It began on Saturday, May 5. I accompanied the Intro to Rock Climbing class from Umpqua Community College on their trip to Emigrant Lake in Southern Oregon. Normally I would have gone in the capacity as an assistant instructor, but since I was going to be writing an article about the class, journalistic ethics dictated that I go strictly as a writer, photographer and videographer. We left Roseburg in a UCC van, and began the 2.5 hour trip down Interstate Five. Willie Long, the instructor of the class, used the travel time to quiz the students about their homework from the previous week, which was to find an article about rock climbing to discuss on the trip. The students all had interesting questions from their articles, and the instructors all took turns helping them answer any questions. Soon enough, we arrived in Ashland, and headed east for the short drive to the lake.
I was particularly excited to go on this trip, mostly because I had not climbed at Emigrant Lake before, but also because I would be free to roam and take pictures of the students and teachers in action, something I would normally not be able to do if I had been helping teach.
We parked the van, got gear sorted, and Willie gathered the students for a brief discussion before heading out. Then it was a brief walk along the road before finding the trail along the lake’s northern shore. One downfall about Emigrant Lake is the poison oak — it grows in massive proliferation everywhere, so much so that I am not sure if I have ever seen so much in a single area before. Luckily the trail is fairly wide, and even more fortunate, some considerate souls had come to the crags the day before and cut much of it down.
We arrived at the cliffs after a ten-minute hike, and I must admit, I was surprised. I hadn’t expected it to be so spectacular. The pictures in the climbing guide made me think it was smaller, less picturesque, and more akin to a roadside quarry than the beautiful, rugged cliff we found ourselves staring up at. Not a huge area by any means, its setting beside the azure waters of the lake while surrounded by the high wooded hills of the Siskiyou Mountains was what really made it special. As soon as we arrived I was glad I came.
Once the class had gotten on their harnesses and helmets, Willie went over a brief safety lecture, while the other assistants scrambled to the top of the cliff to set up top-ropes and rappel stations. I accompanied the other assistants, climbing up into an interesting alcove, and scrambling up through a narrow hole to reach the top of the crag. I filmed and took still shots while they set up the ropes, enjoying the freedom of being a writer rather than a teacher. Unfortunately, I had once again forgotten my tripod in my eagerness to go climbing, so I had to make do with hand-held shots. Nevertheless, the footage turned out okay despite some shakiness.
Within a half an hour, the first students were beginning to climb, so I started filming. I had brought along not just my Sony Handycam (which is only 480 resolution), but also my GoPro Hero 2 high definition, wearable action camera, and I asked for student volunteers to put it on as they climbed. A student named Trevor was the first volunteer, and I strapped it to his helmet as he climbed, the first time I had been able record any sort of first-person camera views, and the shots turned out pretty spectacular.
Once the students had settled in and got climbing, Logan, one of the instructors, asked for a belay (the act of controlling the rope) so he could set up another climb, and I volunteered. Once he had led the climb and lowered back down, I decided it was time for myself to climb. Only a short climb of 40 or 50 feet, it took me a short time to complete it. Then it was back to filming.
During the course of the day, I had made up my mind that this was a place I would have to bring my family. Rock climbing, swimming, hiking, boating, not to mention the quirky town of Ashland (famous for its renowned Shakespeare Festival) nearby. It is a really special place.
The day went by far too quickly, and when it was getting obvious that we would soon have to head back to Roseburg, I made sure that I got a few more climbs in. I jumped on a 5.10 route and found it challenging, but I was able to complete it. A short time later I climbed a much easier route in the 5.6-5.7 range, and while I only climbed three routes that day, I got a lot of filming in, and gained some more experience as an outdoor videographer, not to mention that I had gotten to see a fabulous new area.
When it was time to go, we gathered all our gear and belongings and headed back down the path to the parking area, loaded back up in the bus, and headed north on I-5. Half the class was asleep within an hour.
