The Niche Sport of Dry Tooling
Leveling the playing field for climbers By David Gladish | Photo by David Gladish
Sparks fly as a climber scratches her way up a vertical rock face. A glint of light flashes off the steel pick of an ice axe. Ropes anchored to the top of a cliff, flutter in a light breeze, lifelines for the daring few pushing themselves to ascend the steep metamorphic rock on a cold winter day. The movement of the athletes might look familiar to a growing audience of climbing enthusiasts, those who are aware of climbing from watching the Oscar-winning film Free Solo or from following the sport, which was included in the 2020 Olympics for the first time. This type of climbing is much different, however. Instead of climbers using bare hands and tight-fitting shoes to tackle a route, dry toolers use ice axes, called tools, and crampons that are strapped to mountain-climbing boots. Here at the “crag” (the term used for a climbing area), these shiny, weapon-like devices are used to balance on thin rock edges, slotted into fissures and cracks in the wall, torqued into precarious holes. The use of this gear, originally designed for mountain climbing, seems out of place for such a unique application.
Yet to the developers of this climbing area, located near North Bend, Washington, creating a training ground for this sport has opened new possibilities for inclusion and diversity that historically have not been a part of climbing. For Wayne Wallace, a climber and a developer of this crag, dry tooling is an opportunity to climb with people of varying economic, physical and social backgrounds. Because dry tooling is such a niche sport that is much newer than rock and ice climbing, there are many reasons why it is gaining popularity for a variety of people. “There’s no preexisting scene or standards, so it’s open for everyone,” said Wallace. “If you are willing to put up with a little rain, you are welcome here.”
Kyle Willis is part of the tight-knit cohort of climbers establishing routes at Wayne’s World (fittingly named after Mr. Wallace). He explains, “The tools and crampons are expensive to start, so there is a lot of pooling of the community’s equipment. This levels the playing field and creates a community and sharing aspect of its own.” Despite the opportunity to share equipment, you never know who will be at the crag, so being self-sufficient and knowing how to set up climbs is paramount to progressing in the sport. Since the creation of the first route at Wayne’s World in the winter of 2020, Wayne and company have hosted several clinics to teach newcomers the technical skills necessary to get up the wall. Being grassroots, and unofficial, there was no advertising or promotion of the free clinics, simply a word-of-mouth gathering of people in the know. However, there is hope that as the sport grows, official festivals and clinics will be available in the area, similar to the well-established Bozeman Ice Festival which teaches dry tooling classes. During their classes, Wayne and Willis noticed that unlike rock and ice climbing, which is often dominated by white males, dry tooling has brought out more women and people of color. “During our first event with 50-plus first-time dry toolers (in a complete downpour!), half were women,” said Willis. The fact that almost everyone is new to the sport makes it less intimidating for anyone wanting to try it. There are few expectations regarding who should be good at the sport, and there is very little media portraying the archetype of what a dry tool climber looks like.
While dry tooling remains the most obscure discipline amongst the sport of climbing, its counterpart, ice climbing, is a great example of how the BIPOC community is being accepted and recognized. The 2020 film Black Ice—about a group of black climbers from a gym in Memphis who traveled to Montana to hone their skills on ice climbs—drew critical acclaim and opened many conversations amongst climbers from across the country on how to be more inclusive at our local climbing areas. Prominent news outlets such as CNN, Forbes, and Men’s Journal caught wind of the film and helped spread the positive message of diversity in climbing.
Marcus Garcia, a Colorado-based climber and the lead coach for the youth Team USA Ice Climbing, is one of the few world-class athletes who is making a living partially through dry tooling. “The most exciting thing I see is just how inclusive this sport is. Out at the crag or in the gym. I have witnessed nothing but positive inspirational thoughts to those first trying it. Or those trying hard,” said Garcia. He believes that there is equality in the sport because everyone uses the same tools to climb. “It’s available to more people quicker because all you have to do is hold on to a grip rather than deal with each handhold, so it’s an open door for people that don’t have the same physical gifts,” echoed Wallace.
For some, dry tooling is a means to hone skills to climb mountains that involve a variety of ice, snow, and wet or dry rock. Having the ability to climb rock with tools and crampons makes it possible to scale peaks that would be improbable to climb with just rock shoes. Others see dry tooling as the end game. For Wallace, developing the dry tooling area was an opportunity to create a relatively safe environment to practice the sport. “It’s a chance for people to go somewhere that’s not comfortable, but the risks are minimized. You can get out of your comfort zone without having the tough consequences.”
