Climbing Mt Thielsen

On day four of the Cascade Expedition, Geoff and I are camping by Diamond Lake at the base of Mt Thielsen. The temperature hovers around 32 degrees all night making for a muscle clinching pseudo-sleep. Originally I plan to start climbing at 6am, but Geoff says he's in if I start later. After the big climb on Shasta, a later start sounds appealing. We sleep in, make breakfast, brew some coffee, pack up camp and make the short drive to the climber's trailhead by 10am. This climb is about 10 miles round trip with a nearly 4000 foot elevation gain. I've done a lot of hiking with these specs so I don't really have any apprehensions about the climb, yet...

The first few miles are straight forward: steep switchback trails up to timberline where the climbing trial is intersected by the Pacific Crest Trail. The forest is devastated by some sort of storm. Many very large trees are blown over and/or snapped off at the trunk. The trail has been mostly cleared of fallen trees. I wouldn't want to have been in this place when the shit was hitting the fan.

Once we reach timberline we have a somewhat foreboding view of the summit. Mt Thielsen's profile is unique and dramatic. It appears steeper and pointier than any of the other volcanoes. It's almost a cartoon caricature of itself. It is known as the lightning rod of the Cascades because it gets struck by lightening more than any other volcano. In fact, I've read that if there is a storm it will inevitably draw lightening. Fortunately today is bright blue skies.

The trail above timberline slowly evolves into a ridge scramble along the upper slopes, steadily increasing in steepness and decreasing in rock stability. At some point, it becomes necessary to use both hands to negotiate the ridge line. Certain sections require scrambling and pushing up steep loose scree from one small node of solid rock to the next. Up high there are several climbing groups in various states of rest and defeat. Every time we stop to rest, we both start to get a sense of vertigo, as the scale of the slopes on either side of the ridge is epic.

We finally reach a spot only a few hundred feet from the summit that is nothing but loose rock piled on top of more loose rock. It's difficult to find a decent foot hold or hand hold without causing mini rock fall. There are a couple of climbing groups above us, which concerns me greatly. Geoff decides to call it a day. I am leaning toward calling it a day too, but two climbers coming down tell me of an alternate way up. They suggest traversing this rotten section to the right, aim toward a small scrub tree on the rightmost ridge and just beyond that ridge at that tree is a route on the backside that leads to the summit and avoids this unstable face with the climbers above us. I decide to go for it. The traversal is sketchy, but I take it slow and premeditate every move. I finally reach the tree on the ridge and can see the route on the backside. I wave back to Geoff as he snaps a photo of me from below. The route up the backside is loose and rotten too, but there is no one above me now to knock rocks loose, which makes the alternate route well worth it.

(Geoff took these shots of me pushing toward the ridge line. The images illustrate the horrible condition of the rock)

Twenty minutes later I'm climbing a final steep section of more solid rock to what I WISH was the summit. But out of this small summit ledge rises an eighty foot vertical pinnacle. The pinnacle is solid rock, but it's straight up. I have literally no vertical rock climbing experience, and learning on an eight story pinnacle perched on top of cliffs that plunge thousands of feet doesn't seem like a good way to learn. I climb about twenty feet up a chimney in the rock on the pinnacle's north face. I'm convinced I could get up this thing, but totally unconvinced that I could get down it. At this point, I have no choice but to abort the climb only 60 feet shy of the true summit, after having climbed almost 4,000 feet. I'm too relieved of my decision and of being off the pinnacle to even care about the failed summit attempt.

(The summit pinnacle)

I look down and see a couple of groups descending. No less than three times does the group above yell "Rock!" as they accidentally dislodge large rocks from the side of the mountain, and members of the lower group scramble for cover adjacent to the rock fall. There is no one between me and the summit which I am happy about. I wait until I have a clear line and there is no one below me, or even in sight at all, and I start the climb back to Geoff. By the time I get there he's gone. I assume he's started working his way back to timberline. I find him a few hundred feet below hanging out in the shade of a lone tree on the ridge. We begin the long 4 + miles back to the trailhead.

Thielsen, like Shasta, is another lesson in knowing when to turn back. I probably could have pushed my luck and grappled my way up that pinnacle, and then clawed, squeezed and slid my way back down it. But I have decided I don't ever want climbing to be about pushing my luck. Safety, fun, then summit. Maybe I'll put some time in at a rock gym and revisit Thielson some day. Or maybe I wont. I didn't really develop much of a friendship with this mountain. It was an exhilarating climb, with frustratingly rotten rock, and I was able to share most of it with a good friend. Geoff, having little interest in climbing, and in a pair of road running shoes, was in high places dealing quite well with some horribly unstable rock only a day after packing out of a 9000 foot basecamp with me on Shasta, and hiking to the summit on Mt Lassen before that. I'd have to give him the "most accomplished non-climber's climbing award" of the year. Tomorrow I will take him to Bend so he can catch a bus back to Portland and I will pay a visit to the Three Sisters.

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