Overview: Yosemite Valley, California
Yosemite Valley needs little introduction—it is the most famous rock climbing destination in the world. Hundreds of climbers from all parts of the globe travel to “The Valley” each year to experience its world-class granite walls and boulders. Forests, vast meadows, waterfalls, towering granite walls, and the powerful Merced River create one of the world’s most beautiful natural landscapes. There are thousands of routes and boulder problems to experience, many that are considered world-class and possess important historical significance to our sport. In the past, many other climbing areas were simply considered “training” for Yosemite. Since the early days of climbing, The Valley has served as the proving grounds where passionate climbers come to test their physical and mental limits. With a rich history that has shaped so many aspects of the climbing culture as we know it today, Yosemite is an important place for all climbers to visit.
Specific description of climbing style
Yosemite offers routes of all kinds—traditional and sport climbing. However, the majority of the routes are gear-protected cracks that can be anywhere from 1 to 30+ pitches long. Sport climbing is sparse but definitely available if that’s what you prefer. Yosemite is also a world-renowned mecca for bouldering. With over a thousand boulder problems ranging from V0-V13, many come here for the bouldering alone.
The Valley has somewhat mild weather, but summer can be unbearably hot and buggy. In the winter, unless it is a very dry season, climbing is impossible due to ice and snow. The best time of year to climb here is fall and spring, which provide very pleasant conditions.
Climbing grade range
In Yosemite, there are routes for everyone to enjoy. A first-time climber will have just as much fun as someone seeking a first ascent on El Cap. There are many routes of all grades, from 5.2 to sandbagged 5.14.
Best local spot
The local hangout for climbers visiting Yosemite is not a restaurant or a cafe, but a campground. Camp 4 is where you will find climbers from all over the world hanging out, eating dinner, looking at topos for tomorrow’s route, and talking about all things climbing-related.
Top climbs in area
- Royal Arches (5.6 A0) – First established all the way back in 1936 and listed on the “Fifty Classics Climbs of North America,” Royal Arches is a must-do for climbers of all ability levels. Expect chimneys, cracks of varying sizes, exposed slabs, some face climbing, a pendulum, and a good bit of 3rd and 4th class.
- Snake Dike (5.7R) – Climbs the Southwest face of Half Dome. 5.7 friction (Yosemite 5.7—if you don’t know how to climb a slab, don’t expect to hike it!) leads to a beautiful, juggy dike with occasional bolts. The climbing is easy but extremely runout. A classic route that makes climbing the iconic Half Dome an attainable reality. Snake Dike should be on every climber’s tick list.
- Nutcracker (5.8) – Five pitches of beautiful, moderate cracks with good protection make this a popular climb. Offers great views of the Valley.
- Commitment (5.9) – Many climber’s first 5.9 in the Valley. A hand cracks leads to an intimidating-looking roof that isn’t as hard as it looks as long as you find the jugs. Keep the name of the route in mind.
- East Buttress of El Capitan (5.10b) – A classic, adventurous route up the right shoulder of El Capitan. The route starts up an insecure and somewhat burly chimney and eventually leads to the route’s crux—a 5.10b face section. After the crux, the climbing gets easier and more exposed. The vast views, pitches and pitches worth of juggy climbing with lots of air under your feet, and the fact that you’re climbing on El Cap make the East Buttress a Yosemite classic.
- The Nose of El Capitan (5.9 C2) – The most sought-after route in all of climbing history? Probably. This is the mega classic of Yosemite Valley/the entire world. Many climbers consider climbing the Nose to be the pinnacle of their climbing career. Continuous, beautiful crack systems soar for 3,000 feet above the Valley floor. Holds a spot on the list of “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America.” A must-do for any big wall climber.
- Steck-Salathe (5.10-) – Another “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America” and deservingly so. This climb is considered a rite of passage for many Yosemite climbers. Fifteen pitches of wide cracks make this route a physical, burly battle from start to finish.
- Outer Limits (5.10c) – Steep, sustained, and powerful climbing make this two-pitch route a great way to train for the big walls as well as a sought-after send on its own. Solid hand jams (for most people) that seem to go on forever.
- Regular NW Face of Half Dome (5.12a/b) – Aside from the Nose, this is the other famous big wall of Yosemite. Most of the climbing is moderate and good quality with cruxes that are short, but this is a serious climb as it involves 20+ pitches of climbing and keen route-finding skills. Climbing the face of Half Dome is just about as classic as it gets—definitely deserves to be on all climber’s bucket list.
- Astroman (5.11c) – A high-quality route with pitch after pitch of sustained, beautiful climbing. If each of these pitches were right off the ground, almost all of them would be classics. Lots of powerful climbing leads up to the infamous Harding Slot—the pitch that has caused even the strongest climbers have full on melt-downs. You can probably fit even if you think you can’t. After that, the climbing stays sustained and offers great views of Half Dome.
- The Rostrum (5.11c) – This route is yet another Yosemite classic with steep, powerful climbing for eight pitches. This route has it all—steep lay backing, good hand cracks, off-widths, and chimneys that are all considered must-do pitches. Astroman’s friendlier younger brother.
- Crimson Cringe (5.12b) – A beautiful, arching crack by Cascade Falls. This clean splitter is mostly fingers with some knobby face moves that finishes with an undercling traverse. One of the Valley’s best single-pitch routes.
- Midnight Lightning (V8) – Probably the most well known boulder problem in the world. Powerful moves on polished crimps lead up to the famous (and feared!) mantle. If you climb at this grade and haven’t done this problem, drop everything and head to the Valley now to try it! This problem’s historical significance and great movement make it a must-do for climbers of all disciplines.
Best kept secret
Don’t cancel your trip to Yosemite just because your partner bailed. You can easily find partners here. Head to Camp 4 early in the morning and start talking to people. Many climbers come to Yosemite alone.
How stiff is the grading?
Home to some of the oldest routes in the country, Yosemite grades are old-school. Granite climbing is always a challenge if you aren’t used to it, so don’t expect to climb 5.11 here just because you climb 5.11 in the gym. In fact, if you’ve never climbed in Yosemite before, don’t expect to climb 5.11 even if you climb 5.13 in the gym! The glacially-polished granite takes some getting used to. After a few weeks of climbing, the insecure nature of the climbing may start to feel less foreign. Stay safe and keep your ego in check by starting out on routes that are at least a number grade lower than you’re used to.
Where to stay?
While most climbers stay at Camp 4, it’s becoming more popular to stay at the Pines campground or somewhere out of the park entirely. Many consider the camping situation to be the crux of Yosemite. Reserving a campground a few weeks or months in advance is the best way to secure a spot. Do not try to sneak into a campground or sleep in your car–it is very likely that you will get caught by a ranger and have to pay a hefty fine.
Yosemite is the climbing mecca of the world, the promise land, the home of the mega classics. The routes listed here and the information given is such a small fraction of what Yosemite really has to offer. More so than other places, Yosemite must be experienced in order to truly grasp what it’s all about. It’s rich history, undeniable energy, beautiful landscape, and world-class climbing makes Yosemite the most famous climbing area in the entire world.
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Photos in this posts have been sourced from Flickr, with usage under Creative Commons.