Mt. Hood via South Side -- Old Chute (Mazama Chute) VariationOn Saturday, June 23, our party of six climbed the South Side route of Mt. Hood, Oregon, in fabulous weather.
Here's an overview of the route. From the top of the Palmer Chairlift at Timberline ski area, we ascended gentle snow slopes to the base of Crater Rock, the huge, prominent rock tower in front of the summit ridge. We skirted the right side of Crater Rock, at its base, to the Hogsback, a distinctive ridge of seasonal snow.
Instead of ascending the spine of the Hogsback and going through the Pearly Gates as in a normal year, we crossed over the base of the Hogsback and traversed a short distance to the climber's left -- behind (uphill from) Crater Rock. Then we switchbacked up the steep slope behind Crater Rock, up to the old chute, which reportedly used to be the most popular way through the towering cliffs that guard the summit ridge. At the top of the old chute, we turned right and walked along the easy but exposed summit ridge to the gentle slope of the summit.
The AscentI admit it. We cheated. This trip was not about roughing it. After sacking out under down comforters with feather pillows in toasty rooms at the lodge, we arose at 2:00 a.m.
At 3:00 a.m. a snow cat picked us up at Timberline Lodge (5,940 feet). About a half hour later, it dropped us off at the top of the Palmer Chairlift (about 8,450 feet). That cut the vertical distance of the climb in half.
We stashed downhill ski equipment, donned crampons, and started up toward Crater Rock at about 4:00 a.m.
The night was perfect for climbing: clear and starry, almost no wind, and cool but not frigid temperatures. The granular spring-like snow was frozen crunchy like styrofoam.
Most of us were comfortable in one or two thin layers under our outer shells. It seemed so warm that I was surprised when Tim's drinking tube froze. Then mine froze, too. I should have kept the tube cleared out. While it thawed, I filled a spare one-liter Platypus and stuffed it into a jacket pocket.
As we approached Crater Rock, the sun rose and Mt. Hood cast a majestic shadow westward toward the Pacific Ocean and into the haze above the horizon.
Hood's shadow shrank and sharpened as the sun climbed. The sky dawned clear, but clouds and wind were forecast. We placed several wands like this one to help us find the way back to the ski area in case of a white-out.
Greeting us at the base of Crater Rock was the sulfurous stench of Devil's Kitchen, this slab of discolored rock kept snow-free by volcanic heat. See that faint plume of steam? Whatever Beelzebub had simmering underneath smelled like rotten eggs, sulfur dioxide, and really, really bad wine.
After traversing the right side of the base of Crater Rock by Devil's Kitchen, we arrived here at the base of the Hogsback. This is where most parties rope up if they're going to rope up.
You can see the crevasses forming at the top of the Hogsback. Normally most climbers would ascend the spine of the Hogsback, cross or detour around the crevasses, continue up and right past the toe of the rock rib, and up to the Pearly Gates area. A big rock tower sits right in the middle of the Pearly Gates. Reportedly most climbers pass the rock tower by a steep chute on its left.
This spring, however, the left chute of the Pearly Gates reportedly had developed a steep section of very hard ice. Steve Rollins of Portland Mountain Rescue told me that a few weeks earlier he'd encountered a 100-foot-plus section of 50-degree ice -- not frozen snow, but real ice that called for fixed belays, ice screws, and technical ice climbing skills.
Most climbers, according to the forest service's site and other reports, had been avoiding the Pearly Gates altogether and climbing the slope to the left. Here you can see at least a dozen climbers headed up the old chute (Mazama chute) but nobody in the Pearly Gates. During our entire trip, I saw nobody at all coming or going through the Pearly Gates.
Editorial Opinion: Safety IssuesMany climbers on our route appeared to be taking risks that seemed to me unnecessary and unwarranted under the circumstances.
The cliffs to the left of the Pearly Gates had been shedding their winter coat of snow and ice, which appeared to have been falling off and carving deep gouges in the snow below. Most of the avalanche gouges appeared recent, yet many people were walking right through this bombing range even though it could easily be avoided.
