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Mount Hood, Oregon (11,239)

My family had decided on an Alaskan cruise for our annual family vacation.  It had been something we had always wanted to do.  Since our cruise would leave out of Seattle on a Sunday, I thought there might just be an opportunity here to visit Mt. Hood in Oregon.  I started looking into the logistics, planning, and before long I was committed to the trip.

I selected the South Side Route, which begins at the 5,800' Timberline Lodge parking area.  Normally people climb Hood in just one day.  Since I had some extra time I decided I would camp on the glacier above the ski resort.  I love camping on snow and it would be more fun and interesting than staying in a hotel.  It was a great decision, and I am glad that I did.  It also meant that the climb above the ski resort would be much harder and more challenging due to the extra gear for camping, cooking, and food.

After the hard part of settling into camp, I spent the day reading and relaxing.  It was one of the most leisurely days I can remember.  The next morning I began with an alpine start around 2am.  The idea was to get up to the top while the snow was still hard and off the mountain before any afternoon thunderstorms began to appear.

I was a little nervous since this would be the most challenging solo climb I had attempted to date.  I was overcome by an immense sense of solitude.  No one was around but me.  Nothing could be heard in the dark, cold air except for the crunch of my crampons digging into the hard packed snow.  Eventually I would spot one headlamp higher on the mountain and one far below.  It felt good knowing at least there was some back up around.

The sky was just barely showing signs of the approaching dawn by the time I had reached the cinder cone.  This was one of the most dangerous parts of the mountain.  Every year people are asphyxiated by the volcanic gasses spewing from the active beast we were climbing upon.  A wrong step and fall on certain parts of this mountain can result into a long slide into the open fumaroles and into a boiling hot death.  The last time this mountain erupted was 1907.  I sure hope today wasn’t next.

These thoughts were shoved to the back of my mind as total focus produced careful and deliberate steps, one after another.  The smell was putrid as I tried to pick a path through the insides of the cinder cone.  I needed to make my way to the other side before climbing up the headwall.  At this section known as Hot Rocks, the trails were zigzagging every which direction.  I wasn’t sure exactly which way to go.  I knew I couldn’t dwell in this area, so I made my decision and pushed forward. 

Now the crux of the climb began.  I long push up the incredibly steep headwall.  It is approximately 800’ of 45 degree slope.  Any misstep here would result in a long, bone crushing fall.  I would find out later just how bad a fall like this could be. I steadily climbed further and further up using my ice axe in a self belay position.  Grasping the ice axe head I drove its spike hard, deep into the ice hoping that if I slipped it would support my weight.  I looked over at the standard “Hogsback” route, wishing the less steep route wasn’t completely impassable due to a giant bergschrund hadn’t ripping through the heart of it.

 Eventually I was on the summit ridge.  Not out of harm’s way yet, I had to contend with a narrow ridge and dramatic thousand foot drops on either side.  I mean very, very narrow.  Again, focus and care was the key.  I passed a climber on his way down right after transitioning onto the main summit just as the sun was officially above the horizon. 

There was one other climber that was on the summit.  I was pleased to be there third one up that day and spent a longer than usual break on the summit.  I couldn’t believe the good luck.  The day was beautiful and the entire Cascade Range was visible to the north and to the south: Rainier, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Baker, the Three Sisters and more.  What an amazing and beautiful site. 

I was quite nervous descending the same section.  I knew that the narrow ridge and the steep headwall could produce fatal consequences.  With care and precision I made my way down.  I was quite grateful to smell the sulfuric gases once I reached the Hot Rocks section.  As I prepared to turn south and leave the volcanic crater, suddenly I heard shouting.

I turned around to witness a man sliding out of control down the headwall.  He must have slid at least 400’ and in the process lost his helmet which was down at the very bottom.  I could hear him yelling from his position, about ¼ of the way up, to his partner that was about ¾ of the way up.  I could hear them yelling back and forth, but I couldn’t hear a single word they were saying.  The climber seemed fine.  He was not shouting in pain, just simple communication.  He was with his partner and I assumed everything was ok.  This was a relief.  I still had to get off the mountain and drive all the way up to Seattle to meet my parents and my friend Robby Martin for dinner.

The hike back down was a long one; much longer than I remember it taking on the way up.  I tried glissading in a few places, but often it was either too steep or too shallow of a slope.  Other times I was constantly bumping over small volcanic rocks, strewn across the snow fields.  Ouch! 

I finally made it back to camp, packed up and headed down the climbers trail on the East side of the ski resort.  It was pretty weird hiking around with a giant backpack getting passed by skiers and snowboarders.  It made me wish I had flow my skis or snowboard out with me.  When I finally made it down to the parking lot I received some disappointing news.

It turns out the climber had broken a leg.  He was in not in serious condition, but some park rangers were going up to assist in getting him off the mountain.  I felt guilty for not hiking back up to their location and checking on them.  At this point, there wasn’t anything I could do but make a mental note to never leave a situation like that again without making absolutely sure of the details of the situation. 

The fallen climber certainly dampened my mood.  I was sad to hear he had fallen, knowing that it could have been me if I had been unlucky.  I was also sad I was now powerless to help him.  I don’t think I could have helped had I stayed behind, but now I was definitely of no help.

Despite feeling a bit sad, I was also incredibly happy.  I was thrilled to have successfully completed a very hard, dangerous highpoint.  I was excited to have accomplished it as a solo climb.  I was euphoric that I have survived a dangerous mountain and had an entire week to spend on a cruise with my amazing and wonderful family.

Mt. Hood

Map of US HighPoints
KEY: States: Green - summited, Yellow - attempted, White - Not visited
Dots: Green - State Lowpoint, Red - State Highpoint

 

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