Many rock climbers know about the easily accessed, high-quality granite routes found along Old Highway 40 on the Western end of Truckee, collectively known as Donner Summit or Donner Pass. For local climbers, “The Summit” is an excellent training ground for the more lengthy and involved climbs to be found in nearby Lover’s Leap, or Yosemite (a 3.5 hr. drive to Tuolumne Meadows from Truckee). For others, the predominantly single-pitch traditional style climbs, offer all the entertainment needed for a full season’s worth of excellent granite adventure.
Let me say this outright: Donner Summit is a great climbing spot. What you’ll find on the summit is a myriad of climbs on high-quality granite akin to Tuolumne’s coarse-grained rock. At around 7000’ elevation the area offers perfect climbing temperatures all summer long, and though it can be crowded on the weekends, the volume of climbing available makes it fairly easy to find some solitude. A large percentage of the climbs are single-pitch trad routes, though there is a selection of multi-pitch routes, and many routes can be top-roped with a 60 or 70-meter rope. The only thing that you will have a hard time finding on the summit is moderate sport routes. There just aren’t very many. However, there’s a good assortment of hard sport routes, and nearby Big Chief offers a high concentration of sport climbs from moderates to super hard. The sheer multitude of low-commitment trad leads, with solid bolted anchors, makes it super easy to bottom-up climb virtually everything, and the short approaches are a rock climber’s dream come true. Top that off with awesome views of Donner Lake, Donner Peak, and the whole Truckee Basin and you’re in for a really special climbing day.
Rock Climbing History and Guide Books
Climbing on Donner Summit began developing as early as the 1960’s, though the climbing history of the whole Lake Tahoe area is patchy. The earliest climbs in the Tahoe area were Sierra Club endeavors over at South Tahoe’s famous Lover’s Leap. The development of the Donner Summit region specifically holds a long list of first ascensionists and credit for the development of the area can be dished out to a number of individuals. The first formal written guide of the climbing in the Tahoe area was written by Erick Beck and published by the Tahoe City Department of Parks and Recreation; entitled Climber’s guide to Lake Tahoe and Donner Summit, it has a lengthy section on the climbing of Donner Summit and old topos. An updated guide to Lake Tahoe climbing written by Mike Carville and published by Falcon Guides in 1999 is entitled Rock Climbing Lake Tahoe and offers a fairly accurate description of Donner Summit climbing. The majority of the topos are beautiful hand-drawn creations by artist Mike Clelland, but some remain rudimentary sketches and are thus difficult to decipher. Chris McNamara’s Supertopo offers high-quality guides for South Lake Tahoe Climbing and Lover’s Leap but has yet to produce a guide for Donner Summit and the other climbing areas around Truckee and North Lake Tahoe.
Donner Summit Rock Climbing Areas
The climbing areas encompass several formations along Old Highway 40 the largest being Black Wall, which plays host to a number of excellent climbs and offers the longest climbs on Donner Summit (4 pitches). You’ll find a thin face, splitter cracks, hollow flakes, and towering roofs within the labyrinth of Black Wall’s many ledges and ramps. One could spend a large chunk of the season exploring Black Wall alone. Most of the anchors are bolted, and the hardware is almost all bomber. Two of the area’s finest moderate hand cracks: Black September (5.9+) and pitch 1 of One Hand Clapping (5.8) are on Black Wall. Just a mile up the road and a 2-minute approach away is Snowshed Wall. As home to the highest concentration of climbs on a single cliff, Snowshed wall can periodically take on the appearance of a climbing gym and offers excellent climbing on cracks, faces, arêtes, and chimneys ranging anywhere from 5.6-5.13b. The classic Peter Principle (5.11a) offers excellent sustained crack climbing that runs up the vertical west face of Snowshed Wall. Expect to employ an arsenal of techniques on “The Principle” including stemming, finger locks, jamming and a stiff lie back crux, so bring your finest technique. Cruise around to the East face of Snowshed and test your off-width skills on Nova Express (5.9+) or check out the hard face climbs Nice Dreams (5.12b) or Death Tongue (5.12d). Other stellar climbing areas include Grouse Slabs where 1-2 pitch bolted and traditionally protected climbs await, and School Rock which is home to the largest concentration of moderate 1-3 pitch climbs on Donner Summit.
Excellent bouldering can be found at the Southwest base of Grouse Slabs, as well as on an array of high-quality boulders atop Snowshed Wall. The longest traverse in the area (~100ft!) sits atop Donner Peak and within the confines of nearby Donner State Park lies a classic Truckee bouldering spot: Split Rock is a 25 foot tall glacial erratic cleaved in half by ice wedging, leaving perfect arêtes, some cool slab problems, a few pumpy overhanging problems and a wicked hand traverse to a dyno with a tenuous top out (The Dyno V6). Beware the height of Split Rock, at about 25-30ft tall each problem, is a highball and some experienced climbers found themselves wishing they had a rope. All the boulders in the area are the same high-quality granite common to all the cliffs at Donner Summit.
As with all climbing areas, make an effort to preserve the areas you enjoy. Bury all human waste and pack out all garbage. If climbing on Snowshed wall, please use the outhouse in the parking area. The outhouse has been generously provided by local gear shop Granite Chief specifically with climber’s use intended. Please respect this contribution to our climbing community and use the facilities provided. Snowshed wall is a high traffic area and any human waste left behind will make its way into the runoff at the base of the cliff and eventually into Donner Lake. The residents of the Donner Lake area drink Donner Lake’s water. Enough said.