Select Rock Climbing and Bouldering Guide
Story and photos by Jason D. Martin
Overlooking all of Bellingham, Sehome Hill Arboretum has long been a place for people to practice their rock climbing skills, both for bouldering as well as for roped climbing.
It could actually be argued that the climbing on Sehome Hill had an influence on some of the biggest climbs in the world. The Yosemite legend and historic Exum mountain guide Chuck Pratt (1939-2000), learned to climb in the park in the early 1950s. He stated in an 1983 interview that he had no idea what he was doing, but that climbing local rocks seemed to be an extension of climbing trees. He noted that he started climbing in the area at the ripe young age of 13. Pratt would go on to put up impressive first ascents on climbs as diverse as California’s El Capitan and on Utah’s Castleton Tower.
As the arboretum is connected to the campus of Western Washington University, countless students dabble with rock climbing there before experimenting with it anywhere else. Indeed, the author of this article set up his first topropes on the sandstone of Sehome when he attended WWU in the early 1990s.
Homeless encampments have occasionally sprung up on the hill. And though there aren’t many, climbers should keep their eyes open, avoid camps and be wary of needles in areas where there’s evidence of old camps.
Sehome Hill is rampant with graffiti and climbers are encouraged to report vandalism if they see it actively happening. Additionally, they should participate in group graffiti cleaning efforts when possible.
• Be wary of sandstone when wet.
• Some routes traditionally done with ropes are short enough to feel like boulder problems. Be wary of these as landings are often poor.
• No parking along Arboretum Drive inside the park.
• There are some chipped holds here from historic climbers. This is no longer considered appropriate or ethical.
From Intersate 5 take exit 252 to Samish Way. Go west, passing Haggen on the left, on Bill McDonald Parkway. Drive .75 miles toward the WWU campus and Sehome High School to 25th Street, Arboretum Drive, and turn right. It is possible to park right outside the yellow gate at the base of the hill. Alternately, you can drive a few more minutes to the top of the hill. Study the guidebook to determine the best parking for your objectives.
Sehome Classic Area Left
From the gate at the bottom of the hill, walk two minutes up on Arboretum Drive to a trail on the left with a yellow “Steep Slopes and Falling Rocks” sign on it. Walk past the sign (southwest) under the cliffs to the Rocky Boiii boulder on the left (south) side of trail.
Rocki Boii Boulder
Rocki Boiii (V0) There are several variations that face the trail. FA: Unknown
Double Vision (V9) This problem can be found on the southwest corner of the boulder. Sit-start with an undercling. Move up and left on the sloping lip until you top out.
Bifocals (V3) Sit-start at the same point as the preceding route, but instead of following the left-hand edge, climb up onto the slab.
Sehome Classic Area Left
The following routes start a few feet beyond Rocky Boiii. These can be on the right side of the trail.
The Text Book (5.7, 20′, Trad or TR) This nice seam is the first attractive route on the left side of the cliff-band. The double-bolt anchor at the top can easily be accessed from the trail on the right. You may need a belay to safely set it up as a TR.
Sehome Chimney (5.4, 20′, Trad or TR) Found just right of The Text Book, this is a fun short chimney to a bolted anchor. To make it more challenging, climb the parallel cracks at the back of the chimney at 5.8.
The Classic Direct (V3-V4 or TR) Highball. This is really a hard variation of the The Classic. It can be found right of the Sehome Chimney and left of the normal start to The Classic. The Classic is defined by the glue-in bolts on the route. The boulder problem ends once you reach the bolts. Start at a small horizontal hold and make your way straight up to a seam, eventually merging with the preceding route at the second bolt.
The Classic (5.8, 25′ Mixed) This route starts above some exposed roots, left of a large tree. This is essentially a sport line, though it is possible to place a cam in the crack down low. Four bolts. FA: J. Kenoyer and G. Mustoe, 1966
Boulder Lip Traverse (V2) Highball. Continue up the hill to the right of the Classic to the small gully that accesses the top of the route. Begin across from the top of The Classic on the wild and exposed traverse. Make a traverse right across the top of the boulder. Falling on this route, anywhere, could lead to injury.
Boulder Up (V1) Climb straight up the righthand side of the boulder, at the end of the preceding problem.
Sehome Classic Area Right
A gully separates the two cliff-bands. The following routes are to the right of the gully. There are two bolts at the top of the crag that may be used for top roping the next four routes.
Lingley’s Slab (5.3, 20′, TR) Climb the slab to the left of a large hueco mid-face. In 1967, Bill Lingley cleaned all the moss off this line. But it is a wet area and was covered with moss as of this writing. FA: Bill Lingley, 1967
The Diagonal (5.9, 30′, TR) Also known as Catwalk by some early climbers. Climb straight up through two huecos.
Lingley’s Traverse (V3) Start in the chipped holds on the left side of the mossy slab and traverse right under Lingley’s Slab and below the Diagonal. When you reach the painted “?”, traverse up and left to finish at the second hueco.
The Diagonal Boulder Problem (V2) This is a shorter and cleaner version of Lingley’s Traverse. Start at the “?” and make your way up to the second hueco.
The Question (V3) Start left of the “?” and work up and right on a rounded arete. Top out above the small roof. Be careful as this is a bit of a highball with a hard descent.
The Shultz Route (5.10b, 35′, TR) Start on the right side of the scoop and work up and left. FA: Tim Shultz, Mid-90s.
Bolt Ladder #2 (5.10a, 35′, Sport) A cool line. Climb up through huecos clipping four bolts. FA: Bill Lingley, 1970.
