Fast forward to December of 2004-
I'd talked with a co-worker about climbing mountains, and found he'd been up most of the Cascade volcanoes during his time in college. He didn't understand the appeal of wanting to climb a mountain like Hood in summer, as I had tried. He explained that in winter, there are less people, better snow, less crevasses...sounds a lot more convenient and safer to me! Anyway, I had given it some thought, and found out txmountaineer was planning a winter trip this year. He decided on February 25th, 2005. I booked a flight in advance to tag along, and hoped for good weather.
As the date approached, it became clear that the Pacific Northwest was in the midst of a horribly dry and mild winter. Snow fell on the weekend before our trip, and it was clear and sunny for the rest of the week. As luck would have it, there would be a nearly full moon on our trip too (and at night to boot!). Everything was falling into place....As Mr. Burns would say- Exxxcellent. The only drawback was that the snowpack on Mt. Hood is somewhere around 25% of average for this time of year.
We went ropeless since Don didn't have a harness with him, and he speculated that it wasn't necessary on the south side/Hogsback route because of the low crevasse danger. Our walk began at 1:30AM on from the parking lot at the lodge. A few minutes out, Dan became stricken with flu symptoms. Apparently he'd been sick recently, and speculated he may not be fully recovered yet. A bummer for sure, on such a pretty night! Because of the moonlight, we never needed our headlamps at all. We slowly continued up the ski-slopes, but were only passed once by two fellows. It looked like a quiet night for climbers. We made it to the top of the Palmer chairlift around 5AM if I remember right...and lucky for us (it seems that I may have been a lucky guy to this point!), the Palmer chairlift shed/operator booth were open completely and all the lights on. We rested in the booth (note- nobody was around to tell us *not* to do this, and no posted signs were seen) which had a heater. This seemed a little too exotic...Dan didn't think he could continue, and figured he would end up going down from there. Don and I left the shed and strapped on crampons for the rest of the way. A few minutes after leaving the Palmer lift area, Don started feeling dizzy and cold in his hands. We kept taking breaks, but Don seemed to also be suffering from the effects of him having the flu a couple weeks previously. We made it to a little over 9000 feet and decided to just watch the sunrise and see if we could spot any climbers on the hogsback yet. We had both seen what looked like two crevasses on the hogsback, but it was difficult to see for certain since neither of us had binoculars. After the sunrise at 6:45AM (five minutes before the GPS thought it would rise), I soaked up the views, unsure if I'd see them again anytime soon. Don and I were getting cold just standing there, so we headed back down towards the lodge. After waking Dan up, we found that Don's van had a flat tire from all the gravel that is dumped on the road up to the lodge. We helped him change it, and decided to split. I had briefly considered coming back up to the mountain later that night, since I wanted to see how far I could comfortably go.
After napping in Portland for four and a half hours (I had been up for about 33 hours), my sister and I went out to eat, and I tried to think clearly about whether or not I should try Hood again. On one hand, I was utterly exhausted from not sleeping much. I also contended that I'd gone halfway up the mountain already, and doing it all again so soon would probably be quite difficult. Oh, and I was now feeling a cold coming on too (sniffle, sore throat). A couple of beers later, and I thought 'well, see how you feel at midnight.' After snoozing for a half hour or so while watching Tommy Boy, I decided that as long as I don't fall asleep at the wheel, I would try it again. I knew that the weather was still forecast to be clear at least until late Saturday night. I also knew that there would be other climbers on the Hogsback route, so I might be able to pseudo-tag-along with them.
