Hesitation finalized my decision to stay. Ashley Marcu and I were climbing Howlock Mountain, and while she lounged atop the pinnacle choss pile I ran over to the true east summit. Upon my return an urge to complete a selected traverse of the Sawtooth Ridge from Tipsoo Peak to Mount Thielsen burned within me. As I glanced at the inviting ridge to my south I knew this desire was blind to consequential realities. Despite staying behind, Ashley continued to encourage me, saying that she would wait until I had returned. Considering the time it would take to reach my destination and back was likely far greater than any estimate I had in mind, and with that the inherent risk of a forced bivouac along an exposed ridge prone to thunder storms, I opted to play it safe. Postponing desires to conquer summit fever in an effort of responsibility for not only your own safety, but another’s as well, always feels good in the end. Determination ultimately challenged my return.
Sunday Night: Traveling
A lot of my summer plans did not pan out exactly as I had envisioned. In fact many didn’t work out at all. Rather, I would apathetically squander my weekends, partially due to a lack of companionship. I told myself this was not going to be another of those planned weekends where I watched four days off cut in half and with it the abandonment of enjoyment. My intended targets were six mountains or peaks all within Jeff Howbert’s list of Oregon’s 100 highest summits: Mount Bailey, Mount Thielsen East Peak, Hillman Peak, Dutton Cliff, Llao Rock and Applegate Peak. It would be my first solo trip of this magnitude and I could hardly wait to enter into the brutal, but healthy adventure. An acute awareness that my time in that great wilderness to come would lend to much reflection easily prone to distress based upon a recent separation with a loved one led me to seek a safeguard. Opting to postpone my departure south to attend a church service at Door of Hope that evening only cramped my timeline further, but then what’s the point of enjoying the great outdoors if you cannot let go of your life in the city. Filling my body and soul with Christ’s blessed Word was the cure all and afterward I ran home, finalized packing, updated my SPOT messages and was quick to hit the road southbound from Portland. The time was late and I knew driving the full distance to Diamond Lake was a mistake, so I decided to layover in Eugene at my folk’s house a few hours.
4am Monday: Traveling Cont.
Between my excitement to get a move on and the wonderful aroma of fresh brewed coffee I aroused from my slumber before dawn. That morning I spent a short lived half hour speaking with my dad Raymond about where I was going, what I planned to climb and ensuring him I would be safe in all of my travels. While remaining alarmed by my venturing solo into backcountry territory he bid me farewell and left for work at the Rigdon Ranger Station. Immediately my thoughts drew back to exploration. Later as I drove Highway 58’s gloomy stretch of road the usual view of Diamond Peak I’m accustomed to seeing didn’t yield itself, as it was buried beneath low-lying clouds, but was later seen upon breaching the Willamette Pass. For a moment this had my mind swimming in the joyous anticipation of traversing its North ridge, but that is for another time. Not long after I was heading down the sunny Highway 97 with my attention back where it belonged peripherally staring at Sawtooth and Hollys Ridge. My nerves were teeming with excitement as if I had been preparing for a race. In some aspects I suppose that is just what I was doing.
9am-2pm: Mount Bailey
Only two conditions will force me to hold up inside my car uncomfortably fidgeting to put on all my gear: The frigid cold of a winter alpine start and a summer swarm of bloodthirsty mosquitoes. Fearing the worst of the latter upon emerging into the surrounding woods I found what seemed too good to be true of conditions. Warm dusty air lifted into the shallow subalpine forest with each step along Mount Bailey’s trail as I looked about at chipmunks, listened to the sweet sound of gray jays and discovered that there were nearly no mosquitoes. What a welcome! Mount Bailey offers a neat progression onto a broad, but exposed ridge. During the better part of the climb I was submerged in a canopy of progressively thinning lodgepole pine, mountain hemlock and true fir with an ascent which felt more like that of an approach. Later I arrived without much warning atop a summit ridge and suddenly felt as though I had bypassed much of the climb. In my haste to get a move on I tied my boots too tight and as a result began tearing holes in my Achilles tendon by this point. Ignoring the sheering pain from my foot in an effort to make good time up the mountain was a dumb idea and in doing so I paid the price. Atop the summit I assessed the damage and applied second skin, but on my descent found the pain was still presently intensifying. In an effort to subdue my heel bite from hell I loosened my boots to 80’s baller status, thus alleviating much pain. However, this also created the high risk of a severe ankle sprain and as a result slowed my pace considerably. Having practically sprinted up Bailey felt great, but after coming down with my ankles torn I began to rethink my next objective. It had taken me 5 hours to complete the first of six summits.
