Five friends uncover the best bouldering in the Northwest | By Lucas Pollock Photos by Garrett Grove
In the dead of winter Joel Campbell, a quiet, strong 29-year-old window installer from Seattle, walked alone through the snow and underbrush alongside the roaring Skykomish River. From under a mop of thick brown hair, he noticed something up an embankment. It was steeply overhung and broad, camouflaged in wet foliage and moss. It had to be a boulder; the way the snow had collected on its top, freezing a toupée of mud and plant matter into place. But why hadn’t they ever noticed it? After all the time they’d spent developing here? All the scrubbing and cleaning. All the cigarettes! Campbell and his friends had spent years in these woods, peeling moss and lichen off these stones and climbing their most interesting lines. But it wasn’t until that January morning that this boulder chose to reveal itself, wearing a fresh coat of powder that shone through the trees like a beacon.
It’s been happening like this for years now as climbers explore the infinite supply of granite boulders that rest quietly here among the damp growth and glacial till of Central Washington’s North Cascades. As you emerge from the rainforest, following Highway 2 into the drier eastern sections of the range, there are more still: striking, solid, old and smooth. The problems have emerged through the labor and vision of a small group of young climbers, tucked away up here in our nation’s attic. Walk another 100 yards into the woods, or just over that saddle in the ridgeline, and 10, 20 more mossy chunks of granite emerge.
The bouldering in Central Washington is defined by discovery. It is still largely unknown, except to a small community from the surrounding urban areas of Seattle, Bellingham and Spokane.
So, with Campbell that winter day beside the Skykomish, under a canopy of saturated timber, Hagekure was born—another problem in a rapidly growing collection of hard new lines in the area. Dirty as hell, it would take him, along with friends Kelly Sheridan, Johnny Goicoechea, Cole Allen and Kyle O’Meara, two months to clean. Only Goicoechea has sent this V13 so far.
The bouldering areas off this stretch of Highway 2—(from west to east) Gold Bar, Index, Leavenworth and Eniat—have been here since receding glaciers unlocked this sculpted landscape millions of years ago. But only since the early part of the decade have people invested the time to unearth some of the more concentrated groups. While the climbing community in Washington is active and widespread, and countless people have contributed to the development of bouldering here, it is fair to characterize these fledgling areas as the brainchildren of the five young men named above.
The general consensus is that they’ve realized some of the best bouldering anywhere on the continent. The settings—where alpine and rainforest merge—are enchanted and rugged. And the experience is very much a reflection of the small community that curates the climbing and its development. Getting anyone to grade a problem, for example, is like pulling teeth. It’s either “super hard,” “fun,” or “a warm up.” Your individual struggle is what matters.
Now, as word leaks out, climbers are trickling in from all around to try the projects they’ve heard about in e-mails and online forums, or around campfires in the desert. Problems—including some extremely difficult testpieces in recent months—are always going up somewhere in the area.
Take Equinox in Goldbar, for example. This V10, established by Cole Allen, sits on the edge of a steep old clear-cut and overlooks a dramatic panorama of the North Cascades. Snowfields cling to the surrounding crags and the morning fog creeps upriver, tangling in the dense timber of the glacial valley below. Three moves—committing, technical and powerful—catapult you onto a perch above this surreal landscape. Like Hagekure and many of the other compelling problems in this region, Equinox was a personal journey that took place over time between one of these five friends from Seattle and a rock in the woods. All of the problems here seem to have a human story within them. You’ll walk up on someone’s newly scrubbed project and it looks like a meteor that crashed through the big old trees. Bright, denuded of its mud and growth, sitting in stark contrast to the mossy setting.
According to Kelly Sheridan, a 26-year-old law student at the University of Washington and author of the guidebook Central Washington Bouldering, active development of the areas here has been underway for about a decade. But the recent surge of hard problems occurred mainly in the past two years and can be largely attributed to the homecoming of Johnny Goicoechea, 25. An early developer of the harder problems around Leavenworth, he returned to Seattle in 2007 from a hiatus in Boulder and began ticking off a backlog of projects developed by Allen, Campbell, O’Meara and Sheridan in his absence. Goicoechea (pronounced Goy-coh-cheya; a Basque name) has proven himself to be the strongest member of the group, with ascents of problems like the Mandala (sit start, V14) in Bishop and Fata Morgana (sit start, 8a/V13) in Fontainebleau. Lean and cut, with reddish hair and faint freckles, he exudes a positive, humble energy when he climbs. And since his return home, more exploration, development and hard ascents have occurred in the North Cascades than in any years prior.
In 2007, Goicoechea joined Sheridan, Campbell and Allen in renting a house in the blue-collar neighborhood of Ballard, in Seattle—home of the West Coast’s largest commercial fishing fleet. Climbing was the constant focus in the household.
