Bigger than El Cap - A (totally unscientific) search for the lower 48's biggest rock faces
Little compares to Yosemite's El Capitan in majesty and sustained steepness. But contrary to popular lore, it’s not the Lower 48’s biggest rock face. It’s not even the biggest in the Valley – the south face of Mt. Watkins is bigger. Well, maybe. How do you measure? (OK, I feel the urge to crack wise about size vs. usage, but I am hereby officially restraining myself.) Several rock faces are bigger than both, but you can’t take peoples’ words for it. Climbers exaggerate worse than fishermen. I see it all the time in the reports I receive and edit for my job with the AAJ; I think some climbers measure cliff size starting from their driveway.
We need an exact, unambiguous climber definition. Here goes: It can’t have too much 3rd-class terrain. Ummm, how much is “too much?” It has to be sustained (how do you define that?) technical climbing, bottom to top. I think that “technical climbing” is fairly defined as 5th-class climbing; hikers and peakbaggers consider climbing to be what we consider hiking and scrambling, and that’s fine, but this post is about legitimate rock climbing (are the stacked blocks in Glacier legit?). How much 3rd-class scrambling or how big of a treed-ledge disqualifies a face?
Perhaps sub-categories are in order. But that makes my brain hurt.
[El Capitan. Photo: Kelly Cordes]
The measurements can’t come from number of pitches or climbing distance – some climbers do super short pitches while others simulclimb and stretch-out the rope. Climbing distance doesn’t count, either, due to traverses. Prominence doesn’t work for this, so it has to be vertical gain of the route – altitude difference – bottom to top. And not by climber estimates, which are always off (“Dude, it was like 10,000 feet high!”). Needs to be on the map, or a GPS.
So I asked a few friends, racked my rattled brain, checked maps and tried to figure-out some Lower 48 rock faces that, from the start of the real climbing to the top – a non-exact science, since slabs can be super technical – are bigger than El Cap. Again, depends on how you measure, but here goes (it’s fun being judge and jury all by myself). I know I’m missing lots, so lemme have it.
Oh – I did Lower 48 only, because including Alaska wouldn’t be fair. The biggest of the below are mosquito bites in Alaska. And by the way, according to the topo maps, El Cap is 2,900' vertical, at best – starts at 4,100' and flattens-out at 7,000'. Totally weak…
• South face of Mt. Moran, Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming
The South Buttress Right is an incredible route – way better rock than most Teton routes – and from its top it’s a long ways to the summit of Moran, most of it easy, though mostly still 5th-class. I have NFI where the SBR route begins on the topo, but I think it’s near the 8,000-foot contour line. So I’ll say 4,500' vertical to the summit. With some legitimate scrambling, though. Hmmm.
• South face of Tehipite Dome, Kings Canyon National Park, California
Tehipite has lots of partial routes – maybe “partial” isn’t fair – but from what I’ve gathered, only one route goes from the very bottom to the very top of the enormous south face: Wall of Ages, first climbed by Dave Nettle, John Fehrman, Bryan Sweeney and Brandon Thau in 2001. The climbing appears to begin at about 4,300' and finishes at 7,700' – that’s 3,400' vertical gain. Sustained, too. Very proud, but the biggest in the Sierra? An editor friend wrote: “There’s some dome besides Tehipite in CA that’s supposed to be 4,000 vertical feet. Can’t remember the name, even though we were just talking about it!” Sounds suspicious…
• The Cascades, Washington
I know, that’s not a peak, but there are too many here to list. My friends Colin Haley and Blake Herrington, avid Cascade (and beyond) climbers, helped. A couple of sustained climbing examples from the Cascades:
• Johannesburg Mountain, northeast face/ridge (sweet photo here). Rises from about 3,400' at its toe to an 8,200' summit, with only a few scrambly sections, I’m told – mostly technical climbing for 4,800'. Whoa.
• Mt. Fury, Mongo Ridge (south/southwest ridge). “It started by our looking, again, at a stupid map. The coolest USGS quadrangle in the Lower 48 is, by far, the Challenger map,” Wayne Wallace began his report in the AAJ 2007 for his awesome solo first ascent of the heavily gendarmed ridge. It rises about 4,000' vertical – ahhh, but wasn’t this about biggest faces? This is a ridge. Ahhh, so what. Good story here.
• Mt. Goode and North McMillan Spire, but I didn’t get around to looking them up. (Some judge & jury I am…) Others exist, including, as indicated by Blake’s thoroughly unhelpful comment: “And the biggest one of them all is something unclimbed and, to my knowledge, unattempted. It looks to be 4,500'...” He wouldn’t tell me where. Rotten bastard.
• North face of Mt. Siyeh, Glacier National Park, Montana
“You mean good rock?” Steve House answered to my biggest faces query. “Or are you counting those things in Montana.” Hells yeah I’m counting those things in Montucky, where I learned to climb – I’m biased, but the maps don’t lie. The place is stacked. Specifically Glacier National Park. Stacks of blocks stacked on top of each other, but still stacked. Again, though, how to measure (to say nothing of quality, though it keeps the riff-raff away) – conventional Montana rumor calls the north face of Siyeh 4,000' – but that’s the rise above Cracker Lake. It’s hard to tell where the approach hike ends and the slag-heap begins on the map, but from the lowest point (a pitch of 5.8) to the top it’s no more than 3,500'. Still pretty big. But definitely with sections of broken terrain.
• East face of Mt. Gould, Glacier National Park, Montana
Rises a solid 3,800' vertical. Some friends have climbed it, and say the rock ain’t half bad – but considering the source (them), I’m skeptical. Check out the photo for yourself. I’ve heard talk of the north face of Mt. Cleveland being even bigger, but from the few photos I’ve seen of the hard-to-reach face (even for Glacier), it appears to have too much 3rd-class terrain to top Siyeh and Gould on my highly unofficial but highly scientific list.
To conclude my thesis, indeed we see significant choss. Remember, I didn’t say “which rock climbs are better than El Cap.” [Emphasis mine.] Just which are bigger.
But wait, brah, what about my beloved ‘Rado? Nope. The Painted Wall of the Black Canyon rises barely over 2,000' vertical from riverbed (where you start) to rim (where you finish). It’s also fairly chossy, and riddled with poison ivy.
El Capitan keeps looking better and better. Then again, it’s crowded – you’ve got other climbers stepping on your head and dropping things on you. How do you keep the riff-raff away? Well, no such problems in Glacier, where the rocks fall on your head all on their own…
Top, right - Enough for a disqualification? Scrambling high on Mt. Moran, Wyoming. Photo: Kelly Cordes
Middle, left - Why is he smiling? He knows what he’s getting into. Montana-boy Justin Woods, a man who knows his choss, the day before becoming the only idiot person to climb the crumbling 3,500-foot north face of Mt. Siyeh twice. He’s also climbed the crumbling east face of Gould – and El Capitan. Clearly, Justin doesn’t discriminate based on rock quality. Photo: Kelly Cordes
Bottom, left - Definitely bigger than El Cap: Mt. Gould’s pristine east face, Montana. Photo: Ryan Hokanson.]