Off the beaten path, hidden in an isolated valley, tucked away on the edge of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness, Castle Rock is truly a forgotten crag. Located in Southern Oregon, this special place rewards the explorer with an enjoyable scramble through the heart of a virtually unknown rock.
I first saw this crag when I was helping my friend Jeff (who was a biologist for Fish & Game) look for a dead cougar along Rocky Ridge, also located in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide, and from that view it was nothing special, but it was my friend Mike who pushed me to go there with him (Mike is a disabled climber), and when we saw it from the south, it revealed itself as the spectacular wedge-shaped mountain seen in the picture above.
When we first approached Castle Rock, I kept telling Mike that I was sure there was no ‘easy’ way up, it certainly appeared that it was purely vertical, but to his credit, Mike kept insisting that we get closer and explore, and so I went along with him. When we reached the base of the rock, it still seemed like there was no scramble route, but as we traversed around its northern base, a steep gully appeared, and I headed up it to check it out, and when I reached the apex of the gully, a narrow break in the rock led west, up some steep ‘steps’ ten to fifteen feet tall. I told Mike about it, and he scrambled up the gully to join me. Once he had climbed up to where I was, I led up the first couple of steps, which, while exposed and covered in scree, was no more than class 4 climbing. When I had reached the ‘garden heart’ (as I named it) of Castle Rock, Mike once again climbed up to join me. From there, two more steps led to another dirty gully and a final step before the turreted summit. On the crown of it, we could see no evidence of any other climbers, no cairns, and certainly no summit register. I am certain that others had climbed it, but my guess would be that fewer than ten people had been up there before us.
I have returned multiple times to climb Castle Rock, and it has become one of my favorite scrambles in Oregon. I posted a page for it on SummitPost, and I know at least one other climber has climbed it as well. I plan on placing a summit register up there this summer.
Getting there: From Roseburg, Oregon, the easiest way to get there is to drive highway 138 east approximately 62 miles until you get to Watson Falls. Turn right on Fish Creek Road 37 for about 13 miles. Then turn right on Incense Cedar Loop Road 800 for 3.5 miles then turn right again on Fish Creek Valley Road 870. Follow this badly rutted and narrow road as it snakes it’s way into the wilderness, Continue until it ends at the base of Fish mountain. Note that Google Earth shows the road as 800 instead of 870 all the way to it’s end.
From roads end, head north towards the top of the ridge, where a fun little crag should be scrambled to it’s top, at approximately 6000′. From there you can see the first good glimpse of Castle Rock, and the broad, forested ridge that leads you to it. Downclimb the crag and descend the ridge, keeping in a north-northwest direction. Follow the broad ridge for about half a mile until you reach the base of the rock. Make sure not to descend into the drainages to the east and west.
Once you arrive at the rock, the easiest way to find the route is to traverse east below the rock until you see the Big Cleft, the huge split in the rock with a loose gully at it’s base. Follow this gully (one person at a time) until you reach the obvious first step, to the east. Climb the first two steps, each about ten to fifteen feet high until you reach the Garden Spot, an open hollow in the very heart of the crag. Traverse around the left, stepping around an exposed spot and climb the third step, to the north, also about ten feet high. Take time to notice the hollowed-out cave underneath the third step. Then climb the fourth step, just above you, and follow a loose, dirty gully beside a surprisingly large fir-tree until you reach the fifth step, which is the summit tower. Descend the way you came.
The really cool aspect of this climb is that it literally snakes through the heart of the rock, you are surrounded by sheer walls on all sides. There are also really neat little caves, windows and arches all over the crag. Another fun thing to do is to circumambulate the rock, descending down the north side, around the west and back up the south side.
It had been a few years since the last time I had been able to take on this epic adventure, the tyrolean traverse between Old Man and Old Woman rocks in the upper North Umpqua river area. Established as an annual tradition by Greg Orton for the UCC Rock Climbing 2 classes five years ago, I was determined to go this time. Last year I missed it because my baby girl Julia had just been born, and the year before…I can’t even remember why I missed that one. In any case, the climbing gods were being kind this year (as was Greg Orton), since the climb would be held the day after little JuJu’s first birthday. I was really pleased to be able to do it again.
