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Hockey Night in Canada and the First 40 Routes on El Capitan

For over 60 years, Canadians have been leaving their mark on the biggest walls of Yosemite

Canadians have been travelling to Yosemite since the 1960s in search of hard aid and free routes, but also to learn about the sport of big wall climbing. It was the best place to cut your teeth 20 pitches above the ground on solid rock. Many Canadian climbers learned about big wall technique from the California legends who opened the first routes on El Capitan and Half Dome.

Hockey Night in Canada capped a decade-long run of Canadians pushing the limit in Yosemite. In the spring of 1969, Gordie Smaill and Neil Bennett of Vancouver stayed over a month, and together climbed the south face of Washington Column, the West Face of Leaning Tower, The Kor-Fredericks on Sentinel Rock, and finally The Nose on El Capitan for the first Canadian ascent.

With American partners, Smaill climbed the West Face of Sentinel, East Face of Washington Column, and the Dihedral Wall on El Capitan, one of the greatest aid problems at the time. In the fall, Canadians returned again. Smaill climbed the Salathe Wall in four days with Al Givler of Seattle. Mike Wisnicki and I climbed the South Face of Washington Column.

In 1972, more of the Squamish hardcore crew headed to Yosemite. In April, Steve Sutton and Hugh Burton made the first ascent of Magic Mushroom VI 5.10 A4. It was the 14th new climb on El Cap and the first by Canadians. They also climbed the South Face VI 5.9 A2 of Mount Watkins.

Calgary climber Billy Davidson and Fig Breitenbach made the third ascent of Tis-sa-ack on Half Dome. Davidson would go on to climb a number of hard routes in Yosemite over the next few years as he went on to become one of Canada’s leading big wall climbers. His climbs are documented in the upcoming book about his life; find out more here.

The following year, Burton and Sutton joined top big wall climbers Charlie Porter and Chris Nelson for the first ascent of Mescalito VI 5.8 A3, which took a number of days. In 2020, Brandon Adams, Tom Herbert and Roger Putnam climbed it in a record 12 hours and seven minutes, shaving over seven hours off the record set by Nils Davis and the late Brian McCray in 2001. Around the same time that Mescalito was being established, a group of Calgary Mountain Club climbers led by Brian Greenwood climbed Salathe Wall.

In 1971, Warren Harding and Dean Caldwell made the first ascent of Wall of Early Morning Light VI 5.7 A3 over three weeks, it was the 12th route on El Cap. On the second ascent, Royal Robbins chopped the bolt ladders off the first few pitches of the climb (watch the movie Valley Uprising for the full story), which meant to repeat the climb would require a new start.

In spring 1980, Squamish climbers Perry Beckham, Scott Flavelle and Dave Lane took on the challenge of finding a new way up the bottom Wall of Early Morning Light. They started up the first pitch and then climbed left onto features that they followed until re-joining existing routes. They called it Hockey Night in Canada VI 5.10 A3.

Beckham, one of Squamish’s top climbers of his day, later said, “Hockey Night had aspirations to continue independently up what later became Space and Tempest. We threw in the towel at the end of a feature called The Blackhawk because we weren’t impressed with the hollow and loose nature of the rock. We left an old water bottle rattling around at our high point, backtracked about 60 feet and “escaped” up Mescalito into the Old Dawn Wall as all three of us had already done Mescalito. We were hammered by three days of snow from our bivi in the Blank Dihedrals to the base of the last pitch. Woke up last morning to the big earthquake, what an experience! I never thought of Hockey Night in Canada as a new El Cap route, but as more of a Wall of Early Morning Light rebuild. A number of people climbed the Hockey Dawn or Hockalito before the original start (which wasn’t more than 20 or so feet away) was put back together. We were impressed by Harding and Caldwell’s commitment to their route and the absence of real belay anchors along the way. They hauled and hung all their stuff off of single 1/4″ bolts backed up by a few rivets. Horrendous. We thought Robbins was way off side.”

For over 60 years, Canadians have been climbing big walls in Yosemite. This is only brief summary of the activity during this decade. Below are the first 40 routes on El Cap, from 1958 to 1981.

