Chasing the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America - The Beginning


Editor's note: This is the first in a series of articles about Nancy’s journey and experiences in chasing down the climbs listed in the iconic guide/history book Fifty Classic Climbs of North America. The book was first published in 1979 and it is still considered a definitive piece of climbing literature.

"Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?" he asked. "Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely," and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland


Mt. Sir Donald is the centerpiece of dozens of spectacular quartzite summits in the heart of Glacier National Park. It rises head and shoulders above its neighbours and its Northwest Ridge has been a sought-after objective for climbers for a hundred years. This turned out to be the first route of my decades-long quest to climb the Fifty Classic Climbs of North America but at the time it never occurred to me that I could (or would want to) climb all 50 routes. I wouldn't start planning that for a long time.

Next month will be 16 years since I climbed Sir Donald. Since then I've spent hours and days that I can't even count pouring over topo maps, training, finding partners, sorting gear, sitting in the rain, driving long roads and humping huge loads.

I've met incredible people, including one of the authors of Fifty Classic Climbs of North America and the first ascentionists of many of the routes. I've had some amazing adventures and stood on top of some of the best routes I've ever climbed. I've also dealt with epic failures and deep soul searching. I've quit the project a couple times.

But in 1998 I was just going climbing — I wouldn't have any idea about that other stuff for years.

Mount Sir Donald.

Mount Sir Donald.

Fifty Classic #1 – Mt. Sir Donald, Northwest Ridge, Glacier National Park, B.C. June 21, 1998

Claude Lauzon (my co-worker at The Alpine Club of Canada at the time) and I planned to climb the route in a day from Canmore, foregoing the usual bivy at the col or overnight at the Wheeler Hut. The route has a vertical gain from car to summit of more than 2,000 metres, 700 of which are on technical terrain which in those days had to be down-climbed and rappelled to get back down (today there is an express bolted rappel line down the west face). It was going to be a big day and looking back I’m not sure exactly why we thought it would be a good idea to add five or six hours of driving to and from Canmore, but driving is easy, right?

NW Ridge of Sir Donald. Image courtesy of

NW Ridge of Sir Donald. Image courtesy of

After about an hour of sleep, we left Canmore at 2 am, drove, and started hiking in the dark. Sometime after sunrise, we stepped on to the insanely exposed knife-edge ridge made of pretty pink quartzite. We moved steadily over fun and easy fifth-class terrain without the rope until we reached snow line about six rope lengths from the summit. Although the angle of the ridge had eased, we put the rope on at this point as snow and lichen-covered quartzite does not make for fast and secure travel. We reached the summit sometime around noon and enjoyed the unbelievable views for a few minutes. As I later learned is quite common, the descent took us much longer than the ascent. The exposure on the ridge really kicked in and messed with our heads as we carefully down-climbed and did the odd short rappel down hundreds of vertical metres.

NW Ridge of Sir Donald. Image courtesy of

NW Ridge of Sir Donald. Image courtesy of

Claude and I stumbled back to the car, thoroughly trashed. We attempted to drive home, but neither of us could drive for more than 10 minutes without falling asleep. We pulled over and passed out for a couple of hours before finishing the drive.

Sir Donald is the only one of the Fifty Classics that I’ve completed that I do not have photos of. One of these days I’m going to climb it again and complete my photographic records. I've climbed some great routes and also some that I'll never repeat. But it won’t be a hardship to go back to Sir Donald - this is truly one of the best routes in the book, maybe one of the best long moderate rock routes in the world. Mountainproject has a great write up on the route here.

Long Way to Go

After Sir Donald it would be another five years before I would start to think about climbing all of the 50 Classics. No one had completed the list at that time and today that's still true. I've now completed 46, and feel like I'm half way done.

Chasing the 50 Classics has taken me to some pretty cool places and I've had some amazing experiences with fantastic people. In the coming weeks and months I'll use this space to share some more of my stories. I also took some pictures, I promise. And some video. One partner and I recorded a song in a tent - it's gotten mixed reviews.