If you look up at a line of granite rock in Leavenworth or crane your neck at a basalt tower in Vantage, there’s a good chance you will find shiny metal bolts hammered into rock that are used by rock climbers as anchors to climb. Route developers put them there.
Many outdoor climbers unknowingly take for granted the thousands of climbing spots that dot Washington scenery.
Roughly 100 route developers in the state are actively scouting out new climbing areas. As rock climbing has continued to surge in popularity and new climbers have taken up the sport, creating and maintaining sustainable climbing areas has been challenging.
In March of 2021, a guidebook marketed to beginners publicized nearby climbing spots that either couldn’t support the traffic flow of a large crowd or were not safe to visit yet. The guidebook bristled Washingtonians in Facebook climbing groups and on Mountain Project, who spoke out with dread in these forums. Normally authors of climbing guidebooks consult the people who set up the climbing routes or they get permission from climbing coalitions, asking if it’s OK to publicize specific recreation areas. This was not the case for the March climbing book.
If ecosystems are threatened or there aren’t enough bathrooms and parking spaces, land managers have been known to step in and shut off access until it’s ready for recreation. Unfortunately, once a site is closed, it can be difficult to reopen it. This is what almost happened to the Frenchman Coulee in Vantage, Washington, in the ’90s after hikers and climbers threatened fragile cryptogamic soil living there. In the years since, climbing organizations, such as the Washington Climbers Coalition, American Alpine Club and The Access Fund, installed a bathroom and delineated trails to keep the Coulee open.
How is a climbing route built?
The mountains that climbers seek are managed by a variety of federal, state and local governments, as well as private property owners. Route developers, most of whom are volunteers, add hardware to mountainsides, replace rusty bolts to limit risk to climbers and keep in touch with land managers to sustain access.
Route developers are typically experienced rock climbers who go out into the wilderness, isolate a line of rock they believe would make a fun climb and start clearing out loose rocks, moss and dirt in the way.
Developers either rappel themselves down the face of a cliff and start drilling holes and hammering in bolts, or they start from the bottom and slowly work their way up.
Garth Donald, an Eastern Washington route developer, takes a subtle approach to route development and doesn’t contact land managers. Currently, Donald has been working on a route between Chelan and Wenatchee on land managed by the United States Forest Service.
Philosophies and protocols can vary from builder to builder, but in Donald’s experience, if no one complains to the land manager, route developers usually build their routes and publicize their completion once it’s safe and ready for use.
Donald considers himself to be a conservative route developer and explained he puts up about 12 routes a year, but he doesn’t want anyone near him until the spot is established.
“Last weekend, I was pulling out boulders the size of microwaves,” Donald said. “I don’t have any respect for keeping a place secret just for the sake of it. But while it’s still being cleaned, there are enough safety issues that I don’t want anyone near me when I’m trundling rocks.”
Donald explained the other issue about publishing a climbing spot that isn’t completed yet: The a route might not be finished.
“I also could have put bolts halfway up, but I don’t have an anchor, and I don’t have any safe way off of it. … If that’s the case, some new climber will climb up it, and they’d get stuck halfway up the route and they’d be in a precarious situation.”
It can dog you
Morgan Heater of the Washington Anchor Replacement Project is determined to go by the book and not rush route development.
Heater said not going through the proper channels can risk losing trail access if a climbing spot is new and becomes popular. Heater explained this is what happened to a spot in Western Washington called Equinox.
The trailhead to the Equinox crag was on private property that was controlled by a nearby Boy Scout camp, but the Boy Scout organization cut off access. What used to be a little over a mile hike with parking became a six-mile trek on a rolling trail, and hikers now have to start the approach on land managed by the Department of Natural Resources.
“If we started that process earlier, we’d probably by now have a convenient way for people to get there,” Heater said. “If the land managers in the area aren’t used to climbers and don’t sort of feel like that’s part of one of the big user groups, then they feel pretty OK about shutting down access.”
Heater said that going through the channels to gather the proper paperwork helps build a history of use that climbers can later point to as justification for access. Heater explained that it’s these smaller climbing areas that run the risk of being shut down.
“If no one’s gone through and done all that work to make sure that there’s some sort of climbing or access management plan that’s written down somewhere that guarantees climbers some sort of a right to use of land, then there’s a good chance that at some point it will get shut down if it gets popular and the local managers don’t like it,” Heater said.
Heater doesn’t believe established climbing areas in Washington will ever have access cut off, pointing to the Leavenworth area as an example. He does think that overcrowding could urge land managers to increase their restrictions on parking and overnight backcountry camping.
Heater isn’t worried Washington will suddenly not have enough climbing routes to support the community. Yet he does worry there is a shortage of people replacing and checking the safety of bolts and anchors that secure climbing routes and have likely degraded overtime.
“There’re a lot of routes out there that were put up in the ’60s, ’70s or even ’90s,” Heater said, pointing out how quickly bolts can rust. “There’re thousands of routes and thousands of bolts that really should be replaced.”
Whose job is it to educate?
Gabriel Cisneros, a Washington Climbers Coalition board member, has noticed a significant change in outdoor climbing since his move to Seattle in 2000.
Cisneros said that almost all the popular climbing areas, such as Vantage, Leavenworth, Index and Gold Bar, are crowded compared to when he first started climbing in the state.
“The biggest issue right now is it’s just getting so big,” Cisneros said. “There’s just not enough parking or bathroom needs.” According to Cisneros, WCC has been working with local municipalities, like Index, to increase parking, but it’s been hard to keep up with the demand.
“It could happen where the parking at Index gets so bad and people are parking along streets, that the citizens there could get fed up with it and get the parking area closed and start ticketing people,” Cisneros said.
Cisneros attributes the increase in the sport to the tech boom that has drawn large groups of people to Seattle and the popularity of indoor climbing gyms.
“Climbing gyms are becoming really popular now, and there’s a lot more now in Seattle,” Cisneros said. “Climbing gyms don’t steal climbers from other climbing gyms; they create new climbers.”
Cisneros believes indoor gyms bear some of the responsibility in educating new climbers and wants to see more classes offered that educate new climbers in ways to lower their impact on the environment and the crags they frequent.
Meryl Lassen, the Communications Consultant with Washington State Parks and Recreation Commission, confirms: “Everything on the I-90 corridor is exploding right now.”
Lassen said that in 2020 alone, Parks and Recreation saw exponential growth in participation in the outdoors across its parks in all disciplines. “Whether it was rock climbing, hiking or camping, everything has exploded,” Lassen said.
Exit 38 is the gateway to a climbing spot in Olallie State Park that is well known in the climbing community by this highway I-90 marker. Lassen explained that due to the proximity to Seattle, there will always be a large crowd of people vying for routes like this one. “There are a ton of routes in that area, but there’s also a lot of popularity,” Lassen said.
Lassen encourages outdoor enthusiasts not just to check out the known popular sites, but to explore the 144 state parks Washington has to offer.
“Go see something new,” Lassen said. “We’re emerging from this COVID cocoon and people are starting to travel again, so why not.”
Samira George has climbed for eight years, mainly in the Wasatch mountains and Moab Desert in Utah. She’s been exploring Washington’s climbing locations for the last year.
Read more of the June 9-15, 2021 issue.