I’d been told that bouldering in Leavenworth, WA is no fun until you’re at about V4. I’ve heard it’s punishing, hard, and was looked on with skepticism from my bouldering friends when I announced that I was going to start bouldering up there a few weeks ago. Alas — finding regular climbing partners has been a bit less predictable lately, so I’ve wanted to get used to the idea of climbing activities I can do solo with relative safety, and bouldering is my pick. Lizzy from Dream in Vertical said at one point that bouldering has been great for her lead head, which I definitely still need to work on. And, I’ve been climbing routes almost exclusively for the last few months, so my endurance is up, but my power is lacking. For all those reasons, I decided it’s time to expand my climbing to include bouldering outside. In four plus years of climbing, I’ve done precious little outside bouldering; it’s time to change that.
The short version, for those of you who just want the ticklist. Here are the problems, and their locations, that I’ve found fun so far and worthwhile to play on, whether I finished them or not:
The Fridge Boulder: Cool Down (V0-), Cellar Door (V3), Fridge Center (V4)
Barney’s Rubble: The Rail (V0), Tree Crack (V1), Fun House Stairway (V1+)
Mad Meadows: The Scoop (V2)
Lower Forestland: Breadline (V0+)
Upper Forestland: Sunny and Steep (V2)
And, now the long version.
Cool thing about bouldering #1: No alpine start necessary.
Last weekend, I kidnapped my buddy Peter for my first Leavenworth bouldering trip.
We headed out from Kitsap about 7 am; not the 5 am or so I’m used to for climbing trips. We took our time getting out to Leavenworth, stopping for groceries and stove fuel, and to stop in to Der Mountainhausen, otherwise known as Leavenworth Mountain Sports, just for fun. We arrived at our first destination, the Fridge Boulder, at about noon.
We left the Fridge Boulder at about 4 pm.
In the intervening four hours, Peter and I, repeatedly, threw ourselves at the Fridge Boulder, in an exercise some might call “insanity.” We tried, and tried, and tried problems; trying the same thing, over and over, and hoping for a different outcome. Peter was working “Fridge Center,” a classic Leavenworth V4. I was working Cellar Door, a three move V3 that most folks passing through cruised on their first or second go. I have no idea how many times I tried it. The beta: grab starting sidepull / slot (depending on how you want to go), with your feet low on good holds. Move right hand out to a painful crimpy rail, then work your feet way high on a good left, and crappy right foot. Spring up to a sloping ledge then top out. That whole springing up to the sloping ledge is my downfall. That brings me to:
Cool thing about bouldering #2: Some landings, and falls, can be safe.
I tried to spring for that sloping ledge I have no idea how many times. Every time, I came up somewhere between one and six inches short. Over the course of the day, I actually touched the ledge maybe twice, but couldn’t hang on. Every time, I’d either fall away from the boulder and land safely on a single bouldering pad (whether or not I was being spotted), or, I’d slide down the boulder a bit, but even that didn’t cause any damage. I actually had fun flinging myself at the slopey ledge all day, and it was hard to give up on the problem even though I wasn’t making progress. I’ve got to get a little more confident on my feet to be able to push up to the hold instead of unsuccessfully flailing toward it each time, so this is a project I’ll come back to for sure. I didn’t finish the crux of Fridge Center, but the starting moves are delicate and fun and fantastic. I look forward to working that one too, once I’m a bit stronger.
After that we moved on to Mad Meadows where Peter worked a host of harder problems including the unlikely-for-me sit start to Drugstore Cowboy (V3) which looks fun after the start, and we spotted but didn’t get on the Hueco Route (V1) which looked like fun. I became obsessed with The Scoop, a V2 on The Rail boulder. The problem works up a slopey/pinchy sidepull on the left side of a scoop feature on the rock, to a full extension envelope slot on the right side, with (for me, at least) delicate footwork required to make the reach. From there, it’s good holds up to the topout. I tried and tried the start and couldn’t reach the good envelope slot. Finally, on one attempt that didn’t begin on the start holds, I reached the envelope slot, so then I knew I had no excuse. After a few more tries, I gained the envelope slot after starting on the ground, and then really had no excuse. I had to top out. Oh crap.
