Climbing Guides to Yosemite and the High Sierra

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Before getting into the guides to the climbing routes of Yosemite, I do want to mention one instructional book that may prove useful to people coming from home areas where they're not used to climbing 12 or 20 pitches in a day.

Speed Climbing, by Hans Florine and Bill Wright.

If you're not used to climbing long traditional routes, you might want to read up a bit on speed climbing techniques before coming to Yosemite. The phrase "speed climbing" has a negative connotation to some, but "benighted" and "unplanned bivy" both have really negative connotations to me. If you want to get the most out of a trip to Yosemite, you have to learn to be reasonably quick. In other words, you don't need to be "Hans Florine fast" but being "shivering in the cold in the middle of a cliff because I was slow as molasses" is not exactly fun either. Being just sort of a bit faster than typical, but not a speed climber by any stretch, I've climbed Royal Arches in about an hour and half, car-to-car (about 45 minutes for the route). Yet on many a summer night, I see headlamps shining from the upper reaches of the Arches as slow parties try to figure out whether to attempt to make their way down in the dark or spend a cold, unpleasant and illegal night on the Valley Rim. Similarly, if you are just quick and efficient, but not a speed climber, you can comfortably climb the East Buttress of Middle Cathedral in four or five hours without being in a particular hurry (my fastest has been under 1:45 and the record is well under an hour). Yet plenty of parties end up picking their way down the Cathedral gullies by the light of their headlamp. So learning to go a bit faster and being a bit more efficient will dramatically increase the amount of fun you have in Yosemite and open up many routes that slower parties can't comfortably undertake. If you're not used to climbing long routes efficiently and climbing with a pack and water and all that, you should ideally buy this book a couple of months before your trip to give yourself time to practice the methods and principles it teaches. This isn't theoretical knowledge and reading it on the plane is sort of a bit late.

Yosemite Valley Big Walls

When it comes to big walls, the choice of guidebook is easy. Much expanded from the first edition, the SuperTopo Yosemite Big Walls book now has most of the major routes of quality in Yosemite, with a few exceptions among the newest and hardest routes. The descriptions are, generally speaking, the best available and most routes are introduced with a fun history of the route. If you aspire to climb El Capitan, Half Dome and aid routes on the other cliffs of Yosemite, this is the book. There may still be more routes in the old Don Reid Yosemite Climbs: Big Walls book, but the gear lists are horribly outdated and the topos are generally not as good. Unless you're looking to get on some old Yosemite obscurity not covered by the SuperTopo guidebook, there's little to recommend it at this point.

The Nose and Salathe (Free Blast)

The Nose is kind of a special category, because Hans Florine has turned out a couple of special products that are purely focussed on the Nose. He has a full multi-media HOWTO on the Nose. It has an audio CD with advice on gear, bivies, and pitch-by-pitch beta. Then he has another CD with pictures of every pitch, topos, videos and more. In case you don't know this already, Hans is Mr Nose. He's done the route 60 or 70 times, three or four of those times in under three hours, and several of those times in three days. Nobody knows the Nose like Hans. In addition, the Speed Climbing book I mentioned above has pitch-by-pitch beta on the Nose.

Hans also gives away a free audio HOWTO for climbing Freeblast, as the first dozen pitches of the Salathe Wall are known.

Yosemite Valley Free Climbs

With respect to free climbing, it's a little more complicated in my opinion. There's no guidebook with complete coverage, but the old Don Reid Yosemite Free Climbs book is still, after all these years, your most complete guide to Yosemite. At least 95% of the time, it's the only one I actually look at. That said, there are entire climbing areas that are not in this book, which are documented in the SuperTopo Yosemite Valley Free Climbs and even a couple of areas that are only found in Don Reid's Yosemite Select. The complaint I hear from a few people who are new to Yosemite is that they can't find routes based on the Reid book and that the find the topos hard to follow. Honestly, the people who told me that are perhaps the worst route finders I've known though. When I first started coming to Yosemite, it was the only free-climbing book available and I don't remember having any trouble finding or following routes. Because of the breadth, I still think it's the best value.

I know, however, that lots of people prefer the SuperTopo book, but it is a "select" guide and many quality routes are missing, though being newer, it has a handful of routes that are not in the Reid book. One thing I'll say here. So many climbers nickel and dime on their trips and give up the chance to have a much better trip just by actually just getting two guidebooks. They'll spend hundreds of dollars on gas or on airline tickets and rental cars, they'll buy food, alcohol, gear and campsites, and yet substantially diminish the quality of their trip just to save $25 per group. Just drink two fewer beers at the Mountain Room Bar and get a second book and be done with it. Generally speaking, the SuperTopo book has a lot fewer routes than the Reid book, but the descriptions are more detailed, there's often interesting historical
information and there's more hand-holding in the form of more detailed gear lists and strategy tips for routes. Many people, especially those on a brief trip, find this book is all they need.

