Feb 092013

Out of all the types of climbing, nothing gets me quite as excited as multipitching. I think it brings out the best in me and I enjoy climbing all day. Over the years I’ve climbed a number of amazing and sometimes world class routes. Some I’ve onsighted, others I went back for the send, and even more I just sampled. In the way that some people project routes and boulder problems, I’ve ended up projecting multipitches.

Free climbing up to Sous Le Toit on the Salathe Wall, El Capitan

The basis for this post is to do a bit of comparison. One of my goals with Dream in Vertical is to get people psyched about climbing so they go out and experience fun routes. Perhaps an iota of information will be the final straw in the making of an amazing experience

Difficulty Rankings

Trying to characterize the difficulty of a route is a funny thing. Different climbing areas require specific techniques and types of fitness. Doing 5.11 at sea level is not the same as the same moves at 10,000 feet. The 5.10a offwidth on the Rostrum (in Yosemite) is harder for some than the 5.11c crux finger crack on the same route. All of these elements make “difficulty” a hard thing to gauge.

I find that long routes break into two different categories. Many routes have a good amount of more moderate climbing with a stand out crux pitch or two. The other half of routes tend to be more sustained with continuous difficulty but less super hard pitches. In either case, the time taken on the route can be a good indicator of how the route climbs. Occasionally the grade of the all the pitches does not seem to properly correlate to the time taken.  A good example of this is a comparison of the Steck-Salathe and the East Buttress of El Capitan. Both routes feature a crux pitch of 5.10b with a similar amount of 5.8 and 5.9  with over ten total pitches. Most people, myself included, take much longer on the Steck-Salathe. The style of climbing (e.g. offwidths & chimneys, which are slow), the duration of approach and descent, and the ability to link pitches result in big variations in how long it takes to climb these two routes.  The Steck-Salathe is less traveled so route-finding is slower and the strenuous wide cracks take more time for the leader. With some linking on the East Buttress, you can vastly reduce number of pitches, compared to the SuperTopo. There is also more face climbing on the East Buttress ,which is almost always faster than chimneying or off-size jamming.

Will leads the crux finger crack on the North Face of the Rostrum

I think it helps to break the “difficulty” of a multipitch route into the four categories listed below. These terms do not fully describe the climbing experience, but offer my two cents about the what is involved when climbing the routes listed at the end of the blog.

Ratings – # of “hard” pitches

To send the route you will always need to be able to climb the grade of the hardest pitch. If there is only one difficult pitch on a route, like Cloud Tower, it can make sense to try the whole route even if you expect to fall or have to french free that one pitch. This allows you to come back later for the send with a better understanding of the route. Having to fire back to back 5.12 crux pitches, like on Moonlight Buttress, is a more serious undertaking and surely bumps up the “difficulty” of the route.

Logistics – Approach and Descent, Location, Altitude

As a climber progresses to longer route,s it becomes even more important to move quickly on all of the non-climbing sections of the day. Many people end up bailing from routes since they didn’t have enough time to get to the top. Getting lost on the approach puts a crunch on climbing time, which could be better spent resting between hard pitches. Where you sleep, how long you have slept, how long you took to approach, and the altitude can all effect your performance. I guarantee that 5.11 will feel much harder than normal at 10,000 feet if you slept the previous night at sea level.

Style – O/W & Overhangs, Slabs, Cracks

Most climbers develop skills in only a few areas and on one or two specific types of rock. Traveling will require you to climb on a new type of rock and do types of moves that are unfamiliar. Even people who frequently climb on granite may not be comfortable on the slick off-widths of Yosemite.  Grades are always relative and just because you can climb an overhanging 5.11 doesn’t mean you can climb the 5.11 slabs on the free-blast. Style matters!

Duration – Length and linkability

It’s pretty straightforward that longer routes take more time and consume more energy. It is very important to climb efficiently and not waste time or energy on easier pitches. A good way to spend less time is to link pitches which avoids belay changeovers. You also tend to place less gear when you have longer to climb which also speeds things up. It is important to know both how long a route is in feet in as well as the minimum number of pitches it can be climbed in.