For those of you who do not know what a tyrolean traverse is, here is the explanation from Wikipedia: “A Tyrolean traverse is a method of crossing through free space between two high points on a rope without a hanging cart or cart equivalent. This is used in a range of mountaineering activities:rock climbing, technical tree climbing, caving and water crossings. A zip-line is in essence a Tyrolean traverse which is traveled down quickly with the assistance of gravity. In rock climbing a Tyrolean traverse is most often used to return to the main part of a wall after climbing a detached pillar.” ‘Nuff said.
I woke up at 7:30, got dressed, made some tea, and left an hour later when my friend and climbing partner Harold Hall picked me up. We headed out and met up with Greg at the Glide Store. We left Harold’s truck at the store and got in the bus with the rest of the teachers and students. All told, there were twelve of us going on this trip: 5 students, 6 teachers and Tyler, one of the teacher’s 13 year old son. As we drove up the winding Highway 138 towards the crags, we watched a climbing movie called Front Range Freaks. After half an hour of driving, we arrived at the trailhead, gathered our gears and set out.
I had been sick for the previous four days so I wasn’t sure how much my fitness would be compromised, but I was pleased to discover that I could keep up with Logan, one of the teachers who was in the lead for the hike, and we arrived at the base of the rocks in about forty minutes. We scrambled up the last part of the steep trail and then climbed up the steep, loose gully that takes one to the very toe of the rocks.
We organized our group into climbing teams, sorted gear and then the climbing began in earnest. Almost everyone went up Old Man – 9 of us – while only Harold, Bobbie and the young climber Tyler went up the substantially easier Old Woman.
With a group of this size, it took quite a long time for all nine of us to get on top of Old Man. It is a two-pitch (two rope length) climb, and the the base of the second pitch is a small notch with room for only three people, so it was several hours before I was able to head up, especially since I was running the sweep position, collecting gear and setting up the haul bag.
I have to make a confession of stupidity here. I had decided to wear my pack while I climbed, which probably had fifteen pounds in it, since I had done this climb before and I thought it would add a bit of challenge to the rock climb. I could have added the pack to the gear-haul line, but oh no, I just had to make it more difficult. As it turned out I would really regret the decision.
Heading up the first pitch was no problem, I made good time, I wasn’t struggling at all, and I felt strong. I reached the notch in just a few minutes. Our rope team waited for about ten minutes before the last person on the team ahead of ours headed up, and about fifteen minutes after that I was tying in the haul bag and then heading up myself. As soon as I got on the second pitch I regretted wearing the damned anchor on my back. I thrashed, I struggled, and for a time I wasn’t certain if I would be able to do it at all. Somehow I managed to get myself up, cleaning gear and freeing the haul bag where it had gotten stuck in a crack. Once more I had the opportunity to attach my backpack, but I am apparently a glutton for punishment.
A few drops of rain began to fall. Okay, no big deal. Then it began to rain a little harder. Shit. I took a look behind me and saw a wall of water bearing down. You have got to be kidding me. Here I was, last one up, already struggling, and I was about to get poured on, making what was already a fairly difficult climb into a desperate thrash.
The final twenty feet was incredibly difficult. Only rated at 5.7, with a final 5.8 move, I should have flown up the crack, but I really had a difficult time with it. Partly was the weight on my back, but a good deal of the struggle was due to the now-soaking wet rock. I slipped, I slid, I tried one move, then another, with no success. Finally I decided to just pull on the gear I needed to clean, something I ordinarily would not have done, but at this point I just wanted to get it over with. I yarded on the gear, flopped myself into the final, easy gully, and breathed a sigh of relief. I scrambled up to the summit, with a few choice words for the rain gods and my stupidity in wearing the pack. Greg had a good laugh when he heard my colorful descriptions of what I had just endured.
Since I was the very last person to get on top of Old Man, the lines between the two towers had already been established (by throwing a rope across the 100 foot gap), and half an hour later Ray (one of the leaders and a really talented climber) went across first. I set up my tripod and filmed as he crossed safely. One by one, each of the students, teachers and even 13-year old Tyler took their turns making the incredible passage. A few of the students asked to wear my GoPro wearable POV camera, so I got some spectacular footage of their turns on the line.
