Friday, May 29, 2009

Mt. Hood

I grew up in Portland, where Mount Hood, Oregon's tallest mountain at 11,249 feet, looms ever-present in the eastern sky (except when it's cloudy, which is often). I've wanted to climb it for a long time, and this week that dream became a reality. (Pictures)

I left work in California at 3:30 p.m. on Wednesday to fly to Portland, where I arrived around 7 p.m. My mom picked me up, and I had about an hour at home to eat and repack my gear. We picked up Dave, Jake, and Blake in Portland and then headed up to the mountain. Dave has climbed Hood several times, and his brother Jake also has a lot of mountaineering experience, so we had a good group. It was fun talking with them about their adventures on the way up.

We arrived at the Timberline ski area parking lot at about 11:30 p.m. After getting our gear together and filling out our climbing permit, we boarded a snowcat that took us from the parking lot's 6,000 foot elevation up to the top of the Palmer lift above 8,000 feet. It's kind of cheating, but we just skipped the long, boring part of the climb. I like to think of it as "experience optimization".

Conditions were perfect as we started our climb at 12:15 a.m. (We climbed in the middle of the night to avoid ice and rock fall, which is less likely during the coldest part of the day, since it's more frozen in place.) The first two thirds of the climb was pretty straightforward—literally. We just walked straight forward up the mountain, heading due north up relatively gentle snow slopes. I kept wondering when the climb was going to start. Strangely for a big mountain, the wind was really calm. The night sky was clear and beautiful.

The terrain steepened as we approached Crater Rock, which is a rock tower in the middle of the volcanic crater. Crater Rock marks the transition between the relatively straightforward hike up a snowfield to the more technical ascent of the upper slopes. We arrived around 3:15 a.m., ahead of schedule. Since we wanted to summit at sunrise, we huddled up in a snow pit that some other climbers had dug and napped for about 45 minutes.

At 4 a.m. we pulled ourselves out of our cocoon and geared up for the climb ahead. We fastened crampons (metal spikes that grip steep snow and ice) to our boots, donned harnesses, roped up (so that if one person falls, other team members can stop their fall), and pulled out our ice axes (used to prevent and stop falls).

We were back on the route at 4:30 a.m., with 700 vertical feet to go, but they were the steepest and most challenging part of the climb. We would ascend up the Hogsback (a sharply creased snow ridge), traverse left under ice-covered cliffs, and then climb a steep couloir (chute) to the summit ridge. There was a danger of ice and rock fall from the cliffs above, and a danger of trauma and asphixiation if we fell down the steep, icy slopes to the fumaroles (volcanic vents) below. We were a little worried about ice and rock fall since it had been pretty warm for the last few days. Two people were injured in the same area just a week and a half ago.

The final part of the climb turned out to go pretty smoothly, and we pulled it off without incident. The last pitch of the ascent, up a very steep (perhaps 45 degree) section called the 2 o'clock couloir, was a lot of fun, although the constant stream of small ice crystals flowing down it made me a little nervous. I just hoped that one of those little crystals' big brothers didn't decide to tumble down while I was in it, since there would be no way to avoid it in the narrow chute.

I crested the summit ridge right as the sun started to poke above the horizon. The view was breathtaking, with sunlight reflecting off the Columbia River and glittering off the snow, and three large Cascade volcanoes (St. Helens, Rainier, and Adams) visible in the distance. We snapped a few pictures, enjoyed the view, and then traversed the short distance east along the ridge to the summit. We had the summit to ourselves for 10 or 15 minutes before other climbers started showing up.

After playing around and relaxing for a little while—but not too long, because the potentially unstable ice was starting to warm—we headed back down. We took a gentler, more-traveled route down than we had come up, skipping the 2 o'clock couloir for the safer (but still pretty steep) slopes of the Old Chute. By the time we were heading down, the crowds were thickening. There were many people on the summit, and even more below us ascending. We tried to avoid knocking ice down onto the teams below us, but yelled "ice!" whenever the unavoidable happened.

The climb down to the Hogsback was fun. At the base of the Hogsback we put away the technical gear, opting for just ice axes on the lower mountain. We glissaded (sat down and slid) in some places, and ran and walked down others. We made it down to the groomed corduroy runs served by Timberline's Palmer lift, and picked up some serious speed glissading on the smooth ski slopes. We were going so fast we had to slow down to avoid melting our pants.

Unfortunately, a ski patroller ruined our fun when he came over and said that we had to get off the slopes since the lifts were going to start operating. The last couple miles of the descent, down the side of the Palmer and Magic Mile runs, took what seemed like an eternity, but we eventually made it back to the car around 9:30 a.m.

I slept most of the way home, and went straight from the car to bed, where I slept for 10 hours. I got up, at some food, and slept for another 10 hours, waking up at 6:15 this morning. Two days of little sleep followed by one of none had taken their toll on me.

Climbing Mt. Hood was amazing. The scenery was beautiful, the climbing was fun, the weather was perfect, and the company was great. I'd love to do it again!

More pictures are available in the picture gallery.


Jonathan said...

Looks amazing! I'm glad you got to go on an adventure... it's been awhile. haha. Cool pictures. :)

evans said...

Is that a giant triangular shadow from the mountain in that picture in the middle? That looks pretty sweet.

Carianne King said...

Oh Bruce! These pictures are amazing! You know I'm jealous of you...but I'm super glad you finally got to do it! :D

Bruce said...

Evan: yes, that's Hood's shadow.