Beacon Hill

USGS Seattle South

Elevation 105 meters on this 1983 7.5'x15' metric map, or to you Americans

344.4882 feet+  (This map has seven different closed contours that are exactly 105-meter contenders for the top.)


325+ feet on the 1949 7.5' USGS Seattle South map, 25 feet to the contour.

(This map shows three closed contours at this same 325+ elevation.)

April 20, 2005


Aerial view

Party: John Roper, Mike Lewis, Mike Urban

John Roper and Seattle P-I reporter Mike Lewis atop Beacon Hill   Photo by Mike Urban with my Canon A80

Seattle's Beacon Hill was named by a homesick Bostonian in 1899.

Its top is the prettiest and most pastoral of all the Seven Hills of Seattle .

Downtown Seattle and Queen Anne Hill (L) with First (Pill) Hill (R) from one of the seven tops of Beacon Hill


So why Beacon Hill, on a perfectly beautiful day that could have been spent in the real mountains? A couple of weeks ago I got an email from Mike Lewis who is a reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. He'd heard about the joke list of the Lowest 100 peaks in WA state (the polar opposite of the Highest 100), and was inquiring about doing an article on them. These very low bumps are the summits in WA that are named and less than 400 feet high. We traded phone calls and finally connected on April 19, 2005. It had been a while since I'd thought about the list, so I pulled it up again to look it over. It was derived as a whimsical exercise by going to the USGS Geographic Names Information System (GNIS) web page, then typing in Washington, and “Feature Type” as “Summit,” then making the elevation 0 to 400 feet, then sorting the search results.


After chatting with Mike for a while on the creation of the list, some of the flaws of the list were pointed out to him. For example, the lowest summit of all in WA listed on the USGS GNIS is Craven Rock , which is given an elevation of 2 feet, but if you go to the Topozone map of this spot and bring it up, it shows as having no numbered elevation above sea level, and is only mapped with a * symbol which means “Rock bare or awash,” a head's up to boaters. Where did that 2 feet come from?


So why Beacon Hill, you say again? For his article, Mike wanted to “climb” a low “peak” that his Seattle readers could relate to, so we got looking at the local nubbins in King County. The ones the USGS site spit out were Beckstrom Hill in Bothell, First Hill (on Mercer Island--Seattle's First Hill isn't listed), and hold your horses here, Denny Hill and Queen Anne Hill. Mike suggested we climb Queen Anne Hill from the bottom, starting from the P-I building.


At this point I alerted him to the fact that I generally do not like to repeat summits that I had previously visited, and that Queen Anne Hill was already on my Life List of “peaks” climbed in WA, but that Denny Hill interested me, as I didn't have that one down as done. A GNIS link leads to a Topozone map that locates Denny Hill here, in the middle of Freeway Park. I have been to this park, but not with the idea I was climbing anything. Wait a second, is that really where Denny Hill is? All of you Seattleites know that Denny Hill got sluiced into Elliott Bay a hundred years ago. I told Mike that if he could find out where the top of Denny Hill used to be, I'd go stand exactly under it with him for his story.


Then he mentioned Capitol Hill as a possibility. Even though I'd done it, we'd be able to climb the water tower in Volunteer Park and have great views to the Olympics and Cascades, if I remember right, so I agreed to that. He wanted to know where to meet to do the climb, and I think he was a little surprised when I told him there was no glory in climbing a Lowest 100 peak (especially one I'd done), so why not meet right there in the park. If we wanted to make it difficult, we could start in Spokane.


Mike then alertly noted that Capitol Hill was not on the Low 100 list. What the heck?  Maybe it's too high? But it's about the same height as Queen Anne Hill. So we directed our attention to Jeff Howbert's landmark website on landforms, to see if we could resolve this issue, and if Capitol Hill was too high, perhaps get some ideas of something else in town to do.


There was an audible, “Whoa!” at the other end of the telephone when Jeff's site popped up on Mike's computer screen, and another “Whoa!” when he saw what it could do. Clicking on Jeff's Seattle North quad, it turns out Capitol Hill is indeed too high to be low, at 443+ feet, but then so is Queen Anne Hill at 459+, yet USGS GNIS says Queen Anne's elevation is 175 feet. Well, it turns out they forgot to convert the metric map meters into feet, plus they got the number wrong, since it's really 140 meters, not 175.


