The Castle

Not that Steve and I don’t like rock climbing, but we’d hoped for a real mountain this weekend. Sloan Peak via the Corkscrew Route was our goal, but after two beautiful weather days, the clouds came rolling in as I left work on Friday, eager to create a typical rainy, cloudy weekend.

Steve made the drive up from Portland anyway (bravely!), and we drove out highway 2 for Castle Rock, a multipitch crag just west of Leavenworth. Light snow then fierce rain chased us down from the pass, things improving marginally. We parked the car 1 mile east of rain casting a jaundiced eye at the clouds above. We’re going up anyway!

Steve had picked a route on the Lower Castle (The Fault (5.6)) so we could climb rather than hike to Logger’s Ledge, which divides the Castle in half. I got the first pitch, an easy crack up and beyond a bush to a tree belay. On this lower part of the rock, many of the cracks were filled with soil, moss, grass, whatever. This makes it harder to place protection as you climb, so I was glad the climbing was pretty easy. I passed the tree, and went 20 feet higher to a comfortable ledge, and watched the Tumwater River and cars below. The sun peeked out occasionally. Steve came up and our route turned into exploration, since the guidebook left the 2nd pitch with a very vague description. He ended up traversing a grassy ledge off to the right, I followed and then belayed from a tree as he headed up on mossy ledges. We didn’t know which way to go, so he had to find a route with careful advancement and occasional down-climbing. Finally, a good belay ledge was found, and I followed, kind of enjoying the green, mossy nature of the climb.

Now, at Logger’s Ledge we were ready to climb the classic Midway Direct, rated 5.6. It starts with a climb of Jello Tower, in a crack which divides the tower from the face of upper Castle Rock. Steve had led this before, so I took the lead this time. Ancient pitons pounded into the rock by pioneers in the 1940’s added a sense of history to the climb. I went ahead and attached the rope to these rusty relics, figuring that if they lasted this long, they’ll protect me too! I really enjoyed this climb, because it requires the climber to do a little bit of everything: placing your back against a wall and inching upward. Twisting your upper body as you look for holds with one foot on the tower, the other on the wall. The fun ended quickly, and I was in the sun on the tower, belaying Steve up. We congratulated each other on the adventures thus far, and Steve took the sharp end of the rope (a joke) for the next lead.

This pitch begins with a bang, because the climber makes an awkward step off of the tower, committing himself to the wall of Castle Rock. Leaving the tugboat for the barge, Steve made it look easy and climbed straight up a fracture to an indentation he could belay me up from. But we both felt adventurous, and were betting that there would be something ahead, just out of sight. He climbed on, receding beyond the horizon of rock above me. The wind picked up and the rope was running out. Finally, with no rope left, I felt a firm tug and could give no more. Praying that he found a belay spot, I dis-attached myself from the tower and stepped off. Steve pulled in the slack so I knew I could relax that he wasn’t still climbing up into space!

Halfway up this enjoyable climb, I took a wrong turn, getting myself under a bulge of rock that couldn’t be climbed (“by me” is implied!). I had to back down, but Steve had pulled me tight! Suddenly, it started raining hard, and the licheny rock became slippery. I was stuck until Steve got the picture and gave me a little rope so I could back down and come the right way. Due to the wind, even though he was only 35 feet above, he didn’t hear my bellows of rage! Once beyond that, the climbing got harder as the rock became slippery…I worried about what was ahead. Fate smiled on us, because Steve was at the top, with a dizzying vantage point down to the highway. We looked down on his tiny car, happy that all of our upward progress came from roped climbing.

We headed 5 miles east into Leavenworth, where the sun was shining. Wolfing some burgers among the Winnebago set, we planned to head back west into Icicle Canyon for the rest of the day. Despite occasional rain, we got by without hindrance. We top-roped the “Piller de Cowboy Boot” and it rudely spit us off again and again. This feature on Trundle Dome can be climbed by a hand crack which grinds skin off the climber’s knuckles like a cheese grater. We finally gave up, stomping through poison ivy to retrieve the rope and find an expanse of rock more forgiving.

Settling on Mountaineer’s Dome, we climbed unnamed cracks for 3 pitches to the top. Up to now, Steve and I had been very careful about knowing exactly what was ahead on a route, but now were beginning to enjoy the exploratory aspect of climbing. When the climbing is well within your ability it is akin to leaving the trail, hunting for hidden flowerpatches or viewpoints!

We hobbled down a boulder field in climbing shoes, then reached the car at dark. A good meal at Gunther’s recharged our batteries, and we decided to drive for Vantage that night. With marginal weather here, we figured that going further into the desert would give us a better chance for a rain-free day. By midnight, we were bivied at the Vantage campground, falling asleep to visions of movement over stone, the clinking of metal hardware, and wind roaring through a canyon of dreams.

Day 2 : Vantage

Located in the Central Washington steppe, Vantage climbing is done on basalt cliffs above sagebrush flats near the Columbia River. Miles of wavy hills and valleys provide a lonely backdrop for climbers working their way up the steep walls. Intrepid climbers discovered the cliffs in the 1950’s, first naming Agaltha Tower, and climbing on The Feathers. In the 1990’s, Vantage became a household when new routes on the Sunshine Wall began attracting climbers in greater numbers.

Pop tarts and water for breakfast, then a quick hike over a ridge started the day. As usual, we were up before (almost) everyone else, enjoying the smugness of the early riser. The trail down from the ridge to Sunshine Wall contained the coolest (semi)-natural feature I’ve ever seen: the trail leads to the edge of a cliff, then descends into a tunnel between standing columns of basalt. The width of a mobile-home central hallway, the tunnel takes you down between high walls with occasional “windows” to the expansive canyon below. There is just enough room for a few people going one direction, so those wanting to head back up have to wait for downhill hikers to emerge from the rabbit hole. Really neat!

Steve led the classic Peaceful Warrior (5.6), the first of many entirely bolted routes for the day. Emboldened by the bolted protection, we moved on to harder climbs, first Clip ‘em or Skip ‘em (5.8), which actually had too many bolts – I was tiring from the effort of clipping, and found it easier to just keep climbing. We both enjoyed this climb, it goes straight up a column with numerous fragmented “dinner plate” hand and footholds.

Then the crowds began to trickle through the rabbit hole, and we ended up down at the M & M wall, attempting a climb of “High Five” (5.8). Steve got halfway up, took a wrong turn to wavy sloping rock on the right, and the next instant he was hanging from the rope 12 feet below, and I was bouncing down from an impact with a small rock tower, caused by the fall. We were happy that I caught him, but a little shaken by the event! I had a scrape on my knee and Steve didn’t even have a bruise.

Okay. My turn. The climb felt “haunted” as I climbed up to his last piece of protection, and continuing on to the fall area required wrestling with a few inner demons. However, Bob S. taught me a move last summer (“the drop knee”) which easily got me past the bulge and allowed me to finish the climb safely. Then Steve and I both did the climb on top-rope, discussing the variety of techniques called for. Now, nothing motivates a climber like a climb that defeats him, or makes him feel defeated. Steve is gunning for a lead of this climb, and I’m sure he’ll have it soon.

I followed Steve back to the car for some lunch, then we did 3 short climbs at the Feathers, a collection of short detached pillars. They each had their charm, and by the end, we’d had enough climbing. We sped away on I-90 around 4, finishing the day with a crazy little climb at Marymoor Park where our weary dis-organizational mishaps required convoluted “fixup” procedures. The End.