Bend man sets record in mountain climbing

BEND, Ore. -- Mitch Thompson climbs volcanoes like Spiderman scales a burning skyscraper to rescue a damsel in distress at the top: He does not take the time to soak in his surroundings.

He just wants to reach the summit as fast as possible, then move on to his next challenge.

In addition to his speed-climbing expertise, Thompson runs extremely fast, is superbly fit, and knows the Three Sisters Wilderness like he knows his own backyard.

The 39-year-old Bend man used his climbing, hiking and running skills, and his supreme knowledge of the Central Oregon Cascades to set a record Aug. 21 for the Three Sisters marathon.

He climbed and descended all of the Three Sisters -- North, Middle and South -- in 6 hours, 39 minutes.

The fastest known time for the feat before Thompson's mark was clocked by Max King and Kevin Grove, both also of Bend, who in 2006 completed the traverse in tandem in about eight hours.

Thompson set the record solo -- his only evidence three cell-phone photos, one taken atop each summit -- so the climbing community must take him at his word.

But that has not been a problem.

"I'm sure it's true," says Robert Speik, a longtime voice in the Central Oregon climbing community and creator of the Web site www.traditionalmountaineering.org. "(Thompson's) physical gifts are to be admired and probably (are) not equaled. His balance and athleticism, and aerobic capacity, and will to do it are unbelievable."

An avid mountaineer and former professional mountain biker who was raised in North Carolina, Thompson moved to Bend 15 years ago from Boise.

Since then, he says, he has climbed every major volcano in the Cascade Volcanic Arc from as far south as Brokeoff Mountain in Northern California to as far north as Mount Garibaldi in British Columbia.

Thompson says that four years ago he and a friend climbed eight peaks in Central Oregon's Cascades -- Mount Jefferson, Three Finger Jack, Mount Washington, North Sister, Middle Sister, South Sister, Broken Top and Mount Bachelor -- in four days.

Two years ago Thompson, along with King, climbed all three Sisters, plus Broken Top and Bachelor, in a record 151/2 hours.

That was the time Thompson set out to break on Aug. 21.

But he changed his mind at Pole Creek Trailhead -- a few miles south of the town of Sisters and the place where his trek began.

"My intention was to do the five (peaks) faster, but the three is kind of the standard," Thompson says. "A lot of people do it (climb the Three Sisters) to see how fast they can do it."

Thompson stresses that the "official" time is from "car to car," from when he exited his car at Pole Creek to when he entered his wife's car at Devils Lake at the base of South Sister.

"If you get in a car, ride a bike, or get any help, then it doesn't count," Thompson explains.

From Pole Creek Trailhead on Friday morning, Thompson climbed the southeast ridge of North Sister, then took the "bowling alley" route -- named for the considerable rockfall in the area -- up the middle of the peak's west face.

The route goes along a 5,000-foot drop, and eight climbers have died in the area, according to Speik.

North Sister is widely regarded as the most technically challenging of the Three Sisters, and most who climb it use gear such as crampons, ice axes and rope.

But Thompson wanted to remain as light and fast as possible, so he did not take along any such gear.

"In no way would I suggest climbing it without climbing gear," he warns.

After the steep, exposed climb, Thompson reached the summit of North Sister at 8:51 a.m.

He had started at 7 a.m.

He then descended the south ridge of North Sister and headed up the north ridge of Middle Sister.

He topped that summit at 9:56 a.m., then hiked down Middle Sister's south side, past Chambers Lakes, before ascending the challenging -- and seldom climbed -- north ridge of South Sister.

He reached the summit of South Sister at 12:37 p.m., then descended the commonly used climber's trail, reaching Cascade Lakes Highway at Devils Lake by 1:39 p.m.

Along the flatter sections of the trek, Thompson simply ran as fast he could.

"I was extremely close to hitting the wall right as I reached the highway (to finish)," he recalls.

The Three Sisters marathon is about 16 to 18 miles, Thompson estimates, with 9,500 feet of elevation gain and loss.