I wrote this trip report a number of years ago and am just now publishing it. It was one of my first few trips to the mountains, and now the tale reads of gratuitous melodrama. I don't know why I decided to put it up now, but with all the attention winter Hood climbs have recently, maybe someone can get something from it. Or hopefully someone can simply enjoy our story.
In retrospect, I wonder, as dramatic as it seemed then, if it was really as bad as I perceived at the time. In the years that followed, I backed off of several routes where the weather was questionable, and attribute much of my apprehension to this trip. But I have made it to the summit of two more cascade volcanoes, and a few other great routes in various ranges since then. Maybe it made me too cautious, or maybe it has kept me safe. Who’s to say?
But this was my perspective at the time, so here it goes…
Mount Hood - 11247’
March 9 & 10, 2001
Summited: July 10
Heath and I had signed up for a 3 day mountaineering class with Timberline Mountain Guides out of Bend Oregon. It was a basic class, which worked out well because it was Heath’s first time to the mountains. We left for Nashville on the 7th and spent the night with a friend before we left for Portland on Southwest Airlines.
We flew into PDX, rented a car and headed straight for Hood. About an hour into the 2.5 hour drive the clouds broke and I said “There it is”. Heath replied “where?” as I pointed to the horizon. He still didn’t see it. I told him “Look up” and he replied “Holy Shit!” It was huge, tall and steep.
Our first sight of Mount Hood.
We drove on into timberline and got settled in our chalet room in the inn. After that we took a small pack and walked up onto the mountain just east of the ski boundaries. An hour or so later as we approached 7000’ a whiteout set in. Visibility was about 30’ so it was not that bad, but we still headed back down for an evening of dining and relaxation before we headed out the next day.
The next day we were up early to meet the guide and group. It turned out to be Heath and I, along with two other clients, a young energy trader from Texas named Craig and an older gent named Randall that had climbed on guided trips before. Our guide was Bob, a tall skinny fella with a shaved head and two gold hoop earrings.
Craig had ignored the gear list and Heath had left his brand new gloves in Nashville, so after the ski shopped opened we filled the gaps as best we could, sorted out team gear and were ready to roll. I knew the guides always had the heaviest loads, so I felt of Bob’s. It must have weighted 80 or 90 pounds. It was certainly more than half his body weight. I was amazed.
Up the trail next to the ski boundaries we went in good weather. We stop and took a break at 7500’ but quickly ended up at where we would make camp at 9000’. Here we dug out a platform for the two top of the line Mountain hardware tents that we had with us. These things were some of the best mountaineering tents available. The man that spent the night on to of Mount Everest was in the two man version that Bob and Randall would share. Heath, Craig and I shared a three man.
After getting used to the pungent smell of sulfur steaming from the crater, having dinner and snapping a few photos, I hopped in the tent for the night. Not a long day, but it was long enough. I was recovering from the flu and was not whipped, but I did not waste much time after dinner before sacking out.
The calm before the storm.
This would turn out to be one of the most memorable days of my life, even though it started out routine enough. We woke up just after daylight to howling winds, probably about 30 mph. I knew Bob was out in it cutting snow blocks and getting ready for breakfast. I wanted to learn as much as I could, so I got out into it as well while everybody else stayed in the tents.
Bob taught me to cut blocks with the shovel, which I did for a while stacking them to barricade the tents from the wind. After that, Bob tinkered with the stove which was giving him fits because of the wind. I just lied in the snow and looked up at the mountain and sky as the wind rocked my body. I thought, this has to be what people who die in the mountains are looking at… Heath popped out once, but didn’t stay out long. The wind made it feel pretty cold.
Soon the wind died and it was time for a quick breakfast then a little snow school. Bob covered walking in crampons, the duck walk, self arrest and anchor building. We had perfect weather to be in the mountains. Several people came past us on their way to the summit.
During our breaks, Bob and I discussed where we had been and where we wanted to go. I mentioned wanting to go to Mount Olympus in the mountains of the Olympic peninsula. He almost fell down he was so shocked. He said that he too had always wanted to go and try that but never heard of anyone else that did, since it required a nearly 20 mile approach. We all talked this and that some more and finished up our lessons for the day.
