by Dan Egan

Quick, what's the highest mountain in Eastern Washington? If you didn't know that Gypsy Peak (7,309 feet) in the northeast corner of the state was the highest point east of the Columbia River, don't feel bad. You're not alone.

Most people don't even associate Eastern Washington with mountains, let alone high ones. But they're there, really. Just ask Jim Johnson, whose new hiking guidebook, 50 Hikes For Eastern Washington's Highest Peaks, urges you to lace up your hikers and go see for yourself.

Johnson says the proximity of more glamorous peaks -- the Cascades, the Selkirks of British Columbia and the Idaho and Montana Rockies -- leaves Eastern Washington's high country virtually ignored. "I felt Eastern Washington was a little bit neglected," says Johnson.

Growing up in Spokane, he got turned on to the outdoors and hiking during summer camping trips to Banff and Lake Louise. And like many people, he didn't spend much time in the mountains closest to home.

An elementary school teacher for 16 years, Johnson got the idea for a book after he hiked to the top of Abercrombie Mountain, just northeast of Colville and he realized, after the fact, that he'd just climbed the second-highest peak in Eastern Washington. "I thought even though I've lived here most of my life, I really didn't know much about the mountains on this side of the state," says Johnson. "I was intrigued that there were these fairly high mountains, and I didn't know anything about them. There was no source, so I said, 'Hey, I should hike them all and write a book about it.'"

Johnson studied the USGS topo maps of the Kettle Range, Salmo-Priest Wilderness Area and the Blue Mountains and made a list of the highest 50, then set about hiking and photographing each one.

"It took four summers to hike all 50 mountains," he says. The result is a peak-bagger's dream: a well researched and detailed guide to 50 mountain-top hikes, all of which are over 6,000 feet, complete with color photos of each one and a description of what you can see from the summit. Johnson clearly knows the hiker's perennial summit question is, "I wonder what that mountain over there is?" None of the hikes in the book require technical climbing skill or equipment, but many of the hikes require a bit of scrambling to get to the summit.

"About half the mountains in the book don't have a trail that goes to the top," says Johnson. "You always start on a trail, but on some you have to leave the trail to get to the peak. It adds a little adventure."

Pressed to pick a favorite hike in the book, Johnson says Molybdenite Mountain, a 6,784-foot, rock-capped mountain just south of Sullivan Lake, offers great views with "beautiful subalpine terrain to explore once you reach the peak." The book gives no information about camping, as each hike can be done as a day hike. Call it a guidebook, a hiker's lifelist or a peak-bagger's checklist. Johnson says the book is for anyone, but especially people like himself who are "just intrigued by climbing to the top of a mountain. And for some people," he adds, "maybe it's just a good prod to get out and start doing some hiking."

Jim Johnson will be at Auntie's on Wednesday, June 23, at 7:30 pm. Call 838-0206.

Parlez-Vous Fran & ccedil;ais?

There are really only two reasons most people drive off into the sage-steppe landscape at exit 143 on I-90. One is to hear rock at the Gorge Amphitheater, and the other is to climb rock in a stunning ravine above the Columbia River known as Frenchman Coulee. The area that climbers just call "Vantage" because of its proximity to the town just across the river has become one of the best and most popular rock climbing venues in the state. They're lured by the columnar basalt pillars, looking like giant crinkle-cut french fries, that provide hundreds of different climbing routes. The climbs are all less than 100 feet but offer a huge variety of traditional or bolted sport routes that range from beginner to expert level. One popular area of the coulee, known as "Sunshine Wall," has been the scene of two climbing deaths in the last two years, including well-known climber Goran Kropp, who died in October 2002, after falling 80 feet. Kropp was the Swedish adventurer who made international headlines in 1996 for bicycling from his home in Stockholm to Everest base camp in Nepal, climbing Everest alone -- without supplemental oxygen -- and then bicycling back.

The recent tragedies, however, have not slowed the number of climbers to the coulee. On weekends, hundreds of climbers compete for rock space, often forming lines at the easier routes. Most of the routes have names that offer a glimpse of rock climbing culture. On the Sunshine wall alone, such routes include, "Party in Your Pants," "Puppies in the Blender" and "Strokin' the Chicken."

"I think a lot of people climb there because of the setting," says Brian Hoots, a member of the Spokane Mountaineers. "It's also the basalt. Some basalt is just nasty, flaky and breaking, whereas this columnar basalt is pretty solid, so it allows for some different techniques and climbing that you don't normally have. Plus, the weather is so reliable, you can climb there pretty much 12 months of the year."

Hoots worries that the place is in danger of being loved to death. "We're definitely starting to see some impact to the area." He says the Spokane Mountaineers along with the Access Fund, a national nonprofit conservation group, have made proposals to help keep the area from being abused. They're working with Fish and Wildlife, who manage the area, to construct more facilities to accommodate the increasing numbers. Nothing can ruin your natural desert vibe like scraps of toilet paper on the branches of sagebrush. And on concert weekends, there's even more people. "I think climbers have a pretty good ethic," says Hoots, "but sometimes you mix climbing, concerts and beer and you don't have the most sane outcomes." But, if you tread lightly, Hoots is all for combining music and rock climbing into one outing. "Climb, concert and camp. That's a nice trifecta."

Hoots worries that if the area is misused, Fish and Wildlife will start to restrict access and not allow camping at all. "I think we need to all think about long term there," he says. "Is it going to be like it is in five years? The answer is 'yes' if we take care of it and, 'no' if we just use and abuse it." We want to take care of the place so that we can continue to use it," says Hoots.

Spokane Mountaineers: (509) 838-4974

Publication date: 06/17/04

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