I was one of the last ones to go, and I connected my harness to the rugged pulley system that would guide me across the yawning chasm – it is about one hundred feet across and about two hundred feet high. It was nice to be able to set out without a lot of fear clouding the experience. The first time I did the traverse, five years ago, I had felt terrified standing on the edge of Old Woman, and I really had to psych myself up to step out into empty air, but this time it was no problem. I pulled myself along the rope, hand over hand, still feeling the draining effects of the climb. After thirty seconds I was standing on the opposite side. Now was the fun part. I stepped off, held onto the carabiners connecting me to the pulley and let gravity do the work. I zipped across to my starting point in just a few seconds. It was all over too quickly.
Then, before we knew it, it was 5:30 in the afternoon and time to head down. The lines were dismantled, anchors taken apart and one by one, the students rappelled off Old Man (a spectacular event in its own right).
We gathered at the base of the rocks, packed up and headed out. I ended up arriving home at 9:20, nearly 13 hours after I had left, and 3 hours later than I had told my family I would be home, so I had some irritated family members to contend with, but they eventually forgave me, and all was well again. Nonetheless, it had been a great day, and another spectacular tyrolean between Old Man and Old Woman.
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.
I was supposed to have gotten up at 4:30 a.m. I would be on the road a little before 5 and arrive at the Mt. Thielsen trailhead by 6. Unfortunately, my cel-phone, which also doubles as my alarm clock, was set to silent, so my wake-up call came and went while I slept in ignorant oblivion. When I did wake up, I immediately realized something was amiss. For starters, it was already getting light outside. I grabbed the phone and looked at the clock. It was 5:57. Shit. I knew I wouldn’t be climbing Thielsen that day.
As a climber you really have to be time-conscious, and getting to the trail by 7 or 7:30 was just going to be a little too late, especially since there was still a ton of snow and I wouldn’t be able to run up the mountain like I could in summer. I wanted to be on the summit by 12 or 1, and I just didn’t think I could get there with that late of a start.
So I got up, made some coffee and thought about my options. After a short time I decided I would just go upriver and take pictures and shoot some film. I told my girlfriend about my change of plans and headed out, determined that the day wouldn’t be a waste.
I am quite fortunate to live so close to such an amazing area of natural beauty. I live on the North Umpqua river, one of the most beautiful rivers on the planet (in my opinion), and fifteen minutes upriver from where I live the canyons narrow and the river becomes increasingly spectacular. I pulled over after a short drive and started shooting film. I did this for a time, stopping somewhere along the highway where the river looked particularly beautiful and getting out my cameras. As I meandered up the highway, I decided that I would go somewhere I hadn’t been before. First I was thinking about heading into the Boulder Creek Wilderness, but as I pondered that option, I realized that construction on the nearby Soda Springs Dam would probably keep me from reaching the trailhead, so I changed plans and decided to head up to the Illahee Rock lookout. I had often wanted to go there, but just hadn’t managed to get there, so I made the decision to go.
Along the way, I continued to stop and take pictures, and spent a little time at Steamboat Creek and Canton Creek:
Soon I was on the dirt Illahee Road heading up and up, hoping that I would be able to reach the trailhead without running into any snow. I never saw anyone as I drove higher and higher in elevation. Soon I caught a breathtaking glimpse of Mt Bailey through the trees and I was immediately glad I had come this way. Just seeing mountains makes me happy. I drove on, and soon I began to reach the area where a huge fire had stripped most of the forest thus allowing a better look of the drive ahead. In the distance I could see snow on the road, and I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to drive quite all the way to the trailhead. Just when I could see Illahee Rock, several feet of snow on the road brought me to a halt. Being this close, I knew it wasn’t a big deal, so I parked, got my backpack and headed out.
It was already a hot day, and I foolishly had forgotten my sunscreen, so within five minutes I was pretty much resigned to the fact that I was going to end the day with a sunburn. I turned my baseball cap backwards, since the sun was behind me, and kept on trudging through the slushy snow. Ahead of me I could clearly see the lookout towers that grace the summit of Illahee Rock, but I was even more intrigued by the the rocky bluff to the left of Illahee. Hey, I’m a climber, what can I say?
