Saturday, May 13, 2017

Mount Thielsen (OR) - Southwest Bowl

After struggling to find anyone else that was free for a ski tour, I decided that it was time for another solo mission, which I quite enjoy when the avalanche danger is low. After an internal debate on which zone to head to, I finally landed on Mount Thielsen, based on the weather forecast, proximity to Eugene, and wanting a re-do after encountering less than optimal conditions the last time I was there (total whiteout and breakable crust). My plan was to head out from the Mount Thielsen trailhead parking lot (near Diamond Lake) and skin due east into the base of the southwest bowl. From there I would skin until it got too steep, at which point I would bootpack the remainder of the way up. From there I would drop into either the southwest or northwest bowl, depending on conditions.

I ended up leaving Eugene on Sunday morning at a fairly reasonable time of 6am. After a quick stop for a breakfast sandwich and coffee, I jumped on the highway toward my destination. As I reached Diamond Lake, Mount Bailey's Avalanche Bowl came into view, presenting a very tempting alternative to my current plan. By the time I reached the Mount Thielsen parking lot and got my gear readied, it was ~8:30am and the sun was shining bright, with temps right around the freezing point. Using my GPS and the location of the sun, I started skinning east toward the SW bowl. The snow was rock hard and my progress varied based on the density of the forest, which alternated between open glades and tightly spaced trees. One of the main obstacles within the dense sections was the maze of snow bridges between the worn tree wells, which started off as a fun challenge but eventually turned into a bit of a nuisance.

Looking into Mount Bailey's Avalanche Bowl, from Hwy 138.

At the 3 ¼ mile mark and approximately 2 hours in, I finally reached the lower snowfield, which acted as a continuation of the main SW bowl. The long beautiful run was now in full view and I was itching to get to the top of it! For the last mile or so I had been following some fresh skin tracks that indicated there were at least three other skiers that had the same plan as me. Since they continued toward the same highpoint that I was targeting, I continued to follow the tracks up the face of the snowfield/bowl. As the slope of the bowl rapidly steepened I soon found myself struggling to find traction. In fact, at one point I slipped out and quickly self-arrested by plunging the head of my whippet into the icy surface. Not wanting to risk another fall I decided to switch over to boot crampons, and started bootpacking from my current position.

Getting closer

Skinning up the lower snowfield

With my skis now strapped to my back and my boots armed with aluminum spikes, I marched up the hill with surprising ease. With the slope now fully exposed to the sun, the snow was starting to soften, which added greatly to my foot traction. As the slope angle increased into the low 40s I started to question my skiing abilities to get down with any kind of style, let alone safely. I figured I should take a quick break and eat a snack before making a final decision on whether or not to continue up or to drop in from my current position. This was fairly timely since I was at the base of one of the pinnacles that provided some nice shade and a flat spot to hang out. Furthermore, with the snow still pretty firm, it would give the sun some time to soften it up a bit more.

After a few minutes of relaxing and analyzing the terrain, I decided that it would be good to challenge myself and that I should continue up to the ridge that sat at the base of the summit pinnacle. Just as I was nearing the ridge a couple of skiers came into view and appeared to be coming down from the summit. When I finally reached my highpoint (I wouldn’t be summiting) I found a group of four, who were all from Bend. They were a friendly group of guys and we sat around and chatted for a bit while we all waited for the optimal time to drop in, based on the corn cycle and which was quickly approaching.

Closing in on the pinnacles

Topping out

The other group, at the base of the summit pinnacle and to of the drop-in zone

Cool rock feature looking east off the summit ridge

More great views of Mount Bailey -- The north bowl (on the right) was looking extra tasty!

Looking south, onto the Crater Lake zone.

I was actually quite happy that I had run into them since it would allow me to get some shots with some skiers in the frame, which always helps with communicating the scope of the run and surrounding landscape. I hiked down about fifty feet to setup, which also allowed me to assess how well the snow was softening. Once I felt it was about as good as it was going to get I gave them the signal, and soon after they began to drop down in single file. At the very top it appeared that the face was a bit chattery, but about 100’ down their turns started to become much smoother and I couldn’t wait to drop in myself. Once they had all passed I quickly hiked back up to my gear and readied it for the descent.


The first couple heading down the southwest bowl

Reaching the sweet corn band

Sure enough my first couple of turns felt a bit unnerving, but never out of control. As I hit the softer snow down lower and I had a few turns under my belt, I gained some confidence and eventually started to make a series of linked turns. I’m still at the point in my skiing progression that my legs get tired pretty quickly on the way down and I need to take frequent breaks, which I assume is mostly due to poor technique. Even so, I was having a great time and feel like I’ve been improving every time I get out. When I finally reached the lower meadow, which has a slope angle in the mid 20s, I was feeling really good and skiing nice and aggressively as I finished up the run. From top to bottom the run dropped right around 1,600’, which isn’t bad for the backcountry descents around these parts!

Getting ready for my turn

Looking back up at my line through the upper bowl

Looking back up into the lower snowfield

A parting shot of Mount Thielsen, before heading out.

I debated going up for another lap and maybe even dropping into the northwest bowl, but ended up deciding to call it a day based on energy level and being quite content with my first run. Skiing back out to the car, much like the skin in, was a bit of a mixed bag – easy going when I was in the open glades and tough when the trees got tight. That said, it also went about twice as fast, based on it being entirely downhill and sans skins. Back at the car by 2pm I was feeling pretty good, and now questioning my decision not to do another lap; of course this just gives me a reason to head back, hopefully with someone else to enjoy it with.

My line (in red)

Mount Thielsen’s southwest bowl is a fantastic tour destination. With a ~4 mile approach it makes for a very reasonable day tour, and since the road is always plowed to the parking lot this includes winter as well. The ~1,600’ unobstructed descent is pure bliss, starting with a slope angle in the low 40s and finishing in the mid 20s. Furthermore, with easy/additional access into the northwest bowl, it provides quite a few line choices. I’m really looking forward to getting back in there and attacking some of the other terrain!

My tracks:

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