I’m never planning a big mountain climb again. Just going to do the eastern ones, with little chance of death. This is so dumb. What’s the point of climbing?
My usual thoughts the night before I leave.
Packing was getting a lot easier. All the crampons, poles, pads, bags, ice axes, tools, shells, etc., all pretty much in one place, ready to be taken again. They know the airplane stuff-sack drill. The no sleep, up at 5 a.m., drive an hour to the Cleveland or Columbus airport, solo cross country travel with layovers. This time to Oregon. One of the few states I’d never visited.
The Portland airport was small so it was easy to spot the brown VW Vanagon pull in. My climbing partner Tony’s long curly Side Show Bob hair wasn’t easy to miss, either. Sunny. 70s. High concrete curbs on the roads like you find on the West Coast. Overgrown yards. Small houses bunched together. Narrow streets. Lots of bikers, bike lanes and crosswalks. Independent and locally owned shops.
Tony and I spent a couple of hours gathering goods in Portland. While climbing: energy gels, cliff bars and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. While camping: veggie burgers, pasta from a pouch, crackers, cereal and granola bars and cheese cubes. ATM for the cash tip for the lead climber. No bottled water this time. Tony insisted on the purity of Portland and mountain water from the tap.
The two-lane mountain road east from the city, with the giant green pines creating a tunnel of enclosure. Mt. Hood could be seen the whole drive on the horizon as we headed up hill. That was a first. The summit staring right back at you, no matter where you were. The steepness and snow and rockfall weren’t going anywhere, and certainly not out of vision.
The bus would cruise into the added slow lane on the right, and cars would fly pass. Eventually, the Timberline Lodge emerged, and it looked as historic and ominous as it did in the opening scenes of The Shinning. Check in and dinner at the lodge with direct view of Mt. Hood through second-floor glass.
No veggie options. “We have a kids’ butter noodle dish,” the server suggested. Warmed up soggy noodles drowned in Parmesan. But needed the carbs so I consumed.
Back to the room then bed as the sun set. Tony took a shower and I was out before he was done.
Day 2, Thursday, Climbing on Mt. Hood
There were to be 14 total climbers on this expedition, divided into max teams of four for short roping, pitch climbing and descending. My team: Me, Tony, Andy (who had summited Mt. Rainier) and Ben (who had been to the top of Hood numerous times). Pretty solid group I thought. We’d have the technical skill to get to the summit. Really was just a matter of weather and whether or not we would turn coward when we were at the bottom of the Old Chute, the steepest, most exposed part of the climb, just below the summit.
Big breakfast at the lodge at 7:30 a.m., then outside. 45 degrees with some wind. 6,000 feet of elevation. Everyone meeting and going through all the gear on the outskirts of the lodge parking area. What size of this, trade out with that, you don’t need this, you will need that, etc. Once all the hardware and introductions and smiles and jokes were passed around, we packed up our backs and headed towards the mountain.
Timberline had a ski resort right on the mountain, so we took the chair lift up one mile to access the otherwise restricted deep snow we needed. Crampon steps, self-arrest, new holds, harness work, ice-axe play, etc. Was a pretty light day of just getting back used to the snow and glare and muscle memory.
We finished mid-day on the mountain and everyone separated and took care of what they needed to do before rest was required. Tony and I messed around and ate late, and I didn’t lie down until around 7 p.m. And there was the peak. No matter where I looked, there it was. I knew what was to come and I didn’t like it. I thought, maybe I could just leave the team right now and say fuck it, oh well, it wasn’t for me. I should smash my hand with a volcanic rock then I’ll have a real excuse. At some point I fell asleep, with a sweatshirt over my face to block out the sunlight.
Around 10 p.m. I woke up cold. My light summer bag was a mistake. Going “light and fast” is great except when you take a more lightweight bag and suffer for it. Couldn’t get warm. Curled up and waited for my watch alarm.