I came home, tired, dusty and happy, but ready for more. I gave myself a short time to rest, but then I had to pack my bags for the next day. I had been planning to climb Mt. Thielsen, “Lightning Rod of the Cascades” for several weeks, and had been already foiled once due to a inaudible alarm, so even though I hadn’t been able to round up a partner for some alpine fun, I had decided to go solo. I packed up the clothes, food and gear I would need, made sure my alarm would work properly this time, then settled down to go to sleep.
I had set my alarm for 5:30, a little later than I would normally have chosen to wake, but considering that I hadn’t gotten a full night’s sleep, I knew that getting an extra hour of sleep would be more important than leaving earlier. I ended up waking up a little before five, I was so worried my alarm wouldn’t work again. I made coffee, ate a breakfast of yogurt and granola, and headed out shortly after 6 a.m. I headed east on Highway 138, winding along the beautiful North Umpqua river, sharing the road with just a few early morning travelers. I made one stop at the base of Eagle Rock to snap a quick picture, then continued on.
Soon the highway began heading more steeply uphill, the forests of Douglas Firs gave way to Ponderosa Pines, and I knew the mountains were near. I caught sight of Mt. Bailey first, its great rounded bulk appearing through the trees. Then I saw Howlock Mountain, one of the forgotten mountains of the Cascade Range, and shortly after that the unforgettable, towering form of Thielsen appeared, an awe-inspiring sight no matter how many times I see it. I felt my excitement rise. I would soon be at the trailhead.
When I arrived at the pullout for the Mt. Thielsen trail, there was still five feet of snow, and the temperature was a chilly 25 degrees. I got on my warm clothes, sorted my gear, and ten minutes after arriving, I was on my way, happy to find firm snow under my boots.
There had been only one other vehicle in the parking lot, so I knew there was somebody ahead of me, but I never saw them until high on the mountain, nevertheless I still found it reassuring to follow their footprints, whoever they were. At least I would not be the only person on the peak.
I was surprised at how quickly the time passed, and even more surprised when I reached the base of the ridge in a little over an hour. The snow was deep enough that it eliminated many of the switchbacks that would normally have to be followed in summer conditions. The snow also allowed me to head straight uphill in a section of blown-down forest that makes for unpleasant hiking. I was particularly glad to have escaped that part of the trail.
In about two hours and twenty minutes I had reached the base of the final steep ridge, and I was very pleased at my physical condition. If I had not been able to virtually eliminate my chronic pain issues several months earlier, I would have never been able to be in that kind of shape.
As I traversed along the beautiful, gently corniced ridge, I could hear the other alpine travelers above me, and soon spotted them climbing about half a mile and several hundred feet above me. I had decided to take my first real rest break before things started getting steeper, so I filmed the two climbers as they moved steadily upwards (I remembered to bring my tripod this time.)
After taking perhaps twenty minutes to eat, drink and recharge, I began climbing again. I followed in the footsteps of the climbers ahead of me, appreciative of their trail-breaking efforts since the snow was much deeper and softer by this time. After about half an hour of steady uphill trudging, I came upon one of the two guys that had been ahead of me. We talked for a short time, and he told me his companion was going to ski down one of the chutes that line the western, upper slope of the peak while he took pictures. I said goodbye, and continued on.
As the angle of the slope increased, the iciness of the snow also increased, to the point where kicking steps was almost impossible, so I found an outcrop of rock to sit down, put on my crampons (the spikes that go on the bottom of a climber’s boots), stowed my trekking poles and busted out the ice-axe. Then I was heading back up.
I had hoped that I would catch up with the other climber (who was actually there to ski, not to summit) before he began his descent, but when I had almost reached the spot where I had last seen him, I heard the sound of skis, and I missed nearly all of his run. Oh well. I continued on.
I reached the point where the actual climbing begins, a two- or three-hundred foot high section of loose, shaley rock that in dry conditions is third class scrambling (the climbing scale goes from 1st class, walking on flat ground, to fifth class, technical climbing) but when covered by rime ice, as it was that morning, is certainly much more challenging. Having crampons on my feet only added to the difficulty. I began scrambling up and around the steep section, and it took me about half an hour to get past it. I was near the summit now.
