Monday, January 14, 2013

Beacon Rock's First Trip Report: December 1914

The following entry is quite possibly Beacon Rock's first trip report.  Published in the December 1914 edition of the Mazama: Record of Mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest (Volume IV, Number 3, pages 93-94), C. W. Howard recounts the story of not only his climb on the Pioneer (Spike) Route but also of the first ascent of Beacon Rock as well as a fascinating Native American legend.

The text is not edited as seen here on our blog and it should be noted that some of the author's references are outdated (Castle Rock) and do not express the views of the Beacon Rock Climbing Association or anyone else living in this century!

The original text can be found in the Beacon Rock State Park library as a gracious donation by the Mazamas and the Beacon Rock Climbing Association or by clicking here for another online copy.

Castle Rock.  1--View showing east face.
2--North and west front, route of Mazama ascent.
3--A grand rock climb; west side.
photos by C.W. Howard, Portland.

Climb of Castle Rock.
By C. W. Howard.

Castle Rock presents one of the best rock climbs near Portland.  It may well be called one of the "Guardians of the Columbia," as it is an isolated tower of columnar basalt, 1146 feet high, and stands on the north shore of the Columbia River, on the line of the "North Bank" Railroad, about 40 miles east of Portland.  The base of the rock covers somewhere near 30 acres, and the sides of the rock are almost perpendicular to the very top.  There is some vegetation on the rock but it is to be found only on the narrow ledges, which have been able to collect enough soil to support its growth and consists mainly of a few stunted firs and small shrubs, the lower portion of the rock being rather thickly covered with poison oak.

Until recently the ascent of Castle Rock had always been considered impossible.  For several years there was a standing offer of $1000 to anyone who succeeded in placing the American flag on the summit.  In the early days there was keen rivalry between two steamboat lines whose boats plied the Columbia River, and Frank Smith, of the "Regulator Line," with George Purcer and Charles Church, by means of ropes, iron pins and an unlimited amount of nerve, scaled the rock for the first time during the summer of 1901 and unfurled the Stars and Stripes, and "Regulator" banner, to the breeze.  These were the first flags to wave from the summit of Castle Rock, as never before, as far as they could ascertain, had human foot trod there.

There is, however, an old Indian legend to the effect that a beautiful Indian princess named Wehatpolitan had climbed to the top of the rock.  She was, so the story  runs, in love with a young chief of a neighboring tribe and when she was sought by her lover in marriage her stern father denied the request and killed the messenger.  The lovers, however, were secretly married and met often, unknown to the father.  After a time the father gave Wehatpolitan to a chief whom he favored.  This chief kept close watch of the princess and soon discovered her secret meetings.  Upon the news being imparted to the father he invited the unfavored lover to his lodge, promising to forgive him and that he and Wehatpolitan would be duly wed.  This, however, was but a ruse and when the expectant lover arrived at the lodge he was seized upon and slain.  Soon after this Wehatpolitan gave birth to a child and when the stern parent decreed that the child should share its father's fate Wehatpolitan caught up her child and disappeared.

In vain the tribesman searched for her.  Next day they could hear wailings from the top of Castle Rock and discovered that the poor girl with her child had climbed that seemingly impossible height.  No one dared venture to climb up an save Wehatpolitan and on the third day the wailings ceased.  Then the half-crazed father at temped to reach his daughter and seemed to have succeeded, for at last he disappeared among the crevices of the rock high up toward the summit.  He never returned and it was thought that upon reaching the top and finding the bodies of his daughter and the child had given up hope of being able to get down and so had lain down with them and died.  And thus runs the Indian legend of Castle Rock.

Since 1901 a few small parties have succeeded in climbing to the summit of Castle Rock.  A party of Mazamas, under Mr. Benefiel, made the climb in 1912, but on October 11th, 1914, the Mazamas made an official climb of the rock and 47 persons reached the summit, this being by far the largest party which has ever stood on its summit at one time.  Mr. E. C. Sammons was the leader of the party and to make sure that everything would be in readiness for the main climb, he made a preliminary trip two weeks before.  Mrs. C. E. Dillinger, better known to the Mazamas as "Auntie"; Miss Anne Dillinger, Sammons and the writer made up the party.  We left Portland on October 3, arriving at Butler at 7:30 P. M.  Here we left the train and with somewhat heavy packs hiked about two and one-half miles to our camping place on a small creek about a quarter of a mile from the base of the rock.  This was a perfect location for a small camp we soon had a good fire burning and then "Auntie" toasted pumpernickel and prepared beef bouillon -- a delicious rapast before retiring.

