Climbing Mount Thielsen

The mountains will always be there, the trick is to make sure you are too.
~ Hervey Voge
The three rules of mountaineering:
  1. It’s always further than it looks.
  2. It’s always taller than it looks.
  3. And it’s always harder than it looks.
This past weekend I summited Mount Thielsen. This was the first real summit for me in many years and it became a test of my endurance and will. Climbing mountains is something I love, but in recent years my climbing trailed off and shifted to reading climbing stories and getting out of shape – the summits beckoned from the couch but the couch won out. Finally I got off the couch.
This climb was both a test of my current capabilities and, I hope, a jump start to more of the same. In short, I want to get back into climbing and climbing shape and, I have the say, I’ve got a long ways to go.

We arrived at the trailhead on Friday around 10PM and set up our tents in the dark. The sunset on Mount Bailey was beautiful. I crawled into the tent and began getting my gear sorted for the next day. I was not sure what I was going to need so I stared at my choices for a while and then decided I would make the final choice in the morning. The night was cool but not terribly cold, probably got down to about 30 degrees. I read some of Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain (not trying to be ironic) and then listened to my iPod – Arvo Pärt for a while and then John Zorn, and then I fell into an uneasy sleep. I don’t usually sleep on the ground and I was anxious about the climb.

In the morning I opted for a cold breakfast of a Cliff bar and water. I decided not the bring my crampons since no one else was. Our climb coordinator/leader was Wayne from The Obsidians – a Eugene-based outdoor group that organizes hikes and climbs and other trips. The others were Bob, Wendy, and Chrissy.

We started hiking around 5:40AM and in a short while I could feel the altitude. A mile in we began to encounter snow patches and eventually we put on our snow shoes. At times we could see the imposing summit peak through the trees. The trail steepened and we powered on. Because of the snow we took a shortcut through a “blow down” area where many large trees were scattered on their sides. It was eerily impressive. I began to tire severely and wondered several times if I would make it. My heart rate maxed out and my breathing was heavy and labored. I felt like I had bit off more than I could chew. I could tell I was getting clumsy. Finally we stopped for about 15 minutes. This allowed me to down some trail mix and electrolyte bites, lots of water, and catch my breath. After that I felt much better, though I was still only hanging on the the back of the group as we continued up the mountain.

The snow got too steep for snow shoes so we abandoned them by a tree. Wayne marked the way point on his GPS unit so we could find them on the way down. We climbed into a bright sun which rose behind the mountain. The trees on the ridge now thinned out to twisted scrub and the wind picked up for a while. As the ridge steepened we left the snow and climbed scree and then loose rock we called the dinner plates. At this point the route began to get quite steep and our group slowed down. Some in the group said they did not want to “look down” at that point. I appreciated the slowing. It allowed me to catch my breath, but I also began to feel more in my element. Though I am not in mountaineering shape like I should be, I enjoy when the terrain becomes more challenging and alpine. For the first time I felt that I would make it to the summit. We ran into a couple coming down the mountain. They had passed us going in but they had not brought proper gear and were unable to go any further up the mountain. They were moving slowly because one of them was clearly scared of the steep angle of the slope and was going slowly down the mountain scooting on her bottom.
After the dinner plates we hit steep snow and out came the ice axes. The snow was firm but not too hard. We kicked steps at we moved carefully higher across the snow field. The exposure steepened dramatically. We opted not to set up a fixed line though a fall could have sent one of us quite a ways down. But our feet felt solid under us and we felt confident. Finally the slope curved from east to north under the summit block and got very steep and the snow got quite hard. We carefully kicked steps up to a small ledge where the six of us were just able to stand and trade spots as we took off our packs and put on our climbing harnesses.
Wayne then led the summit block – 80 feet of near vertical scramble – with Bob belaying him. Once the rope was secured at the top each of us took our turn climbing, using prusiks for self belay. The summit block is a jumble of solid rock with many good foot and hand holds. The exposure, though, is extreme and the running belay was welcome. Finally I stood on the small summit of Mt. Thielsen at 9,184 ft (2,799.3 m).
The pinnacle of Mt. Thielsen can only hold about six to eight people. It is known as the lighting rod of the Cascades. On the east side one can look down a couple thousand vertical feet to the glacier. After taking a few photos we each had to down climb to our packs. Going down is usually where climbers get into trouble, so we were very careful. Once we got to our packs as the base of the summit block, we decided to set up anchors and drop the rope down the steep snow slope. It was still icy where we were and some in the group didn’t like down climbing on the ice. I offered to go first to test the slope. The first 20 or so feet was still icy and I gingerly kicked steps backwards. Then the snow became very soft and I turned around and plunge stepped down to the end of the rope and slid my prusik off the end and continued down to a patch of loose rock where the others eventually joined me and we rested, ate, distribute the group gear, and then continued on down the mountain.
Like most hikes out it is easier going down than up, but one’s feet begin to ache and mine did considerably. We got back to the trailhead by 7:30 PM, hiking the last couple miles through mosquitoes. The drive home was long but good. I got a ride from Bob and he and I talked about search and rescue – for which he does a lot of volunteer work.

As I write this my legs are very sore and my sunburn hurts, but I feel very good. I carried sunscreen to the summit and back but forgot to put any on, so my face is as red as a ripe tomato and beginning to peel. I’ll take my sunburn as a temporary badge of honor though. I have been living as an armchair mountaineer for too long. My heart longs to be off the couch and hiking through alpine regions. This climb means a lot to me in that respect. One thing for sure, I need to get into better shape if I am to climb again. Another thing for sure, I loved this experience and can hardly wait for the next.

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