On Friday/Saturday May 30-31, 2008, I successfully summited Mt Hood via the Leuthold Couloir route, a climb from which three things will always stick in my mind: the value of rope teams, physical challenge, and rope teams. Photos here; pdf of my GPS track here.
At midnight Friday, I started out with Azure and her boyfriend, Eric, from the climber’s bivy at Timberline’s Wy’East Day Lodge. Our goal was the summit of Mt Hood via the Leuthold Couloir, which is on the west side of the mountain; a couloir (kool-wär), btw, is a steep mountain gully, from the French to slide or to flow.
Leuthold is a longer climbing route than the traditional southside climb, though they both begin at Timberline Lodge, which is at ~6000 ft, and follow the same track to the top of the Palmer snowfield (~8800 ft). To get to the west side of the mountain, we then veered northwest to Illumination Saddle, which is at about 9300 ft, and is a low point next to the landmark Illumination Rock.
The slog through the wee hours of the morning is a pretty straightforward uphill hike through snow, in this case through soft snow groomed by the nocturnal snowcat crew from Timberline. The temps for us were ideal, probably in the low- to mid-30s, with a breeze coming from the east/southeast. At times there was no wind at all, letting us hear the faint drone of the snowcats.
While straightforward, I find the slog through the middle of the night to have various phases. The beginning is fueled by the hour being somewhat reasonable (as in not too much past bedtime) and the excitement of starting the climb. As you try to assess whether your layers of clothing are right (they never are) you try to strike an efficient rhythm through the snow. Surrealness sets in somewhere in those hours before dawn as you try to rationalize movement with the loggy feeling of wanting to be asleep somewhere. Then as the sky starts to lighten in the east, you begin to be refreshed, the light fooling your brain and body into an alertness that comes with daybreak.
Through the course of the hike up, we watched the Big Dipper move from high in the sky off of our left shoulders to setting in the NW, to the right of Illumination Rock as we faced it from the southeast.
Azure said later that she almost told us to go on without her because she felt awful at various points in the hike up to Illumination; we’re glad she didn’t–she had been up Leuthold a few weeks earlier so was familiar with the route, which given the weather we were to encounter, was a good thing.
We took our time putting crampons on and roping up at Illumination Saddle since it was still quite dark and we wanted light before negotiating the traverse across the top of the Reid Glacier. As we were preparing to leave to climb over the saddle, a pair of climbers appeared and wished us well.
You don’t rope up on all climbs, but when you are roped, you know you are definitely on a climb and prepared to share the risk of the terrain with your ropemates. The morning was gaining clouds as we climbed over the saddle, yet the view to the west was fabulous with is red-tinted layer of clouds over the valley below. Yes, the adage red sky in morning sailor/climber take warning was in our minds.
The Reid Glacier spills westward down the mountain and provided a snowy foreground to the green of the Willamette Valley, where spring is doing its best to hang on and forestall the early days of summer.
Early in our traverse, where the snow was perfect for postholing and not so perfect for making quick time, my right crampon caught my left pants leg and down I went, falling sideways, and beginning a downhill slide. I yelled “falling” and saw Eric and then Azure hit the deck. I clawed at the snow with the pick of my ice axe; my body was was in an okay position, as I was belly down on the snow, yet I was sliding sideways, starting to orient feet downhill as my repeated attempts to bury the axe pick were having a minor effect. With only my right hand on the shaft, near the axe head, my attempts were all in all ineffective thus far. By now, the shaft of the axe was above my head, and I was having a hard time getting my left hand up to grab the shaft. This was a very real lesson in one of the fundamental laws of physics: gravity wins.
I was sliding down the slope and on the one hand, I was conscious that I was falling and that my attempts to stop were slower than my trip down the mountain. On the other hand, I knew I was roped up and was confident of being stopped by my ropemates. It was slow-fast motion time. I kept trying to secure a hold on my axe and bury it in the snow. Fortunately, by instinct or accident, my feet were in the air enough so that my crampons didn’t catch, which would’ve been bad news, leading to tumbling at bare minimum, bodily damage at worst.
After only seconds, a too-short eternity when faced with the prospect of a trip of 1200 vertical feet spread out over a half mile before the glacier steepens into a cliff, I felt the rope go taut, halting my slide. Then it was pendulum time, as I swung to a stop to Eric’s gravitational 6 o’clock.
The map doesn’t show what obstacle would stop me, had I not been roped up or able to arrest my fall, but when you’re taught how to self arrest, you’re also told to keep fighting to arrest until you stop because the alternative is not a good one.
I don’t mean to over-dramatize or over-emphasize this event, but it’s easy take climbing Hood for granted. And it’s little mistakes like this that cost lives.
