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Originally published Thursday, September 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Exit 38 rocks! A climber's playground off Interstate 90

Climbers' trails are almost always little more than rough ribbons of dirt leading straight up the side of a hill. It's not the experience...

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Climbers' trails are almost always little more than rough ribbons of dirt leading straight up the side of a hill. It's not the experience of the journey that's so important on these trails as it is the destination, a place where rock climbers can become one with the hard stuff.

This trail on the way to Neverland, a new Far Side rock-climbing area that just opened off Interstate 90's Exit 38, is no different. I'd call it a half-track — half as wide as a singletrack — and like a rocket, it zooms through these woods almost vertically, like it stole something and is making a getaway.

I'm with Fall City's Garth Bruce, a climbing guidebook author and route-setter extraordinaire, and Danette Boka, his niece who lives in Bozeman, Mont. We're heading for a particular crag outcropping called Lost Boys, which features about a half-dozen intermediate to expert routes that Bruce has been working on for the past year and a half. It will be included in a new, expanded edition of his popular "Exit 38 Rock Climbing Guide," which will hit stores next spring.

After about a quarter-mile, we reach a semi-open area just below the base of Lost Boys, which looks like it's recently been hit with a mini rockslide.

If you go


Exit 38 climbing walls

Getting there

To get to the Far Side climbing area, go east on Interstate 90 to Exit 38, about six miles east of North Bend. At the end of the exit ramp, go right and drive 2.1 miles, bearing left under the freeway at about 1.8 miles. Park in the large pull-out parking areas on either side of the road.

To get to Neverland, hike the Fire Training Academy Road for about one-third of a mile and find the easy-to-miss trailhead by a broken sign on the right. Better yet, wait until next spring, by which time the routes should be completed.

To get to Interstate Park, follow Fire Training Academy Road for a couple hundred yards. Just after crossing the Snoqualmie River bridge, find the obvious, well-worn trail on the right. The route to the crag itself is rather circuitous, so it's best to check Garth Bruce's "Exit 38 Rock Climbing Guide" for the most accurate description of how to get there.

Guidebooks

Here are Garth Bruce's books on climbing in the I-90 corridor. They're available at outdoors stores and bookstores throughout the Puget Sound region:

"Exit 38 Rock Climbing Guide": Covers the area's three major climbing areas — Mount Washington, Deception Crags and Far Side. Expanded edition with new Far Side routes coming spring 2006.

"Exit 32 Rock Climbing Guide": Focuses on routes on Little Si, in the shadow of Mount Si.

On the Web

Garth Bruce's Exit 38 climbing Web site: www.northbendrock.com.

It includes routes and photos from his books on the Exit 38 and Exit 32 (Little Si) climbing areas as well as updates on new routes.

Some other useful rock-climbing Web sites:

www.washingtonclimbers.org — Washington Climbers Coalition

www.cascadeclimbers.com — Forum-type site focusing on Northwest climbing.

www.rockclimbing.com — Nationwide forum with great photos.

www.accessfund.org — Advocacy group working to keep climbing areas open.

Safety and instruction

No matter how carefully route designers test the stability of rocks on climbing routes, rock falls can happen, as demonstrated recently when a rockslide on Interstate 90 near Snoqualmie Pass crushed a car and killed three women. To make your climb as safe as possible, get instruction first.

Along with indoor rock walls and spires, the following rock-climbing gyms and outfitters offer rock-climbing classes for beginner to expert:

Stone Gardens, 2839 N.W. Market St., Seattle. 206-781-9828 or www.stonegardens.com.

Vertical World, 2123 Elmore St. 206-283-4497 or www.verticalworld .com. Also has locations in Redmond and Bremerton.

REI flagship store, 222 Yale Ave. N., Seattle. 206-223-1944 or www.rei.com/stores/seattle/climb class.html

Cascade Crags, 2820 Rucker Ave., Everett. 425-258-3431 or www.cascadecrags.com

"That's some of my handiwork there," says Bruce, pointing to a couple refrigerator-size hunks of gray metamorphosed rock. A few others the size of car doors lean against it, amid a jumble of smaller tumbled rocks. "I've got a six-foot-long crowbar and that's kind of the test; if I can't move a rock with something like that, it's not coming down."

Over the past 10 years, Bruce — who chuckles when people inadvertently call him Garth Brooks — has put up more than 30 climbing routes along the I-90 corridor.

There are more than 200 routes across 20-plus rock walls at Exit 38's three main climbing areas — Mount Washington, Deception Crags and Far Side. Less than 40 miles from Seattle, Exit 38 has become the most popular climbing area in Western Washington.

"Sport climbing has really taken off," Bruce says, referring to the type of climbing practiced here. That is, climbing on bolted routes as opposed to alpine rock climbing such as that done at Liberty Bell near Washington Pass, where climbers wedge protection into cracks. Exit 38 climbing is more akin to gym climbing.

"So many kids are getting into it because nowadays there are rock walls everywhere — health clubs and places like REI. So climbing in this whole area is going to continue to grow like crazy for the next 10 years."