Cool thing about bouldering #3: Topping out can be fun.
Without hesitation, I carefully, slowly and deliberately worked my hands and feet up toward the topout, and next I knew I was standing on top of the boulder. I was kind of surprised — it happened really fast, and I didn’t get nervous about the top out, even though I assumed I would. Instead, I just thought, “Well, now I just have to get up there,” and I did. It was super fun. If I’d never topped out on anything that day, it would have been a day well spent — I decided early in the day that I’d rather work V3s (which, really, is very ambitious for me) and not finish a single one, than climb V0s in a try or two all day since I’d learn more. It turns out, V2 is a good sweet spot for me at this point. They’re not gimmes, I learn something from them, but some V2s I can finish, so if I get frustrated with a given V3 or V4 I know to try to find a V2 to work for a possible success.
The next day, we were both pretty worked, so the day started out with a roadside pancake making sesh (turns out if you deep fry Krusteaz whole wheat and honey pancakes in canola oil, they taste better than donuts) and then a leisurely migration to the Barney’s Rubble area. This brings us to…
Cool thing about bouldering #4: The vibe.
Climbing is fun, but climbing is also stressful. There’s lining up enough partners that hopefully, by the time you actually leave, at least one won’t have bailed. There’s all the gear, all the sorting, the racking, the preparation, the packing. There’s the seriousness… the first aid kits, the water-enough-for-the-objective, the food, the planning, the routefinding, the approach, and the who’s ta
king first lead. I love it, and I tie in every chance I get, but I gotta say… boulderers are on to something.
Bouldering is pretty freaking chill compared to all that roped-up drama. Peter wasn’t really feeling it on Sunday, but heck, we’re just bouldering, so we loaded up coffee, shoes, chalk bags and the bouldering pads and headed for the Barney’s Rubble area. Peter also brought along a little magic elixir, which he claimed helped him feel better after yesterday’s self-abuse… a part-full bottle of red wine. I climbed The Rail (V0) which was fun, including a nice slabby downclimb, and Tree Crack (V1) which was confidence inspiring and great fun. Tree Crack is a nice thin crack for hands to start, up to sections with good holds for hands and some with thinner hands, requiring a bit of foot-trusting. I can’t vouch for the landing, since it is a bit slabby, since I didn’t come off; I just worked up it and really enjoyed it. It has an easy walkoff, which is also a bonus.
I worked Fun House Stairway (V1+) a bit, but it felt unbelievably hard — I could hardly get into a proper sit start on the start hold.
Really, though, that first weekend we were just pretty hosed. We visited with a few nice passer-by boulderers, and ran into a buddy from our gym who’d relocated, so Peter had some magic elixir, I climbed a few easy / fun boulder problems and snacked on oranges, and we had a nice, chill time. Overall, the other boulderers we met were friendly, warm and relaxed. Every once in awhile you see whatever-the-bouldering-equivalent-of-tossing-a-wobbler is, but mostly, the vibe is relaxed and fun, and I think everybody’s just a little bit happier for not having to hike two hours with 30 pounds of gear.
This last weekend, I went back to Leavenworth, and met new friends Fitz and Becca who shared their campfire with me Saturday night, then the guys rolled in late. Colin lead and I cleaned Classic Crack (5.8) as a warm up on Sunday (fun, hard for the grade, I look forward to leading it someday), then we headed for Barney’s Rubble to start the day. The guys worked Alcove Center (V4, with a V5 dyno variation) and I tried it a handful of times, but after missing the first move enough times to bruise my butt to sore, I decided to back off a bit.
I started VERY slow. I was feeling my Classic Crack warm up, and wasn’t sure I was fully recovered from bouldering the prior weekend, so was pretty nervous to pull too hard too fast. I worked Fun House Stairway a bit, and felt progress, but have yet to finish it. The problem is hard. When I abandoned the far left side of the sloping start hold which everybody else uses, and just crimped on the edge of the hold that made all the difference in the world. I can now make the first few moves (footwork, including using heel hooks, is key for keeping your weight in) so I look forward to getting back to it again.
Cool thing about bouldering #5: It’s fun, even if you don’t finish anything.
