Rock Climbing Donner Summit

Ask most climbers and you’ll get the same answer – the best climbing days are in the Fall.  Before the scourge of pumpkin spice everything floods the market we start to hear talk of Sendtember and Rocktober filling the hashtag lines on social feeds.  The cooler temps and lighter crowds make Fall the official unofficial flagship season of rock climbers throughout the Northern Hemisphere and here on Donner Summit the season is just getting into full swing.  There’s no need to flee to the Eastside to escape the snow and you don’t have to battle the traffic in Yosemite – we’ve got all-time classic rock climbing here in Truckee.

I don’t know about the rest of you but I’m always a little sad to see summer go.  Despite the pummeling heat and burning sun, summer is just too easy – skip the hat and gloves, no need for those puffy jackets and heavy shells, and you’ll probably be just fine if you get benighted on a big alpine route.  Summer is great and it’s always a bit bittersweet to see it go from 90 degrees to freezing overnight.  Fortunately, I’m way more psyched for Fall than I am sad about Summer – it’s just so nice – perfect even - to get out there and climb in the Fall.  As soon as I get on the rock on a nice Fall morning I quickly forget about everything else that’s going on and just get down with the feeling of crisp granite.  Fall is here and that means rock climbing season is on.

The roads are less crowded and neither Lake nor ski traffic will shut you down before you even get roped up.  Showing up late means you can still get a parking spot at Snowshed or School Rock and there are fewer queues for the classic routes on Black Wall or Grouse Slab.  Better yet, the cooler temps and angle of the sun make for more shade and far better friction than during the heat of mid-summer.  Whatever summer projects spit you off in July or August might suddenly feel a little less desperate in September, October and November.

Donner Summit is home to literally hundreds of truly classic granite climbs – we’ve got five star classic cracks, high tension athletic faces, and tenuous technical slabs.  There are traditional climbs where you’re forced to hang on and sneak in a tricky placement and ones where you’re running it out far above your last piece.  We’ve also got proper sport climbs to push your grades, abilities and belayer’s patience.  Jump on one of the ultra-classic hard lines at Snowshed and join the ranks of the upper crust of Truckee climbing sending hard on thin 11s, pumpy 12s and improbably 13s.

Donner’s heinous approaches – some of them are even more than ten minutes long – and high commitment factor – you’re probably a full 30 minutes from downtown beer when traffic is high – make for a true mountain experience. OK OK – we all know you can actually literally belay from your car at some roadside spots.  Donner Pass Road – aka Old Highway 40 - cuts fortuitously right around and even through some of Tahoe’s best quality granite and that convenience means that you can easily put in a two or three (or more) sport day if you’re motivated – on the water, snow, trails and rock.  Even in the winter you can get a two sport day skiing and rock climbing in the early and late seasons.

Classic routes abound from 5.6 to 5.14 with a host of all-time routes in the 5.8 to 5.13 range.  The iconic Snowshed – home to the “Office” where many locals get their before, after and during work laps in – alone boasts over a dozen must-do lines, especially for the seasoned rock athlete looking to measure up on historic hard lines that have seen ascents by a veritable who’s who of climbing royalty.  Show up at the right time and find yourself right there in the mix with legends of today and yesteryear – just watch out because most of them, even the ‘seasoned veterans’ will probably warm up on your project.  The newly “climber-owned” Black Wall is now protected from development and hosts a number of tick list and trophy routes – from the all-time moderate “One Hand Clapping 5.8” to the hardperson rite of passage – “Imaginary Voyage 5.11” (a link-up of 5.11 pitches that stays on you from beginning to end).

Climbing School Rock, Donner Summit. A family getting started. For climbers just getting started check out School Rock.

For those seeking more mellow times on both single and mutli-pitch adventures we have School Rock and Grouse Slab which offer a seemingly endless variety of lower angled cracks and faces of all grades and styles.  Other frequent stops include Green Phantom (awesome roadside slabs and faces), the Peanut Gallery (some moderate fun cracks and awesome technical slabs/faces) and Roadcut (5.10 cracks and 5.11+ sport routes).  Up the ante a little and push on to the Space Wall for even better 5.10 and up face climbing or put on your big-girl and big-boy pants and hike on past School Rock up to Star Walls to see how the hardcore gets down.

Thanks to Josh Horniak and his contributors there is a fantastic new guidebook for the North Tahoe area.  Check it out at Granite Chief for the newest and latest beta on routes new and old, easy and hard, classic and obscure.  If you’re looking to get off the beaten path there are literally more than a dozen other great crags at Donner Summit and more slightly farther afield – from Auburn Quarry and the Emeralds to River Rock and Big Chief.  Oh and no offense intended but we haven’t even talked about bouldering – there is a ton of it, spread just about everywhere, from Veasy to Vsponsored and everything in between.  Get more info from the suite of Tahoe Bouldering Guides here or find it in the store.  For some additional reading check out this article in Climbing Magazine from Summer 2016.

Here are 20 awesome climbs 5.11a or easier at Donner to kick off this fall:

  1. Insidious Crack 5.6
  2. Composure 5.6
  3. Devaluation 5.7
  4. Rated X 5.7
  5. Telegraph Crack 5.8
  6. Mole’s Corner 5.8
  7. Jellyroll Arch 5.8
  8. One Hand Clapping 5.9
  9. Touch and Go 5.9
  10. Nova Express 5.9
  11. Black September 5.9
  12. Molar Concentration 5.10a
  13. Bottomless Topless 5.10a
  14. Anxiety Attack 5.10a
  15. Farewell to Arms 5.10b
  16. Jam Session 5.10b
  17. Firecracker 5.10b/c
  18. Bolt Run 5.10d
  19. Aerial 5.11a
  20. Peter Principle 5.11a

Good luck and remember the first rule of climbing – don’t die!

Written by Steve Schwortz

donner summit rock climbing panorama