Off the beaten path, hidden in an isolated valley, tucked away on the edge of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness, Castle Rock is truly a forgotten crag. Located in Southern Oregon, this special place rewards the explorer with an enjoyable scramble through the heart of a virtually unknown rock.
I first saw this crag when I was helping my friend Jeff (who was a biologist for Fish & Game) look for a dead cougar along Rocky Ridge, also located in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide, and from that view it was nothing special, but it was my friend Mike who pushed me to go there with him (Mike is a disabled climber), and when we saw it from the south, it revealed itself as the spectacular wedge-shaped mountain seen in the picture above.
When we first approached Castle Rock, I kept telling Mike that I was sure there was no ‘easy’ way up, it certainly appeared that it was purely vertical, but to his credit, Mike kept insisting that we get closer and explore, and so I went along with him. When we reached the base of the rock, it still seemed like there was no scramble route, but as we traversed around its northern base, a steep gully appeared, and I headed up it to check it out, and when I reached the apex of the gully, a narrow break in the rock led west, up some steep ‘steps’ ten to fifteen feet tall. I told Mike about it, and he scrambled up the gully to join me. Once he had climbed up to where I was, I led up the first couple of steps, which, while exposed and covered in scree, was no more than class 4 climbing. When I had reached the ‘garden heart’ (as I named it) of Castle Rock, Mike once again climbed up to join me. From there, two more steps led to another dirty gully and a final step before the turreted summit. On the crown of it, we could see no evidence of any other climbers, no cairns, and certainly no summit register. I am certain that others had climbed it, but my guess would be that fewer than ten people had been up there before us.
I have returned multiple times to climb Castle Rock, and it has become one of my favorite scrambles in Oregon. I posted a page for it on SummitPost, and I know at least one other climber has climbed it as well. I plan on placing a summit register up there this summer.
Getting there: From Roseburg, Oregon, the easiest way to get there is to drive highway 138 east approximately 62 miles until you get to Watson Falls. Turn right on Fish Creek Road 37 for about 13 miles. Then turn right on Incense Cedar Loop Road 800 for 3.5 miles then turn right again on Fish Creek Valley Road 870. Follow this badly rutted and narrow road as it snakes it’s way into the wilderness, Continue until it ends at the base of Fish mountain. Note that Google Earth shows the road as 800 instead of 870 all the way to it’s end.
From roads end, head north towards the top of the ridge, where a fun little crag should be scrambled to it’s top, at approximately 6000′. From there you can see the first good glimpse of Castle Rock, and the broad, forested ridge that leads you to it. Downclimb the crag and descend the ridge, keeping in a north-northwest direction. Follow the broad ridge for about half a mile until you reach the base of the rock. Make sure not to descend into the drainages to the east and west.
Once you arrive at the rock, the easiest way to find the route is to traverse east below the rock until you see the Big Cleft, the huge split in the rock with a loose gully at it’s base. Follow this gully (one person at a time) until you reach the obvious first step, to the east. Climb the first two steps, each about ten to fifteen feet high until you reach the Garden Spot, an open hollow in the very heart of the crag. Traverse around the left, stepping around an exposed spot and climb the third step, to the north, also about ten feet high. Take time to notice the hollowed-out cave underneath the third step. Then climb the fourth step, just above you, and follow a loose, dirty gully beside a surprisingly large fir-tree until you reach the fifth step, which is the summit tower. Descend the way you came.
The really cool aspect of this climb is that it literally snakes through the heart of the rock, you are surrounded by sheer walls on all sides. There are also really neat little caves, windows and arches all over the crag. Another fun thing to do is to circumambulate the rock, descending down the north side, around the west and back up the south side.
It had been a few years since the last time I had been able to take on this epic adventure, the tyrolean traverse between Old Man and Old Woman rocks in the upper North Umpqua river area. Established as an annual tradition by Greg Orton for the UCC Rock Climbing 2 classes five years ago, I was determined to go this time. Last year I missed it because my baby girl Julia had just been born, and the year before…I can’t even remember why I missed that one. In any case, the climbing gods were being kind this year (as was Greg Orton), since the climb would be held the day after little JuJu’s first birthday. I was really pleased to be able to do it again.
