Ascent of Mount Thielsen on 2014-09-21

Climber: Samuel Hahn

Date:Sunday, September 21, 2014
Ascent Type:Successful Summit Attained
Peak:Mount Thielsen
    Elevation:9182 ft / 2798 m

Ascent Trip Report

After hiking South Sister and Mount Bachelor the days before, I wanted a volcano with a bit more exposure but also one that didn't require a full technical climb (something in which I have little experience); talks with the locals, researches on, and excerpts of "Smoot's Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes" all pointed towards Mount Thielsen. The final pitch, I was told, would offer several instances of vertiginous exposure but with rock so solid and with ledges in such abundance that rope would be more a reassurance than an absolute necessity. Thielsen, thus, would prove to be exactly what I was looking for.

Feeling more comfortable with my inner dirtbag than I had in days prior, I filled a few water bladders and headed south to Diamond Lake with 5 gallons of Oregon Potable to hold me over for a night at Hotel Trailhead, or so I thought. Arriving at the well-marked start of the hike, I encountered a man in a ratty, nearly perforated t-shirt and greasy shorts with what appeared to be a three bedroom ranch stuffed into his Ford Expedition. He was undeniably smelly, a bit too eager to make my acquaintance, and looked like he would be my only companion for a night of car camping. Perhaps I was being overly paranoid, but my overactive imagination kept drawing irrational comparisons with this fetid stranger and "The Silence of the Lambs'" Buffalo Bill. Still wanting to keep all four layers of my epidermis, I asked the smiling wolf where to find Diamond Lake Campground, and soon headed down the road to the night's alternate lodging.

Dawn came quickly the following morning, and whether it be from the fatigue of driving and peakbagging the days prior or the peace of mind gained from not having to sleep at the trailhead, I'll never know. Nor did I care to think much on the topic, as a challenging peak likely requiring 8 hours of hiking and climbing lay ahead. I shoveled down a breakfast of cold granola and rehydrated milk, packed up the car and headed a few miles down the road to the trailhead once more where the overloaded Expedition lay parked in the same spot as the night before. Fortunately, its owner was conspicuously absent, having been replaced by a group of three climbers with strong Indian accents. We exchanged perfunctory greetings before performing final checks on our packs for the day and I made a note to learn their stories. My pack was considerably smaller without the climbing equipment carried by the other three and engendered their concerned stares, but I swallowed any nervousness, rolled back my shoulders, and headed on the Mount Thielsen trail behind them.

The Mount Thielsen trail is smooth, wide, well-graded and passes through fragrant, sparse stands of conifers. Views are limited and it snakes through a less-than-attractive blowdown section, but routefinding issues are nonexistent and before I knew it, I had arrived at the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail and the climber's path. I paused there to hydrate and replenish lost calories, but also to allow a group who had hiked behind me to catch up. Having spent the past three days by myself with little human interaction beyond yesterday's meeting with the parking lot wolf, I was eager for any sustained conversation. Fortunately, the group seemed normal enough and were also planning to summit Thielsen without technical climbing gear. Feeling reassured and restored, I proceeded along the well-defined climbing path towards one of the world's 'pointiest' summits.

Although the herd path extending beyond the official Mount Thielsen trail receives neither private nor public funds for its maintenance, it is nonetheless easy to follow, albeit over steep and sometimes loose talus. But on this day, the only thing more prevalent than dust and rockfall were climbers. In truth, the route to Thielsen's summit was nothing short of packed with mountaineers of varying abilities; everything from weekend warrior baby boomers on their first scramble to experienced alpinists looking to add another volcanic notch to their belts. High on endorphins and unobstructed views, the ascent went quickly and I soon met up with the three climbers from the parking lot as we neared the final pitch. It turned out they were all computer scientists, educated in Bangalore, who relocated to Portland after being recruited by Intel, and after seeing Mount Hood from the plane, knew they had to explore the Cascades. So, soon after settling, they joined the Mazamas and became active members. I knew vaguely of this climbing group, having signed the register they provided on the summit of Mount Olympus, but I was about to meet their most prolific climbers as the four of us arrived at the base of the summit block. There we were greeted by an official outing for Oregon's oldest mountaineering club working a very official-looking line towards the summit.

There was little to do but wait for the last of the Mazamas to summit, so I ate handfuls of trail mix, drank a few swigs of water and watched as separate groups made their way up or turned back as the immensity of the summit block and the gradually increasing amount of exposure along the trail became too much to stomach. The scramblers I met at the end of the Mount Thielsen trail proved to be of the hardier sort, and we reunited just in time to make our way to the top. This time, however, they brought along a companion, the first solo hiker I had seen all day. Eager to see whether the final pitch was 'Class 3 in the Sierra' or easy Class 5, he and I started up the summit block, being careful to test our handholds, as it seemed too good to be true that this rock could be so solid.

Thankfully, the climb really was nothing more than Class 3, and although those unused to exposure would feel uncomfortable, confidence would absolve oneself of all danger. I cursed myself for bringing a helmet as not even a loose pebble greeted us along this ascent, and we soon found ourselves at the famously narrow perch atop Thielsen after 60 feet of vertical effort. The views were slightly hazy, but still unobstructed, and the two of us took turns taking photos and avoiding a cloud of biting flies also enjoying the clear sunny day in the High Desert. We couldn't linger long, as there was already a burgeoning waitlist of prospective summiters below, and we made a hasty descent back to the climber's trail.

The soloist, who I later learned is named Paul, and I hiked down to the trailhead together. Hardly anything eventful punctuated this descent and we were both grateful for the company. He, I would discover, was on a journey similar to my own; both of us were heading south down Oregon to bag prominent peaks. However, he was ultimately headed back to San Francisco, whereas I would head up towards Washington for a climb of Mount Saint Helens later that week. By sharing lamentations on the loneliness of solo climbing and beta on peaks we hoped to one day bag, we made the descent go by more quickly and arrived at the trailhead just shy of 3:30 PM, tired, tanned, and dusty. We shook hands and parted ways nearly as efficiently as we left the summit, he for northern California, I for another mountain that I would eventually determine, but not before relishing in a peak well-earned.
Summary Total Data
    Total Elevation Gain:3800 ft / 1158 m
    Trailhead:5382 ft / 1640 m
    Quality:9 (on a subjective 1-10 scale)
    Route Conditions:
Maintained Trail, Scramble, Exposed Scramble
    Gear Used:
Ski Poles

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