Broken Top (OR) Climb via NW Ridge
In early June, a bunch of friends and I planned to climb Mt. Hood. Unfortunately, the weather rolled in, and we redirected our sites to Broken Top. Broken Top is a once large volcano that has slowly succumbed to Mother Nature over the years and now is a craggy summit. We made a valiant attempt bit turned around just before entering the crater. This brings me to this last weekend. Now in early September, conditions were much different for this attempt on Broken Top. We planned to do a quick up and back on Saturday morning as it should not take too long, and we had stuff to do. As Saturday approached our group got whittled down to two of us; my friend and neighbor John and myself. John and I have done several trips together over the last couple years, so I knew we both travel at a similar pace which is good.
Not too far from the forest fire
If you live in the region, you have definitely noticed we have a nearby forest fir’ the Pole Creek fire. This threw another wrench into our plans as the fire is only 4 miles from the Northwest Ridge where we were planning to climb the mountain. All week we had varying levels of smoke in Bend and the day before the fire nearly tripled in size to about 15,000 acres. To add to the intrigue, Friday night also had some isolated thunder storms in the region. We, nonetheless, planned to at least give it shot and devised a plan to leave our houses around sunrise on Saturday morning. The forecast was for a nice day with temperatures in the low 80s and little to no clouds. When we awoke it was hard to tell if it was cloudy or smoky out. The ground was slightly wet so it had obviously rained a little and once outside it seemed like it was more clouds than smoke, which was a good thing. As we got going the clouds started to fade away as the sun rose.
We decided to start at the Green Lakes trailhead. We would head up to Green Lakes and take the climber's trail up to the Northwest Ridge and follow that up to the summit. From what I had read the only technical part of the route was at the summit block. As we drove up to the trailhead we were happy to see that the air was clear and there was no evidence of the fire. Arriving at the trailhead it was amazing to be able to get one of the front parking spots. This is unheard of at this trailhead where you often have to park in the bushes across the street. It probably helps that we were there before seven in the morning and ready to go shortly thereafter. It was a chilly start this early in the morning with temps in the low 40s.
A gnarly mountain
The trail is about four and a half miles up to the lakes and then the true climbing begins. Not that the trail up to the lakes is not a climb but it fairly gradual compared to what is to follow. The trail is along Falls Creek with a couple bridge crossing and some excellent views of the Creek. As it gets closer to the lake, the trail and Creek are up against a lava flow from nearby South Sister. This flow has lots of obsidian in it so the rocks shine in the sunlight. When we got up to the Lakes, we were shocked to see no one else up there. These lakes are normally packed as they sit between the South Sister and broken Top, a really great place to camp. I guess this is to be expected with a fire just 5 miles away. We took a sort snack break and headed east to the climbers trail.
Once on the climber's trail the ascent really began. This trail angles up the flanks of the Northwest Ridge to a low spot halfway down. Since the trail was much steeper our pace definitely slowed. We also were now in the full sunshine so our breaks were in the occasional shade we had along the way. These breaks were not so much to catch our breath but to keep from overheating. Once on the ridge the climb went from a dirt trail to rocky trail. For the most part, we stayed on the north side of the ridge, but you can tell there were many different ways people took up the ridge. Furthermore, once we reached the ridge we finally had a view to the north. We knew we were going to be only 4 miles from the Pole Creek fire but were still amazed by what we saw. The fire was, in fact, there, and the smoke looked like a wall as it was being held back by the morning south wind. We were even able to see the Middle and North Sisters for the time being; it would not be long before they disappeared from view.
Smoke is Coming
We cruised up the ridge fairly easily. Some of the ridge was loose rock, but for the most part, it was not too bad. There was some exposure to the north but nothing that really troubled us. We noticed as we climbed that the smoke was starting to get closer. The normal wind pattern in Central Oregon is a south wind in the morning and north wind in the afternoon. We could see this transition taking place as the smoke was starting to drift closer. Once we reached the summit block, we hit the crux of the climb. We decided to put our helmets on at this point just in case. The crux is a 10-foot section of low grade 5 climbing. John and I both found it easily done without a rope and once on top we dropped our packs for the last 100 feet up to the summit. There were two smaller sections of class 4 climbing but nothing to really note. The view from the top was awesome. Broken Top is a craggy peak as it has worn away over the years. Looking down in the crater we could see where we stopped in June. The crater is a cool view from above, and it was not too shabby in any direction you looked. Mt Bachelor to the south, the South Sister to the west, normally Mt Jefferson to the north and Bend to the east. We were not able to see Mt Jefferson or Bend due to the smoke from the fire. The South Sister was also almost obstructed from view as the fire smoke was moving in fast. After some quick pictures and a video, we started heading down.
A smoky descent
We ran into another climber at the crux of the climb, and he asked us to wait around to help him down climb it since he was on his own. We obliged, and he hurried up and down not to keep us waiting. We helped him down and then decided that we were going to cruise down the face. The west face of Broken Top is loose scree and we "scree skied" it as we felt it would be faster, especially since we were now engulfed in the thick smoke from the fire. The skiing was pretty good, and it was not long until we were at the bottom of the face. We were also happy to feel a South wind picking up slightly and pushing the smoke back over the ridge. Even though we only had about thirty minutes in the smoke, we could smell it the rest of the day as it was in our clothes and nose. We had to cut cross country a bit to catch the trail down, but it was no big deal. We reached the trail and followed it down the way we came to the lakes.
At the lakes, we began to see more people but still not as many as normal. Even on the trip down there was a fair amount of people coming up and just about everyone asked about the smoke. The hike down was uneventful but a little dusty. I think everything we had was covered in dust when we were finished. On a side note, we really could use some rain. If you are in the area, you will find most people do the South Sister but after this climb, we both agreed we liked Broken Top a little more. The climbing is not as monotonous and has more personality. Don't get me wrong, the South Sister is a good climb, but it is not the only worthy one around. I would definitely recommend the Broken Top climb. As always, your mileage may vary.