Day 3, Friday, Summit Day
The alarm went off at 12:10 a.m. At least it went off, unlike Mt. Whitney where I got a late start. Don’t get a solar powered watch that goes into power save mode in darkness. Defeats the whole purpose.
Maybe I’d slept for two hours? I was cold and it was going to be even colder outside of my sleeping bag, around 20 degrees. Plus I had to change into my climb gear, and all layers would have to be stripped down and replaced. And my blood was thin from coming from Ohio in June. I shivered for a minute, but quickly got into climb mode. Pulling heavy plastic mountaineering boots on makes you toughen up fast. You realize that it’s about to get a lot worse.
Non-cotton long underwear tops and bottoms, wind/water proof pant shell, thin and thick pair of socks, hard plastic boots, crampons, gaiters, light fleece, heavy fleece, wind/water proof top shell, gloves, thin face mask, goggles, hat, 2 liters of water, shades, compass, map, sunscreen, over-it-all down coat and first aid. That’s pretty much all you need. Ha.
We were hiking by 12:30 a.m. Tony would later describe those first two miles as “walking on an elevated ice treadmill.” Your headlamp would illuminate your feet, and everything else was black. French cross over mountaineering step for an hour. Five minute break. Another hour. Break. The wind was bad. About 20-25 MPH of constant blowing. Couldn’t get my temperature right. Was too hot with my over-it-all but too cold without it.
Three hours or so of hiking later, we got to the Crater Rock plateau and the sulfur pits. Dawn was breaking and the slice of moon had already risen. I didn’t know at the time, but one week earlier a man had fallen over 300 feet and smashed into the rocks around the sulfur pits. Died. We crampon-ed over his soul. So sad.
After ascending to the flat spot, we stopped to eat, just under the Hogsback. You don’t have any appetite at altitude, and the rotten egg smell was putrid, but you had to force PB & J down your throat.
Up the hot rocks, bellowing out smelly steam, that was a scree slide, which sucked. Couldn’t get purchase with the crampons and the wind made the dirt and rocks fly into my eyes. Should have pulled out my googles right then, but didn’t.
Just above the Hot Rocks it was time to short rope. Ben took the lead, and I was behind him, followed by Tony and Andy. Only about four feet of rope between us and no slack. “Short roping is an attempt to prevent a slip from becoming a fall,” Ben said. If one of us fell, chances are we’d all slide to our deaths, unable to group self-arrest.
We finally began to ascend the Old Chute. It was a Life Fall, and I’d never climbed with those circumstances, with so much on the line. You would drive the spike of the ice axe into the frozen snow on the high side of the hill, then set one crampon in, then the other. Repeat. Slowly and methodically.
It wasn’t as steep as I thought it was going to be based on the YouTube videos I watched. We had no problems.
The last 100 yards we went to pitch climbing, with Ben once again in the lead. He set an anchor at the top so we could top rope. All fear was gone at that point. I charged up the chute and had to slow down for my teammates.
The summit was brilliant. Looked like the big mountain views I’d seen, as we were above the clouds, on snow and could see Mt. Saint Helens, Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainer all in one gaze.
Instead of down climbing we were basically lowered, doing a half-rappel. Easier and safer I guess, but I wanted to down-climb. For the practice if nothing else. The descent was easy. Short roped back past the steaming Hot Rocks, past and over the Hogsback, past Crater Rock to the top of the ski resort. Only two miles left of groomed snow. Harness, crampons and plastic boots thrown into the backpack. Almost didn’t have enough room but glad I went with a small pack. Green Vasque boots the rest of the way down, finally passing group organizer Toban and his team that was in first place.
First one off the mountain. I love to fly down them on any terrain.
Thinking about what’s next, now. I told myself almost a year ago, if I did the Southern Six Pack and Mt. Hood, I’d be ready for Rainier and real mountaineering in 2016. I want Katahdin, first, though. In winter. Get that, Marcy again and Mansfield and I’ll be really ready for Rainier. Or I’ll just retire.