After snow school we walked back to camp. We had a snack and I was drooling looking at all the people headed up. Bob said that he was thinking of giving it a go. We had plenty of daylight left, and the weather was good. “We wouldn’t be able to even leave camp the next day if the wind was as bad as it was this morning” he said. I told him that I agreed, so we polled everyone else and all voted to give it a go.
We set off for the upper reaches of Mount Hood. After a slog up to the base of Crater Rock, Bob stopped us to check snow conditions for avalanche indicators by digging a snow pit. Here Randall said he felt really bad and elected to return to the tent by himself. We continued up around Crater Rock to the ridge going across the crater of the volcano known as the Hogsback.
Here we kitted up with our crampons and roped up. Since I had been in steep terrain before once or twice, I got the back end of the rope with Heath, then Craig in front of me. We were warm from the exertion, so Heath and Craig stripped off their shells. Bob and I stripped a layer but put the shells back on and set off along the Hogsback headed for the steepest section known as the Pearly Gates. Shortly after we started across the Hogsback, we passed another party of two. They said it was getting windy, but it was nice up top. We climbed on. From here the sulfur smell generated by the crater hotspots on each side of the Hogsback (Hot Rocks on one side and Devils Kitchen on the other) was so strong it almost burned.
By the time we got to the bottom of the Pearly Gates, the wind was pumping, probably 40 - 50 mph, and when we got into to the Gates, they were acting as a wind tunnel. The climbing slowed to almost a crawl. The wind was picking up and blowing so much snow I could hardly see Bob and Craig, no more than 70 feet up the rope. It was freezing, but we were almost to the summit. We topped out in low visibility with the wind blowing so hard that we literally had to be face to face and inches apart and screaming to communicate. The wind had to have been blowing 60 - 70 now. Bob screamed to us to hurry up. Heath and I were both ready to descend immediately, without even a summit shot. Craig fumbled with his pack trying to find a camera. I knew mine was in the convenient top pocket of my pack and that I could get mine in and out long before Craig was ready to move. I dropped my pack and anchored it to the ice with my axe to keep it from blowing away, and Bob snapped a quick photo of Heath and I. In the photo an icicle was visible in Heath’s beard. Little did we know or did it matter that the proverbial shit was just now hitting the fan.
Our Summit Shot. Check out the ice in Heath's beard.
Just after I got the camera packed away and had it back on my back, Bob screamed “Let’s get the hell outta here!” We would have all loved to get out more insulating layers, mittens and goggles (goggles are much warmer than the glacier glasses we all had on), but the wind made it impossible. It would have blown anything without a firm hand on it into Idaho. Heath and Craig neither had on wind shells, and my hands were covered in only fleece gloves. The situation was not good.
I led the trip down and started practically jogging down the slope, plunging my heels into the snow and ice for a good purchase. As we got to the steep terrain of the Pearly Gates, I was almost turned around every third step because I was moving faster than the rope. In steep snow, the plunge step is the fastest way to move safely, but it is a little scary to start because going side step seems safer. It usually isn’t and it’s alot slower. Craig was side stepping, slowing us down. I screamed for him to plunge step and he’d reply “I am!” as I was looking at the side of his boot (I’d have seen his toe if he had been). That pattern happened a couple more times as we descended, but we almost out of the steep terrain, so we just crawled through the remainder of the steepest section.
Here we passed a man laying in the snow face down with his head covered, just like they teach you to do in the grade school during a tornado. I looked over at him and kept on going, as did Heath and Craig. Bob slowed us down and moved over to tell this guy that he should descend with us. The man’s reply was “I’m almost there…. HooAhh!” We left him right where we found him.
After we made it to the more moderate terrain of the Hogsback, the wind was blowing with hurricane force, which continued for hours to come. At several points larger gusts would come along and literally blow us all off of our feet. Fortunately the snow around us was not too hard and it slowed us down before taking a long ride down the mountain or into the crater hotspots, known as Devils Kitchen. We later estimated the wind to have been 80 - 85 mph sustained with gusts around 95 - 100.
