Recently, I got to spend the most beautiful day on the mountain I may have ever seen. The mountain in this case refers to Mt Hood, at its 11,300-foot summit the tallest point in Oregon, and a majestic landmark in Portland’s eastern landscape on clear days. Beauty, of course, is extremely enhanced by adrenalin, solitude, and the fact that you’re walking down the mountain’s slopes while glorying in the sunshine fading into the blood-red western sky and watching the fog creep into the valleys and foothills. Of course, pictures are worth thousands of words, but I mostly have the images etched in my mind…
The two of us got an early start to this January climb of Mt Hood, heading up the south side and starting from Timberline Lodge at just under 6000 feet. One of the beauties of climbing in the winter is that in theory you can spend more time in the daylight climbing, since the snow isn’t warmed and softened by a spring or summer sun, which increases avalanche danger and just makes for hard slogging.
However, the day we chose to climb was on the heels of a temperature inversion that kept the upper altitudes of the Cascades above freezing for several days in a row. Climbers who’d been up a few days before us, in those warmish conditions, advised getting an early start. So we did: we left the parking lot at Timberline at 1:15 a.m., early in the morning of the day President Barack Obama would assume office.
Climbing through the night is a period of constant adjustment. First off, it’s a rare occasion that I get the clothing right at the beginning of a climb, and since it was on the warm side when we took off (low 30s at 6000 feet, with the forecast calling for low 20s/upper teens at the upper elevations) I couldn’t decide whether to just deal with it and regulate my temperature by taking my gloves and hat off and on or whether I wanted to call a full-blown stop and get the layers right, knowing that “right” lasts for maybe the next five minutes, until the wind shifts or temperature drops or you stop sweating or any of a host of variables.
Second of all, you are hiking through the night, and you hit these patches where every fiber in your body reminds you that you left behind a perfectly warm bed and a night of sleep for the questionable pleasure of trudging through the night up a snowy slope.
The skies were clear, clear, clear. Off to our left we could see the lights of the cities and suburbs of the greater Portland area, and above and all around we could see stars and stars and stars. I found one of the few constellations I know (Orion) and started thinking about the things I wanted to be doing in the days ahead as we trudged up the slope. The moon wouldn’t rise for awhile, and when it did, it’d be a thin, waning crescent. Nonetheless, I’m always surprised at how light it is during the darkness of night, and we climbed without headlamps until reaching the top of the Palmer snowfield, at about 8400 feet. The surface was solid and we made good time, getting there around 3 a.m. as I recall.
We put our crampons on and continued to climb, crossing into what Trung called “the no-fall zone” since the surface had changed from hard-packed styrofoam-like snow into small rolling waves of ice with small pockets of snow trapped in the troughs and “chickenheads” sticking above. In the no-fall zone, should one fall, self-arrest would be challenging and the slide would be long and bumpy. Every once in awhile we found a pleasurable stretch of styrofoam-like snow, though there were very few of these; at one point we were wandering in and about a collection of small pillars of ice. Once again, one of Trung’s colorful descriptions came out: he called this the Fortress of Solitude, due to the area’s resemblance to Superman’s man cave.
We zig-zagged a bit, trying to find a clear ascent route. I kept wanting to veer westward, apparently being pulled by the allure of Illumination Rock silhouetted against the snow and western sky. I was a little nervous about this area; the footing was pretty good, but I was thinking ahead to the descent and wondering if the zone would soften up or would we be picking our way down one painstaking step after another?
As we approached Crater Rock, we briefly discussed whether we should try to summit via the West Crater Rim route. Those thoughts were abandoned with the sound of ice and snow debris falling off the area between Crater Rock and Illumination Saddle. One more of those, we told ourselves, and we’re out of here.
We were climbing three days after a Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR) volunteer was knocked off his feet by icefall in the area known as the Pearly Gates, one of the ascent routes to the summit. He fell about 200 feet down a steep slope before coming to a stop. Fortunately, he survived the fall and was safely airlifted off the mountain. That accident was present in my mind, as were admonishments about the conditions from people who’d been up on the mountain over the previous weekend.
