From Timberline Lodge to the Summit and Back
Thursday, July 21st
We arrived at Timberline Lodge after a 3 ½ our drive from Mount Rainier. We planned to get to Timberline, repack our gear, get some food and a little bit sleep and then go for the summit around 11pm. The weather, however, wasn’t cooperating. When we went by the Mount Hood Inn to rent an MLU (avalanche locator), Jody overheard the clerks talking about a storm system moving in later that night bringing rain and thunderstorms. Jody figured this was the same front that had given us high winds at Rainier.
While the prospects were not good for climbing later that night, we decided to go for a short hike around 5pm to get a closer look at the summit crater. Scanning the area below the summit, we could identify several features, including the Pearly Gates, the Chute, Hogsback ridge, and Crater Rock. We weren’t sure, however, just how we were supposed to approach Crater Rock to get on the Hogsback. Jody felt that we should pass the Rock on the lower right side and then climb on up to the Hogsback. I was less certain and wondered if we were supposed to pass on the left.
As we were talking, we noticed 3 climbers trying to make their way off the Hogsback and past Crater Rock. We decided to watch them for a while to see what route they took. Monitoring their progress through our binoculars, we became increasingly concerned by their slow pace and erratic movements. To us, it seemed they weren’t sure how to climb down past Crater Rock. As the minutes dragged by, I sat and stared at the mountain as the climbers alternately sat, stood, walked around, and then sat down again on a large rocky ledge. Jody decided to hike a little further and scout out the area.
After about 30 minutes, the climbers finally moved off the right side of Crater Rock and then down on to the final ridge and lower snowfield. I was glad to see these guys get off the mountain safely so late in the day (we learned later it was a father and two young sons). With the weather closing in, it was not a good time to be at altitude. And now we knew that Jody’s estimate was right and we had our route to the summit.
It started raining shortly after we got back to the Lodge. The summit was totally hidden by clouds. Later, a clash of thunder and lightening put an end to the issue. There would be no summit tonight.
Friday July 22nd
We woke the next morning to clouds and a good breakfast in the Lodge dining room. Though the buffet wasn’t quite as good as the one at Paradise Inn, it did provide a do-it-yourself waffle maker that Jody enjoyed quite a bit. We returned for second and even third helpings, building up our reserves for the climb.
After making arrangements for another night’s stay, we slipped on our small packs and headed up the mountain for some route finding and acclimatizing. While the weather conditions were still very uncertain (clouds, fog, and wind), we hoped that the forecast for clearing by midnight would hold true and we would get our shot at the summit.
We started out at the Climber’s Trailhead just below Timberline Lodge. In the parking lot, a group of 10 from a local Mountaineering Club was milling around, getting ready to head up. Jody had talked to one of the ladies from the club during breakfast. They were basically a novice group being lead by an instructor from the community college. Looking at the group, we were a bit concerned. Several were not dressed very appropriately (cotton, short sleeves, etc.) and the instructor was overweight and a bit overbearing, not to mention overly talkative. He was definitely out to impress and establish his credentials.
We let them start out ahead of us, but soon caught up at a nearby clearing where the instructor seemed to be diligently instructing them in their first instructions. We stepped through as quickly as possible and kept on going up the path. The trail was similar to Rainier, but more like an alpine desert with low brush and scattered wildflowers, eerie bleach-white tree trunks that resembled dinosaur bones sticking out of the ground, and clusters of short cedars. We followed the trail up to where it briefly angled toward a gravel road leading up to Silcox Hut. At that point, thinking it would be easier to follow the road in the dark anyway, we stepped over and continued toward the hut. The sky was still very overcast, with strong gusts of wind that occasionally made walking quite difficult.
The hike was great for loosening up our leg muscles. By the time we reached Silcox Hut at 7000 feet, we were feeling relaxed and strong; better, in fact, than I thought we would be after summiting Rainier earlier in the week. We set our packs down and rested in a corner between the entrance and outside wall of the hut dining area. It was a perfect place to get out of the wind for a while and eat some lunch.
