Jason Griffith

Cold Weather Crags in Washington, Oregon, and BC

There’s more to winter rock climbing in the northwest than pulling on greasy plastic and sneaky a morning at the front side crags of Smith Rock. Washington and Oregon aren’t cragging destinations this time of year, but they do contain enough winter crags to make a few December and January days possible and downright enjoyable on the rock. The trick is finding an area with the holy trinity of necessary traits: sunny, sheltered, and low-elevation.

In Squamish, the smoke bluffs and aptly-named solarium can provide excellent winter conditions and cool temps means the slab routes wont even feel sandbagged! Many Bellingham and Vancouver-area climbers forget about sunny Skaha, BC’s other destination crag just a few hours to the east. Skaha is generally colder than the coastal cities in winter, but has much less precipitation. The rattlesnakes will be hibernating, leaving the crags mostly empty and perfect on calm sunny days, regardless of the air temperature. Winter days at the The Wave, Red Tail, or The Fortress can be perfect.

For Washington climbers, the options traditionally start and end with Vantage. The crags are near the state’s driest and sunniest point, but to escape the wind (and crowds) which typify the columnar climbing of the Sunshine Wall, head downhill to the lower tier of sport crags, such as the jigsaw wall or M&M Wall. The routes are close together, making it a great spot to keep moving for warmth and maximizing pitches on the short days. Other east-side spots worth thinking about are upper Castle Rock in Leavenworth (only if it’s fully sunny) and the Peshastin Pinnacles (it’s often dry and sunny for the masochists who savor questionable bolts and sandstone.) Nearly all of Index’s walls, which generally to face south, receive good winter sun once the leaves have fallen. This time of year can be ideal for upper and lower town wall climbs, especially those which dry quickly, as time between rain spells is usually short. On windy days, The Country stays much more sheltered than other walls in the area, allowing for comfortable t-shirt climbing even when local ice has formed. Guidebook author Darryl Cramer considers this spot “a great place to climb in cold weather (if the sun is shining). Seawash [a bolted 5.11] was first climbed in the low 30s with snow all around. The winds were howling a few feet away from the rock but the person actually climbing was virtually wind free.”

Western Washington’s other often-ignored winter crag is Mt. Erie, near Anacortes. The climbing may not be much to write home about, but the views are outstanding and the walls sit in a minor rainshadow cast by the Olympic Mountains. If you’ve never been, it’s worth a mid-winter visit for a romp up Zig-Zag to the Springboard (5.8) or a lead of Frogs in Space (5.11a) as eagles soar overhead.

Trout Creek, the region’s crack-climbing mecca, stays open for climbing until January 15th before a golden eagle closure begins. Trout can be ideal right up until the closure date. As long as the sun is shining you’ll be warm enough to climb. The west-facing crag tends to remain fairly sheltered from the wind, even if the approach hike is breezy, and the parking lot next to the Deschutes River is gusting. I’ve climbed at Trout creek when the mercury was in the 30s, and if the sun was going full-force, I’d still be sweating. Unfortunately, Trout’s main wall does not receive any morning sun, so there’s almost no chance of climbing before the afternoon.

Smith Rock is far and away the best bet for winter rock in the area. Just avoid the persistent foggy spells (the air temperature may be higher than during clear and cold spells, but direct sun is a requirement in winter) and make sure to plan your visit to catch the rays throughout the day. The ‘front side’ is deservedly popular, but the lower and upper gorge walls remain especially calm and soak in the sun at different times. Start on the east or SE facing climbs, and plan to move along as soon as the sun does. With a little luck and a lot of good planning, you should be able to maintain fitness throughout the winter, though a few greasy plastic sessions probably wont hurt.

Selected Trip Reports on CascadeClimbers.com for each area:

Smith Rock

Trout Creek

Mt. Erie

Mt. Erie (Zig Zag)

Vantage + Vantage

Skaha

Peshastin

About Blake Herrington

Blake Herrington learned to climb while living in Bellingham. He has spent time living in Colorado and Stehekin, WA between expeditions to Alaska, BC, and Patagonia. He lives in Leavenworth, WA where he waits tables, writes articles, and climbs throughout the Cascades between trips to farther-flung spots. He counts himself among the best camp chefs he's had the opportunity to climb with.

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