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Saturday, November 20, 2010
The day we conquered Mt. Thielsen
In the summer of 2009, three friends and I set out at dawn to climb to the top of Mt. Thielsen, AKA "The Lightening Rod of the Cascades."
With storm clouds gathering over head, we headed down the mountain in search of shelter. The mountain had beaten us but we vowed to return one sunny summer day for a second attempt.
That sunny summer day came this past July. Bryan, a member of the 2009 expedition, was forced to drop out this time around but another colleague, an unshakable man by the name of Tyler, took his place. My friends Dan and Pete, hellbent on beating this beast, also returned for round two.
And so we set out early after preparing ourselves mentally and physically the night before by....drinking heavily and swimming in the South Umpqua River. With Viso running through our veins and mosquitoes determined to follow us to the peak, we began our ascent at 8 AM.
No photos I've seen of this monster quite capture the "Night on Bald Mountain" vibe of the peak. This photo at least captures the "element of danger." Better yet, have a look at this one of the peak in the middle of winter. Yeah, that does the trick. I really want you to get a feel for how incredibly stupid climbing to the top of a "Lightening Rod of the Cascades" really is before you read the rest of this blog post.
Despite its jagged hell-peak, Mt. Thielsen is a fairly typical Oregon hiking spot. There's trees, rocks and more trees. Once you rise above the timberline, however, the real challenge begins. The final 1,000 feet to the peak are a slow, grueling trudge worthy of Mount Saint Helens' short but vicious final ascent.
As the slope became more treacherous and slippery, Dan, the only father in the group, felt the nagging pangs of responsibility and common sense kick in. "Guys, I don't want to make my 31-year old wife a widow. Also: I kinda like my kid. I'd like to see him again some day," he said before bowing out. Twenty minutes later, Tyler admitted that his sneakers just weren't meant for this journey. Or was it the other way around? Did Tyler punk-out before Dan? No matter. The mountain had successfully body-slammed their broken spirits.
Only Pete and I remained determined to reach the top. We handed Tyler a few provisions to tide him over, a copy of Rolling Stone with Lady Gaga on the cover and a Cliff Bar, and kept climbing.
As we neared "Chicken Point," my own sense of self-preservation started tugging at my shorts. We had conquered the slopes but what remained was a 3-story climb up a jagged incline with a few crevasses along the way. I began fretting that I would end up like that guy in 127 Hours...if I was lucky. Pete, who had reached the peak with a group of Fire Ranger pals in 2005, was not about to turn back. I'd come so far and my innate, dunderheaded masculine instincts began kicking in. I couldn't let this mountain think I was a pussy, now could I? Even if continuing onward might result in a grueling death? Wouldn't you have done the same?
I ditched my backpack, kept going and reached the peak. I threw my arms skyward. I felt ecstatic. My sense of self-worth shot through the stratosphere. I had conquered the "Lightening Rod of the Cascades." I was obviously now an official member of the GOD AMONG MEN Diners Club. Once I returned to civilization, anyone who had not climbed to the top of Mt. Thielsen would notice a halo around my head, which would magical instill in them instantaneous admiration for how awesome I had now become. Many men would quake at the mere sight of me. Meanwhile, a mere gaze in my general direction would cause women to have orgasms and, if they didn't immediately leave the room, become pregnant. With triplets. I was, simply put, now The Most Interesting Man on the Planet. By comparison, the Dos Equis Guy may as well have been an overweight house cat.
And then Pete immediately insisted that I peer over the edge on the other side of the tiny peak. The view? A 1,000 foot drop straight down into a small glacier. That boost of self-esteem? It immediately evaporated and a twinge of vertigo slapped me harder than an belligerent yeti. I literally started shaking. Up on this tiny, jagged peak in the dead center of nowhere, the same thought started playing over and over in my head: "Shit, I might actually die today."
Pete quelled the terror pumping through my soul with a large, rusted container someone had left up there. Inside were dozens of notes that other climbers had left behind, some dating back as far as the late '80s. I broke out my iPhone and we recorded what I was hoping would be the first of many Podcasts for this blog. Sadly, that recording was lost to the ages when my phone died a few weeks later.
The real fun began when we started our descent. A girl joined us up there while her boyfriend waited down below with their dogs. They had taken turns reaching the peak. She was petrified of heading back down and begged me to guide her after Pete bounded down the side in no time flat like the world's most death-defying billy goat. The drop-off beneath us as we clung to the side of Theilsen? At least 20 feet to a patch of jagged rocks. When it became obvious that I was just as scared, she took the lead.
My masculinity was crippled but at least I wasn't. I can't remember her name but I'm eternally thankful that this woman was able to suppress her own terror long enough to get us both off the peak. With her obligation fulfilled, she joined back up with her boyfriend and they bounced down the mountain, leaving me to sloooooooooooowly work my way back to the timberline. I've always had a hard time on slippery slopes like the ash field that leads to the crater on St. Helens or even my street when it's icy. I lose my sense of balance somehow and my legs are as useless as one of those giant robo-tanks on the Moon of Endor in Return of the Jedi.
On my descent, I slipped and caused a minor avalanche. Down below, Pete saw the rock slide and panicked. He ran back up the slope, assuming he'd find me buried beneath a bolder. Once he spotted me teetering down the mountain like an elderly woman on a staircase, he headed off in search of Dan and the beer in his backpack.
Making it back to the timberline took what seemed like a million years. I cursed myself, the mountain and everything in sight- the trees, the rocks, my shoes, nearby Diamond Lake, the sky and Teddy Roosevelt for creating the National Park System. Tyler snapped a photo of me dumping rocks out of my boots once I made it back to "base camp." The image may as well be the definition of "pissed-off."
But the important part: I'm still alive. Which is at least half the battle, right? And, having reached the peak, I will never feel even the slightest twinge of desire to go anywhere near Mt Thielsen ever again.....a mountain I TOTALLY BITCH-SLAPPED THAT DAY! BOO-YAH! HOORAY FOR ME! IN YOUR FACE, NATURE!
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