Bouldering routes like The Cave line the Crooked River at Smith Rock State Park.

Image: Riley Shiery

► Destination: Smith Rock, OR • 6 hours south of Seattle

As the high desert landscape of Central Oregon unravels in front of us, I instantly feel the six-hour drive to Smith Rock State Park was worth it. I crammed my Subaru with two crash pads, two climbing companions, my dog, and a few days’ worth of food in a cooler, and we’ve driven through cattle ranges and gorges, through endless dry prairie land. Finally we see Smith’s mammoth rocks rise like fingers out of the ground, an unbeatable sight for a climber.

The state park is just 30 minutes north of Bend, equipped with hiking trails through steep cliffs of volcanic rock and a scenic gorge divided by a running river. It’s best known for its sport climbing, the kind with ropes, harnesses, and permanent anchors. But large rocks scattered throughout the park are perfect for bouldering, the sport of rope-free climbing.

The indoor version grows more popular every year; I climb at Judkins Park’s bustling Seattle Bouldering Project three times a week. But here’s what climbers don’t tell you about outdoor bouldering: It’s tiring. It’s stressful. And it’s scary. At Smith, I spend most of my time in preparation, mapping out which rocks I want to try and lugging a giant crash pad strapped to my back through steep uphill hikes.

As our crew descends the trail one evening, one of my companions asks me how much fun I’m having. I pause. The truth is, “fun” is not the reason I do this.

My first outdoor climbing attempt, in Leavenworth, had prompted a panic attack halfway up a boulder. Blinded by fear, all the holds in front of me instantly vanished. Thoughts rushed through my head while my arms scrambled, my calves strained, and my toes were precariously placed on small nubs about 13 feet off the ground. I thought of worst-case scenarios, regretted my choices leading up to this, felt disappointment in myself. My primal, visceral fear was so strong I figured my heart would either leap out of my chest or stop.

Yet that fear brings me back to the sport because, frankly, I’m stubborn. All I wanted was to be the person who could make it up that wall.

So here I am at Smith, back for another round. Though I climb V4s—relatively difficult routes—at SBP, outdoor bouldering is another level. I pick a V0 route, the easiest, on a spot called the Red Wall in the southern end of the park and go there alone. It is high.

When I’m finally on the rock, it grates the skin on my fingers raw. I make a third, fourth, then a fifth attempt, and it takes long enough for me to realize that I needed to send this—to finish the route. I know that I will lose my strength soon. I place my right foot in a secure hold, pull myself up, and grab another hold above me. I match with my other hand. I muster all my energy into launching my left hand again into a secure crevice in the rock, and that’s when I know I got it.

The rest is just gravy. I top over the boulder, and for the first time I look out at the park. “I did it!” I say to myself. I sit at the top, letting the fire of adrenaline slowly cool as I breathe. And I realize: I climbed that route fear-free.

I’ll admit, that was fun. That was really, really fun.

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