Take the leap: Lover’s Leap is a renowned climbing destination with a rich historyTake the leap:
In the 1997 rock climbing film Masters of Stone IV, Dan Osman scrambles, sans ropes, 400 feet up the sheer cliff face of Lover’s Leap in just 4 minutes and 25 seconds. Osman makes the speed free-solo ascent of the 5.7-rated Bear’s Reach look easy. With the camera shooting from above, heavy metal playing in the background, and no gear to catch his fall, Osman jumps for a hold with both hands and feet free of the rock for a split second. It’s an iconic clip that has inspired countless climbers.
But for some climbers, they weren’t just captivated by what Osman did — they wanted to experience where he did it.
Above the grade
Roughly 18 miles southwest of Lake Tahoe, Lover’s Leap is a steep granite wall that sprawls more than a half-mile through Eldorado National Forest, rising 350 feet on the east end to nearly 600 feet on the west side. Just off of Highway 50, the formidable rock face is home to an estimated 250 climbing routes that have been developed since the first recorded ascent in 1949.
Like many others, Chris McNamara, a big wall climber, ex-BASE jumper, climbing guide author, and founder of the gear review sites OutdoorGearLab and TechGearLab, first found out about Lover’s Leap thanks to Osman’s free solo.
“Usually granite, if it’s that steep, is super hard. But the nature of the rock at Lover’s Leap is that it’s really featured, so it lets you climb way more steep and exposed things at a way easier grade than you’re used to,” explains McNamara. “It’s really only limestone or some type of volcanic rock that’s typically that featured. It’s pretty rare to have granite be that featured which is part of its magic.”
The high concentration of moderate climbs — 5.5 to 5.8 routes — plus easy access just off the highway makes Lover’s Leap an ideal climbing destination for all skill levels.
“If they put Lover’s Leap in Yosemite, it’s all anyone would climb,” says McNamara, who devoted a big portion of his adult life to climbing El Capitan, a granite monolith roughly 3,000 feet from base to summit. “They’d go and look at Half Dome and El Cap and say, ‘Man, those are cool but those are hard. One day.’ Then they’d go over and climb Lover’s Leap. It’s just that accessible and fun, and the steepness is so unique.”
The Sierra Nevada is well-known for its towering granite peaks, which formed 85-120 million years ago as magma from an arc of erupting volcanoes solidified deep within the Earth’s crust. As tectonic plates shifted, the range began to uplift, reaching its current elevation roughly 5 million years ago. Millions of years after the Sierra began to rise, glaciers formed and retreated in a series of ice ages, helping to carve out the current landscape seen today. Erosion from precipitation and rivers left — and continues to leave — its marks on the range.
Located in the north central portion of the Sierra Nevada range, Lover’s Leap’s climbability is in large part thanks to its unique geology— namely, the hundreds of horizontal dikes cutting across the cliff.
Before pushing its way through the Earth’s surface, molten rock was forced through cracks in the granite that would ultimately rise and erode into Lover’s Leap. Rich in feldspar and quartz, the filled cracks eroded slower than the granite, creating protrusions known as dikes. From small bumps to nearly foot-long-wide ledges, the dikes make Lover’s Leap more approachable for all climbing levels.
“It’s so accessible,” agrees Marc “Petch” Pietrolungo, owner of Lover’s Leap Guides. “It’s like a little piece of Yosemite but not in Yosemite. You’ve got the South Fork of the American River right there, Desolation Wilderness next door, easy approaches, beautiful descents — it’s just super fun climbing.”
Pietrolungo first climbed Lover’s Leap in 1993 as the last stop on an 8-month climbing trip. Broke and captivated with the climbing, Pietrolungo started work at Strawberry Lodge where the cliff loomed just behind the property. Ten years later, he launched his climbing guide company.
After 30 years of climbing Lover’s Leap, picking a favorite of the roughly 250 routes might be like picking a favorite child for Pietrolungo, but there are certainly some stand-outs.
“Corrugation Corner is probably the most iconic climb here, in my opinion,” says Pietrolungo. The 5.7, three-pitch climb reaches the highest point at Lover’s Leap and has a little bit of everything: stemming, crack climbing, arete climbing, roofs, traverses and a chimney, according to Petch.
The Line (5.9) is arguably the most popular route at Lover’s Leap. The three-pitch climb follows the crack that rises 400 feet up the center of the East Wall. Fantasia (5.9) is another iconic route that was established by rockclimbing pioneer Royal Robbins in 1973.