The Stairway (5.2, 40′, TR) Climb the mossy right-leaning ramp to the right of the previous route. There are some chipped holds on the line. Beware that if soloing, the line can be very slick. Use trees for top rope anchors.
The Sidewalk (5.5, 30′, TR) This is really a big variation to the previous route. From below the tallest part of the cliff, climb up to a ledge and traverse left into The Stairway.
Sidewalk Direct (5.10b/c, 30′, TR) This line climbs directly up the tallest part of this section of cliff-band. A climber in the ’70s chipped holds into the face, something that you should not do. Use trees for top rope anchors.
Sehome Traverse (V5) Start at the base of Sidewalk Direct. Traverse right under the steepest portion in the roof. Lunge for a crimp. Continue right to a mantle. Not the best landing for something so classic. FA: Greg Heffron, mid-90s.
Note: A trail may be found on the right-hand side of the cliff-band that may be used to access the top of the crag.
The Arrowhead Boulder can be found just below the Sehome Traverse.
Arrowhead (V1) Start just right of the arete with good hands. Work up and left through the scoop to top out at the “arrow tip.” FA: Unknown
Broken Arrow (V2) Start as for the preceding route. Climb up to the scoop, but cut right to top out right of the “arrow tip.” FA: Unknown
Arrow Feather (V9?) Start to the right of the previous routes at the lowest point of the boulder. Traverse left and finish on Broken Arrow.
Arrow to the Heart (V6?) Start as for the preceding route on the far right side of the boulder. Go straight up onto the lower-angled arete to summit on the “arrow tip.”
Jam Crack Area
From the trail to the right of Sidewalk Direct, walk along the trail on the top of the ridge to the right (northeast) for one minute. A small spur trail cuts right to the Jam Crack area. Drop down steeply, skier’s right, passing a tree. Skirt the cliff-band, skier’s left, to get beneath the Jam Crack.
There are a number of trees above each of these routes that may be used to facilitate a top rope.
This area was the site of an unfortunate tragedy in April 2020. It is presumed that 22-year-old Elliot Scott died in a free solo accident below the Jam Crack. There are conflicting reports on the death. One report notes that a boulder fell onto the young man, while others report a fall. Regardless, this was a tragic loss.
Jam Crack (5.7, 20′, Trad or TR) This is a cool crack in the trees, but a bouldering fall here could be fatal as the landing is terrible. At the bottom of this route there is a small memorial to Elliot Scott.
Open Book Overhang (5.10a, 15′, Trad, TR) Just to the right of the preceding route is a crack that makes its way up and left. This could be a bouldering problem, but the landing is poor.
Three Brains Area
From the entry gate walk five minutes up the hill to a steep climber’s trail on the left (northwest) side of the road. A short skinny tree with almost no branches can be found at the start of the trail. Climb steeply up for about two minutes to the Three Brains.
Left Brain (V5) Climb the overhung left-side of the Left Brain. Sit start with the left hand on a right-angled hold. Right-hand on a side-hold. Go up through the roof to a tricky top-out.
Offwidth Brain (V4) Sit start and use offwidth and chimney technique to climb between the Brains. FA: Unknown
Middle Brain (V6) Sit start and then hug-squeeze up. Don’t stop until you’re on top.
Right Brain (V4) Sit start left and move up right using funky slopers. A bit easier for tall folks.
Sehome Summit Boulder Group
A small group of boulder problems may be found behind the summit restoration area, left of the tunnel and right of the parking lot. There are a number of access points. The following are listed left-to-right.
Tea Time (V1) Start on low crimps on the left-side of the boulder. Work up right through horizontals and slippers to top out on the right.
Brain Cancer (V4) The next boulder to the right (northeast) is the Brain Cancer Boulder. Brain Cancer is the first line on the left. Start just left of the “31” scratch. Work up the left-side of the boulder and through the roof. Highball.
Bombshell Cancer (V4) Start on the right-hand arete. Climb slopers up and to the left. Finish as for Brain Cancer. Highball.
Bombshell (V4) Start on the right arete, as for the previous route. Climb up and left under the biggest part of the roof. Pull through the roof and work up right. Highball.
Scatter Bomb (V3) Start with hands on both sides of the arete. Work up onto the slab. Pucker and reach for the “good hold” at the top.
From the upper parking lot walk northeast to the tunnel and take the trail to the right of the tunnel. The Mist Boulder is the first feature you will encounter.
Mist (V3) Begin on the rail on the left side of the feature. Work up to a shallow pocket and then right to the top. Needed cleaning at the time of this writing.
Exploding Psychology (V4?) Start with the left-hand in a pocket left of the painted blob. The right-hand is on a side-pull edge in the blob. Go straight up.
Imploding Scientology (V2) To the right of the preceding route, a seam climbs up into a small dirty chimney. Continue up left over a bulge. Needs cleaning.
From the Mist Boulder continue on the trail for approximately 50 feet to the Woo Boulder.
Woo (V2) Also known as the Pendulum Traverse, is the best line on the boulder. Traverse along the obvious handrail.
The Ramp (V3) Start as for the preceding route on the left side of the boulder. On the large hold work up through a seam and shallow pockets to the top.
Dino Petro (V5-6) Start at the ancient dinosaur scratched into the cliff by some random dude. Climb straight up the middle of the cliff for a top-out.
Superbowl (V6-7) Start as for the previous problem, but work right at the jug. Pass a bad sloper and make your way to the top. Sketchy!
Dr. Google Eyes (V8) Start at the right-hand side of the Woo traverse. At the pinch, launch straight up. Dirty and sketchy! x
Jason D. Martin is the executive director at the American Alpine Institute, a mountain guide and a widely published outdoor writer. He lives in Bellingham with his wife and two kids.