I arrived in Portland in the late afternoon on Monday, July 8th. I spent a few hours wandering around downtown, stopping at the Mountain Hardwear store for a pack and eating some vegan food from a food truck (classic Portland). Mount Hood was clearly visible on this clear day from 50 miles away, and I enjoyed gazing at its classic volcanic shape while resting in a riverside park downtown. In the early evening I began the one hour drive to the Timberline Lodge.
The parking lot at the Timberline Lodge was nearly empty on this weekday night. In fact, I appeared to be the only climber around, a suspicion confirmed when I checked in at the "climber's cave." From the permits in the cave, I gathered that there was a pair of climbers on the mountain who had started during the day, presumably aiming for a nighttime summit. Cool. There were some lights moving around on the black hulk of the mountain above me, which I mistakenly thought were the headlamps of these climbers. As it turns out, these were massive snow grooming machines prepping the slopes for the next day. My sense of scale was off by an order of magnitude. I geared up and left the parking lot at 11:45, using the climber's trail to the east side of the slopes. This late in the season, there was a fair amount of bare ground. I spent a couple of hours hiking up alternating stretches of snow and rock. The bare ground turned out to be lateral moraine from Palmer Glacier. The crumbly, powdery, volcanic surface was more difficult to walk on than the snow, so I moved left onto the slopes of the ski resort, taking care to give a wide berth to the snow grooming machines. Once above the ski slopes, it was possible to remain entirely on snow, which was reassuringly firm underfoot. I put on crampons here.
On a Volcano
The slopes on the climb to Crater Rock remained remarkably constant. When I stopped for a rest break, I turned my headlamp to full power and looked around. To my left and right was a smooth snow slope extending beyond the range of my headlamp, curving sharply out of sight. Above me the snow slope continued. I turned off my headlamp. The silhouette of the summit ridge was only visible as a black patch against the shimmering tapestry of stars on this moonless night. The Milky Way was a stunning gauzy ribbon stretching from the horizon to the south and disappearing behind the ridge above. The lights of Portland were visible in the west. As my night vision improved I was able to make out the slopes around me. A powerful wave of disorientation and vertigo washed over me. There was a strong sense of standing on an icy cone thrust into the night sky. At this moment, I caught a whiff of sulfurous air exhaled from the depths of the mountain. I said aloud: "I'm standing on a volcano!"
Navigation on the upper slopes was merely a matter of aiming upwards at the black summit ridge, hiking steadily on good, firm snow. As I approached Crater Rock, the sulfurous emanations became more frequent. The smell is familiar but strange. The area around Crater Rock is known as the Devil's Kitchen, and I imagined Lucifer whipping up an omelet made from green-black eggs, sprinkled with iron filings, and salted with dessicated souls of the damned. I was getting loopy in this surreal environment. I pulled out my phone, and tried to match the photos of the mountain to the outline above me. The afterimage of the glowing screen refused to superimpose itself nicely onto the shapes above. I decided to continue. Suddenly, I noticed bootprints in the snow. Soon I saw more. Like a waterhole in the desert, Crater Rock draws all paths in to a single point. After hours of hiking on untouched snow, I was now cruising up a well-worn path.
In the Crater
Crater Rock is the remnant of the old crater wall which collapsed at some point in the past, leaving a gap into the caldera which I was now taking advantage of. There are fumaroles here, actively venting steam. The rocks are smeared with yellowish exudate. There is no doubt that geothermal forces are still percolating beneath the surface. Having gained entry into this volcanic hollow, I realized that the snow was starting to slope more steeply away on both sides of the well-worn trail I was now on. I paused. In the pre-dawn murk I could make out Crater Rock (behind me now) and the ridgeline above me. One of the spikes on that ridgleine was the summit. I sat down in the snow and ate, waiting for more light. After a while the scene before me clarified itself: I was on the beginning of the Hogsback!
The Way Up
From a comfortable position on the lower Hogsback, Crater Rock behind me, I examined the possible routes. The Hogsback itself leads across the caldera to the north side, steepening as it goes. A bergschrund forms about two-thirds of the way up, and on this late-season morning, it gaped monstrously for fifty meters on both sides of the Hogsback. Additionally, the Hogsback appeared to terminate in some vertical rock notches below the summit ridge. Even if I had been inclined to bypass the bergschrund, the final section up through the rock was steep and icy. Apparently, in some years, the Hogsback aligns nicely with one or more of the notches in the summit ridge (the Pearly Gates) and allows a fairly straightforward ascent. That was not the case this year. On the other hand, the slope to the west of the Hogsback, the Old Chute, looked manageable. There were significant runnels channelling the surface, and some evidence of rockfall, but everything was calm and frozen into place this morning.
