Saturday, June 11, 2011

TR: Mt. Hood

Peak: Mount Hood
Location: Cascade Volcanoes, Oregon, USA
Elevation: 11,239' (3425m)
Route: South Side/Old Chute
Distance/Elevation Gain: 8 miles RT / 5300'

Yesterday, at 05:58 PDT, I summited my first Cascade Range volcano: Mt. Hood. The Oregon state highpoint, Hood looms an impressive 11,240 feet above the surrounding lowlands of the Columbia River Gorge. On a clear day in Portland (which is a rather rare occurrence), it can be viewed in all its glory as a snow-covered giant towering above the rivers and forests to the east -- a sight that could awe even the most urban-to-the-core individual.

My trip began on the evening of June 9, when I met up with my climbing partner, Eric, and left Portland around 21:45. There was a fair bit of cloud cover, but not enough to worry me. We arrived at the Timberline Ski Area parking lot around 23:30 and started up the trail shortly thereafter.

The first two miles or so were a slog through the slushy snow of the climbers' trail that ascends to the top of the Palmer chairlift along the ski area boundary. The path is regularly traveled by snowcats, which, added to the warm temperatures during the day on Thursday, made for an awkward-bordering-on-frustrating approach. We kept a relatively steady pace, ascending about 1,000 feet per hour and reaching the top of Palmer around 02:00, at which time we stopped for a snack and some water.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Kind Bars are an excellent choice for the active individual trying to eat primal/paleo. Not only are they delicious, they are made of natural and (mostly) paleo-friendly ingredients. They do have honey, but I don't consider that entirely non-paleo (especially if eaten during intense physical activity. Additionally, they're pretty calorie dense, which is always good for climbing trips.

Temperatures were relatively warm for the first couple of hours, but by the time we got to the top of Palmer, things had started to cool off a bit, and the snow was getting firmer. This did wonders for my morale - I'd been a bit nervous at the beginning of the climb about the snow conditions, given the warm temperatures that the region had experienced over the past week and the ambiguous report of a slide/ice-fall event that had injured climbers the day before.

The sky remained relatively clear -- a few minutes after we started up, some clouds had started to form, but they quickly dissipated, leaving us with a night of stars and a half-moon that glowed orange amidst a few clouds (I'm not sure if that's common for the northwest, but I thought it was pretty awesome). At one point, I turned my headlamp off to admire the stars -- an experience that I took for granted living in Colorado that is now unfortunately absent from my life in the northwest -- and I even saw a shooting star. I took this, along with the orange moon and hearing "Living After Midnight" on the radio earlier, as good signs for the day ahead, and continued onward into the darkness. The faint silhouette of Mt. Hood against the dark sky was imposing, but I was thankful for the fact that it was clear enough to actually see the mountain.

First light on Mt. Hood

Around 04:00, we were about 500 feet below the Hogsback and it was beginning to get lighter. There is nothing in this world quite like witnessing the sky's magnificent transformation from dark, alluring blue, to brilliant purples and pinks, and finally back to a paler shade of blue from the slopes of a mountain. As the morning light danced off snow-covered ridges and slopes, illuminating the snow and the sea of low-lying clouds below us, we trudged upward. We reached the Hogsback and traversed left over Hot Rocks -- a patch of angular rocks and dirt left bare by the heat from volcanic processes deep within the mountains bowels -- up towards the base of the Old Chute.

Looking over at the West Crater Rim approach - the blurry spot on the left side of the image is actually steam from a fumarole!

Small fumaroles drifted off several exposed patches of rock near the Hogsback, engulfing the area with the smell of sulfur. If anything, this motivated me to ascend faster; it becomes rather unpleasant after the first few minutes. Furthermore, this area is well above 10,000 feet, so my body was already feeling the altitude (I know, I know!), and the last thing I needed was to be breathing in volcanic gasses.