Finally, there's the Don Reid Yosemite Select book. I once had a copy of this, but lost it and don't think I would ever replace it. It has two sport-climbing areas with a handful of routes that are not in any other book and that most people won't miss. On the other hand, I do find this book genuinely hard to use. The SuperTopo philosophy with their select guide is to give complete route lists for those cliffs or sections of cliffs that they cover. The Reid book omits routes, so you find the obvious crack and then go to what looks like it should be the next crack over based on the topo, but what you've actually found is a route that is omitted from the guide and now you're officially lost. I just consider this book a failed experiment and best avoided. People still buy it because it's the cheapest guidebook you can get for Yosemite.
This is a terrible place to save money. For the price of one or two more beers in the bar, you could have the full Reid or the SuperTopo select and be much, much happier.

Tuolumne Free Climbs

In the summer, most locals try to climb in Tuolumne. While the Valley bakes at 98 degrees F in July and August, Tuolumne remains cool and comfortable. Here, I think both current guidebooks are good. Reid and Falkenstein recently came out with a new edition of the their Rock Climbing Tuolumne Meadows guidebook and there's the SuperTopo Tuolumne Free Climbs as well. Both are up to date and, once again it's a choice between breadth (Reid and Falkenstein) and depth (SuperTopo). I've never had any trouble with the Reid and Falkenstein descriptions (except getting lost on my first trip into Medlicott, but I don't blame the book), so I personally prefer breadth. If you're the kind of person who finds yourself often lost on approaches or off-route on climbs, you might prefer the SuperTopo book.

High Sierra Technical Routes

This is a tough category. No book has an extensive collection of routes and most books do not remotely compare in quality to the sort of guidebooks that are available for the Alps, for example. Any book for the Alps would tell you how long you should take for the approach, the route and the descent, for example. Yes, everyone goes at different speeds, but once you've done a couple of routes you know what factor you need to apply to the numbers provided by a given author. Very useful information. Why do most of the books for the High Sierra omit that basic information? I don't know, but I do know that it is much easier to choose routes based on books for the Alps than based on books for the Sierra. Most High Sierra climbing guides don't even give you enough information to decide whether or not you need one or three days for a given route. You have to guess by poring over maps, asking people who've done the route and so forth. Aggravating. So there!

There are basically four books that I know of:

  • SuperTopo High Sierra Climbing. This is the exception to my complaint above. It has a nice selection of routes, some quality photos, and, yes information on how long you should expect to take for the approach and the route. Like I say, obviously these are subjective numbers, but once you see how you stack up to the theoretical climber they use in their estimates, it's real useful information. At least you can figure out how many days you should plan on. Of course, this book has only a small selection of routes and it's unfortunate that the other books are nowhere near as useful
  • Moynier and Fiddler Climbing California's High Sierra is the classic and somewhat improved in the second edition. There's a nice selection of routes and it gets great reviews on Amazon, but frankly the descriptions of the approaches and the routes are often close to useless when trying to pick a route from the comfort of your own home. This is one of those books that gives you no idea of how many days to plan on. It's very hard to select a route for a weekend when the guidebook skips minor details like that. So I find this book sort of frustrating, but it does record detailed information on many routes that can't be found in any other book. Of course, much of the detail it records is in the form of long historical introductions, a few of which are only loosely related to the actual route. I'm a historian by
    profession and I should appreciate that, but I'd rather have Steve Roper write a compelling narrative and keep my guidebook focussed on the route.
  • Peter Croft's The Good, the Great, and the Awesome: The Top 40 High Sierra Rock Climbs is without a doubt one of the most entertaining guidebooks you'll read and, while not as good on the nuts and bolts aspects as the SuperTopo book, it is an improvement over the Moynier and Fiddler book.
  • RJ Secor, High Sierra: Peaks, Passes, and Trails. This route descriptions here are terse. No other way to put it, but Secor has information on more routes in the Sierra than anyone else, probably by a factor or ten or twenty. If you are the adventurous sort and you want to get off the beaten path, this is the book for you. Secor basically simply tells you very roughly where the route is and how to get there. Sometimes there's a detailed description, but often not. And he tells you how hard the route is. Minimalist, but I don't fault him for that, since that's clearly his goal. Breadth, not depth. This is the adventurer's guide and the one that will make you dream of exploration more than any other guidebook for the Sierra.
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