Climbing In The Pacific Northwest

Published in Sports Etc. Magasine, Aug. 1998

By A. Michael Kundu, Director, Project SeaWolf

Sacred. Spiritual. Transcendental. Proverbially speaking, this is where, if I could, I would build my Church.

High above Railroad Grade on the glaciated mantle of Mount Baker, the North Cascade range shines above a perpetual sea of jag-toothed seracs. Valhalla. The underworld is lost in the ascending slope-fog, a rolling sea of atmospheric smoke and mist that seems otherworldly. I feel at home, unwilling to leave.Each of us engaged in climbing harbors a favorite place. To the technical rock climber, that place may be a granite 3-pitch route suitable for vertical ballet; to the alpinist, it may be a long ivory trail over a crystal glacier. These places hold separate meaning for each. Self-challenge, sanctuary, seclusion or simple reawakening of spirit.

Climbing routes are like sacred places. You discover one and relish it in private, and each new soul that stumbles across your hideaway is seen as an intruder. So when Sports Etc. asked to write an article about ‘favorite places’ from the perspective of northwest climbing guides, I knew that my very research would be seen as somewhat intrusive. Nevertheless, a handful of respondent guides offered to share some of their favorite places with me, and ultimately you, the reader.

Unless one is prepared to haul heavy gear across miles of trails in their approach, routes are generally limited by accessibility from a roadway. Particularly those suitable for day or sport climbing. On alpine ascents, that factor is somewhat negated, since most snow-covered peaks require a longer and more committed effort of carrying gear away from the access roads across meadows and through forest approaches.

“For climbers, a place as large as the Pacific northwest would seem filled with top-notch routes and approaches, but if you consider certain technical limitations, the vast acreage rapidly decreases in scope, so it’s a bit more difficult to find totally isolated places,” reports Steve Guthrie, co-owner of Bellevue-based Cascade Alpine Guides, who has been climbing in the northwest for a large part of his 25-year climbing history. Whenever he isn’t leading expedition abroad in exotic locations like Kilimanjero in Africa or Aconcagua in South America, Guthrie might be found in the well-known reaches of Leavenworth’s Icicle Creek.

When asked about his personal favorite, Guthrie chuckles; “There’s a classic climb about an hour’s hike up from the Snow Creek trailhead off Icicle Creek Road,” says Guthrie. “It’s called ‘Outer Space’; a classic multi-pitch 5.9 climb (which means it’s not suggested for the beginner) that draws a fair amount of attention during the week.” Guthrie recommends that anyone interested in trying the route take a day off during the week, when it is relatively private; “You’d be reducing the line-ups on the weekend, and you could practically climb naked during the early part of the week.”

Kobey Connelly of Seattle’s Mountain Madness cites specific alpine approaches on Washington’s Mount Adams as among his favorites. An instructor since 1993, Connelly has climbed throughout the region and teaches courses as specialized as wilderness mountaineering and glacier/crevasse rescue. Connelly also cites the Icicle Canyon region as an excellent rock climbing destination, primarily since some of its routes are an excellent training ground for indoor gym climbers who are transitioning to real rock. But my discussion with Connelly focuses on the other form of climbing that the northwest is famous for; alpine mountaineering.

“For mixed glacier and alpine style climbing, the volcanoes in the Cascades area excellent. One of my favorites, Mount Adams, is relatively ignored by the western Washington crowd,” says Connelly, “ But the volcano has some stellar routes.” Connelly brings up the Bird Creek Meadows approach, which involves driving through the Yakima Indian Reservation (don’t forget your Forest Service Tract D permit) to F.S. Roads 8290 and 285. “The Mazama Glacier route is brilliant on a sunny day,” adds Connelly. “The icefalls are beautiful, but since the rock underneath is so unstable, require more technical skill to circumnavigate than some other approaches from the south side of Adams. Near the summit, Connelly also references some interesting side trips that add to his appreciation of Mount Adams. “If you come from the south along Battlement Ridge over the Klickitat Glacier, you get a great side trip opportunity to the ‘Castle,’ a characteristic headwall with a spectacular drop. One other interesting thing that you will find there is a memorial to Claude Rusk, one of the pioneer climbers of the North Cascades.”