As we approached the Hogsback, Trung got out in front of me as I began suffering from little kid syndrome with my hat and helmet sliding forward to block my upward vision of the short steep section to the Hogsback. I could see his headlamp flicker now and again and I kept hoping it would stop moving because we had to be nearing the top of the Hogsback any minute now.
The Hogsback is a ridge of snow that shifts its shape every year, depending on snow and wind patterns. Located at about 10,500 feet, it connects Crater Rock to several routes to the summit itself and is a major milestone in the climb to the summit. It’s always nice to get there, take a break, and realize you’ve climbed about 4500 feet in a few hours. Once atop the Hogsback, we stopped to put on our harnesses, rope up, and shed any gear we didn’t need for the 800-900 vertical foot push to the summit. Here Trung discovered that his Camelbak had been sliced by a crampon. Bummer. This was the first, but not last, financial casualty of our climb.
The Hogsback had a deeper saddle than I recall but I’ve never been this high on the mountain with this little snow, either. We set off with a running belay, though quickly abandoned it after a couple of pickets and realizing we were marching along the top of the Hogsback just fine, as well as consuming precious time. So we remained on rope and I led out until we were 10-20 meters west of the Pearly Gates, a popular ascent route, depending on how the snow sets up in a given year.
We decided that the Pearly Gates would be our route, since it was clear that to traverse to the Old Chute we would need to cross at least a couple of visible bowling alleys funneling ice and snow toward the Hot Rocks. There really was no need to invite being the target of a 7-10 split.
Trung took the lead at this point, so he set out with our four pickets and four ice screws. In hindsight I wonder why on earth we were carrying this much gear for just two climbers. In hindsight, I’m really glad we had this much gear for just two climbers.
Once we hit the Pearly Gates, the sun had risen and even though we and our route were in the shade, and the air temperature was chilly, we knew we needed to get up and down before the sun crept around to warm the icy walls, tempting them to shed a few football and basketball-sized balls of ice and snow.
The climb through the Pearly Gates was steep and in some spots icy and in others, hard-packed icy snow. The climbing itself was a blast; we were both glad we’d been spending so much time in the rock gym and we were in the rhythm of visualizing and committing to holds as we climbed. We were each using a second tool in addition to our ice axes, which helped us create bomber handholds for an added edge of security while we (at least I) huffed and puffed my way up the 45+ degree slope.
A corrupted snippet of a Neil Young song kept circulating in my head: “old man take a look at my life” are the correct words, but I kept hearing “old man take a look at yourself”, especially in the quiet moments in the Pearly Gates, between bouts of swearing to myself when I’d get challenged by the pace. What can I say. I was tired but wide awake up an endless climb and it helps to disassociate during the physically demanding stretches.
Nearing the top of the chute, we reached a near-vertical section of ice. Wow, it was a hoot to climb, and we kept each other on fairly tight belay, as I continued to pull pro and gather more and more climber’s bling around my neck. Oh what fun it is to climb with pickets clanking between your legs. I really didn’t have time to rest at the top of the steep section because between the Pearly Gates and the summit was a bowl-like area that Trung was charging up, tugging me along.
Once at the summit, we sat for a short rest and a couple of summit photos, while admiring the views of Rainier and Adams to the north, as well as Jefferson, the Three Sisters, and Broken Top to the south. Trung pulled out his loaf of Franz Cinnamon Swirl bread, one of the tastiest summit treats I’ve had.
We started downclimbing the Pearly Gates at ~9:30, maybe a little later. It took us longer to summit than we’d planned and it would take awhile to downclimb. I knew that I wanted to rappel the first pitch since I wanted to get past that stretch of near-vertical icy snow. I left it up to Trung as to whether he wanted to downclimb or rap. He chose to rap, too, meaning that we’d leave behind the picket, sling, and carabiner that formed our anchor.
