Saturday, May 21, 2011

Summiting Mt. Hood - The Highest Peak in Oregon

In his hand are the depths of the earth;
the heights of the mountains are his also. - Ps. 95:4

Climbing has fascinated me for years. We live in the Cascade range, an area very popular with mountaineers, skiers, and other outdoor enthusiasts - and for good reason! Directly to the north is Mt. St. Helens (8,365’), to the northeast, Mt. Adams (12,281’), farther north up by Tacoma, Mt. Rainier (14,411’), and to the south in Oregon, Mt. Hood (11,249’), Mt. Jefferson (10,497’), the Three Sisters, and many more. We have enjoyed climbing Mt. St. Helens in the summer for many years, and recently completed a winter climb. Though most of us were completely wasted after that climb, it gave us the confidence that “people can actually climb these things.”

A few months ago, Jonathan started talking about wanting to climb Mt. Hood. At first, I was a bit skeptical, doubting my own ability, and weighing the risks involved. After all, people have died or been seriously injured climbing that mountain, but the media tends to present an imbalanced view. Here are some quick stats:*
  • As of May, 2002, more than 130 people have died climbing Hood since records have been kept

  • The number of people requiring rescue remains steady at around 25-50 per year

  • In 2006, 3.4% of search and rescue missions were for climbers, compared to 20% for vehicles (ATVs and snowmobiles), 3% for mushroom collectors, and 73.6% for people involved in other activities on the mountain
On May 30, 2002, three climbers were killed and four were injured when they fell into the Bergschrund (a crevasse on the “Hogsback,” south side); that incident is also notable because the rescue chopper (a Blackhawk) crashed during the rescue attempt. More recently, on December 7-10, 2006, three experienced climbers embarked on a 2-day expedition on the treacherous north face of the mountain. They missed their rendezvous at Timberline Lodge, and rescue attempts were forestalled until the 16th. One of their bodies was recovered but the other two were never found.

Though stories like those are sobering and ought to instill an appropriate sense of caution, you need to realize that incidents of that nature are very rare. You don’t often hear about the 10,000+ climbers who attempt Hood’s summit every year - you just hear about those few who tried, but didn’t make it.

That said, we approached this climb with a healthy mix of caution and confidence. We would be climbing the south side, which is universally recognized as the safest and easiest way to climb Hood. The weather for Wednesday and Thursday of this week was lining up to be awesome, so Jonathan and I settled on Thursday morning for our summit attempt.

Day 1: Wednesday

After a morning of frantically pulling together my gear and finishing up a time-sensitive client project, I was ready to go! Mom and I drove into town to meet Jonathan, and after our rendezvous we headed down to Portland to rent some gear. I picked up a pair of plastic mountaineering boots and a climbing helmet, and Jonathan rented a pair of skis. From there we took I-84 east toward Mt. Hood.

Upon our arrival at Timberline Lodge (around 6:30pm I think), we took about an hour to practice our self-arrest technique on the slopes surrounding the parking lot. I hadn’t used an ice ax before so it was helpful to practice the motions and perfect my technique before the climb. You can read about stuff like that all day long and still be completely useless unless you get out there and actually practice!

After that, Jonathan wanted to try out the skins on his skis (skins are strips of synthetic material, with one side covered in tiny directional bristles - they allow you to move forward, but the bristles catch so you can’t go backwards), and I tagged along to get some pictures. Once we had ascended a little ways up “The Magic Mile” ski slope, I realized that I had forgotten my camera battery in the car. Go figure.

Needless to say, Jonathan made it back to the car much quicker than I did just “booting it.” We changed back into our regular shoes and hung out inside Timberline Lodge for a little while, then headed back outside to make some dinner. As always, Jonathan’s little MSR Whisperlite stove worked like a charm and we were soon downing some freeze-dried meals, jerky, apples and other carb-loaded food. Around 9:30 (I think) we decided to call it a day.

A Mountain House freeze-dried meal. They're actually pretty good!

We got a glimpse of the summit as the cloud began to clear.

We got a glimpse of the summit as the cloud began to clear.

Since tents are not allowed in the parking lot, and we didn’t want to go very far from the trailhead to set up camp, we had both decided to load our gear in the front seats and try to sleep in the 5’x5’ space in the back of Jonathan’s Jeep. That probably ranks among my worst night’s “sleep” ever... I felt like an inchworm. But oh well, 12:30am would come soon enough and my misery would end.

Day 2: Thursday

We both awoke shortly after 12:30am the next morning to the sound of other climbers preparing, chattering noisily, and shining headlamps all over the place. I pulled out the instant oatmeal and coffee while Jonathan fired up the stove. After eating, we both geared up, hoisted our packs, threw everything else back in the Jeep, and made our way over to the trailhead.

The previous evening, the summit had been shrouded in clouds - causing us to worry about conditions the next day - but it had cleared up completely by the time we went to bed, and now we could see it looming above us, a dark silhouette against the star-sprinkled sky. We began climbing at 2:00am.

