The great volcano of Mt. Rainier loomed as heavily in my mind as it loomed over the city of Seattle. If I was going to climb the mountain next week, I’d better get used to exerting myself at altitude.
After hitchhiking from the Lost Coast back to my Jeep, I drove past the massive forest fires of Northern California into the lava fields north of Crater Lake in Oregon. My exercise regimen would begin in the middle of the sprawling Cascade Range, whose volcanoes have been sporadically erupting and gaining mass over the last thirty-seven million years. None of Oregon’s peaks reached the lofty heights of other colossal Cascade summits like Mt. Rainier or Mt. Shasta, but several hovered around the ten-thousand-foot mark, and these would serve to get me into shape, starting with Mt. Thielsen – the “Lightning Rod of the Cascades”.
Thielsen certainly possessed a spire capable of attracting lightning. The pinnacle was a remnant from the hardened core of a volcano that formed 300,000 years ago. Over the course of several ice ages, glaciers ground away at the mountain’s slopes, eroding the softer material. But since the central plug was made of harder basalt, parts of it survived.
This wouldn’t be my first attempt to climb Mt. Thielsen. On a previous adventure, mosquitos and debris from a windstorm had forced me to turn back. I still wasn’t sure if I would make it to the very top this time; I figured I would decide once I reached Chicken Point – a landing just below the summit where most reasonable minds chose to turn back.
First I had to scale the lower slopes, made from pumice and hardened ash left over from when nearby Mount Mazama exploded and formed Crater Lake. I had plenty of company along the trail at first, but the steepness began to increase exponentially and most of the other climbers dropped back. Soon, my only companions were three hikers of the Pacific Crest Trail who had ditched their backpacks to make the detour to the summit.
Once above treeline, the plume of smoke from the National Creek Fire Complex came into view. Firefighters had been battling the blaze since a lightning bolt brought it into existence ten days earlier. I wished them luck so they wouldn’t endanger themselves, but in truth, I felt rather ambivalent about their efforts. Fire has always brought diversity to the natural landscape. Seeds blow in from other lands, colonize the enriched soil, and in time, the forest renews itself.