Trung pounded in a picket and away we went, me first, followed by Trung. Perfect. I landed on a little bit of a ledge, just below the steepest section (we figured it was low 5th class). I built an anchor as Trung rapped down to join me. He redundantly secured himself to the anchor as he set up for the belay; our Mazamas instructors would be proud.
I started downclimbing, front-pointing with my crampons. Second-guess time: I had stashed my BD Venom tool between my back and my pack before the rap and I didn’t take it out before beginning the downclimb, so I was using only my ice axe in one hand as I was making my way downward. I got down a few meters, put in a screw and continued to climb down. I called up to Trung to use both of his tools. I descended some more and put in a second screw and positioned myself to start climbing down again. Damn it, there goes my glove, sliding out of sight down the chute. No doubt I’d find it again on the way down.
Then my left foot blew out. Next thing I know, I’m careening down the Pearly Gates, which had a bit of a luge run going on at that point. I don’t know how far I fell, but it was slow-motion and high-speed, all at once. Easily 10-15 feet. Maybe as much as 20 or 30.
I think now about how damn lucky it was I didn’t catch my crampons, leading to a twisted ankle or knee at best. But as I think again, as I fell, the weight of my pack pulled me into a head-first position and there I was, speeding down on my back, whacking my head several times, then rotating around somehow, including a face-on impact with a chunk of icy sidewall. I’m so ever f-ing grateful for my sunglasses and helmet. I heart my Black Diamond Half Dome helmet.
I’d hit my head in wintertime exploits before. Sledding for me was a dangerous youthful pastime and it seemed that seeing stars was a hazard I regularly experienced. There was the head-first collision with a tree in our backyard. How I could’ve hit the only tree we had at the time is a testament to the laser precision I seemed to have for doing in my noggin. There were countless head-to-head collisions as we sledded in packs down the Big Hill in our neighborhood. Then there were the few years of my youth hockey career where head, puck, and ice did their best to become one. These long-buried memories must’ve been jarred loose as I bumped along the ice and snow because they’re pretty vivid now.
At one point during this Pearly Gates fall, I hit my ass on something–or more precisely, half of my ass. One sit bone collided with ice while the rest of me kept going. Ouch. Then another rotation was good for a vision-blurring head-whack as I tumbled head-downward again. Mercifully, I finally came to a stop, the rope yanking at my harness and pulling me to a screeching halt.
I groggily stood up, or tried. It took a minute or two for me to stop moaning and my head to clear. Amazingly, it did, and relatively quickly, too. I pulled a picket from my pack and started building an anchor to tie into while I belayed Trung down. I glanced down at the snow and saw a drop of blood, the first impact-created nosebleed I’ve had since probably the sixth grade.
I shouted up to Trung that I was okay. “What?”
I yelled as loudly and as articulately as I could.
So now I’m nearly halfway down the Pearly Gates. We’ve tried to figure out how far the fall was and why so long, since the fall immediately pulled Trung into brake position. He probably was dislodged from his stance by a couple of feet. There’s rope stretch, to be sure, and maybe a few feet slipped through without him noticing, and there may have been slack in the rope as I climbed down, but nonetheless, neither of us can say for sure–and I’m glad it wasn’t much further than it was.
Trung finally joined me. He took one look and I could tell he was on the edge between trying to be tactful and calm while reacting to my face, which, as it turned out, was scraped, bleeding, and looked worse than it was. Afterward, when we were back to the Hogsback, he told me that it was incredibly freaky to hear my falling (no doubt a few f bombs and cries of pain), followed by silence.
By now, a couple of ice falls had peeled off the chute. Nothing huge so far, but as we were setting up for another downclimb, a shoeboxed-size of icy snow hit Trung in the leg.
