Climbing Mt Hood
(Mt Hood from my apartment roof)
Volcanos Rock! The volcanos of the Pacific Northwest are alive. They change from year to year, season to season, day to day, hour to hour, more than I do. They produce mountains of snow in the winter, and shed rivers of it in the summer. They feed the streams that feed the rivers that feed the fields that feed the animals and crops that feed us. They let us drink water and sustain life. They allow civilization to persist in the west. The volcanos are so huge that they produce their own weather systems, including blizzards that would make the arctic proud. They gurgle and belch, they vent sulfuric gasses from deep within the earth. They grow, they bulge, and in exceptional acts of superpower they explode, destroying the ecosystems that they created. The volcanos are vortexes of raw energy and of life. They are mutating monuments that mark portals between the underworld and our world. They reach deeper into the earth and higher into the sky than anything else, like great cathedrals rooted in magma and pointing to the heavens.
At 11,235 feet above sea level Mt. Hood, Or Wy'East (son of the Great Spirit), is Oregon's tallest volcano. I find any reason I can to be on it's slopes. For ten years I've been snowshoeing, cross country skiing, snowboarding, hiking and camping on Mt Hood. I've also been lucky enough to have views of Mt Hood out my kitchen window. I see Mt Hood when I walk to work, I see it when I run in the park. It's ever present in my life. The mountain has become a very good friend to me. It even visits me in my dreams. I've always wanted to climb it, but reaching the summit requires technical gear, even in the summertime. And many climbers perish on it's upper slopes. The task has always seemed a little too daunting to me.
A couple of weeks ago I got word that some friends in an outdoor club were going to try to summit Mt Hood. It seemed like a perfect opportunity. I signed up. I spent a week psyching myself up for it, reading up on glacial climbing techniques, studying topo maps. I was as ready as I could ever be. Then, a few days before the climb they cancelled the trip. I was extremely disappointed. Trying to climb it alone seemed absurd and dangerous. After considering my options I decided to go on the trip anyway alone and just practice the climbing techniques that I'd been researching. Maybe I could get halfway to the summit. My goal was to climb until it started feeling too dangerous or risky and then turn around. I also reserved a small ray of hope of possibly reaching the summit.
It's Friday, the day before the climb. I work all day, then go pick up a rental car. I drive to REI outdoor store, and rent my technical climbing gear which includes: thick plastic mountaineering boots, crampons (large steel spikes that I will strap to the bottom of the boots), an ice axe, a helmut, and a mountain locator unit. The locator is a little box about the size of a flashlight that transmits a signal if I pull it's red cord. No one is actually listening for that signal unless I am reported missing, so I tell several people where I'm going and when I should return. After getting my gear I go home and sleep from 7pm to 9pm to try to get some rest. Then I make a big breakfast dinner and begin packing my snow gear, some first aid stuff, power bars, a few liters of water, some Gatorade, etc.. At 10:30pm on Friday night I leave Portland and drive to Mt Hood.
I reach Timberline Lodge on Mt Hood by midnight. The temperature at Timberline is a balmy 45 degrees at 6000 feet above sea level. I spend about half an hour gearing up and filling out a climbing permit at a self service climbing station. The permit is free but required. There is a form that I must complete describing exactly what provisions I'm taking and when I expect to return, which I put in an outbox. When I return, I'll move it to a "returned" box. Other climbers begin showing up and filling out forms too. I mill around looking for a possible group to join. I talk to a couple of climbers, but nothing materializes. I decide to start the ascent alone.
I put my crampons in my backpack, which weighs about 25 pounds. Other than food and water, my pack contains a bunch stuff I'll never need on this climb, unless I need it. I strap my ice axe to my pack. I try to put my helmut on. It doesn't even begin to fit my giant head so I throw it in the trunk, and decide to keep an extra keen eye on rock fall, which is very common on this mountain. Time to climb.
