Just a quick 45-minute drive from Ellensburg, a person can gaze upon an unusual geological phenomenon, the Frenchman Coulee. Located near Vantage, these vertical basalt columns protrude from cliffs, a remnant of the last ice age when glacial floods tore through Eastern Washington, ravaging its landscape and leaving miles of barren and rugged land in its wake.

Apart from being beautiful scenery to look at, the immense gray columns at Frenchman Coulee have attracted both geologists and rock climbers alike. There are nearly 600 set routes in the area, but many climbers estimate the number of routes to be closer to 800.

Most of the routes are 30- to 80-feet high and the tall stone pillars are lined with cracks that extend from the ground all the way to the top creating perfect climbs for crag, TRAD and sport climbers.

According to Nick Zentner, a geology professor at Central Washington University, Columnar Basalt is the result of cooling and cracking of an unusually thick basaltic lava flow. Zentner said 10.5 million years ago the lava cooled for approximately 100 years. During the cooling process, the lava expands and contracts to cause the distinctive cracks and hexagon like shapes we see today.

Located right off of exit 143 on Highway I-90, the accessibility of the area and the distinctive crag climbs has attracted famous climbers from all over. Jim Yoder, Marlene Ford and Bill Robins are some of the prominent climbers who have bolted or set up routes in the Frenchmen Coulee through the years. Even current Ellensburg resident Fred Dunham has been spotted visiting the cracks of Coulee.

Wondering between one climbing wall to the other Garth Donald, an avid climber from Chelan, stares up at Agathla Tower. Donald said he is attempting to make a guide book of the Frenchman Coulee.

“I really want to capture the community, and the climbing community and every facet of it out here,” Donald said. “In the climbing world, doing a first ascent, it means something and this is part of history … these are guys who really shaped climbing culture as we know it.”

Donald said after finishing a particularly difficult route it is this idea of documenting and sharing the experience of a former great climber that is motivating him to try and make a guidebook, even if it just ends up being used as personal notes.

Donald said the wide range of climbs is what continues to draw him back year after year and the long climbing season; Vantage is one of Washington’s great winter crags.

“I love how wide of a season we get to climb out here,” Donald said. “In the dead of winter when there’s snow on the ground I can still come, while out up in Leavenworth it’s just too cold and my fingers hurt.”

The area features a quality mix of both traditional crack climbing and sport climbing and despite the routes being similar in height and width, Donald said each seems to have its own unique style to navigate through.

The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife manages the land the Coulee is on, but its popularity with the public means thousands of people traffic the area every year endangering the local ecosystem. Some people even refer to the Coulee as “Disneyland,” on the weekends.

Permanent bathrooms have been added to the area, but doing little things like not straying off of designated trails and packing out trash helps to protect the balance between human impact and recreational fun.


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