Ride the Lightning (Rod): Skiing Mt. Thielsen

Mountain: Mt. Thielsen 9,184', "The Lighting Rod of the Cascades"

Line skied: SW bowl, 1,560', 37° max.

Total terrain: 3,700', 8.0 mi.

February 19, 2023

When Zach, Camden and I arrived at Mt. Thielsen Sno-Park around 8 AM, we were expecting to have a party on the upper mountain later in the day. Several groups were already gearing up in the parking lot, with even more cars rolling in. We weren’t surprised at all; the forecast called for a sunny day with highs in the mid-30’s. Our sights were set on the southwest bowl. In most directions surrounding Mt. Thielsen’s iconic summit pinnacle, the rock drops off for hundreds, if not thousands, of feet, but on the southwest side, there is a broad ramp of snow that rises ever so gently to within 100 feet of the top. The stats on this line aren’t particularly impressive, but the aesthetics of Mt. Thielsen had landed it on our to-do list a long time ago.

The wonderful thing about the west side of Thielsen is, you start climbing as soon as you step out of the parking lot. No flat approaches here. Zach and Camden were skinning like bats out of hell and pretty soon we were passing several other groups also on their way up. We followed the standard west ridge summer trail for the most part, cutting off some of the bigger switchbacks to save time.

Thielsen's distinctive spire beginning to peak out. 

The NW bowl began to reveal itself as we climbed higher. I couldn't see a way to get in to the bowl from the top that didn't involve some mandatory airtime. Coming at it from the bottom would be easy enough, but the whole slope looked quite wind-scoured and not as interesting as the SW bowl.

As we got higher on the west ridge, we started getting seriously rocked by the wind. Dropping a dozen feet onto the leeward side helped, but based on the speed of blowing snow we could see that the wind was even more serious on the upper section of the ridge.

At around 7,800' we traversed from the ridge into the bowl and dug a snow pit. The avalanche forecast was green at all elevations in COA’s forecast zone nearby. Mt. Thielsen falls outside their forecast area, so we decided to do some snowpack tests to play it safe. We observed several thick melt-freeze crusts, the shallowest being about 10cm down. During a column test, we observed a planar fracture on a crust about 60cm down, but it didn’t fail again during an ECT, so we decided to proceed. Not fully trusting the rime ice formations at the top of the bowl to stay put, we threw our helmets on here. 

Zach digging into the snow for our snowpack tests. 

The traveling really got interesting as we entered the upper reaches of the bowl. Rock towers, each seeming to be made out of completely different material than the one next to it, rose out of the snow around us. These pieces of ancient art also served a purpose: wind breaks, meaning we weren’t exposed to the full fury of the gusts coming over the ridge. 

The wind and the sun were locked in a battle over the condition of the surface snow. The sun was winning, causing the snow to soften up noticeably. At the same time, the wind was heroically holding back the melting process somewhat and preventing the snow from turning into total slush. All three of us did our fair share of sliding around but our ice axes kept us from going for a ride. We were able to skin all the way without putting ski crampons on. Adding to the difficulty were my frequent lapses in concentration caused by other beautiful ski lines off in the distance. Just goes to show, you can never be happy with just what you have. 

Camden decided to stop a few hundred feet short of the top of the bowl as he was a bit nervous about the wet snow and his ability to get back down the bowl. He’s a lifelong snowboarder and knows his way around in the mountains is still relatively new to skiing. He'd been killing it all weekend, but his nervousness was totally understandable. The slippery conditions were throwing me off my game as well, and I couldn’t wait to click my heels in and feel a little more secure.

A few hundred feet later, Zach and I found a wide, flat spot on the ridge separating the SW bowl from the E face. I'm sorry to say to all my loyal fans that we forgot to take out usual high point selfie. Feel free to refer to previous posts if you want to another look at our beautiful faces. The only other living thing up there was a crow perched on the rime ice. I began to wonder what had happened to all of the other folks that we'd seen earlier. Maybe they don't like fun?

Possibly a bad omen, but we survived. 

The wind was almost still. I would have been perfectly content to spend the rest of the day soaking in the sun if not for our concern about the melting snow and wanting to reunite the team. As predicted, once we ripped off our skins and clicked out heels in, we dropped into some seriously creamy goodness. 

Zach making the first few turns before the run steepens.

I'm calling this type of snow "I Can't Believe It's Not Corn!"  Sun warmed to perfection, but the top layer is fresh snow that has melted for the first time that day and hasn't been subjected to a melt-freeze cycle yet. Dare I say even better than corn? Extremely pleasurable. We skied down to where Camden had waited and then took turns down to treeline. 

We missed you!

Camdaddy shows us how its done. Mt. Scott and the rim of Crater Lake in the distance.

We ran into a pair of splitboarders who were still headed up. They decided to turn around right there when they realized they would never be able to rip the run as stylishly as we had. Or they were worried about wet avalanches; I'm not sure.  From there we skied a nice open meadow party-style and were treated to great views of the whole line at the bottom. 

I learned here that skiing with a camera inside your jacket = foggy lens. We skied the bowl to the lookers right of the center rock tower.

Based on the map, we were expecting a leisurely ski all the way to the car. Unfortunately, the snow had turned into deep dish mashed potatoes. This was the first time in my life that I've ever had to trade off breaking trail while in downhill mode. After sweating it out pushing ourselves along with our poles, we reconnected with the skin track and sailed out from there. 

We returned to the parking lot to find most of the groups that had left after us had gotten back before us as well. One group said that they had turned around after seeing the amount of snow getting blown off the ridge. They had opted for a board game and some cold beverages in the parking lot instead. I made a mental note to steal this après idea for next time. 

Overall, I would highly recommend this line to just about anyone. It is mellow enough to be appropriate for beginner backcountry skiers, but do keep in mind that you are outside of COA's avalanche forecast zone. Be prepared to take be your own avi forecaster. Between other lines on Thielsen and more that we saw on distant peaks, we can't wait to get back to this area. Maybe we'll see you out there. 


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