4:30 a.m., July 1, 2008 – The Chimneys on the Northeast Ridge (Cooper Spur) of Mount Hood. +/- 10,000 feet elevation
Chris Wright - our climbing guide from Timberline Mountain Guides - was climbing with alacrity for the first belayed pitch of our effort. The rockbands signified where the real climbing began. Mike Dietrich (Chevy Chase, MD) and I rested as the rope paid out above our anchor. I looked out over the skies in the Columbia River Gorge, anticipating a dawn of bluish-pink cast to begin showing itself. Instead, I registered a lightening charcoal gray hue signaling something different.
“Well, that doesn’t look right,” I said to Mike as I scanned the skies east for changes farther up the Gorge. Up to this point we climbed in beautiful, clear night skies. The only problem was that it was too warm. The freezing level was 16,000 feet – way above Hood’s 11,239 foot summit. The ridge snow provided a nice air-conditioning effect as we ascended from our camp. Still, it was much warmer than I was used to climbing in the past. I was doing great in a base-layer, shell pants, and a wind jacket.
Chris gave us the signal to start climbing. I pulled up the “T” picket anchor, and we both climbed in tandem to save time. In a few minutes we reached Chris. We handed over the anchor. He verbalized my feelings about the weather conditions and finished by saying “The fastest way off this mountain is up and over.” Then up Chris went, into the increasingly sloppy 50 degree slope snow surface.
The Day Before the Climb, 8:30 a.m., June 30, 2008 – Forest Service Road 3512 below Cloud Cap Inn and Tilly Jane Campground , 4,900 feet elevation.
The drive from our link-up at Timberline Lodge was just enough time to get acquainted with each other. Mike and I happened to be the same age. Just like me, his wife and children were along for the ride to Oregon, but were entertaining themselves elsewhere. My wife, Alex, was with the kids (Christopher, 4 and Amelia, 7) heading to Hood River Railroad with my father and stepmother.
Mike Dietrich, a telecommunication executive from the D.C. area, successfully climbed Aconcagua and had some experience trekking in the Karakorum. His reasons for climbing reflected my own. It didn’t take long for me to like Mike. He was a man “haunted” by the high peaks of the world. Like me, he languished in an area of the continent not known for possessing an abundance of alpine terrain. We seemed to have both signed up to climb Mt. Hood’s Sunshine Route as a parole from our prison sentence in the lowlands.
Four years prior, I completed the Basic Climbing and Crevasse Rescue Course with Timberline Mountain Guides. Based out of Bend OR, TMG proved to be a good match for me. Their guiding and teaching philosophy stood out from the "just enough to get the huddled masses up a glaciated volcano and back" regimen practiced by many services. With TMG, if you paid attention, you picked up on the techniques that went beyond self-arrest familiarization. In less than a day their guides taught me how to tie more complex knots than anything I learned in four years of Boy Scouts.
My Cascade mountaineering adventures were interrupted by a deployment to Northern Iraq. Redeployment from Iraq was followed by a family move to Fort Polk, LA. Although the intervening three years in Louisiana were enjoyable, I yearned to kick snow in the Cascades again. My summer leave was coming up and I convinced my wife that a trip back to Oregon would be good for the soul. Although she was initially skeptical, Alex finally agreed to the plan. We rented a cabin with my father and step-mother in Government Camp, OR. That would be the family's base of operations while I took part in TMG's Mt. Hood "Northside" program.
As Chris drove us along winding roads leading to the Cooper Spur turn-off he discussed his experiences as a climber and the fact that he just came off the North Sister a couple of days prior. Born in England but raised in Pennsylvania, our guide proclaimed his preference to rock over snow. Despite this, however, he was looking forward to climbing the Sunshine Route for the first time.
The ride up to Cloud Cap Inn was looking good for the first few miles. The Forest Service began clearing the road of fallen trees. Just the week before TMG did a recon of the road and did not make it very far. The Forest Service came in right behind them and cleared a good ways up; but the effort stopped well short of Cloud Cap and Tilly Jane Campground. A fallen tree halted our drive on the primitive road. Chris parked his Subaru and we unloaded for a hike. Within a few hundred yards of our disembarking we would find out why the Forest Service stopped clearing. Deep snowbanks from late season snows covered sections of road. Clearing trees through these banks would only have invited disaster for motorists trying their luck.
A telephone line cut offered us a way to walk up through the remaining switchbacks. Chris led us up to where the lanes began to disintegrate. After a couple of hours of alternating between the cutoffs and switchbacks, we arrived at the Tilly Jane/Cloud Cap intersection. The three of us followed what looked like an old ski-lift line up a short distance to the Cloud Cap Inn. It was 11:15 a.m. There at the Cooper Spur trailhead we found our last opportunity to use a pit toilet and refuel. The weather was beautiful and warm. Things were looking good. We started out on the trail-proper at 11:45a.m.
The shade of the tree-line kept the initial part of the trail snow-covered. Once we started breaking into the transitional scrub the snows cleared up and gave way to the rock and pumice of the Cooper Spur moraine. Only a slight haze diminished the imposing view of the north side of Hood as we approached. After a little under an hour of steady hiking we dropped from the spur onto the lower aspects of the Eliot Glacier. Chris’s plan was to cross the glacier and ascend to the base of the snowdome portion (vicinity the Langille Crags) of the Sunshine Route. There we would camp and prepare for the summit bid.