For those of you who do not know what a tyrolean traverse is, here is the explanation from Wikipedia: “A Tyrolean traverse is a method of crossing through free space between two high points on a rope without a hanging cart or cart equivalent. This is used in a range of mountaineering activities:rock climbing, technical tree climbing, caving and water crossings. A zip-line is in essence a Tyrolean traverse which is traveled down quickly with the assistance of gravity. In rock climbing a Tyrolean traverse is most often used to return to the main part of a wall after climbing a detached pillar.” ‘Nuff said.
I woke up at 7:30, got dressed, made some tea, and left an hour later when my friend and climbing partner Harold Hall picked me up. We headed out and met up with Greg at the Glide Store. We left Harold’s truck at the store and got in the bus with the rest of the teachers and students. All told, there were twelve of us going on this trip: 5 students, 6 teachers and Tyler, one of the teacher’s 13 year old son. As we drove up the winding Highway 138 towards the crags, we watched a climbing movie called Front Range Freaks. After half an hour of driving, we arrived at the trailhead, gathered our gears and set out.
I had been sick for the previous four days so I wasn’t sure how much my fitness would be compromised, but I was pleased to discover that I could keep up with Logan, one of the teachers who was in the lead for the hike, and we arrived at the base of the rocks in about forty minutes. We scrambled up the last part of the steep trail and then climbed up the steep, loose gully that takes one to the very toe of the rocks.
We organized our group into climbing teams, sorted gear and then the climbing began in earnest. Almost everyone went up Old Man – 9 of us – while only Harold, Bobbie and the young climber Tyler went up the substantially easier Old Woman.
With a group of this size, it took quite a long time for all nine of us to get on top of Old Man. It is a two-pitch (two rope length) climb, and the the base of the second pitch is a small notch with room for only three people, so it was several hours before I was able to head up, especially since I was running the sweep position, collecting gear and setting up the haul bag.
I have to make a confession of stupidity here. I had decided to wear my pack while I climbed, which probably had fifteen pounds in it, since I had done this climb before and I thought it would add a bit of challenge to the rock climb. I could have added the pack to the gear-haul line, but oh no, I just had to make it more difficult. As it turned out I would really regret the decision.
Heading up the first pitch was no problem, I made good time, I wasn’t struggling at all, and I felt strong. I reached the notch in just a few minutes. Our rope team waited for about ten minutes before the last person on the team ahead of ours headed up, and about fifteen minutes after that I was tying in the haul bag and then heading up myself. As soon as I got on the second pitch I regretted wearing the damned anchor on my back. I thrashed, I struggled, and for a time I wasn’t certain if I would be able to do it at all. Somehow I managed to get myself up, cleaning gear and freeing the haul bag where it had gotten stuck in a crack. Once more I had the opportunity to attach my backpack, but I am apparently a glutton for punishment.
A few drops of rain began to fall. Okay, no big deal. Then it began to rain a little harder. Shit. I took a look behind me and saw a wall of water bearing down. You have got to be kidding me. Here I was, last one up, already struggling, and I was about to get poured on, making what was already a fairly difficult climb into a desperate thrash.
The final twenty feet was incredibly difficult. Only rated at 5.7, with a final 5.8 move, I should have flown up the crack, but I really had a difficult time with it. Partly was the weight on my back, but a good deal of the struggle was due to the now-soaking wet rock. I slipped, I slid, I tried one move, then another, with no success. Finally I decided to just pull on the gear I needed to clean, something I ordinarily would not have done, but at this point I just wanted to get it over with. I yarded on the gear, flopped myself into the final, easy gully, and breathed a sigh of relief. I scrambled up to the summit, with a few choice words for the rain gods and my stupidity in wearing the pack. Greg had a good laugh when he heard my colorful descriptions of what I had just endured.
Since I was the very last person to get on top of Old Man, the lines between the two towers had already been established (by throwing a rope across the 100 foot gap), and half an hour later Ray (one of the leaders and a really talented climber) went across first. I set up my tripod and filmed as he crossed safely. One by one, each of the students, teachers and even 13-year old Tyler took their turns making the incredible passage. A few of the students asked to wear my GoPro wearable POV camera, so I got some spectacular footage of their turns on the line.
