Rock climbing. The words conjure images of Yosemite’s granite monoliths or Bishop’s world-class boulders. But Lake Tahoe? The area is better known for deep snow than multi-pitch granite. It is thought of as the training ground of skier Shane McConkey more than rock climbing daredevil Dan Osman.

But each spring since the 1950s, as snow has melted from steep granite cliffs, rock climbing legends and phenoms alike have slipped on climbing shoes and attacked Tahoe’s vast array of climbing options, making their mark on a long tradition of Tahoe climbing that harkens back to the days of Royal Robbins and Warren Harding’s first ascents at South Lake’s Lovers Leap, and continuing through a flamboyant era of bolt wars and sport climbing, into the present where a golden age of technical Tahoe bouldering is blossoming.

Along the way, Tahoe has played host to some of the most colorful and famous rock climbers the world has seen. Big wall pioneer and legendary wino Warren Harding trained at Lover’s Leap before putting up the most iconic big wall route in the world — The Nose on Yosemite’s El Capitan. Tahoe was a stage for some of Osman’s wildest antics — ropeless speed climbs, wildly overhanging routes at Cave Rock, and an ice axe-aided ascent straight up the gut of fast-flowing Eagle Falls.

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Through every phase of rock climbing history — from primitive pitons to über-technical bouldering problems — Tahoe has retained a revered position in the history and development of the sport. And Tahoe’s current-day climbers continue to push the climbing routes and tradition of Tahoe into the future, writing the next chapter in the ongoing history of Tahoe climbing.

Early Days at Lover’s Leap
Sierra Club members were among the first to see potential in Lover’s Leap, a towering, 600-foot wall of Sierra granite southwest of Lake Tahoe. Members began using the wall as their training ground in the 1950s.

Even in its infancy, Tahoe’s climbing scene began attracting the world’s best climbers. Royal Robbins and Warren Harding both set up shop at Lover’s Leap, using the area to prepare for the big wall climbs in Yosemite that would define them as two of their generation’s most audacious and determined climbers.

Harding teamed up with John Ohrenschall to record numerous first ascents in Tahoe, while Robbins started his climbing school, Rock Craft, at the base of Lover’s Leap.

After Harding and Robbins left for bigger ascents, Lover’s Leap did not lose its allure. Generations of climbers came to the granite wall to test their skills. Osman’s ropeless speed ascent of the 400-foot Bear’s Reach in under five minutes captivated audiences of the “Masters of Stone” video series. And more recently, the Leap was where Alex Honnold registered his first free solo climbs after ditching UC Berkeley’s engineering program. Honnold would go on to become a living legend for soloing Yosemite’s Triple Crown — El Capitan, Half Dome, and Mount Watkins — in less than 19 hours.

Donner Summit’s Golden Age
Not much is known about North Tahoe’s climbing history until the 1970s, an era that Alpine Skills International founder Bela Vasdesz calls the “golden age of Donner Summit climbing.”

“Some of the early routes were done with pitons, but by the time Donner’s golden age in the ’70s came around, everyone was using clean climbing techniques,” said Vasdesz.

Desert Research Institute archeologist and High Sierra purist Alvin McLane was one of the pioneers that possibly knew North Tahoe’s 1960s climbing history, but as a firm believer in the find-it-yourself doctrine, he kept that knowledge to himself.

In addition to his climbing exploits, McLane was a renowned cave explorer with an encyclopedic knowledge of Nevada mountain ranges. He lived rough and tough, like his habit of using thin sheets of plastic to keep warm in the Nevada high desert.

McLane put up sections of the Snowshed and Black Walls with  Karl “superhuman” Hammer, who pushed the limits of technical climbing in the 1970s.

Climbing technology continued to advance, making the sport easier on the rock and safer for participants. Climbers took up the redeveloped nylon rope, which had a more forgiving construction than the old nylon, said “Masters of Stone” filmmaker Eric Perlman.

Climbers began to realize that Tahoe’s rich geologic history of buckling fault lines and moving and melting glaciers had forged a unique vertical playground.

“Some people are connoisseurs of fine wine; I’m a connoisseur of granite,” said Perlman. “Donner Summit’s compact, high-friction granodiorite is some of the finest in the world — a sensual treat for hands and feet.”

Bolt Wars Begin
In the late 1980s, Tahoe climbers saw the rise of sport climbing, where climbers clipped ropes into bolt-fixed carabiners instead of having to place gear to protect falls.

The “bolt wars” pitted traditionalists against sport climbing champions like Doug Mishler from Reno, who battled philosophically and several times nearly physically, wrote John Jackson, author of “Rock Climbs of North Tahoe.”

“When you make a decision to place a bolt in an area like this, especially where you have a high concentration of a variety of users, you’re making an ethical decision,” said Dave Nettle, a renowned local rock climber and mountaineer. In 2004, Nettle and Jim Zellers replaced existing anchors on Donner after taking the pulse of the local climbing community.

Nettle expected controversy but didn’t receive any. This was also the community’s reaction to Big Chief, a spot with “the highest concentration of sport climbing routes in the Tahoe region,” which the Hatchett brothers popularized in the ’90s, bolts and all.

Nettle said because there was little, if any, traditional climbing there, it was a non-issue, unlike the walls on Donner Summit. Rick Sylvester, Eric Perlman, and Steve McKinney were responsible for putting up the first routes at Big Chief in the ’70s.

In the ’90s, locals continued to climb what had been developed in the previous two decades on the summit. “Donner was the cool spot; everyone was trudging up to Donner and repeating things,” said Brian Sweeney, who has climbed in the area for 15 years.

Cave Rock Controversy and the Bouldering Boom
On the South Shore, the Cave Rock controversy started up in ’97. Dan Osman transformed a cave littered with human feces, construction debris, and garbage into some of the most difficult overhanging climbing in Tahoe. But in 2008, the U.S.  Forest Service permanently closed the cave because of its cultural significance to the Washoe Indians.

“The closure was first based on a cultural belief which is why it went to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals,” Access Fund director Robb Shurr told the Alpinist, “but the judge upheld the closure on the grounds that Cave Rock has historical significance.”

Bouldering started to take off in Tahoe in the early 2000s. Dave Hatchett, Noah Kaufman, Joel Zerr, Kyle O’Meara, and John Thompson developed Sugar Pine and Bliss spots, located on Tahoe’s West Shore.  

Brian Sweeney, Ty Fairbairn, and Dustin Sabo began bushwhacking into a new bouldering jackpot at Castle Peak starting in 2004.

A bouldering boom seems to be building in Lake Tahoe, as a seemingly unlimited amount of rock awaits those willing to put in the time to find it and write the next chapter in a long history of climbing exploration around one of the nation’s most majestic alpine lakes.

“In the last 10 years, the boulder thing has happened in this area.” Sweeney said. “It’s freaking endless; there’s too much rock.”

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  • David Bunker

    David Bunker almost dropped out of journalism school to hunt non-native rats on an uninhabited Pacific island. Instead, he graduated college and launched into a career of dump truck driving and ditch digging before taking up writing as a profession. He’s written for newspapers and magazines across the West and won numerous first place awards in the California and Nevada press associations.

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