My Climbing Career (thus far). Part II

It’s funny to realize how far I have come in all this. From being that frightened kid climbing Mt. Thielsen to being someone who has climbed two thirds of the Cascade volcanoes, taught rock climbing for a community college, and climbed the Grand Teton. Since that first time, I have returned to climb Thielsen four more times successfully and had one unsuccessful winter attempt. In fact, it was funny, returning to Thielsen for the second time, over ten years since my first climb, and finding in the intervening years that the summit pinnacle was not nearly as bad as I remembered, and with all my experience, the climb was now much more fun than frightening.

Mt. Thielsen from the trail.

My second year of climbing was all about getting used to the mountain environment rather than getting over-ambitious. An older retired climber named Gary took me under his wing and was incredibly supportive, driving me to trailheads for conditioning climbs, rarely charging me for gas, and then just sitting there reading while I went off to climb for half a day. I hiked to the top of Black Crater, the Belknap Craters, and spent a day hiking all around Smith Rock State Park. I will always be grateful to him for his generosity.

What I remember the most about these hikes is the memorable one up Black Crater. At over seven thousand feet, this peak is one of the taller mountains in the area, though nowhere near as massive as the nearby Three Sisters. That winter and spring had witnessed one of the largest snowfalls in Cascade range history and even in late July there was snow just above six thousand feet. Gary dropped me off at a snow-free trailhead, where another vehicle was parked. I said goodbye to Gary and headed off up the trail. After a short distance, perhaps an eight of a mile, the snow began and the trail disappeared. Shortly after that I encountered the only other group on the trail, a young couple and their middle-aged parents. They had turned around when shortly after the trail vanished, but I continued on, having a fair idea about the lay of the land. I knew I could get myself up and back if I used my smarts and my compass.

For the most part this hike is in the trees, making landmarks impossible to see, but I could seen enough to keep me heading in the right direction, and after an hour and a half or so, I left the deep woods and open pumice slopes began to reveal the glorious vistas the McKenzie Pass area is famous for.

I had noticed that there were clouds in the sky, but they were innocuous looking enough, small, white cotton-balls that added to the beauty of the day. I honestly never felt any trepidation about the weather as I ascended higher towards the summit. Even as I reached the broad, cliff-edged summit, I paid little heed to the clouds. I was happy to have made it to the top with no trail and on my own.

On the very crown of the peak, on a little volcanic outcrop, a collection of strange bugs was swarming, weird, narrow beetles, and for some odd reason, seeing them there, swarming on the literal top rock of the mountain, made me feel uneasy, afraid even. Suddenly I knew I needed to get off the mountain, and now. I got out of there. The instinct was so strong there was no way I could ignore it. I hustled down the north side of the mountain, glissading (sliding) on the snow slopes, racing back into the bigger timber, and as soon as I was back in the trees, all hell broke loose.

Flash. Boom. Flash. Boom. Lightning would strike, and almost no time would elapse before the thunder would crash, deafening and cataclysmic. I ran, trying my best to keep going in the right direction, but more urgently trying to get down. I was on the tallest peak for several miles in either direction and this sudden thunderstorm was unleashing a bolt every twenty seconds or so. I raced through the woods, using only instinct to guide my way down, flinching and cringing with every flash and rumble. Amazingly enough, after about half an hour of running, I found myself on the trail again! My instincts had been dead on. I was feeling pretty satisfied about myself as I leapt over a fallen log a few hundred yards from the car and rolled my ankle. My ego suitably bruised, I limped back to the car with a little less pride.

That year, my second as a climber, after warming up on the previously-mentioned peaks, I also climbed Mt. McLoughlin, Diamond Peak, and South Sister, third highest peak in Oregon.

Mike and I were climbing McLoughlin in the early morning, once again with his pack dogs, Albert and Eva, the German Shepherds. We were in the big woods again, talking and hiking. In the distance we could hear a jet, and didn’t think anything of it. The next instant it was much louder, but it happened so fast, we didn’t have time to react. In the space between one moment and the next, the sound went from distant to ear-splitting, and I looked up in time to see an F-18 Hornet, fifty feet above the treetops. I could see it clearly, the cockpit, the wings, all of it, for one brief instant. The ground was shaking, the dogs scattered in terror and we just froze. Then it was gone, and the sound receded as quickly as it had come. I remember the two of us standing frozen, gripping our chests in fear, but already laughing at the experience. The dogs came back quickly and we resumed our hike.

McLoughlin's upper slopes (from a more recent climb)

The first several climbs I did with Mike, he was quite slow because of his severely arthritic hip and back, and he would generally give me permission to move ahead once we were within sight of the summit, since he could tell that I was going slower than I needed to. Climbing towards the summit of this gentle mountain, there were small puffy clouds in the sky just like the week before at Black Crater, and a feeling of anxiety grew in me as I ascended alone towards the summit. Several times I considered turning back, but I decided to push on, and soon enough I was standing on the summit rocks. My anxiety was undiminished with this, my second ‘real’ mountain. I snapped a couple of summit pictures and then raced off the mountain, meeting Mike about half a mile below the top. I told him of my fears and he sort of gave me a puzzled expression before heading up. I rested and enjoyed the views from 8000′. After a time I realized that there was not going to be a thunderstorm that afternoon, I was merely spooked. Mike, who wasn’t spooked, made it to the summit and enjoyed a much longer period on the apex before coming back down to meet me.

Climbing Diamond Peak a short time later began a long-time love affair with the mountain, and was also the first of many times I climbed and trained with the Obsidians, the climbing/hiking/skiing/biking club based out of Eugene.

The upper ridge to the summit of Diamond Peak (also a later climb)

South Sister, at 10,358′ is the third highest mountain in Oregon, but when the snow melts in mid-summer, a well-worn path winds its way up the peak’s gentle south side, skirting cobalt lakes and glaciers on the way. I slept in a borrowed car at Devils Lake, the traditional departing point for climbs from the south. At 5:30 in the morning I headed out, truly alone on a big mountain for the first time, winding my way through a dense forest for several miles before emerging  onto a broad, undulating plain above Moraine Lake.  South Sister dominates the horizon from west to east. After several more hours of dusty climbing, I found myself witness to one of the most astonishing mountain views in the Northwest. Middle Sister and North Sister, both above ten thousand feet, lie just a few miles to the north, while Mt Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Hood, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and astonishingly, even Mt. Rainier could be seen on this day, the latter lying nearly two hundred miles away! (On a later summit of the same mountain, I couldn’t even see Adams and St. Helens, much less Rainier.)

My second year of climbing had seen me climb a few smaller peaks and three bigger volcanoes, momentum had been established, and the dreams only got bigger. Now I was dreaming of snow peaks and glaciers, and envisioning an ice axe in my hands. I was ready for more. The apprenticeship continued.


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