Amazing how quickly one learns how to assume the stance when you hear the ice and snow start tumbling toward you: bury the tool pick into the ice and snow, duck to create as low a profile as possible, shift your pack up to cover your neck, keep your hands the f off the top of your helmet, and wait for the noise to subside while you are grateful that even though it’s too warm for it, you’ve got on your puffy jacket and windproof fleece since those are helping absorb the blows of icy projectiles rocketing their way down the mountain.
So we said, okay, enough of this, we’re doing another rap. Down I went. Two pickets gone. Two left. When Trung joined me, we debated about whether to downclimb, how much further is the pitch, would we need gear for the rest of the mountain, and so on. Another slide of snow and ice and I took a large football in the shoulder.
Another rap, and we were at the bottom of the chute, finally ready to traverse to the Hogsback, out of the way of any icefall. At this point I was really sketched. The sweep below to the Devil’s Kitchen was in broad daylight. One of my least favorite things is traversing a steep slope when you can’t easily kick steps. This was the same terrain I led out in the fading darkness hours before. However, this was post-fall, and one of the things that kept coming to the fore was whether I’d be another media story, complete with helicopter.
Trung had to belay me across; I was only comfortable with 10-15 meters at a time since the last thing I wanted to do was take a fall (I was dehydrated, tired, and scared–falling seemed like a likely outcome) and have a bunch of momentum yank Trung off the slope, too. So we painstakingly made our way back to the Hogsback. We took a long time on that round trip between the Hogsback and the summit: over five hours for what takes a couple when conditions are good.
We got to the ledge that had been dug out for the PMR rescue. I pulled out my cell phone and immediately made a few calls to let people know we were taking a long time, that I’d taken a fall but was all right and we’d be taking our time getting off the mountain so don’t freak out if you don’t hear from us until evening. The last thing I wanted to do was trigger a PMR search and rescue since I was mobile. I was also trying to hold it together as exhaustion replaced the post-fall adrenalin.
My mental state improved immensely from placing the few phone calls. We took a long break, fueled up, hydrated a bit, and when we set out again, I felt fine. Strength was back, alertness was there, and my confidence had returned. We took our time walking down the mountain–especially through the no-fall zone, where I actually tripped, banging my knees against the ice. More expletives.
We gazed at the mountain below us as we approached the ski runs above Timberline. There wasn’t a soul on the slopes. And we hadn’t seen a single person during our entire climb. It was an epic day: just under 17 hours, start to finish, as we returned in the dark, at 6:12p.
As I said before, it was the most gorgeous day on the mountain I think I’ve seen; the views were clear and vivid, the skies were always changing their shades of deep blue, and the golden lighting was incredible. Unfortunately, I have hardly any photos. With two of us constantly on the move and setting or pulling protection, there was zero time for photography. Not to mention the technical difficulties: the batteries for my point-and-shoot crapped out after only a couple of shots. I also had one of my trusty Nikons with me, so I got a couple of summit shots, but nothing afterward. During the fall, I must’ve hit the camera just right because the on/off lever won’t budge.
The next day, after a long night of sleep, I was seeing how I could accept the climb as a good effort instead of a guilt-plagued “should I have been there” routine. And then I heard about the death of a climber who was struck by icefall while traversing the summit route we’d chosen to avoid. That was an emotional blow harder than any chunk of ice _I’d_ experienced the previous day. More bruising than the black and blue marks I still have nearly two weeks later. To have been there, to be shaken by the what-ifs, to start questioning the chances we who love climbing take nearly every time we go up a mountain is hard to absorb in the aftermath of one’s own escape.
Aside from the kind of luck you make for yourself with preparation and work, I’m not a fan of relying too much on fate and fortune to keep oneself intact. Yet choosing to climb is inherently a risky venture, with the goal being rewards that are unique to the activity. There is nothing like being the only one on the top of a mountain to give you a sense of accomplishment as well as a humbling sense of your very small place in the very large world. As I’ve heard many times before, getting to the summit is only half of a safe climb–and I am grateful to be back from this particular climb to tell the tale and to go up the mountain again.