After an early breakfast Miss Dillinger, Sammons and I started the climb, leaving "Auntie" to guard camp and to have dinner prepared for us when we returned.  With little difficulty we found the dim trail up the west side of the rock, this being the only practical route to the top.  When you stand near the base of Castle Rock and, looking upward, have the trail pointed out to you, you little wonder that was long thought to be an impossible climb.  The rock overhangs in places and the rest of the way is just about perpendicular.  It is only by working back and forth along the narrow ledges and occasionally pulling yourself up sheer faces of rock by means of the scant shrubbery or a tuft of grass (and sometimes with your nose and eyebrows) that your are able to reach the top.

The most difficult part of the climb is met when about half way up the rock, or about 600 feet above the ground.  Here the trail ends at the bottom of a chimney leading to the base of a bald face of rock about 60 feet high and entirely devoid of vegetation.   There are no crevices for hand or foot holds, and to negotiate this chimney and rock face the first climbers had drilled holes and set some iron spikes, by which one could pull himself up.  A rope was afterward hung from above.  On our reconnoitering trip we found that some of the spikes had become loose enough to become dangerous and that the permanent rope was badly rotted.  We stopped here long enough to re-drill the old holes and set in a few additional pins.  We also hung a new 70-foot 1-inch rope to replace the old one.  Setting the pins on this place was adventuresome work.  First Sammons and then myself took turns at it, being suspended in mid-air, as it were, by a painter's noose made in the large rope.   Hanging over the wall added zest to the sport, but I was glad that the rope was new and in perfect condition.

This dangerous place once surmounted, the balance of the climb is made without especial difficulty, though one must constantly be on the alert for falling rocks and lest he made a misstep, any one of which might prove fatal.  We remained on the summit long enough to take a few photographs and then retraced our steps.  When we had dropped down off the rock face and through the narrow chimney Sammons, who was in the lead, threw his weight on a dead fir tree, about 6 inches in diameter, to let himself down to a lower ledge of rock.  The tree, which had nearly rotted through at the base, snapped under the extra weight and went down with Sammons, while Miss Dillinger and I held our breaths in horror.  It was only rare presence of mind and a skillful twist of his body that enabled him to throw himself inward, while falling, onto the first ledge of rock about 8 feet below.  He landed in a heap with his feet hanging over a sheer precipice of about 200 feet.

On the official climb two weeks later, because of the large number of women who were inexperienced in difficult rock climbing, our leader, Mr. Sammons, hung a number of ropes over the more dangerous places.  This proved a wise precaution, for the rains of the week before had made the footing most unsatisfactory, especially where there was a scum of earth and decayed leaves on the sharply sloping basalt ledges.  In the main climb one or two persons were struck by small rocks dislodged by the climbers above, but otherwise what is probably one of the most ambitious climbs on the "Local Walks" schedule of the Mazamas came off successfully and with credit to the organization.  An official Mazama record box and register were left on the summit.

The owners of Castle Rock contemplate blasting a winding horse trail to the summit, that tourists may have the advantage of that most wonderful view of the Columbia River.  The view from the rock is magnificent, one being able to see for miles up and down the Columbia River gorge.

Castle Rock, an isolated tower of columnar basalt 1146 feet high,
on north bank of Columbia River 40 miles east of Portland.
Photo by H. J. Thorne, Portland

View looking east from summit of Castle Rock,
showing rugged cliffs of Oregon shore.
Photo by H. J. Thorne, Portland

Those who made the official Mazama climb were:  R. W. Ayer, C. E. Blakney, H. G. Burco, L. F. Buck, T. R. Conway, William Clarke, Geraldine Coursen, A. M. Churchill, Lella L. Dean, L. P. Dellaire, Edith Ellis, Pearl Ellis, F. J. Glover, Charlotte M. Harris, Pearl Harnois, A. R. Hine, R. W. Heston, R. T. Johnstone, D. M. G. Kerr, Joseph Lind, P. C. Lind, D. G. Lebb, Dr. C. V. Luther, F. P. Luetters, Edith Moore, R. W. Montague, Caroline Montague, Martha Nilsson, Anna D. Nickell, P. G. Payton, E. F. Peterson, Arthur Peterson, Florence Prevost, John Pauer, George X. Riddell, Osmon Royal, C. W. Roblin, Rhoda Ross, Lena Searing, Georgia Smedly, George F. Scott, J. C. Sharp, C. J. Sieberts, H. J. Thorne, A. B. Williams, Louis Waldorf and E. C. Sammons, leader of the expedition.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Trail Maintenance Day 2012 a Success!

BEACON ROCK STATE PARK -- More than 30 volunteers participated in a day of trail maintenance organized by the Beacon Rock Climbing Association on Saturday, October 27.

Volunteers arrived at 9 a.m. and divided into three teams and worked until after 12 p.m., on three projects.

