Caves, Cracks, Pitches!
Three day weekends are really becoming our jam. We can cover a lot of ground in Vanatoli, and it’s fun to see how much we can cram into three days. On this particular weekend we got us some serious variety!
The story starts with our very systematic hitting of the road Friday evening after I got off work. What was slightly different about this trip was the distance we were going to cover in such a short amount of time. Night one goal was to get to somewhere on Hwy 503 by Mt. St. Helens, and find a good spot to crash. Nothing too exciting there. At about 11pm we found a beautiful little pullout on the north side of the Swift Resevoir and crashed hard.
The excitement was high in the morning. The goal? To make the 1.5mi hike through the upper Ape Caves underground lava tube. Awesome right?! We packed our bags with headlamps, extra batteries, snacks, layers, and headed up the trail to find the main entrance. We chose to skip the more moderate lower tunnel, and start right off the bat down into the upper cave which is much longer and more of an “intermediate” skill experience. These lava tubes are beyond words. With a little research I found out they were made about 2,000 years ago from a previous Mt. St. Helens eruption. The upper cave is definitely the more ambitious of the two. We came upon numerous sections where there were large boulder piles in the cave, and we had to scramble up and over them. Some sections required even a little class 3 scrambling, albeit the exposure is obviously quite low.
Some sections of the cave were very cavernous while others constricted down to where I had to squat down and walk through. The colors of the rock were just stunning! The ceilings were covered with some sort of extremely reflective white mineral that would give the illusion of glitter all over. There is no lights, no markers, no nothing in the upper cave. At some points you’d have to scramble up on top of a 20ft tall boulder pile and it would look for a second like you were just going to top out right into the ceiling, but then at the last step you’d see a little path where you could scramble back down into a dark hole and out into another cavernous section.
Between Kim, Auden, and myself I can’t count how many times we muttered, “This is so freakin’ cool!”. Sections of the walls would all the sudden would change rock and look almost like someone threw massive buckets of orange paint on it the color was so vivid and intense. The whole thing took us around 2hrs or so, and we finally crawled up the metal ladder at the end to regain daylight. Another neat surprise was how beautiful the hike back was. Fall colors were in full effect, and the there was just something mystical and magical about the scenery on the way back. I’ve put a lot of trail miles in, and I’m really not sure what it was about that area I found so unique. Maybe it was the lava rock along the trail? Maybe the flora? Honestly, I’m really not sure. I just know I felt very free and revived coming back down that trail.
From there we hopped back in the van and headed up NFD 25 towards Randle, WA. I can’t say it was a “fast” section of road, but wow was it beautiful. The fall colors were on vibrant display, and the forest canopy overhanging the southern section of the road looked to be out of a J.R.R. Tolkein book. We stopped at an overlook of Mt. St. Helens, and chatted with some friendly bikers out for a sunny day ride. God I love Washington!!! Despite the road being slow, very steep, and really beat up in sections it was a very enjoyable drive that filled the day with some incredible scenery. For those who haven’t been on it, Hwy 12 is really weird in that area. I mean you’re driving through dense forest for what seems like hours then all the sudden BAM! The trees stop and you’re in instant typical eastern Washington rock and desert. Very interesting indeed, but a beautiful transition. We stopped and watched some people rip around on quads and dirtbikes on the dry lakebed of Rimrock Lake (I think), and that provided a great bit of excitement for Auden to break up the car ride.
Finally hitting the Oak Creek Wildlife Area outside of Tieton, WA we were at our goal for the day. Well… kinda. You see we made much better time than we thought, and despite Auden’s excitement to get some crack climbing in immediately I wanted to make sure to pace him and Kim’s climbing due to our lofty goals on day 3. So instead, we hopped back in the van and headed into Yakima to see the movie “First Man”, and grab some food at the local Bob’s. BTW… great movie!
Sunday morning brought clear chilly skies, but the perfect weather outlook we had hoped for. We were at the Tieton Crags, and it was time to get some crack climbing in! Both Auden and Kim did great, with no question the gold star award going to Kim for the day. Auden didn’t do too bad, but I have to admit he wasn’t on his A game that day. Kim was a rockstar, and even gutted her way up Nimrod’s Nemesis which is a VERY stiff Tieton 5.6. I’d easily rate it a 5.8 anywhere else. I’m not sure what, how, or why, but at some point Auden got super scared of being lowered back down. I find this kinda weird because he’s NEVER had that fear. Maybe it was just something that day. I’ll be keeping an eye on it though because it really rattled his cage, and I don’t want it to grow further. We headed back to the van around 3:30pm and enjoyed a beautiful late lunch/rest while gawking at the golden sunshine on the hills of the Wildlife Area. The Tieton area is really hard to put into words. It’s definitely got that eastern Washington feel to it, but there’s a lot more oak trees and bushes mixed in to help break up the landscape. The basalt columns that create the crags are massive, and if you haven’t seen columnar basalt before it’s definitely quite the experience. Auden and I snuck away sat down that evening in the gravel in the parking lot for a little one-on-one talk. I needed to talk with him about the seriousness of the next day, and needed to know if his head was in the game enough to make it happen. Yes, I do have high expectations for my son, but I also give him every opportunity to speak up and tell me how he’s feeling beforehand. He knows that I will always give him the unbiased opportunity to NOT do something if he doesn’t feel comfortable, and that I will always respect his honesty. He also knows that if he says he will bring his A game, and give me 110% that I expect no less from him. We’ve done this since he was VERY little, and I really think it’s taught him an exceptional level of self-awareness. At 10yo, he very much knows when he’s being unreasonable, truly scared, having an off day, or is mentally dialed in and ready to rock. He can look you in the eye, and tell you he’s being completely irrational and even laugh about it. He is also VERY aware of when it’s only his mind holding him back from something. After pondering it for a bit he said, “Yeah dad, I know I got scared today. I’m not sure why, but I did and it really doesn’t make sense because I know I was safe. I also know that I can do that climb tomorrow. It won’t be the actual climbing that I might struggle with, but keeping my head in the game. I want to do it, because I know I CAN do it and I think I’d really regret not proving to myself that I can.” I smiled, gave him a hug, kissed him on the forehead, and gave him my nod of approval. These moments in fatherhood are what I live for.