I was also close to 9000 feet, and the altitude was slowing me down. There is nothing for it, you just have to keep pushing. I was now traversing around the southern side of the summit pinnacle, on a thirty degree snow slope littered with chunks of ice. As I struggled upwards, more and more blocks of ice fell off the mountain — ahead of me, behind me, all around me — and while none were so big as to be seriously injurious, they were also worrisome in the sense that a surprise hit could easily cause me to lose my balance. The intensity level rose.
My right leg started to cramp, painfully, a real charlie-horse. I was surprised by this, since I have never had this problem climbing before, and it got bad enough that I almost gave up, but I was so close to the summit, and with past failures running through my head, I knew I couldn’t give up that easily, so I pushed through it. At this point, the slope was getting steeper, close to 40 or 45 degrees, and as I headed up, both legs started to cramp. I was getting seriously annoyed at this point, but still refused to surrender. I had a feeling it was due to the steepening angle of the snow, and I could see that if I climbed about 30 feet higher, the angle would relent. I persevered, and sure enough, as soon as I reached the moderate slope, the cramps stopped. I was glad I hadn’t surrendered.
I was really close now, but the amount of ice debris falling off the mountain was getting me downright spooked. I was all alone on the mountain, and I was begining to feel resigned to the fact that I probably would not summit on this day. I wanted, no, I needed to at least get to the base of the summit pinnacle and asses the final, near-vertical pitch before giving up.
I trudged up the final gully, and found myself at 9,100 feet. Only 80 feet seperated me from the summit. I stared up at it, wanting desperately to climb it, and I knew I could, even though it was still fairly covered with rime. As I watched, pieces of ice would break loose every five to ten seconds, over and over again. I thought of my family, my children, my partner, and I knew today was not a day to push it. If I had been up there with a partner, I would have done it, but I was alone. Besides, I have summited five times before, and I would be coming back again, so why worry? This was a training climb anyway. I sat down at the base, took a little break and enjoyed the amazing views, but there was still so much debris raining down, and I was in a vulnerable position, so I only stayed for a few minutes before retreating down the mountain.
On the way down, I met up with several more skiers, one of whom commended me for having the good sense not to summit. I ended up filming him as he hiked up, and then skied down, and later gave him my e-mail address so I could send him the film I took. I got back to the car, and headed back home. Even though I knew I had made the right decision, it still bothered me to have been so close and not summited.
The next day, I woke up, re-packed my bags, and drove twenty minutes back up Highway 138 to the Swiftwater Park Guest House, where I would be meeting Bill Blodgett, owner and head guide of North Umpqua Outfitters. I had asked Bill about interviewing him for an article for the UCC Newspaper, and he had generously offered me a place on board an all-day float down the upper North Umpqua. I have kayaked various sections on our beloved river, but hadn’t managed to take on the most challenging section yet, so I was really pumped about going.
When I got to the Guest House, Bill introduced me to his wife Sharon and the two clients who would be going, Dave and Lynn from Chicago. Dave is an experienced adventurer, having taken many guided floats on rivers all across the U.S., while this would by Lynn’s first experience on whitewater. Shortly after meeting them, our final member of the float, Dale Red Hawk, arrived. Dale is in the guiding program for UCC, and this trip would be some of his final required hours to achieve his certificate. We all changed into wetsuits, loaded into Bill’s Excursion SUV, and headed upriver.
We stopped about half an hour later at the Boulder Flat campground, where the boat ramp is located. Bill took us through a short safety lecture, we got our life jackets on, clambered aboard the raft and shoved off. We were on our way, with Dale and I whooping it up as we began.
One of the absolute best aspects of taking a trip with Bill is his knowledge of history, biology and geology of the river. Nearly every significant rock, bridge and cave we encountered had some unique and interesting story attached to it, and it makes the trip a veritable classroom. I have gone on three floats with Bill now, and I have always enjoyed his storytelling and knowledge. This trip was no different.
Soon we encountered our first set of rapids, and as we crashed and splashed through the class III waves (the river rapid ratings go from class I, easy riffles, to class VI, huge drops and dangerous maelstroms), we cheered and laughed. The water in the North Umpqua is incredibly cold though, and within ten minutes my right hand was pretty much numb.