Anyway, without drawing this out any further, it dawned on me that I'd never knowingly been to the top of Beacon Hill, and even better, Beacon Hill was not on Jeff's Seattle South quad list, where it should be, if it's going to be anywhere. One rarely gets to add a summit to Jeff's precise “Master List of Peaks in Washington” on quads that Jeff has already analyzed and published, but he did not list Beacon Hill on the Seattle South quad, even with a [bracket notation] (which he uses for regardable, but unofficially named landforms). Map-named Mount Baker Ridge, Harrison Ridge, Duwamish Head, and the locally-known [High Point]--the very highest spot within the Seattle City Limits (at 155 meters, or 509+ feet) in West Seattle are there, but as a scientist, Jeff has exacting rules, and one is to only list summits that are labeled and lettered on the map as landforms, such as peaks, mountains, spires, hills, ridges, etc, or those having over 400 feet of prominence, and the map label depicts Beacon Hill as a "populated place," but not as a landform.  So blame the oversight of Beacon Hill on the USGS, since it surely is a piece of high ground that was a landform before it became populated.

So I suggested this summit to Mike, and told him he could have the joy of actually discovering where the top of this landform was, since at the time, I did not exactly know. He was too busy or uninspired to figure this out, so I poked around on the Seattle South quad and Topozone and discovered a couple of very interesting facts about Beacon Hill, one of Seattle's Seven Hills. First, as mentioned, it isn't listed in the USGS GNIS as a “summit,” but rather shows up as a “populated place,” but of course, it is both. Second, it does not have just one top, but seven!


The two largest, most obvious places to look for the hill's high point are both within the Jefferson Park Golf Course, and the most likely candidate is within the biggest open contour on the main 18-hole course, east of Beacon Avenue, but a possible contender is west of Beacon Avenue out on the short-9 course. However, there is also a cluster of four 105-meter contours just SE of the golf course. The county high point guys would definitely visit all of these to claim the objective, and so did I, prior to the appointed 3 PM meeting time with Mike on April 20th at the Jefferson Park Clubhouse, since I figured he would be more into the story than the details.


After completing these four 105-meter (344+ foot) spots beforehand, I drove to Jefferson Park and waited on a bench on the sidewalk right outside the clubhouse for the reporter and photographer to show up. On time was Mike Urban, the photographer, a big muscular congenial guy in his late 30's who grew up on Vashon Island and graduated there in the class of '86 in a graduating class of 86. He was easy to spot walking towards me with his two huge cameras with long lenses dangling and wobbling at his side and a belly pack full of extra equipment. He'd taken his degree in Journalism at the UW, and told me his claim to fame there was that he held the record in vinyl-record (not Frisbee) golf down the zig-zagging halls of the S-shaped building where they took classes. He looked like he could be a climber, but was not, though he did go to the top of St. Helens on a camera-shoot assignment on the 20th anniversary of its May 18, 1980 explosion. His favorite shot on top was of a climber trying to get a photo of his own watch when it turned the very second that St. Helens originally blew.


While we were waiting, I showed him the map, and darned if he didn't spot a 7th 105-meter top to Beacon Hill even farther south across Orcas Street just off Beacon Avenue that I had missed. I tried to talk him into climbing it with me later, even proposing the name, (Mike) Urban Legend Spire, in honor of his discovery, but he was anxious to get on to the Mariner's game right after this assignment.


After 15 or 20 minutes past the pre-arranged meeting time, Mike U. gave the reporter, Mike L. a call on his cell phone. It turned out Mike L. was having trouble just finding the Jefferson clubhouse even though he was on Beacon Avenue. Finally he turned up and we looked over the various maps as I rolled them out on the hood of my car while Mike U. fired shot after shot.  They decided they'd be up for climbing the most likely highest point, but didn't feel the need to partake in the seven-summit excursion. We agreed that the most likely highest candidate was out to the east on the main golf course.