In the photo above, you can see the paths of avalanches from the main cliffs in the middle. Here's a picture looking down from the chute next to the cliffs:
Crater Rock is at the right. At left a climber ascends a super-highway boot path leading from the upper Hogsback right underneath the ready-to-avalanche cliffs. Yikes!
A safer way starts near the group of climbers bunched up at the bottom of the Hogsback. Another boot path descends a very short distance down the side of the Hogsback and then traverses right to the dirt slope with a reddish patch. From the dirt patch, one could ascend straight up a slight rib that stayed out from underneath the cliffs and their precariously clinging slabs of snow.
Protecting against falls on steep, hard snow
Equally serious and easily mitigated is the danger of a fall on the steep, hard snow of the slopes just below the summit ridge.
As we ascended the slope to the chute, the hard, frozen snow steepened to about 45 degrees at the top.
Many other climbers on the route were roped up but were not anchoring themselves, even on the steepest section. I couldn't understand this. How could they expect to arrest a falling ropemate without being anchored to the mountain?
According to a 2005 report by Don Bogie, a climber falling from the uphill position of a rope down a 45-degree slope can generate a force of up to eight kilonewtons. That's the weight of an entire four-man Seahawks defensive line (average weight, 289 pounds) plus two or three 250-pound linebackers.
Between us, Craig and I had made at least two or three hundred ascents of Cascade peaks, but neither of us had ever arrested a ripper of a fall on a steep slope of hard-frozen snow. I know of nobody who has. Do you?
On the other hand, it's easy to find reports of serious accidents where one climber's fall pulled a whole rope team off the mountain with catastrophic results:
-- Before our climb, I mentioned my plans to a few friends. One exclaimed that she once climbed this route and witnessed a whole rope team fail to arrest and fall into a crevasse at the top of the Hogsback.
-- A month before our climb, two people descending Denali lost their lives in exactly this type of accident. According to reporter Levi Pulkinnen of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the two fell, failed to arrest, and dragged each other 1,900 feet to their deaths. One had been a Mountaineers climb leader.
-- On May 30, 2002, Mt. Hood's most infamous failure-to-arrest accident occurred just a few hundred yards from our route. Two novices at the upper end of a four-man rope fell and failed to arrest. Their ropemates, despite considerable experience, could not arrest them either and were ripped off the slope. All four plummeted into a crevasse, taking two other rope teams with them. Of the nine who went into the crevasse, three died and four were seriously injured. A rescue helicopter crashed during the evacuation.
Experts' pessimism about ice ax arrest of falling climbers on steep, hard slopes appears unamimous:
-- Accidents in North American Mountaineering 2003 said of the 2002 fatalities, "Generally speaking, if a snow or ice slope is steep enough to require a rope, then it is probably steep enough to require using anchors."
-- The country's most widely used mountaineeering textbook agrees. Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, Seventh Edition warns that "(o)ne climber can fall and pull the entire rope team off the mountain. . . . Relying on team arrest . . . makes sense only in certain situations, such as on a low- or moderate-angle glacier or snow slope."
-- Also in agreement were a climbing-book author, a highly experienced Mountaineers climb leader who has climbed nearly every major peak in the Cascades, and an official of Portland Mountain Rescue.
Danger from uphill climbers
The 2002 accident points out another significant hazard on this route: Even the most sure-footed expert could easily get clobbered by falling climbers, ice, or equipment.
At any given moment during our climb of the steep chute slope, at least a dozen climbers were zig-zagging across each other's ropes and fall lines or waiting at the top for their turn to descend.
Many appeared ill-equipped, inexperienced, or clumsy:
-- We saw inexperienced people negotiating the steep, hard-frozen snow without crampons.
-- We saw a group of five roped so close together that if one fell the others would topple like dominoes.
-- We saw a fellow whose ice ax was a splintered bamboo pole.
-- Warning cries of "Ice!" echoed down the line as uphill climbers kicked loose baseball-sized chunks of hard snow that rained down like small cluster bombs.
