Weather be Damned
I flew into Portland from Washington, DC on July 1 for a July 2 summit attempt. After meeting my parents at the airport, we drove to the Timberline Lodge (a beautiful historic lodge, but the walls are paper thin and not conducive to attempts at falling asleep in the early evening) where we would be spending a few hours asleep before an alpine start on the South Side route. We took the time to chat with some other climbers about the best route up the South Side. From what we learned, the Hogsback has been forming further to the left recently, making a traditional ascent via the Pearly Gates very difficult. The route most climbers were taking was the Old Chute variation, a longer, steeper and more exposed route.
We were on the trail by 2 am and easily followed the Snow Cat tracks up the right side of the ski slopes towards Crater Rock (Mount Hood is a year-round ski resort as well). It was a beautiful morning with clear skies while in the distance lightning was flashing. The weather forecast had predicted thunderstorms in the afternoon, well after our climb would be finished, and we were hoping the storm would hold off until then.
Other than Snow Cats growling up and down the mountain grooming the slopes, we were almost the only people on the trail. We passed one other group of climbers on our way up to Crater Rock. We also ran into two separate climbing groups coming down off the mountain around 3 am. There was also a rowdy group of skiers partaking in some night skiing with their headlamps offering the only light.
After reaching the top of the ski lift around 5 (my dad wasn't in tip-top shape so we were taking it easy), there was ample light and we were able to turn our lights off. While initially blue skies prevailed, there was a thick haze that made it impossible to see any of the other Cascade volcanoes in the distance. We found some boot tracks that were at least a day old and went straight up the snow field towards Crater Rock, so I "re-broke" trail up to a rock field that contained makeshift walls and obviously acted as a campsite for multi-day climbers.
At the top of the rock field we were almost directly under Crater Rock. After strapping on crampons, we briefly stopped so a solo climber could pass us, leaving a perfect trail to follow up to the Hogsback. Upon arriving at the Hogsback, the route up to the Old Chute was clearly marked by a well-worn trail. From the middle of the Hogsback, you climb down a bit towards a small rock field, which leads right up into the chute. However, by this time, a cloud had moved in and lowered visibility significantly. At times we could not see the solo climber who was about 300 feet ahead of us. After waiting at the Hogsback for ten minutes to see if the weather deteriorated, we decided that it was safe to continue.
The chute was, in parts, a 45-degree slope, but the snow was perfect and the crampons stuck easily. A previous climber had placed a ski pole about halfway up the chute which was a helpful guide. It took a good hour of solid climbing (at times using both hands) before we reached the top around 8 am, a ridge leading to the summit. From that point it was only another 100 horizontal feet to the summit; however, the weather had gotten much worse and visibility had reduced to about 20 feet (not to mention the 30 mph wind gusts). Additionally, the ridge is like a knife-edge, a rather spicy proposition to hike when you can barely see. Since we had essentially reach the top, we declared it a successful summit climb and began the descent, for safety's sake.
Downclimbing the chute was made easy by the great snow. As we reached the Hogsback, we ran into several large groups of climbers who were hesitant about continuing upward with little to no visibility. We gave them the scoop on the conditions at the summit and continued the descent. When we had reached the rock field where we had seen the campsites, we removed the crampons and glissaded all the way back to the ski slopes. At that point we were able to boot ski down the Snow Cat tracks because the snow was starting to soften up as the sun warmed the mountain. We got back to the Timberline Lodge around 11:00, an approximately 3 hour decent. The total trip time was about nine hours (6 up, 3 down). Overall it was relatively easy climb with the cloudy conditions at the summit being the only negative factor. We brought ropes and helmets, but did not use either. The chute is quite wide and the middle is relatively isolated from rock slides. There were only a couple of small slides in the distance while we were at the Hogsback.
After a bad experience at the Timberline Lodge, we spent the next night in the Mt. Hood Inn, a great hotel next to a fantastic restaurant, the Ice Axe Grill (both are in Government Camp).