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Oregon’s Highest Peaks
Want to make a couple of quick bucks? Here’s a bar bet almost any Washington climber should jump at. The conversation would go something like this…After swapping lies for awhile, you casually observe, “Boy, there’s a lot of high mountains down in Oregon, too. In fact, I heard there’s almost a hundred that are over 8000 feet high.” Your climbing buddy/victim will probably deny this without even thinking about it. “Nah, no way!”
Now it’s time to set the hook. “Well, maybe there’s only 80 that are over 8000 feet. But I think there’s supposed to be more than 30 over 9000 feet. That’s twice as many as in Washington.” This will seem so outrageous it will force his/her brain to engage. They’ll drop into silence as you watch the wheels turn. “Let’s see…there’s Hood, and the rest of the volcanoes, and maybe a couple of things over in the Wallowas, maybe….“But it won’t compute. So they’ll deny it again, more vehemently this time. “That’s impossible! No way!” What you do at this juncture is up to you - set up the bet and reel them in, or let them go, and laugh about it together. (Be careful if this someone you might share a rope with in the future.) But the fact is, you would win the bet, no contest. And this article would provide the necessary documentation, complete and irrefutable.
At first I didn’t believe it myself. I grew up in central Oregon, and knew the mountains in that part of the state well. In college, I hiked a bit in the Wallowas one summer, and worked one winter on a ranch near Steens Mountain, in the southeast. I guess I assumed this had pretty well educated me on the high places across the state of Oregon. I was very mistaken.
This list of the 100 highest peaks in Oregon is only one of the many products of my perverse fascination with compilations of summits. It was the first I ever attempted on an area as large as a state. As originally published in May 1996 in the monthly outdoor journal Pack & Paddle, the cover article takes the point of view of someone who lives, climbs, and does their research in the state of Washington. This particular list was really a return to roots for me, however, as I grew up in Bend, and still regard it as home in some ways. I have wanted for a long time to share it with an audience that might appreciate and identify with it more than the Washington climbing community.
An important point for those who haven’t encountered such lists before, or don’t worry much about topography .... this is what I term a “pure landform” list. The only criterion for inclusion is that a peak have a certain amount of prominence, in this case 500 feet. This just means that a peak must rise 500 feet above any saddle connecting it to anything higher. It is essentially a rule for distinguishing true summits from sub-summits. It doesn’t matter a whit whether the peak happens to be named or not. As it turns out, 75 of those on the list are named on the maps. On the other hand, 25 of them aren’t.
Just in case the obvious challenge needs stating: a similar 100 highest list was created for Washington all the way back in the ‘70s (not by me), and sparked a race among local climbers to be first ascendant of all 100 (finally accomplished in 1980). With 44 years behind me and lousy knees, I have no serious plans to ever finish this list myself. Still, with only occasional family vacations to Oregon, I’ve managed to pick off 18 of the easier ones in the past few years. I’d be intrigued to know if anyone else decides this list is a worthy goal.
Oregon was a natural for several reasons. Besides my roots there, and an abiding love of the countryside, I still have a lot of family in the state; I thought having a good list of mountains to climb would give me something to do when we visit the in-laws. (Wait - or is it that I should be sure to visit the in-laws when I go climbing? No, that still sounds like I’m headed for trouble…)I used the same rules for defining a mountain as with the Home Court list, that is, the peak must have a minimum of 500 feet of “clean” prominence (see that article for details). Furthermore, I decided to conduct a purely topographic survey. No consideration was given to whether a peak was named or not. As it turned out, quite a number of unnamed but distinct summits were found to qualify - 25 out of the top 100, in fact.
Searching an entire state for its highest peaks proved to be vastly more work than the Home Court project. The USGS uses around 1800 7.5 minute quads to provide topographic coverage of the whole of Oregon. I first gained an overview of the state with larger scale maps, then looked in detail at 115 of these 1:24,000 scale quads to pinpoint the 100 highest peaks and establish their prominence.