As we ate our bagels and peanut butter M&M’s, strong wind gusts swirled the clouds around the hut. Despite the gloomy weather at the moment, we held fast to our faith in the weather report and talked about the need for continuing further up to become even more familiar with the route. We also decided we would set up rock cairns along the way to make the going easier in the early morning dark. They might also be helpful if conditions took a turn for the worse during our climb and we found ourselves in a whiteout situation.
As we were finishing our lunch, the group of 10 novices walked up, ready to take a break themselves. We started talking to a couple members of the group, and, sure enough, their leader broke in, just to make sure we were aware that he had climbed Shasta and Rainier. Something about he had forgotten the Shasta hat he normally wears. He also told us that he planned for the group to camp at 9800 feet and leave around 5:30am for the summit. We thought that seemed to be a bit late, particularly given the size of the group and their relative lack of experience, but didn’t say anything. We didn’t want to risk the perception that we were questioning his expertise and end up in another head-guy-out-to-impress conversation.
After some well wishes and a few goodbyes, we headed on up the trail in the mist. We veered to the right, over toward one of the ski slopes. There were several interweaving trails, none looking more promising than the others, so we just chose one and set up cairns at regular intervals. We were in no rush at all, and when I noticed that the group of ten had passed us to the left, it was with a sigh of relief.
After reaching about 8000 feet, we decided to head back to the Lodge. We wanted to make sure we would have time to organize our packs, prepare food, and get some sleep. As we hiked back down, the clouds parted occasionally and let us see a little bit of blue. Just enough to give us a little more hope and motivation to prepare for the climb.
Once at the Lodge, we went straight to our rental vehicle and started organizing our packs and gear for the climb. We didn’t even take time for dinner, but just had a snack instead. By 6:30pm we were in our bunk, z-z-z-z-zed to the world.
We woke at 10pm, tired and dragging. These are times that can try a team’s soul. As we made our final preparations, I realized it would be good to eat something hot and substantial before heading out. I also remembered a trip report I’d read that said nothing was available at the Lodge late at night. Not to be discouraged, I recalled that the Ramshead Bar was open until 11pm, so we headed up the stairs with the hope that they were still serving food. They were!
We sat down at a low table with a large window and a brilliant view of Mount Hood under bright stars and a glowing full moon. The weather was with us! We devoured our ham sandwiches, complete with Swiss cheese, Dijon mustard and caramelized onions. And though I may be a semi-vegetarian who doesn’t like onions, this was one fantastic sandwich. Two cups of caffeine loaded, sugar filled coffee and we were headed out the door.
The climbing gods were with us. What a beautiful night! With little need for headlamps to find our way, we let our eyes adjust to the morning darkness and, at 12:35am, took our first few steps up the trail.
For the first part of the climb, we simply re-traced our steps along the road to Silcox Hut. We caught up to one climber resting at the hut on one of the picnic tables. As we approached, he finished his snack, and without talking headed up the slope. Sitting in the darkness, we watched the headlight of another climber coming up behind us. Otherwise, we had the night to ourselves.
While it was chilly, and we had a light breeze, we both felt warm, relaxed, and ready to head up the mountain. After a short break, we readjusted our packs, grabbed our poles, and headed up in the general direction, though not by the same route, that we had scouted previously. Instead, we kept the ski lift on our left in sight and stayed on higher ground as we approached the ski and snowboard slopes. As we walked up toward a parked Cat sitting somewhat menacingly on the side of the ski run, Jody suggested we strap on our crampons and do a more direct climb up the slope. We figured it would be faster than weaving around the dirt paths and certainly more fun. With our crampons straps snug and ice axes in hand, we pointed in and headed up. This was rather steep stuff for two drowsy climbers, but enjoyable as a nice warm-up for the climb we faced in the crater above. The slope was a sheet of ice and, knowing that any little slip would send us hurtling back to the Lodge, we had to focus our attention on the task at hand and keep our technique clean. A very good idea on Jody’s part.
