PROLOGUEThere are certain mountains that continually leave some climbers feeling unfulfilled. These mountains might be different for different people, and for different reasons. A climber might encounter a particular mountain that always has some problem and/or feeling of unfulfillment associated with it. Whether it be bad weather conditions each time visited, or never attaining the summit, or gear malfunctions, or injuries always seeming to occur, some mountains just seem to have an ominous ability to curb the goals of certain climbers.
For me, personally, Mount Hood had thus far been just such a mountain. I had climbed the mountain three times during the past year, with varied success. It seemed like every time I climbed the mountain I was either recovering from injuries, with people who got sick (and we turned around as a result), or attained the summit only to have camera malfunctions ruining any summit photos. It was as if the mountain taunted me, as all I wanted was to reach the summit AND get photos from the summit while doing so (and a safe return, of course).
Recently, I had been planning some upcoming hiking and climbing trips. Some of these trips would involve snow travel, glacier travel, and/or multiple days to complete. I had a four-season tent and winter sleeping bag which I planned to use on those trips but had yet to ever try out. Rather than finding out for the first time if the equipment all works properly during those big future trips, I thought it would be best to truly test the equipment in advance. Considering Mount Hood has many aspects which could work to my advantage for testing the equipment, and because I had thus far felt unfulfilled with the mountain, I determined my opportunity to complete all of these goals could be accomplished with one overnight climbing trip on Mount Hood.
JUNE 6, 2009: THE CLIMB BEGINS
I left my house (in western Washington) during late morning of Saturday, June 6, 2009. When I turned off Highway 26 near Government Camp to head towards Timberline Lodge, I noticed the sky turned from blue and clear to fog and clouds. But then, when I arrived at the Timberline Lodge overnight parking lot by 3:00 PM, the sky was once again blue and clear. I took a couple of photos of the mountain, and then went inside the "Climbers Cave" to register. When I exited back towards my car after registering, only five minutes had passed but the entire mountain looked engulfed by a thick layer of clouds. Some people I met exiting the "Climber's Path" said it was a sudden whiteout everywhere. Fortunately for me, I had several things working in my favor. First, I had previously been to the mountain and had my prior routes programmed into my GPS device. Second, I still needed to change into my hiking/climbing clothes. Third, with the time only being shortly after 3:00 PM, I had plenty of time on my side.
By 3:30 PM I had changed my clothes and gotten my backpack completely prepared. The backpack weighed over 50 lbs, which was much more than I normally would bring to Mount Hood but I was trying to somewhat duplicate what I would be experiencing on some future mountaineering trips. I looked up at the mountain and the fog, clouds, and whiteout suddenly lifted, granting me the perfect opportunity to begin my ascent. I followed the "Climber's Path" (located east of the ski area) and turned around when I reached approximately 7000' elevation. Although my anticipated ascent route in front of me had perfect weather conditions, the clouds and whiteout conditions came back behind me and cut off all sight of the Timberline Lodge or the parking lot. I continued forward up the south side of the mountain. After approximately 8500' elevation, I was beyond the ski area and able to climb a mixture of snowy slopes with rocky slopes. This continued until approximately 9700' elevation, above which the route turned to solely snow and ice. During a rocky section between 9500' and 9700' elevations, I encountered several flat areas that would be suitable for tents. In fact, I saw one single-person tent, which would be the only other campsite on the south slopes of the mountain that night besides me, setup near the end of the rocky section. However, I really wanted to camp on snow, not rock, to truly test the performance of my four-season tent.
Knowing the terrain, I proceeded up snowy slopes to approximately 10,050' elevation. I reached that elevation at 7:30 PM, which meant I had climbed a fairly consistent 1000' elevation gain average per hour... my best ascent time on this particular mountain until that trip. Although the terrain was generally hilly at that area, I had seen multiple tents setup there in the past. Plus, I had some previous experience setting up a flat snow campsite. I found a small spot that was fairly level, only about 5-10 minutes from the top of the Hogsback but still far enough away to be shielded from the potent stenches of the mountain fumaroles. Suddenly, the wind, which had been fairly calm during most of my ascent, really started to blow hard. The sky around me was still clear but the wind was nearly knocking me down. It seemed like the wind was coming down at me from the center of the crater, increasing velocity with each gust. As I began to setup the tent, the wind kept trying to lift the tent from my hands like a kite or balloon. After I got my tent structure setup, I immediately threw my backpack into the tent to help keep it from flying away and then I looped the metal leash of my snow anchor to one pole and hard-pounded the snow anchor into the icy ground. Once that was secure, I then had the ability to focus my attention on the other corners of the tent. I put my tent stakes into the ground for each corner, but it almost seemed like the carnival game "Whack-A-Mole", where as soon as I tapped in one stake another would pop up from the heavy winds. Eventually, I was able to put in the corner stakes and cover over them with snow and ice for extra security (anticipating the ice would freeze atop each stake, which it would that night). Setting up the tent and securing it to the ground, a task which would typically only take me a few minutes to do, took me over an hour to do. Considering the strong winds might continue throughout the night but knowing no precipitation was forecasted, I opted not to use my tent footprint or rainfly... Those would have just been more items for the wind to try gusting away from me.
