America’s Five Best 5.10 Trad Routes
Climbing tastes are as subjective and whimsical as tastes in love, poetry, and music, so to say that there are five best routes—of any style—is completely ridiculous.
Still, I would argue that there’s a set of values that contribute to a climb’s overall quality. Those values are:
- Position: Where the climb is located. Is it set amid a pristine wilderness, a humid jungle, or next to a major highway?
- Exposure: How much air you “feel” beneath you?
- Quality of rock: Are you grabbing iron-hard rock, or are you ripping choss holds off the wall every third move?
- History: Was the first ascent significant for any reason, whether it was standard-setting grade or done by a famous, leading climber of history?
- Summit: Do you get to stand on a summit?
Once you break it down like that, judging a route’s quality starts to feel at least a little more objective. And with that criteria in mind, I present five contenders for the best 5.10 trad climbs in America.
Blind Faith (5.10a), Eldorado Canyon, Colorado
If history contributes to a route’s overall aura for you, then you will be blown away to learn that Jim Erickson free-soloed the first ascent of this back in 1972.
Most climbers, though, prefer to take a rope and standard rack of cams (up to #2 Camalot) to tackle this two-pitch route on the Bastille in Eldorado Canyon, which gets my vote for the best trad-climbing venue in Colorado.
This is a fantastic first 5.10 lead for aspiring trad climbers, with safe gear, great position, great rock and enjoyable movement. And knowing that it was done onsight, free solo, before sticky rubber was even invented, might make you feel just a bit more bold.
Thin Ice (5.10b), Needles, California
This route is a bit of a dark horse on a list like this, but it’s worthy of getting some attention. The Needles are remote, often empty of climbers, and in one of the most beautiful sub-alpine settings of the Sierras. The Sorcerer’s Needle is the tallest of the group of beautiful golden granite formations that strikingly jut out of the earth and rocket toward the sky. The climbing on the east face of Sorcerer’s Needle is, by and large, run-out, hard, and scary. Yet thin Thin Ice (5.10b), located on the shorter west face, is one exception.
To get to climb such a proud formation, but with the relatively moderate grade of 5.10b, is a treat. But don’t be fooled, because the climbing here is demanding and physical. Three pitches, all in the 5.9+ to 5.10- range, climb interesting cracks and flakes that demand everything from classic enjoyable jamming to strenuous arm-barring in flaring corners.
Fat City Direct (5.10d PG 13), Gunks, New York
I learned to climb in the Gunks, and know that here, 5.10 is no joke. I started on 5.6 and eventually worked my way up to 5.6+. It wasn’t until I climbed elsewhere and came back with new perspective that I finally convinced myself to try a Gunks 5.10.
At the upper end of the 5.10 range is Fat City Direct, called by many as one of the best 5.10s in the area. This is probably the steepest and most sustained 5.10 trad climb you will ever do. Dick Williams and Dave Craft got the first ascent of this route all the way back in 1966, and in 1970 John Stannard and John Bragg added the Direct start.
Some parties do the route in two pitches, but it’s possible (and recommended) to do one long pitch, bottom to top, employing every trad-climbing skill in the book: use long runners, if not double ropes, to avoid drag and be prepared to get creative with your gear placements. The route is safe, but definitely requires a strong head and solid gear skills.
And when you clip “The Pin,” the rusting relic from the 1960s just past the crux, just smile and remember not to fall.
East Buttress (5.10b), El Capitan
The East Butt is nine long pitches, with a long approach and a long descent, but all the pitches are relatively moderate, which makes this route accessible to most climbing parties. The second pitch crux is short-lived and forgettable, but the moderate climbing awaiting you above—on delicious juggy chicken heads and flakes, with a thousand feet of air beneath your feet—is why you really must do this route.
Jah Man (5.10c), Sister Superior, Castle Valley, Utah
This might be the best, and most doable, 5.10 tower climb in the country. From a distance, the Sister Superior formation hardly looks like much. But when standing directly beneath, her slender grace comes into view and begs to be climbed.
Classic desert climbing demands that you use every technique in the book, from straight in jamming to chimneying to even some honest groveling. Bolted belays on big ledges contribute to the overall quality of the route, which is on great rock. It’s three pitches to the top: P1) A 5.9 chimney; P2) The crux with hard starting moves off the belay and a tricky traverse; P3) Tight (#1 Camalot) hands through bulges. And finally, the summit, with 360 degree views of this otherworldly valley.