Climb the walls at state parks!
June 8, 2017
Even the sturdiest hikers sometimes look up at rock climbers, scratch their heads and say, “That’s nuts!”
But avid rock climbers compare the sport to a chess game or puzzle, and most agree that getting vertical is a profound way to connect with nature, build endurance and best their personal best.
Washingtonians don’t tend to associate rock-climbing walls with their state parks. But maybe they should… Whether a climber’s goals are Yosemite’s big walls, a peak such as Grand Teton, a new set of climbing skills, or a local weekend with friends, many climbing areas in and around state parks offer excitement and challenge.
Jessica Todd, a former climb leader and advanced climbing committee chair for the Seattle Mountaineers, encourages beginners to hire a guide certified by the American Mountain Guides Association and then take a weekend class with a reputable mountaineering school to see if the activity ignites a passion. She also suggests newcomers take an introductory class at a rock gym to hone their technique.
New climbers must eventually learn to belay and rappel, and to analyze bolts, chains and anchors. Jessica recommends clubs such as the Mountaineers for in-depth courses to expand knowledge, socialize and find climbing partners. When first climbing independently, newbies should go with experienced people, she advises.
Most climbs are rated using the Yosemite Decimal System. Roped rock climbs are usually 5th class. The decimal measures difficulty levels within that class. Rated and named by the first people to climb the route, many routes bear titles such as Cattle Prod, My Evil Plan and others too raunchy to print.
Once you feel safe on a rock, it’s time to go climbing. Several of Washington’s largest, most well-supported climbing areas are located in and around state parks:
Where: Horsethief Butte – Columbia Hills Historical State Park
Climbs: Rated 5.5 to 5.11
Pro tip: Wear wind-resistant clothing. Watch for ticks.
Andrew Bodien is a volunteer climb leader and 10-year Basic Climbing Education Program (BCEP) instructor with the Mazamas. The Portland climbing club has held classes at Horsethief for 30-plus years.
Mostly we go to escape the rain, Andrew half jokes.
Last spring, 22 Mazama groups trained at the park. Other clubs, including the Chemeketans of Salem, Oregon and The Boeing Company’s BOEALPS also use Horsethief. According to Andrew, the rock is ideal for instruction. Climbs include rock faces, chimney-like features and rappels. The Mazamas and State Parks have set bolts to protect 10 routes at Horsethief.
Although cheery balsamroot dominates in spring, the Mazamas call one section Poison Oak Alley.
“Most years, at least one student sits close to it,” says Andrew. “It’s almost a tradition.”
The area also contains culturally sensitive areas, which are off limits.
Where: Peshastin Pinnacles State Park
Climbs: Most routes 5.5 to 5.10.
Pro tip: Bring water. Avoid these climbs when neighboring orchards are spraying. Peshastin closes Nov. 1 through March 31.
This park east of Leavenworth is known as a beginner’s playground and, indeed, Peshastin’s mostly bolted routes climb at less than a 90-degree angle, are clustered within a small area and have served as an incubator for students and new lead climbers. But the sand-over-rock consistency presents a challenge.
“Peshastin is a different level of sandstone,” says Jessica. “The sand rubs away as you’re stepping on the rock.”
The views of Wenatchee Valley are unbeatable and non-climber friends can hike the steep trails or watch the vertical action from one of six unsheltered picnic tables.
Where: Index Town Wall - near Wallace Falls State Park
Climbs: 5.7 to 5.13. Walls up to 500 feet tall. Advanced routes with a few warm-ups.
Pro tip: Don’t climb in the rain. Temperatures above 75° F cause the rock to “sweat,” making for tough climbs.
With few routes below a 5.8, Index Town Wall is considered the realm of the expert. The area attracts visiting climbers, pro-climbers and expert-but-transient climbers known as “dirt bags.”
Jessica advises rookies to try moderate routes at Index. She’s a fan of the 5.7 Senior Citizens in Space route, which she says is good, solid granite and easy to protect, not to mention fun.
Where: Frenchman’s Coulee, Vantage – near Ginkgo Petrified Forest and Wanapum Recreation Area State Parks
Rock: Volcanic Basalt
Climbs: 5.4 to 5.12. A few warm-up climbs. Many advanced routes.
Pro tip: Chase the shade and bring water. Watch for rattlesnakes.
The Mountaineers club holds classes at Frenchman’s Coulee—a vast, busy area. Regulars recommend picking a cluster of walls and spending the day there. After a few beginner routes, including a group of stand-alone columns called The Feathers, the complexity ratchets up. Most routes are rated 5.9 to 5.11. The big reward after a hot day at Frenchman’s Coulee? A swim at Wanapum Recreation Area!
Olympia Mountaineer Doug Hansen cleans the “Killer Bob” route in the Peannacle Point area of Exit 38, in Olallie State Park. Photo by Doug Hansen
Where: Exit 38 (off I-90) – in and around Olallie State ParkRock: Rhino Rock
Climbs: 5.4 to 5.11d. More than 135 routes in all.
Pro-tip: Pick a side of the freeway and a grouping of walls and cluster the day.
Popular with the Seattle crowd, Exit 38 is located east of North Bend, on both sides of I-90.
The south side provides several walls, grouped as Deception Crags. The north, or Far Side, also has a multitude of options.
Olympia Mountaineers volunteer instructor and climb leader, Doug Hansen cut his outdoor climbing teeth at Exit 38. On one visit, Doug and his friends warmed up at Squishy Bell, on the Far Side and chose routes several grades below what they climb in the gym.
On his next visit, he found the south side prettier and more challenging. Greenhorns can start at Write-Off Rock with 5.4 to 5.7 routes before graduating to more complicated walls.
Most routes are bolted by private citizens, clubs and non-profits, including the American Safe Climbing Association. (State Parks does not perform this service at Exit 38.)
Honorable mentions Washington’s oldest state park, Larrabee, near Bellingham, offers bolted 5.4 to 5.9 routes on Chuckanut sandstone of varying quality. And while the main attraction at Steamboat Rock State Park is the scramble up the park’s namesake, bolted routes near the horse camp offer interesting, lesser-known climbs.
Trail erosion, micro trash, human waste, loud climbers and aggressive, unleashed or overheated dogs also put Washington’s climbing areas at risk, although many climbers practice good etiquette and leave no trace principles.
“Their service should not be taken for granted,” she says.
While club leaders emphasize stewardship, Andrew, Doug and Jessica say climbing should ultimately be fun.
“You can climb hard or easy, but you’re still outside with your friends,” Jessica says.
Do you have a favorite rock climb in or near a state park?
Did you become comfortable on rock using a specific method or type of education? Share your story.