As the snow begins to melt in the Cascades, crews are preparing to resume restoration on the historic, 1930s-era High Rock Lookout. And the next phase of work could be the most dramatic yet.
The plan is to take the lookout apart piece by piece, right there on the mile-high peak of Sawtooth Ridge, and load it onto a JetRanger helicopter. After being hauled off to be stripped of lead paint and restored, the pieces will be reassembled on site in 2023.
“It’s a big job,” said crew leader and archaeologist Rick McClure, who has been reviewing plans for this summer’s work.
The restoration has been ongoing since 2018, with the goal of returning the structure to its former glory after years of battering at the hands of both mother nature and vandals.
The project is a partnership between the White Pass Country Historical Society — whose “Save the Rock” campaign fundraised for the endeavor — the U.S. Forest Service and Oregon’s Sand Mountain Society.
There’s only a handful of remaining lookouts in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest and surrounding region. One structure in Oregon — the Bolan Mountain Lookout — didn’t survive last year’s devastating wildfire season.
“So it’s a rare example of this particular style, which was one of the earliest that the Forest Service used,” he said.
Getting the structure off the mountain is the easy part. Four or five helicopter trips down the ridge are only expected to take 90 minutes. The actual deconstruction will be the “painstaking” part, McClure said.
After tools are hauled up — by pack animals, according to a news release — crews will spend two weeks in late June and early July meticulously and carefully picking apart the lookout, wary not to damage any of the nearly-century-old structure.
Nearby, volunteers will work to de-nail and bundle planks of wood, which will be transported — by helicopter, and then trucks — to Oregon to be stripped of its lead-based paint.
A slumped and bowing wall is a red flag that crews will come across some rot, although it’s unclear how much of the lookout will be unusable.
Last August, crews were able to finish up what historical society president Janice Grose considers Phase 1 of the project. The structure’s 19 windows were taken out and sent off for restoration. But the work was stifled by the pandemic.
“When COVID came around, then our Phase 1 from last summer was derailed,” Grose told The Chronicle.
Although the season is just beginning, visitors have already trekked to the lookout. On the Washington Trails Association website, one hiker’s recent trip report chronicled an overnight stay. A video shows the trail packed with snow, and drone footage boasts the hike’s panoramic views. It’s proof that the lookout “survived the winter,” McClure said.
“It’s amazing how many visitors go up there. It’s just so many people, and what we’re trying to do is foster that love of a very iconic building,” Grose said. “We’ve got to try to save it.”
The ultimate goal is to man the refurbished lookout with a volunteer steward. The late Bud Panco, of Packwood, manned the lookout during summers until 2004, and vandalism and litter have grown in his absence.
In some ways, Mary Prophit — a librarian at Randle’s Mountain View Timberland Library — has picked up the torch. Starting in 2015 — before restoration work was underway — Prophit began climbing the mountain with Mr. Clean Magic Erasers to scrub off graffiti and grime. Much to her despair, the sharpie ink kept coming.
When she heard of the “Save the Rock” campaign, Prophit says she “elbowed” her way into the project, asking how she could volunteer her manual labor. Since then, with the guidance of the Forest Service, Prophit has been hauling paint cans and brushes to cover the graffiti — with non-lead paint, of course.
This summer, she’ll be on the mountain yanking nails out before the chopper descends.
Trailhead parking at Towhead Gap on Forest Service Road 8440 will be limited from June 23 to July 7 to accommodate the project, and the road and trail #266 will be closed to the public Thursday, June 24 and July 6.
The White Pass Country Historical Society is still accepting donations for restoration work, and all excess donations will be earmarked for upkeep. Donate here: www.paypal.com/ paypalme/HighRockRestoration.