The PlanningMy wife and I just recently got into mountaineering and, as a result, had spent the last 5 months training hard leading up to this trip. Aside from the regular book-reading and gym workouts, we'd spent almost every weekend since February hiking and climbing local mountains. The genesis of this adventure came as a result of much scheming (read: dreaming) between fellow SP'er and good friend Rob Ricks and I. We had begun to chat regularly via private messages and before you know it, we we're planning climbs all over the place! He had already made plans to climb Mount Hood via the Sunshine route on June 30th, 2008 and had made the suggestion that for our first big mountain, we try Hood, as that was his first foray into mountaineering, as well. In addition to having a great time on the mountain, we'd also be able to meet up with Rob and his family, since he would be there for his climb.
Soon after this discussion, we had sealed the deal with Timberline Mountain Guides for their Mount Hood Summit Program, which included a one-day basic snow course as well as a snowcat ride to the top of the Palmer lift and a summit attempt via the standard South Side route. We were rather excited, but also rather nervous about whether our physical conditioning would pay off enough to put us in line for a solid attempt for the summit. Marnie and I ramped up our training in anticipation of the big weekend. The final week leading up to the trip, I think we came to the conclusion that our fitness levels wouldn't change drastically enough in the following days to impact our performance on the mountain, so we promptly transitioned from excited and nervous to panic mode. Although, as we would soon learn, there was nothing to be worried about...
The TMG Basic Snow CourseAfter having driven for most of the previous day and settling into our hotel, we spend the last few hours before going to bed speculating as to what was in store for us the next morning at the TMG basic snow course. We loaded our packs and decided to try to get some rest and just see what would happen. Upon getting to the Timberline Lodge, we quickly found our way into the Wy'East Day Lodge, where TMG has a small preparation room/office area in which to pack up. We immediately met the other nine people who would be taking the snow course with us as well as the two guides, David and John.
Initially there was a bit of confusion about who would be on which team with which guide, but we worked that out quickly once a series of around-the-room introductions identified a party of five friends who had planned to climb together. The five Portland natives and TMG guide John became a team and the remaining group of us plus TMG guide David formed up the second team. As we began to head out to the mountain for a day of training, our climbing guide, Geoff came back in straight from a full night of climbing with another guided group that went up the South Side. It was at this time when we met him and our soon-to-be teammate, Mike. Geoff assured us that, after having gotten a quick few hours of sleep in his car, he would be ready to do it all over again with Mike, Marnie, and I. So with that, and feeling good about who we were climbing with later that night, we headed out to learn some snow skills.
The class was actually very informative and covered all the basics of snow travel. Our three points of balance, duck steps, rising traverses, various ascent/descent techniques, turns, shaft plants, self-belay ax position, and a number of other movement and protection skills. We also spent a fair amount of time short-roped into our guide David. We climbed up and down a 25 - 30 degree snow slope using the skills we had learned, but adding them to use on a rope team. We simulated a few random falls and slides so that we could get a feel for how to arrest a teammate's fall. We also learned how a T-anchor can be used as protection on a rope team. Crampon use, harness use, and rope-up rules of thumb closed out the day. The class ran from 9AM until about 2:30PM and after finishing it, we were hungry, tired, and anxious to get back to the hotel to attempt to get some rest.
In the DarkWhen we got back to the hotel, we made a few adjustments to our pack loads and bagged a few more snacks and then got to bed. Now, I'll tell you something...I don't know how people actually get sleep at 3PM when they know they need to get up in a few hours to climb a mountain! My first experience with attempting this ended in me getting about an hour of decent sleep. The rest of the time I was tossing and turning, going over scenarios in my head, and all together getting excited about the upcoming night's events. Marnie didn't do much better than I did, estimating to have only slept for around 2 or so hours.
Once we were up and ready, we headed out to the Timberline Lodge. We got to the staging area and met our teammate MIke at around 12:15AM. We exchanged some stories and shared in the excitement for and the anticipation of the experience that lay ahead. It turns out that this would be Mike's third try at reaching the summit of Mount Hood. He had been turned back the first time due to weather a few years back. The second time, he had made it to the top of the Hogsback, to learn that he had broken his hand somehow and decided that it would be best to turn around. This time, he was hopeful that conditions would favor a summit in the following hours. Just then, our guide Geoff showed up and informed us of the lightning storm that seemed to be making its way up from Mount Jefferson towards us...We watched it for a good 40 minutes trying to track its movement and behavior until the team decided that it was still safe to get moving.
The snowcat arrived at about 1AM and by 1:15AM, we were at about 8350' and to the east of the top of the Palmer Ski Lifts. After doing a final gear check, we set off up the dark snow slopes with only the sounds of crunching ice and snow beneath our feet and the occasional flash of lightning from far to our south. Geoff set out pace nicely with 5 minute breaks every 1 hour and an ascent rate of approximately 900' per hour. He ensured us that we were making good time and doing well, which definitely helped with the confidence level.
