Becoming a Mountaineer
My left cheek is frozen, the path up the mountain obscured by whiteout, the window of opportunity to summit Mount Hood slammed shut in our faces. My climbing partner and I were forced to turn around, a little over a mile into the trek.
June 8th: 1st Attempt
Thursday night, a day after an overnight drive from San Francisco to Portland, my climbing partner and I were eager to get to the iconic Timberline Lodge to start our journey up Mount Hood. The plan was to take the popular approach from the south side, go up to Crater Rock, and take the Hogsback to either Pearly Gates or the Old Chute, depending on the snow condition. The forecast called for several inches of snow at the summit a day prior and winds up to 40 MPH. Thursday night and Friday morning was supposed to be calmer, before the snow return for the remainder of the weekend. This was probably our only window, even though 20 to 30 MPH wind was still not ideal.
Driving out of Portland, we noticed the rain clouds from earlier have vanished and we were presented with a nearly full, waxing moon. We thought we were going to be lucky. The weeks of planning and my dream for months was going to come to a realization. As we got closer to the mountain, the dark clouds loomed over the skies once again. Rain turned into slush and to wet, sloppy snow when we finally pulled up to the lodge at 11:30pm. Alone in the parking lot, doubts in our minds, we waited. Was the forecast wrong?
We took a nap in the car while waiting for the snow to cease. Half an hour later, we were woken up by the voices of another party looking to summit the mountain. It was still snowing outside, but it has reduced to a light flurry. Knowing there was at least one other group going up, we geared up and filed the proper paperwork to get going as well.
1:30am, an hour and a half later than we had planned, we started our trek. The visibility was semi-clear but the wind continued to howl. Light precipitation persisted. Even though my jacket’s hood was up and my body was quite warm, my exposed face was under a constant barrage from wind coming from the west. It was not pleasant but also not enough to deter us from our objective.
We followed the footprints of the group ahead of us and the tracks left by Snowcats making rounds up and down the mountain. The bright spotlight on the machine acted as a beacon, guiding us through the ski area. But, the whirring engine and treads was quite jarring.
Less than an hour in, the visibility deteriorated rapidly and our views were obfuscated by a whiteout. The beacon muffled and dimmed, we shared a moment of hesitation but ultimately decided to go just a bit further to the top of a small ridge. Before we were able to reach our destination, we heard voices coming towards us so we waited to see what news they have from above. Four shadows descended with their lights illuminating the fog quickly appeared before us. It was the same group we saw in the parking lot. They shared their frustration with the weather, which aligned closely to our own expectations. We knew at that moment that the summit was well out of reach and decided to follow their footsteps once again. This time back to the Timberline Lodge, just over a mile down.
When we got closer to the lodge, the inclement weather dissipated and the moon radiated across the sky. A solo hiker zoomed past us, exchanging nods as we crossed, tacitly acknowledging the situation before continuing upward. Back at the parking lot, utterly defeated, we got in the car and drove back to the hotel to catch up on rest.
June 10th: Second Attempt
Unsatisfied by the outcome of the first outing, we scavenged for weather reports the following morning to find our chance for redemption. Lucky us! Several sources suggested an improved outlook for Saturday night. We were ecstatic, even though we had to abandon and scramble our original weekend plans.
The drive up the evening of the 10th was rather foreboding. The way up was again saturated with rain and the last stretch of windy road filled with thick fog. I thought it was going to be a huge bust and we have just exhausted all of our opportunities. However, as we pulled around the last turn to the parking lot, everything cleared up. Cold, crisp air, light wind, completely unaffected by the weather below. The contrast cannot be starker and much more pleasant than Thursday night.
Learning from the failed attempt, our familiarity with the process allowed us to mobilize much quicker and more efficiently. We were en route promptly after midnight. In the dead of night, the only things moving were us, another pair of hikers, and the Snowcats.
The day old, waning moon that night shined so brightly that we almost didn’t need our headlamps. We could see the summit of Mount Hood directly in front of us, against the dark, night sky, static and still. Behind us was a seemingly fictional landscape. Dramatic with thick clouds in different shades of gray, engulfing the entire sky several hundred feet below, with a giant orb of white light exposing all things underneath. It looked like a scene out of a classical painting, so intricate and beautiful.
After the brief moment of adoration, we continued on with our journey. We began to zig-zag our way up on the steeper, uneven, and snowy terrain, taking even and moderate steps to conserve energy for the entirety of this marathon. As we ascend, the wind bit harder and the ground became less forgiving. The sulfuric scent was noticeable within 1,000 vertical ft of the lodge. Besides taking the occasional breaks to rest, adjust layers, and put on crampons, we moved steadily and deliberately up the mountain.
