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Thanks, Volcanoes: Exploring Oregon Climbing

Magma formed Oregon’s climbing before it was cool

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Alton Richardson finds actual holds in between the moss at Carver Cliff, near Portland, Oregon. Photo: Julie Ellison

We stepped off the plane onto an ugly old carpet that for some reason has become world-famous. Three phones aimed at the floor and a triangle of shoes, soon to be on Instagram with thousands of other photos tagged #pdxcarpet. We had arrived in Oregon. Within a month of our visit, the renowned flooring would be torn out and replaced with a new but still-unappealing design. They spent $13 million to maintain a hideous aesthetic. Ugly for the sake of being ugly, even the Portland airport is hipster.

Getting a shot of #pdxcarpet. Photo: Kevin Corrigan

While we did want to eat artisanal food, drink fresh coffee and craft beer, people watch, and explore another arm of the legal weed scene, it felt like Portland was just a stop en route to the legendary Smith Rock. We knew that Oregon was filled with a surplus of climbing outside Smith, but it was hard not to eagerly anticipate the desert area with thousands of lines, some of them the earliest bolted routes in the U.S. Smith was sport climbing before it was cool. Portland is legendary for rain and weirdos. The two areas might as well be in different states.

The assumption was that we’d climb a couple mediocre routes along the way to Smith, but what we didn’t expect was the excellent and varied climbing hidden throughout the lush forests of the Pacific Northwest: sport and trad, cracks and faces, massive boulders, all of it. This is one of the most volcanically active areas in the continental U.S., and those volcanoes produced everything we climbed on, from compact columnar basalt to loose limestone-esque tuff to the 11,250-foot Mount Hood—none of these things would exist if Oregon wasn’t a geothermal hotspot. Thanks, volcanoes!


The author makes his way up Giant’s Staircase (5.6) at Broughton Bluff outside Portland. Photo: Julie Ellison

In the unloading zone outside the quirky Ace Hotel, photographer Alton Richardson tapped tobacco into a pipe. Before we could duffel-shuffle our bags from the car to the sidewalk, a passerby in a peacoat asked Alton to model for his street fashion Instagram account. The pipe was hipster bait. As Alton puffed smoke in the drizzling rain for the photographer, former Climbing Editor Shannon Davis shot a photo of the event and I shot a photo of him taking a photo—an Instagram, of an Instagram, of an Instagram. Hipsters call this meta.

“I’ll decide later if it’s up to my standard,” the street fashion photographer said. He handed us a business card with his username and left. He never posted the photo.

Portland has every subculture. If you take pictures of pedestrians, want to get drunk and argue philosophy, or are a mid-40s punk rocker that loves reading, you can find your people (the last two are real Meetup groups). Rock climbing seems mainstream in comparison. Despite all this, the entire city is not bathed in irony. “Normal” people are everywhere; they’re just hard to spot because they don’t wear peacock feathers. The outdoor community in Portland is strong thanks to a plethora of excursions a short 20-minute drive from the center of town. Core climbing brands like Mountain Hardwear and Arc’teryx have brick-and-mortar stores in the city, and climbing gyms like Planet Granite and the Portland Rock Gym offer an escape from the ceaseless rain that plagues the region eight months of the year.

Once featured on the sketch comedy show “Portlandia,” the Ace Hotel defines hipster. The designers went out of their way to make it weird. The toilet paper in the mod bathroom was mounted way over my head, and the door to the john, usually a sealed divider between the poop stall and the rest of the room, was just a sliding barn door. The hotel’s second floor featured drawers filled with hundreds of anonymous notes left by guests, most of them vague on a level that could be confused for deep. The more profound notes included drawings, like a sunglasses-wearing T-Rex riding a skateboard.

Portland sits on the Columbia River Gorge, which divides Oregon and Washington and is home to fantastic cliffs. Unfortunately, we arrived during the region’s rainy season, where water falls from the sky every day from October to May. A light drizzle is considered bluebird weather. We were in the Pacific Northwet. On our first day out, we had a dry four-hour window—“dry” meaning it wasn’t actively raining at the time, it’s all relative—so we made the most of it. Our friends at Portland Rock Gym took us to Broughton Bluff, a 25-minute drive from downtown. If not for the weather, Portland could join Denver, Chattanooga, and Salt Lake City as one of the great U.S. climber cities.

