MLK Weekend on Mt Hood

It's a three day weekend for me (MLK) so I decide to spend it on Mt Hood. Saturday I snowboard Meadows. Sunday morning I snowboard Timberline to try out the new lift and runs. There's a strange weather inversion going on, so it's actually warmer on the mountain than down in the valley. It's in the 50's at Timberline, but the snow is hard as concrete and I can barely get an edge, so I bail on boarding decide to do some climbing.

I leave the lodge parking lot around noon and decide to climb for three hours, and then turn around in order to be back by sunset. It takes me about 1.5 hours to climb from 6000 feet to 8500 feet, at which point I'm above the Palmer Glacier Ski runs which snowboarders and skiers are accessing via sno-cat rides today, as the Palmer Lift is not running. Above Palmer, the surface conditions become extremely icy. The entire surface of the slope has been sculpted into hard icy daggers that are pointing up and out of the surface straight toward me. It reminds me of a medieval trap, saying "go away". As I climb, I break the tips off the icy daggers with my crampons and try to get solid foot placement on the hard crunchy dagger stumps. All around me are strange otherworldly ice formations unlike anything I've seen before. Giant bulbous ice tumors cling to the mountainside, punching out a chaotic positive space from the deep blue sky.

I climb until 3pm and see Crater Rock to my left and Steel Cliff to my right. I witness frequent major icefall events on both of these faces and realize that not only are the surface conditions horrible, but icefall danger is extreme today. I pass several climbers that are descending from the hogsback. One made it up past the bergshrund but turned back short of the pearly gates due to heavy icefall. Another tells me of an experienced climber that fell 200 feet just yesterday due to unstable ice that gave way under his feet. These are all red flags to me. I climb until 3:30, reaching a point about half way around Crater Rock, at about 10,000 feet. From here I can see the hogsback not far away, and the summit just beyond. But today is no day to be up there. Plus, there's just enough time for me to get back down to the ski runs before sunset.

I spend two hours retracing my steps. Descending is extremely difficult today, physically and mentally taxing. I make minor missteps a few times, which frankly is a few times too many. At one point, around 9500 feet, I actually lose footing on unstable ice and fall backwards onto my ass and begin to slide. I self arrest after sliding about ten feet with my ice axe, my first real self arrest. This is a minor incident and I never really lose control of the slide, but it reinforces just how terrible the climbing conditions are. I finish the descent with extreme caution as the sun sets beyond the coastal range far to the west. Once I'm down on the ski runs I enjoy a leisurely return to the lodge as day becomes night.

Monday, my third and final day of the long weekend, I drive to the coast, hike down to the secluded Crescent Beach at Ecola State Park just north of Cannon Beach and recuperate from my two days of boarding and climbing. My mental images of the sea of clouds are replaced with a sea of water. I never grow tired of the ocean. It always has something to tell me. I could stay here.

As I write this log today, I read about a woman that died just yesterday (January 22, 2009) while climbing Mt Hood. She had reached the pearly gates and was struck by ice fall. She fell 400 feet and died instantly. She was climbing with her husband. My thoughts are with her family. I contemplate how important it is to listen to everything the mountain, and everyone I encounter on the mountain, is telling me. Every single indication this weekend was that of extreme danger. I turned back, exercising caution, and avoiding areas of icefall, but still had a minor self-arrest incident. I knew at 8600 feet that climbing conditions were no good, but continued up to 10,000 feet regardless. New rule: If in doubt, turn about. Always.

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