The Back Court 100

by Jeff Howbert

What, another list of peaks?!? Donít you peakbaggers ever get enough? Whatís the thrill anyway? Up, down, up, down, through all kinds of weather and terrible terrain and aches and pains, just to ratchet your total up another one or two or threeÖ.

If thatís your reaction, no problem. Just flip on to the next article in this esteemed journal, and youíll soon forget about it. I wonít be offended. Frankly, it will save me trying to justify the whole thing to the general reader, something Iíve struggled with anyway.

As put by a pioneer in another field of endeavor, Louis Armstrong, when asked to explain jazz: "Man, if you gotta ask, you ainít never gonna know".

So, if you're still with me, down to business. First, the name. The Back Court is the logical companion to an earlier list I published in Pack & Paddle in July 1995, called the Home Court.

I created the Home Court when I was a neophyte to Washington climbing, much inspired by the lists of major Washington peaks devised by Bulger John Lixvar, Steve Fry, and others. I wanted a challenge that was similar in spirit, but more plausibly within my physical abilities, and more accessible and convenient to my home (Bellevue) and available time (mostly weekends).

The Home Court is comprised, more or less, of the western half of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness, plus outlying areas. It has good natural boundaries: Highway 2 on the north, Interstate 90 on the south, and Deception Pass on the east (i.e. the north-south line defined by Deception Creek and the Cle Elum River). I chose the highest 100 peaks in this area that have at least 500 feet of clean prominence.

Within the Home Court are several peaks well known for their technical challenges (see below). An unexpected, but exciting, surprise was the large fraction of peaks (24 of 100) which are unnamed on maps and relatively unknown. The first known ascent of three of these came after they appeared in the Home Court list.

In the nearly five years since that list was published, I've been gratified to see it attract interest from a small but growing group of local peakbaggers, around a dozen of whom make regular forays into the area. One climber, Dick Kegel, was sufficiently inspired to finish summitting the full set of 100 Home Court peaks this past Sept. 21, 1998. For perspective on what an accomplishment this is, be aware that Dick started decades before the list existed.

So why a Back Court? I had three main motives: 1) I've become addicted to making peak lists, and needed another fix; 2) I was starting to run out of things in the Home Court that were easy for me to climb; and 3) being mostly on the west side of the Cascades, the weather in the Home Court is mostly lousy most of the year.

At first I wanted the parameters of the Back Court to mirror those of the Home Court, i.e. require 500 feet of prominence, with its extent limited to the eastern half of the Alpine Lakes Wilderness plus outlying areas. Its western edge, of course, adjoins the Home Court at Deception Pass. On the north and south, it seemed obvious to extend the same boundary lines used for the Home Court (Highway 2 and Interstate 90). That left only the eastern boundary to decide.

Unfortunately, the natural choice, Blewett Pass and Highway 97, encloses barely 60 summits with 500 feet of prominence. What to do? I tried lowering the prominence threshold to 400 feet, but still came up short of 100 peaks. After much agonizing, I rejected the idea of having fewer peaks on the list, and compromised in a different direction, by taking the eastern boundary of the Back Court all the way to the Columbia River.

Although this goes well afield of the Alpine Lakes, the peaks it captures east of Blewett Pass are not so different from some of those west of it, e.g. in the Teanaway country. Together with the Home Court, this Back Court completes a geographic whole, stretching from "big water" to "big water" (Puget Sound to the Columbia).

Ultimately, the measure of a list is whether climbers deem the mountains on it worthy of their efforts. This is partly a matter of taste, and will be judged by time. For myself, I am satisfied with the character of all 100 of the final Back Court peaks, and feel it was worth reducing the prominence and expanding the area to reach that number.

So what kind of mountains and surrounding country are to be found in the Back Court? Anyone who's been into the various parts of the Alpine Lakes knows that the eastern half is drier, higher, has more open forests, and offers more large areas of barren glacial-scoured terrain than the western half. Other contrasts with the Home Court emerge by looking at some simple statistics (see Table).

Of immediate note is the proportion of peaks which would escape notice if relying solely on map names or guidebooks to identify them - a whopping 36 of 100, half again as many as in the Home Court. This is actually a conservative figure, as another 10 or so get only passing mention in the Cascade Alpine Guide. Whether any first ascents lurk among them remains to be seen, but at the very least it promises lots of peaks and routes for which no record exists.

As regards technical summits, it appears the Home Court has the greater number, although information is not available yet on everything in the Back Court. Neither list, however, can be completed by even the most dedicated scrambler - numerous roped climbs are unavoidable.

The single most technically demanding climb in either Court is likely to be Edward Peak in the Back Court (assuming the tower known as The Mole is the highest part of the Edward Plateau formation): 400 feet of roped climbing, Grade II, Class 5.7 by the easiest route, according to the guide book. On the other hand, for overall exposure, intimidation, and complexity of access, it is hard to top the Middle Peak of Mt. Index in the Home Court.

You may be wondering where all the unofficial peak names come from. Some are taken from the Cascade Alpine Guide, but the majority are my invention. Normally, I avoid naming things I haven't climbed, but that rule has been stretched here in the interest of providing more distinctive handles than a quad reference. For what it's worth, I've consulted extensively with an experienced Cascades explorer and toponymist, and he generally approves of my proposals. But if you don't like a name, don't use it. The mountains are always the real thing, anyway, not their names.

As the Back Court becomes publicly known through this article, I hope it sparks the same level of interest shown toward the Home Court. This seems to be the case among a small circle of friends to whom I've circulated draft versions this past year. In fact, I've already seen sure signs of competition to be first to finish the list - two of them are being coy about exchanging information on which peaks they've climbed.

Well, I'll take that as flattery. It's definitely in the spirit I intended. Bag on.

Jeff Howbert

Jeff is currently finishing his doctorate in blobology at the College of Kurtosis. He lives in Bellevue and collects summits every chance he gets.


TABLE.  Statistical comparison of Back Court and Home Court.

number of peaks 100 100
prominence rule 400 feet 500 feet
highest summit 9415 feet 7960+ feet
lowest summit 4600+ feet 4641 feet
average summit elevation 6660 feet 5875 feet
greatest prominence 5335 feet 3480 feet
least prominence 400 feet 505 feet
peaks unnamed on map on not in Cascade Alpine Guide 36 24
rope required 6 (Note 1) 8 (Note 2)
rope desirable ? 6 (Note 3)
number climbed by author (at end of 1999) 35 6

Note 1: Sherpa Pk.; Argonaut Pk.; The Temple; Ingalls Pk.; Edward Pk.; Three Musketeers Ridge

Note 2: Chimney Rock; Bears Breast Mtn.; Huckleberry Mtn.; Bald Eagle Pk.; Lobox Mtn.; Mt. Garfield; Mt. Index, Middle Pk.; Bessemer Mtn.

Note 3: Overcoat Pk.; Little Big Chief Mtn.; Cathedral Rock; Mt. Thomson; Mt. Garfield, East Pk.; McLain Pk.