Yosemite National Park is perhaps the world’s greatest rock climbing arena with its stellar crack climbs and huge big walls. The climbing heart of Yosemite is, of course, the famed Yosemite Valley, but in summer the big ditch is often just too hot for comfortable vertical adventures as well as too crowded with elbow-to-elbow tourists. It’s then that climbers head to the park’s high country to find a break from the crowds and stifling heat with the cool air and the spectacular scenic beauty of 8,600-foot-high Tuolumne Meadows, the highest sub-alpine meadowland in California’s Sierra Nevada.
Tuolumne Meadows—One of America’s Best Climbing Areas
Tuolumne, pronounced by climbers as “two-ALL-ah-me,” is simply one of the best high-elevation, summer cragging areas in the United States with its sky-scraping granite domes and glacier-etched faces, easy access from California Highway 120, quiet camping in lodgepole pine forests, and superb knob, crack, and slab climbing routes.
Tuolumne Offers Face and Crack Climbing
The rock climbing at Tuolumne Meadows is justly famous. If you love face climbing in a pristine sub-alpine setting, then Tuolumne is the place for you. Most of the climbing at the Meadows is on granite domes and cliffs with slabby faces studded with knobs, crystals, sharp fingernail edges, and gritty smear holds. Some domes have glistening areas of glacier polish, glass-smooth faces rubbed smooth by ancient glaciers. Glacial polish tends to be tricky to climb, with an emphasis on delicate footwork. Many excellent climbs ascend the black water streaks that crease Tuolumne’s domes. These streaks tend to have lots of feldspar crystals and offer superb crystal-pinching adventures. The generally solid, clean granite is also dissected by long cracks, offering the crack climbing aficionado a lot of fun afternoons.
Tuolumne’s Bolt-Protected Routes
Tuolumne’s crackless face and slab routes are generally well-protected with bolts. Many of the bolts, especially on the older less-frequented routes, are ¼-inch bolts. These bolts, some over 40 years old, are ticking time bombs and should never be trusted alone (especially at belay stances) since they can be rusted, weak, and will fail after even a short fall. Most of these older bolts have, however, been replaced with modern 3/8-inch hardware so if you stick with the classic, well-traveled lines you won’t have any bolt problems.
Expect Runout Climbing
Many of Tuolumne Meadows’ classic face routes, established on the lead during the area’s Golden Age in the 1970s, tend to be runout with little protection available between bolts. Climbing these routes requires a bold head, nerves of steel, and impeccable face climbing skills. Be prepared, especially on the easier 5.7 to 5.9 routes, to have runouts of 60 feet with no protection. Carefully eyeball the route to see how many bolts there are and where they are before deciding you are going to climb it. Also be sure of your ability and know the risks and effects of gravity and falling before launching upward. Likewise, bolt hangers can be difficult to spot among the sea of knobs that you may encounter on some faces, especially while you are climbing. Take care, wear a helmet, and climb safe!
Essential Tuolumne Gear
You need just a basic rack to climb most of Tuolumne’s face routes. A standard rack for these climbs, which are mostly protected by bolts, are a set of Stoppers or wired nuts, a set of TCUs, a few small to medium cams, a few thin slings for tying off knobs, a half-dozen two-foot slings, a few free carabiners, and at least 15 quickdraws. To jam the classic crack climbs, bring a generous rack with sets of RPs, Stoppers or other wired nuts, a set of TCUs, and a double set of cams. Some cracks, because of their uniform size, might require multiple cams, while others might require a couple large cams up to six inches. A 60-meter (200-foot) rope is perfect for most routes, although a 50-meter (165-foot) rope works fine. Some routes might require rappelling with double ropes so check the descent description before climbing.