Rock Climbing

Photo by Neil Jenkins
Photo by Neil Jenkins
In 1938 MGM, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, released a 10 minute documentary entitled “Three on a Rope.” This rock climbing documentary followed a group of three climbers as they made what had to be one of the first filmed ascents of Tahquitz Rock. The documentary also included a second group of three climbers, mostly for comic relief, in the Mt. Baldy area.

The commentary is pretty hokey but seeing the climber’s equipment and watching the climbing techniques they use is a unique window into the history of the sport of rock climbing. Especially considering that it was only two years earlier that Tahquitz saw the first ascent of the “Trough” which was originally rated at 5.0 but has since been upped to 5.4.

There are many firsts that can be attributed to Tahquitz Rock including the decimal rating system for rock climbing. It was developed by climbers on Tahquitz but was later renamed the Yosemite Decimal System or YDS. The “Class” system starts at Class 1 for walking, Class 2 for walking with some use of the hands, Class 3 for scrambling using all four limbs on certain sections, Class 4 easy climbing with some exposure and maybe needing a rope for safety and Class 5 which is climbing with a rope and safety gear.

Originally climbs were rated between 5.0 – 5.9 but as climbing gear and techniques improved the 5.9 “ceiling” was reached by Royal Robbins on Open Book in 1952. Since then the degree of difficulty has progressed between 5.10 – 5.15 with the invention of shoes designed specifically for rock climbing, better harnesses and protection helping the next generation to push the envelope.

Tahquitz saw it heydays from 1936 and on into the 60’s and 70’s when attention began to focus on Suicide Rock its smaller neighbor to the north. One of Suicide’s test pieces became Valhalla. With a 5.11 rating Valhalla was the route to conquer for a group of climbers led by John Long known as The Stone Masters.

Although Suicide routes are shorter than those on Tahquitz they now out number the routes on Tahquitz 300+ to just over 200 for the latter. There are still new routes being put up on both rocks but most of the new development is now focused on the outlying area called the Hinterlands and also a few scattered crags in Garner Valley.
The turn of the century has seen a gigantic boom in bouldering that was once thought of as only practice or a warm up for “real” rock climbing. In fact bouldering seems to be the sport of choice for the young climbers as it is easier getting started and the cost for gear is much less.

There are now several well developed bouldering areas in our local mountain including Black Mountain, South Ridge, County Park and the tramway boulders at the top of the Palm Springs Tramway. The Tramway has its own guidebook and Black Mountain will soon have a separate guide if it isn’t already published.

Black Mountain is particularly popular as a summer destination because at around 8000 feet in elevation it is much cooler than the surrounding dessert bouldering areas. Every spring the boulderers are always chomping at the bit waiting for the gait at the bottom of Black Mountain Road to open.

Although climbing is now a much more diversified sport no matter what direction the world of rock climbing should take, Tahquitz will always have its place in the past, present and on into the future. Tahquitz still draws people from all over the planet and it remains Southern California’s biggest rock and most storied crag.