Washtucna BM: The “Other” Franklin County Highpoint

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Trip Report
Washington, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Nov 5, 2011
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Washtucna BM:  The “Other” Franklin County Highpoint
Created On: Nov 8, 2011
Last Edited On: Nov 15, 2011

What Would Our Forefather Think?

Many of us, including the ghost of ol’ Ben, just assume the highpoint of each county has been clearly determined and “just go with it” and then only go to that place (or places) where they are. This seems fair enough. Those that did the legwork have been diligent. They would not have missed something.

For years my modus was just this. I did not find value (in expending time and energy) in pursuing other contender points. I had a hierarchy for my peakbagging order of things and I saw no reason to go for things that aren’t proven to be higher. But then the idea of calculating a summit’s error range or range of elevation (and prominence) values was given more credence. A peak’s prominence might be calculated from the mean value between saddle contours. Or the elevation of a summit could be a range of values, especially for summits with a closed contour not containing a specific elevation mark within it such as a spot mark or benchmark.

I had to change my hierarchy. If I was going to claim completion of a list of peaks, such as the Washington County Highpoints or Washington County Greatest Prominence Points or Washington County Greatest Isolation Points, I was going to have to also visit every other possible winning summit within a county, if any other possibilities might exist. In short, I became interested in the reality on the ground. Sure topographical maps might show one thing. But the truth might not be on a map. The truth might only be on the ground.

I had already altered my approach for the county GPPs and GIPs. I had now only to do the CoHPs.

The accepted highpoint of Franklin County is “Benjamins Butte” on the Washtucna South Quad. It is shown on the map as 500+ meters (1640.4+ ft). It has a “range” of elevation possibilities of 500-504 meters (1640.4-1653.5 ft). But that’s just what the map says. What is its true elevation above sea level and is it really the highest point in the county? A quick look around from the summit indicates it is definitely higher than every other sub-point on the massif it dominates. For instance, Pt. 494m one mile to the south is clearly lower. But if there is anything close to 500+ meters in height that is not within discernible sight distance, that other point should be further investigated.

Enter Washtucna BM (map) on the Sperry Quad next door. The map says 498 meters for this location. Well 498 meters is two meters (six feet) less than 500 meters, so if you go only by what the map says, it can’t be higher than Benjamins Butte. Or can it? The two points are about six miles apart so a look at one from the other cannot determine which one is highest.

So I thought I would do some other research…

On the Net Research

First, I knew Washtucna BM was the highest point around for some distance (it has an NHG isolation of 3.2 miles to a point in Adams County even if it has a clean prominence of only 75 ft). Given this, it was possible it could be the highpoint of the Sperry Quad. A check of Martin Shetter’s SRTM-based Washington Quad Highpoints showed this to be the case. Ah, but what else do I see on Martin’s list? A height of 1630 ft is shown for this QHP. Well, that’s only 496.8 meters. That’s less then 500 meters. But wait, the entry below the Sperry entry is the Washtucna South entry for Benjamins Butte. It says 1624 ft. 1624 ft is less than 1630 ft. Could this mean Washtucna BM truly is higher than Benjamins Butte? It’s a piece of evidence, but it’s hardly convincing.

Links for the SRTM results for the two points in question:
Washtucna BM "1630 ft"
Benjamins Butte "1624 ft"

Next I stopped in on the USGS benchmark database and retrieved all of the datasheets for Washtucna BM. I have placed these datasheets here since it isn't easy to get them out of the database. A first glance at the datasheet shows a familiar number: 498 meters (specifically 498.9 meters). Okay. But reading a little further, an elevation of 501 meters caught my eye. The value appears in two places and is referring to reference mark number three (PID SA1892, stamped “Washtucna No 3 1950”) and the azimuth mark (SA1893, stamped “Washtucna 1950”), two separate benchmarks to the Washtucna BM labeled on the map (SA1896). Washtucna BM is “461.741 meters” (1515 ft) away from the azimuth mark. Reading the text of the datasheet reveals that the azimuth benchmark is located in the north-south fenceline. Cross-referencing the satellite imagery with the topo map indicates this fenceline runs along the boundary line between Sections 4 and 5. The fence runs over the top of the ridge about 1500 ft NNE of the Washtucna BM triangle. (Strangely, this fenceline does not pass through the 495-meter contour so how can the azimuth mark at the fenceline be at a higher elevation than that contour?)

