"McLAIN PEAK" (USGS Mount Phelps)

5162 Feet

Prominence 922'

February 4, 1992 (and written shortly after)

Party: John Roper and Gene Mickle


Phelps and McLain are a schizophrenic pair of peaks.

McLain Peak (L)and Mount Phelps

View from East

These summits are the best looking peaks the Snoqualmie River has to show for itself from Everett-Seattle-Bellevue, and my back porch. Phelps stands guard over the North Fork of the Snoqualmie River and our drinking water in the Tolt Reservoir. Take a look out to the east sometime and see if you can find these peaks. They're a hoop and a point. A wing and a prayer. Someone once said Phelps looked like a brain--I like that. Look again if you know them. They're fun to regard.


The real old-timer climbers (Beckey's age) call the higher rounded summit here Phelps, and that's what I grew up calling it. This nomenclature stems from an 1897 map of this area by Webster Brown which appeared in a mining journal of the day.

Why schizophrenic? Because, even the 1921 USGS Sultan, published a couple years before Beckey was born, and all the "modern" maps have the name "Mt. Phelps" on the lower sharper 5162-foot south summit. They label the higher round summit in a puzzling manner as well. It shows up as "McLain Peaks" (pleural) on two important maps: (1) The big raised-plastic 1957 USGS Wenatchee (which fits right below the plastic Concrete quad), and (2) the 1960 15-minute USGS Mount Si (the map we used to climb Phelps in 1980). The Brain is also labelled this way on the 1975 USGS Skykomish River, 1:100000, metric. The 1985 Green Trails Mount Si spells it "Mclain" (little L).


Then three other important maps have come along and label the higher Peak 5535 as "McClain Peaks" (with 2 C's):

  1) All the FS maps in my possession since 1963.

  2) 1987 Weyerhaeuser Snoqualmie Tree Farm map.

  3) 1989 USGS Mount Phelps 7.5 min, 1:24000, now the most important and detailed map of this area, and the one that climbers should carry.

So there is confusion as to which of these peaks should be called Phelps and also how McLain/Mclain/McClain is spelled. Beckey throws in a little more befuddlement by calling the 5162-foot peak, "Little Phelps." Schizophrenic.

Mount Phelps                                                                                                                                   JR 02.16.92

In an effort to straighten out the mountain nomemclature here, mountain historian Harry Majors made a worthwhile official proposal to the Washington State Board on Geographic Names to once and for all call the higher peak, Mount Phelps. This was approved by the Board on December 13, 1985. However, the USGS disregarded the local usage, and the "new" 1989 7.5-minute USGS Mount Phelps has the lower south summit still mislabeled as Mount Phelps. If they really want to put this name on the lower summit why would they name a whole quad after a lesser geographical feature? I guess I'll keep doing what I've been doing for the past 30 years [now 40], that is, call the higher one Phelps and the lower one McLain, with the comment that the maps have them incorrectly named.


Further frustrating is that none of my home sources shed any light on who the people Phelps or McClain/McLain were. Probably prospectors, would be my guess. Does anyone out there know? There is a Phelps Creek and Ridge up the Chiwawa River. Any connection? There is a McCain Creek with flows into the Green River just downstream from Lester. Any connection?


Surely, McLain we climbed on 2/4/92. [Written back in the day when people remembered who Shirley MacLaine was.]

McLain Peak from NE                                                                                                                             JR 02.16.92

The following is a description of the 5162-foot lower peak.

North Fork Snoqualmie Road milages.

0 North Bend, Ballarat Street

4.1 Ernies Grove

8.1 Spur 10 Gate

18.5 Sunday Creek Road

20.3 Lennox Creek

23.0 FS Road 5736 (Signed 113)

24.2 Blackhawk Mine Creek


As you switchback onto Road 113, Phelps (5535) comes into view, and appears impossibly steep. The last 1.2 miles to Blackhawk Mine has a couple of rough spots, still doable by a low-slung Honda.


Gene Mickle and I left the car at 8 am, elevation almost 2600 feet. The woods to the north (right) of Blackhawk Mine Creek has been logged recently, just as Signposters had fretted it would be in articles about Phelps back in 1985 and '86. A trail used to go through this clearcut. The forest left of the creek is still standing though, and flag-free, making this a pleasant go initially, with minor brush a little higher up.


Unusually spring-like "winter" we're having this year ('92), isn't it? We didn't even see snow until 4000 feet on February 4. In a little over two hours, we were standing on the ridge overlooking the South Fork of the Tolt and across a 4200-foot saddle to 5535 Phelps. The snow was firm enough to support our weight without snowshoes as we headed SW to McLain (5135).


Just before the summit we were presented with a nasty 100+ foot rock step on the crest. Yelps, Phelps! This was not going to turn out to be a simple winter stroll after all. There was a possible but steep gully down on the Tolt River side which may connect to an up route, but Gene had remembered climbing the peak by swinging left, dropping a bit to the south. The very first gully south offers a 50-foot class 4 route, which is what we'd now recommend, and this was our rappel exit.


On our ascent we hoped for an easier route further down around the left corner. This also turned into a short class 4 route with fragile snow on 95% trustworthy rock. Gene took the initial lead left across the exposed rock corner into a gully that had plenty of trees for safe hand and footholds, and within 100 vertical feet we angled left into a small basin where the slope became comfortable for the rest of the snow punch to the summit. 3 hours 45 minutes up.


It was a great day, definitely winter in the high country. Lovely Lennox and its unnamed south summits won the local prizes. 5535 Phelps fanned out to the NE. It has a pair of horns on its west ridge that look worthy of investigation. The Seattle Spires stuck out of the brown Puget muck, with the Bellevue buildings right in front.