Ray Holland, President of Timberline Mountain Guides in Government Camp, Oregon, is also a fan of the volcanoes. Holland, a veteran climber with 27 years of experience, has sampled all of what the North Cascades has to offer -- ice, rock, alpine and expedition grade climbing. Holland speaks fondly of his local Mount Hood in Oregon, and more specifically, Smith Rocks, a favorite regional rock climbing destination. “If you’ve got basic skills and common sense, Smith Rock very likely has a route for you,” says Holland. “And if you don’t mind walking in a bit, there are also many other coveted routes away from the public eye, along with perhaps some of the best thin and variable crack climbing in the entire northwest. That’s part of what makes this State Park so desirable.”

Holland quickly adds that the commitment to most formal routes on Smith Rocks’ ‘Monument’ requires an ability to conduct two or three pitch climbs -- an intermediate level skill -- confidently. “Of course, if you want a summary comment, I would add that there’s the big trade off that the State Park is also easily accessible for high numbers of climbers -- first come, first serve!” Holland chuckles.

During the development of this story, I joined Mountain Madness’ Kobey Connelly and his colleague Cecelia Mortensen, also a guide for the company, in some climbing and photography at another of the their favorite practicing grounds near Index, Washington. Mortensen talks about our target route, a challenging 5.9 lead practicing route called ‘Godzilla’ and its neighboring run ‘City Park.’ These routes, again, are not for the uninitiated, since top-roping is not feasible on these technical two and three pitch climbs. “This is an excellent place for people to practice leading and aid climbing,” says Mortesen, who adds that many of the company’s guides spend their leisure time climbing in Index. Mortesen was speaking truth, since later on that morning, we meet Jim Trembley, who handles marketing for Mountain Madness, and co-owners Chris and Keith Boskoff, who also spend the remainder of the afternoon climbing near our location.

“Just west of our location is perhaps the most well known and popular beginner/intermediate climb in Index,” adds Mortesen. “It’s called Grand Northern, and its less dramatically angled slope is not quite as technical, and more suitable for people who are training themselves on lead skills.” Grand Northern, is still a challenging climb, and beginners will want to make sure that they contact a professional guiding service for rock-solid training before venturing out on their own.

There was consensus among some of the guides I spoke with about nice training areas for amateur and beginner climbers who live in the northwest. One location mentioned, Pasasten Pinnacles State Park in the Wenatchee/Cashmere area, provides an excellent variety of boulders and pinnacles to practice handholds and footwork while under the protection of a top-rope. Another recommended location was Larrabee State Park in Bellingham, which provides excellent top-roping opportunities and training routes for those climbers who are still developing their technical skills for the more lead-inclined routes previously mentioned.

Alternatively, the skilled amateur mountaineer might consider going further north to Mount Garibaldi north of Vancouver, BC, a distinctive Cascade volcano that lies just off the sea to summit highway heading toward Whistler in Canada. It should be understood that mountaineering, even for skilled beginners, requires a thorough understanding of avalanche and rockfall danger, and it is crucial that readers recognize the importance of learning some fundamental mountaineering and self-rescue skills, including the ability to read and access avalanche and rockfall/rock instability danger. An ascent up Garabaldi’s Warren Glacier route takes about 10 hours to complete, but still yields the possibility of crevasse danger in the later part of the season. Once climbers reach the Garibaldi Neve (the glacier travel begin, the scenery is utterly stunning and classically alpine in flavour. Ken Campbell, a climbing guide with Tahoma Outdoor Pursuits in Tacoma, notes that this day climb is one of the most scenic ones he has taken within driving distance of Vancouver, Canada.

“As far as mountaineering accessibility is concerned, there are also a number of other climbs in the northwest that may be suitable for a skilled -- and I emphasize the termed skilled -- beginning climber,” says Campbell. “Mount Bakers Railroad grade is a great route for mountaineers familiar with basic crevasse rescue and glacier travel techniques. Other options might be the West peak of Mount Olympus in the Olympic Mountain range on the peninsula.” Campbell comments that this route, which winds gradually upward along the Blue Glacier spillway after the Hoh Valley trail, is relatively easy as far as routine mountaineering approaches are concern. “I would emphasize, however, that the idea of a mountaineering route being ‘relatively easy’ still assumes that the climber is knowledgeable of the basic skills of the trade,” concludes Campbell.

“That point must be crystal clear. Don’t ever be overconfident!

- End -

Michael Kundu, Founder & Director of Project SeaWolf

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