Route Breakdown:

First Off I’ll try to put things in order based on overall difficulty. This considers the Ratings, Logistics, Style and Duration as defined above. These opinions are based on my experiences and my general set of skills.

  • Free-rider – 5.13-, El Capitan – Yosemite, CA
  • Regular NW Face – 5.12, Half Dome – Yosemite, CA
  • Sheer Lunacy – 5.12+  Zion, UT
  • Original Route – 5.12-, Rainbow Wall   Red Rock, NV
  • Astroman – 5.11+, Washington Column – Yosemite, CA
  • Chouinard-Herbert – 5.11+, Sentinel Rock- Yosemite, CA
  • Hotline – 5.12, Elephant Rock – Yosemite, CA
  • Tradewinds – 5.12-, Incredible Hulk – High Sierra, CA
  • Free Blast – 5.11+, El Capitan – Yosemite, CA
  • Astro-Hulk – 5.11, Incredible Hulk  – High Sierra, CA
  • North Face- 5.11+, Rostrum – Yosemite, CA
  • Positive Vibrations – 5.11-, Incredible Hulk- High Sierra, CA
  • Cloud Tower – 5.12-  Red Rock, NV
  • Levitation 29 – 5.11+  Red Rock, NV


Before discussing the intricacies of each route, I’d like to go over a few more reasons that one route might be a more difficult “tick” than the others. Every climb on the initial list has at least two pitches of 5.11 or harder.  Some of the routes have long approaches and are more easily climbed with a bivy at the base. This logistical complication means not only more time to complete the route but also more commitment.  Retreat is also another important logistical consideration. Bailing halfway up the Chouinard-Herbert would be very complicated and costly in gear, while Astroman is often rappelled from the the base of the Harding Slot (commonly known as Astro-Boy).  Even though the crux on Cloud Tower  is much harder than the Rostrum, the latter route requires off-width technique, which is foreign to many climbers. Mastery of wide cracks is mandatory for many Yosemite climbs.

Challenges that add to route difficulty

  • Large rack / specific mandatory gear
  • Long Approach/Complicated descent
  • No easy way to bail/retreat
  • Weather (extended amounts of sun/shade)

Luke is psyched for the Rainbow Wall

Route-specific beta and suggestions


While this route may be the easiest free route up El Capitan, it packs quite a punch. This climb requires the ability to climb 5.11 offwidths as well as chimneys of easier grades. Both crux pitches are 5.12+, but have opposite styles. The boulder problem is short with very small holds and the picture book dihedral requires endurance laybacking and technical stemming. Being able to climb the 30+ pitches while also hauling can be a challenge. Many people end up trying the route ground up and then rappelling in to work the harder pitches. A solid understanding of big wall climbing (hauling, extreme camping) and multi-day logistics is mandatory. This climbing is a pretty big step above the rest both in terms of logistics and difficulty.

Regular NW Face of Half Dome

This climb is LONG and very popular. Due to the sheer number of pitches it is tiring to climb in a day, especially when free climbing. Expect crowds to be frequent during summer weekends. The majority of the climbing (17 of 23 pitches) are 5.10c or easier which is a huge advantage. The crux pitches are around 12a and appear to be difficult. I only french freed these sections due to fatigue. An onsight or mostly free ascent will be pulled off by solid 5.12 leaders who are very efficient at easier terrain.  Most parties doing the route in a day will free climb up to 5.10+ and aid the rest. Figuring out how to climb with enough food and water can be can be a challenge for both free and mixed parties. We climbed the loose 5.9 and 5.10 free variation around the Robbins Traverse. This is easy  but loose and dirty three pitches.  The Wilder Variation, 5.12c, has been suggested to me by friends who deem it a hard but much cleaner alternative.

Sheer Lunacy

Perhaps seen as the less loved sibling of Moonlight Buttress, this route offers a wide variety of climbing and jamming. The rock ranges from bulletproof sandstone to a veritable litter box at the end. Either option (5.12+ or 5.13) for the crux pitch requires much harder climbing than the rest of the route (mainly 5.10 and 5.11 climbing). This climb is the perfect length to do in a day and you top out very close to the Angel’s Landing trail. Most pitches are short so it is easy to haul a small bag with a 40m line. Make sure to check the weather since the route can be quite warm in the spring. I found this a good way to break into 5.12 multi-pitches, despite the super hard crux pitch.