By the time we started climbing the couloir, I was already tired from the climb through the night and the fatiguing traverse that took a lot of effort to extract my legs and feet from the snow. The hardest part was ahead of us, and it took only a day or so for the memory of the pain and exhaustedness to fade.
I remember thinking several times during this ascent up the couloir that this was the hardest physical thing I’ve done. My energy was coming in small bursts that always seemed out of synch with the others on the rope ahead of me. There were times I’d rest with my helmet on my ice axe planted in the snow and just gulp air into my lungs and listen to my pounding heart while the front points of my crampons were dug into the slope. I was thinking about some of the Everest climbers who I’ve followed this spring and wondering how in the world I’d ever be able to do something like that if I was having trouble breathing in the relative pea-soup thickness of the air at 10,000 feet.
During the Leuthold section of the climb, I felt my way through a wide range of emotions, from denial (or ignorance) of the task ahead, to anger and frustration at how difficult the traverse was, annoyance that my ropemates weren’t letting _me_ set the pace (even though it was _my_ job to match their pace–rationality wasn’t ruling here, that’s for sure). It took a long time to work through this frustration phase and settle into a routine of burying the axe pick, clawing at the snow with my other hand, and front-pointing/crawling up for a few steps. I’ve got to train more, I kept thinking, tending to gloss over the fact that we really were doing something hard.
(When I emptied my backpack upon returning home, I saw that I’d not quite consumed 2 liters of water in the 14 hours we were on the mountain. This is not good news since in 14 hours of a rather sedentary day I easily consume 2 l of water, and here we were climbing a damn mountain.)
At a rest stop, Azure asked how I was doing. I said, quite truthfully, that I was exhausted. She asked, knowing that it was pretty much a rhetorical question, whether I wanted to turn around.
Rhetorical because at that point, the most expedient route off the mountain probably was up and over the summit. This is arguable, but nobody wanted to do the mushy, uphill traverse that we’d need to do to get back to Illumination Saddle and then down the mountain. It certainly was the most psychologically pleasing since I was masochistic enough to want to struggle on as well as not give up on the quite-attainable goal of the summit.
So we climbed on. As we reached the top of the couloir, the clouds around us thickened and the wind kicked up, ushering in small icy pellets that turned to snow fairly quickly.
Up through the snow we climbed, eventually reaching a cornice that marked the edge of the steep north face of Hood, nearly vertical in places, and a sign that we truly were making progress. The snow and clouds across the north face would give way now and again so we could catch views of the north side and the (Cole?) glacier; I idly wondered if this was where the Sunshine Route emerged.
There were times where Azure was barely visible and I could see her pausing now and then to examine our route. I wasn’t tempted to call out to ask if she thought we were still on route; even though I couldn’t see where we were going, we were continuing to climb upward–and upward stopped at the summit ridge, a short ~150 meters traverse to the summit itself.
As Azure and then Eric crested the ridge, I was aware that my pace was causing them to stand in what felt like gale-force winds, exposed to that treacherous drop down the north side, and the less-steep, but still non-trivial drop down the south side of mountain.
The ridge calls for taking care and paying attention to your foot placement since in spots the snow ridge was not even a couple of feet across. I remember reaching a place where I needed to step down a couple of feet, around a rock, while holding the rock with my right hand. It was then I was thinking, okay, this is not a place to catch your crampon in your pants.
To reach the true summit, we passed the Old Chute, the route that the south side climbs were using this year, which was also our descent route. At the summit, there were only a few people around; Azure saw a misplaced squirrel scampering around. We had no view and the weather was not conducive to hanging around, so we turned back to the Old Chute and began our downclimb into the cold wind tunneled upward into our faces.
At times it was more expedient to downclimb backwards, face into the slope, and other times it was just as easy to plunge step facing outward. My right hand went numb and I kept telling myself it would only be a few minutes before we got to the sunny spot near the Hot Rocks where we could see people lounging.
On our descent, we saw a fixed line that a few people were breaking down and I wondered if that was Pat’s group, but didn’t see anyone I recognized, even though it turned out I knew five people on the climb.
We reached the sunny spot and hung out on a melted patch of mud, near a vent in the mountain, spewing out sulfurous fumes. (It took a fair amount of cleaning of my crampons to rid them of the sulfury mud.)
The remaining climb down to glissade territory was uneventful and downright warm with the sun beating down on us. After some sweet glissading down the mountain to about 7800 feet, we were well into slogging territory, where there’s nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other and hike out through the slushy snow, dreaming of the moment you can stop, perhaps sip a beer, but definitely get out of boots that have worn out their welcome and sit. Oh, to sit. Maybe even sleep. Ah…
I was the last to the car, and got there just after 1:30 in the afternoon, 13-1/2 hours after we started. Then the exchange of stories and perceptions began in earnest.