A respite from climbing at a familiar boat dock filled my mind with many ideas and memories. In looking at the Sawtooth Ridge – plumes of thunderous looking clouds rising behind and above Howlock Mountain – my thoughts turned to the first time I had sat on this same dock photographing Mt. Thielsen. It was during a full moon 15 months prior and for a time on that cold damp night I recall thinking Thielsen was the most captivating mountain I had yet laid my eyes on. Little has changed since that moment shy of one failed summit attempt, returning to a successful summit and later exploration of the general wilderness to the north. Now it was my intended course of action to explore the territories to Thielsen’s east.
3:45pm-11pm: Thielsen East Peak
Mosquitoes now riding my coattails aided my rate of ascent as I made headway alongside Thielsen Creek. The approach up the Howlock Mountain trail onto the Thielsen Creek trail turned out to be surprisingly mellow and I quickly got to thinking about how easy winter approaches out this way would be. As I proceeded atop a gentle pine turf, my eyes frequently caught glimpses of the opposing waters below and the occasional orienting view of either Howlock Mountain or Thielsen itself. My primary thoughts were on how grateful I was for the many sights and smells and sensations. The end of the line was a tenth of a mile south from where Thielsen Creek’s trail intersects with the Pacific Crest Trail. The open meadow and cool breeze along the upper creek was soul satisfying and rejuvenated my drive to pursue East Peak’s summit once more. Mount Thielsen’s commanding north face temporarily distracted me from my pursuits, but for good cause seeing as how I needed a rest and had opportunity for documentary. The only real downside, if you could think of one in this pristine environment, was that this view distracted my attention so often I tripped continually while working my way up the creek’s edge.
Traversing the lower rock debris fields beneath Thielsen’s impressive north face eventually developed into a boulder hopping excursion which initially spat me back out onto the creek, immersed in red and purple wild flowers, but then I ultimately came upon a small snowfield leading up toward the Col. Veering east midway up the snowfield put me on course for Hollys Ridge en route to East Peak’s summit. My immediate objective were the cliffs with bright red rock and upon gaining them I worked my way through these bands from the north side of this ridge to the south while continuing eastbound. I took the ridge up to the false summit, which by now had bummed me out pretty bad on account of the deteriorating conditions, rapid approach of nightfall and my own misinterpretation of it being the true summit. I recall having a word or two with the mountain at this time, as I grew deliriously frustrated. Stumbling my way down and up the saddle between these two summits took little time, but the true summit was already lost in a whiteout. Visibility returned on a couple of brief occasions but always immediately disappeared again into an infinite grayish atmosphere. For the sake of documentation I took a crummy picture on the mound of summit rocks, but was then fast to escape before nightfall.
The descent was considerably worse for wear and I fell several times on the unreliable loose gravel that quickly cascaded down the unpredictable patches of semi-exposed basalt. I call it fake-out scree, for in appearance it resembles scree, but in reality the outcome of its crossing is more like that of a man sliding downward standing on marbles. Of course witnessing the developing weather over Thielsen proper didn’t help my focus either. At any rate, if I had to descend that route again I would scrunch my way through the wedge of trees and rock along the ridge proper, thus following my ascent path back down. The Lathrop glacier urged me to explore its rarely climbed terrain as I rounded the corner back to the Col, but I knew better than to push my limits any farther that night and settled for stealing some of its ice melt from the upper stream. Before the need to break out my headlamp grew too strong I was able to follow the stream along soft pumice slopes, not much different from a sand dune, down the creek until reaching the PCT yet once more. The inviting glow of several campfires all around Thielsen Camp developed within me the great temptation to stop and call it a night, but for whatever reason I was blind by determination and quickly ignored such desire. Not long thereafter I had become a solitary figure in the vast darkness of a moonless night. The following 5.6 miles were strange with imagination.
