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Tuesday, August 18, 2009
The Lightning Rod of the Cascades
Head south along highway 230 in southern Oregon and you'll come across Mount Thielsen, an extinct volcano that rises up like a gigantic, raggedy arrowhead over Diamond Lake. When I first saw a photo of its peak what sprung to mind was the last ten minutes of Fantasia. Thielsen definitely looks like it might serve as an after-hours hang-out for a classical-music loving demon and his undead entourage.
My friend Pete, who currently works for the US Forest Service, managed to make it all the way to the top of this bugger back in 2005. As intimidating as the mountain looks from the highway, a path leading to the peak is considered one of the best day hikes in the state. This is odd, considering that Thielsen's nickname is the "Lightning Rod of the Cascades." Bolts hit the peak so often that many of the rocks up there have melted into lechatelierite.
Oh, and I should mention that one side of the peak is a sheer cliff face with a several thousand foot drop.
It should come as no surprise that I thought it would be a brilliant idea to call up Pete and have him lead myself and two colleagues, one of whom suffers from mild vertigo, up the mountain. We set out early one morning during the heat storm at the end of July. The first thing that greeted us on the trailhead were roaming packs of mosquitoes that seemed to follow us for the first mile or so.
To call the hike "strenuous" would be an understatement. "A major pain in the ass" is probably more befitting. By 10 AM the temperature was already in the 80s. A series of winter wind storms had decimated large stretches of forest, leaving us exposed to the unforgiving Douglas County sunshine. Once we reached the timberline, the air temperature had dropped but the trail disappeared. The terrain quickly turned into a steep incline covered in slippery rocks and pumice.
At the two hour mark, the sky overhead was growing dark. Two ominous clouds, one over Diamond Lake, the other coming in from the north, seemed to be headed on a collision course over the peak. Undaunted, we kept going for another hour but finally decided to turn back once the winds picked up. Heading down after conquering roughly 90% of the mountain was a bitter disappointment that only beer and the promise of a spaghetti dinner could wash away.
Safety first. After all, a 300,000 ton lighting rod is nothing to mess around with. A couple coming up behind us bagged it too, not because of the weather but because of altitude sickness (yikes). As we were coming down we encountered a middle-aged man dressed in a yellow spandex shirt and biker shorts. He had the determined look of a half-crazed pioneer. I asked him if he was shooting for the peak and he said he would only turn back if the weather turned truly nasty. As we hit the timberline, Pete surveyed the peak. Sure enough, he had made it to the top. We could see a triumphant, yellow spot darting around up there. I took this photo of him:
And so we trudged back to a swimming hole near Pete's homestead in the little town of Tiller. We'd been shown up by a guy probably 20 years older than us. On the plus side, none of us were struck by a bolt of lightning that afternoon.
Until we meet again, Mount Thielsen.