Forestland in Leavenworth, Washington, is a popular sport for bouldering, a user-friendly and low-tech form of rock climbing.
Take a drive down Leavenworth’s Icicle Road during the next month or so and you’ll no doubt see a curious sight: folks heading up into the hills wearing backpacks so big you’ll wonder if they’ve stuffed refrigerators inside.
Actually, these hearty folks — boulderers is what they’re called, and bouldering is what they’re setting out to do — are carrying crash pads, large slabs of foam used to protect them should they fall.
Unlike the roped rock climbing for which Icicle Canyon and the Leavenworth area are renowned, bouldering is a decidedly low-tech type of rock climbing done relatively close to the ground so that a rope and a belay are not needed. Most bouldering routes — called problems — top out at less than 12 feet.
“Bouldering is getting really big right now,” says Leavenworth’s Matt McKellar, an avid boulderer and climbing specialist at Leavenworth Mountain Sports.
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“It’s more user-friendly than roped climbing. You don’t need ropes or any technical gear; all you need is a crash pad, some rock shoes, a friend to spot you, and you’re set.”
A couple weeks ago, I tagged along with McKellar to Forestland, a popular bouldering spot accessed from an unmarked gravel road about 5.5- miles down Icicle Road after you turn off U.S. Highway 2.
After a short hike from a gravel parking lot, we arrived at a stretch of open pine forest populated by house-sized granite boulders that have tumbled down over the years from the upper reaches of Icicle Ridge.
Populated, too, by climbers Marcus Boyd and Ryan Sanyon, bouldering enthusiasts from Sydney, Australia, and by Leavenworth’s Keri Carlton. With Led Zeppelin, New Order and Oasis playing from a boom box, they lounged about on crash pads taking a breather from a morning spent spidering up the rock, solving various bouldering problems.
“There’s a big social element to bouldering,” McKellar had told me earlier and which I now saw firsthand. “A lot of bouldering is just hanging around outside in beautiful places with your friends.”
Forestland boasts myriad boulders offering problems for climbers of all abilities — from never-evers to the hard-core. And its easy accessibility — a 10-minute drive from downtown Leavenworth and a five-minute walk from the parking lot — make it a great place for families or anyone interested in giving the sport a try.
At the base of the Real Thing, a 10-foot-high granite block, McKellar dropped his crash pad and got down to cleaning out some spots on the rock using a Lapis brush — like an extra-long toothbrush, but with boar’s hair bristles.
“It pulls the skin oils off the rock, and helps keep the friction high,” he said. “Bouldering is all about friction.”
Friction refers to how easy the rock is to grip with one’s hands and feet. Climbers say that the summer heat here in the canyon makes the rock feel slippery.
“But with the cooler temperatures like now, it feels almost sticky,” Carlton said. “It’s easier to grip, and that makes it easier to climb.”
With one person climbing and the other three standing below, hands up to catch the climber should they fall, McKellar, Boyd, Sanyon and Carlton took turns making their way up the perpendicular rock face of the Real Thing.
Each ascent took only one or two minutes, but required a concentrated burst of energy mixing technique, strength and balance that had each boulderer out of breath by the time they reached the top. It’s a workout, that’s for sure.
Bored? Just move on
After a few times up, each boulderer trying different problems, McKellar and Carlton took advantage of bouldering’s mobility. They dragged their crash pads about 10 yards ’round the corner, as it were, to the base of the Shield, an overhanging granite flake offering many challenging problems of its own.
“This is the hard move here,” McKellar explained, pointing out barely discernible holds on the rock.
“You go ‘bump-bump-bump’ and then you’ve got to use a bit of English to get over here and then up top.”
With Carlton spotting, McKellar made his way across and up, poking his fingers in the tiniest of cracks, gaining foot purchase on the tiniest of ledges. He appeared to defy gravity, somehow not only holding on but methodically making progress across and up the granite block.
“Nice job, Matt!” Carlton said when McKellar made it to the top.
“Let’s head on up a little higher,” McKellar said.
Packing up their crash pads, they hiked a hundred yards or so up the trail to another boulder, Sunny and Steep. And on and on, and bump-bump-bump they went, spending the rest of the afternoon solving one bouldering problem after another.