Reaching a fork in the road, I had planned on taking the right-hand fork, but a rock tower to my left grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. I took the left-hand fork. At first, I was planning on just taking some pictures of it, but since it was so obviously nearby, I knew I could at least get to it pretty easily. I left the road after a quarter mile and followed discontinuous game trails along a gentle ridge. I thought I was seeing a formation known as Rattlesnake Rock, but I would later find out that it is actually named Bartram’s Rock. As I approached, I could see that it was very sheer-sided, but I figured I might find a gentler aspect to it if I kept exploring.
I traversed beneath the rock, and with judicious route-finding, scrambled my way around to the west side of the rock, where I encountered a really interesting rock formation:
I had come so far around the crag that at this point, I wasn’t certain I could find a way to the top, but I ended up scrambling up through some rather steep terrain, using trees and roots as handholds while making some genuine climbing moves, and after a few minutes, found myself on top of a pretty cool little sub-summit.
I took the time while I was on the precipitous crag to make a short introductory video for my Kickstarter project, and in the midst of doing that, I kept looking across at the main tower and really wishing I could find a way to climb to its summit. When I got done filming, I decided to go for it. I could see a way up along the left side of the rock, so all I had to do was find a way to its base. So I downclimbed from the secondary summit to a notch between the two crags, then started following ledges and gullies, and in a matter of ten minutes or so, I was on top of Bartram’s Rock. I was really happy to have gone for it. Now my day was really made, I had found a new crag and using my wits and experience, found a way to summit. I took some more shots and then scrambled back down.
I wandered my way back to the road, and began looking for ways up to the top of Illahee Rock. I could see what appeared to be an old trailhead marker, but it seemed really overgrown and I didn’t feel like doing to much bushwhacking so I decided to go back to the fork in the road and take the right hand road, hoping I could find the right trail. I trudged through the snow, but I never did see what looked like the main trail, so I eventually decided to head up what was obviously an overgrown logging road, and so I ended up doing quite a bit of bushwhacking. Clambering over deadfall, shoving my way through dense stands of young firs, all the while repeatedly post-holing up to my knees in soft snow made what would have ordinarily been an easy hike into a grueling thrash. Later I would figure out that I was nowhere near the main trail. I believe I found what might have been a trail to the lookouts long, long ago, but for the most part, the route I picked to hike up Illahee was pretty much entirely trailless. It was definitely an adventure though.
Eventually I reached a craggy area that at the very least looked like it might provide some fun scrambling, but once I was on the rocks, a better trail revealed itself to me (this still wasn’t the main trail, but was in much better shape than what I had been following so far.)
After numerous switchbacks and more than a few snowbanks, I arrived at an area I began calling the Goblin Gardens, a craggy slope of small, twisted rocks that reminded me of a stony menagerie of goblins or trolls. I could also tell that I was now quite near to the summit of Illahee rock.
I continued on, and in short order the slope eased, and I saw the lookout tower for the first time.
I started to climb up the stairs, but a warning sign requesting visitors to stay off persuaded me to be respectful and leave it alone. I was happy enough as it was. There are actually two lookouts on top of Illahee, the tall one, and a small cabin a short distance away. I inspected both before finding a rock platform where I could take a break and film. The views were magnificent, to the north I could see the Three Sisters, Mt Yoran and Diamond Peak, while almost due east were Mts. Bailey and Thielsen.
I called my girlfriend back home and assured her of my continued existence, then filmed another brief bit for my Kickstarter project. I did not, however, have a lot of time. Thunder clouds were building, and even though Illahee Rock isn’t the highest mountain, it is one of the highest in the area, and I had no desire to become a human lightning rod, so I didn’t linger long.
It took me perhaps an hour to arrive back at my Jeep, sunburned, scratched and weary, but more than happy to have salvaged the afternoon.
Here is the complete video of my day:
Do you believe in destiny, in fate? Some do, some don’t, and mostly the argument seems to be about free will versus determinism, but I have often thought this is too black and white. Does it have to be one way or another? Can’t it be somewhere in between or a little bit of both? What if fate is simply what you decide it is, and if you live with conviction and faith in your desired destiny then perhaps the universe begins to align your experiences with what you believe. Maybe fate is malleable. In any case, that is what I tend to think, and I certainly have seen it at work in my own life, when all the parts and players seem to fall into place before I even arrive. I believe I am arriving at such a place in my life now.
