Article and Photos by Bill Wicheta.
Tom Janisch, Mark Shipman, Curt Haire and I set aside a three day weekend, October 10-12, to climb Bonanza, a peak long on my tick list. Alas, with the significant early season snow blanketing the Cascades last week, we decided our South Face route would not be optimal. As a substitute we made good use of Wenatchee’s superb location between ecosystems and, instead of heading west into the Cascades, headed east into the desert Friday morning. The sun was out, although the wind was too, making a paddle across Banks Lake unappealing. Consequently, for day one of our three-day outing we went to Highway Rock just north of Steamboat Rock State Park. The approach is about a rock throw from the highway.
Mark and Tom both had copies of the Rick La Belle guidebook, Rock Climbs of Central Washington, our reference for the weekend. We climbed Bono (5.8), The Edge (5.8), Name Unknown (5.8), Supprahension (5.9), Cream Sicle Buttress (5.8) and Kurosawa (5.6). Some of the west side routes rise right above the lake surface. With the early darkness of mid October, we knocked off climbing about 6 p.m. and searched out a dirt road lacking the all too common “no camping” signs of this area and tossed our tents on the ground.
Saturday morning we arose in the dark under a clear and cold sky. With the temperature at 23 F discouraging the consumption of instant oatmeal under the stars, we drove a few miles up the highway for a big greasy breakfast in the city of Coulee Dam. Then it was back south to the Steamboat Rock State Park boat launch where we loaded our gear into one canoe, one double sea kayak, and one inflatable for our water caravan. Tom’s wife, Patti, joined us to add some class to our dirt-bag climbing group.
We paddled about two miles across the lake to a peninsula, cleverly known as “The Peninsula”, with a sandy beach adorned with trees blazing in fall colors. We set up camp and had a three-minute approach to Ultima Thule Wall. Here we climbed Coyote’s Banquet (5.9) and Land’s End before enjoying a lunch break on the beach. Then we walked ten minutes to Post-Modern Wall and climbed Parfait (5.7) and Paparazzi (5.9). It warmed up enough for us to climb in short sleeves. All weekend we were alone, with the exception of hawks, eagles, and one lost hunter—not bad for the same October long weekend that saw considerable climbing congestion at Vantage and around Leavenworth.
Once the sun went down the temperature dropped significantly. At suppertime Curt entertained us with a cappella renditions of Marty Robbins and Utah Philips songs. Tom also bragged about his culinary skills as he boiled water to make a freeze-dried meal for himself and wife Patti. Mark kept saying he needed to learn how to climb as he reminisced about his leading. I was just happy to be out once more with the real climbers!
Sunday morning Tom and Curt climbed Seamiotics (5.9) and Derrida’s De i (5.9) on Post-Modern Wall while Mark and I headed over to the Orange Wall to climb the five pitch route Highway 2 (5.0 to 5.10a) The guidebook says it’s best to reach the Orange Wall by paddling from the camp area. We thought, heck, why bother launching the canoe, why not just walk?
The land approach turned out to be great fun if you enjoy slithering like a snake under jungle-thick brush, balancing on loose vine covered steep rocks, gingerly pushing through poison ivy, and getting speared by thorns on any exposed flesh. I am still finding bits of sticks in my ears. We took over an hour to reach the Orange Wall by foot instead of paddling 10 minutes. Nonetheless the rock was warm, the climbing great – which meant Janisch was issuing lots of ‘Yee- Habas!’ throughout the day.
The Sunday evening paddle back across Banks Lake was more exciting than the trip out as the wind picked up and bucked the heavily loaded canoe containing Mark and I. We had on life vests which, as Shipman said, would make the body recovery easier if we capsized. Tom and Patti in their sea-kayak and Curt in his inflatable fared better than the two of us in a canoe. We arrived back at the dock just as darkness fell and made it to Wenatchee for the debriefing meal and beer at El Abuelos by 8 p.m.
It wasn’t the high mountain adventure I had thought this weekend would hold but, regardless of the season or weather, life in central Washington always has something good to offer!
Access: Follow Highway 2 about 2 miles east of Coulee City (on the south end of Banks Lake), and then follow Highway 155 north for 16 miles and turn left into Steamboat Rock State Park. The best place to park is at the northern end of the state park where the boat launch is located. The charge in 2008 was $10/night to leave a vehicle at the boat launch. We used a self-serve envelope dropped into a slotted box. There is a bathroom at the launch that was left open. The paddle over to the Peninsula about two miles. In an open canoe you might be nervous if the wind is up.
Boat Info: You can reach The ‘Peninsula’ where we climbed the second and third day by driving circuitous dirt backroads, but this is complicated and then there are difficult walks to some of the crags. A paddle craft (canoe, sea kayak, inflatable kayak) makes climbing on Banks Lake much easier. If you camp at the main beach on The Peninsula, it is much easier to access climbs on the Orange Cliff by paddling rather than crashing through the brush and working around steep rock buttresses that project all the way to the water. Tom Janisch says there is a beach to camp on to the north that is closer to the Orange Cliff, but that would be farther from the other walls we climbed.
Guidebook: See Rock Climbs of Central Washington by Rick La Belle. It’s the definitive guide to the area, its crags and routes. The book has detailed route descriptions on Highway Rock and Northrup Canyon which are easily accessed by car. There are numerous excellent routes, both sport and trad, on both of these crags. The book also describes climbing different crags around the ‘The Peninsula, where we climbed after paddling in from Steamboat Rock State Park. And the guidebook, of course, has the beta on climbing at the Ultima Thule Wall, Post Modern Wall, and the Orange Wall. Driving directions to these walls is also described. The guidebook is available online here.
Climbing Equipment: We enjoyed some stellar gear-protected crack climbs on Post-Modern Wall at the Peninsula. A standard rack was adequate. Many routes were all bolt protected so bring plenty of quick-draws too. A 60-meter rope is recommended. We walked off quite a few routes and rappelled several others from the existing bolt anchors. Sometimes we needed cordelletes to establish an anchor at the bolts and old carabiners to leave behind for the rappels.
Amount of Climbing: While the total number of crags along Banks Lake is limited, the area can entertain you for a few long weekends. Most of the routes are one-pitch but there are some multi-pitch routes and one five-pitch climb
Season: This was my first time climbing here, but I presume it would be rather hot in the summer. Also the beach is apparently heavily used by the motor-boat and beer crowd in mid-summer. Climbing season is spring and fall probably mirrors Vantage. During our October long weekend the place was deserted at a time when other climbing hubs (Vantage, Leavenworth) were crowded.
Permits were not needed for the camping or climbing, but we did need to pay to leave our cars at the boat launch ($10/night).
More Rock: Maps and details of over 30 regional climbing crags in this guidebook.