We charged up the 20-minute approach to a wall of columnar basalt. Imagine a cliff made of columns like those at the Lincoln Memorial. Surely some ancient people believed it to be the work of aliens or a great deity. Rapidly cooling magma fractured to create these hexagonal formations, and the faster it cooled, the smaller the columns. In wet areas (cough, Oregon), water influences the cooling process to cause the pillars to form in tiers and at all angles. You can climb these pillars. Thanks, volcanoes!

I hopped on Giant’s Staircase (5.6) on the far-left side of the Hanging Garden wall. Imagine climbing an actual staircase made for giants. Grab the lip of a stone pedestal. Mantel up. Place gear into the space between the massive blocks. Repeat until the anchor. As the grades increased, the spaces between columns thinned, creating a fun combination of face climbing and jamming.

Down the crag at the Red Wall, the rock resembles a typical cliff line—a featured face instead of a pillar farm, closer to Chattanooga sandstone than the rock a hundred feet to the left. With huecos and edges, Red Eye (5.10b/c) is the standout line, and just as the first climber lapped it, the rain started two hours earlier than expected. By the time we reached the parking lot, the tolerable drizzle had escalated to an all-out deluge—this would prove to be the standard backdrop of our time in western Oregon. Climbers must get used to heading outside with a doomed forecast. If you wait for “good” weather, you’ll never climb.

Cross-stitched rap lyrics at PREAM, a Wu-Tang–inspired pizza joint in Portland. Photo: Kevin Corrigan

That night we ate at PREAM (Pizza Rules Everything Around Me), which marries two weird yet surprisingly cohesive themes: the Wu-Tang Clan and a Southern grandmother’s house. Framed portraits and cross-stitch pieces cover the walls, but a closer inspection reveals the face of Tupac and stitched letters reading “F*ck the police.” As we tucked in to enjoy a margherita pie, we watched a curly-mustached, suspender-clad unicyclist pass the window. It was Halloween night, but in this city there’s no way to know who’s in costume and who is in their standard attire.

Carver Cliff

Everything at Carver is covered in moss, so you might as well take a couple snaps. Photo: Julie Ellison

I threw my foot high out left, hooking my toes onto nothing. Above me, a #4 cam sat barely wedged between two protruding blocks. If the cam moved an inch in any direction it would pop. I was only 12 feet off the ground, and a crashpad would have been more effective. I pulled in hard with my foot, cursing and sliding my hand up closer to the jug of this awkward one-move-wonder route. A shriek pierced the air.

Am I falling? I wondered. I looked up and found I’d pulled the crux of Crimson Tide (5.9). The commotion had come from the parking lot.

Carver Cliff is popular with two groups: rock climbers and Twilight fans. The area served as a filming location for the movies. Visitors may take a self-guided tour of the forest where Bella and Edward experienced a whirlwind teenage vampire romance. Signs read: “Here is the tree under which Bella first held Edward’s hand” and “Here’s the patch of moss on which Edward first told Bella that he loved her too much to kiss her out of wedlock.” Despite the final Twilight film’s release three years ago, tweens still make the pilgrimage to vampire country.

The real reason to visit Oregon—touring the set of Twilight. Photo: Julie Ellison

It’s worth braving the undead and their angst-ridden fans to visit Carver. Like a Pacific Northwest cliché, a thick layer of moss covers everything; the dense trees hide beneath a fuzzy green fur, and curtains of emerald flow off massive boulders, dripping onto the forest floor below. It’s hard to tell where the ground stops and the trees begin. Mist and fog create a sense of mystery and emanate a deep pine scent. It’s like climbing inside a kale salad full of big bouldery croutons.

With no sign of clear weather, we had made the five-minute hike to a slab sheltered below a steep roof. We sank cams and climbed finger cracks on the four dry routes of the few dozen established lines, lamenting the fact that we couldn’t really climb on the prized possession of Carver: the boulders.

Countless truck-sized blocks feature more than 300 problems, everything from holdless slabs to horizontal roofs, with the highest density landing in the V2 to V4 range. Problems need to be cleaned every few months because of how quickly the moss reclaims them. Here, Leave No Trace is not so much an ethos as it is an inevitability.

