Revealing Routes on El Cap

First Ascents

Arriving in 1933, the first Yosemite rock climbers hardly looked at El Capitan, so overpowering was it. "Forever impossible" — that was the prevailing sentiment. By the early 1950s, however, climbers with superior equipment (new nylon ropes and pitons of varying sizes) tentatively approached the wall — but only at the edges.

In 1957 climbers began looking at the main cliff in a new light. Using sophisticated aid techniques and new, wide-angle pitons, the main cliff might be possible. But where? El Cap is not one single plane of granite, though from certain viewpoints it appears to be. Rather, two faces, the southwest and the southeast, intersect at a great prow of stone called the Nose. This seemed the most obvious route to Warren Harding, and during the next 18 months he and many partners fixed ropes up the 900-meter (3,000-foot) cliff. The Nose, completed in November 1958, showed what was possible, and Harding's name will live forever as an El Cap pioneer.

Then came Royal Robbins, a superb climber and a visionary. He and his partners — usually Chuck Pratt and/or Tom Frost — dominated El Cap during the 1960s, putting up routes and establishing an ethic that has lasted until this day (with a few notable exceptions): Use few bolts, eschew fixed ropes, and climb quickly, boldly, and efficiently.

Charlie Porter and Jim Bridwell heeded this advice and even surpassed Robbins in their approach to big-wall climbing. Using highly specialized tools, such as hooks, copperheads, and rivets, these two hard men and their partners established the most demanding artificial routes in the world during the 1970s. This tradition has been followed by their contemporaries and successors, John Barbella, Eric Brand, Hugh Burton, Charles Cole, Mike Corbett, Steve Gerberding, Steve Grossman, Eric Kohl, Steve Schneider, Steve Sutton, and many others.

What lies ahead? Ground-to-top routes that don't follow existing routes partway will be hard to come by; many routes of the past two decades start up an established route, branch off for a while, and then follow another existing route to the top. Each of these, of course, will be given a clever name by the first ascenders, and so the total number of routes, now around 80, will likely double. But most of these will be"mere" 200-meter (650-foot) variations of existing routes.

On the following two pages, I have chosen a representative sample of 14 routes. Most of these are highly recommended for experienced big-wall climbers; a few, however, are included for historical interest or for their cutting-edge difficulty.

Published: 28 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 7 Nov 2011
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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