We toyed briefly with the idea of returning to the car via the Weyerhaeuser roads that climb high to 4650 feet only 0.6 miles west, but dismissed it when the long switchbacks and steep logged terrain were taken into account. We did a short rap over the step and returned to the car via our up route.


Short story. Get out your USGS Mount Phelps and simply go up the NFk Snoqualmie to the end of the Blackhawk Mine Road and park. Head uphill, left of the creek to the ridge crest. Turn left to the final rock ridge cliff, a stopper. A 50-foot class 4 gully just left of the crest is the crux.

Further historic notes (April 17, 2005)

An abridged version of an exchange with Harry Majors in the summer of 2004 regarding these names is distilled below.


The term "Mt. Phelps" was in use by the year 1896, appearing on the General Land Office (GLO) survey map by James L. McPherson of Township 25 N., Range 9 E., which placed this name on the west ridge of Peak 5162, in an area labeled "mountainous unsurveyed." The 1897 Webster Brown mining-claim map mentioned above, "Miller River, Money Creek and Buena Vista" was published in Lawrence K. Hodges' “Mining in the Pacific Northwest,” and this map places the name “Mt. Phelps” on the higher 5535 summit. So this is where that mix-up began.


GLO resurveys in 1915 and 1916 are the source of the confusion on the various spellings, since the words “McLains Peaks” (on the T25N-R10E map) and both “McClain's Peaks” and “McLain Mt.” (on the T26N-R19E map) appear on the higher Peak 5535. Harry Majors believes that Floyd G. Betts, the surveyor here may have reached the summit of Peak 5535' sometime in 1915 or 1916.


Who were these summits named for?

Harry Majors quotes Norval Grigg as thinking Mount Phelps probably commemorated naval lieutenant T. S. Phelps, who was commander of the U. S. Navy sloop-of-war Decatur in Puget Sound, when he saved the white settlers of Seattle from Indian attack during the Battle of Seattle in 1855. Phelps (later to become a rear-admiral) was in Seattle during 1873, and again in 1895, when the Seattle PI wrote an article about the "Savior of Seattle."


Prospector J. B. McLain of Snoqualmie (the town) was active in the Miller River area as early as 1892, and the likely source of this name.


In the mid-1970s, Harry Majors talked with Harry Morgan, credited with making the FA of the higher peak along with Larry Byington and Ben Spellar on August 14, 1932. They approached the day before, driving 3½ miles out of Snoqualmie and hiked 10 miles to Sunday Creek where they made camp and Ben cooked them all a nice steak on rocks heated by the fire. On 8/14, they hiked the trail to near Lennox Creek, then went cross-country to the 5535-foot summit where they built a cairn and placed a Mountaineer's register tube, proclaiming it Mount Phelps, which terminology Beckey has promulgated to this day.


MOUNT LEE (USGS Mount Phelps)

November 23, 2002

Party: John Roper and Jeff Howbert



Mount Lee is really more of a nearly mile-long north-south ridge than a solitary mountain. It has five separate tops that break out above the 4400-foot contour. To its north and south lie the North and South Forks of the Tolt River , and to its east and west sit Lake Titicaed and Lake Titicaca . The current 1989 7.5-minute USGS Mount Phelps places the words “Mount Lee” next to a 4422-foot top (second from the south), but the highest point on the ridge is farther north at Point 4441 (with a 481' prominence), or maybe one of the other 4440+ foot contours. The 1960 15-minute USGS Mount Si places the words at the middle 4400-foot contour.


In this day and age in Washington , it's hard to imagine a named summit that lies so close to home that has not been climbed by anyone you know, and as I proposed this trip to Jeff Howbert and others, this was the case. [I later learned that Steve and Liz Fellstrom had done Mount Lee and other closed contours farther west in 1992.]


Past Gold Bar on HW 2, about half way between “Zeke's” and Index, Jeff and I turned right onto FS 62 and followed this road about 6.5 miles to a Weyerhaeuser locked gate at the Snohomish-King County line. Here we unbridled our bikes and set off south for about 2 miles to the North Fork Tolt River where we turned left (east) for another 2.5 miles to drop down and across this river to start a road climb up an unnamed tributary (on the east side of the first creek east of Titicaca Creek). The “current” 1989 7.5 minute map shows this road going to a 3360' switchback where one could strike off east for the 4422' Mount Lee summit. Lucky for us, this road actually continued nearly to the top of Mount Lee and clearly shows on a 1994 aerial photo on TerraServer.com.


We pedaled and pushed our bikes to 4200 feet then walked a spur north on the west side of the Lee ridge, heading for the highest point. The fog lifted enough here to allow Jeff to say, “Do you see what I see? Yikes!!” The 4441' summit would not be a walk-up, but rather was a cluster of rocky crags.


We muscled our way over talus and huckleberry to the north side of the crags which appeared to afford the easiest final climb. Unfortunately, a class 4 pitch over mossy holds with enough exposure to maim the fallen ropeless stopped us maybe 30-feet vertical from the top. We originally thought of calling this north peak of Lee, “NortherLee,” but when we had to surrender before the fight was won (just as Lee had), we decided to call it Appomattox Spire” 4441'.


We returned to the main road, and pushed on to the map-named Mount Lee which was admittedly a little anticlimactic. On the return we checked out Point 4440+ just south of Appomattox 4441', but a water-bottle sight level confirmed that we were about 10 feet lower than the highest point on Appomattox.

3.5 hours to Appomattox, 1.2 hours back to car with bike-brakes-a-burning. 20 miles RT, 3200' vertical.