Carver Cliff is located on private property, but the owners generously allow climbers on their land; they just require a one-time $8 fee, and membership cards need to be brought to the area. The Rosenbaum family, who owns the cliff, run the adjacent Stone Cliff Inn restaurant, offering a warm respite from the cold, wet weather with hearty meals. Nothing like climbing four moderate pitches and then replenishing with pulled pork sandwiches, burgers, and the team favorite: bacon-wrapped meatloaf.

Mount Hood

Alton Richardson and Guide Brandon Seymore on the Cooper Spur Trail on the flank of Mt. Hood. Photo: Andrew Burr

Ski season might bring crowds to the Mt. Hood region of Oregon, about 75 minutes from Portland, but we found a quiet mountain community with a grocery store, a couple bar-restaurants, and not much else, aside from the dramatic volcano that dominates the skyline (when it’s not too cloudy).

While Mt. Hood lacks the distinction of being a 14er, topping out at only 11,249 feet, the volcano rises a massive 7,706 feet from the base, with infinite adventures in its flanks. We made our first stop at French’s Dome.

If the Leaning Tower of Pisa’s twin was lost in the woods and grew a coat of hard, dark mud, that’d be French’s Dome. The formation grew from the ground as a volcanic core long ago (thanks, volcanoes!), and the outer layers were stripped away by weather, leaving only this odd rock cylinder sticking up in the middle of a classic Pacific Northwest forest. French’s only reveals itself after passing below some buzzing high-tension power lines and navigating the 200-foot approach trail that descends to the base.

Wedged into the side of a steep hill, the dome features 360 degrees of sport climbing, with routes starting all the way around the strange stone. On the high side of the hill, routes are around 80 feet, and on the low side up to 160 feet. A system of ledges carved into the dirt along the base allows for comfortable belays. Rain forced us to take what we could get once again. The entire formation leans toward the uphill side, so we were able to find one dry route despite a steady downpour. The crushers in our group took turns climbing the stellar Roadkill (5.12a).

Joining us was Climbing’s staff photographer Andrew Burr, whose resume is peppered with the sketchiest of desert towers and the chossiest of rock. This adventure-climbing aficionado is a founding member of No Star Tuesdays, a Salt Lake City–based group whose members go out with the goal of climbing more pitches than guidebook stars. Like a true climbing hipster, Burr seeks out “uncool” routes. Burr and I agreed to climb the moderate two-pitch Giant’s Staircase (5.6)—yes, another one—even though it was not sheltered from the elements. At all. When I returned from grabbing my shoes on the other side, I found him halfway up the first pitch without a belay. I quickly threw the rope in my device as he cruised the waterfall first pitch. Submerging my hand in a jug puddle was unsettling, but climbing easy terrain in a cascade was absurd fun. Traversing 5.6 friction moves felt spicy when there was no friction, but what choice did we have? You can’t go to a place like French’s Dome without tagging the summit. Supposedly it has spectacular views of Hood, but the fog made the peak disappear. Stupidity for the sake of stupidity, it was silly climbing that would make any Portland hipster proud.

Shannon Davis takes in the cloudy views at the scenic Enola Hill (aka The Swine) crag. Photo: Julie Ellison

The next morning we joined Brandon Seymore and Geoff Lodge of Timberline Mountain Guides for a tour of Mt. Hood’s Eliot Glacier. Approaching via the Cooper Spur trail, we got a sharp blast of alpine conditions. Sixty mile per hour winds worked against us as we made our way up the ridge trail, testing our resolve when exposed skin was sanded by sleet. Once we dropped off the ridge onto the glacier, we were sheltered from the elements.

Walking narrow sidewalks of ice and picking our way across the sides of fins when they became too narrow, we explored our icy destination before intentionally dropping down into a crevasse. Once lowered into the fissure, I was surrounded by dark blue ice, like walking into Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, except this spot had a clear way out: up.

