Sunday, March 30, 2014

Mt Theilsen - Brainless Child

On March 22nd, Steve Elder and I completed the first ascent of "Brainless Child" 5.9 WI5+ X (steep mush) 1600' on the east face of Mt. Theilsen. Here are two different trip reports that we each wrote, and some pictures. report report

Steve's trip report:

Tyler and I left the car at about 1:30am and hiked up the Thielsen Trail by headlamp/moonlight. After about an hour, we lost the boot track and put snowshoes on and went straight up through the woods. I've done this trail many times in winter now, but can still get disorientated in the dark. A quick GPS check showed we were just below the ridge line, so all was well. We ditched the snowshoes at the junction of the PCT and started the laborious post holing around the west face and north face. Under the north face, the snow improved to crampon conditions and our pace picked up. We reached the small saddle between the north and east faces right at sunrise. Another 30 minutes got us to the base of our route. After a quick assessment, I decided the first pitch would be best to go up the rock buttress trending left to gain the ice. Originally I had entertained the ideas of going left or right on ice leads to access the main gully, but both looked sketchy. First pitch was about 65m and probably about was surprisingly fun climbing on even more surprisingly solid rock. Mostly short grunty moves to another ledge system and not bad protection. First belay was on rock just to the right of the gully ice. Second pitch started by stepping left into the gully and up a short thin steep ice section and then up nice rolling ice about WI3+ with a couple of screws. This pitch was close to 70M to another rock belay on the right of the gully under an overhang that was dripping water big time. The belay itself was fairly dry, but once I moved up and left to start pitch 3, it was like a waterfall. I got one dubious screw in this pitch, which was probably WI4+, but soft deteriorating ice with perhaps a 10M vertical section near the top. This lead into low angle snow to a rock belay on the left side. The 4th pitch looked easy from below (how many times do I make that mistake!). The ice didn't look good, but I was soon to find out that it was worse than not good. With huge relief, I found a good medium cam on the left side about 10M up. Then there was no pro for another 10M where I was able to sling a rock horn and weighted the rope down with a couple of screamers. There was no lip to really retain the sling, so I doubt it would have fared very well in a fall, but it gave enough reassurance for the final vertical section to the top. About the only thing I've ever climbed this hard with rotten ice like this was Riptide back in 1994. Gently place tool as high as possible and pull down till it kind of stops. Quick weight test, close eyes and move up. Repeat. Delicate feet required here as the ice was tending to crumble under weight, and crampon placement was causing unnerving hollow noises from the semi detached “ice” shield. Another 10M brought me to a great rock belay on the right. Two more pitches of snow gully with a small step each brought us into the easy upper snow couloir leading to the top. The final step before the upper couloir had such thin rotten ice that I opted to climb the rock to the right, which was actually really fun dry tooling/rock climbing about 5.8 with fair pro.
Once in the upper couloir, we pretty much simul-climbed keeping a picket between us to the top. Luckily our aerial reconnaissance proved correct and the gully was continuous all the way to the ridge just below the summit.

If this climb was in good condition, it could be recommended as a committing but safe WI4+ outing. The problem lies in finding it in those conditions. It is east facing and gets the sun the moment it rises, and doesn't lose it until mid afternoon. All that freeze/thaw is what makes the ice, but for it to be good ice, it really needs to be climbed when there's no sun on it. The problem I've found with Thielsen is that right after a cold spell when the weather clears enough to climb, it either tends to be incredibly windy up there, or you have too much sun as we did. If we'd gotten on it two days earlier it might have been in better shape. As it was, we were pummeled by ice pellets and chunks all day, often conveniently arriving in waves just when crux moves were happening. Higher up in the snow couloir, Tyler was in lead and I glanced up to see a number of rocks hurtling towards him, one the size of a loaf of bread. I yelled a warning, and he scuttled up like a Pug on a hot cook top, but still caught the big one just above the kneecap. Down below, I had plenty of time to scoot left and right and they all missed me. Luckily, no serious damage to Tyler's knee, and we were able to carry on up. Surprisingly, these were the only rocks all day, and there virtually no rock debris on the snow at the base.
Protection on the leads was marginal as screws just wouldn't work.....I think I only placed three the whole route, of which perhaps only one was any good. Rock pro was actually good when available, which wasn't very often. Luckily, the belays were all pretty solid, although I belayed off my harness for all except the bomber anchor at the top of the crux 4th pitch.

Huge thanks to Tyler for being an amazing partner in this Quixotic quest of mine. I'm sure the vast majority of climbers would have been whining and wanting to bail off before we had done two pitches. Tyler kept a smile on even after the rock tried to crudely trim his knee's meniscus.

North Face

East Face. Brainless Child is the line to the left of the cave.

It was pretty steep!

At the NE saddle as the sun begins to rise.

Looking up at the first pitch with the morning light.

