Kelly and I recently decided we don’t have enough hobbies that push us to our physical limits and threaten painful death or lifelong paralysis. Sure, there are always risks associated with doing anything in the backcountry, be it backpacking or just day-hiking, camping in bear country, skiing in avalanche terrain or even driving around Seattle, avoiding the endless stream of terrible drivers. We needed more danger and excitement. We took up rock climbing.
Fortunately for us, our very patient friends, Ryan and Amy, are skilled rock climbers with lots of experience and equipment and, for some reason, don’t mind waiting interminably at the belay end of the rope while we hem and haw, glacially picking our way up beginner routes. Ryan and Amy, in addition to helping us learn safe climbing techniques, are just plain fun to be around. So we packed up the some camping equipment and headed east to some world-class climbing spots in Vantage and Leavenworth for a couple weekend trips to learn to climb. In addition to our friendly personal instructors, we were able to pick up a bunch of cues from other rock climbers about great technique, etiquette, climber culture, and just being a rad dirtbag.
Rule #1: Don’t wear a shirt or shoes. How is anyone going to know how swoll your delts are while you’re leading a gnarly 5.12 if you’ve got those bad boys covered by a constricting t-shirt? Let your pythons roam free on the granite so the young lady at the bottom of the pitch can ogle your goods while she belays her boring, scrawny boyfriend. And shoes? Forget shoes. Never mind that you’re in prime Rattlesnake territory and that a guy just saw one on the road ten minutes before. In fact, the more you can look like you just emerged from the pages of Robinson Crusoe or The Lord of the Flies, the better climber you’ll be.
Rule #2: Surround yourself with a group of people with whom you have ambiguous romantic dealings while waiting to climb. Sit on someone’s lap. Then have someone else sit on your lap. Heck, just lay all over each other. Swap kisses with multiple climbers from your group. Share a giant tent in the parking lot from which you all emerge periodically in various states of undress. Cultural relationship norms are for losers.
Rule #3: Find the most popular and sought-after route, tell people you’re actively climbing it, then lay there with your girlfriend at the base for an hour while everyone else looks for not-as-good routes to bide their time on. This one is pretty self-explanatory, I guess…
Rule #4: PBR. It’s no secret that climbing culture, like many “high-risk” sport cultures, is defined by a “work hard, play hard” ethic. Alcohol is a must. The cheaper, the better. Thankfully, the hipsters over the Cascades in Seattle have done all the research work for you and found the ultimate cheap beer: the almighty Pabst Blue Ribbon. Don’t think about the fact that it tastes a little bit like a foot or that a local bar in Leavenworth will actually, straight-faced, charge you $4 for a tallboy. Tip a Blue Ribbon back and enjoy the watery suds between climbs and you’ll stay fresh and keen all day long.
I’m obviously being snarky and, to be fair, all four rules were taught us by one particularly stereotypical group we came across outside Leavenworth in an area called Barney’s Rubble. So many aspects of climbing are great: the physical exertion and intense mental focus required, the drop-dead gorgeous scenery, the pseudo-gypsy culture of climbing, the people watching, and especially that tingling feeling of being up high, like something is chasing you, nipping at your tail. Kelly has always loved any rock climbing experiences she’s had, so when Amy and Ryan invited us out to Leavenworth, a lovely Bavarian village just east of Steven’s Pass in the Cascades, we jumped at the chance. After finding a boondocking spot along a national forest road to set up camp, we rolled into town, rented a couple pairs of shoes and made our way up Icicle Creek Road to Barney’s Rubble.
The parking lot was like a caravan camp, tents strewn helter-skelter behind cars, people sleeping on their vehicle roofs, Westies, pickups, a few small campers, you name it. The goal is to climb, climb, climb and the serious rock hounds can’t waste time driving to and from rock features. They wake up, climb, lay in the sun, climb some more, make a fire, drink, sleep, repeat, almost always harnessed up with crash pad and rope in tow. We found a friction route which, while not ideal for beginner climbers, taught Kelly and I a few quick lessons in humility. When friction climbing, a climber must rely on his or her ability to stay close to the wall and utilize the grip of their shoes on the pitch. This route had a section with very few holds where Kelly and I got stuck for a while.
The day goes by quickly when climbing, so having finished up in early afternoon, we refreshed ourselves with some Rainies (Rainier beers) and found another, easier route to conquer. This pitch, though steeper, had abundant holds and a crack near the top which helped us get better grip. Exhausted from a day on the granite, we retreated to town where we stuffed ourselves with German Sausages from Muchen Haus, a restaurant that serves any sausage-related food item you could imagine and has a dizzying array of mustards, sauerkrauts and pickles. A giant brat and a liter of ale from Icicle Brewing Company (out of a classic German stein that could easily double as a barbell) later, we were ready to head back to the camper for an evening of campfire stories and more Rain Dogs (Rainier Beer, again).
Climbing in Vantage, more properly known as the Frenchman Coulee, is a bit of a different experience. For starters, Vantage is pure, Eastern Washington desert. Just east of the Columbia River, the climbing areas in Vantage sit on a high plateau cut through with canyons straight out of the American Southwest. Just up the road to the north is the legendary outdoor music venue, The Gorge. Thin wisps of waterfall burrow through the rocky ledges leaving streaks of lively green down the cliff walls and harboring surprising swarms of mosquitos.
We set up camp at the base of a rock feature called the Feathers, which rises from the top of a hill much like the Moai of Easter Island, monoliths all oddly geometric, neatly in a row. A narrow gap, like a first-grader’s missing front tooth, conveniently splits the wall up and provides access to the northeast side and shade from the harsh desert sun. Although rain showers moved in as we cooked our dinner and set up our tent, we woke the next morning to crystal clear blue skies and a crisp breeze. Amy and Ryan arrived and we spent our morning scaling a few 5.9 and 5.10 pitches, with absurd, though oddly related, names, such as Satan’s Little Helper and Jesus Saves, on the shady side of the wall. It was quickly clear to Kelly and I why this area is so renowned; the rock features are perfectly carved and are seemingly endless.
After our morning on the Feathers, we took a quick hike across the plateau, through a narrow slot canyon and down around the vaunted Sunshine wall, so named because, no matter the time of day, sunshine always strikes it. While midsummer temperatures on the wall often surpass 100 degrees, we caught the start of summer perfectly and avoided the worst heat. We spent most of the afternoon watching Ryan trad-climb (a technique where the climber places equipment like cams and nuts in cracks and holds along the way) a 100-foot route called Party in Your Pants before we packed up and headed back west to Seattle. With a quick stop in Ellensburg for dinner and a taster flight at Iron Horse brewery, we crossed back over Snoqualmie Pass and into the city.