I was one of the last ones to go, and I connected my harness to the rugged pulley system that would guide me across the yawning chasm – it is about one hundred feet across and about two hundred feet high. It was nice to be able to set out without a lot of fear clouding the experience. The first time I did the traverse, five years ago, I had felt terrified standing on the edge of Old Woman, and I really had to psych myself up to step out into empty air, but this time it was no problem. I pulled myself along the rope, hand over hand, still feeling the draining effects of the climb. After thirty seconds I was standing on the opposite side. Now was the fun part. I stepped off, held onto the carabiners connecting me to the pulley and let gravity do the work. I zipped across to my starting point in just a few seconds. It was all over too quickly.
Then, before we knew it, it was 5:30 in the afternoon and time to head down. The lines were dismantled, anchors taken apart and one by one, the students rappelled off Old Man (a spectacular event in its own right).
We gathered at the base of the rocks, packed up and headed out. I ended up arriving home at 9:20, nearly 13 hours after I had left, and 3 hours later than I had told my family I would be home, so I had some irritated family members to contend with, but they eventually forgave me, and all was well again. Nonetheless, it had been a great day, and another spectacular tyrolean between Old Man and Old Woman.
I was supposed to have gotten up at 4:30 a.m. I would be on the road a little before 5 and arrive at the Mt. Thielsen trailhead by 6. Unfortunately, my cel-phone, which also doubles as my alarm clock, was set to silent, so my wake-up call came and went while I slept in ignorant oblivion. When I did wake up, I immediately realized something was amiss. For starters, it was already getting light outside. I grabbed the phone and looked at the clock. It was 5:57. Shit. I knew I wouldn’t be climbing Thielsen that day.
As a climber you really have to be time-conscious, and getting to the trail by 7 or 7:30 was just going to be a little too late, especially since there was still a ton of snow and I wouldn’t be able to run up the mountain like I could in summer. I wanted to be on the summit by 12 or 1, and I just didn’t think I could get there with that late of a start.
So I got up, made some coffee and thought about my options. After a short time I decided I would just go upriver and take pictures and shoot some film. I told my girlfriend about my change of plans and headed out, determined that the day wouldn’t be a waste.
I am quite fortunate to live so close to such an amazing area of natural beauty. I live on the North Umpqua river, one of the most beautiful rivers on the planet (in my opinion), and fifteen minutes upriver from where I live the canyons narrow and the river becomes increasingly spectacular. I pulled over after a short drive and started shooting film. I did this for a time, stopping somewhere along the highway where the river looked particularly beautiful and getting out my cameras. As I meandered up the highway, I decided that I would go somewhere I hadn’t been before. First I was thinking about heading into the Boulder Creek Wilderness, but as I pondered that option, I realized that construction on the nearby Soda Springs Dam would probably keep me from reaching the trailhead, so I changed plans and decided to head up to the Illahee Rock lookout. I had often wanted to go there, but just hadn’t managed to get there, so I made the decision to go.
Along the way, I continued to stop and take pictures, and spent a little time at Steamboat Creek and Canton Creek:
Soon I was on the dirt Illahee Road heading up and up, hoping that I would be able to reach the trailhead without running into any snow. I never saw anyone as I drove higher and higher in elevation. Soon I caught a breathtaking glimpse of Mt Bailey through the trees and I was immediately glad I had come this way. Just seeing mountains makes me happy. I drove on, and soon I began to reach the area where a huge fire had stripped most of the forest thus allowing a better look of the drive ahead. In the distance I could see snow on the road, and I had a feeling I wouldn’t be able to drive quite all the way to the trailhead. Just when I could see Illahee Rock, several feet of snow on the road brought me to a halt. Being this close, I knew it wasn’t a big deal, so I parked, got my backpack and headed out.
It was already a hot day, and I foolishly had forgotten my sunscreen, so within five minutes I was pretty much resigned to the fact that I was going to end the day with a sunburn. I turned my baseball cap backwards, since the sun was behind me, and kept on trudging through the slushy snow. Ahead of me I could clearly see the lookout towers that grace the summit of Illahee Rock, but I was even more intrigued by the the rocky bluff to the left of Illahee. Hey, I’m a climber, what can I say?