Upon reaching the Palmer lift house at the top, I put on another layer and cramponed up. There were a few other people at the lift house, and a few others already above it heading up. After a few minutes, we proceeded up the slopes , past where I had visited yesterday. Everyone kept a good pace, which I liked since I didn't want to sweat too much and get wet/cold. Eventually, the snow became a little harder, but there were good bootprints all over to use. Various groups took breaks and a few of the groups eventually merged together. I didn't feel that I needed to have the axe out until just before reaching the Hogsback. The bootprints were still easy to follow. I reached the Hogsback by 6:30AM and saw the sky rapidly growing lighter. Surprisingly, I saw a guy had bivied on the Hogsback since ~4:00AM or so! It looked quite chilly. I didn't have a thermometer, but I would guess that it was 20F at this point. Eventually, several of the groups arrived (along with some solo folks) and it looked like it was finally time for me to go further than I'd gone before. I was #2 in line going up the Hogsback, which had a good track that looked like it went all the way up to the Pearly Gates. The bergshrund was indeed snowed over on the East side and on the top of the ridge, but had some cracks open to the West. After crossing it, it became steep, and I bypassed a fellow who had to stop and readjust a crampon. Near the Pearly Gates, it became icy with very hard snow all around. I wasn't sure of which way to go, as it all looked steep and slick. Feeling at the edge of my "comfort zone" , I slowly progressed up the very hard snow. I kept trying to pound the shaft of my axe into the snow, but it would only go in a couple inches. My mind was definitely somewhere else, as somebody below yelled to use the pick "that's what it is for" ... Of course that is why it is there! THANK GOD! Here I am, a mountaineering noob, trying to stick the shaft of my axe in, and befuddled and scared as it seems nothing is working. When I started using the pick, it felt more natural. Duh. After a few minutes, the re-adjusted crampon guy caught up and passed me. Once out of the gates, it eased up a little and the snow was a little less iced over. I walked up and finally saw the Northern horizon over the summit. Breathtaking is an understatement to how I felt upon seeing the view. St. Helens looked to be only 30 miles away, Adams the same. I could hardly believe that I'd made it. It had taken me roughly 5 hours from the car to the top. It was sunny, clear, relatively windless, and views that were mind-blowingly awesome for my tired mush lump of grey matter to soak up. I saw the Cooper Spur, Eliot Glacier...very cool. Volcanoes everywhere, a glacier at my feet...wow.
The summit was ice covered snow, but not as thick as in the Pearly Gates. On one hand, I was so happy to be there, but on the other, I thought how unsure I was of getting down safely. A quick question to one of the solo'ers got me a couple tips that would hopefully help me get down. After a lot of pictures and a shot of Jager from a very generous climber, I began the decent after it looked like most of the group that arrived at the Hogsback around 6:45 topped out. I watched a few guys go down backward, which looked like the logical way for me. Apparently some people are comfortable with slowly walking down forward- I only saw myself slipping and unable to arrest, so backwards I went. It must have taken 30 minutes for me to pass the Pearly Gates, and to get to the Bergshrund. The guys ahead of me had found some bootprint steps that helped immensely. I turned forward and comfortably walked down after reaching the Bergshrund. I don't recall how long it took for me to get down the mountain, but it was a while since I wanted to call my sister to make sure she knew I was down safely. One tip for the decent that I hadn't considered- flexible plastic sleds that can be rolled into a tube are efficient means of decending the ski area where shmucks like me need to walk...and walk...and walk. The overall trip from car to car was about 10 hours with a lot of putzing on the decent.
After reaching the car, I tried to reflect on all the emotions I felt on the climb. Perhaps it was since I was climbing around people I hadn't really known, or perhaps it wast that I was feeling like a chickenshit while ascending and decending the icy section of the Pearly Gates. Honestly, up to this point, it was the scariest thing I have ever done on a mountain. I am very grateful that experienced climbers were near enough to me to correct my potentially dangerous mistakes (not using the pick when the snow/ice became too hard). While my "comfort level" is now higher, as always when doing something more difficult, I have a greater respect for proper technique and for steep hills. What is easy to read about proved to be difficult psycologically to overcome. I was lucky that my "solo" attempt was with good real time advice from experienced climbers.
I am a mountaineering noob, and now freely admit it.