, bright Lycra, bolt wars, and the controversial arrival of “hangdogging.” A lot of the sport routes in Tahoe were done on toprope first, then led on gear, then bolted on rappel with the permission of the first ascensionists. Bullet noted that many of the routes they put up during that time are considered a bit stout for the grade because no one wanted to grade anything 5.12—a highly elite level at the time—and potentially face the embarrassment of having it downgraded by a peer. I’ve found strong evidence of sandbagging from my own experiences there.

“Big controversies came over bolting toprope [routes],” said Jim Zellers, a professional snowboarder who grew up in Tahoe and climbed at Donner in the early ’80s. “So many were bolted like that: Missing Mind, Moonshadow, Ariel, Made in Japan, Little Feat—all of which had been led on gear and were essentially death routes never to be repeated.” It is unclear who was for and against such tactics, but the entire sport of climbing was going through growing pains, both locally and on a global scale, and members of the older generation were more resistant to it than others. Bullet noted that by utilizing tactics such as rap-bolting, the community was “warming up to adopting what would soon be a new style. We took it one step at a time and felt like we were bending the rules [by rap-bolting], but nobody really questioned it,” he said. “If anyone was asking questions, it was us questioning ourselves.”

Despite whatever bolting controversies do (or do not) exist, the sport climbing at Donner is all-time; the world-class rock offers techy, thoughtful, and interesting movement. Bullet’s own route Little Feat at Donner Summit was given a grade of 5.10b when it was first climbed. It has now settled at a respectable 5.10d, but I’ve witnessed several competent 5.12 climbers struggle to onsight this “warm-up,” and if I’m being honest, there’s solid 5.11 climbing in some sections. The same goes for Scott Frye’s Cannibals, which is one of the best and most aesthetic routes on the Summit. It took me a few sessions to send this so-called 5.12d that “everyone knows is 5.13,” but there’s no arguing that, because it’s Donner Summit.

Emily Harrington Donner Summit Chimney
Harrington gets her trad education on Bottomless Topless (5.10a), Snowshed Wall. Photo: Tara Kerzhner

As that summer of 2012 wore on, my trad climbing began to develop a bit more, and I became far more comfortable. Adrian convinced me to climb some multi-pitch routes at Black Wall, and we ended up swinging leads on One Hand Clapping (5.8). I didn’t have any sort of meltdown—I might have even enjoyed it—and our relationship thrived off summer excursions in the Eastern Sierra. Eventually he left to guide in the Himalaya for three months, leaving me to find independence in a new place where I hadn’t yet made any friends. Now solo, I went to Donner Summit in the evenings to climb with a variety of characters. Bullet, Eric Perlman, and Zellers would show up at Snowshed to climb routes they have done thousands of times, recount stories from those glory days, offer belays to whomever needed one, and badger me to climb routes they put up before I was born.

What I discovered was a welcoming and inclusive bunch who wanted nothing more than to show off the place they love to the newcomer. They were encouraging but not about to cut the pro climber kid from Boulder any slack. They teased and prodded me to step outside my comfort zone, to try harder routes and trust my gear. My first lead fall on gear occurred at Snowshed on Monkey Paws (5.12a) amidst a cackling peanut gallery. When my new friends found out I hadn’t fallen on gear, my friend Rueben hung on a nearby route and offered moral support, providing the confidence I needed to forget about the gear and try hard. I pulled on my hand jams, moving toward a horizontal. I couldn’t quite stick it and fell 15 feet. The gear held. I was stoked, feeling like I’d passed a necessary milestone in my climbing.

In the past four years, I’ve climbed all over the High Sierra, Tuolumne, and Yosemite, even managing to free climb El Cap last year—one of the proudest achievements in my climbing life. Now when I’m away on trips, I think of climbing at Snowshed at 5 p.m. on a weekday, doing the same routes I’ve done dozens of times now, with the same crew of raucous, giddy, enthusiastic characters. And Bullet is right, it will never get old.


Donner Conservation

In recent years, the Truckee Donner Land Trust, a nonprofit public land trust backed by the Access Fund, has acquired more than 3,000 acres on Donner Summit to conserve and protect the area’s natural resources, minimize environmental impacts from climbers, and maintain trails for future recreation. The land purchase was not necessarily a result of any imminent threat, thanks to the deeply passionate community of climbers who have set good environmental examples and helped maintain amicable relations with the landowners throughout the years, but rather it was an act of forethought. If this place was to be kept in its current state for future generations, it made sense for the land to be owned and governed by an organization with those best interests in mind—the interests of preservation, protection, restoration, and continued access for the outdoor recreating community. With the help of the Access Fund, the local climbing community, and the Land Trust, Donner Summit will remain a cornerstone of the Tahoe climbing community for generations to come. For more information on how to get involved, please visit the Truckee Donner Land Trust.

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