Mt Hood Trip Report – June 29/30 2002 and June 16/17 2004One can be easily persuaded that Hood, by the standard South Side route, is a walk in the park. Summit Post tells us that it has reputedly been summited by a “woman in high heels” and certainly dogs get up it regularly. Nevertheless, it kills a lot of people. In 2002 alone 4 died and fortune alone kept the toll down after a rescue helicopter crashed. In 1986, 9 climbers, including 7 students, died when they were trapped on the mountain by bad weather. The single greatest objective danger on the mountain is probably its popularity and the number of people, many of them with little or no experience, that this brings. With all these issues is mind, my buddy Graham and I left Victoria on June 29, 2002 cautious but with no serious doubts about summiting. The mountain had been re-opened on June 7, just after the authorities had removed the last of the debris from the helicopter crash!
With hindsight we still took it all far too lightly. What we undertook was, in fact, a day trip starting in Victoria, BC! Up at 5 am to get the 7 am ferry, we drove into Timberline Lodge at the base of the mountain at about 5 pm to find the place crawling with rubber neckers from Portland, skiers/boarders and the occasional climber or two. As my diary notes, the weather was “fair to bad” and the one climber I spoke to said that no-one had summited that day.
For any horror film fans reading this, “The Shining” is a classic of the genre. I am a fan and since the exteriors for the film were all done at Timberline, I couldn’t wait to look around inside. What a disappointment! No sinister hallways, no echoing main hall, not a twin in sight and not even a maze outside. Instead, an old fashioned cosy relic of the 30’s (it was built in 1936) brought up to modern standards. Except, apparently, for the soundproofing. Every room is provided with a complimentary set of earplugs, thereby establishing climbing hut flavour in the midst of all this luxury. Not for us hardy souls though; it’s off to camp for us. However, it’s weekend. All the NFS campgrounds are full and there’s still too much snow to open the climbers’ campgrounds anywhere near Timberline. So it’s tent up by the roadside somewhere near Government Camp where we could enjoy the rock music and chain saws of the holiday weekend crowd during what passed for the night.
I don’t think I got more than a few moments of rest before it was time to get up at 11.30 pm. We eventually got moving by 1.30 am after driving back to Timberline and signing in at the “Climbers Cave”. The weather was cold at the start (~10°C) and there was a strong wind blowing from the west. I was feeling awful. I’d been awake for over 20 hours and it felt like more. Graham was as chippy as ever and loving every minute of it.
The first vertical 800 metres of the climb is the boring snow flog to end all snow flogs. We’re passed repeatedly by snow cats ferrying people up to the top of the Palmer lift - having paid $100 each for the privilege of course. But, hey, we’re Canadians, morally pure as well as poor.
Dawn comes reluctantly as the weather worsens and by the time we pass the top of the ski lifts, visibility is down to a few metres, it’s well below freezing with the wind chill and I’m thinking I don’t want to be here. Finally at 3075m (I just had to make 10,000 feet) and with rime forming heavily on clothes and gear, I’d had enough.
The drive over the next few days gave me lots of time to reflect on what we’d (I’d) done wrong on what should have been an easy summit. First, no summit over 3000 metres should be taken lightly. Second, I learned that I could handle no sleep or bad conditions but not both at the same time. I vowed that I wouldn’t make these mistakes again and would presume nothing next time.
Next time turned out to be June 2004. The weather gods promised fair and this time I had a way to beat them if they reneged on the deal. We would “bivouac” at Timberline Lodge. They offer rooms at this time of the year for US$85 - cheaper and morally more acceptable than the snow cat ride up the first 800m.
So it was then that Graham and I arrived in the lap of luxury on June 15. We even allowed ourselves to take the 9 am ferry. We both enjoyed a wonderful stay in a historic and delightful place, and, most importantly, got 10 hours of solid sleep after the drive down. The next day was spent enjoying a good lunch, the ambience, the swimming pool etc and we were in bed and asleep by 9 pm. The alarm (in the form of a wake up call) went off at 1 am and we were ready to go by 2 am. It felt rather odd to be checking out of a hotel whilst trying not to scratch the furniture with the gear on our packs but at least we waited to get outside before putting our crampons on!