More light.

Looking East.

Starting the first pitch.

Pitch one.

Pitch one.

A little video at the start of the route.

Pitch one.

Pitch two.

Pitch two. 

Following pitch three.

Pitch four.

Topping out on pitch four.

Upper snow gullies.

Top out!

Steve with a smile!

Tyler's write up:

Mt Theilsen was Steve’s idea. Steve is a 56 year old kiwi who has been living in Oregon the past 25 years. He is the definition of hard core, as I think kiwis tend to be, think first ascent of Mt Everest. So with that said, Steve is the one that made this route possible, I was just along for the ride. Steve and I are lucky as we have a secret weapon for climbing; we own a small airplane together so we can easily check on conditions saving us some long hikes. After three years of looking at the east face and never really seeing what we wanted to, we did a couple fly-by's in the past few weeks, and finally found the route to appear to be “in”. 

With some high pressure in place we drove down from Corvallis and tried to catch a couple hours sleep in my camper before starting the hike at about 1:30am. We hiked for an hour on stable snow, and then pulled out the snowshoes for the rest of the hike to the SW ridge. We ditched the snow shoes and traversed the west face, and north face, and found ourselves on the NE saddle just as the sun was coming up. Another traverse halfway across the east face brought us to the base of the route at around 8am, and shortly thereafter Steve was off on the 200’ rock pitch that leads to the base of the “ice”. Luckily the rock was solid and Steve was able to get in a good belay and bring me up. By this time the sun was baking the face, and the constant stream of ice pellets started raining down the route, with each pitch only getting warmer and warmer.  A 200’ pitch on the ice with decent sticks ended below the first vertical/overhanging section of ice, which by that time was basically a waterfall, so we dispatched another 150’ pitch to the base of the crux. At this point I was soaking wet, but thankfully there was zero wind and enough sun to let me dry out a little bit. 

With the route rapidly melting above, Steve fired the crux pith and got 100’ before getting a solid cam and an O.K. slung block giving enough protection to feel somewhat comfortable on the final 70’ of severely deteriorating and overhanging rotten ice, that marked the true crux of the route. I've climbed with a lot of great climbers and have seen some impressive leads, but nothing compares to what Steve did battle with on this pitch. He stayed calm, cool, collected and was pulling over the final bulge before I could even make sense of how hardcore this really was. As I followed the pitch getting pumped silly, trying to get some rests while the pitch basically disintegrated below me, I couldn't imagine in my wildest dreams ever leading a pitch like this. Steve had done the nearly impossible. He somehow found most solid belay of the route, and soon enough I was on easy terrain staring up at the two final rock steps of the route. We regrouped for a second, but had to get moving as now it was really getting warm. Above the two rock steps moderate snow led to the top of the route about 200’ below the summit. 

Unfortunately for me while I was up in front 300’ below the top, the only major rock fall of the day occurred on the route. I heard Steve yell from below but it was too late, I took a nice loaf of bread sized rock to my knee. I ran for cover and managed to find the first spot on the route where I could actually lay down. Somehow the rock didn't do too much damage and after a little rest below the safe overhang, we were ascending the final 300’ to the top. 

It was about 3:30pm by the time we took our harnesses off, and began to descend the south face back to our snow shoes, the descent with crampons was pretty painful, I wound up sliding on my ass for about half the descent, but once I got my snowshoes on and could stay on my toes more, the going got a little easier, an within two hours we were back at the truck. Finally safe and sound I could strip off my wet clothing and get comfortable. We reveled in our stoke for a little bit, and then tried to drive home, only making it about an hour before decided we really needed to sleep. 

Just as we got back into Corvallis the following morning, I got the news my friend Sean Leary had been killed in a B.A.S.E. accident in Zion. This was a blow to the stoke, but I soon realized Sean was with us that day. The last time I saw him in October 2013, we had tried to fly by the east face of Theilsen together so he could see if it might be worthy of a B.A.S.E. jump. Sean never got to see the east face that day as the clouds closed in on us. While Steve and I were on the Theilsen, there was something in the air that kept us going, it felt different than any other climb I had been on. I believe that this was Sean that was with us and kept us going, and that he finally got to look at the east face from above, and fly up it with us in a different sense. With that I’d like to dedicate our route to Sean Leary, may his stoke and spirit motivate generations of climbers to come. I’d also like to thank Steve for the adventure of a life time. 

Sean Leary - September 2013


  1. Great read, and amazing perseverance too, thanks

  2. Beautifully written account of a very challenging day. Proud to have a son with such spirit and sensitivity!

  3. You have entered the history books on this one amigo! Glad to hear you are still with us. Scott Schmidt

  4. What an amazingly pleasant surprise to randomly look at the Alpinist website and see an article about you guys! So impressive! Congratulations!

  5. Great job and great preseverance in waiting for the best (or at least better) conditions.