6am Tuesday: Crater Lake
Since I never arrive at any decent hour I have never paid to sleep at Crater Lake, though I did buy one of the license plates awhile back. There’s something kind of temporarily nomad about this approach. Typically I am both the last one into the park and the first one up, so no person’s any the wiser about my stay. However, the turn of events from the previous evening left me so exhausted I wound up car camping below The Watchman, one of Crater Lake’s primary congregating locations. To my surprise someone else had shown up prior to my falling asleep to follow suite across the parking lot from me. When the sun had risen the next morning I rolled onto my stomach, refraining to let the light wake me from my slumber. Not long after this strategic move of mine I had families pulling up beside me staring in through my back windows, so I burrowed deeper into my car’s nooks and crannies. I had finally found the touristy region of my trip and wanted nothing to do with it, so it was a delight to see the party across from me turned out to be as careless and off the map as I had hoped them to be. Jonathan and Michael Mariande carried equally disheveled appearances and attitudes. They made for perfect companionship and as breakfast came and went we shared our adventures with one another. I had liked to have joined them on their nonchalant adventure to travel the western states by any means other than quick, seeking backcountry roads and authentic landmarks known only to locals, but at last I had unfinished business to attend to. Upon our farewells, and with the hard climbs behind me, I made my way over to Hillman Peak to summit the days first of four obscure peaks along Crater Lake’s rim.
9am-10am: Hillman Peak
Hillman Peak is located directly opposite The Watchman to the north. It is probably the most commonly climbed peak in the area without a trail to its summit. Essentially having just rolled out of bed – er, I mean car – I stumbled up the mountain in a manner comparative to intoxication. Despite having drank at least 6 liters of water the day prior I think dehydration had a lot to do with this, as I am sure I still didn’t drink enough water the day before and since morning all I had had to drink was coffee. The summit was beautiful with grand views of McLoughlin and Union Peak to the south just beyond The Watchman, Mount Scott standing above Wizard Island’s foreground profile to the east and the previous day’s climbs to my north. Meanwhile the sky above me continued to develop into a wispy mood. Hillman’s horn protruding out toward the lake off its exposed ridge beckoned me to climb it, but I resisted the temptation as my time was budgeted.
10:30am-12pm: Llao Rock
Working my way clockwise around the rim put my sights on Llao Rock as the next intended summit. At the time I was unsure of where best to begin the hike, and ultimately decided to pull off the road directly north of the summit, later recognizing that this is in fact a common starting point. In an effort to avoid trampling the flora I scouted a route that followed a dried up creek bed. It was an easy enough climb, but I was growing more tired with every passing moment so I again did not stay long and unfortunately did not explore much of that area. I would have liked to go out onto its ridge that overlooked the lake below. On my way down I encountered a freshwater spring near the top that tasted oh so good and was quite refreshing.
