Woodfords Canyon near Tahoe offers a year-round bounty of climbing routes worth the hike
By Nick Miley • Photos by Dean Fleming
It’s rare to find a year-round climbing spot in the Tahoe region, but a vast climbing area sits at South Lake Tahoe’s backdoor that is in season practically all year long, even as winter beckons mountain lovers to seek a different kind of quarry.
Woodfords Canyon is a deep cleft in the eastern slope of the Sierra that runs almost exactly east-west along the West Fork Carson River and the eastern reach of Carson Pass/Highway 88. There are cliffs banding both sides of the canyon so you can climb on south-facing, sun-drenched cliffs in the winter or hide in the shade of the north-facing side in the summer. Accordingly, these two sides of the canyon are referred to as the winter and summer sides.
Woodfords boasts substantial cliff systems that terrace the steep walls of the canyon for nearly 2,500 vertical feet. For this reason the area has gained a nasty reputation of having long approaches. As a result, many of the long-time locals refer to themselves as “the long to short club,” meaning that they have to make long approaches for relatively short climbs. In reality this area is an expansive collection of crags of which the average height is roughly 30 meters – just short enough to climb and rappel with a single 60-meter rope.
That is not to say that Woodfords does not have longer climbs. On the contrary, when I went down to the canyon to do some more “research” for this article, local strong man Ryan Curry ran me up a four-pitch beauty aptly named The Hand of God. This line connects together moderate slab and shallow cracks to approach an .11b horizontal roof, which leads to the final forth pitch of .11a fingers in a stellar dihedral. Although there are several multi-pitch routes in the area, they are the exception.
Many people drive up or down the canyon en route to other objectives and think: “I bet there are some good climbs up there somewhere.” And then they leave it at that believing it isn’t worth the effort. The truth is that there are hundreds of climbs up there – most of which are naturally protected cracks – concealed in the nooks and crannies of the cliff bands. When one takes the time to slog up one side of the canyon or the other for a closer look, what they find is lumpy crags of coarse Joshua Tree-like granite.
Highly featured, like J-Tree, the stone of Woodfords engenders a challenging array of movement over ever-changing rock features. It is not an over statement to say that the climbing in Woodfords is like a conglomerate of every type of granite climbing I have done in the Sierra, just in smaller portions. Woodfords has all types of cracks ranging from splitter to flaring, fingers to off-width. It has corners, faces, aretes and overhangs. It has gray knobs and patina flakes, often where you most need them. And, it has enough roofs to entertain even the strongest of crack climbers.
Although a lot of climbers drive right on by this treasure trove without taking the time to explore, many of California’s best climbers have taken the time to give this area its due. Most notable is Tahoe’s own, the late Dan Osman. Yet, as so often is the case in the climbing world, it is the names that many never hear of that have made the biggest and most positive impact on this area.
South Lake locals Mark Bauer, Ryan Curry and Dan Kennedy have collectively put up over 300 routes in the canyon. They have spent their weekends scrubbing, bolting and working new lines. They have cut in modest trails and have marked their arduous way with rock cairns. They are not the only ones to do so, but they are the torchbearers of the contemporary Woodfords’ first-ascent movement.
For this author, first ascent and Woodfords are nearly synonymous terms – mention one and I automatically think of
the other. Woodfords is not the first place that I laid hand on virgin rock, but it is certainly the place that I have done so most often. Regularly climbing in the canyon with the aforementioned trio, it has been
a rare occasion that I have climbed a full day in the canyon without repeating a new route that needed a little cleaning, put up a new one myself or belayed as one of my mentors boldly struck into the unknown while I could only muster a “Yeah dude,” as I vigilantly awaited the rare fall.
All too often I have spoken to others about Woodfords and felt as if I was selling a bill of goods. After the fact, I would get the feeling I had cheapened the area by pushing so hard in espousing its redeeming characteristics. This is a real shame because anyone who has climbed in the canyon knows the place is worth every grueling step up the talus and scree to get to its wealth of climbing routes.
For many climbers each new or repeated route is but a training exercise in pursuit of a longer, steeper, harder climb in the future. If you fall into this category, or if you simply want to climb away a sunny afternoon at the crag with your friends, than Woodfords is a worthy destination. This canyon has all you can demand of it in terms of technical challenge and quality of rock. Plus, the scenery will leave you refreshed and motivated to come back for more.
Nick Miley is a freelance writer in South Lake Tahoe.
Woodfords Canyon Beta
Wanna get out there?
For topos, pictures and approach information on newer developments in Woodfords Canyon check out: http://www.mountainproject.com/v/ woodfords-canyon/106359636.
For the more classic route information, see Ron Anderson’s “Climber’s Guide East Tahoe Region,” which has a small section on Woodfords. Unfortunately the book is out of print, but you can find a pdf of the pertinent pages at: http:// www.supertopo.com/climbing/thread. php?topic_id=86101.
This is an interesting thread to read as Anderson himself writes about some of the history of the area from his perspective.
When’s the best time to go?
Woodfords has year-round climbing opportunities. The canyon has both north and south facing features that make it usable in any season. In winter it is often necessary to wait for a couple of sunny days in a row after a storm to get the ideal conditions. However, it is not uncommon to be climbing in a t-shirt while people are skiing winter snow just up the road on Carson Pass.
How do I get there?
Woodfords Canyon is on the backside of Carson Pass/Hwy 88 as it drops down toward Nevada, just east of Pickett’s Junction (Luther Pass/ Hwy 89 from South Lake Tahoe) and Sorensen’s Resort. Once in the canyon, through which the West Carson River tumbles, there are three main parking areas to choose from depending on which area you wish to climb. For a map refer to the Ron Anderson guide mentioned above or mountainproject.com for more detailed descriptions.