I really felt a sense of accomplishment just making improvement on problems, even if I didn’t finish them. On the other hand,
Cool thing about bouldering #6: It’s really fun to actually finish problems.
After everybody had thrashed themselves a bit at Barney’s Rubble, we headed for the Forestland area. The approach is lovely this time of year … bright green leaves, and lots of wildflowers, lining a beautiful trail. I still wasn’t super inspired, while the guys worked some fun hard-looking problems, but didn’t want to miss an opportunity to do a more achievable problem and fired up Breadline (V0+) which was excellent with a good topout. Again, I didn’t even hesitate when I got up high… I just knew I had to finish the problem, and finished it. We moved up to the Upper Forestland area, and while the guys worked some harder stuff, I went a wandering. I fell in love at first sight with Sunny and Steep (V2). Not just because it reminds me of Red Rock, NV… it looked FUN. The start was working up rounded sidepull juggy holds (for my hand size), to get your hands up high on two pretty good sloping ledges, then feet high to push up and left to get a decent sloper; another foot adjustment, then a kind of delicate top out on slopers (it’s not identified as a highball in the guidebook, but I definitely didn’t want to come off it from up high). Colin sailed up it but found the top out a bit slopey and insecure; I watched other climbers do different top outs that looked more secure. I pondered the problem for a long time which the guys worked Funny and Cheap (V4), occasionally trying, getting to the pretty good sloping ledges (the high point where I felt safe dropping from), but then didn’t have the courage to push higher.
I finally started to get cold, and packed up, telling the guys I thought I was done for the day, and was going to head out. I slowly packed up, muttering about “coming back to it,” and “too tired,” and “don’t want to hurt myself,” then decided, screw it, I can do it, and now’s the time.
With a fantastic herd of spotters and four pads, I started up the problem which by now was preprogrammed to my high point. When I got my hands on my high point holds, I don’t remember hesitating, I just remember slapping up and left for the next (not great, kinda more slopey than I was hoping for) hold, and at some point Colin called out just the right beta (“Get your right foot high,” which I did) to basically match hands on the more-slopey-than-I-would-have-liked hold, to get my feet up and reach up for the pretty good first hold of the top out. I was a bit intimidated by the top out before I started climbing, but once I was up there I just dialed myself in, moved very slowly and deliberately, making sure to keep my weight forward so I wouldn’t pull away from the rock if a particular hold wasn’t as good as I expected, and I topped out happily and with a great feeling of accomplishment. I also had a sincere appreciation for my herd of spotters… Once I was up there, I didn’t doubt my ability to top out, but when I threw for that not-so-great sloper, I was thankful to have six hands all there to try to keep my head off the ground if I came off.
Then, I was thankful for yet another roadside cook-out, this time in the parking lot of Der Safewayhausen. Don and Peter went razor clam digging on Saturday, so Don fried and we ate more diggers than I could count, sitting on our bouldering pads in the parking lot, to mostly disapproving or unamused looks and only a few smiles and thumbs up.
I’ve got to take a bit of a break… my fingers and shoulders are pretty worked from all of it… but I’m super excited about incorporating more bouldering into my routine. I know that sometimes I will
get scared when topping out, I think I’ve just been lucky to find problems that I could work through the top outs on, but I LOVE the feeling of confidence I have when I’m working through those top outs… when I know that I just can’t fall, so I have to just do it and succeed. It’s not like me to think that confidently, but at least so far, it hasn’t been forced positive self-talk… it’s just been natural confidence, which feels really unusual and great. Lizzie’s right — I do think that bouldering just might be the best training I could do for lead climbing, since if I can muster that kind of confidence and keep calm on boulders, hopefully I can do the same thing on gear and bolts.
I look forward to tasting more of Washington’s boulders this year, now that I’m excited to get out and boulder. I’m also happy to know that now I have a good eye for problems that might be fun and safe for me to work on my own, with just my bouldering pad, for solo trips or days out when my partners have their own projects.
Most of all, I’m excited to know that I can find good, challenging projects in the V1 through V3 range. You might have to hunt around a bit if you’re a sub-V3 boulderer (like me) but they’re there, and they’re fun!
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