Our first stop was at the top of the Triangle Moraine, where we spent a few minutes charting the progress of the storm that had been threatening our climb since we noticed it in the parking lot. It seemed to have calmed down significantly by this point, easing our concerns that we'd have to make a speedy retreat back to the safety of the Lodge. After a few bites of salami and cheese, I shed a layer and prepared for the next hour of climbing. Around this time was our first realization that we were on a volcano, as evidenced by the sudden, obnoxious sulphur odor. Most of the time, the wind would keep it bearable; however, there were a few times when I swear I could see a colored cloud float pass me forcing the rope team into a barrage of "Damn man, what did you eat last night?!" comments. Good fun...
Another hour passed and we took a brief rest stop about 300' below the Hogsback. Now well within the crater, the odor was more constant, but by that time, I think we all had grown accustomed to it. Marnie commented that she'd not been bothered by it as much as we had, given that, as a surgical nurse, she's used to dealing with odors that would make Mount Hood smell like a heap of roses. Again, laughs all around and up we continued, in good spirits.
To the top!
Upon reaching the Hogsback, we began roping up for the final 1000' climb to the crater rim and ultimately the summit. There were a few other teams that had already begun up the Old Chute as well as a team that had somehow found a way to justify a rather dangerous ascent up the Hogsback to the Pearly Gates, which we were told by our guides was terribly unsafe this season. With Geoff in the lead, then Marnie, me, and finally Mike on the rope, we descended the west slope of the Hogsback towards the Hot Rocks, where we climbed briefly up to the base of the Old Chute. By now, it was just beginning to lighten up in the sky and the feeling was amazing to be where we were at that exact moment.
Looking up the Old Chute a few things came to mind. It's actually a bit more steep than I originally expected, there seemed to have been a fair amount of rock and ice fall as evidenced by the debris field-like appearance of the upper slope, and we we're actually in a position to top out very soon! Marnie and I exchanged a smile as we started up the steep slope, both of us knowing that we'd somehow made it to the final and most strenuous portion of the climb and we still felt like a million dollars! Geoff told us that this was the part during which many people slowed down or grew extremely winded or tired, but Marnie and I would have none of that. We felt great and were ready to get moving. Our teammate Mike was starting to feel the burn and we responded as a team by slowing the pace to accommodate him, but also making it clear that we could sit around all morning, as rock and rime ice were already beginning to come down.
As we moved up the Old Chute, we had a few incidents where a team above us, who was not traveling in the boot tracks, had dislodged the upper crust of the slope, sending hard ice and snow down on us. We ducked down and dodged a number of bullets until the Geoff yelled at them for being so irresponsible and unsafe. Marnie got smacked in the wrist by a decent piece of ice, but was thankfully not injured at all. That situation, combined with several run-ins with people who decided they were above wearing helmets or using other forms of protection, gave us the feel that we were back on the amateur trails of our local mountain hikes. It's amazing what types of people come to the mountains and how terribly unprepared they are...I diverge.
At about three-quarters the way up the Old Chute we reached the crux of the cllimb, which manifested itself as a brief section of 48-degree (measured by our guide) snow. We then reached the top of the Chute and, for the first time, got a glimpse of the sun and the north side of Mount Hood. After quickly snapping off a dozen photos, we headed across a very narrow, knife-edge ridge that separates the top of the Old Chute from the summit proper. We were informed that this area was especially treacherous and that we needed to concentrate and pay attention, as the recent heat had caused it to melt out to a twelve-inch boot path with a lot of exposure on either side. After successfully navigating the ridge, we made it to the summit at around 5:45AM!
At this point it was difficult to describe the feelings that Marnie and I had...we did it. Wow! We had just topped out on our first big mountain adventure and it felt unlike anything I've previously experienced. First and foremost, I was proud as hell of Marnie and then of our team for performing so well. I proceeded to take a number of pictures of the sunrise and other features of the mountain, as well as the obligatory summit team photo!
Having spent a good 30 - 40 minutes on top, we began to make our way back down the way we came, with the exception that we took what the local guides refer to as the 2 'o clock Couloir instead of the Old Chute Proper. This allowed us to descend without the need to cross the narrow ridge back to the top of the Chute. The Couloir is a small chute nestled between two massive rock buttresses just east of the Old Chute Proper. The down climb was a great experience, but the quickly softening snow was making things more and more difficult to negotiate. We played the "one step down, two slides down" game because of how loose and sloppy the slope was getting. We moved very quickly down the Chute to the Hot Rocks so as to minimize our exposure to the increasing rock and ice fall hazard that was beginning to present itself.
After reaching the Hogsback, we broke rope and began our slow and frustrating snow slog back down to Timberline. By this point, the snow was beginning to turn to mush under our feet, so we attempted to move as quickly as possible without endangering our legs and knees. Post-holing became a common occurrence until we happened upon a series of glissade chutes below Triangle Moraine. Marnie absolutely loves glissading, ever since doing it for the first time on Mount Rainier on our descent from the Muir Snowfield, so you can imagine she was like a blood hound for these things...finding them everywhere and, after determining a safe runout, blasting down them one at a time! I even followed in her butt path a few times, only to find that my hips were not as narrow as hers and the previous chute riders...ouch!
In the end, we made it back to the parking lot at 10AM and took one last picture of the team with Mount Hood standing proud in the background. We exchanged information, as Mike was interested in keeping the team together for future climbs and we headed our separate ways, thankful to have had such a rich and rewarding experience on our first big mountain!