Being a developer of dry tooling routes is a thankless task. Wayne and his crew have put a lot of money into anchor equipment and bolts that protect climbers on each climbing route. Developing a climbing zone involves “cleaning” the cliff by bashing off loose rocks with hammers and crowbars, scrubbing excess lichen off slick areas with wire brushes, and even cutting new trail to get to the climbs. This can take years, months, or weeks, depending on the time and dedication the creators have. While no official permits were needed to establish the climbing area, the cliffs fall within the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, which is subject to multiple-use management that allows the development of rock climbs within its jurisdiction. Additionally, the developers factored in the quality of rock when choosing to establish the climbs at a particular cliff. While there is no official committee in the world of climbing development, there is a code of expectations. In general, a climbing zone used for dry tooling is not going to be ideal for climbing with just hands and feet because the edges are too small for purchase. There is also concern that climbing with tools and crampons on established pure rock climbs will ruin the routes by pulling off key holds and scratching up delicate foot placements, so finding a specific cliff that didn’t already have rock climbs established was important. For climbers who are interested in trying out dry tooling, park at the trailhead for Dirty Harry’s Peak off exit 38 close to North Bend, Washington. Once you cross under the I-90 overpass, you arrive at the trailhead. From there, head up the main trail. As the developers of the crag said, “Those who are motivated will find it.” I’ll let you in on the secret: You can find specific details of routes and how to get to the climbing area on Mountain Project, an online resource and app that is the most comprehensive database for finding climbing routes across the country.
Wayne’s World climbing area may be the highest quality dry tooling cliff in the Seattle area, yet there are other crags to be found throughout Washington and nearby states. Spokane’s South Hill offers climbers a spot to hone their craft on a wall named Lincoln Park. A cliff off the Mount Baker Highway gives Bellingham climbers a local spot. A mecca for ice climbing, as well as many options for dry tooling, can be found further afield in Hyalite Canyon just outside of Bozeman, Montana.
While dry tooling is still on the fringe, it is attracting enough interest that there are now a few gyms throughout the country that have space specifically for dry tooling or are dedicated solely to training for this type of climbing. The Ice Coop in Boulder, Colorado, was the first to open in late 2019, offering world-class routes for enthusiasts and beginners alike. Just recently, in November 2021, The Barn opened in Seattle, Washington. This under-the-radar gym offers rentals for those who have never tried the sport, as well as access to private coaching, and a variety of set climbs on walls ranging from vertical to overhanging. On The Barn’s website, the tone of inclusivity is evident, describing that “This Facility is a great way of meeting the local dry community and building stoke.”
The sport of dry tooling may sound intimidating to try, and while there is a learning curve, it is more accessible than it may seem. The easiest way to try dry tooling is by hiring a guide. In the Northwest, we are blessed with an abundance of guide services that offer classes, guided climbs and courses for developing skills. Guide services such as Mountain Madness, Alpine Ascents and Miyar Adventures in Seattle will take clients dry tooling. In Idaho, Sawtooth Mountain Guides is a popular choice for folks looking to learn the disciplines of climbing. Another good way to learn about dry tooling, the equipment needed and how to get involved is by picking up a copy of Ice & Mixed Climbing: Modern Technique from The Mountaineers Books, or online through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. While not solely focused on dry tooling, this book describes the movement and equipment that is necessary for dry tooling, while simultaneously focusing on the sport of ice climbing. The beauty of dry tooling is that counterintuitively to the name, you can dry tool any time of year! While rock climbing requires dry rock to keep hands and feet from slipping off, and ice climbing needs enough ice to be formed, you can dry tool on wet rock, dry rock and icy rock.
It was a wet Northwest day when I found myself tying into a rope at Wayne’s Wall for the first time. I was immediately welcomed by several climbers I had never met. In the past, I’ve always relied on the partners I go climbing with to share belays and get up routes, so it was a surprise when these strangers offered to climb with me right away. Before I knew it, I was putting my life in their hands as they held the rope while I climbed up the wall. It was not until I got down that I realized I accidently used a set of my new partner’s tools, thinking they were mine. We both laughed, just two climbers, sharing a new experience and learning together.