Once we got going I had an awful feeling of déjà vu. It was clear but as cold as the last time and with the same strong wind but this time from the east. This brought an unexpected hazard in the form of volcanic dust blowing from the moraines to the east of the route. With the lower snow pack in 2004 it was more than just an irritant. I hadn’t brought goggles and very quickly began to experience problems with my contacts. However, the main adverse factor was the wind. It’s hard to find shelter during breaks. At one point the best we could do was huddle in behind a “Climbers Trail” sign put up by Timberline to keep you out of the way of the grooming machines.
As we climbed above the top of the Palmer we came increasingly into the shelter of the east ridge and the wind factor disappeared. We arrived on the Hogsback ridge at 8.30 am in still and sunny conditions and joined the snowcat brigade who had either already summited or were still on their way up. Graham counted 31 climbers in sight and not all of them seemed to know what they were doing – as we were about to find out.
Roped up and off by 9.30 am, we were on the traverse around the ‘shrund a few minutes later when Graham suddenly starts banging in pickets. Now I’m as big a coward as the next man but I’m thinking that pro on this bit is overkill. Not so. As we climb up a 40° pitch to traverse back to the Hogsback I see what Graham has spotted already. We take a stance and wait. A rope of 2 is assisting a young lady who is clearly way out of her league even on this relatively benign ground. She’s wearing hiking boots, no crampons and is having every foot placement scoped for her by the roped pair. Where do these people get their ideas from? Don’t they talk to others before they go? Don’t they notice people roping up or wearing crampons as they blithely head up alone and wearing stuff more appropriate to a beach hike? We make a mental note to bring more pickets next time and move on once the group is below us.
We’re on top shortly before 11 am. A broad snow summit with a steep drop off on the north side. Not a breath of wind and breathtaking views all around. St Helens, Adams and Rainier to the north, Jefferson, the Sisters and Broken Top to the south. Graham phones in a forest fire to the authorities but they know about it already. There’s the customary and always enjoyable bonhomie with the others on the summit - one of who skis right off the top - lunch and we’re off back down at noon.
Problem-free descent except for being low on water (in spite of carrying 6 litres between us and topping up bottles with snow). Gear off at 1 pm at Crater Rock and we’re back at Timberline by 3.30. Now here comes the really good bit: As a guest of Timberline - and even though you’ve checked out - you’re welcome to use the showers, pool, sauna, everything except a room having a bed in it, all at no charge. After a 13+ hour day I would have paid extra to use these facilities!
In any event, 2 tired, satisfied and squeaky clean puppies drove out of the Timberline lot at 4.45. We bivouacked in our now accustomed style at the Value Inn in Bellingham and were home on the 9 am ferry the next day.
All in all a great trip. Yes the snow slog is a bit much, but the top 400m make it worth it. If the weather is clear, the views are incomparable and, of course, it’s a tick on the Cascade volcano list.
If you go:
- Don’t be overly seduced by “easy” ratings. Prepare as you would for any 3000m mountain.
- Take goggles or other eye protection at any time of year against blowing grit.
- Prepare for crowds of people and avoid weekends if you can.
- Consider staying at Timberline rather than driving down and going up that night. At the price it’s good value, a great experience and who can argue with walking off a mountain straight into a shower!
- Get an early start, closer to midnight than dawn.
- If the weather is clear, route finding is child’s play. Heck you can see the summit almost every step of the way. However, if it socks in, don’t be tempted into a fall-line descent. This sewers you right into the Zigzag glacier. Instead, from Crater Rock, where most people un-rope, follow a magnetic south compass bearing to intersect the Palmer lift and follow the towers down.