Marion County HP

Thu, Jul 5, 2012

With: Adam Jantz

Story Photos / Slideshow Map GPX Profile


The highpoint of Oregon's Marion County is a liner located on the North Ridge of Mt. Jefferson, possibly the hardest county highpoint in the nation with almost no prominence. I had climbed Mt. Jefferson (itself the highpoint of Linn County) some years earlier with Rick Kent and would have been happy to do so once again to allow Adam the opportunity, had the Marion CoHP been on the way to the summit. Unfortunately the North Ridge above the CoHP is a horrible mess of dangerously loose and steep terrain, forcing those who place even a modicum of value on their lives to make a circuitous detour to get from the CoHP to the summit. Doing both in a day was certainly possible, but not so easy with the long drive we had ahead of us back to California. As part of our compromise, Adam had agreed to do the North Ridge of Jefferson today in return for our climb of Mt. St. Helens the previous day. He was a good sport about it, but it was easy to see that there was still a sense of disappointment in not making it to the summit.

There is some small amount of controversy over just where the CoHP is along the North Ridge. A report by Adam Helman on is a very detailed discussion of the issue. In short, a 1997 update to the USGS 7.5' topo map has the county line moved slightly further south, moving the county highpoint further up the ridge and on harder terrain along a loose and difficult ridgeline. Helman goes into great detail as to why the change is for the most part arbitrary and imaginary, all in an effort to justify his position that he had climbed the correct point further north, where the older map had shown the county boundary to be. And for the most part I agree with him. Except that for almost all other county highpoints, the USGS 7.5' topographic maps have been accepted as the gold standard by county highpointers. Where direct measurements onsite have proven that one contour is higher than another, the USGS maps have been allowed to be superceded, otherwise the USGS map is the final arbiter. I've never heard of another case where a county boundary drawn on the USGS map was disregarded, regardless of the reason. The website did not have any other reports of highpointers reaching the newer point and at least one pointed to the objective dangers such an effort would entail, so it was entirely possible that we too would fail to reach the new point. But at least we'd go up and try. We had the waypoint from the new map entered into our GPS and would do our best to reach it.

Our outing actually began the previous night while we were winding down the day at the Motel 6 in Salem. We planned to get up at 4a in order to get an early start on the several hour drive to the TH and hopefully start around sunrise. I wanted to go to bed by 8p while Adam was itching to set off some of the fireworks he had purchased a few days earlier in Washington. Adam was a knowledgeable firework enthusiast and had been enlightening me for a week now on the various manufacturers, types, costs, and pyro-mayhem that he enjoyed well into adulthood. He was giddy as a small child when talking about the stuff and worked himself into an anticipatory high not unlike a junkie. The problem was that all fireworks are prohibited in Oregon. Since it was the 4th of July, I figured the law would be somewhat lax around Independence Day and suggested he could go out and set off a bottle rocket or two in the parking lot. Adam went out and came back in not a minute later. "There's people out there," he said, dejectedly. I further suggested that the other motel guests would probably enjoy a bit of pyrotechnic display for the 4th of July, maybe even offering a light from their cigarette. Adam went back out, and a few minutes later I heard the bang from his aerial firework. That was the last I heard as I lay in bed and was soon drifting off to sleep. Half an hour later I was awaken by the phone ringing. It was the manager asking me if I had a guest visiting me who met the description of Adam. "Yes, he was with me, but he wasn't my guest, he was yours. We paid for two persons to stay in the room," I replied. Well, they had caught him with the fireworks and had asked him to leave, which he did promptly without argument apparently and undoubtedly quite pissed. I was unhappy too, since he took off in our only transportation and I was stuck in the seediest Motel 6 I'd ever been to. They suggested I call him to come back, but I didn't have his phone number with me - it was in the car, too. So the phone call ended with me quite upset with the motel management and wondering what happened to Adam. I went back to bed, hoping he would come back in a few hours. I awoke around midnight, but still no sign of Adam. I went outside and walked up and down a block on either side of the motel to see if he was parked on the street somewhere. Still no sign of him. I went back to bed and got up at 2a once more to check outside. No Adam. At 4a the door opened, Adam walked in and said, "Are we going?" while I was still trying to wake up and figure out what just happened. Adam was obviously still quite upset, so I didn't press him for an explanation, though I offered my quick version of what I knew and the discussion with the manager. I hurriedly dressed and packed up my things and off we went. It was a long drive that took several hours to reach the TH, the quietest one we had all week. Halfway through I finally asked, "So, do you want to talk about it?" Very curtly, he replied, "No." To this day, I still don't know what went on back at Salem other than what the motel manager had told me. Evidently, they don't like fireworks much in Oregon.

It was after 7a before we had driven to the Whitewater TH and started up the trail. As he was not in the mood for conversation, I left Adam to himself leading the way up the trail, myself keeping a respectable distance behind him, but close enough to make sure we didn't take a wrong turn. We entered the Mt. Jefferson Wilderness almost as soon as we started on the trail, climbing steadily through forest cover mercifully free of snow for the first several miles. We reached a trail junction at a saddle in the ridgeline denoting the Sentinel Hills. Turning southeast, we followed the trail as it continued climbing higher on its way to Jefferson Park on the north side of the mountain. At the 5,400-foot level we began to encounter snow which made following the trail difficult where it traversed the north side of the ridge. To avoid the snow we followed the ridgeline more directly, up and over a local highpoint around 5,600ft. Our progress slowed due to the rough nature of the landscape with downed trees and brushy conditions. From the summit of the local highpoint Mt. Jefferson could be seen to the southeast, a long, long way in the distance. I had a growing concern that we were tackling this one too early in the season with too much snow still on the ground. Whether Adam shared my concern or not I didn't know - he was still in his unhappy funk and giving the world the silent treatment. We pressed on.

