A novice summits Mount HoodNot long after I shut my eyes, the alarm sounded. It was 12:15 a.m. Adrenaline jolted me out of bed and I began getting ready. I put on a couple of my lightest layers, and a windbreaker to ward off the chilly evening (or was it morning?) air, stuffed the rest of the gear into my backpack and stepped into my harness.
Having learned the hard way on Mount Whitney the importance of eating even when I don't feel like it, I scarfed down the chicken wrap I hadn't eaten from yesterday. My stomach found this revolting, but I knew I would thank myself later. There was a long journey ahead and I didn't want to crash from fatigue.
I started loading gear into the car. Walking through the lobby at about 12:50 a.m dressed in ski pants, a ski cap, mountaineering boots, holding my helmet, ice axe dangling and harness around my waist clanking, I received a curious stare from the front desk person.
I couldn't help but wonder, not for the first time, why I do things like this. I'm not a mountain climber, more a weekend warrior adventure seeker living in Florida, afraid of heights and not the best candidate for the journeys I aspire to do. And yet I'm drawn to this sport of sorts, challenged by my novice skills, time limitations and lack of any aptitude for this sort of thing.
I always think I find the answer to that at a summit or in a moment of reflection afterwards. But I keep coming back to that question. I work hard and in my spare stolen moments of vacation when I should be relaxing, I'm eating a vday old sandwich at midnight and clanking through a motel lobby preparing to engage in a ten hour grueling day. It kinda makes you wonder, doesn't it?
It was chilly outside, with the thermometer hovering around 40 degrees. Temperatures at our starting point would be near freezing. Perfect conditions for the long awaited climb. Pushing aside the existential crisis, we finished loading up the car and headed towards Timberline Lodge and the long awaited climb.
I barely remember the first thousand feet. I can remember a rhythmic stride, all uphill, following the feet of the person in front of me. It might have been cold, but I was too numb or too adrenalized to feel it.
We paused after a thousand feet to take a rest break. We could see tiny lights below, climbers making the journey. There were more ahead of us, those who chose to get an extremely early start to beat the Memorial Day weekend "rush hour"
The reward for this one hour plus 1,000 foot slog was yet another slope, which looked even steeper than the one we'd just climbed. The barest fringe of dawn was beginning to break, although the sunrise was still a while away.
At some point around 9,000 feet or so, we began to smell the rotten egg stench of sulphur. Somewhere nearby are the fumaroles, which reminded us that we were on an active volcano. Fumeroles are gas vents, thermal springs where magma located below the surface emit gases. We were cautioned to stay as far away from them as possible, but the smell was enough to keep us at a distance.
By this point, it was beginning to set light, as sunrise this time of year is around 5:30 a.m. There still wasn't enough light for picture taking though, which was too bad.
The line of climbers inching their way up the Hogsback was a disconcerting sight. It wouldn't take much for a rope team above to have one member lose their footing and start sliding downhill, or for someone to dislodge a rock or chunks of ice. Clearly, we needed to choose a different route. But, while we paused here, it was fun to watch this trail of what looked like ants crawling up a large hill.
At approximately 10,000 feet, we stopped to put on warmer clothing and to rope up. The sun was out, but the temps were dropping and wind was picking up as we gained elevation. As we were preparing, we watching the seeming hordes of people making their way up the steep chute known as the Hogsback. Mount Hood is one of the most climbed mountains, in large part because it appears relatively accessible, as is from the standpoint that you can park your car at Timberline Lodge and just begin the journey.
But a large number of people moving single file up a steep chute can be a recipe for disaster. All it takes is one misplaced footstep, a dislodged rock or one person slipping to create what can become a domino effect. Much like driving, you have to watch out for the actions of others as much as your own.
Our well trained guides knew this and steered us in another direction, away from the popular Hogsback route to one that they hoped would be isolated. That's one advantage when climbing a really big mountain with those that know it really well.
The Hogsback is the traditional route used by climbers heading up the South side of Mount Hood. The Hogsback is a narrow ridge of snow that leads to the Pearly Gates, the final chute before reaching the ridge that leads to Mount Hood's summit. The Hogsback is split by a glacier, and, from an aerial view, looks like a Hogsback, hence the name.
The Hogsback is the area where many of the reported accidents on Mount Hood have occured, and been sensationalized and mischaracterized by reliable sources such as CNN (just had to throw that in). At this point, it is about 9500 feet and this is where most people rope up. By joining climbers to a single rope, you can stop the fall of one of these climbers, should a slip occur. Its also similar to the defensive driving school of thought. You have to prepare for the actions of others as well as your own, especially in crowded conditions.