Many of the climbers paid for a Snow Cat ride which saved them about 2,500 feet of climbing, but both of us wanted our first ascent to be “legitimate” so we legged it up instead. I have to admit a tinge of jealousy when I saw the Cat’s headlights twinkling on the slopes above the Palmer ski lift. Jonathan had the advantage over me with his skis and skins - I climbed the whole way in boots and crampons - but I think we were both feeling a bit winded for the first 1,500 feet.

We also discovered the importance of frequent hydration and calorie intake. As a general rule, your appetite goes out the window at higher elevations, but you must keep eating or you’ll eventually “bonk” and collapse in a helpless heap of quivering muscle.

After we passed the Palmer ski lift (at about 8,500’) the slope began to steepen significantly. We decided to stash our gear (Jonathan’s skis, my sled) and boot up the rest. My leg muscles were already warmed up and used to ascending in crampons, but Jonathan took a little while to transition, so we enjoyed fairly frequent “photo breaks.” The sunrise began at about 4:30am, and at that point I pulled out my camera and began shooting. We were treated to some spectacular views of Mt. Jefferson, the Three Sisters, and Broken Top to the south, and Illumination Rock directly to our left. The imposing mass of Crater Rock still loomed above us - close, but yet so far away. To our right were the Steel Cliffs.

This was shot around 4:30am. We had been climbing for 2.5 hours already.

This was shot around 4:30am. We had been climbing for 2.5 hours already.

Crater Rock looming above us. It's difficult to get a sense of scale in a 2D photo, but this is a whole lot bigger, and a whole lot farther away than it looks.

Crater Rock looming above us. It's difficult to get a sense of scale in a 2D photo, but this is a whole lot bigger, and a whole lot farther away than it looks.

Illumination Rock catching the first glow of sunrise.

Illumination Rock catching the first glow of sunrise

Jonathan climbing, after he had stashed his skis. We later realized that this slope would have made for some pretty sweet skiing, but oh well, lesson learned.

Looking west toward Illumination Rock and Portland (not visible) in the distance.

Looking west toward Illumination Rock and Portland (not visible) in the distance

The Steel Cliffs (to the east of Crater Rock).

The Steel Cliffs (to the east of Crater Rock)

When we finally reached the base of Crater Rock the distinct smell of sulphur, which we had been smelling for a while, became much more intense. The crater is home to at least half a dozen fumaroles, rocky vents that emit noxious sulfur fumes, and is appropriately called “The Devil’s Kitchen.” Many climbers experience nausea when in such close proximity to the fumaroles, and we were no exception. My muscles felt fine, but the sulfur really turned my stomach.

Looking south toward some neighboring peaks in the Cascade Range - Mt. Jefferson (right), The Three Sisters (middle), and Broken Top (left).

Looking south toward some neighboring peaks in the Cascade Range - Mt. Jefferson (right), The Three Sisters (middle), and Broken Top (left)

When the sun rises, Mt. Hood casts an impressive "pyramid" shadow to the northwest. The only way to see this phenomena is either from the air, or actually on the mountain.

Crater Rock from below. This thing is massive!

Crater Rock from below. This thing is massive!

We continued the ascent around the east side of Crater Rock, crossing over the “Hogsback” - a narrow, wind-swept snow ridge that used to be the preferred route to the summit. Several climbers took that route, climbing the Hogsback, traversing around the Bergschrund (a crevasse at the top of the glacier - you can see it on the right in the photo below), and climbing up through the “Pearly Gates” to the summit. That route used to be the primary means of reaching the summit, but has recently become much more technical and difficult (though after talking with one of the climbers who took it, I think we could have definitely taken that route). We chose to follow the majority of other climbers and ascend the headwall west of the Hogsback, climbing up to the summit ridge through a variation on the “Old Chute” route.

Climbers traversing across the Hogsback and up the headwall toward the summit.

I led the way up the headwall, kicking in steps and searching for solid snow. My toes were already pretty cold (in spite of two layers of socks and boot liners), but the constant kicking motion intensified the pain. Still, it was the only way so we kept pushing onward. Finally we reached the bottom of the Old Chute and discovered that it was a lot steeper than it had seemed from our vantage point below on the Hogsback. We’re talking about a 35-40 degree pitch for 100 feet - that’s steep! There was a lot of ice, covered in a few inches of snow, so it was much more difficult to get purchase with our ice axes and crampons. This part of the climb made me nervous. If you were to slip and fall, you would begin sliding down the headwall toward a nasty looking fumarole about 800 feet down the slope. Now, 800 feet is plenty of time to self-arrest, so if I had slipped I would have been fine. I’m a novice though, so even semi-risky terrain makes me a bit nervous.

That top portion where you see hikers ascending is a variation on the Old Chute route. Despite appearances, it's incredibly steep!

There were a few climbers above me patiently waiting to begin their descent; I remember staring at their ropes and boots as I neared at the top of the chute. Then I reached the top, looked up, and there before me was one of the most spectacular sights I’ve ever seen. The view stretched for hundreds of miles. There were St. Helens, Rainier and Adams to the north... I began tearing up. It was a good time to put my sunglasses on!