When Sheridan’s guidebook, Central Washington Bouldering, came out that same year, there were 15 uncompleted projects, all double-digit problems. Goicoechea sent 10 of them, quickly. In the spring of 2009, he went back to Boulder and placed 6th in the Men’s ABS nationals.
Johnny’s first ascent of Hagekure (V13) provided an indication of the kind of progress he’s brought to bouldering in Central Washington, and a foreshadowing of what’s to come from him and his partners.
For this article, photographer Garrett Grove invited friends Portia Menlove and Scott Hall, both talented boulderers, out from Salt Lake City to test the waters. Menlove, a product of the elite competitive bouldering circuit, was the 2005 Women’s ABS Champion. After several days touring the areas’ boulders, the couple talked about their experience one night around the campfire in Leavenworth’s Icicle Canyon.
“This is some of the best granite bouldering I’ve ever done in my life,” Hall said. On par with Squamish? “Definitely.”
The moon was bright by the river, lighting up all that quartz in the granite looming over their campsite. Interesting multipitch routes in the area were discussed. Tales of alpine epics in the scrappy North Cascades were shared by the locals present. Then the talk shifted to Gold Bar, where Hall and Menlove would head the next day to check out the Five Star Boulder, a behemoth packed with high-quality, difficult problems. Then it was onto Equinox, which Menlove hoped to project, and finally into a massive undeveloped field of overgrown granite boulders they’d heard was hidden in the woods there. When the visitors from Salt Lake drove home later that week, they were talking about moving here.
Lucas Pollock is a writer based in San Francisco. His work covers a range of topics, from the lives of YouTube censors, to narco-salvaging in the Caribbean, to climbing in his beloved North Cascades.
From Seattle, head north on I-5, then east on Highway 2 at Everett. From Spokane, head directly west on Highway 2. The areas of Eniat, Leavenworth, Index and Gold Bar can all be accessed from the stretch of Highway 2 between the coastal and desert edges of the North Cascades range. Icicle Creek Canyon, in the heart of the Leavenworth climbing area, is a good place to base operations, with several established riverside campgrounds along Icicle Road. From 8 mile campground trips to Gold Bar, Index and Eniat are all about 1 hour by car. Groceries, gear and gas are all available in the town of Leavenworth close by. For specific access information to the bouldering areas, consult Central Washington Bouldering, by Kelly Sheridan, available online at www.sharpendbooks.com. Go to “Guidebooks,” then “State,” then “Washington.” For further online exploration, visit Kelly Sheridan’s blog (www.nwgranite.blogspot.com), or subscribe to the “kellyhowessheridan” channel on YouTube.
Looking for sport climbing in the Pacific Northwest? You’ll ﬁnd plenty in a 100-mile radius of Spokane, Washington.
By Brian Raymon and Mark Polinski Photos by Aaron Black
In 1994 a Spokane resident, Marty Bland, tired of the six-hour drive to Smith Rocks or the eight-hour slog into Canada, resolutely decided—with no real evidence—that there must be sport climbing closer to home. Marty, who stands over 6 feet tall, has ape-like arms and exudes the imposing presence of Paul Bunyan, began scouring geographic maps and driving the northern Colville hills looking for stone. Jammed into Marty’s small Nissan pick-up one day, he, Shawn Tally and Big Russ Schultz found the Marcus Cave. A few days later, armed with a 125-pound generator for an electric drill, a hundred feet of extension cord, and a passion for first ascents, they set to work. A decade later their efforts have culminated in four beautiful sport-climbing areas, all within 100 miles of Spokane.
Spokane sits on the eastern state line of Washington and is typically viewed as a gas stop only for climbers gunning toward the lauded granite of Squamish. Spokane is not just a pit stop, however. This crown jewel of the Inland Northwest offers the most unique and diversified climbing in the tri-state area (Washington, Idaho and Oregon) and has everything from steep limestone caves to tall, fractured basalt to spectacular moderate climbs on slopey jug hauls that overlook Lake Roosevelt.
Unlike the scene at Oregon’s Smith Rock, you won’t find a line for your project reminiscent of an airport security check. Deep Creek, and the three other crags described here, are aesthetic, unsullied and not crowded, with pitches of rock climbing just as good as any you’ll find on that road trip to someplace else.
Inland Northwest Rock Climbs by Marty Bland (www.acmeclimbing.com) | It’ll get you where you need to go and it’s funny. Aside from the areas listed above, the Inland Northwest boasts over 600 routes and at least six other climbing areas.
Camping | Camping is free at China Bend, Marcus and Metaline Falls. Check out the Bowl and Pitcher Campground, which has pay sites, for Deep Creek.
Other Amenities | Spokane is the second-largest city in Washington. Mountain Goat Outfitters is just off the interstate and has all the gear you need. The Elk has great pub grub and a full selection of ales. While visiting China Bend and Marcus, check out Meyers Falls Market for wireless internet and organic fixings. Metaline Falls has a small market in town and a great burger at the Western Star.