Mt. Adams, as seen from Mt. Hood. Photo: Andrew Burr

In a glacier, pressure has forced all of the air out of the water, which produces compressed ice that’s hard and brittle, not the plasticy goodness of waterfall ice. It’s closer to climbing a thick pane of glass. Still, the setting made up for the low-quality frozen stuff. We climbed a few laps on vertical terrain then fled to warm ourselves with food and libations at the local brewery. The beauty of Mt. Hood is its accessibility. You can go from a cold Mt. Hood glacier to a hot Mt. Hood Brewing chicken pot pie in about an hour.

Smith Rock

Local Mikey Schaefer on Karot Tots (5.11b), The Dihedrals, Smith Rock. Photo: Andrew Burr

After fighting knock-down winds and sub-freezing temperatures on Mt. Hood, we drove a few hours and found the complete opposite. The hot and dry weather of Smith Rock was a relief after four days of cold and wet. There’s a lot of lore in Smith Rock—birthplace of American sport climbing, the country’s first 5.14 (To Bolt or Not to Be)—but my personal history trumps all that.

In August 2013, I visited Smith to tick my first outdoor leads. We’d been warned about the afternoon heat, but being overconfident gumbos, my partner and I thought we could climb through the 100° temps. Halfway up 5-Gallon Buckets (5.8), I realized that we were the only people still climbing in the entire park of more than 1,500 routes. I was melting. The hot sun heated my black shoe rubber and burned my feet as I tried to hide them in toddler-size huecos. My arms pumped out on the greasy holds as I waited for my shoes to cool. I barely made it to the chains. Now returning as a stronger, more confident climber, I had grand delusions of pushing my grades.

We arrived in the parking lot early, with a massive crew of magazine editors, photographers, local badasses, and mountain guides. We had too many people to climb in one group, so we split up. This is where I learned something I’d missed during my first trip to Smith: There’s more than just the main area.

My crew descended into the Lower Gorge. While the main area features volcanic tuff, the Lower Gorge hosts rows of trad and sport routes on columnar basalt. The smooth stone forgave my skin as I jammed the plentiful cracks and hugged the bolted arêtes. Another team headed to the Marsupials where they climbed the Marsupial Traverse (5.8 R), a thousand feet of alpine-like rock, instead of exploring the hundreds of bolted routes in the 5.6 to 5.10 range. You could climb at Smith for the rest of your life and never get bored.

Group highlights: Metolius customer service rep and local crusher Jess Groseth took down the compression climbing and arête slapping of the aptly named Hippo Wrestling (5.12+) in the Lower Gorge. Mikey Schaefer made Sunshine Dihedral (5.11d) look easy while throwing down insecure moves above small gear. Shannon Davis and Metolius Global Sales Director Chip Miller got their adventure on in the Marsupials, which somehow ended with a shirtless Chip summit photoshoot (his request). We saw a family of otters playing in the Crooked River. And I got my ass kicked.

Metolius employee Jess Groseth places gear on Cry of the Poor (5.11a), Lower Gorge, Smith Rock. Photo: Andrew Burr

The one thing I forgot about Smith Rock climbing, or maybe was too new to realize during my first trip, is that it’s hard. Maybe I wasn’t used to the volcanic tuff (thanks, volcanoes…) because my home crags in Colorado and New York have nothing like it. Maybe the grading is stiff. The 30-foot-high first bolts don’t help. Every route knocked my confidence down a peg.

Bunny Face (5.7) may as well be a gym route—the holds stick out from the wall like they’re bolted on. In fact, Smith did have experimental plastic routes in the ’80s, but they’re long gone. Helium Woman’s committing crux in decking range before the third bolt had me second-guessing my ability to climb 5.9. Irreverence (5.10a) got me nice and cozy with the rock as I plastered my body onto the wall for precarious balance moves with no helpful handholds. New Testament felt surprisingly hard for 5.10a, though I did move out of the crack and onto the face, which turned out was a different route altogether.

The rock in Smith is like someone dumped a bunch of marbles into a concrete mixer and then set routes. Rocks from small crystals to golf balls jut from the wall in various levels of attachment. It’s hard to commit to footholds because they look like they could pop off. On less traveled routes, they do. At the same time, these holds make route finding easy. Only bright red tape would make the path more obvious.