A panoramic view to the north showcasing 3 more Cascade peaks - Mt. St. Helens (left), Mt. Rainier (middle), and Mt. Adams (right).

A panoramic view to the north showcasing 3 more Cascade peaks - Mt. St. Helens (left), Mt. Rainier (middle), and Mt. Adams (right)

Jonathan was right behind me and together we traversed the summit ridge to the true summit. We made it! We were standing at 11,249’ - the highest point in Oregon! It was a thrilling moment of dreams realized and exertion rewarded.

Jonathan standing on the summit. We made it!

Far below we could see the Palmer, the Magic Mile and Timberline Lodge.

Far below we could see the Palmer, the Magic Mile and Timberline Lodge

Panoramic view from the summit, looking south.

Panoramic view from the summit, looking south

Though the sun was now beaming down on us we were far more exposed to the wind and I began to get pretty cold. The exertion had taken its toll on me, so the rest was welcome. I also managed to clear the ice from my hydration tube, and worked up the appetite to down some more calories. We both tweeted and/or called in our successful summit, shot some photos, stowed our cameras, and about 30 minutes after summiting we began our descent.

The Chute was particularly nasty on the way down. The snow had softened significantly, meaning we had the opposite problem that we had coming up - our ice axes and crampons were prone to slipping, so extra care was needed to ensure they had good purchase before we took the next step. Another climber was equipped with two ice tools (his ice ax and a secondary ice pick) which enabled him to make excellent time on the descent. A few days ago I picked up a pair of those ice picks on craigslist!

Descending the headwall was also difficult at first, because I didn’t have a clue what I was doing! In an effort to maintain balance I tried side-stepping (keep my feet perpendicular to the angle of the slope), but that didn’t work very well and was extremely slow going. Then I tried assuming a seated posture facing straight down the slope, but that’s a glissading position and I didn’t exactly want to start sliding! Finally, a few other climbers educated me in the proper way to descend a steep snowfield - namely, plunge-stepping. You plunge your heels in first, facing straight downhill, and using your ice ax for balance and self-arrest in case you slip. It requires confidence, but is very natural and easy with a bit of practice.

Once we reached the base of Crater Rock it was time for some serious glissading! (“Glissading” is a fancy word for sliding down a snow-slope on your rear - or standing if you’re good enough.) My pants were nice and slick so I managed to gain some real speed! I told Jonathan that I wish someone could create a “paradox” mountain (think Inception), where you descend to the summit, then turn around and descend again. Now wouldn’t that be nice?

We were a bit nervous that someone had pinched our gear since it wasn’t in sight and we couldn’t quite remember where we had left it. Eventually we found it, safe and sound, and began the rest of the descent. As I mentioned, Jonathan was on skis and I was on a little kiddie disc. I didn’t have the option of zigzagging to control my speed so I just used my feet and held my ice ax in self-arrest position in case my sled got out of control. That was the BEST SLEDDING EVER! I think I must have reached speeds of 25mph or more, and that was with a generous amount of braking!

We met up at the top of the Palmer for one final group shot and a few action shots, and then went our separate ways down the remaining 2,500 feet to the parking lot. I could have made it down faster if I didn’t have to keep checking behind me to make sure I still had all my gear! One guy was booting it down and thought my disc was the coolest idea ever; he wanted to know where he could buy one and said he’d been looking for something like that for a long time. I should have just sold him mine for $50!

I made it back to the Jeep shortly after Jonathan, and we both found that we had developed symptoms of AMS - acute mountain sickness - including a cough and nausea. It wore off pretty quickly once we descended to Government Camp.

In Closing

Climbing Mt. Hood was the experience of a lifetime for me! It’s difficult to express the emotions that flooded over me at the top, but one of the first things that came to my mind was, “Praise be to God!” I think that certain aspects of His Creation stir us to a deeper sense of awe and wonder than we commonly experience. Mountains bear great significance in Scripture, and there is so much we can learn from them about their Creator - His might, majesty, infinity, wrath, love, mercy... For me, mountaineering is more than “conquering the peaks”; it gives me a new awareness of my smallness and insignificance before the God who created such things, and makes me marvel at His love and mercy toward me.

What is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
- Ps. 8:4

Your righteousness is like the mountains of God;
your judgments are like the great deep;
man and beast you save, O Lord
. - Ps. 36:6

Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.
- Ps. 90:2

The mountains melt like wax before the Lord,
before the Lord of all the earth.
- Ps. 97:5


Andrew vonderLuft said...

Thank you Ben, for a very engaging log of your trek. It brings back memories of when my wife and I made the ascent shortly after we were married. I definitely identify with the awe-inspiring sentiments invoked by the experience.

Were you guys roped?


Benjamin Berkompas said...

Thanks for reading Andrew!

We decided not to rope up, mostly because we felt more confident in our abilities to self-arrest independent of one another and also because I don't have a harness (which is a rather lame excuse :).

Anonymous said...


Michael F

jsr photography said...

What a fun climb! Great pictures!

Sarah said...

I know this is pretty old... but I just wanted to say that the shadow photo is absolutely incredible. Wow.

Came over from the Six Angles blog. You've got some good photography! God bless!