Lizzy up high on Sheer Lunacy


Original Route on Rainbow Wall

Perhaps the most continuous/sustained route on this list, you should expect stacks of 5.11 pitches with the occasional section of 5.12. If you really want to up the ante, the Rainbow Country variation replaces the only four pitches that are 5.10 or easier and with 5.11 and 5.12. One amazing aspect of this route is the ability to climb with one rope and a very small rack. There are often bolts at the cruxes and 90% of the belays are bolted. All pitches 5.11 and above are less than 40m so you can easily haul a small bag so the second can climb more easily. This route is always in the shade so plan accordingly. This route features a large number of face moves on the highly featured sandstone of Red Rock. The lack of technical jamming or off widths makes this a great route for those more familiar with hard sport and face climbing.


This Yosemite classic requires a full repertoire of jamming skills. Personally I found the Harding Slot to be the hardest pitch and the deal breaker for this route. The guidebook reads something like this: “many parties cruise to the Harding Slot only to be rejected and reduced to tears”.  Solid endurance is required for the 150+ foot enduro corner and first digit power for the boulder problem. It’s very easy to rappel the route from the base of the slot with two 60m ropes. The base of the changing corners (1 bolt + gear belay) is the last place you can retreat from with out leaving gear. The Washington Column is quite tall and Astroman popular, so expect a long day. It can help to be familar with the multi-hour North Dome Gully descent if you reach the summit in the dark.


For many, the Sentinel evokes a feeling of old school Yosemite climbing. This route is not well traveled so expect additional challenges with route finding. The approach and first few pitches also add a good bit of time and height to the climb. The vertical gain from parking lot to summit is greater than the face of Half-Dome so this is a full day. I was quite tired for the two upper 5.11 pitches, which made them feel harder. The climbing is also not always obvious jamming, which proves difficult when onsighting. We climbed with a backpack that we hauled on the two 5.11c pitches. It was pretty easy to throw a loop of rope down to the follower from the top of the Afro-Cuban flakes as well as the first 5.11 pitch.

Casey make quick work of the long 5.11 corner on the Chouinard-Herbert



This is one of the hardest routes I’ve tried on the Hulk, with multiple 5.11 pitches at altitude. Once you gotten over the mental hurdle of climbing hard above 9000 feet, you must survive a very cruxy and sandbagged first pitch.  The next crux requires a cool head and some small nuts. Good route finding skills help on the easy middle pitches before the crux finale. Expect thin finger locks and magic stemming! This is a big step up from Positive Vibrations and Sunspot Dihedral. You can rap the route but it’s much better to meet up with the Venturi Effect and rappel that route if you are not going to the summit. This route is much less windy than Positive Vibrations and the middle pitches can feel near tropical on a sunny day!


The independent part of this climb starts after the 5th pitch of Positive Vibrations. You can also follow Tradewinds until the 7th pitch where that route splits with Astro-Hulk. The meat of this climb is two hard 5.11 pitches of full value alpine climbing. The rock is grainy, the gear can be infrequent, but the climbing is stellar!! Bring your A game! The upper ledge can easily be traversed allowing you to rappel the Venturi Effect. This is a good way to add some difficulty to Positive Vibes or an alternate way to finish Tradewinds, which keeps the grade at 5.11c. While there are only a few new pitches this is a great step towards some of the more difficult routes at the Hulk.

Positive Vibrations

This is the most classic king line of the Incredible Hulk, with pitch after pitch of stellar cracks that make it hard to beat. This is a huge step up from the Red Dihedral, but both 5.11 pitches have less than 50 feet of difficult climbing. Regardless, expect a long day since there is only one pitch easier than 5.10. This route can be windy and is often cold in the morning (before the sun hits the face). This route is also pretty popular. There are many ways to do the first couple pitches so you can often pass or climb a variation to keep moving.

North Face of the Rostrum

Quite possible the best crack climb I’ve ever done. It’s long enough that you get to do every single style of jamming, but short enough to get you to the Mountain Room bar by dinner. The crux finger crack is pumpy and often spits people off at the end. Not enough off-width technique will make the sixth pitch a challenge.  This is surely one of the best sized climbs since you don’t have to get up super early to do the route. However do realize this climb has all day shade and is very popular! All the bolted belays are equipped for rappel so retreat is possible after the third pitch.