Climbing The Ski Runs By Moonlight
At 12:30 am, now Saturday, I begin hiking up above Timberline Lodge along the east perimeter of the ski runs (which are open all year long at Timberline) by the light of the full moon, which casts a dim blue glow on the entire mountain. I don't even need my flashlight. I am hiking alone, but can see a couple of head lamps a couple hundred feet above me. I use them as a point of reference. I've snowboarded down these runs a hundred times, but have never climbed up them. Along the way a couple of Sno-Cat vehicles slowly pass me with the roar of tank tread and diesel engines pushing them up and down the steep slopes. One is grooming ski runs for the Saturday skiers soon to come. The other is going up. I look inside the cab as it passes. It's taking a group of six climbers to some drop off point so they don't have to climb the length of the ski runs. I call that cheating.
It takes me about an hour to reach the Silcox Hut at 7000 feet, at the bottom of the Palmer ski lift. I continue to hike past many giant snow carved ramps and other snow sculptures built for tricks. Finally I arrive at the top of the Palmer ski lift, 8500 feet above sea level. I am now officially above the ski resort and higher than I've ever been on Mt Hood. I am winded, my heart is pounding, and it's getting colder, but I'm still feeling good to go.
Somewhere above Palmer, I encounter the climbers that took the Sno-Cat. They are in a circle gearing up and going over safety details. There are two experienced guides leading four middle aged men. I ask them if they are taking the south side route, or "dog route" which is the route I want. They say yes, and then head off. I can't really ask to join the group and they don't offer either. The four men probably paid between 500 and 1000 dollars each for their training and guided climb. I did not train with the guides, and I did not pay for their service. They'd be liable if they took me on and something happened. But I decide they are a perfect group to follow (with two experienced guides) so I decide to shadow them by a hundred feet for a while.
The snow is getting hard and crunchy, and the terrain is getting steeper. Time to break out the crampons. I spend a couple minutes struggling to strap them on to my boots. I have to do it without gloves, but after about 30 seconds, my hands are numb. The temperature is below freezing now. I fumble around and manage to thread the straps. It's takes about 20 minutes of curling my fingers in my gloves as I climb to thaw them out. The slope gets progressively steeper as I climb. It wouldn't have been possible to go too far above Palmer without crampons. And as the route gets steeper I find myself using my ice axe more and more. I am also starting to feel the effects of the high altitude, lack of sleep, and subfreezing temperature. I check my watch periodically, but realize at some point that it's data seems less and less significant. So I just try to say focused on the climb. When the six man guided group ahead of me rests, I rest. When they move on, I move on. At some point the snow field ends at a steep dropoff, and I have to climb over and up a long stretch of exposed rock. The guided group leaves their crampons on while scrambling up the rock, so I do too. It'd be impossible to take them on and off in this cold anyway. It's difficult to climb solid rock with crampons. They tend to get lodged and create strange torque on my ankles. Eventually I'm back on snow, and it's refreshing. I follow the guided group at a respectable distance for about an hour up to 10,000 feet.
At a flat resting spot, I catch up with the group I've been shadowing. We are at the base of the hogsback, an enormous steep snow ramp with steep drop offs of each side that climbs hundreds of feet to the pearly gates (two large rock outcroppings), beyond which is the summit. The most direct way to the summit is to climb the narrow and steep spine of the Hogsback. However, a giant crevasse known as the bergshrund has opened up near the top of hogsback, as it does every summer, making this route impassible. There is a large guided group up high. They seem to be climbing hogsback, then traversing an insanely steep slope to the left, over to the west crater rim route. This large group is roped and anchored with help from their guides.
