[apologies for the lack of photos, my camera battery died about an hour into the approach, Ryan's however did not and his photos can be found here
I had never heard of Mount Thielsen. I had heard of Oregon, and I had heard of Crater Lake, even been there once when I was maybe 10 or 11, but as for a 9000 foot volcanic matterhorn in the vicinity, I had no idea. This was really Ryan’s climb, he had seen it years ago and been wanting to climb it ever since. I was just lucky to come along.
We left Seattle Friday afternoon to arrive at the Thielsen trailhead late that night, which would have been a stretch under normal circumstances, but of course we decided to make things interesting by taking I-90 over Snoqualmie Pass and then heading south on Hwy 97. It turns out that in December snow conditions, and therefore traffic, over the pass can get pretty bad; who would have thought? In any case, we arrived at the trailhead around midnight.
After a scant 5 hours of sleep we prepared to head out, at which point I realized that the pack I had brought was entirely too small and we had to leave our second rope behind. Both Ryan and I were regarding this climb as a bit of a practice run, both for our upcoming Colorado trip and our hopefully upcoming Yocum Ridge climb, as such we were a bit over equipped: two tools each, plastic boots, 70m rope. Progress was slow.
For the first few miles of the approach we could easily discern the trail, although there was maybe a foot or two of snow before we put on our snowshoes. At some point past the first junction we could no longer identify the trail and just started angling up to the ridge, which we reached at the exact point where the PCT branches off. From this spot we got our first good look at the peak. All 4000 ft of rime plastered magnificence. I can’t believe I didn’t know this thing existed.
About half of the remaining ridge-line was forested and we slogged upward, through alternating soft windslab and hard crust, more or less along the crest. To our left the ridge was a little corniced, but it being so early in the year it wasn’t really dangerous. At some point, around where the trees thinned out, we took off our snowshoes, although we didn’t ditch them for another few hundred feet.
From the point where the west ridge starts steepening we trended to the right, crossing icy slopes of around 45 degrees to where the ridge drops off sharply and we got a nice view of the impressive Scottish Tower. From there we headed up a rime feathered gully to the base of what is, in the summer, the fourth class section.
Lucky for us, our belay spot was sheltered from the wind, unlucky for us, the entire face was covered in fragile, unclimbable rime ice that had to be removed along the entire route. Ryan, who is the stronger climber of the two of us, led it, placing about half a dozen nuts for protection, in about forty-five minutes, I followed in maybe half the time and we gained the summit around 1:30.
With conditions deteriorating, the cloud layer, which had been high, was starting to envelope the peak, reducing visibility to about 100 ft, we rigged a quick rap anchor and headed down, our 70m rope reaching the bottom easily. From there things got a little more tricky, as we often had a hard time identifying our tracks in the crusty snow and couldn’t see far enough to navigate by the main features of the ridge. Trying to avoid the worst of the windslab, we managed the descent without incident and by the time we hit the forested section we had dropped below the cloud cover and were able to relax a little.
The hike out was a slog, long and painful in plastic boots that I had forgotten to loosen for the walk, but we arrived at the parking lot around 4 and we glad to have beaten nightfall. We had planned to head north and climb a route on Illumination Rock but after we checked avalanche conditions for Mt. Hood we decided against it and spent Sunday at Trout Creek instead.
Although neither of us have much experience mixed climbing, we estimated the standard route in these conditions to be a difficult M3-4. None of the moves were really challenging and there were only a couple true hooks, but clearing out the rime ice to find pick placements and protectable cracks was difficult and time consuming. We had brought a couple ice screws, but we found next to no water ice on route and the snow was shallow enough that even pickets felt insecure. Overall it was a strenuous day-trip that demanded more than I had expected to put into it, just what I needed to kick me out of my end-of-quarter shell-shock.