In light of all of the above, and especially the fact that 501 meters is greater than 500 meters, and also because Martin’s QHP data says the Sperry QHP at Washtucna BM is six feet higher than the Washtucna South QHP at Benjamins Butte, my opinion is that Washtucna BM is a contender for Franklin CoHP. I have no idea as to the probability of it being the true CoHP. I leave it as an exercise for the more mathematically driven among us.

In the Field Research

And so it was that on November 5, 2011 I made the long journey to Franklin County to bag Washtucna BM. I knew that once there I wouldn’t be able to prove anything. But I would be satisfied with having visited the place to claim an error range completion of the county, hence the state. I invited Martin to join me but he declined. So I invited John Roper.

Now given that John was the first to finish the Washington County Highpoints in 1994, it seemed a no-brainer to invite him. He was keen, even though I kept the venue a secret from him so as to surprise him. We had other summit destinations in mind for the weekend trip anyway.

It takes about three hours to drive from Seattle to Franklin County. We stopped in at a few other summit destinations on the way. We approached from the north after bagging the “new” highpoint of Sand Hills (shifted from Pt. 1520+ south of Highway 26 to Pt. 1532 north of the highway). I had done my research ahead of time so had a bead on how to get close to Washtucna BM with the minimum of walking and without “disturbing” the landowner.

On Palmer Road about ¾ miles ENE of the summit there is a draw that comes down to the road. This draw is about a ¼ mile north of a farm (probably the farm that owns the land). The draw is out of sight from the farm. Satellite imagery indicates a track arcing around up the draw and connecting to the better track higher up. We pulled off the road and onto the track. It’s not easy to see a track there, more like driving through grass. Anyway, we managed to get the Highlander in and out of the draw and onto the upper farm track without much trouble. Once on the farm track we quickly slithered up to the saddle and then left the track and humped the rig up to the ridge crest to a point about 0.4 miles NNE of the benchmark. Here we parked and continued on foot. It would have been possible to drive all the way to the fenceline on the crest, but we needed the exercise. The whole of the ridgeline is not within sight of any nearby farms so we felt secure in that respect.

We quickly strolled the grassy field to the fenceline to gain our first view of the highpoint still a few hundred yards off. The field on the other side had been sown with winter wheat that had yet to grow above the small furrows it was planted in. More casual strolling with bouncing dogs got us to within trekking pole throwing distance of the top. At this point I let Roper go ahead so he could be first to stand on the highest point. Once there I had him hold up a finger to signify he was #1. I then went on to explain where he was and its significance. Since he was first to finish the Washington County Highpoints, I humbly allowed him to be first to this top just in case it should later be proven to be higher than Benjamins Butte. I then joined him there.

The benchmark(s) here are all under the loess, just as the datasheets state.

Benjamins Butte was visible in the distance but it was too far away to make any height comparisons.

On the way back it seemed like the fenceline location along the crest might be higher than the 498m location, despite the fact that the fence cuts across a lower contour. We got there and turned around and now the 498m location seemed higher. This phenomenon happens all of the time out in places like this.

It was only after leaving the scene and further reading the datasheet that we realized this was the fenceline where the azimuth and no. 3 benchmarks are located. We had not done any searching for them in the long tufts of grass and weeds enveloping the base of the fence.


1st Trivial Note: Roper informed me that he finished the county highpoints in Franklin County twice: the first time on Benjamins Butte on August 2, 1994 and then the second time on Washtucna BM on November 5, 2011.

2nd Trivial Note: On his Rhinoclimbs website, Roper says he stood atop Benjamins Butte in “freshly-plowed, ankle-deep Palouse loess soil.” That may have been the last time the field was actively farmed. Every report and picture I’ve seen since then shows the field fallow/untended.