To Rope Or Not To Rope
The climbing group that I've been interloping begins harnessing up. Each guide is roping up to two of the climbers, guides leading. Everyone above this point seems to be roping up for the final ascent. I ask how long it takes to make the final climb. Someone tells me about two hours. It's several hundred feet vertical from where I'm at, and very steep. I sit at the bottom of the hogsback for over twenty minutes, while I watch the group I'd been shadowing climb up and then traverse the steep slope in two sets of three roped climbers. I'm totally exhausted, feeling nauseous from the high altitude and from the sulfur spewing out of the fumaroles right beside me. I think this might be the end of the line for my climb. Time to turn back. Too steep, not enough energy, and no one to rope up with. In the meantime two climbers pass me, a man and woman in their mid twenties. They are not roping up. They've climbed Hood before and said roping up is not needed. Guides tend to rope up to people they're guiding, but this couple is confident in not roping up. They move onward and upward at a good pace. I watch them in awe, but am not convinced.
Just as I'm about to turn back, a climber appears. His name is Randy Watts from Pennsylvania. He's never done any technical climbing either. He is twice my age and made of steel. He's suffering from brief episodes nausea and fatigue too. But he is in high spirits, unassuming, yet confident. We chat for a bit. He tells me he is climbing with three others, but got separated from them. He wanders if they're ahead of him or behind. I tell him I've been at this spot for a while and no one fitting their description has passed me. I say I think they're behind him. He decides to press on. He's going for the summit unroped. So I say, "Okay, if you're going up, I'm going up. Let's do this."
Traversal to West Crater Rim Route
Randy and I climb the hogsback together, unroped. I follow him for a while, and he is a source of strength. He overshoots the traversal point by a few feet then points it out to me from above, so I take the lead. The traversal is tricky. We have to side step for about 200 feet with nothing but hundreds of feet of snow above us and below us. The bottom of our steep slope gets swallowed by a sulfur and steam belching crater. The traversal is also lacerated by deep vertical crevasses. For the first time on this mountain, I feel like a single misstep would spell certain doom.
I have three points of contact: my boots and my ice axe. In my mind, two of these contact points should always be securely anchored. I have to make sure every step is planted perfectly, and that every plunge of the ice axe handle creates a solid hand hold. I have to keep an eye out for rock fall which is common on Hood. I've already seen several large rocks tumbling down adjacent slopes. Other than misstep or rock fall, my biggest fear right now is mechanical failure. Losing a crampon or my ice axe would make it impossible to continue or retreat. After making some headway across the traversal, I look back and Randy is a ways back holding a crampon in his hand! His crampon popped off in the worst of places. But he managed to save it. I work my way back to him and try to help. I hold his glove for him, while he somehow manages to refit his crampon with his one free hand while clinging to the side of the glacier. I'll never know exactly how he managed to do it. The longer I stay in one spot the more freaked out I get, so I keep moving.
On the way, I'm passed by two male climbers in their mid twenties. They fly by me like I'm standing still. They are both employing an audible and deep controlled breathing technique. I take note. I am stuck at one of the vertical crevasses as they pass. One of the guys asks how I'm doing. I say I'm not sure how to negotiate the deep crevasse on the side of this steep slope. I watch him traverse it effortlessly. He tells me to plant my feet very firmly. He tells me to get a really strong ice axe hold. Sink the handle deep. He demonstrates as he passes. They make it look so easy, so I do it. It's not easy at all, but I make it across. They both quickly disappear up the mountain.
The Final Ascent
I finish the traversal, and reach the final 300 foot climb that leads straight up to the pearly gates and summit ridge. It's so close yet so far. This final 300 feet is the steepest part of the entire climb. I stop looking down. I only look up and then look at each foot as I plant them firmly into snow, kicking out a toe hold, or an edge hold, then I watch my ice axe as it plunges into the snow. I move a foot up, then start the process all over again. Every now and then I look over and see Randy doing the same thing a dozen feet away. The morning sunlight now floods this slope. At some point sunrise has occurred.
The unroped man and woman climbers that I'd met at the bottom of the hogsback somehow intersect my path. I thought they were way ahead of me. In passing, they suggest a better technique for holding my ice axe: always in the uphill hand. I try it. At first I don't trust my right hand, but after a few minutes I learn that this method is vastly superior.