Looking across at the bergschrund on the Hogsback from Old Chute
The Old Chute
To get to the Old Chute, one descends off of the Hogsback to the left, between some steaming vents called Hot Rocks, and onto the base of the slope. At this time of year, there was a significant patch of bare ground at the bottom, and the remaining ice was heavilly fissured. Despite the presence of a well-defined footpath, the first few hundred feet of traversing and climbing was unnerving. More than once, as the trail transitioned from rock to ice and back again, there were sections of ice that seemed severely undercut and weakened by melting. Fortunately, once at the base of the Old Chute, the way forward was on solid frozen snow. Climbing the lower part of the Old Chute is very straightforward, with a slope of about 30 degrees. It seems as if everyone picks his own way up, so there is no established boot track, at least this year. As I got higher up in the chute, I started to become aware of the exposure, and began firmly planting my ice axe and carefully attending to my crampon placement. The runout on this slope is into the jumble of rocks and crevasses, some of which were venting sulfurous gas. While the slope itself was not terribly difficult, the prospect of an unarrested tumble depositing my mangled body into a steaming portal to Hell kept me attentive. It was methodical work, ascending the chute.
Looking up at the Old Chute, from the Hogsback
After 30 minutes of climbing, I was nearing the top of the Old Chute. The slope had increased to forty degrees or so, and I was acutely aware of the long ride down behind me. I was using my axe in the piolet-panne - low dagger - position now, and occasionally scrabbling for a hold with my left hand as well. If I had had a second tool I would have been happy to use it here. About 30 meters below the ridge, the ice bulged out slightly, increasing the angle to near 50 degrees for a stretch of about 5 meters. I paused below this stretch, and hacked out a platform to stand and rest in. My hands were cramping a bit from the death-grip I'd been giving the axe, and the first whisperings of doubt trickled through my brain. Objectively as possible, I assessed the risks and decided that I had the right skills and gear to pull it off. I continued up, occasionally kicking my crampons in four or five times, and looking for features in the surface where I felt they would get better purchase. Near the top of the bulge, as I brought my eyes up to place the axe again, I found myself staring into a horizontal fissure. It was only about 30 centimeters wide, but it was deep, and the bottom disappeared into the ice. The sides of the crack went from white near the surface, to a deep glacier blue, to black. As I stood there in my exposed position, a cold breath of air brushed my face from the depths, an exhalation from the living ice. The hair on my neck stood up, and I began to notice small sounds coming out of this crack, as if small animals were at work in the depths. I came to realize that this fissure was the bergschrund for the slope. I traversed right with a real sense of urgency until I was around this crack. There were a couple of additional moves upward which took place in that hyperclarified space at the edge of panic, and I noticed that I had been talking to myself during those moves. Then, I was above the crack, and the slope lessened again.
As I topped out on the ridge, then sun began to rise, and the brilliant light refracted through the translucent edge of the cornice ice like a ribbon of fire. I was ecstatic. From the top of the Old Chute to the summit proper is a knife-edge walk of about 150 meters. The National Park Service climbing conditions report for the previous week describes it thusly, "to one side of the ridge there is a 2000 foot drop, to the other side is a 150 foot drop." Buffeted by the wind, I followed the remnant of the packed-down boot trail. Portions of the summit traverse were actually on bare rock, which is markedly different from earlier in the season, so I've been told.
Looking towards the summit from the top of the Old Chute
At the summit, I exulted in the sun and wind. There were at least six volcanoes visible from the summit. I signed the summit register, which was a handsome leather-bound journal. Keep it classy, Oregon.
Mount Hood's summit register, with Mount Jefferson in the distance
Surrounded by volcanoes.
From left to right, the truncated dome of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams
Looking from the summit back towards the top of the Old Chute
On the descent of the chute, I met a party of three ascending. We were all spread out across the chute. As I conversed with one man, another member of their party shouted, "Rock!" He had spotted a softball-sized chunk break off the face on the west side of the chute, no doubt liberated by the sun's rays which were just beginning to hit the rock there. All four of us watched tensely as the rock accelerated and caromed down the chute. It took unpredictable bounces on the rough ice, and I shifted my weight back and forth, trying to read the line it was taking. As it got closer I tensed in preparation for a last second dive, axe at the ready. It whizzed by to my left, 3 meters away. Seconds later a small cascade of ice and snow that had been knocked loose hissed by. I have read that a rock of that size can break your arm at that speed. I was glad to have my helmet. Readrenalized, I hustled down.
Back at Crater Rock (Old Chute visible in upper left corner)
This mountain is loads of fun. Just be prepared for a bit of exposure, and if you go late in the season, watch for crevasses, weakened snow bridges and rockfall. Get up and down when everything is still frozen. This mountain receives heavy visitation, but if you go on a weekday outside of peak season, you might get lucky like me and have the place to yourself.