Gordie Smaill on The Nose Photo Neil Bennett


First 40 El Cap Routes

1. Nose The 5.9 C2 VI / FA: 1958 Warren Harding Wayne Merry George Whitmore 5.13b / FFA: 1993 Lynn Hill
2. Salathe Wall 5.9 C2 VI / FA: 1961 Royal Robbins Chuck Pratt Tom Frost 5.13b / FFA: 1988 Todd Skinner Paul Piana
3. Dihedral Wall 5.9 A3+ VI / FA: 1962 Ed Cooper Jim Baldwin Glen Denny
4. El Capitan West Buttress 5.10 A3+ VI / FA: 1963 Layton Kor Steve Roper
5. North America Wall 5.8 A2 VI / FA: 1964 Tom Frost Yvon Chouinard Chuck Pratt Royal Robbins
6. Muir Wall 5.9 A2 VI / FA: 1965 Yvon Chouinard TM Herbert
7. El Capitan West Face 5.9 A4 VI / FA: 1967 TM Herbert Royal Robbins 5.11c / FFA: 1979 Ray Jardine Bill Price
8. Triple Direct 5.8 C2 VI / FA: 1969 Jim Bridwell Kim Schmitz
9. Heart Route The 5.9 A4 VI / FA: 1970 Chuck Kroger Scott Davis
10. Aquarian Wall 5.9 A4 VI / FA: 1971 Jim Bridwell Kim Schmitz
11. Heart Woute (Son of Heart) 5.10 A3+ VI / FA: 1971 Rick Sylvester Claude Wreford-Brown
12. Wall of Early Morning Light 5.7 A3 VI / FA: 1971 Warren Harding Dean Cadwell
13. Cosmos 5.8 A4 VI / FA: 1972 Jim Dunn
14. Magic Mushroom 5.10 A4 VI / FA: 1972 Hugh Burton Steve Sutton
15. Shield The (Salathe Start) 5.7 C4F VI / FA: 1972 Charlie Porter Gary Bocarde
16. Zodiac 5.7 A2 VI / FA: 1972 Charlie Porter 5.13d / FFA: 2003 Alex Huber Thomas Huber
17. Mescalito 5.8 A3 VI / FA: 1973 Charlie Porter Hugh Burton Steve Sutton Chris Nelson
18. Tangerine Trip 5.8 A2 VI / FA: 1973 Charlie Porter John-Paul de St. Croix
19. Grape Race 5.9 A5 VI / FA: 1974 Charlie Porter Bev Johnson
20. Horse Chute 5.9 A3 VI / FA: 1974 Charlie Porter Hugh Burton
21. New Dawn 5.8 A3 VI / FA: 1974 Charlie Porter Yvon Chouinard Chuck Pratt Dennis Hennick Chris Jones
22. Excalibur 5.9 A3 VI / FA: 1975 Charlie Porter Hugh Burton
23. Lost World 5.10 A3+ VI / FA: 1975 C. Folsom Dave Anderson Mike Warburton
24. Pacific Ocean Wall 5.9 A3 VI / FA: 1975 Jim Bridwell Billy Westbay Jay Fiske Fred East
25. Waterfall Route 5.10b A4 VI / FA: 1975 Daryle Teske T. Polk
26. Eagle’s Way 5.8 A3 VI / FA: 1976 Mark Chapman Mike Graham Jim Orey
27. Lurking Fear 5.7 C2F VI / FA: 1976 Dave Bircheff Jim Pettigrew 5.13/A0
28. Mirage 5.9 A4 VI / FA: 1976 Jim Bridwell Kim Schmitz Jim Pettigrew
29. Dorn Direct (to Shield) 5.9 A4 VI / FA: 1977 Tony Yaniro Ron Olevsky
30. New Jersey Turnpike 5.10 A4+ VI / FA: 1977 Bruce Hawkins Ron Kauk Dale Bard Hugh Burton
31. Iron Hawk 5.9 A4 VI / FA: 1978 Dale Bard Ron Kauk
32. Never Never Land 5.9 A4 VI / FA: 1978 Bruce Hawkins Mark Chapman
33. Sea of Dreams 5.9 A4 VI / FA: 1978 Jim Bridwell Dale Bard Dave Diegelman
34. Sunkist 5.9 A5 VI / FA: 1978 Bill Price Dale Bard
35. Tribal Rite A4 VI / FA: 1978 Walter Rosenthal Tom Carter Dale Bard
36. Born Under A Bad Sign 5.10 A5 VI / FA: 1979 Bill Price Tim Washick
37. Jolly Rodger 5.10 A5 VI / FA: 1979 Charles Cole Steve Grossman
38. South Seas 5.8 A4 VI / FA: 1979 Bill Price Charlie Row Guy Thompson
39. Hockey Night in Canada 5.10 A3 VI / FA: 1980 Perry Beckham Scott Flavelle Dave Lane
40. Aurora 5.8 A4 VI / FA: 1981 Peter Mayfield Greg Child

Hugh Burton on Magic Mushroom Photo Steve Sutton