Did You Know? The Long and Unlikely Journey of Our Basalt Columns

In this piece from Mountaineer magazine, learn the story behind the basalt columns outside our Seattle Program Center.
Peter Dunau Peter Dunau
Content & Communications Manager
March 16, 2019

“The night before we didn’t sleep. We were seriously worried it’d be a disaster,” says John Ohlson, the man who hatched the idea of erecting 25-foot basalt columns at The Mountaineers Seattle Program Center. 

Days earlier a batch of rock towers, weighing 15 tons each, arrived via semi-truck from a quarry near Moses Lake. John’s sleepless night came before the operation’s most delicate phase: hoisting the massive columns without breaking them (or killing someone in the process).

Although nerves were running high, the moment of truth came after years of meticulous planning. And if these rocks could talk, they’d tell you that their story began long before that:

The basalt hails from the Columbia Plateau, an area where pillared, rock outcroppings rise at a 90-degree angle from sagebrush-filled ravines. The striking geological formations trace back 17 million years to when lava flooded the area and crystalized into basalt rock. Researchers are still debating the specifics, but about 12,000 years ago, the colossal Glacial Lake Missoula floods came crashing west and carved out the rock walls we see today.

Several thousand years later, John Ohlson visited a petrified rock shop near Vantage and noticed a small basalt column out front. The shop owner pointed him to its quarry which he visited.

John later met with fellow volunteers Gene Yore and Glenn Eades to consider the columns for a climbing wall. “It had some real advantages,” John said. “Climbers could get a feel for real rock and practice placing cams and nuts in the cracks to catch their falls.” Gene, already serving as Seattle Climbing Chair, became convinced and stepped up as Project Manager with many volunteers helping out.

The benefits were undeniable, but as with many great ideas, the crew had to overcome a slew of logistical hurdles to turn their dream into a reality.

First they had to address what John describes as “crappy soil.” To support the columns, the team laid a 14x14x3-foot concrete foundation, with 32-foot steel pilings to provide an anchor. Like an iceberg, our basalt columns go further below the surface than above.

Then there was the quarry. John was amazed when he saw columns far taller than ours being plucked from the side of the rock wall by a high-powered excavator. The problem? The columns tended to break, which is okay for their primary use of being sliced into high-end floor tiles, but wouldn’t cut it for a climbing wall. The team found ten intact columns that looked like good candidates, but in the ensuing weeks five broke just sitting at the quarry.

Things didn’t get easier when it came time to bring them across the state. Within 20 miles of being loaded onto semi-trucks, another column broke. They were down to four, the minimum number needed. There was zero room for error.

With one crane holding the 15-ton column and another guiding it into place, the process of erecting the columns is an experience John describes as “pretty scary.” But when the two long steel prongs at the bottom of the first column met their corresponding holes in the concrete, John thought, “This might work after all.”

Indeed, it did. After their construction in 2011, John enjoyed following his son Dave’s lead on the first ascent, and the columns have been a wonderful training resource ever since. Rumor has it you can find a number of signatures of well-known Mountaineers in its summit register.

Please note that climbing the columns requires skill and caution. Visit mountaineers.org/basalt-columns  for climbing information and guidelines.

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2019 issue of Mountaineer  Magazine. To view the original article in magazine form and read more stories from our publication, click here.

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Peter Erickson
Peter Erickson says:
Mon, Mar 18, 2019 9:57 PM

Great story, I've always wanted to know more about this. At one point, rumor had it that the columns shifted while the concrete was setting (?), leading to the crack widths being somewhat different than intended. Do you have any information to confirm or refute that?