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Rocks for jocks: The ultimate North American climbing bucket list

by Timber Press on October 31, 2017

in Natural History

The dramatic granite spires of the Bugaboos in British Columbia are the result of glaciation and erosion.

The most vivid examples of North America’s geological diversity also happen to be a climber’s paradise. Learn some of the natural history surrounding these gems as conversation-starters for when you’re between routes swapping peak-bagging tales with fellow rock hounds.

Climbers ascend Snowpatch Spire in the Bugaboos, on Surf’s Up, a route requiring nine pitches.


These gray spires of rock in the Purcell Mountains of British Columbia are the Bugaboos, named because the first prospectors to explore this region in the late 1800s were lured by what turned out to be fool’s gold. A few years later, the Bugaboos would become a mecca for another kind of gold rush. Mountaineers caught wind of the unusual collection of spires, and soon high-alpine experts from all over the world were traveling to the granite wonderland to put up first ascents of the seemingly insurmountable rocks. After hair-raising routes pioneered by famous mountaineers such as Yvon Chouinard (founder of the Patagonia clothing company) started attracting more climbers, the Canadian government established the Bugaboo Glacier Provincial Park and the Bugaboo Alpine Recreational Area to protect the fragile region.

El Capitan, once considered insurmountable, is now a mecca for big-wall climbers in Yosemite Valley. The relatively few joints in the wall preserved it from heavy glacial erosion.


Yosemite National Park is well known for many natural wonders, but the star of the show is granite. Sheer walls of the silvery gray rock rise 3000 feet above the valley floor, beckoning climbers from all over the world to scale the stone faces—once thought impossible to conquer. From altitude, formations such as Half Dome, with its mound-sliced-in-half shape, can be seen towering above surrounding cliff s and deep green forests.

Seasoned teams typically take four to five days to scale El Capitan, with the current speed-climbing record at just under two and a half hours (that’s 3000 feet, straight up). In 2015, climbers Kevin Jorgensen and Tommy Caldwell made headlines by free climbing one of the hardest routes up El Cap. In free climbing, upward progress is made using only natural features of the rock, with ropes employed solely to catch climbers in the event of a fall.

Colorful sandstone is exposed along the east side of Red Rock Canyon.


Here, piles of ancient limestone and not-as-ancient brightly colored sandstone have conspired to create a mecca for rock climbers, adventurers, and anyone who needs a scenic break from the neon nightlife of The Las Vegas Strip.

Both limestone and sandstone are attractive to rock climbers, who come from around the globe to tackle the 2000-plus named climbing routes in Red Rock Canyon. The colorful, iron-rich sandstone is usually scaled using sport climbing techniques, in which climbers clip into bolts drilled into the rock. The limestone in the canyon is more often ascended using traditional rock climbing techniques, in which climbers must follow natural features in the rock, placing protective gear in cracks on their way up.

Rock climbers are drawn to the hard sandstone quartzite walls of the New River Gorge.


The New River’s name is misleading—it is actually one of the oldest rivers on the globe. The New River began forming around 350 million years ago, back when Africa and North America were colliding to form the supercontinent Pangaea. As continents slammed into continents, a river system known as the Teays formed in what is now North Carolina, to drain the Appalachian Mountains’ western slopes. This laid the foundation for the New River and its spectacular gorge. Coming or going from Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, look for the gorge running north and south near the town of Fayetteville, West Virginia.

Crossing the precipitous New River Gorge Bridge in a car is exciting, but many visitors prefer more adventurous thrills in the gorge. World-class mountain biking, rock climbing, and white-water rafting are all popular pursuits. Each fall, Fayetteville hosts Bridge Day, when hundreds of daredevils leap from the New River Gorge Bridge and deploy parachutes, aiming for the riverbanks.

Mary Caperton Morton is a freelance science and travel writer. A regular contributor to EARTH magazine, where her favorite beat is the Travels in Geology column, Mary also inspires people to “See More of the World” with her blog Travels with the Blonde Coyote.






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