We drove through the snow to get to the desert.
Our destination was south of the 49th parallel, to the home of some of Washington state’s finest rock climbing, Vantage. The drive east from Seattle is a compressed lesson in geography. Leaving behind the moist, cloud catching city on the Pacific coast, the road quickly rises to thread the barrier of the Cascade mountain range. Snow drifts, and white peaks signal the temperature drop as our altitude increases. Descending on the eastern side of the range, the snow vanishes as quickly as it appeared, replaced by a dry, rocky expanse, shielded from the moisture to the west by its lofty neighbours.
We were a party of climbers from the University of British Columbia’s Varsity Outdoor Club (UBC VOC), with a plan to escape the inclement weather in Vancouver for a weekend. Having only decided to go the day before, approaching the US border, I had images of paperwork problems, and forcing my Canadian co-passengers to turn around and drop me at the nearest bus route back to Vancouver. In reality, the crossing was seamless; the benefit of an Irish passport. With the 450km drive complete, including a supply stop at the vast wilderness that is the American supermarket, we arrived just before midnight on Friday. Tents up. Bags down. Bed.
The climbing in Vantage is predominately located on the basalt columns that make up the cliff faces, giving a huge selection of arête and crack routes, with some good rock faces in between. On Saturday, we focused our efforts on Sunshine Wall, ticking off a few of the classic single pitch routes, and one very enjoyable multi pitch route with an amazing view.
Climbing, like many things, had been put on the back burner while I was getting ready to move to Canada, and this was my first day on the rock since last summer. I am far from a good climber, but climbing can reward all equally. Once the underlying nerves and fear can be controlled, climbing gifts you with the opportunity to focus solely on the action at hand, remove distractions, and to reset from the loops that your mind can get stuck in during day to day life. And when all the swearing and scraping is done, it feels pretty epic to get to the top too.
The day ended like all good camping days should, with a big feed, a social fire, and a warm sleeping bag.
Saturday night was not without incident, the stillness punctuated with occasional distant but powerful booms, which we learned later were from artillery testing taking place in the region. We had our own pyrotechnics closer to hand, with what appeared to be a very sizeable gas canister explosion in another group’s camp. After a pause, the sound of hysterical drunken laughter drifting through the smoke assured us that all was well.
Sunday morning started as Saturday finished, with beautiful sunshine. Stocking up on vitamin D, and with a plan to hit the road at noon, we headed out early to a rock section overlooking our camp, known as the Feathers. In the more laid back atmosphere of a Sunday morning, we worked our way through three or four short but technical routes, and soaked up as much of the desert ambience as we could before we had to load up, and head out.
This trip was my first to the United States (apart from flight stopovers). A combination of striking surroundings, friendly locals, and some exciting climbing, made it memorable, and left me with a positive impression, despite the reminders coming from the sounds in the distance. More importantly, it achieved the goal I hope for the most when I travel. I felt like I was somewhere completely different.