How to Avoid the Crag Crowds

Keeping your pitch count up and human interaction low at over-loved crags

by Dakota Walz

We often look down with pity on climbers who are “stuck” in the Midwest without their own world-class rock climbing areas. However, as someone who cut their teeth climbing along the humid limestone-lined riverbanks of Missouri and wrote the climbing guidebook for the gloriously flat state of North Dakota, I can tell you that the Midwest has something that the Rockies and Sierras never will. Actually, it’s more like something it doesn’t have: crowds.
While climbing in the Midwest, the only humans I saw were either in my party or floating by in a fishing boat below the cliff. I’ll never forget my confusion while doing research for my first climbing trip to the American Southwest. I kept reading trip reports about people waiting in line to climb routes, getting into arguments with other parties, and struggling to find routes to climb in peace. The reality of how crowded crags can get became all too clear after we hiked up to the six pitch route Cat in the Hat 5.6 in Red Rock, Nevada to find a line of four parties waiting to start and another four already on the wall!
Five years ago, I moved to the Front Range of Colorado—home to what are arguably some of the most over-loved crags in the country. Some of these places are so over-trafficked that the routes are growing taller from all the erosion from foot traffic at the base of the wall. Not only is this an environmental issue, but there’s likely not a lot of social distancing happening while you’re stuck sharing a hanging belay with another party.
Having grown accustomed to all the privacy and peace I had in the Midwest, I’ve had to adapt and learn how to avoid the crag crowds. If you plan on climbing in an over-loved area try these tips to keep your pitch count up and human interaction low.

1: Be tied in by 7:00 a.m.

Not meeting in the lot at 7:00 a.m. Not hitting the trail at 7:00 a.m. Be at the base of the wall with both your climbing rope and rock climbing shoes tied and ready to leave the ground. This alone will put you in front of the majority of other less organized and more hung-over parties. Especially on Sunday mornings! Of course, this strategy is limited by the climate, weather forecast, and your ability to find someone willing to start the hike before the sun comes up. “Go bold, start cold,” as I always say. An additional bonus to the alpine start is that it leaves plenty of time in the afternoon for a multisport objective, two-a-day, or—my personal favorite—a nap.

2: Don’t tie in until 7:00 p.m.

On the flip side, most folks tend to be finishing up long before dinner time. That is, assuming they’re not in the opening chapters of a new epic. If you’re confident enough in your rock craft, night climbing can be a great way to beat the heat and enjoy a peaceful adventure.

Good friend and fellow route developer, Collin Turbert, and I utilized this approach when we climbed the eight pitch classic, The Finger of Fate 5.8 C2 in the Fisher Towers, Utah. In mid-July, the desert sun ran at a steady 100 degrees F during the day. However, we didn’t find ourselves staring up at the base of the route until sundown when the air was a cool 70 degrees F. Collin and I were likely the only climbers putting up rope in all of Moab that night. A full moon guided the way and the next morning we watched the sunrise from nearly a thousand feet above the desert floor.

3: Climb “non-classics”

This may be the single most useful tip I have for finding solitude on the sharp end. I’ve established many non-classic routes and must say they’re one of climbing’s best kept secrets. When I think of four-star mega classics, especially single-pitch routes, I can’t help but picture nasty chalk stained holds and folks spraying each other down with beta as they wait in line for their turn to hangdog.

It’s a common site here in Clear Creek Canyon to see multiple parties waiting in line to climb the ultra-classic Quartz Sports 5.12b. All the while, the equally-as-great (and even better in its own ways) Hot Rocks 5.12c sits in idol a mere twenty feet away! If not for better quality, then why does Quartz Sports get a recorded six times as many ascents? In a word, hype. Sure, Hot Rocks is rated a tad harder, but grades are super subjective. Perhaps as subjective as…hype?

Don’t get me wrong though—I’m not advocating for you to seek out the absolute worst routes you can find. I’m just saying that when it comes to the quality of a four-star line, don’t be surprised if the three- or even two-star route next door doesn’t provide just as much fun.

4: Walk further than others

This one is a no brainer. Most climbers get into the sport because they like climbing, not hiking. In fact, I have a running theory that most climbers are allergic to hiking. This would explain why every piece of choss visible from the road has a shimmering line of bolts running up its flank. If you’re willing to walk further than others you’ll be rewarded with fresh climbs and strong thighs. This is especially true if you have to walk past a popular crag to get to a less popular one. Most climbers wouldn’t risk a longer hike to get to “worse” routes.

5: Climb places that are inaccessible to dogs

As a recently converted dog lover, I can see why some climbers can’t leave their friend at home. Because of this, climbing areas that don’t allow dogs will naturally weed out some of the crowds. Additionally, you won’t have to listen to any barking or an owner telling you, “Oh my gosh I’m so sorry that Bourbon ate your shoes! He’s never done anything like that before I swear!” Plus, you’ll avoid stepping in dog turds (still keep an eye out for droppings of irresponsible climbers who forgot to pack a wag bag though)!

6: Climb 5.12 or harder

This is both the simplest and most difficult option. Only 1% of climbers reach this level, so that should mean that 99% of the time those climbs are empty right?

7: Just climb choss

Okay climbing 5.14 likely isn’t happening anytime soon and you’ve tried everything else, but still can’t seem to get away from all the other climbers. That means we’re down to the nuclear option. Remember earlier when I said that I wasn’t advocating for anyone to seek out the worst routes possible? Okay throw that off the cliff because it’s time to get loose.

Can you learn to love awkward movement, horrendous gear, and loose rocks? Maybe becoming a “chossanier” is your path. To give you an idea of how few climbers take on this mantle, consider the case of The Return of Mudzilla A3 up the Kingfisher at the Fisher Towers, Utah. Originally established in 2013 by Jeremy Aslaksen and Paul Gagner it sat unrepeated for nearly a decade without a single person crazy enough to follow this monstrosity of mud rock. That is, until expert chossaniers Sam Stuckey and Zach Ciaglia took up the call seven years later. As Zach so eloquently puts it, “The Fishers are literally the worst place ever to climb. It’s almost guaranteed that nobody will be there.”

If this kind of masochistic mud wrestling is something that you’re interested in you should beware. “What the hell am I even doing up here?” will become your mantra as you reach up for that thank-god jug just to have it tumble down on your belayer’s head. If you choose the path of the chossanier be warned that most belayers can only take so many stones to the dome even with a helmet on. Before long you may find yourself beating the crag crowds simply because you’re stuck on the couch without any partners willing to follow you up that terrible, crumbling aid line.

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