With the arrival of fall, many Washington climbers curse the rain that settles over the crags west of the Cascade Crest — but good climbing can still be had on the odd dry day or two. The cooler temperatures and beautiful autumn foliage make for good friction and a scenic day out.
If you’re looking to sneak in some days on the rock this fall and winter, there are many places to climb on DNR land, including some of the best bouldering western Washington has to offer.
For those who are brand new to climbing, first things first: what the heck is bouldering, anyway?
Bouldering is a distinct form of climbing. Boulderers don’t use a rope, relying on crash pads to break their falls, and they climb large boulders (shocking, I know) instead of cliffs. Most routes — which boulderers call “problems” — are between 10 and 20 feet high.
Every boulder problem has a rating that tells you how difficult it is. In North America, the most common rating system is the V scale, which gets its name from boulderer John Sherman, one of the people who created the scale in the 1980s. Sherman’s friends nicknamed him “Vermin,” and the moniker was immortalized as the “V” that comes before each number grade on the scale. This scale starts at VB (for beginner), then goes from V0 to V17 — the grade for what is currently the hardest problem in the world.
Bouldering is one of the fastest growing styles of climbing, and if you’re just getting into bouldering outdoors, these five simple tips should help you enjoy a fun and safe day out.
1) Know before you go
Doing a little bit of research before going to a new area will save you from many potential headaches.
Know where to park your vehicle and how to access the boulders, and download a map of the area before you leave home. The Avenza app gives you offline access to maps of DNR land, and the Mountain Project app can provide information on specific boulder problems.
It’s also worth doing some googling to see if where you’re going has cell reception, but when in doubt, it’s safer to assume you won’t have service. Not being able to find the crag because you didn’t do enough research and have no reception to figure out where to go is a real bummer (ask me how I know).
If you’re new to bouldering outdoors, consider going with someone more experienced who can give you pointers on things like pad placement, spotting, how to move on the rock and how to fall safely. There are also many classes and climb nights out there (including programs that are geared towards women and people of color) if you don’t know anyone who could mentor you.
2) Be prepared
While bouldering is one of the most casual kinds of climbing you can do outdoors, you should still be prepared in case things don’t go to plan.
Always bring the 10 essentials and anything else you would pack for a day in the woods.
One vital essential is a first-aid kit and knowing how to use it. Lower limb injuries are the most common way boulderers get hurt, so at the very least it’s a good idea to have the materials and knowledge to deal with a sprained ankle or broken bone.
Tell someone where you’re going and what time you’ll be back so first responders can find you more easily if you have an accident and aren’t able to call for help (a personal locator beacon like an InReach can let you get in touch with authorities in areas with no service).
3) Boulder with a buddy
Some problems require a spotter — someone who can help direct your body to a crash pad — to keep you from hitting a rock or anything else that’d hurt to fall on.
Other problems might require multiple crash pads for a safe landing. When you go out with partners, everyone can bring one to create bigger landing zones.
Partners can also call for help, give you first aid if you’re injured and help you get back to your vehicle or the hospital if you need it. Plus, unless they’re total jerks, spending the day outside with your friends is just plain fun.
4) Climb with the conditions you find
No one likes having their plans rained out, but given that we live in the Pacific Northwest, you can probably guess what I’m going to say next.
Keep an eye on the forecast and remember that the rock can take time to dry out after a storm. Many boulders are in wooded areas, and the lack of direct sunlight combined with dripping trees can keep things slippery well after the rain has stopped falling.
Overhanging problems may have stayed dry, but if the rock is still damp, use your best judgement in deciding whether to climb or not. Sometimes it’s just too slippery for bouldering to be fun or safe, so it’s good to have some nearby backup activities in mind so you can still enjoy a day outdoors.
5) Minimize your impact
As with any outdoor activity, take care to respect the land and other people’s ability to recreate on it.
Familiarize yourself with the Leave No Trace principles if you haven’t already, keep to established trails, and pack out everything you pack in. Be aware of where you park so you’re not blocking roads or gates.
With the increasing popularity of climbing, more and more people are getting outside, so expect to make some new friends, especially on a nice day. Many bouldering areas are also near other outdoor recreation opportunities, and being courteous with other land users will go a long way toward improving everyone’s experiences.
Get out there
If you like to climb, bouldering can be a great way to take advantage of some dry weather during the fall and winter, and with the right know-how, you can be confident that you’ll enjoy a great day out on the rock.