Back in the van we hit the road with a strong northern heading and the pedal down. Up I-82 we went, through Ellensburg, and quickly onto 97. Yep, that’s right. Leavenworth here we come! It was dark by the time we got into town so we only made a quick Starbucks/potty stop before we headed up Icicle Creek Rd. to find a spot for the night. The goal for Monday was simple, but not easy. Tree Route. It’s a 3-pitch route on the Lower Eight Mile Buttress that goes at 5.6. Probably between 300-400ft of climbing. I’ve done this route once before, and really enjoyed the variety it gave. I knew it was within Kim and Auden’s capabilities, but also knew it would not be easy at all. We had spent the last couple nights talking through multi-pitch and how the process went and I felt really good about their overall awareness. I was prepared with a set of radios for us to communicate with, and opted to take the double-rope method rather than try and deal with both of them climbing on a cow’s-tail.
We geared up at the base of pitch #1, tied in to both ropes, did our safety checks, and off we went! That first pitch was tougher than I had remembered, lol. I was a little worried honestly, but after a little struggling, some bad words from Kim, and big dose of “holy shit this is serious climbing” they both made it up! Auden was in great spirits, and both seemed to be having a great time… so far, lol. We re-flaked the ropes, re-racked the gear, and off I went on pitch #2. This is an easy pitch with minimal difficulties, and both made it up to the large belay ledge with no issues at all. Spirits were still high, and we were actually making pretty decent time.
Pitch #3 is where the fun started. Well, fun for me…. not so much for them. Haha! It starts off with a short crack up to a roof that you have to undercling with your left hand and reach around with your right to a nice big jug. From then you swing around the roof and directly into a somewhat awkward crack. The lead went well, and shortly after that I was at what I knew was going to be the troublesome spot of the day for them. It’s a short 30ft off-width crack that, while quite layed over and definitely not steep, can give some major trouble if you’re not comfortable in off-width cracks. I’ll be honest. I don’t think very few climbers are comfortable with off-width. It NEVER feels “right”. You never feel like it’s going good. You never feel like you’re climbing it well. It’s just tiring, awkward, and not fun. I tried a couple different methods this time leading up it, but in the end came to the same conclusion. Off-widths suck! Finally at the infamous tree at the top I got them on belay to bring them both up.
From Kim’s explanation later on that day (in addition to Auden’s personal confession), he lost his marbles there for a little bit trying to get around that roof. It definitely rattled him, and just might have managed to squeeze a couple tears out of him. I think the exposure got to him honestly. It’s a bit “airy” right there when you come around the roof and you really don’t have anything super awesome to hold on to which can give you a real sense of uneasiness. Kim got him back on track mentally though, and with a small tug from dad, the radio reminder he was essentially on rope and that he was safe, and he was back in the game both mentally and climbing-wise in no time. The off-width crack was… well… entertaining. Both struggled, lol. Auden actually didn’t do too bad towards the top. He found some weird little super ugly chicken leg technique that managed to finally get him up the crack with only mild yelling (from him), but he did it non the less. Honestly, I think he struggled more with having the gear hanging off his sling than anything. Sometimes I forgot how little he is until he’s got a #5 hanging around his neck, lol. I will admit that Kim got WORKED in the off-width. Lots of swearing, some slips, more swearing, little bit of defeat, little blood, but finally she managed to get up it. I got a bit of a “screw this shit” look from her at the top, but I’ve been there myself and knew it would quickly pass. I brought them up the last 20ft of the route and we all topped out together! They did it! There were no words to explain how proud I was of them. They were definitely tired, and you could just see the pride and happiness glowing from both of them. We shared some gummy worms, had some water, and were definitely ready to get this over with and throw our feet up.
The hike down from the top is long, slow, and you have to be really careful with your footing. Auden was bouncing down the trail like he just woke up from a 3-day nap, but Kim was really feeling the effects of the day. We took our time, took some breaks, and made it back to the van around 4pm or so. I think that’s when it really hit her. She just had this little grin that wouldn’t go away. You’ve gotta understand that Kim is generally quite monotone when it comes to happiness. Like, I never see here get like SUPER stoked on something. Even when I know she’s super happy, she’s always just kinda like “normal” happy looking if that makes sense. Not this time though, and I think I know why. This time was different, because she wasn’t just happy. She was proud of herself. It was the pride of self accomplishment in her smile that simply couldn’t be put away. I was really proud of her, and felt quite blessed to be able to give her that opportunity to prove to herself what she’s truly capable of.
With a tired family it was time to grab a quick brat and brew at the Munchen House before making the final stretch home. This… was an awesome trip. It seems like I always end these blog posts all reflective on life and shit, but it’s hard not to. The happiness I took away from this trip was very different than others. It was the happiness obtained by watching others feel proud in their own accomplishments.