Reporter Mike was concerned that we might have trouble getting onto the course without a ticket or clubs, but Photographer Mike pointed out that it was a public course, after all, and I tried to bolster our bravado by quoting my dad's oft-used piece of advice about how “the world stands aside for the man who knows where he's going” (most notably remembered by me as he used it to get our family into the roped-off diplomats' dining room at the United Nations Building in New York City in 1960).


Mike Urban (L) and Mike Lewis (R) on trek to the highest point on Beacon Hill (Jefferson Park Golf Course)


The two Mikes and I walked by a large group teeing off for the first hole and angled slightly left uphill, past the 9th green and the 17th tee to a row of big-leaf maples running between the 15th and 17th fairways. Map. There was a consensus that we had reached the true summit at the base of a particularly large maple, where Mike U. fired a ridiculous number of images of me standing by the tree, probably looking somewhat chagrined about this so-called accomplishment. Photographer Mike's trick was to get a ton of foreground grass with the subject slightly off-center and not dominating the scene. Then we took turns taking photos of each other with my camera. Mike U.'s fantasy was that we should have staked our claim of victory by driving a flag into the highest ground, and was somewhat disappointed that no one had thought to bring one. We considered grabbing the flag from the 16th green for a quick photo-op, then thought better of it.

Mike Lewis, P-I reporter (L) and Mike Urban, P-I photographer (R) on the very highest point on Beacon Hill

Throughout the journey, Mike Lewis asked me questions about climbing, the Bulgers, and background information, and what number this summit was for me. When I told him the answer, he asked if it was fair to say that I was obsessed with climbing. But I am not, of course, as everyone knows, though I might have been once, I confessed. The notes he recorded in his spiral notebook seemed scanty enough that it'll be interesting to see how much fact comes out in the paper article. By the way, ladies, Mike L. is 40, a budding climber, having done most of the volcanoes, and is single and looking.


Mike Urban was into the whole honest-highest-summit thing enough that he wanted to check out the eminence near the clubhouse, so we crossed over to near the lawn bowling green where there is quite a nice view across the Beacon Hill Reservoir to downtown Seattle (above).


As we readied to leave, we were amused by a golfer on Jefferson's practice putting green simultaneously trying to sink a putt while talking on a cell phone pinned to his ear with his shoulder. We figured that if you shouldn't use a cell phone while “driving,” then maybe you shouldn't use one while putting. (It's a golf joke.)


After parting ways, I headed south to do the seventh summit of Seattle's Seventh Hill just across Orcas Street, then headed east to try to get a decent shot of Beacon Hill to show the folks back home what it looks like. It was so unimpressive that I didn't even fire the camera.


May 14, 2005.  It must have been a slow newsday, because to my amazement, the two Mikes turned this outing into a front-page article in today's Seattle P-I !  Great job guys.  Take a look.   Pretty cute.  In a very strange juxtaposition, just the day before, Mike Lewis had written an article covering Ed Viesturs' world class mountaineering achievement.   Hope Ed isn't too upset that the limelight got shifted away from him so soon.


Gary Simms, an old Newhalem grade-school chum from the '50s (featured as "Arthur" in Tobias Wolff's This Boy's Life) wrote back.

"I can already envision a future of fast-lane, overachieving baby-boomers in their eighties, nineties and even their hundreds triumphantly scaling your low peaks, accompanied by teams of intrepid care-providers rather than Sherpas, perhaps enjoying a picnic of low-fat French cheese and vintage wine, if they can document the approval of their personal physician, once they have reached the summit... all to the tune (played by the latest generation of walkman-like devices) of "Climb every mountain..."

You should capitalize on your new fame by marketing something, a device or advice. For starters, how about Dr. Roper's Low Peak Climbing Manual for Intrepid Decrepits and then, of course, Dr. Roper's Low-Peak Elixir, available in an assortment of proofs, all fairly low. That's it, you could launch a whole new alternative culture based on extolling the virtues of lowness: The Low Culture. And you should probably base it in Holland, but that should pose no problem in our global age."