After the Hogsback, we climbed down past Crater Rock. There was no communication between members of our group, and they were all following my lead down the volcano. At times I could not see my feet due to the volume of snow blowing in the wind. My hands were freezing in the fleece gloves. I can not imagine what Heath and Craig felt like without their wind shells. My mind remained somewhat sharp and focused, as I was constantly looking for landmarks to help me find our way back to the camp. I was starting to get concerned about frostbite to my hands, so I alternated holding my axe in each hand, while taking the free hand underneath my wind shell and flexing it. When the wind would knock us all over, I’d spin my back to it and pull the top collar of my shell over my face to try to hide from the punishing winds. After a while the texture of the collar turned from stiff nylon, to frozen nylon. It felt like hard plastic.
As the sun disappeared it got colder and we continued to descend, the wind continued to blow and we all continued to suffer. After several more falls due to wind, I heard the plastic textured nylon collar brush up my face, but I did not feel it. I took my gloved finger and poked at the stiff frozen nylon, then poked my wind battered cheek. They felt identical, now both were like hard plastic. Now I was concerned, but kept on moving toward the camp with visions of my warm sleeping bag, while discussing this nightmare with my tent mates.
As descended, I started veering East of the tents toward the natural fall line, but since we were out of danger of everything except the weather, Bob came up to the front as well, turning out rope team into more of a “U” shaped group and led us to out camp. Well, what was left of it. The tents were destroyed. The bottoms were still staked down, but the bodies of the tents were flapping in the breeze like flags…flattened, and Randall was in one of them. We huddled and discussed what our next move was. Bob said that we should just get in and make the best of it.
Getting a pair of strap-on crampons off with frozen fingers in the dark was difficult, but I was the first one to manage it. I lifted the vestibule opening to our tent and crawled on my belly into the tent. I sat up and tried to use my pack as a makeshift tent pole so that the others could get in. Heath came in next. I asked him if he was OK, his reply was an emphatic “NO” as he pulled a handful of ice off of his frozen face. Craig piled in and they stripped off their frozen outer layers, as I used all the frozen clothes, gear and boots to barricade the door in order to stabilize that side of the tent and to help conserve heat by getting the frozen gear off of us. Heath and Craig were soon in their bags, and I followed shortly thereafter. Craig never said a word.
I was concerned about both of them having hypothermia (freezing to death). I am sure that if it were not for the combination of having my shell on and being on the front of the rope I’d have been in the same condition. I can only imagine how terrible it must have been for those two. I was occupied thinking about finding the route down the mountain to our camp and they just had to put one foot in front of the other, following the rope, with nothing to think about but how cold it was out there. Bob later told me that after one of our episodes where the entire team was blown over, Craig did not want to get back up and told voiced that he could not go any further. Of course Bob couldn’t stand for that and shouted at him to get up and going. He did.
The wind was still blowing strong as we all bedded down in, so I laid cocked in the corner that was into the wind. I froze. The zipper side of by sleeping bag was away from the body heat of Heath and Craig and on nearer the door and pile of frozen gear blocking it. Heath and Craig were deep in their bags piled on top of each other, so I flipped my legs over the tops of them. It was instantly warmer. It also gave me the ability to feel all of their movements and breathing, which gave me assurance they were still OK.
I laid awake thinking of what was going to happen next, while the other two tried to sleep. I knew that my body was begging me to sleep, but my mind was too busy for that. I thought “What if it starts snowing, then I’ll have to get out and dig us out and maybe get hypothermic again or risking suffocating if the fallen tent was blanketed with snow.” Heath was out for a while, then momentarily reached out of his bag to stuff some clothes into a hole punched into he tent one of the broken tent poles. I think Craig slept. We were all mentally and physically exhausted from what had happened, and it was still happening. Not long after we all stopped moving I also slipped off to sleep.
It could not have been 10 minutes after I went to sleep that one of the big gusts of wind came through and lifted the corner of the tent that my head was in. I picked my upper torso off the ground and got as far as it could without lifting Heath and Craig’s combined mass. I was slammed back to the ground. Heath and Craig sat up. “What the hell was that?” they inquired. My response was “It was just me” and we all got quite again. I think they both went back to sleep…I couldn’t. From then on every time that one of the big gusts would come along, I’d arch my back putting as much weight as I could into that corner of the tent, trying to keep it on the down on the snow. I had visions…if it had gotten us all moving, the tent would have acted as a small sail and it could have slung us across the mountain.