We kicked snow for an hour. About 200 feet below the Eliot Glacier Icefalls we stopped at a rockpile to break and assess the weather. Chris was rightfully concerned about the conditions. Early in the evening the day before, a major squall rapidly ensconced the mountain with lightning strikes starting a fire near a ski area. A repeat of that event while we bivouacked on a high glacier wouldn’t be good. Forecasts indicated an increased chance for storm activity that afternoon. As he waited for a cell phone weather update from the TMG office, Chris mulled over the contingencies. After he discussed his concerns with us, he made the decision to retreat from our gains and move down closer to the tree-line back on the spur. We would start a few extra hours early tomorrow for the effort. Mike and I were disappointed but understood the decision.
The three of us descended back to our entry point onto the glacier and began backtracking to the tree-line. Chris took us off the trail and towards the west side of the spur and as we walked he briefly mentioned the Cooper Spur route option. At that mentioning, I looked to my right and up the Northeast Ridge of the Cooper Spur route.
“I like that option…a lot,” I said to Chris with Mike in earshot. I mulled over the fact that we were moving closer to its line and it offered a more rapid ascent from a lower (thus safer) jump off point. If it came to a vote, I knew what my decision would be.
After twenty minutes or so of walking across the moraine, we arrived at the stone shelter. Chris never used it before, but knew it was available for our use. We were the only group on the north side of Hood, so there were no concerns regarding sharing the site.
3:30 p.m., June 30, 2008 – The stone shelter on the Cooper Spur Trail (Trail 600B), 6,700 feet elevation.
It was a low “high camp”, but it gave us easy access to the most direct route to the summit known on Mount Hood. Chris stated that we would wait here and possibly move back up to regain our losses and move up to the snowdome camp above the Langille Crags. He registered my inclinations, but still kept the Sunshine Route as his primary option. I told him I am not married to any particular route as long as we were making a go of it. At this point Mike was mulling over the options as well. From our vantage point, the Northeast Ridge was a more imposing line. He stated that he never climbed anything like that despite his experiences in the Andes and Karakorum. I looked over to the Sunshine Route and noticed the bergschrund below Horseshoe Rock was wide and laterally stretched to the line of Cathedral Ridge. The only reasonable way around the ‘schrund was a narrow looking shelf of snow left and below Horseshoe Rock itself. Otherwise it was a long traverse to Cathedral Ridge for a final effort to the summit.
The only thing breaking the line to the summit via the Northeast Ridge was the upper rockbands known as The Chimneys; and I could trace the path through to the final slope. Both routes were feasible in my assessment. But the Cooper Spur-Northeast Ridge was the path of least resistance offering a speedier ascent and less exposure to weather changes. My mind was made up.
It seemed that Chris was thinking along those lines as well. He was making call about the possibilities back to the TMG office. Mike was still formulating his thoughts. As we snacked and took pictures while relaxing, he approached me and asked: “So…you think the Cooper Spur?” He looked for consensus on his reasoning. I paused before answering; understanding that my answer would probably send us down the path we would go.
“That’s my vote,” I replied quietly.
Within minutes the decision was made. Chris was melting snow with his stove and making trip calculations for the new route. Getting the go-ahead from the office, we made preparations for an 11:00 p.m. wake-up and midnight launch. Chris showed us how he was making the mathematical calculations for the timings. We then rehearsed the procedures for belayed pitches when the slope required protection. Falls from the Northeast Ridge were usually unstoppable, with only a few surviving down to the Eliot glacier. In this case a bergschrund “catch” under the North Face routes would be our resting place if the worst happened.
We ate dinner, filled our bottles, and spread out in the relatively cool atmosphere of the stone shelter. Chris settled down outside to monitor the weather. As the light slowly faded to twilight, I fidgeted in and out of sleep; finally dozing off after a couple of hours.
11 p.m., June 30, 2008 – The stone shelter on the Cooper Spur Trail (Trail 600B), 6,700 feet elevation. “Alpine Start”
I awoke to Chris cranking up his multi-fuel stove. He poked his head in the shelter and stated it was time to get moving for breakfast. Mike and I launched out of sacks and began preparing for the effort that would start an hour hence. Chris’s hospitality was marked by fresh French press coffee I gratefully accepted in my newly acquired silicon squishy mug. Two packages of instant oatmeal and I felt full and ready to go. One of my trekking poles was failing to collapse. It was never right after I repaired it during a Mt. Adams trip a few years prior. Not wanting to carry an antenna up the mountain when we switched to axes, I donated the single pole to anyone who came across it at the shelter.
It felt odd being warm at this time of night. I believe Mike was so used to donning layers in extreme environments that he put on too much clothing to suit me. Base layer, snowpants, socks, boots, head lamp stretched over my reversed sun hat; and that was it for me. I kept my wind jacket handy on the top of my pack when we reached the cooler temps higher up. One final check of equipment and off we went – midnight exactly.