12:30pm-2:30pm: Dutton Cliff
Circumnavigating to the rim’s opposite end stationed me below Dutton Cliff’s not so cliffy southern slopes. With the clouds now burned off the temperature rose considerably and this warmed me on the inside as well. Not to say the prior portions of my trip were cold by any means, because they were unforgettably grand, but by the time I had stepped outside of my car below this next summit I no longer felt determination, but rather contentment – simply enjoying my time without seeking the completion of goals. There was a certain leisurely quality about my day all of a sudden. A woman stopped me in my tracks just as I began my journey asking, “Are you hungry? Want me to make you a sandwich?” My immediate response was a polite, “Oh, no. Thank you though,” and I began crossing the road once more. Fortunately I got my head straight at this point, turned myself around and said to her, “Actually! May I?” Having previously donated my supply of rations the day before to a PCT thru hiker, a man named "Big John" (Jonathan Mccue) of Moonbowgear, left me honestly quite famished. The generous woman’s name was Paula and she had already begun preparing me lunch before I’d finished my plea. I sat with her on a picnic blanket awhile with her many children running to and fro and we discussed several hidden swimming holes in and around the Cascades. After about an hour I was off and up the slopes of Dutton Cliff once more, but now feeling much more up to the task. Uncanny odors filled the air despite the pleasing visuals of wildflowers scattered all about me – it was sort of like smelling wet dog. As the day wore on it only became hotter and seeing the water below looked extremely inviting as I leaned over the summit. My vantage point from here was perfect. The views down to Phantom Ship were like no other, seeing the peaks I had just descended on the other side made me realize the blessing of our current transportation abilities and turning to view the route up Applegate Peak was simply inspiring. That being said I figured it was time to tackle that final summit.
3pm-5pm: Applegate Peak
Trying to find a trail, any trail, up Applegate Peak seemed futile. I hadn’t planned anything out regarding any of the Crater Lake Peaks, but instead went after them on more of a whim than anything. I knew that there was a trail to the summit of Garfield Peak, but even its location I was uncertain of. It didn’t matter; I didn’t want to climb that route to begin with. I wanted to find my own route. I didn’t know it at the time, but while standing atop Dutton Cliff I had glanced over at Applegate Peak and noticed a potential route. Now I sat below its eastern boulder field and cliffs pondering whether or not I should attempt it. Playing each step by ear, I made up my route as I went along and eventually found myself entering a unique cut in the rock that soon turned into a couloir. As the terrain steepened from a class 3 scramble into a class 4 climb I became thrilled at the route’s potential and was continually given multiple options of varying climbing difficulty. I topped out to a mild saddle between two subtle high points, the one overlooking the narrow gully I had just climbed and the other, being the true summit, overlooked Crater Lake. In honor of the peak I had just climbed I ate a Pink Lady, then some orange flavored Gu and began to think about an easier route down. The thought of surfing the couloir on some dinner plate atop layers of jagged rock put my ascent route out of the question, but on the backside of the secondary highpoint was another saddle with gentler slopes leading down to the boulder fields. I bolted below Applegate’s two summits traversing toward this saddle and let my momentum carry me as I scree skied off the peak in seconds. My heart pumped full of adrenalin as I reached the bottom in a matter of mere moments, feeling like a little kid who had just stepped off a rollercoaster. I’m sure the passing cars just thought I had to pee when they saw me randomly emerge from the boulder field moments later.
6pm Tuesday-3am Wednesday: Retrospect
The notion of traveling by oneself has often intimidated me and I take the risk involved quite seriously. If I go alone: How might I respond to the solitude? What kind of restrictions should I place? Will I be more cautious without immediate help? Will I push my body’s limitations without another person’s boundaries to gauge? No, not if, but when. These have always been, and continue to be, questions if not concerns that I have pondered over the years regarding the risks associated with traveling solo. Having now done it doesn’t make me feel any differently about the cautions involved, but I certainly am more inclined to continue climbing alone. I find my greatest curiosities are often met by the unknown objectives of exploratory adventure. The point of this trip was to push my physical limitations utilizing my mental capacity, which is something I could only press into by myself and might explain to some why I carried a full 45lb pack up Mount Bailey without any intentions of using it. In fact the most challenging aspect of the entire trip was my drive home, now that was one potential hazard I had not much considered. I also learned from this trip that when you travel by yourself you are more inclined to inadvertently encounter others traveling in a similar manner. It is through these people and their stories that I best remember my own tales. So I ultimately say thank you to the people I met out there that weekend. Despite its tourism, Crater Lake and its surrounding wilderness continues to be one of my favorite destinations to spend time around and it’s my view that, standing in its sibling’s prominent shadow, mount Thielsen’s East Peak is probably one of the most underappreciated summits in Oregon.
To read more about the trip referenced in the opening paragraph click here: The Holly Sawtooth
No comments posted yet.