I crawled into the tent and took my sleeping bag out of my backpack. I was excited to use the sleeping bag, as it was my first down sleeping bag that had a waterproof shell. As I began laying in the sleeping bag, I placed the shirt I planned to wear for the summit attempt in my sleeping bag in addition to my contact lens case, camera, and GPS device. This was to help ensure those items would remain warm and dry. The wind was shaking the tent on all sides, becoming stronger with each gust. I laid diagonal across the floor while my backpack laid along the side of the tent being hit hardest by the wind, to help keep the wind from pushing up the tent too much. I fell asleep at 9:30 PM, then getting woken up by exceptionally large wind gusts an hour later. I looked outside and the silhouette of the mountain rocks could be seen in the darkness thanks to the full moon looming overhead to the east. I took a moment to enjoy the night landscape as the wind continued. I then fell asleep again, only to be woken up again by strong wind gusts hitting the tent, and this continued several times during the next couple of hours. Then, at about 1:00 AM that night, one enormous wind gust woke me up when it hit the tent, shaking it as if a Yeti were trying to get in. Strangely and suddenly, the wind seemed to stop blowing during the rest of my slumber that night, as if the mountain had given up trying to blow me off the slopes.
JUNE 7, 2009: THE MOUNTAIN GRANTS MY WISH
I woke up at 3:00 AM. I laid in my sleeping bag for a short time, thinking about my anticipated summit day, wondering what other things the mountain might try to prevent me from fulfilling my wish of getting summit photos. I then began packing my sleeping bag and other items into my backpack and then began disassembling the tent. With little to no wind blowing, Taking down the tent was a relative smooth task to perform. As I had guessed when I originally placed the tent stakes into the ground and covered over them with icy snow, that snow-cover froze during the night and hardened to create a more-secure holding mechanism for the stakes. Fortunately, the tent stakes were made out of materials not prone to natural freezing. By 3:55 AM, the tent was completely disassembled and packed, and a couple of men had ascended to my campsite to take a break. Down the slopes behind them I could see several groups also ascending the mountain. After a brief conversation with the two men, they continued their ascent and I followed behind them several minutes later at about 4:10 AM. The wind started blowing almost as soon as I began my ascent from the snow camp, as if to mock me.
I walked up to the "Hogsback" ridge, took a brief break to put on my windbreaker jacket, and then headed down the obvious path west of the Hogsback through snow, ice, and rock until I was at the base of the "Old Chute". Following a safe distance (in case of falling ice) from the two men ahead of me, I went up the left side of the chute along a path with a well-trodden ice-groomed boot path for most of the slope. By the time I reached the upper ridgeline at the top of the slope, I looked down the south slopes of the mountain and saw nothing but swarms of climbing groups approaching the Hogsback. I like to call that scene the "Mount Hood Superhighway". I continued east along the upper ridgeline, past the "knife edge" area, to the summit. I arrived at the summit, with camera functioning and spirits high, at 5:15 AM. The sun was just about to rise over the horizon, which was an awe-inspiring sight. I had multiple photos taken at the summit, finally with no camera problems or other complications. The two men were standing there with me and enjoying the beauty of the area. One of the men, John, told me this was his 46th State Highpoint and last State Highpoint which requires real climbing. His last four State Highpoints needed are Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan, which will all be done during one road trip, and then Hawaii. He told me he plans to finish with Hawaii, his 50th State Highpoint achieved, later this year when he turns 50 years old. Pretty interesting, and I wish him the best.
The two men began descending by 5:30 AM, with me a few minutes behind them. The opted to descend the right (east) side of the chute, while I chose to descend via the left (west) side of the chute that I had ascended. By the time I started descending down the slope, there were climbing groups seemingly everywhere converging at the lower portion of sections of the "Old Chute". Most of the earlier climbers opted for the same left/west path I had taken, but that eventually created such a logjam of people that later climbers began using paths on the right/east side of the slope. Either way, it created minor chaos for my descent, as each of my possible descent routes were being taken over by roped-up climbing groups. Following climber courtesy, I allowed ascending climbers to pass me. However, some would outright cut off my path with no warning, swinging over from distinct ascent path to another several feet away. This was especially bothersome for me when I had to step over group ropes for those groups choosing to cut off my path mid-group. This was the "Mount Hood Superhighway" having a congestion problem. I took my time, slowly descending while avoiding the ascending climbers as best I could. Most climbers I was near were friendly and courteous, and some offered "congratulations" to me while I offered "good luck" to them. I also gave multiple groups advice for the "Old Chute" slope and summit ridge, which most thanked me for providing and one group leader even giving me a new tip for something to try in the future with my ice axe. Climbers, as far as I am concerned, are a part of a community and sharing knowledge is a major part of keeping that community safe and strong.
When I reached the middle of the "Old Chute" slope, I looked down and noticed the entire Hogsback area and base of the "Old Chute" was consumed by a whiteout. Fortunately, I had made waypoints along the way and could still see my intended descent route leading to the base of the slope. By the time I eventually made it down to the bottom of the "Old Chute" slope, the clouds and whiteout conditions had subsided and the route was clearly visible. By 7:00 AM, I was back at my snow campsite, which by this time had apparently become a nice flat area for ascending climbers to leave their hiking poles and take breaks. I took a long break at the campsite to drink some Gatorade, which was partially frozen from the cold winds, and socialize with ascending climbers. One group of four people was comprised of a leader, a guy wearing a shower cap, a girl wearing pirate garb, and another girl wearing gangster garb. I think they were trying to show that it's OK to have fun doing what you love, in this case hiking and climbing.
I made a lot of brief stops during my descent to talk with other climbers. I was also took my time because, despite getting the summit photos I had wanted, I was not off the mountain yet and something unexpected could still happen. Fortunately, I made it back to my car safely at 9:45 AM, signed-out my registration to show as "Returned", and drove home. When I arrived back home and saw that the mountain photos from the trip looked good, I knew Mount Hood had finally granted and fulfilled my wish for the mountain.