The Pacific Northwest is known for a lot of things: water, trees — and mountains. And all those mountains are a bounty for those who love rock.
On Day 1 of a recent multiday mountaineering and alpine-skills course, the Bellingham-based American Alpine Institute took its students climbing at Mount Erie, near Anacortes. Tagging along with a group of fit mountain lovers from around the country, I wondered if the institute tackled Erie to impress the out-of-towners with the area’s beauty on their first day.
The mountain isn’t huge, but it’s dramatic: On one side, its slope breaks off into cliffs that seem to drop straight into the green, yellow and blue carpet of low hills, valleys and water below.
For a beginner like me, that made climbing there both exhilarating and a bit scary — especially when the climb started with a rappel down from the top. When you can’t see any bottom besides the valley a good 1,200 feet below, going over the edge feels like a leap into nothing.
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Paul Rosser was our instructor for the day. He’s an Army Reserve officer with experience training special-operations forces as well as climbers and mountaineers. Although he joked with his students and insisted that no one call him “sir,” he is clearly used to giving directions.
Starting with the basics
Before we rappelled to the foot of the cliff, he went over what kind of gear we would be using, how to grab onto rock with feet and hands and the all-important knots we’d need to make. We covered bouldering and a bit of scrambling, with Rosser demonstrating techniques, before we did an actual climb.
“I know we’re spending a lot of time talking about basic stuff, but if you don’t get the basics right, you won’t have a good foundation to build on later,” Rosser said.
People had told me I might like climbing. I didn’t believe them until I tried it. But as a longtime fan of mountains, I found it an ideal, if daunting, way to get as close as I possibly could to the sturdy stone whose feel and even smell I love.
And there’s no denying the combination of workout and meditation that draws many of us to the hills in the first place.
“People need something to motivate them to do things. Not only is rock climbing an outdoor activity, there are a lot of skills that transfer into other areas of life,” said Jaime Pollitte, a program director at Mountain Madness, another local guide company. “One of the things people get out of doing something like climbing is that they gain an awareness of how they deal with challenges and what they can do.”
He mentions Seattle-based climbing icon Fred Beckey, “the oldest climbing bum in the world,” who at 90 is still climbing after seven decades of scaling rock faces.
Where to go
You don’t need to be a pro to get your hands on a cliff face around here. Washington’s terrain is both varied and accessible, with plenty of options for beginners. Some of the country’s best mountaineering schools teach within a few hours of Seattle.
One great thing about climbing is that, by definition, climbing spots tend to be in ruggedly beautiful places. “When I reflect on my experiences with climbing, even when I’ve felt more like I was pursuing a physical endeavor, when I look back on it I think of the places it took me,” Pollitte said.
Here are some favorite spots for entry-level climbers:
• Leavenworth, Chelan County: With many small crags and a variety of features, as well as multiple routes for different climbing styles, Leavenworth is a go-to spot for beginning climbers. Easy access to lodging, other recreation and beer don’t hurt.
• North Bend: There are a few good areas for beginners along Interstate 90, especially at Exit 38. You’ll find very good introductory climbing and nice views. Perhaps most important, it’s easy to get to from Seattle. The spot can get crowded, and you’ll be surrounded by climbers of various abilities and attitudes; be sure you emulate the smart ones.
• Mount Erie: It’s easy to set up a beginner-friendly top-rope situation (where the anchors are at the top rather than placed along the route), since trails approach the climb from both the top and the bottom. The routes themselves aren’t as varied as they are in some other places. Its biggest single asset is the spectacular scenery.
• Mazama, Okanogan County: Climbs here are varied and easily accessible, with great entry-level climbing. But the Methow Valley is a bit of a haul from Seattle.
• Frenchman Coulee: With drier, warmer weather than Western Washington, this spot just past Vantage near I-90 is a good spot for nonsummer climbs. There’s lots of camping nearby. The downside: It’s hard to know which routes are safe. Go with someone who has a good knowledge of the area.
Christy Karras is a Seattle-based freelance writer.