On Tuesday morning, the fourth full day of our trip, we headed up Crater Lake Highway, through a tunnel of trees glistening with fresh snow melting in the morning sun. It was a crisp, cold day and the snow was refreshing. We parked on the side of the road between Diamond Lake and the east ridge of Mount Bailey. Without a direct trail to the summit, we decided to bushwhack to the ridge and head straight up 3,000’ to the summit, carrying our skis on our backs until the snow was deep enough to skin. The sun was shining, lighting up Mt. Thielsen to the west and the dark blue waters of Diamond Lake below. Yet the air remained cold enough to keep the fresh snow in its powder form. By the time we reached the top of treeline, I was sinking to my knees as I broke trail. It made for hard work getting up the ridge, but our excitement for Bailey’s east bowls grew with each fluffy step. Storm clouds threatened and at times, the summit became socked in and diminished visibility, but each time, it cleared up again a few minutes later.
We reached the summit, and to our amazement, it wasn’t scoured or wind loaded. There were some enormous cornices across the bowl, but just below us looked good. We did some small tests for stability and quickly realized that not only were we in foot-deep powder, but the snow was totally stable, so we dropped into the bowl and skied the best powder of the year. I know with the lack of snow this year, everyone has said that it was the best powder every time it snowed this year, but seriously. This was legit!
We paid for our powder turns with a long bushwhack back out to the road. The snow down low had melted, leaving partially hidden logs lurking below the snow and brush, waiting to take us down (and they did, more than once). We reached the road with a mix of exhaustion and relief, ready for a beer and a meal. The Pine Drops IPA I had stashed in the snow managed to stay cold even though most of the surrounding snow melted. Then snow flurries reappeared, so we packed up for a trip to Umpqua hot springs. We arrived late, after dark, and were shocked to find a total party scene and all of the springs occupied. We decided to come back at sunrise with our coffee instead. We crawled into our tent, set up next to the roaring Umpqua, which more than drowned out the noise of the partiers and made for an excellent night’s sleep. In the morning, we had the hot springs to ourselves and the hot water reinvigorated my tired muscles that had been cold for days on end. We hiked out and headed back up to Diamond Lake and the Mt. Thielsen trailhead, where we laid our gear in the sun to dry, made breakfast and got ready for our next volcano.
Mt. Thielsen is an easy hike (on a real trail!) that heads pretty much straight up its west ridge, where it intersects the PCT before emerging above the treeline. Its pointy, 9,183’ summit is an aesthetic icon visible from Crater Lake, Highway 97 and the mountains around Bend. We saw coyote tracks in the snow intersecting the trail and disappearing into the forest. We could also see our tracks in the Mt. Bailey bowl to the west. It was a sunny and warm day, the storms finally having seemed to move on. The snow was soft, but it became mushy as we ascended the slope above treeline, quickly lowering our expectations for the descent. But, it was a beautiful day and we had the mountain to ourselves, so we definitely were not complaining.
We reached the top of the ridge and looked over the steep drop off to the east. Crater Lake's glassy blue waters and Phantom Ship on its surface were just barely visible. From the ridge, the final climb to the base of Thielsen’s summit pinnacle looked really close and was tugging at me. We figured we had enough time to get up and down before dark if we didn’t hesitate too long. We couldn’t see the actual route up the summit pinnacle, so we couldn’t tell whether it was covered in ice or clear, but it couldn’t hurt to go up and check it out, so we dropped our skis and started booting up the slope.
It was harder going than expected – the snow was deep and really soft, sticking to our boots and causing us to slide backwards. But, we made it to the base of the summit pinnacle, which, it turned out, was partially covered in snow. We still couldn’t make up our minds on whether to try climbing it or head back down to our skis. We were so close. We had been on a roll, bagging the last two peaks, and it was so tempting. Aaron started up the first couple climbing moves to see how it was. I started to follow and lost my confidence after a few moves. I had never climbed rock in my crampons and I wasn’t fully trusting my footing. Plus, it’s not a place where you can take a fall and expect to be okay, and we didn’t have a rope with us. And, even if we made it up, the thought of down climbing was troublesome. We have both been on the summit in summer conditions and decided that it didn’t make sense to take the risk. The descent back down to our skis was still tough in the mushy, slippery snow, and I was scolding myself for pushing it over the top. In the end though, it worked out.
Back at our skis in fading sunlight, we noticed that the snow had firmed up during our little side adventure up to the summit pinnacle. Awesome! We skied down on almost-corn snow for about a thousand feet before it got soft again. Even still, we were able to ski quite a ways down the trail to where we had stashed our shoes for the final hike out on dirt. As we made our way back to the trailhead, we saw the sun light up Thielsen with evening alpenglow before it finally sank behind Mt. Bailey.
Booting up Mt. Thielsen in mushy snow.
We cooked burritos and camped at the trailhead for the night. The next day, we would be taking a rest day as we drove north to Mount Adams and Mount St. Helens. We also decided that since we didn’t get to ski Lassen Peak at the beginning of the trip, we would tack a day tour of Mt. Rainier onto the final day of our trip.