“This is the best route at Smith,” Miller said of Widowmaker (5.9+), over and over like he was trying to convince himself. I’m glad to say I only toproped it. You’ve probably never heard of it; there’s no mention of it on the internet. The full 70-meter toprope stretcher must be belayed from a fallen block 15 feet above the ground, and it follows barely attached holds to a series of thin crust flakes. They were a half-inch thick and flexed as I pulled on them. If this route saw more traffic, it might not exist. I popped off a giant jawbreaker–size foothold and almost beaned my helmetless belayer. Even on toprope, reaching the chains was a relief. Done with climbing for the trip, we took the long way around the Smith Rock formation, walking a couple extra miles along the Crooked River with hopes of seeing another otter or an interesting bird, anything to prolong the magic of Oregon.

Enjoying a beautiful Smith Rock sunset. Photo: Kevin Corrigan

Hipsters and climbers gravitate to Oregon for similar reasons. For the hipsters, there’s German oompah punk music, whittling clubs, and Elvis churches (the last one is real, the others… probably). For climbers, there’s trad and sport routes around the Columbia River Gorge, mossy bouldering at Carver, gnarly alpine on Mt. Hood, and the exhaustive Smith Rock. It was hard to pick a highlight. After intentionally climbing in the worst conditions at French’s Dome, ironic bouldering on Twilight sets at Carver, and climbing one of the most obscure routes at an area stacked with classics, it dawned on me. Oregon had made me a hipster too. 

Metolius: Made in Bend

By Brendan Blanchard

Metolius founder Doug Phillips holds the biggest offset cam we’ve ever seen. Photo: Andrew Burr

In the 1980s, Metolius started as a garage business born out of love for an activity and its lifestyle. Founder Doug Phillips named the company after the Metolius River, which runs near their original headquarters in Bend, Oregon. Not wanting to “punch the corporate clock,” they set out to make climbing gear they could use while supporting their lifestyle.

From the beginning, worker satisfaction and innovation have gone hand in hand. Metolius employees produced bouldering pads for themselves years before they began selling them. Two Metolius innovations fundamentally changed our sport. Metolius created the first flexible-stem cams and were the first U.S. company to market plastic climbing holds—even before there were any climbing gyms. Phillips even had a hand in the birth of American sport climbing, when he bought a Bosch drill for the developers of Smith Rock’s first sport routes.

Though times have changed, not too much about Metolius is different. Every Metolius harness, cam, and nut is made at the facility, and all their gear is tested in the Bend headquarters.

The company’s success can be attributed to the work environment and sense of community. Touting low employee turnover, Metolius has kept employees for 10 and 20-plus years, more than half the life of the company. Over a quarter of their staff brings dogs to work, and workers are provided with flexible schedules and health care. Better still, manufacturing workers have a monthly quota, and if they fill it before the end of the month, that’s free vacation time. Walking through their facility, one gets the feeling that they prioritize pride in their work over an increase in profits, and if history is any indication, it’s likely to stay that way.

Oregon Climbing Beta

Getting there and getting around

Fly to Portland International Airport (PDX) and rent a car. You’ll have to drive to get to any decent climbing in the Pacific Northwest. Terrebonne (home to Smith Rock State Park) is approximately three hours southeast of PDX.

When to go

“Late summer through fall. September to early November is pretty excellent for climbing rock all over Oregon,” says climber Ryan Pecknold, who lived in Portland for 15 years.

Where to stay

“Smith Rock has amazing camping with hot showers and a spot to wash dishes,” Pecknold says, referring to Smith’s The Bivy campground, which has flush toilets and charging stations. Campfires, however, are not allowed in individual sites at The Bivy, and all cooking must be done in communal areas. This makes it a great place to meet other climbers, but if you’re traveling with a group or would rather skip the communal style, head down the road to the Forest Service campground Skull Hollow for the same price. In Portland, “it is fairly easy to bum around town if you have a camper of some variety as well,” Pecknold adds. “You will see plenty of gypsy action on every street and at every park.”