Much of what I am now experiencing has come about by one factor alone: The surprising removal of severe chronic pain from my everyday life. In the fall, my pain had progressed to the point that I was seriously contemplating giving up climbing and outdoor adventures permanently, but after a few weeks of tortured soul-searching, I realized that I was not ready to give it up so easily, and decided that I would still pursue whatever level of climbing was available to me. Maybe I would never climb 5.12, but I could still do moderate routes, and I certainly could still climb easier mountains, and that would be enough for me. At least I would still be climbing.
Then, about two months ago, I discovered Tramadol, or as it is known by its brand name, Ultram. I had been experimenting with different medications, and had had little success in pain relief, but then I tried Tramadol, and to my utter astonishment, found that it removed 98% of my pain, and with little or no narcotic effect on my brain. It is hard to explain to anyone who has not closely experienced the unending agony I had been subjected to for something like 17 years, but anyone who knows me well has also been astonished by the results of taking this medication.
When I realized that this stuff was really working consistently, I knew what I had to do next: Climb. A lot. Make up for lost time. Allow my dreams to flourish. Start training (that is a big one for me since the most severe time of pain for me is the off season when I should be conditioning for climbing, and I was rarely able to get myself in shape.) I began to make plans, and I began to dream big. I might be 41, but I knew that if I could get the resources together, I could still climb the biggest mountains on the planet, and I could still climb 5.12 with some training (okay – a lot of training). That is where I am now.
Climbing partners began making themselves available to me. Even people whom I didn’t suspect being interested in climbing started asking me to take them on climbs. A fund-raising project – The Pain Project – has begun to take shape. I am now planning on making an attempt on my first really ‘big’ mountain – Aconcagua – in the winter of 2012-13. The plan for now is to climb more mountains this year than I ever have before, mostly regional peaks in Oregon, California and Washington with further forays into Idaho, Wyoming and British Columbia. I may be going on as many as three different extended trips, to the Grand Canyon in early June (not really a climbing trip), The Bugaboos at the end of August and the Wind River range somewhere in between or possibly in the fall. Thank God I have a supportive family.
I have always wanted to have a season where I just climb a ton of peaks, and this year is looking really promising. I believe in manifestation, and I feel the universe recognizes my passion for the ascent, and is rewarding me by sending plans and partners in large amounts. Plus, I have signaled to the Universe in turn that I am ready to take this seriously and commit to my calling. Taking action like getting in shape, giving up medications that were really slowing me down (while not really relieving my pain a whole lot) buying the necessary gear required for these ventures, budgeting my limited income to not only have the money and gear I need, but also by being responsible and getting bills paid first. Plus, I am praying more. I am not a religious person, but I am spiritual and really believe in the power of prayer as a means of manifestation. So, if you read this and feel the passion I feel for mountains, say a little prayer for me, would you? Ask the universe to grant me this heartfelt wish. Let me become the alpinist I know I can be. All I lack is the money and a few items of gear. I honestly believe that if I was given the chance, I could climb any mountain in the world. Yes, even Everest, yes, even K2. Time, however, is of the essence. I am not getting any younger.
I have entered a stage of life where many things are coming together in a sort of spiritual convergence. The ineffective pain medication has been left behind, I have been conditioning, I am focused like I haven’t been in…well, ever. The Universe has been speaking to me, giving me ideas, hunches and intuitions, and I have listened and paid attention. I don’t want a lot out of the world, I don’t have outrageous material wants, I don’t crave fame, I don’t need adulation, all I really want is health, a loving & happy family, a comfortable financial situation and the means to climb the mountains of my dreams. I cannot climb all the mountains I want to, there simply isn’t enough time in ten lifetimes to do so, but if given the chance and the resources, I will climb absolutely as many of them as I can. This is my prayer, this is my plea.
