February 16-18, 2008.
Mt. Thielsen trail (kinda) | about 10 miles | 3782′ ele. gain
Rolling out of the tent on a crisp Saturday morning, I awoke to the view of an empty parking lot surrounded by a fortress of snow. A nice weekend of snowshoeing and climbing lay ahead of us. We packed up loads of winter camping gear and climbed up out of the parking lot to try and follow the buried Mt. Thielsen trail.
Judging by the visibility of the bathroom and the height of snow piled up on its roof, we guessed that snow would obscure the trail right from the start. Several cross country skiers had broken out a trail that we followed obligingly. After a short while we discovered that this was leading us a bit out of the way so we cut into the forest on a more direct, albeit steeper, route.
As we approached tree line, about 3.5 hours after we set out, we began to look for a good camp. The corniced west ridge dropped off steeply to our left and the sparsely vegetated forest leaned downwards at a moderate angle to our right, leaving a small tract of relatively level, snowy ground on which to build our camp. We spent some time digging out a flat campsite in a small nook with tremendous views east to Mt. Bailey and north to the Three Sisters. I thought I caught a glimpse of Crater Lake to the south as well. As we worked, a home-prepared dried dinner entree sat rehydrating in a freezer bag near my pack. All I could think of was the tasty deliciousness that was about to be eaten.
Once camp was shoveled out, the tent set up, and our sweaty clothes hung in the trees to air out, we lounged on our sleeping pads like sunbathers on a beach. The weather was unbeatable. The sun radiated warmth on us all day, with not a single cloud to intercept its invigorating energy. I covered my face with a shirt and let every muscle in my body relax.
For dinner, we gorged ourselves on angel hair pasta smothered in a tasty, hearty vegetable sauce. Followed up with slurpy brownies for dessert, it was a perfect meal. We watched the sun set as we lounged in our warm down jackets and thanked the weather gods for the glorious conditions.
The next morning, we arose to a gorgeous sunrise that painted the horizon with pink, orange and peach. Before gearing up for the day’s climb, we ate a hearty breakfast washed down with hot tea.We set off along the ridge in moderate wind and more beautiful sunshine. Sunglasses and sunscreen were essential as we quickly climbed out of the trees and stepped into a vast snow-covered expanse. Due to the clear visibility and obvious route, navigation was easy and we picked our own way up the mountainside. The snow got steeper and steeper as we slowly ascended. Eventually we switched from snowshoes to crampons and carried on. In the summer, this is a dusty rock scramble. This day, it was a straightforward slog. It didn’t feel much like a slog, however, since the snow felt good under my feet and the views were so rewarding. Thielsen is unusually picturesque with its dramatic, eroded bowl and needle-sharp summit. It rises prominently and proudly over the southern Oregon landscape.
As we approached the last bit of the climb, we noticed a steady stream of ice chunks hurtling down the route. The snow rose steeper still, and the wind got a little more serious. The final gully leading up to “Chicken Point,” where many people call it good due to the steepness of the last 30 feet, took some time. I hadn’t climbed anything like this in a while so I had trouble calming my nerves and just getting up there. I made sure to kick good steps and dig in with my ax very securely. I overreacted, but I just wanted to be safe :).
It took about 2 hours of messing around with ropes, scouting out ascent routes, changing footwear, and trying to protect snow and rock to realize that this would be the end of our climb today. The mixed rock/snow/ice conditions were not favorable for the two of us to ascend any higher. The hot sun had softened the snow and it was letting loose in chunks as Brad tried to pick his way to the summit. He couldn’t get very far and I’d just about had it with belaying so we set a course back down to camp.After the terrifying ordeal of backing down through that gully, the rest of the walk down was fairly straightforward. I avoided a section of thin, choppy snow that I didn’t like on the way up and instead chose a much steeper, but more manageable snowfield that led me back to our snowshoe cache halfway back to camp.
We snacked there and Brad swapped out his crampons for snowshoes. Due to the fact that my snowshoes suck and I’d rather not wear them if I don’t have to, I left my crampons on the whole way back. Postholing surprisingly was not an issue and I think I had a better time with walking than Brad did. We made it back to camp thinking of nothing but food so our evening’s meal began rehydrating almost immediately. On the menu tonight was a large portion of meaty chili that I’d prepared at home and dehydrated. It turned out to be awesome, except for the fact that I’d forgotten the seasoning packet at home. Next time, it will be stupendous.
That night, we decided we wanted a campfire. We split up in search of dead branches. Luckily, they were everywhere. Soon we had a sizable pile of wood accumulated for our highly anticipated fiery display. Brad laid down several layers of fresh green branches to insulate the fire from the snow covering the ground. We had no idea how deep the snow was or how successful we would be in getting a fire to stay lit on the snow.
With the help of some government-issue firestarter, we got a rager going in just a couple of minutes. Standing on a sleeping pad to insulate our feet from the cold ground, we stood, quite pleased with ourselves, at the side of a huge bonfire. The wind blowing over the cornice into the valley carried the flames from our fire with it, creating an interesting scene. No one else was around to appreciate it, and we imagined the hilarity of a forest service worker hiking up the ridge at that very instant, citing us for building a fire. We didn’t even know if it was illegal to have a fire in this location but we decided it would be well worth the citation. The fire was toasty warm and as it blazed on, it sunk deeper and deeper into the snowpack. The next morning, we examined the remnants of our inferno and sadly packed up our things. We decided to take a more direct route back to the car. Brad used his GPS to set a course and I got a little compass navigation practice as we dove into the woods. The weather was, again, mind-blowingly gorgeous. We marveled at the pretty, open woods. The snowpack being as high as it was seemed to lift us out of the summertime density of the forest. Memories from September did not quite fit with the present day’s experience, so I assume the height of the snow had a profound impact on the “feel” of my surroundings.
Regardless, it was awesome. Back at the car, we shrugged off our packs and started plotting the next adventure.
A Mt. Thielsen trip report from the previous summer can be found here!