After what seems like an eternity of peril, I take that final step up onto the summit ridge and sit on solid rock and rest and drink water for the first time in two hours.
The Summit Ridge
I am more physically, mentally, emotionally exhausted than I've ever been in my life. I sit for a few minutes regaining my breath and trying to slow my heart rate. I've developed a dry cough. I know from reading that I have all the signs altitude sickness. I look west along the summit ridge that leads to the true summit. The ridge is narrow, only a few feet across in spots, with a sheer drop off to the north. I scramble along the summit ridge rocks, walking upright without the use of my ice axe for the first time in hours. A few minutes later, I reach the summit. It must be about 7:30am but I'm a bit dazed and am not really sure. I keep thinking it's high noon for some reason, but then correct myself.
There are about six people at the summit. The couple that went ahead of me unroped is there. The two speed climbers with the breathing technique are there. Turns out they were hired by Coleman Outdoor Company to reach the highest point in all fifty states, as a promotion to get children outdoors. They have two climbs left: Mt. Rainier in Washington, and Mauna Kea in Hawaii. They even have camera gear with them and are filming segments of the Coleman documentary, interviewing the couple that gave me ice axe advice.
Shortly after reaching the summit, Randy emerges, scrambling up the ridge. We give each other a big pat on the back and celebrate our success. We take in the view, exchange stories, and recuperate. Eventually the rest of Randy's climbing party shows up. My nausea is gone. I feel good. I spot all the landmarks: Rainier, Adams, St. Helens, Jefferson, Three Sisters, the Columbia River Gorge, the cloud shrouded Willamette Valley to the west, the high desert to the east. I swear I can see the curvature of the earth. And of course I see many of the 4000 and 5000 foot peaks that I've climbed over the years, and they are far far below. They look like a rolling green carpet beneath my feet, almost indistinguishable from the valley below them.
Now it's time to descend. As the sun rises, the loose mountain rocks will heat causing rock falls. This is why most climbers try to reach the summit by sunrise. I watch as other climbers make their way down, and I imitate what they do. I mostly side step and carve my own switchbacks all the way back down the steep slope, across the traversal, and down the hogsback. I take it very slow, stop often, and even find energy to snap a couple of pictures when the terrain permits.
I spend the next few hours retracing my steps down the glaciers all the way to Timberline Lodge. The snowboard park is in full swing now. Hundreds of snowboarders and skiers dot the runs below me. I finally reach them. It feels good to be back in the world. The last mile is painful. My feet hurt badly. The plastic boots are cutting into my shins and calves. My toes and ankles are blistered. I practice glissading, sliding down on my bottom, and I practice self arrest, the art of stopping a slide with my ice axe. It'd be a lot of fun if I had any energy. I finally reach the parking lot at 11:30 am, exactly 11 hours after I first started my climb. Shortly afterwards, I run into Randy in the parking lot. We talk about the climb and exchange e-mails. I move my climber's form from the outbox to the returned box, and begin the drive back to Portland.
Climbing Mt Hood changed me. It took me ten years of climbing to get there. Something in me broke as I clung to the side of the final ascent. I had to face real mortal danger, process real fear, and find reserves of strength and courage that I never knew I had. I killed fear on that mountain at least for that one day. Reaching the summit moved me deeply, but not just from fully realizing my own inner strength. I also realized, or maybe just remembered in a very big way, the strength, courage, and resolve that others can give me. What started as a lonely climb in the dark, evolved into a powerful social experience. A small group of random strangers all decided on a beautiful Saturday to do something larger than life. Had I not met Randy, I probably would not have ventured up the hogsback unroped. The climbing couple that I encountered showed me a better way to use my ice axe. The Coleman guys demonstrated strong and confident foot placement to negotiate large crevasses effortlessly and showed me how to breath efficiently when climbing at 11,000 feet. All these brief interludes made me stronger and got me to the top. It would have been a very different tale without having so many exceptional people to share it with. I write this story so it will help me remember how to climb mountains, and also how to live life.