Where to climb

French’s Dome, a “dinosaur egg” in the middle of the forest, has “technical crimping on thought-provoking basalt,” Pecknold says, though few moderate grades—it’s either 5.6 to 5.8, or 5.11 and above. Multi-pitches top out on a flat lunch spot with one of the best views of Mt. Hood. When in Smith, “get up early if you want to hit the easy classics as warm-ups,” Pecknold advises. Also, hike to avoid crowds. “Otherwise, expect hordes of gumbies toproping and flailing the hell out of everything 5.10 and below.” For crack climbing, drive just north of Smith to Trout Creek. Closer to Portland, Ozone has many moderate climbs; Beacon Rock (on the other side of the Columbia River, so technically in Washington) offers more multi-pitch; and Rat Cave features steep, difficult basalt routes. Warm-ups at Rat Cave are 5.11+, but on the plus side, there are permadraws and you can climb in the rain.

What and where to eat

When climbing at Smith, stop by Redpoint, the local climbing shop in Terrebonne, for coffee, beer on tap, and kombucha (if you’re into that). In Portland, it is “impossible to nail down all the must-try food spots. Yelp is an excellent resource to sort out your needs,” Pecknold says. Try the mind-blowing burger at Yazuka Lounge, late-night Vietnamese fare at Luc Lac Kitchen, the best brunch and cold-brew coffee at Olympic Provision, and a slice of cheap, delicious pizza at Sizzle Pie.

Best rest day

Go to Deschutes Brewery in Bend, Oregon, about 40 minutes from Smith. Get some beer and float the river. Visit Powell’s Bookstore in Portland, the world’s largest independent bookstore, then read in the city’s stunning Japanese Garden. Eagle Creek is a classic hike in the Columbia River Gorge, with swimming holes for hot days. Go surfing along the Oregon Coast, which is about an hour and half drive from Portland; there are surf shops with rental wetsuits and boards.

Remember to bring

A rain jacket—it’s the Pacific Northwest—as well as tons of chalk and a brush since moss grows everywhere. Stick-clips are nice to have as first bolts in Smith can be perilously high.

Insider tips

Smith gets crowded, but alternatives exist for busy routes. High-lines are often set up around the park, especially on the Monkey Face, which has short and epic exposure. “If time permits,” Pecknold says, “take a drive down the Oregon Coast to Lost Rocks in Northern California. A very worthy destination in mid to late summer.”

Hip Eats: 6 Restaurants Full of Oregon Flavor


Climber Option: Base Camp Brewing
A beer hall staffed by outdoor enthusiasts, this brewery gets everything right, from plentiful taps, to a s’more-inspired stout served with a toasted marshmallow. The wait staff serves hot meals from two food trucks parked outside. During our visit, the options were barbecue sandwiches and sweet and savory pies.

Hipster option: PREAM
Peppa, peppa-roni, y’all! (See description in story.)

Mt. Hood

Climber Option: Mt. Hood Brewing
With beers like the Ice Axe IPA, this brewery has the mountains in mind. The food at Mt. Hood Brewing is rich, and is best served after a long day in the alpine. We recommend the big tube mac and cheese: noodles, cauliflower, bread crumbs, cheese, cheese, garlic cream sauce, and cheese, followed by a nap.

Hipster Option: Skyway Bar and Grill
Ignore your intuition as you enter this dark building in the middle of the woods where no one can hear you scream. The only thing that will kill you in the Skyway Bar and Grill is cholesterol. This kitsch bar-restaurant is staffed by the nicest mountain hipsters and serves the best food. For a post-send reward, indulge in the Ludicrous. It’s worth losing a climbing grade for this brisket, mashed potato, cheese sauce, and cheddar cube sandwich. Somehow Skyway finds enough talent in this sleepy town to host a local hip hop show every Monday night.

Smith Rock

Climber Option: Terrebonne Depot Food + Drink
The Terrebonne Depot was founded by climbers looking for a way to sustain themselves close to Smith Rock. Located less than three miles from the park and housed in an old train depot, this is the closest restaurant to the climbing. It’d be worth a visit even if it weren’t so convenient. The Depot features great local food. All entrees are made from scratch and locally sourced, and the burgers are made from beef raised on the family farm. (No website.)

Hipster Option: McMenamin’s
What could be more hipster than an entire upcycled building? This brewpub is in an old Catholic school, where instead of angry nuns you’ll find burgers and beer brewed on site. It’s the perfect spot to grab a table with eight of your climbing partners and debate who sent the most ironic route over a rowdy meal in downtown Bend.