-- A climber in my party reported that somebody stumbled, barreled into him from behind without warning, and almost knocked him down near a precipitous drop-off on the summit ridge.
-- A climber dropped his helmet down the side of the Hogsback. What if he'd dropped it down the crowded chute instead?
Because of these hazards and the difficulty of ice ax arrest, I took the unpopular approach of protecting almost the whole slope with a running belay of pickets.
My team was climbing on a 30-meter rope. I placed one picket per rope length most of the way from the Hogsback to the summit ridge. I used each of our five pickets twice, plus two or three pickets others had placed at the top, so altogether the whole slope took about 12 or 13 picket placements.
If I repeated this climb under similar conditions, I'd suggest that each climber bring two pickets. With a single batch of a dozen pickets, two rope teams of three could probably protect this whole slope without regrouping. The pickets could be left in place to conveniently protect the party's descent -- which is a lot more fall-prone than going up -- and could be used by other rope teams in the meantime.
I'd also consider using ropes 60 meters long instead of 30 meters, so that two pickets would always be protecting each rope team.
Bashing in the pickets with a Black Diamond Raven ice ax was a hassle, not to mention that it shredded the ax's leash. I wished I had a straight-shafted ice tool with a hammer instead of an adze.
Why not use anchors?
Doubtless many climbers will disagree with my assessment of the risks and my time-consuming placement of pickets.
Some have argued that they could arrest a falling ropemate -- but nobody I've heard make this claim has actually ever done it.
Others might argue that moving fast to beat the weather and rockfall is more important than placing protection. Really? Which would you rather risk -- finding your way down in a white out, or trying to stop the weight of a half dozen 300-pound football players with your ice ax?
Equipped with GPS, wands, maps, compasses, detailed route descriptions, and decades of route-finding experience, we had virtually no chance of getting lost, even in a pea soup fog.
The one-hour delay of placing protection exposed us to virtually no additional rockfall or avalanche hazard.
And we still finished the climb with at least eight hours of daylight to spare. We could have placed a picket every half pitch from the summit all the way down to Timberline without missing our 7:00 dinner reservation at the lodge.
Thanks for bearing with me as I unburden these concerns. I hope this editorial digression will not merely prove cathartic for me but will also stimulate thought and discussion toward safer climbing.
Summit-Ridge SnapshotsAs you might guess from the foregoing discussion, it was a relief to belay my two ropemates onto the the sun-bathed summit ridge without incident.
After an easy stroll up the nearly-level ridge, I arrived at the summit at 9:00 a.m. My rope team was about 45 minutes behind our companions because of the time we'd taken to set up and take down our running belays.
The DescentThe summit was bathed in sunshine, with panoramic 360 degree views and almost no wind. But clouds were gathering, so after hurriedly snapping a few pictures I prepared to descend.
To descend, we retraced our steps along this ridge, past the hump behind the outstretched hand in this photo, and turned left, back down the old chute.
After carefully descending the chute and the steep slope to the base of the Hogsback, we unroped and started back down to the ski area. I stuck around to take a few pictures, took off my crampons, and at noon glissaded several hundred feet down toward my companions.
Guidebooks and the Portland Mountain Rescue web site warn that it's easy to get off course here. Sure enough, when I paused to get my bearings, my GPS told me I needed to head more to the left. If you go this way, be sure to check your compass or GPS as you leave Crater Rock, even if visibility is good.
Just before the clouds closed in, we arrived back at the top of the ski area, retrieved our cached downhill ski gear, changed boots, and skied the rest of the way down in slushy snow. By this time, although it was still early in the afternoon, the lifts had already shut down for the day and the ski slope was nearly deserted.
We headed inside for refreshments to celebrate the climb and enjoy the great rough-hewn beauty of the Timberline Lodge.
The lodge, now a National Historic Monument, was built during the Great Depression and dedicated 70 years ago by President Franklin D. Roosevelt.
That same day, the New York Times ran an op-ed column excoriating the public-land stewardship of another president -- George W. Bush. The column was datelined Mt. Hood. Its author was Tim Egan.