I noticed that the frequency of the bigger gusts was getting smaller and smaller. Eventually it got to the point where in between gusts we could communicate between tents. Bob yelled, “Are you guys OK?” My reply of “We’re alive” was drowned out by the wind. Shortly after that I heard Bob on his mobile phone with his bosses at TMG. He told them: “The tents are down. We have two that are mildly hypothermic and need to get out of here. There is at least one other guy up on the upper mountain that has probably perished.” There was nothing they could do for us. I thought that Bob was talking about Heath and Craig when he spoke of the two climbers with hypothermia, but wondered if Randall was OK.
After another 20 minutes or half hour, we communicated again. Bob said that were gonna make a run for it and asked if we still had our clothes on. I told him no, but we’d get ready, and to give us 5 minutes. Craig and Heath got geared up and I told them if they’d go out, I jam as much as I could into the packs as quickly as I could. I got everything except the sleeping pads into the packs. Our load was a little lighter, because half the stuff that we had stored in the vestibule was blown away, mostly food. The other half had frozen to the snow beneath. I popped out of the tent to clear skies in the brutal cold. A gust would pump through every now and then while we tried to secure the tents to mountain with all available trekking poles and ice axes. We’d leave all those behind.
I looked around and there were two more of us that we had started with. Bob had gotten into the 2-man tent with Randall. Randall told me after looking at Bob coming into the tent, frozen and bewildered, he was sure that someone had perished up there… It turns out that there was another party of climbers in a camp above us. They had been in their tents when it was destroyed and got out and tried to repair it. Apparently they got hypothermic and made the rash decision to try to come down. They were way off the course from where they were to the timberline lodge, following the fall line straight for a ravine with a 500’ drop off when they ran right into our camp. They asked if they could pile into the tent and Bob brought them in. If they had not run into our camp, the most likely would have died that night.
As the weather got increasingly more benign, we headed down the slope toward the lodge. The moon came out and it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. 1000’ below our camp, we saw another camp, seemingly undisturbed by the winds.
As we continued down in Bob dropped back to talk to me. He was very apologetic about what had gone on. I assured him that there certainly nothing for him to apologize for, it was all out of his control. This was just one of those situations that you have to be prepared for in mountaineering, but hope never happens. He also felt bad about yelling at Craig and leaving the other climber alone near the summit. I assured him that he did all he could do. He also said that this was probably his second scariest event in the mountains. Coming from someone who had made multiple trips to Denail, been pinned down for a week in a tent at over 18000 feet and fallen on a technical route up there at over 17000’ breaking his leg, that statement really hit home. After a few minutes of silence, he asked if I wanted to come back out to give Olympus a try with him, I accepted and later that year we did it…
We finally made it down to the lodge at about midnight. We sorted gear and off we set, mostly in separate directions. I think the two climbers that joined us, along with Randall had a room at the lodge. Craig set out for Portland and Bob, Heath and I went down into the nearest mountain town to an all night diner where we had the best damn French fries I’d ever had. Bob told us that if we’d told him 6 hours ago that we’d be eating fries in a diner by 1AM, he’d have thought we’d lost it.
We all looked for a local place to crash, but everywhere was booked. Bob headed off to Portland and Heath and I headed that way to the first place with a vacancy we could find. The next day or two is a blur, but we were soon on our way back to Nashville then Memphis. Occasionally I’d have visions of the snow blowing violently from right to left when I’d close my eyes, sort of like what it is like if you look at a bright light then close your eyes. Only this lasted for a week. The only worse Heath was for wear was a splotches on his face and neck that had suffered minor frostbite. The mostly went away over the next few months, but still if he is cold of hot you can see them slightly.
Overall, I’d label the trip as a success. Not because we made the summit or because we all made it alive, but because I got to spend time in the place I love, high in the mountains, looking down on the clouds. It is there that it is easiest for me to let go of all the issues of every day life and focus on my actions and surroundings. And I’ll continue to go back, looking for the secret that the mountains hold for me…