Rather than follow the trail of climbers up the Hogsback, our guides took us on a route that they hoped would be less crowded. It was every bit as steep, and then some. I had a bit of trouble on this part as my crampons could not get a firm grip in the ice, which caused my ankles to hurt a great deal. The good folks on the rope team ahead of me kicked steps into the ice, which must have been extra tough on them, but helped me in the ascent.
Following a climb up a couple of steep slopes, we got to the chute itself. Although only a 45 or 50 degree angle, it felt almost vertical. The pictures from the descent really do it more justice.
This is the final push before the summit is within reach. Almost fittingly, the great views of Washington's finest peaks are hidden from view, like a prize that has to be earned by serious effort in a grinding uphill journey.
The old chute was an unbelievably steep uphill over icy terrain. I had trouble digging the spikes of my crampons into the ground. I couldn't feel my legs burning although I was sure that they were with this muscle straining activity. My ankles were another story and were definitely feeling some pain, flexing in seemingly unnatural ways as we continued the upward journey above the clouds.
Upward climbs are always painful for me, and this one was no exception. Roped together, we weren't moving that fast, but still felt slightly out of breath. The altitude didn't seem to be much of a factor at 11,000 feet, but that might have been because we spent the previous day at just above 6500.
Once you reach the top, there is a nearly vertical ridge leading to the summit. That is where we stopped for this celebratory picture. The sun made a welcome appearance at this elevation, but the whipping winds made it teeth chatteringly, hand numbingly cold.
Once you ascend the Pearly Gates or an alternative route with less people but equal or greater steepness, you come to a nearly flat ridge. The summit is just a short walk away. I was pretty happy to see the ridge as it meant the uphill part of the journey was over. But we weren't at the summit yet and we still had the descent to contend with.
Our moment of triumph. Actually, it was more a moment of cold semi-delirium. The winds were whipping pretty good up here and fatigue from the long journey had set in. I don't think it ever left me actually, but it was probably sequestered due to the adrenaline rush of actually being able to climb Mount Hood.
Still, it was an incredible moment, two years in the making. I can't help but think of the chain of events which began the previous year, a couple days after I returned from my unsuccessful trip to Mount Hood , which lead to this. After all the disappointment and dashed hopes and dreams, the sky finally cleared, the planets finally aligned and anything was possible. It was worth the wait and better than anything I could have ever dreamed. And I'm talking about the summit as well.
After our fifteen minutes of celebration at the summit, it was time to head down. The guides kept pressing us to keep moving, as the sun would quickly warm the ice and snow, turning it into slush which would be harder to navigate with crampons.
Did I mention that I am afraid of heights? Needless to say, this causes me difficulty on a mountain. The technique I generally use is, simply, to not look down. Actually, that's not look straight down and to focus on a point that isn't too far away and just work my way down one small step at a time. I even tell myself "don't look down". Sometimes, I'll even say that out loud.
After descending the steepest part of the chute, we had another area of relative steepness to descend before reaching the area below the Hogsback. The best way to descend is to step diagonally, crampons pointed downward, and dig the heel of your foot into the snow. The problem, for me, was that my ankle would roll with each step, which was incredibly painful.
We were probably about 7 hours into the journey. Descending took so much more effort than ascending. And there was still quite a long way to go.
No one said this was going to be easy, and the part of me that seeks these challenges doesn't want it to be. But I wouldn't have minded much at that particular moment.
From the Hogsback back to Timberline, there is about a 3,000 foot descent. Its not techincal and is more of a long slog, which is hell to a tired Floridian wanna be climber who has been up since midnight. Some folks opted to glissade- slide on the snow/ice. Its like sledding without the sled and it definitely makes the descent time shorter.
I think we stopped taking pictures at some point. Following the Hogsback, we took off the crampons, shed some layers as it was getting hot and descended through rapidly softening snow which still had the nerve to be icy. It was a gentle slope in comparison to the chute, but my legs had been strained to maximum capacity by this point. I was getting pretty close to a serious case of the "are we there yets"?
We reached the point where the snowcat dropped us off a mere eight hours earlier. At that point, we walked parallel to the ski slope and watched the skiiers and snowboarders take advantage of the year round open slopes.
This was a killer last mile. They always are, but it literally took everything out of me. The combination of fatigue due to lack of sleep, muscle strain and general weariness took its toll. It took every ounce of mental energy just to get to the finish line. There was no celebration at the end. That always comes later. I staggered into the day lodge, weak, dizzy and tired. And, most of all, numb.
Its really hard to explain to people that this is how I choose to spend my vacation time.