Cloud Tower

While Red Rocks is filled with many amazing multi-pitch routes, this is one of the few with serious crack climbing! Moderate hand cracks lead to a thin and cruxy dihedral which is one of the two cruxes of the route. The final pitch is steep jamming, that will be cruiser for the Indian Creek veteran. This climb requires a large rack and a second rope to rappel. Hauling a small bag on both crux pitches makes it much nicer for the follower, since you end up only using around half of the rack at a time. I found that stemming and use of face holds made the crux pitch more reasonable. The crack is barely tips at the beginning and quite hard to climb directly.

Free Blast 

Life is grand when you get to climb on El Capitan. The Free Blast is first ten pitches of the Salathe Wall, and is often climbed as an independent objective. This climb requires solid slab technique and fondness of pin scars. Offset nuts and cams can be helpful on some of the flaring cracks but are not required for the confident 5.11 climber. This route gets almost all day sun, so plan accordingly. This route is popular both as the start aid routes and as a free-climb. Retreat is possible with two ropes but most people “top out” on the Mammoth Terraces and rappel via the Heart Ledges rap route. A 70m rope and some simul-climbing get this route done in many fewer pitches.

Levitation 29

The closest thing to a sport route on this list, this route is another Red Rocks gem! The sunny exposure allows this route to be climbed in multitude of seasons which helps compensate for it popularity. The 5.11 pitches are well bolted and this is a great climb where you can push your limits. The route can be carefully rappelled with a 70m or two ropes. If you start late in the day expect two way traffic as others rappel the route. Be careful if you decided to top out in winter since the descent can covered in ice and quite serious.

Feel free to leave any questions, or click through to the route pages for trip reports.

– Luke

  4 Responses to “Long Hard Free Routes of the West”

Comments (4)
  1. Nice article!
    What do Rating and Style values mean?

    • I tried to define them in the post, about 1/3 of the way down.

      The idea with “style” is that some routes require additional skills or techniques that would make them more difficult per the grade. Most people would say that a 10a offwidth is “harder” than a 10a handcrack. The higher the style value in the table, the more additional skills you might need.

      I wanted to redefine “Rating” to show that not all “5.11” or “5.12” routes are the same, when you start dealing with multipitches. Both Astroman and the Rostrum are “5.11c” but Astroman is more sustained and a much harder undertaking in my opinion. It seems that I missed the point in the table. Routes should have a higher “rating” value when there are more pitches closer to the crux grade. Cloud Tower had one 12- pitch so it should get a lower number (despite the higher grade) than something like Astroman which has at least 4 pitches near the crux grade. I will have to fix the table to show this. Right now it only shows an indication the rating of the crux pitch. OOPS!

  2. Very interesting and intriguing. And motivating, in that Rainbow Wall is so high up there in your list meaning it is reasonable to have many of the others in my eternal ticklist… I will also have to revisit Cloud Tower because while I agree that it was not particularly sustained, I had such a hard time with the crux pitch trying to layback it – while my follower pretty much “cruised” it, using (stemming) technique…

    • There are a bunch of holds on the left wall of Cloud Tower that many people don’t use. They helped me get stemming rests and place gear.

      I would say that Rainbow Wall is high up there and it is just much more accessible than a lot of 5.12 multi-plitches. If you are in Red Rock any time soon I would suggest you get on Drifting. Amazing face climbing and a good number of bolts. Perhaps only one big runout. I posted some more details here: http://www.mountainproject.com/v/drifting/106062966 Five Stars!

      I just climbed Monkeyfinger, in Zion and realized that I need to go seek out more 5.12 multipitches. I’ve not tried very many recently and really hope to get on the Crucifix this coming year. Monkerfinger was a bit sandy, but the 5.12 pitches were a really good challenge and took me a few tries.

      I also did Shune’s Buttress, which is not as good as the Rostrum, but still amazing. The final 5.11 pitch is a five star splitter which has .5 camalots over a roof.

Leave a Reply