I still remember vividly how frightened I was, standing at the base of the summit pinnacle, staring up at that nearly vertical, final eighty feet. All around me there was already massive exposure, standing on a ledge known as ‘chicken point’ that itself was only ten feet wide, and beyond it there was only air for thousands of feet to the pumice plain below. I had gone rock climbing once, four years earlier, but that had been on a crag fifty feet high on the edge of Ogden, Utah. This was entirely different.
I was on Mt. Thielsen, aka the “Lightning rod of the Cascades”, it was late September in 1998, and I was on my own. My friend and climbing partner, Mike, who had climbed the mountain multiple times but was also slowed by a severely arthritic hip and back, was some half an hour behind me. When I say I was on my own, I do not mean that I was alone, in fact there were around ten people on and at the base of the summit, but I did not know any of them, nor did I have rope, harness or the knowledge how to use them, but Mike had assured me that it was climbable without technical gear. Several of the climbers ahead of me were forsaking ropes and seemed to be managing just fine without. I sidled up to a couple of climbers who were belaying others in their group, and asked them for advice, and they told me what Mike had said, that it really was overkill to use a rope, but that a fall would be almost certainly fatal without one. They encouraged me to try, and offered the option of grabbing their line if I felt I needed to.
I still think it is funny that the thing that gave me the final impetus was watching a couple of much bigger, bulkier climbers ahead of me, and hearing the roped climbers comment on how they (the bigger guys) looked like a couple of mountain goats scrambling up the blocks of the summit. Hmmph, I remember thinking to myself, those guys aren’t mountain goats. I am a mountain goat.
What I remember most about the actual climbing up to the summit was just the incredibly intense focus I experienced in each and every moment, with each handhold and each foothold, I just zeroed in on whatever I needed to do at that moment and nothing else. Everything fell away, all the unnecessary stuff in my life that didn’t pertain to what I was doing right then and there was gone, completely and utterly gone. I literally reached a state of satori, that zen moment of pure awareness and realization, but in this case it was a sort of mountain satori. I tested each hold before committing to it, each movement was precise and certain, because there was nothing else to get in my minds way. I was certainly aware of the exposure, but my fear did not rule me, it served a purpose to make me focused.
Then I was on top, on the card-table-sized summit, where literally everything around me fell away for thousands of feet. It was nauseating, at least that first time. My body had no frame of reference to compare it to, and so I gripped the rock and sat down, happy to have made the summit, but frightened to be so exposed and even more afraid to have to climb back down. That particular fear really clouded that first summit experience, I hardly got to enjoy it at all because I knew I still had the serious task of getting back down. I did take the time to peer over the north side, because Mike had told me how epic it is, and he was right, the north face falls away in a sheer three thousand foot drop. (On a later climb I would drop a stone from here and it took nine seconds to hit the Lathrop Glacier below.)
I think I stayed maybe five minutes on that first summit. All I really wanted at that point was to get down. Climbing up was one thing, but scaling back down those near-vertical rocks was not a task I was relishing. I was scared, so rather than delay, I chose to face it.
Once more that Zen awareness took over, perhaps even more so on the descent. In truth, I remember almost nothing about climbing back down, except feeling anxiety in the chimney section, which is the most insecure part of the climb, but I managed to get past it all, and returned to the relative safety of Chicken Point. The roped climbers congratulated me and told me I looked like I belonged up there. Pride washed over me to hear their words, and I don’t know if I realized yet how much my world had changed.
The rest of the day was a long one, much longer than I had anticipated, so much so that I returned home to a near-panicked family who had already called the Sheriff’s department. Despite having to sleep on the couch that night, I was elated, and for the next week I was in a state of post-satori bliss. I had never experienced anything like this before, and by then I knew I was hooked.
I wasn’t able to climb any other mountains that year, but I began to buy my first climbing guides and my imagination saw in these books something incredibly alluring, and from that a new path unfolded before me: The path of the mountaineer, of the voyager, exploring these high, great peaks because they are magical, and the road to them is magic too. I picked out a few peaks for the next year that I knew were easier novice peaks – Mt. McLoughin in southern Oregon, South Sister, which, despite being the third highest mountain in Oregon, had a summer trail to its summit, Diamond Peak and many others. I read everything I could get my hands on about mountaineering. I was obsessed. I began to plan.
I had been reborn. I was a climber now.