Climbing Mt. Hood

The snowcat rumbled to a stop amidst the barren rock and snowfields on Mt. Hood, Oregon’s iconic summit at 11,250 feet. It was an eerie sensation to be grinding along in pre-dawn blackness, we had to start our journey at 12:30 am to avoid melting snow and icefall near the summit. Bundled up against the chill, it was hard to believe that Portland, more than 8,000 feet below in the Willamette Valley, would be baking in 100-degree heat on this late June day.

Many thoughts raced through my mind during the forty- five-minute ride. Did I bite off more than I could chew, murmured by my hiking buddy Bill Bens sitting across from me on the snowcat. Bill and I were signed up for the summit program on Mt. Hood, the first time either of us had attempted such a feat. Although we were experienced hikers, Bill attends many of my Sierra Club outings, climbing a technical peak navigating snow and ice was an entirely different undertaking. Mt. Hood was on our collective radar screens for quite some time, so we booked this trip, intent on accomplishing the deed.

My feet still hurt from the “snow school” course the day before. Our instructor Phil, a guide at Timberline Mountain Guides, taught us steep snow climbing techniques, technical rope work and self-arrest. It was recommended we rent mountaineering boots, crampons, helmet, harness and ice ax. The boots, made of plastic, proved to be uncomfortable, causing painful blisters. Because of a life-long condition of bunions, this was a major cause of concern on my part. Phil, exhibiting the manner of a Marine’s drill commander, displayed no empathy.

After the skills course, we had little time to rest before our Sunday morning lift-off time. Bill and I managed less than two hours of sleep each, not a good way to begin a strenuous climb in the dark on an icy and sometimes dangerous mountain. As of May 2002, more than 130 people have died climbing Mount Hood since records have been kept.

Another concern was unseasonably warm conditions, good from the perspective of comfort but bad because the snowpack near the top of the peak must be frozen to minimize the risk of falling rock and ice. The guides the day before mentioned that we may not be able to summit the mountain for this reason.

We got off the snowcat and began climbing in pitch black conditions. Only the lights from our headlamps illuminated the night. The climb was steep, relentless, tedious and my feet grew increasingly painful. Phil queried me, “did you forget everything you learned at snow school yesterday”? He didn’t like the way I was striking the snow with my aching feet. The man assumed I was an experienced mountaineer; he had little patience. An hour later we donned crampons as the snow became firmer.

At the Hogback, approximately 700 feet below the summit, we heard ice and rock careening down from the high peaks, confirming that that the snowpack was unstable. We took a break there as the guides assessed the situation. It was decided to abort the climb.

As compensation, views from the Hogback were richly rewarding. Mt. Hood’s massive volcanic massif lit up, illuminating a glorious scene. We experienced the Hot Rocks Furnace steam vent belching gases on Crater Rock. It brought home the fact that Mt. Hood, as well as other Cascade peaks, are still active volcanoes.

The mountain cast a gigantic shadow across the valley. Moreover, other peaks in the Cascades, such as Mt. Jefferson, appeared in the distance. The scene was mesmerizing.

We still had to descend 4,500-foot feet back to Timberline Lodge, an historic and fascinating old hotel we explored the day before. The return trek was lengthy, albeit increasing light and warmer conditions buoyed our spirits. The landscape remained incredible. Even though we were not successful in cresting Mt. Hood, the excursion was meaningful and worthwhile. I want a rematch with Mt. Hood in 2018, this time with leather mountaineering boots!

I’ll quote hiking guru Bill Bens, “Just another crummy day in the Great Northwest!”