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Don Phillips returns to the peak that’s been a big part of his life
By Jayson Jacoby
The great mountain was destined to shove its sedimentary bulk into Don Phillips’ life.
He grew up in its shadow.
Literally — Elkhorn Peak puts the western Baker Valley, where Don was raised, in the shade a good half-hour before the sun goes out of sight from Baker City.
As a boy he tramped around the flanks of the peak and its neighboring ridges and canyons, tracking coyotes with his dad, Harv, who worked as a government trapper.
When Don was a young man — either 18 or 19, he doesn’t recall which — he climbed for the first time across the shaley slopes and through the whitebark pine thickets to the 8,931-foot summit.
And no matter what the maps say, he knew it as Goodrich Peak — appropriate, really, as the lake of that name lies at its eastern base.
“Since I was born that’s what we’ve always called it,” says Don, who’s 83.
Over the decades he made it back about half a dozen times to the top of the second-highest peak in the Elkhorns.
(Only Rock Creek Butte, about a mile to the northwest, is taller, at 9,106 feet; but from Baker City and much of Baker Valley, Elkhorn Peak is the tallest point you can see.)
Sometimes the purpose of the climb was purely recreational — once he guided a whole passel of grandkids to the airy perch, 5,500 feet above Baker Valley.
Other times he and some hunting buddies detoured to the summit while going after big mule deer.
Until this month, Don’s most recent climb, more than a decade ago, took place under much less pleasant circumstances.
He scattered his son Dan’s ashes on the peak.
In the years since, Don, the former owner of Phillips-Long Ford in Baker City, would mention occasionally how much he’d like to stand once again on the pinnacle, said his wife, Jackie.
Nothing came of this.
Until July 16.
On that hot Tuesday Don returned to the peak, accompanied by his wife, his daughter, Stephanie Warner, his twin 6-year-old grandsons, Shae and Ulrich Warner, and a family friend, Jimmy Sunnebrandt, who is visiting from Sweden.
Don set out on the hike from Marble Creek Pass under the guise of climbing the peak “one last time.”
But that might not be the whole of the story.
“Right now I think it’s the last time,” he said Wednesday. “But I won’t make any promises. It wasn’t that tough of a deal.”
Which isn’t to say it was a stroll.
“I used to be able to do it in four hours,” Don said. “This time it took me seven.
“I definitely have slowed down. I’m not a kid any more.”
This is a point his grandsons made quite obvious — with actions, not words.
“That’s a hell of a trip for two little kids,” Don said. “But they were climbing trees and chasing squirrels and jumping around on the rocks. Then when we got home they went and jumped on a trampoline for an hour.
“I thought I was going to die.”
And he didn’t even get on the trampoline.
Don and his party went by the most common route: Along the Elkhorn Crest Trail for about three miles north of Marble Creek Pass, then straight up the ridge that culminates in the peak’s distinctive triangular summit.
As a younger man, Don said, he always took the shorter, but much steeper route up the peak’s east face above Goodrich Lake.
Although more than half a century separated his first climb from his most recent, Don said little has changed on the peak.
“Looking out from up there you can see the whole world, and it looks pretty much the same,” he said.
Probably the most noticeable difference, he said, is that Baker Valley is greener than it used to be, the result of more acreage being irrigated and cultivated in row crops such as potatoes.
Also, there are the goats.
The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife released the first batch of mountain goats in Pine Creek, just north of Elkhorn Peak, in 1983.
Today there are more than 300 goats in the range.
Don doesn’t think much of the goats — he blames the animals for driving off the big muleys he used to hunt.
Mainly, though, the Elkhorns have lost none of the magnificence that lured him to their summits so many times over so many years.
“There’s not a peak on these mountains I haven’t been on,” he said.
The Elkhorns are intertwined in his family’s history.
Don’s daughter, the renowned local artist Terri Axness, has incorporated the mountains into many of her paintings, prints of which adorn quite a lot of local living rooms.
One of those scenes, called “Guardian of the Valley,” shows the Elkhorns in winter and includes the shadow, which resembles the profile of a Native American’s face, that forms on sunny afternoons on Elkhorn Peak’s nearly sheer east face.
Perhaps the only disappointment during the July 16 climb happened at its culmination.
The rusted old Planters peanut can that Don buried in the summit rock cairn decades ago, a can that was crammed with business cards and handwritten notes scrawled by other climbers, was gone.
Don didn’t happen to have a suitable replacement container with him on July 16.
If nothing else he has another reason to haul himself up the slopes.
Not that he needs one.
“I was born and raised right underneath that mountain,” he said. “I pretty much knew it was going to be a special place — the best place in the world to live.”
And although he’s not exactly eager to toil again up the stony steps to the summit — not this month, anyway — he acknowledges that he’s fortunate to even be able to consider such a challenge, well into his ninth decade.
“I’m fortunate to be in good health,” Don said.
Which prompts a piece of advice.
“You’ve got to stay active,” he said. “Working or playing or whatever it is.”
2ND — BY A NOSE
Although Elkhorn Peak, at 8,931 feet, is the second-highest summit in the Elkhorns, its advantage is minuscule, as mountains go. Red Mountain is just three feet shorter.