Reaching a fork in the road, I had planned on taking the right-hand fork, but a rock tower to my left grabbed my attention and wouldn’t let go. I took the left-hand fork. At first, I was planning on just taking some pictures of it, but since it was so obviously nearby, I knew I could at least get to it pretty easily. I left the road after a quarter mile and followed discontinuous game trails along a gentle ridge. I thought I was seeing a formation known as Rattlesnake Rock, but I would later find out that it is actually named Bartram’s Rock. As I approached, I could see that it was very sheer-sided, but I figured I might find a gentler aspect to it if I kept exploring.
I traversed beneath the rock, and with judicious route-finding, scrambled my way around to the west side of the rock, where I encountered a really interesting rock formation:
I had come so far around the crag that at this point, I wasn’t certain I could find a way to the top, but I ended up scrambling up through some rather steep terrain, using trees and roots as handholds while making some genuine climbing moves, and after a few minutes, found myself on top of a pretty cool little sub-summit.
I took the time while I was on the precipitous crag to make a short introductory video for my Kickstarter project, and in the midst of doing that, I kept looking across at the main tower and really wishing I could find a way to climb to its summit. When I got done filming, I decided to go for it. I could see a way up along the left side of the rock, so all I had to do was find a way to its base. So I downclimbed from the secondary summit to a notch between the two crags, then started following ledges and gullies, and in a matter of ten minutes or so, I was on top of Bartram’s Rock. I was really happy to have gone for it. Now my day was really made, I had found a new crag and using my wits and experience, found a way to summit. I took some more shots and then scrambled back down.
I wandered my way back to the road, and began looking for ways up to the top of Illahee Rock. I could see what appeared to be an old trailhead marker, but it seemed really overgrown and I didn’t feel like doing to much bushwhacking so I decided to go back to the fork in the road and take the right hand road, hoping I could find the right trail. I trudged through the snow, but I never did see what looked like the main trail, so I eventually decided to head up what was obviously an overgrown logging road, and so I ended up doing quite a bit of bushwhacking. Clambering over deadfall, shoving my way through dense stands of young firs, all the while repeatedly post-holing up to my knees in soft snow made what would have ordinarily been an easy hike into a grueling thrash. Later I would figure out that I was nowhere near the main trail. I believe I found what might have been a trail to the lookouts long, long ago, but for the most part, the route I picked to hike up Illahee was pretty much entirely trailless. It was definitely an adventure though.
Eventually I reached a craggy area that at the very least looked like it might provide some fun scrambling, but once I was on the rocks, a better trail revealed itself to me (this still wasn’t the main trail, but was in much better shape than what I had been following so far.)
After numerous switchbacks and more than a few snowbanks, I arrived at an area I began calling the Goblin Gardens, a craggy slope of small, twisted rocks that reminded me of a stony menagerie of goblins or trolls. I could also tell that I was now quite near to the summit of Illahee rock.
I continued on, and in short order the slope eased, and I saw the lookout tower for the first time.
I started to climb up the stairs, but a warning sign requesting visitors to stay off persuaded me to be respectful and leave it alone. I was happy enough as it was. There are actually two lookouts on top of Illahee, the tall one, and a small cabin a short distance away. I inspected both before finding a rock platform where I could take a break and film. The views were magnificent, to the north I could see the Three Sisters, Mt Yoran and Diamond Peak, while almost due east were Mts. Bailey and Thielsen.
I called my girlfriend back home and assured her of my continued existence, then filmed another brief bit for my Kickstarter project. I did not, however, have a lot of time. Thunder clouds were building, and even though Illahee Rock isn’t the highest mountain, it is one of the highest in the area, and I had no desire to become a human lightning rod, so I didn’t linger long.
It took me perhaps an hour to arrive back at my Jeep, sunburned, scratched and weary, but more than happy to have salvaged the afternoon.
Here is the complete video of my day:
My brother Richard, who writes a weekly column for the News-Review on hiking has his own blog site now. Check it out!
My first movie using my new GoPro. Unfortunately I do not have the tripod mount yet so it’s back to the old herky-jerky camera movements. Plus, since the GoPro is wearable, I was experimenting with different shots. This is also the first movie I have made using Windows MovieMaker (which I have to admit I did not know it was pre-loaded on my PC). I think the results (other than the poor filming on my part) speak for themselves.