The accompanying table lists those peaks in order, from highest to lowest, with their summit elevation and the quad they’re located on. Most peaks with no name on the map are identified according to the names of two nearby lakes or streams, enclosed in square brackets. Three of the unnamed peaks are identified either as a sub-summit of a nearby named peak (#74 and #92), or take the name of a triangulation station near the summit (#86).Although some of the zones are quite dispersed geographically, there is a good degree of physiographic and geologic uniformity within each zone. When comparing across zones, however, it becomes apparent that very disparate forces were responsible for raising the mountains to the heights found today.
Briefly, the five zones look like this:
CASCADE MTNS. Zone. “Cones and Craters”. The 25 peaks in this zone are almost exclusively of volcanic origin. Some, such as South Sister and Mt. McLoughlin, are beautiful symmetric stratovolcanoes of recent vintage, and are expected to resume eruption again in the near future.
Such cones have been building along the Cascades for a million years or more. Some of the older ones are now extinct and have been heavily scoured by glaciers, leaving behind the resistant central plug. Three Fingered Jack and Mt. Thielsen are good examples of these older remnants.
Several peaks are found along the rims of a special type of volcanic landform, the caldera. Formed by the cataclysmic collapse of a large volcano, the resulting crater often contains a lake. Crater Lake is the most famous caldera in the United States, and is ringed by five peaks on the list. Another peak, Paulina Peak, stands above the other large caldera in the state, Newberry Crater.
SOUTHEAST Zone. “Rim Country”. This portion of Oregon comprises the northwest corner of the physiographic province known as Basin and Range. The dominant geologic forces at work here cause the uplift and sinking of large blocks of land between long, north-south trending, parallel faults.
A characteristic feature of the resulting terrain is long, high escarpments above broad, flat basins. Prime examples of this among the 16 peaks in this zone are Warner Peak and Steens Mountain (the latter modified secondarily by Ice Age glaciers).
The rules for defining peaks produced one anomaly in this zone. The Trout Creek Mountains rise well above 8000 feet in Oregon, but the prominence-defining summit is across the border in Nevada, so it was not included in this list.
WALLOWA MTNS., ELKHORN CREST, and STRAWBERRY MTNS. Zones. “The Dry Alps”. The remaining three zones are more compact geographically, and have common geologic origins. All derive form an ancient range of coastal mountains which ran across the state from the northeast corner to near Eugene. The rocks visible on the surface today vary from largely granite in the Wallowas and Elkhorn Crest to a huge slab of old seafloor in the western Strawberries.
Although the local climate is presently fairly dry, all were deeply carved during the last Ice Age, and display classic alpine landforms, with deep U-shaped valleys, and jagged ridges perched above the old glacial cirques.
There are 37, 13, and 9 peaks in the Wallowa Mtns., Elkhorn Crest, and Strawberry Mtns. groups, respectively. The Wallowas form an exceptionally dense concentration of peaks over 8000 feet. In Washington, only the area between Glacier Peak and northern Lake Chelan rivals it.
Anyone interested in a better understanding of the geology of Oregon will find a superb lay exposition in the volume “Roadside Geology of Oregon”, by David Alt and Donald Hyndman.
So what are these 100 peaks like as climbing destinations? For the most part, I can only guess, because I haven’t been there yet. I’ve only made it up five of them so far - a couple of the volcanoes when I was a kid, and three along the Elkhorn Crest last Labor Day (when I went camping with, yes, the in-laws!). There are a couple of good guidebooks that cover some of the Cascade peaks (“Oregon High”, by Jeff Thomas, and “Summit Guide to the Cascade Volcanoes”, by Jeff Smoot). The peaks described their range from walkups to mixed alpine climbs to easy (low fifth-class) technical jaunts.
Another useful reference is “Exploring Oregon’s Wild Areas”, by William Sullivan. Although its emphasis is not on climbing, it has sections on every wilderness and mountain area in the state, and provides good information on approaches and trails for many of the summits which can be hiked. Overall, the 100 highest peaks in Oregon appear more accessible and less rugged than those in Washington. This is not to say for a moment they are lacking in challenge. Especially in the Wallowas, the maps suggest a number of peaks are non-trivial scrambles, and some may even offer technical finishes.
I hope that publication of this list will stimulate feedback from readers who live in Oregon. I’d love to hear some first-hand reports on mountains that, for me, have so far existed mostly as clumps of lines on paper.
(and, in case you’re interested, here’s a list of the top 100 peaks in Washington.)