Team One, which had the most volunteers, created a series of steps off the main hikers' trail onto the SW Face Climbers' trail, leveled large rocks through vegetated areas and continued into the boulder field before traversing the small scree area toward the rock to old and overgrown belay stations.  (Look for cairns if you hike down)  This maintenance work will help prevent erosion off the main trail and increase safety for climbers who use the approach trail to access climbs on the SW Face.

Karen Natzel and Steve Altergott move stone at the start of the SW Face Climbers' trail, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. (BRCA photo)

Team Two worked on the South Side or River Side of the rock constructing a new belay platform at the base of Free For All.  They also helped improve the trail up to the Arena of Terror and Jensen's Ridge (South Ridge).  

Team Two Leader Kenny Allen (front) and other TMD2012 volunteers work on building the belay platform at the base of Free For All, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012.  (BRCA photo) 

Team Three, which was led by the BRSP Head Ranger Karl Hinze, made their way to the top of the hikers' trail to prune trees and cut underbrush.  This bit of work will not only help improve the view from the top but will help control icing that can knock down trees onto the trail during the harsh winter months.

Steve Wolford who volunteered for Team 3 returns safely yet soaked after a successful mission on the Hikers' Trail, Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. (BRCA photo)

Ranger Hinze, who opened the day with a safety briefing and words of encouragement to those who braved the elements (upper 40s and rainy, E wind 10-15), provided the BBQ grill and propane fuel for the after-work cookout.

Trail Maintenance Day was registered with the Access Fund as an Adopt a Crag event and volunteers received free items such as chalk bags, North Face hats, Clif Bars, etc.  The American Alpine Club provided food and drinks at the after-work cookout.  The Mazamas (Mountain Center in Portland) provided 17 trail tools and printed the BRCA newsletter.

The event not only helped to maintain park trails but it served to unite area climbers to discuss climbing access issues at Beacon Rock State Park.  Some of the the points discussed:

  • Forming a Friends Group that can support the park with volunteers and fundraising
  • Opening the SW Face for year-round climbing
  • Need for better climbing information signs
  • Support for the revised Climbing Management Plan and implementing a Buffer Zone
  • Guest bloggers and Facebook admins
  • Create and fund a federal research project on continued protection of peregrine falcons
  • Camera in the nest
  • Upcoming Trail Maintenance Projects such as SE Corner belay platform
  • Joining established climbing organizations such as the Mazamas, Access Fund, AAC, WCC
  • Joining the Beacon Rock Climbing Association
  • Partnering with conservation groups such as Columbia River Keepers, Nature Conservancy
  • University-led studies at Beacon to examine climber impact and peregrine habituation
  • Future Adopt a Crag events - Ozone and Far Side crags 
Join us in maintaining the rich traditional climbing history at Beacon Rock State Park!  Show your support and keep in touch via our Facebook page or comment here on the blog!

TMD2012 volunteers enjoy some food & drinks after a hard day's work.  (BRCA photo)

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Trail Maintenance Day: 3 Projects, 3 Teams, 3 Hours

The Beacon Rock Climbing Association is happy to announce that it will be hosting a Trail Maintenance Day at Beacon Rock State Park on October 27th, 2012 starting at 9 a.m.

This is a great opportunity for volunteers to give back to the park and to meet new and old school climbers!

If you are interested in becoming a Beacon Rock volunteer on Trail Maintenance Day, please feel free to join one of 3 Teams dedicated to 3 Projects lasting (approximately) 3 Hours:


1. SW Face Climbers' Trail - this area is in need of some attention as years of blanket closures due to Peregrine Falcon nesting have left it a bit neglected.  This old climbers' trail leads to the SW Face where a handful of established routes wait to see climbers again ... someday.  We plan to attack poison oak (without the use of herbicide) and move some stone & dirt to prevent erosion.

2.  Hikers' Trail - the superhighway to the top of Beacon Rock is in need of attention as well.  Some loose boards and nails pose a slight hazard to hikers, runners and so forth.  We'll also be picking up trash which accumulates throughout the busy summer season.

3.  South Face Climbers' Trail (Free For All to Jensen's Ridge) - this area near the "Arena of Terror" is over grown and erosion has taken its toll.  Poison oak eradication and moving stone.

Join any team and afterwards we'll get together for climbing and a BBQ.  Rain or shine, we are hoping to have a positive event to support such an amazing state park!

Your comments are greatly appreciated or find us out on Facebook!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Friends of Beacon Rock Organizing Event & BBQ

The BRCA hosted an organizing event and BBQ on Saturday that was attended by local climbers from the Portland - Vancouver - Gorge areas.

The goal of the event was to discuss the work the BRCA has been doing since last October in updating the Climbing Management Plan and to brainstorm ideas on how to create a greater balance between park use and habitat management at Beacon Rock.

Thanks to the Access Fund, the Source Climbing Gym and the Mazamas for attending and supporting technical rock climbing at Beacon Rock!

For more information and to share your thoughts, check out the Facebook page