Constantly hydrating, refueling, and fighting fatigue, we made it Devil’s Kitchen (an area named after the headwall next to it, at 10,400 ft) after nearly five hours. The sun’s twilight shaded a layer of the sky in a pinkish hue, above the clouds and beneath the blue. We took a moment to enjoy the view and watched the people above us trying to maneuver around the bergschrund (a particular type of crevasse formed by moving glacier ice).
As we got closer to Crater Rock, we crossed path with the party that started with us. The pair decided to head down after being warned of avalanche risk. In my mind, I was screaming in disbelieve. After all that trouble, it could not be true. My partner and I decided to push on to check it out for ourselves. Just before we reached Crater Rock, we bumped into the lead group issuing the warnings. There was a dozen or so of them and every single one looked disheartened. The leaders cautioned us in passing, but we remained undismayed and persisted upward.
From Crater Rock, we can clearly see the paths carved out by the large group. Half way through Hogsback (A snow ridge leading to the bergschrund) and partially towards Old Chute. The snow accumulation was much higher than below, but I was unconvinced by the degree of risk purported by the large group. The weather has been way too warm in the weeks prior and the new snow over the previous days was no more than a foot in sum. We moved onward to Hogsback.
At the end of the makeshift path, we plunged our ice axes into the snow and scraped the fluff with the adzes to test the depth and confirm the findings. Just as I thought. The fluff was no more than 6 to 12 inches deep and it’s ice underneath. Even at the current steepness, the accumulation did not warrant significant avalanche danger. Being extra cautious, we pushed a little further to seek additional validation. Same thing.
Convinced with our assessments, we started to break our own trail and continued towards the bergschrund on Hogsback. The crevasse was massive. It was off by magnitude, compared to the trip reports posted in May. The Hogsback dead-ended in the middle of the bergschrund and without a clear view from below, I accidentally ventured too close. My ice axe plunged beyond the depth where there should be ice and it sent chills down my spine. I immediately retreated back to stable terrain, before resuming the circumnavigation of the divide. Not wanting to make the same mistake, I went well outside of the crevasse before continuing up.
After going all the way around the cleft and up, I was exhausted. Breaking new trail in fresh snow at that steepness was challenging to say the least. My toes were cold and numb from constantly kicking into snow and ice and my arms ached from striking and plunging the axe. When I finally found a relatively safe spot, I carved out a platform to rest and check in on the activities below. There were a couple of groups that have made their way to Crater Rock but only a solo man and a skier ventured beyond it. Trailing our footsteps, the solo alpinist caught up while we’re taking our breather. The stranger recognized us for our work and gave thanks before he tagged in on the trailblazing effort up the Pearly Gates (two roofless rock channels or chutes that form a “V”, covered in moss-like crystalline snow).
Slightly rejuvenated from the brief intermission, we made our final push to the summit. We followed the lone adventurer up the right side of the Pearly Gates. It was pretty but incredibly daunting at the same time. With the amount of snow this past season, the Pearly Gates were much steeper than the previous years. It felt like we were ice climbing above the crevasse. Any careless mistakes could easily result in serious injuries or death. The choices below were abyss or fumarole (volcanic vent).
07:47am, after nearly eight hours into the journey, we made it to the summit. Beside the footprints of our benefactor, the snow was pristine. We sat there with the panoramic view of everything around us. Mount St. Helens, Adams, and Rainier to the North and sky as far as you can see to the South. Thankful for the weather and glad that we weren’t dissuaded by the warnings, we celebrated and took a copious amount of pictures. After we had our fill on the warm, sunny peak, we cautiously navigated our way down.
Carefully re-tracing our path while keeping our endorphins and euphoria in check. We were determined not to repeat any disasters in this risk prone area of the mountain. Moving slowly and under the watchful eyes of everyone below, we managed to safely down climb past the gulch. With the greatest obstacle behind us, we allowed the sense of accomplishment to return and sink in, even though we were really only half way through. Joyous and elated, we walked back down to the Timberline Lodge.
12 hours, up and down 5,400 vertical ft, we’ve completed our summit and I have successfully led my first mountaineering trip. It was an eventful odyssey that ended on an extremely positive note. Now, we head back to our day job and typical routine, patiently waiting and yearning for the next adventure. Until next time!