Spotted with sagebrush, black-eyed susans, oak, aspen, cottonwood groves and cactus, the arid Tieton River Valley gives way to lush fir forest as the elevation climbs. Home to a rumbling river and the occasional rattlesnake, the Tieton Valley is also a veritable mecca for outdoor recreation right in the Yakima Valley’s own backyard. Enthusiasts can hike, camp, fish and bike just a short car ride from town.
The Tieton River Valley is also home to more than 400 rock climbing routes spread over a 20-mile stretch from the lower river valley up through the upper Rimrock Lake area. Known among the climbing community for its solid rock quality and variety of routes, climbing in the Tieton has been one of the Yakima Valley’s better kept secrets.
“Climbing forces a calmness of mind; you are purely in your body, purely in the moment,” said local climber and hop farmer Mike Roy, 37. “Climbing requires strength, control of the mind and an understanding of how to use your body to navigate the rock.”
A small group of loyal climbers has dedicated years to discovering and developing climbing routes at multiple sites throughout the area. Growing in popularity as a regional climbing destination, spring and summer often bring climbers from around the Pacific Northwest.
Matt Christiensen, 51, started rock climbing in the late 1970s at just 11 years old. Starting with the Painted Rocks at Garrison Grade, Christiensen and his brother, Jamie, talked their father into buying them a rope, and they quickly developed a passion for the sport that would last a lifetime.
“Climbing left a real impression on me as a kid; I didn’t necessarily see myself as some big football player,” Christiensen said. “But climbing was a good sport for me, adventuresome and always changing, always new.”
Admired for his agility and steadfast approach, Christiensen is well-known for his contribution to route development and first ascents throughout the Tieton in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Still an avid climber today, Christiensen, a technology teacher at Washington Middle School in Yakima, is spending his summer break getting certified to become a rock climbing guide and instructor through the American Mountain Guide Association.
“One of the reasons I’m doing this training is to make climbing more accessible for young people,” he said. “I love introducing people to climbing, especially in the Tieton, because there’s a little something for everyone.”
Says Roy, “I’ve climbed all over the world, and I’ve never gotten sick of climbing the Tieton.”
The Tieton offers climbers traditional (often called trad) or sport climbing, and many climbers develop a preference. In traditional climbing, one temporarily places gear (such as bolts) into the rock, and then removes it after passage. Sport climbing permanently places bolts or gear along the route.
Generally, the rock face in the lower canyon — such as Royal Columns, the Bend and Moonrocks — have more traditional routes, while higher up the valley — at Oasis, the Cave, Rainbow Rocks, Wildcat, Lava Point and South Fork — have more sport routes.
Jim Matthews, 50, remembers meeting a group of ardent rock climbers back in 1987, shortly after moving to the Yakima Valley from the East coast.
“If it wasn’t for a couple of local climbers, who not only found areas to climb in the Tieton, but were quite prolific in developing routes, I don’t know where climbing would be today,” Matthews said. “They put the Tieton on the map.”
Matthews, a stay-at-home dad, quickly found rock climbing to be a natural extension of his love for the outdoors.
“Climbing was always something I wanted to do. I had seen pictures of it in magazines and knew I wanted to try it,” Matthews said. “I’ve heard it described as having fun, only different. I would say that sums it up perfectly.”
Today Matthews regularly takes his young sons, Tucker, 7, and Ian, 10, up the Tieton for climbing. Together they have climbed extensively locally and even went to Yosemite National Park for a climbing trip last summer.
“They love it. At first, they didn’t do too much, but right around Tucker’s sixth birthday, something just clicked and up he climbed, all the way to the top,” Matthews said.
A regular at the Royal Columns, located across from the Elk Feeding Station on Highway 12, the Matthews boys relish the relative quietness of the climbing area. The challenge more often than not is finding other climbers available to go out.
“Some of the great things about climbing in the Tieton is there is lots of climbing with not a lot of people,” he said. “There are so many routes, which is remarkable when you really think about it, with lots of variety in style and difficulty.”
To give rock climbing a try, Central Washington University has youth and adult recreation programs for non-students and an indoor climbing wall. Finding a mentor with the knowledge and skill-set is key to developing an understanding to the nuances of climbing.
“Climbing can be a sort of choreographed dance at times,” Roy said. “It is a fluidity of movement and muscle memory, understanding how the body and the rock interact.”