traversing overland from Arch Cape to
my house via Onion Peak
For seven years now I've gazed upon the sentinal of Onion
Peak. It's bulwark has supervised the creation of my
boatbuilding business, and then my organic farm. At
times bathed in the warm glow of sunrise or sunset, at others
wrapped in fog, blasted by rain, and covered with
ice, I glanced up again and again at the crags, simply
wondering what was up there. Carefully studying the
fissures upon it's central column, I entertained idle fantasies
that just maybe some of the rotten choss-rock had peeled off the face
exposing a band of cracked columnar basalt that would accept some of my
long-neglected collection of nuts and cams for an epic decent straight
down the middle.
Who has time for such things though. Who has time for anything
really? It never ceases to amaze me how fast one year
dissapears into the next, and how I always find time to do the
things I have to do, and so often the things I want to do are set
aside to be done in some mysterious future that is always around the
corner but never seems to arrive. This winter I've been
attacking that list with fervor, and so it was that I found
myself connected to my buddy Don's voicemail at 8pm:
"hey Bro, it's me Brian, the weather is good and I
think we should climb Onion Peak tomorrow, camp on top,
rappel down the face, and then bushwhack straight to my
Another way to phrase that might be: "Would you be interested in
carrying fifty pounds of climbing gear seven miles and three-thousand
vertical feet up a maze of logging roads through endless
clearcuts, thrashing through wet slippery thorny brush up to a
crumbling mountaintop where we'll freeze our nuts off and won't sleep a
wink on uneven windswept rock, then wake up and make a highly
inadvisable vertical decent down a cliff that we have no reasonable
expectation of finding any sort of safe anchors, wherepon
(provided we survive) we will continue to thrash straight cross country
through more of the aforementioned brush finally arriving back at my
I can always count on Don for any adventure that involves extended
unpleasantness combined with the probability of getting lost and the
possibility of getting killed.
Rather than take the normal arduous route up steep logging roads,
Don felt it would be a good idea to make an instinctual cross-country
shortcut. This turned out to be something like climbing a
muddy stairmaster for two hours with backpack while being whipped raw
by branches and brambles. Not
surprisingly, this turned out to be neither shorter, nor
easier, especially because aside from the occasional long
whitewater portage, I do little to no hiking.
Back on the roads we were treated to a six mile tour of greed and
devastation. What you are looking at here is 'a
stream buffer to protect habitat'. This land could
have been selectively harvested encouraging a diverse healthy
forest, instead large private landholders simply clearcut and
move on. Currently there is less than one-half of one
percent old-growth forest on the Oregon coast, but a burgeoning
market for pulp is now making it barely profitable to cut down the
young second growth to be shipped overseas and ground up for pulp.
It's disgusting. Timber interests always like to whine
about regulations when the reality is the reason there are no timber
jobs is because they've already cut down most of the trees.
Farther us we got some nice views of Ecola state park and Cannon
A cool rock and tree.
We slogged a brutal pace to reach the base of Onion Peak an hour before
sunset. The Nature Conservancy purchased this land a
few years ago.
The end of the road.
Seeing my chance to repay Don for the evil thrashfest he imposed on me
earlier in the day, I suggested we forgo the normal trail
and take a more "direct" route to the top via this gully.
he, he, he..... Just as I'd hoped.
Halfway up, less than a half hour of daylight left.
A quadracep destroying half-hour later we quavered victoriously on the
peak as the sun melted into the Pacific.
As romantic as it looks, you need to be both stupid and a
scofflaw to camp up here. There is nothing resembling a
flat spot, the wind howls, and each side of the tent opened
to a potentially fatal fall. The Nature Conservancy
does not allow camping here to protect the habitat, but more to
the point, it's just a bad idea. I plead
forgiveness based on the fact that I've wanted to do this long before
they bought the land. To reiterate, camping
here is illegal and dangerous. It is murder getting a pack
up here anyways. There are nice spots with exactly the same views
at the base of the peak on the old logging road.
Rainier, Helens, and Adams at sunrise.
Nearly crippled from (not) sleeping on baseball sized chunks of sloped
rock, we rose to greet the rare winter sun.
From this amazing vantage we watched a Peregrine Falcon swoop and dive
in front of us. It was the first time I'd seen one fly for
more than a moment and from this distance with a clear view I was
struck by how unique it's flight was. Compared to
other birds I'd watched fly at altitude, the fast arcs that it
carved were cleaner, more steady.
Though it was clear that there was none of the solid rock I'd hoped
for, we strung out the climbing gear anyways and started
carefully working our way down the face. This
seven-hundred foot drop required careful strategy to insure that we
didn't rappel into a situation we couldn't escape
from. We strung out a pair of two-hundred foot
ropes, and I dropped down, worked out an
anchor, and then rappelled on a single 120 foot rope down to
establish a second anchor, then Don would come down,
pull the ropes and drop them down to the second
anchor. At this point we were committed,
but if we were unable to find a third anchor point, we could
still tie all the ropes end to end and rappel to the base.
For anyone keen on repeating this feat, allow me to call your
attention to what I mean when I say 'anchor'. Our
first two anchors were trees, our third was a slung rock,
but our fourth, completely committed, and most exposed
anchor consisted of three small nuts slotted into a wet muddy
As horrifying as this looks (even to me), I established this
anchor by digging moss out of the crack with my fingers and a pocket
knife, then slotting a nut, and still safe on
rappel, I'd transfer my body weight onto the piece and jump up
and down on it like crazy. I did the same with each
nut and then using slings, prussiks, and a cordlette I
managed to equalize the trio, making sure to check it for
stability in any possible direction of pull. My bottom nut
was securely wedged behind a nub that prevented the top two from
lifting out. I could have slotted another
piece, but this felt solid and I trusted it. I
haven't built many trad anchors since I quit seriously climbing
fourteen years ago, but the intense focus of ever having done so
made it seem as though it was yesterday.
We were incredibly lucky on finding anchors, I was at the
literal absolute end of my rope on each section when I found or made an
anchor. On the final rappel the rope ran out just as our
feet touched the ground. We brought a total of
520 feet of rope and to do it over with I should have brought an extra
120 feet and a couple of pitons and a hammer. It was
fun to do, but it's just not a climbing friendly
place. The rock falls apart in your hands.
After eating lunch and coiling the ropes, we were ready for the
really fun part, a straight line bushwhack to my house four miles
distant. At least it was downhill.
alas, this is the last picture my camera ever
took. In the midst of our downhill bramble-thrash we
encountered a small cliff band where I was heard to utter the phrase,
"Don't worry, it's all good."
....followed by a slide, tumble, and crash! I
stood up bleeding a bit, and winced at my smashed Canon
s95. Not a bad price to pay considering what could have
happened. I yelled back up to Don,
"Ok, maybe it's not all
Below the peak we traversed a landscape of fantastic volcanic spires
and outcrops amidst massive clearcuts. This area
should have been preserved as a park and it was sad to see it
cut. Our cross country epic continued well into the
darkness, and we arrived on my doorstep scratched and
bruised. I lit a fire in the wood-fired hot tub and cracked
open a well earned Jubelale. Not a bad adventure
considering it was hatched in day and a half and executed with very
little gas or money. Sure our rainforest is clearcut
to all hell, but it still has it's charms. (thanks
and apologies to the Nature Conservancy)
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