The first section is kind of a warm up – four class III rapids with numerous class II. We enjoyed the fun, relatively easy-going section,knowing that the real gnarly stuff would be coming after lunch. We paddled in unison, obeying Bill’s commands of “all forward”, and “forward three strokes.” You have to keep your peripheral vision on the person opposite you when you are in the front of the boat so that your strokes match, and it is a fun challenge to try to time it right. Dale and I seemed to match up with each other pretty well.
Paddling with Dale was also a delight. He has an infectious spirit, and his knowledge of the local Native American tribal history was another aspect of this trip I really treasured. He truly loves paddling and guiding, and I was so thankful he was on board for this trip.
The names of the different rapids – Boulder Hole, Dog wave, Cardiac Arrest & Weird Weir, are another fun aspect of any run down the river, and we passed through each with whoops, hollers and a great deal of laughter. That is the one thing I really enjoyed about this trip — the sheer joy we all seemed to feel as we passed through each obstacle, and how much we all laughed.
When we had gone about six miles, Bill had us pull over at Horseshoe Bend, where his wife Sharon had laid out a beautiful lunch for us. We ravenously wolfed down our sandwiches, chips, cookies and soda, and let the sun warm up our chilled bodies. I also took the time to switch batteries on my GoPro action camera, which I was wearing on my helmet, thus ensuring that I would have more than enough battery life to film the second section.
Then we got all our splash wear and life jackets back on, got back on the raft (with Dave and Lynn taking the front position) and headed back out. I was really excited to tackle this section, especially since the most challenging part of the whole river – the class IV Pinball rapid – was in the heart of it.
At first I was a little disappointed to be sitting in the middle for the more exciting section, but later I was glad, since filming it with Dave and Lynn in the shot gave the rapids a better perspective, you could really see the water washing over them. Plus, since it was Lynn’s first whitewater excursion, she really needed to experience it upfront when it got crazy.
The names of the rapids on this section are: Toilet Bowl (III), Froggers I and II (both class III), Rollout (III), African Queen (III), Pinball (IV), Headknockers Moe and Curly (also both class III), and finally, Silk’s Hole (III). Between these are numerous class II rapids, making the seven mile section pretty much continuous rapids for most of its length.
I had been really anticipating going through Pinball in particular, since it is the most famous and notorious of the runnable rapids on the North (there are actually two class V/VI rapids further down, but they are particularly dangerous, so hardly anyone ever runs these.) When we were getting close, my heart started beating faster, and I felt a new energy in my paddling, but when we actually got to the rapid, I was somewhat disappointed. I had expected a rapid both big and technical, but it was mostly just technical. Now don’t get me wrong, I can understand why it is class IV, but it has more to do with being able to paddle like crazy, twisting and turning, dodging boulders and making sure you follow the right line. It is a long rapid, though, and we were all having to paddle nearly all the way through, but in short order, we had dispatched it, and coasted out into calmer waters.
I immediately knew I had to return to take on this section of the river in a kayak. For a long time, I had avoided running it because I felt that I wasn’t ready for it. Now that I had experienced it, I knew I could do it in a smaller boat.
After that, we still had three more class III rapids, the Headknockers Moe and Curly almost immediately after Pinball, and passed through them with more joyful shouts and hollers. Then a while later, we passed the final major obstacle, Silk’s Hole. Soon afterwards, we pulled up to the take out at Gravel Bin, and I had the same feeling I get every time a float is ending: Disappointment. I have yet to make a run down our beloved river where I felt that I had had enough, and this time was no different, despite 13 miles, 9 class III and one class IV rapid. It just never is enough.
Guess I will have to float the Colorado through the Grand Canyon sometime. I bet that will be satisfying enough.
The three days of adventure were through. I had made it, and now I was exhausted. It took me close to a week to recover, but it was so worth it. I would do it many times over if I could, and I found myself reflecting on the adventure with great happiness. This is what I live for, this is what my passion is. It was awesome.