3rd Trivial Note: The Washtucna BM datasheet indicates the land is owned [farmed] by Mr. Rodrick Ross. The Washington County HP page on summitpost says the owner of the farm on which Benjamins Butte resides is a “Mr. Ross.” Is this the same person or a relative?

1st Humorous Note: The large hilly massif containing the accepted highpoint of Franklin County is a broad landform with no hilltops stabbing the sky. So it is a misnomer to call the highpoint Benjamins Butte, despite the alliterativeness of it. The highpoint is a nondescript flat ridgeline, essentially; most definitely not a butte.
But to call it Benjamins Hill wouldn’t work either. People might think it is named after the late, great comedian Benny Hill. Benny Hill’s real name was Alfred Hawthorne Hill (Reference).

2nd Humorous Note: I now have no reason to go back to Franklin County for climbing purposes. I have now done everything on this list but Pt. 1520+ (1530), which I wouldn’t do anyway given its low prominence and low isolation. That’s a relief. I hope my wife never wants to move there.

The End...or is it?

Maybe another Washington county has a similar thing going on. I’ll have to look around. Obviously, Mt. Rainier is the highpoint of Pierce County and Mt. Baker dominates Whatcom County. But what about Adams County, or Asotin County, or Grant County? Are there any other counties where there is a benchmark within the next-lower contour interval compared to the established county highpoint? If there is, its datasheets should be checked. And Martin’s QHP list should be checked for the relevant elevations. And I suppose one should not stop at benchmarks. Maybe next-lower closed contours with or without spot elevations in it should be checked, or at least considered. That is to say, what is the accuracy of the maps themselves? And what is the reality on the ground?



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ericnoel - Nov 9, 2011 2:04 pm - Voted 10/10

Washtucna BM

The SRTM data is interesting. My understanding is that SRTM samples a random point every 100 feet or 100 meters or so and then records that data for that area, sort of like a pixel. It may or may not be anywhere near the highest local point. My recollection is also that some of the SRTM figures that came out did not match certain summits very well so I question its overall accuracy. Dunno.

Having said that, I suspect there is a lot more gray than our black/white lists allow for. I would not be at all surprised if this point were higher or some other HP is not properly identified. I guess my thought is that if you do this hobby then you accept that you may have to go back sometimes to clean things up as has happened with the COGPP list.

At some point, I think you just have to accept that you are dependent on the USGS for determining the HP. At least until you have some other evidence. For myself, I guess I would view something that is not in the same contour interval is fairly unlikely, even with the SRTM evidence. But the relatively small contour interval makes it questionable. I might tag it sometime.

I'm quite anal about visiting all possibilities myself but I know that other folks aren't. I do think that a person should be consistent. If something with a different contour interval is going to be a contender, it seems to me that other peaks where there is a similar contour interval make for even stronger contenders. Some examples:

Peak 3700+(50) which could be higher than Muller (P2K/COGPP)
Peak 5822 could maybe be higher than Indian Rock
Point 6360+ on Mount Misery could in theory be a COHP/COGPP/P2K
Does one consider Monument Hill a contender in Grant County?
Do you have to do both summits on Glacier Peak? Most folks don't
Do both summits of Fury for P2000 status? Could be higher than Luna.
Big Foot rather than just Whacme.
Both of the 7467 summits on Cradle (P2K, Backcourt). This one to me seems like a clear case where you to do both if they are within a foot. Etc.


Redwic - Nov 10, 2011 1:56 am - Voted 9/10

Re: Washtucna BM

Good points.
As PK said, you cannot trust everything you read.
As you eluded to, these peakbagging lists each have gray areas for some peaks and contenders.
USGS has certainly made errors, as has SRTM and some other methods. I am certainly in no position of flat-out telling a person he/she is wrong about a list contender such as this TR refers to, especially after doing such research as PK has here, because the reality is we truly do not know the correct answers in such cases... yet. Until undeniable, undebatable, widely accepted evidence is conjured up, there will also be gray areas from time to time.

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