Downclimbing the local highpoint to the east we reconnected with the trail which made a fortuitous transition to the south side of the ridge where there was far less snow found. It was 9a by the time we approached the Whitewater Creek crossing at the entrance to Jefferson Park. The ground was completely covered in snow here, hard and easy to walk on - much better than the irregular piles of snow along a trail that can be so maddening. Rather than heading further east into Jefferson Park, we followed the GPS route to the southeast, through forest on our way more directly to the North Ridge. We were only in the forest for about 20 minutes or so before we broke out above treeline to fine views on one of the clearest days we'd seen the whole trip. We were able to take advantage of much snow-free scrambling along the ridge, more of a Northwest Ridge to start before it merges higher up with the North Ridge. On our right was the Jefferson Park Glacier, the normal ascent route to the summit from the north side of the mountain. There were some crevasses to be seen, but mostly it looked benign until one reaches the highest slopes where it steeps significantly.

By 10:30a we'd moved off the subsidiary ridge and onto the North Ridge proper. So far we'd managed to do without crampons or axe, over lots of class 2 talus. It wasn't a very exciting climb, but the views made up for the lack of interesting terrain. The lower part of the North Ridge was pretty easy, growing steeper and more difficult higher up. It was 11:15a before we reached the old CoHP atop a modest pinnacle. The ridge from here up changes more dramatically, with knife edges and more challenging terrain. We found no register or cairn to mark the point, but it was recognizeable from the photos we had seen online. The GPS showed we still had about 500 feet further north to travel to the county line. Having our first conversation of the day, we discussed whether to stop or continue on. Adam was all for showing that the new point could be reached, as was I. It wasn't a very long conversation, but at least it was something.

The ridge itself could not easily be followed, but by dropping off the rock and onto the Whitewater Glacier on the east side, we could traverse the most difficult section of rock and regain the ridge further north. We paused to get out our crampons and axe. Having been in the sun all morning now, the snow on this side of the ridge was soft and somewhat dicey. It was not hard to punch through to the underlying rock or in some cases an air gap where the snow has melted away from the rock. Following this bit of sketchiness we returned to the rock as soon as practical and breathed a sigh of relief. The rock here wasn't all that great, but it was better than the steep snowslope. The drop off to the glacier was disconcerting, so having a piece of rock to hold onto was somehow more reassuring than standing on the snow, wondering if it was going to slide out from under you.

The rock had changed color from brown to gray in going from the old to the new county highpoint. It was no more than class 3, but required some attention due to the looseness of it. We spent about fifteen minutes on the gray rock, the crux coming with a bit of a knife-edge, the only real rock climbing we enjoyed on the day. It was noon when we pulled up to the top of the gray pinnacle. It sat at the south end of the loose, narrow ridge, the old highpoint at the north end. The GPS indicated we still had perhaps 120ft to go to the county line, but the terrain further south dropped some to a saddle before climbing higher well past the 120ft distance. This meant that the small gray pinnacle we reached should be the county highpoint. We declared our extended effort a success, pausing for a breather and to take some pictures. The ridge beyond the county line grows steeper yet with some technical snow and rock near the top. Had it been necessary, we could probably have continued another 20 minutes along the ridge before getting into stuff too dicey for my blood. Adam would probably have just gone on to the summit without caring much for the dangers if he'd gotten that far. I was happy to call it quits and not deal with more sketchiness than necessary.

We retreated back along the rock, choosing to descend to the Jefferson Park Glacier on the west side rather than repeat the dicey bit of traversing on the Whitewater Glacier. Some loose class 2-3 downclimbing got us to the edge of the snow where we stopped to put on crampons once again. There were more crevasses that could be seen on the glacier, but for the most part these were small gaps and not of great concern. The tougher problem was negotiating the first couple hundred feet which were rather steep. I faced into the mountain and kicked steps down for five or ten minutes until I was on an easier gradient and felt comfortable turning around to face the world. Then things went far better with a fast descent with big plunge steps down to the main part of the glacier below. I had left Adam less than fifteen minutes earlier when I paused to take a break and wait for him.

Adam was a long time coming. He had put on his crampons same as I initially, but decided he didn't like the steepness of the slope. A short distance abreast of where we had stopped was a snow-free line of talus and boulders extending down to the main glacier. Adam decided this was a safer option, took off his crampons and proceeded to descend the line of rick. Meanwhile I had lost sight of him and could not figure out what was keeping him, thinking it most likely he was having technical problems with the crampons. It was not until he was nearly off the rock portion that I spotted him on the rock, just about to transition again to the snow. It was 1:20p before he rejoined me and we continued our descent. There were fine views to Mt. Hood and Olallie Butte to the north during our descent. Adam preferred a sitting glissade where possible, but the snow was too soft for this to be effective on any but the steepest slopes. I preferred a standing glissade to save the uncomfortableness of wet pants and besides it worked much better on the more moderate gradients we found ourselves on. Our boots would be soaked before we got off the snow regardless of which type of glissade we used.

The descent went surprisingly fast. By 2:30p we had returned to the local highpoint along the Sentinel Hills ridge. Shortly thereafter we came across a pair of backpackers heading to Jefferson Park. We gave them some advice about the route ahead before continuing down, and shortly before 3:30p we had returned to our car at the trailhead. The outing had gone remarkably well considering the doubts I was having after the first hour. We managed to drive our way through Oregon, stopping at Yreka just across the California border to stay for the night, after a dinner stop for sandwiches in Ashland. Adam's mood had softened with the day's success, but he was still uninterested in discussing the previous night's adventure. At least he was talking again, a big improvement...

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