“Some of the big name Yosemite climbers, like T.M. Herbert, Royal Robbins and Tom Higgins came out here in the 60s and 70s and did a handful of first ascents, along with Steve Roper and Allen Steck,” explains Pietrolungo.
Robbins, who carries a lengthy list of notable first ascents in Yosemite and across the West, was one of the figures shaping climbing culture in the 60s and 70s. He promoted “clean climbing” and preservation of the rock at a time when pitons (metals spikes) were prolific. For several years, he ran a climbing school, Rock Craft, at the base of Lover’s Leap, preparing climbers for tougher routes in Yosemite. In an interview with Climbing Magazine, Robbins — after climbing around the world — named The Line in his top five favorite routes.
Lover’s Leap has captivated subsequent generations of adventurers, too. In a tribute to Osman, Alex Honnold, the climber who rose to mainstream fame when he became the first person to free solo El Capitan, set out to recreate the iconic Bear’s Reach speed free-solo climb in 2016. Donning a black mullet wig and a sweatband, Honnold, with the help of South Lake Tahoe-based director and photographer Corey Rich, recreated Osman’s iconic video clip with a humorous bent and an actual rock band playing at the top of the cliff. Though Honnold skipped the famous jump, he crushed Osman’s record by 10 seconds, scaling the cliff without ropes in just 4 minutes and 15 seconds.
Ten years earlier, Lover’s Leap was the location for another daredevilish feat. Chris McNamara became the first to snowboard BASE jump off the cliff. After sculpting a terrain park-style ramp at the top, McNamara strapped into his snowboard wearing his wingsuit and parachute.
“You have to come at it with a lot of speed since it’s kind of likely, especially if you’re snowboarding, that the parachute is not going to open in the perfect position, so you want to be farther away from the wall,” explains McNamara. “In fact, that’s what happened to me. I flew off, my parachute opened into the wall, but I had enough time to turn the parachute. But briefly, all of my friends were thinking, ‘That’s not going to work out well.'”
A month later McNamara returned to Lover’s Leap to jump again, this time with a group skiers, organized by the late professional skier Shane McConkey, to ski BASE jump off the Leap.
“Sixty skiers-slash-BASE jumpers all did the most ridiculous type of ski BASE jumping you could do. Shockingly, no one got hurt,” recalls McNamara.
A New Landscape
On Aug. 14, 2021, a fire sparked near Grizzly Flats, and over the next 67 days, the Caldor Fire burned its way up the Western Slope, eventually cresting Echo Summit and entering the Tahoe Basin. The fire scorched 221,835 acres, destroyed 1,003 homes and damaged 81 more.
Lover’s Leap and the surrounding communities were irreparably changed.
“When I first saw it I was in shock, walking around with everything torched. The whole Leap burned pretty badly,” says Pietrolungo. “But then you slowly start to accept what it is, and the plants started popping up. The wildflowers we had last summer were unbelievable. I’d never seen so many flowers at the Leap. The oak bushes and trees have already started growing. The manzanitas are popping up and the bitter cherry. And up on top, the creek flowed well because the trees weren’t around it soaking up water, which was sad because the trees were gone, but the sound of the water and the ferns and the thimble berries really filled in quite well. It’s coming back to life.”
For half a century, Lover’s Leap has watched the evolution of climbing and adventure sports, from the days of pitons and pioneering climbers to free solos and BASE jumps. It has endured crowds and unnaturally intense wildfires. And though the landscape surrounding it may have changed, and undoubtedly will again, the rock that was formed 100 million years ago deep within the earth will outlast us all.
Cant miss: Strawberry Station
Once a convenience store, Strawberry Station, located right across U.S. 50 from Lover’s Leap, became a general store-meets-outdoor gear shop when Squirrel and Jennifer Schlosser bought the building in 2012. The former rock climbing gym owners brought in a wide selection of beer, groceries, high quality climbing gear, and K2 ski and snowboard rentals.
“I knew that every climbing destination in the United States has a climbing shop. Every single one does,” says Squirrel, a childhood nickname that stuck due to his affinity for climbing trees. Squirrel rock climbed for the very first time on Lover’s Leap in 1986. He was hooked.
Strawberry Station is located at 17481 U.S. 50 in Strawberry, Calif.
Know before you go
Chris McNamara’s “South Lake Tahoe Climbing Guide” is the tell-all on the area’s best climbing locales, including Lover’s Leap. Find detailed approach, descent and strategy beta along with itineraries for maximizing your trip. Check it out on http://www.SuperTopo.com.
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