Eventually, we made it to the end of the slope and passed the ski left terminal. For the next hour or so, we made our way through interconnecting patches of snow, trying to stay off rock as we approached the base of the main snow field below the crater. Around 4:45am, we passed 9800 feet and, to our left, the camp of 10 inexperienced climbers we had met the previous day. Since their talkative leader told us his plan was to head out at 5:30am, we expected the group to be up and packing. We were a bit alarmed to only see a couple of people milling about-- one lady going to the bathroom and another climber shaking sleepy muscles awake. Everyone else seemed to be in-bag. Not a good sign. We detoured quietly around the teetering alpinist squatting in the middle of the slope and pointed our boots toward Crater Rock.
The climb up and around Crater Rock was easier than expected. We found it to be just a nice gradual, sloping traverse leading to the Hogsback. Any danger of rock fall would most likely wait until our return. In the early morning sun, we caught the first hints of sulfur from Devil’s Kitchen. I couldn’t help but be a little alarmed as I remembered the warnings of death by asphyxiation if you get totally dense and hang around the fumaroles too long. We kept moving. A climber in his 20’s passed us at this point, making really good time in the snow. He presented quite an interesting picture with his old school (as in George Mallory old) hobnail boots and long wooden handle ice axe. A traditionalist at heart. You had to admire him.
The traverse around Crater Rock led to the Hogsback snow ramp. We stopped for a 15-minute break at the base of the Hogsback for water, a snack, and a little bathroom relief. Off to the side we could see steam rising from the yellow, sulfur stained rock. Jeez, this thing is a real volcano!
I’d loved to have stayed longer at this spot and taken in more of the world around me. The morning was passing, however, and we wanted to climb the Chute and get up through the Pearly Gates as early as possible. We knew that the Chute was steep with a serious danger of ice and rock fall from rising temperatures, so it was best to throw the packs on and head up.
The climb up the Hogsback was steeper than I expected but mercifully short. Soon we began the traverse over to the Chute, crossing between two parallel crevasses before turning on a direct ascent toward the Pearly Gates. The snow was in great shape and we were climbing strong so I decided against roping up. I was confident that if one of us fell it would be easy to self-arrest. And I was more concerned that roping up would make the climb more difficult and actually increase chances for a fall. So we continued sans rope, relieved that the Gates weren’t jammed up with other climbers and we could cruise right through without waiting.
Once beyond the Gates, we knocked out the final slog up the slope to the summit, topping out at 8:15am. We did it! A wonderful climb in absolutely gorgeous weather. We dumped the packs, pulled out some chocolate chips Jody brought along for the occasion, and soaked in the view. Off in the distance, we could see the peak of Mount Rainier. The previous Monday we had been standing over there looking out at Mount Hood! And nearby, Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens.
A friendly climber who had come up a different route volunteered to take our summit picture. While figuring out where we wanted to stand for the shot, we noticed a small prescription vial in the snow, apparently containing a tribute to a climber. Jody moved it a bit so the wind couldn’t blow it off the summit. Once the picture of both us had been taken, we took a few shots of each other on top of the summit cornice, and then prepared for the descent. We had to get down quickly.
We roped up for the descent, with Jody in the lead. Temperatures were rising, the snow was deteriorating, and there was a very real danger of falling into the crevasses below. We took our time, through and beyond the Gates, using our axes to maximum effect. By taking turns down-climbing and then planting our axes deep in the snow as anchors for each other, we were confident we could handle any sudden fall. And we didn’t rush, even though the ever-growing danger of ice and rock fall gave us good reason to get down and out of this section as quickly as possible.
I first noticed a few random balls of ice falling from the rock walls on both sides. And then a small rock or two occasionally. But as we continued methodically on the descent, the amount of ice and rock falling increased, as did the speed with which they fell. And though the first bit of fall was off to our sides, it now seemed to be coming straight at us. As I anchored off each time for Jody, I would turn my head to see what was coming and it was an increasingly alarming site.
“Rock! Rock! Rock!” I’m not sure Jody always or ever heard me, but it felt great to yell anyway. And there was a lot to yell about. We were in the midst of some serious rock fall. I watched one sharp-edged rock come off the wall above me, bounce, hit the snow, and bounce again, rapidly picking up speed, as it turned end over end, coming straight at us. Did I have my helmet on? Well, the strap had been bothering me, and it was a pain, so.…. Hell, no. How stupid. At least Jody had hers on.