Looking up over Hot Rocks toward the Old Chute. You can see two climbers traversing towards the Chute from West Crater Rim.
The initial part of the ascent up the Old Chute was relatively straight-forward ... the slope wasn't terribly steep and the snow was, for the most part, pretty good. Near the top -- about the last hundred feet or so -- the chute becomes very narrow (about 10 feet wide) and steepens to around 55 degrees. This, by itself, presents no great challenge, but the quality of the snow near the top was considerably more dubious, consisting mostly of hard ice and rotten snow.

This was the most trying part of the ascent (and would be the most trying part of the descent -- but more on that later). Having already ascended more than 5,000 vertical feet on no sleep, and being at an elevation more than 10,000 feet higher than where I'm used to living, I was, for lack of better words,
wiped the hell out. And there I was, on a slope that I know is too steep to self-arrest (especially in my fatigued state), standing on my frontpoints, gasping for air, every muscle in my legs screaming at me. My heart was pounding as I continued up, willing my legs to keep moving. The fact that I was front-pointing the entire way was both comforting (the slope was too steep for anything else) and unsettling (my entire fate rested on four crampon points forced into sketchy snow, not to mention I was sure my calves were going to give up with every moment I hesitated). Furthermore, clouds were starting to enshroud the summit, adding to the pressure to get the hell up (and get the hell back down).

After a few more moments of pain, I finally reached the top of the chute. I could see the silhouettes of some other climbers on the summit, across a thin ridge less than 50 meters away. My climbing partner made sure I was okay to cross the summit ridge -- it is not very long but it drops off steeply on either side, so a fall from there would more than likely be fatal. At 05:58, amidst the clouds and blowing snow, I reached the summit of Mt. Hood. We didn't stay there for long -- I took about two minutes to rest, take a couple bites of food, and drink some water, and then began to descend. We had no way of knowing if the clouds were going to get worse, and didn't want to risk descending in deteriorating conditions. Of course, about ten minutes later, the summit cleared up. Figures.

The summit ridge of Mt. Hood

The descent down the Old Chute was anything but fun. After a few sketchy steps and dubious crampon placements, I realized that this was beyond my comfort level. We went back up to the top of the chute and roped up, descending two 100-foot pitches belayed from a snow-picked anchor down the rotten snow and ice. After this, we stayed rope but essentially simul-climbed (simul-downclimbed?) down until we were a couple hundred feet above Hot Rocks, at which point we continued down unroped.

For some reason, I get these hot spots right on my toes from my leather mountaineering boots (La Sportiva Glacier EVOs), which made the descent pretty painful. Once we reached the Hogsback, we decided to continue down another 500 feet to the flat spot where we had stopped before. It was 500 feet of torture.

Looking bad-ass with my frozen hair

Once I got there, I asked my climbing partner (who works in medicine): "I have two Percocet, a ton of prescription-strength ibuprofen, and a shooter of pomegranate Smirnoff. What combination of this shit will give me the most powerful pain-reducing effect without making me pass out up here?"

Not wanting to take too many risks, especially considering the lack of sleep I was operating on, I took one of the ibuprofen, ate a Mojo bar, drank some water, and continued down. After a couple hundred feet, I stopped, realized that
walking all the way down a snow-covered slope was stupid, took my crampons off, and glissaded. The snow was pretty crunchy -- not optimal for glissading -- but it was a hell of a lot nicer than walking. I alternated between walking and glissading for the rest of the way down to the top of Palmer. The snow was a little rough, and lumpy in places, but again, it was nicer than walking.

Quote of the day: "Now I know what it feels like to get fucked in the ass by a snowball!"

After a couple more hours of slogging down the slushy snow of the climbers' trail adjacent the ski area (while enviously watching people ride the terrain park features) in the baking sun, we finally reached the parking lot. Taking my boots off at that point might have been the best feeling in the world.

Overall, I think this peak was a good introduction to the Cascades, where I hope to climb many more peaks over the next couple of years. The approach sucks, but apparently I have similar slogs to look forward to on Rainier and Adams. The snow is a lot different than Colorado snow climbs. But hey, it's something new and different, and that's what this part of my life is supposed to be about.

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