Climbing Broken Top

On the sixth day of the Cascade Expedition, I attempt Broken Top, which I've been informed, is a miserable mountain to climb. It's like Thielsen's bigger meaner brother. The only practical way to the summit is via the Northwest Ridge along a very narrow spine of rotten crumbling rock. Knowing this before I even begin, I decide to give it a try anyway.

I arrive at the Fall Creek/Soda Creek trailhead in the Three Sisters Wilderness early in the morning. There is no snow on northwest ridge route right now, so I pack light and move fast. The climb starts with a four mile approach up Fall Creek through some of the most beautiful wilderness I've ever seen. After a solid hour or more of blazing up the popular trail past several wildflower filled meadows, I arrive at Green Lakes, a group of glacial fed lakes nestled in between South Sister and Broken Top. South Sister is dramatically poised behind the lakes. It is unclear how to to proceed toward Broken Top. I can see it looming large to the East, but cannot find an approach trail. I decide to head across open country toward an obvious saddle in the ridge from which I can stage my final ascent. I find a tiny glacial stream and follow it uphill, north toward the saddle. I follow this little stream to the spot where it begins from a large house sized block of snow. As I get close to the bottom of the saddle climb, I pick up a climbers trail and use it.

I reach the saddle. From here, I have amazing views of the Three Sisters Mountains, and Green Lakes below. I can also see Mt Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Mt Jefferson to the north. The ridge route to the summit is narrow, long, and very rotten, just as advertised. I seem to be the only human interested in this climb today. I slowly work my way up the spine. The rock is absolutely horrible. I thought Mt Thielsen was bad until I came here. I accidentally trigger a couple of small rockfalls off the north side of the ridge as I try to negotiate this route. I stop frequently to test rock and marvel at the views. After much effort, I ascend to a point about half way between the saddle and the summit. As I look up, all I can see is steeper sections, some with small rotten walls which must be circumvented on tiny rotten ledges. On top of it all is a summit block which I am not looking forward to.

I finally reach a point beyond all ground vegetation. I'm only several hundred feet from the summit now, but it still looks menacing due to the instability of the terrain and the high exposure. I reach a block with two options. One is to skirt the block to the north on a ledge about twelve inches wide, and the other is to climb the vertical block of rotten rock. In a decisive moment, I choose option three, abort the summit. I turn back in disgust. As I start down the ridge, I look outward and take in some of the best views of Three Sisters that I've ever seen. I realize that the forest below, Green lakes, and these views are what this climb is all about, not bagging the summit. I sit on a little flat ledge for a long time and try to process the grandeur that is spread out before me. Almost a dozen volcanos bless my view, each with many snow fields and ridges, each of those with many foothills, each of those with countless trees. Beyond all this, an infinite sea of trees blankets the horizon, fading into the atmospheric haze. Above is another world with clouds and penetrating endless blue, fading to the horizon. The detail is fractal-like. Each large form is comprised of an incredible number of small worlds that are in turn comprised of yet smaller worlds.

Descending the spine is tedious but not nearly as bad as climbing it. I reach the saddle, and follow the climbers trail all the way down to learn where it meets the main trail. Turns out, it was only a quarter mile past where I had decided to go cross country on the ascent. As I pass Green Lakes, I encounter a couple of backpackers. They ask where I'm coming from since I don't have a full pack on, am pretty far out, and am heading toward civilization not away from it. I tell them about my climb, pointing up to the spot where I turned around on the ridge. We chat for a while, then I follow the creek from Green Lake all the back to the trailhead. I'd like to revisit Broken Top someday, but only with some climbing company and some rope. And even then, I think it's pretty far down on my list of friendly mountains...

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