I couldn’t move-- first, because I was Jody’s anchor as she was down-climbed, and second, because any movement might in be the wrong direction and get me creamed by this spinning death rock. Before I could flinch, the rock streaked past me at head level, about a foot away from my nose, and cut a trajectory straight between me and Jody, missing her by only a couple of feet. Time to move.
With rock screaming around us, we made it down to the crevasses and began the traverse back to the Hogback. Once there, the rock fall danger would decrease significantly, and we could be on our way. YEAH! Somewhere around this point, I realized that we had not seen the group of 10 lately. We had noticed them below us earlier, coming around Crater Rock to the Hogsback as we were climbing the Chute, but now they were nowhere to be found. Either they had run out of time or something had gone wrong.
We finished our descent to the Hogsback in great spirits, once there taking another rest stop for snacks, water, and pictures. We also packed up the rope and our ice axes, and pulled out our hiking poles. A few more climbers had arrived, preparing to make the climb to the summit. We warned them about the rock fall and wished them well. Later, from below, we saw them successfully make the Gates to the summit and then complete the return trip down the Chute safely.
The descent past Crater Rock was just pure joy. A little bit of glissading. Great chatter about the climb and brilliant weather. Joking about the sulfur. All very nice. At 9800 feet we came upon the camp site of the group of 10 and found them all out and moving about, apparently in the first stages of tearing down their tents. Jody was able to pick out the ladies we had spoken to earlier and start up a conversation. Sure enough, here comes Leader Guy to take charge of the situation, walking up just as one of the ladies was rather glumly answering Jody’s question about whether they had a good time. Leader Guy jumped in to tell us that one of the fellows in the group had been hit by a rock on the leg as they traversed through the crevasses to the Chute. Seems he got smacked fairly good, at least to the extent that Leader Guy decided they shouldn’t go on any further. For a whole host of reasons that was probably a good idea. At any rate, Leader Guy explained that the injured party was doing okay now and they had a great day. As we’re saying goodbye, two other members of the group were heading over to their Leader-designated water source, a pool of snow melt at the edge of some nearby rocks. The best we could surmise, they had been drinking this stuff since yesterday without any treatment to kill the baddies. I couldn’t help but think of their group mate doing her thing in the morning dark a short distance away from, and above, where they were standing. Such are the things that happen on mountains.
Once below 8000 feet, we entered Snowboard Land. While I ski a little bit, I have never tried snowboarding out of fear of the certain death that would follow. My sons are great at it, though, and I respect anyone who can pull it off without major injury. I figured the people who both operate and enjoy this enterprise would probably not appreciate two climbers pointing down their groomed runs (the fact that we went up them earlier should remain a secret), so, noticing a sign with the word “CLIMBERS” in very big red letters and a very big arrow underneath, we headed in the indicated direction of said pointed arrow. I didn’t stop to think that the sign, which was leaning precariously, might be in the wrong place or facing the wrong direction. I am still not sure. But I know from subsequent events that we shouldn’t have paid it any attention.
If we had just hiked down in the grass and dirt beneath the ski lifts, we’d have been back at the Lodge in about an hour. But n-o-o-o-o-o-o-o. Trying to be good, we headed in the opposite direction and ended up searching vainly for a path atop rocky ridgelines and down deep ravines. Not good. We got so far down in one of these long ravines, we couldn’t see anything but sky and could only guess where we should exit this thing to get back to Timberline. Like we could even exit. The steep walls of this ravine were nothing but very loose gravel and skree. Not good. But we are determined, like settlers in the Donner Pass.
Finally, I was able to traverse across and gradually slide and scramble up the right ravine wall. Once on top, I could see the Lodge and also see that if we just kept heading down the ravine we would eventually come to a path leading home. I made my way back down to Jody, with a flower in hand to make the moment better (I know…. but Leave No Trace has its limits in extreme situations right?). My good news seemed to lift her spirits a bit, and 20 minutes later we were back at Timberline. Tired, dusty, thirsty, and sunburned, but we were back. A great climb.