Seasoned climber and writer Blake Herrington took time to tell us about his experiences climbing at Washington Pass and what the area means to him.
I was a 19-year-old student when I first climbed at Washington Pass, an area of steep granite spires in Washington’s North Cascades. I was carless and had found a partner (primary qualification: own a car) through a climbing website. I remember fretting over potential temperatures and snow conditions, and I still recall the first route I did – an 800-foot 5.8 on the highest spire in the Liberty Bell group. I repeated this route, with some 5.10 variations, as a “date” with my now wife, Allison. In the last nine years I have climbed abroad and returned to Washington Pass dozens of times, banking up a list of memories, completing new routes, and bailing amid dead ends and storms. I’ve learned about my abilities and my skills as a partner, making Washington Pass a great yardstick to return to and measure myself against.
My first visit to “the pass” occurred shortly after I had been taught the basics of rappelling, belaying, and prusiking while hanging amid the sappy limbs of a pine tree outside the cabin of prolific local adventurers Bob and Tammy Nielsen. Bob took me out on some of my first climbs, which soon progressed from evergreens to more substantial summits, and later grew to include experiences in other countries and continents. This spring, my wife and I were privileged to take Eli Nielsen, an eighth-grade dynamo and son of Bob and Tammy, out for his first trad climb. We chose the same route that had been our first climb in the area.
Every May, the road to access this part of the North Cascades gets plowed and seasonally opens, but walls of snow line the shoulders for weeks. We were able to put on ski boots and skin our way the 2,000 feet to our route from the car. The line we’d chosen, like many classic long traditional routes, throws a little of everything at the climber. There’s some vertical crack sections, slabby smearing on low-angle terrain, blocky down climbing, and for us, even a mad-dash of slushy post-holing to cross a snowfield on the descent. Such diverse terrain is best handled by a versatile shoe like the Techno, or the newly updated Techno X. The full-length lace design allows one to tighten down the fit and eliminate wiggle and gaps on the harder pitches, while creating a more relaxed fit on the easier climbing. A friend of mine swears by them for his technical edging challenges in Colorado’s Eldorado Canyon, and I find their pointed toe perfect for thin splitter. An added bonus is the lack of painful and lace-severing metal grommets common to other brands.
Young Eli, despite being just 14, even managed the 5.10 crack pitch without falling. He also showed good judgment on the down climb, and took care to double-check all his rappels. Amid a few spurts of hail and rain we took our time throughout the day, stopping under caves and overhangs to wait out the weather and answer questions Eli asked my wife and me. It was tremendously rewarding to come full-circle on such a classic route. The mentorship tradition in climbing is becoming less common, but I was fortunate this spring to get to repay some of the knowledge I’d been taught. I hope that the lessons I dispensed may even have included some interests others helped me build along the way.