Beacon Rock & Mazamas: A Century Old Trip Report

by Adam Baylor

100 years ago, there was no paved trail to the top. No metal handrail to keep you from the edge. Highway 14 did not exist. Pioneers on horseback passed by the rock instead of logging trucks and tourists in electric cars. Beacon Rock State Park would not exist for another couple decades and only iron spikes and hemp rope protected what is today considered a technical route.

If we look back one century ago, we find a team of intrepid climbers looking up at the northwest face of Beacon Rock. They made the 2nd ascent of what is known as the Spike Route. This month on October 11th, we can celebrate the 3rd major ascent of Beacon Rock by the Mazamas. 47 of them to be exact.

Their adventure was recorded in the December 1914 edition of the Mazama: A Record of Mountaineering in the Pacific Northwest (Volume IV, Number 3, pages 93-94), by C. W. Howard. The story told is of the Spike Route but also of the first ascent of Beacon Rock as well as a fascinating Native American legend.

View showing east face. Photo: C.W. Howard.
We provide a selection of that record of mountaineering by Howard below. An original and complete version of this trip report can be found as always in the Mazama Library but also at the Beacon Rock State Park library as a donation by the Mazamas and the Beacon Rock Climbing Association.

The west side. Photo
C. W. Howard.

“Castle Rock” by C.W. Howard, 1914 (the name changed to Beacon Rock eventually):

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 repast 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.

Mazama Member John Meckel on the Spike Route.
Photo: Jeff Thomas
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.
Photo: Jeff Thomas

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.

View looking from the summit of Castle
Rock. Photo: H. J. Thorne
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.

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.

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