Putting up routes

For Bruce, who's 41 and describes himself as a "professional kid" (actually, he's a software developer who's worked for Boeing and Microsoft), route building is a three-step process. First, there's the crowbar. After he finds a suitable wall, Bruce rappels down it, stopping to remove any loose or unstable rocks that could tumble down the rock face while climbers are scaling the wall.

Then he scrubs the rock clean, removing dirt, moss and all debris so the rock is as grippy and sticky as it can be. Bruce employs everything from brooms to wire brushes the size of dinner plates to toothbrushes to even butter knives, to get at the smallest crevices.

"The goal is to get the rock as clean as possible," he says. "You should be able to lick the rock and not taste anything."

From there he's ready to set the actual route, climbing and reclimbing the route to determine the best places to set protection — bolts with hangers, which subsequent climbers will then clip their ropes into as they make their way up the wall. To drill holes for sinking bolts into the rock, Bruce uses a Roto Hammer, a high-powered machine usually used for drilling holes into concrete on construction sites.

"It used to take days to put up routes, but the drills have gotten so powerful that people can put up routes in minutes."

Climbing The Plank

On this warm, sunny afternoon, Bruce is showing off the new Neverland wall to his niece. With Boka belaying him, he scrambles up a route called The Plank. He maneuvers up and over daunting overhangs, finds hand-holds and mini ledges in which to stick a toe in spots that, to me, seem invisible.

On the Yosemite Decimal System, which is used to rate climbing-route difficulty, The Plank is rated 5.9, which is considered intermediate. (Routes are rated from 5.0, at the easy end, to 5.14, which is close to impossible.)

Bruce then coaches Boka as she follows him up, pointing out "jugs" — rocks that make natural hand-holds — and other features of the wall. Her long arms and legs make her look eerily like some four-limbed spider moving silently and efficiently after some prey that awaits at the top of the climb.

"There's a jug right there ... that's it ... nice ... nice," Bruce coaches.

"Uncle Garth got me into climbing about six years ago," Boka, who's 23, told me earlier. "I went along with him one day, and I just got instantly hooked."

Guides all over

An hour later, we're hiking a more established — and not quite so primitive — climbers' trail on the way to Interstate Park, another Far Side climbing spot. Aptly named, the rock here is almost directly above the freeway, with a southern exposure that ensures that it dries more quickly than other nearby walls. Climbers can scale Interstate Park's mostly intermediate routes well into fall. (That southern aspect encourages a different kind of exposure, too; Bruce's guidebook states that Interstate Park is ideal for nude sunbathing.)

Along the way we come across other climbers, in groups of two to five, silently making their way through the woods, hiking up, down and across various gullies and creekbeds on their way to the myriad crags around here. More than one group carries a copy of Bruce's hefty spiral-bound "Exit 38 Climbing Guide," which isn't exactly pocket-sized.

"This is one of the best guides I've come across," says a delighted Reuben Yost of Juneau, Alaska, who's getting some climbing in on a break from checking out colleges for his daughter. "And I've climbed everywhere — the Gunks, the Adirondacks, Utah."

Along with writing the guidebooks, Bruce maintains a Web site (www.northbendrock.com), which is free and contains all the information in his books, as well as color images and map, and updates such as new routes. One would think this would cut into book sales.

"Obviously, I'm not in this for the money," Bruce chuckles. "I'm gaining karma points. Besides, climbers don't have any money."

After about a 20-minute hike (on which we see no nude sunbathers), we reach Squishy Bell, a smallish wall at the end of Far Side. It's my turn.

Sumptuous, not sorrowful

Not much of a rock climber myself — especially since fatherhood diminished my risk-taking drive to a tad less than nil — I've been keeping my eye out all day for an easy route. One with training wheels. Luckily, the Far Side area has plenty of beginner routes, including a 5.5 (easy; good for novices) with perhaps not the burliest route name I've heard. (Some nearby hard-core routes: Crawling From the Wreckage, My Sorrow Bleeds With Such Delight, Crescendo of the Sarcophagus).

This one is called "Sumptuous Bits." On Squishy Bell rock, no less. Oh, well.

But it is sumptuous. Once I get going, and can trust my life to Bruce, who's belaying me and will stop me should I fall, I find it exhilarating. The holds are huge and, for the most part, I ascend the wall without struggling too much to find places to stick my hands and feet. The climb is short ("petite" in Bruce's updated guidebook), so it's not long before I reach the top.

The views are spectacular. To my left, craggy McClellan Butte points toward the sky, rising nearly 4,000 feet above the cars and SUVs and 18-wheelers whooshing by on the freeway directly below. Behind me, Defiance Ridge meanders along the skyline — as if tracing a butterfly's path.

When I've had enough, I sit back so that my legs are perpendicular to the rockface and, with Bruce belaying, walk backward down the wall. I want to make a beep-beep-beep sound like a UPS truck backing up. I'm down in no time, glad I scaled it, kinda wishing I'd climbed more today. I eye the route I took, contemplating how I'd climb it differently next time.

"It's addicting, isn't it?" Bruce says.

I'd say so.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! Central Cascades" (Sasquatch Books) and "A Falcon Guide to the Mount Baker-Mount Shuksan Area" (Falcon). He can be reached at mikemcquaide@comcast.net.

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