March 6, 2010.
Cooper Spur Ski Area to summit, then down the South Side (Old Chute variation) | 7400′ ele. gain | 12:15 hrs.
I will never climb the Cooper Spur again because there is no way I could top this climb. Matt and I joined another team of two, Forest and Nick, near the base of the climb and we continued the day together. The four of us had the entire east side of the mountain to ourselves under bluebird skies and in great snow conditions. This is how it all went down.
In the winter, the Cloud Cap road is closed at the Ski Area, so this was where we left the car at about 2:20 am. We followed the Tilly Jane ice rink, er… ski trail up to the cabins. We’d decided to leave the snowshoes in the car so we had no traction on this, the most treacherous section of the whole climb. The trail had been packed down by so many skiers and snowshoers that it was barely passable. We said hello to two other climbers taking a break in the cabin and kept moving.
Matt followed a barely visible path from the cabins up towards Cooper Spur. Once the trees thinned out and the moonlight brightened we were able to pick our way across unbroken snow to the Spur.We saw headlamps shining behind us and to the right, which turned out to be the other team heading up. We joined up and chatted as we tromped across the snow, waiting for the sun to illuminate our route.
At about 6:30 am we reached the start of the climbing route. We stopped to eat, then put on extra clothes, harnesses, helmets and crampons, preparing for the snow to steepen and nice resting spots to become less frequent. The sun rose, casting its light on the faces of Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Jefferson. It was chilly, and somewhat windy. My feet were getting cold from standing around. I looked up at the mountain, checking out the route. It’s just about as straightforward as routes come: follow the crest of the ridge until the top. It’s basically a straight shot, with some potential for decision-making in “The Chimney,” or so I was told. So, here’s where the fun began…
The act of slogging up a snowfield is never really “fun,” but here, today, I could look around and see just three other people (our team) and that’s it. No line of people huffing and puffing up the south side. No ski lift. No sunlight gleaming off of row after row of parked cars. It was just us and the mountain. As the sun moved across the sky the snow on the other volcanic peaks in view shone brightly. We walked in a line to conserve energy, as only the frontperson had the job of kicking steps. The two guys we joined up with took on most of this work, for which I was very grateful!
I fell into a pattern. Step, step, move ax, step, step, move ax… When I would stop to catch my breath or relax my muscles, I turned around and soaked up the view. A layer of low clouds that was thick early in the morning dissipated slowly as time passed on. The Spur snaked down and away, our route clearly visible below us as we climbed. The high peaks burst out of the horizon, demanding attention. The snow was soft. Each step felt like a staircase. My ax would plunge into the snow right down to the head and plant itself firmly with little effort.As we continued up on steeper and steeper snow, the wind died down to zero and it began to feel incredibly hot. Not wanting to stop and take my pack off on a 40 degree snow slope, I just sucked it up and kept going. Once we reached “The Chimney,” we decided to split off. Forrest and Nick wanted to ascend the slope to the right of an obvious rock outcrop and we wanted to go left, snaking between some smaller rock outcrops. We were a little concerned about the potential for rockfall but we hadn’t seen anything come down yet and the sun had been beaming on the mountain’s face for a long time. So I waved goodbye to the glorious snow steps and started making my own way. Now I was feeling really hot. Kicking steps takes a great deal of energy more than following. But the freedom and excitement of leading is worth it, so I kept going. I took many more breaks, but it was no big deal. It sure beat sitting around my apartment watching another lousy movie from Netflix. I couldn’t complain. However, it was really nice to eventually see an orange helmet appear on the other side of the rock band; I started to veer to my right to rejoin the other team’s tracks, which would lead to the final snow ramp to the summit.
The slope began to mellow out and the summit ridge seemed so much more reachable. As Forest forged on like a step-kicking machine I fell in line behind him and went back to walking in a pattern. I knew I’d have time to refuel at the top so I just drank enough water to keep me going and kept the breaks as short as possible. Before too long I came up over the top of the dome and stood on the summit ridge. Gushing with all sorts of exhilaration, exasperation, and big smiles, I took off my pack, spewed some gibberish into Forrest’s videocamera and whipped out my summit treat: a Cadbury Egg :).
We rested here for about an hour. The air was still and warm, everyone was excited, and we still had so much time in the day; it had taken Matt and I only 8 hours to get from the car to the summit. That’s about 7400 feet of elevation and maybe 7-8 miles of travel, including some gear swapping breaks. The snow conditions were so great up high that we never had to set any pickets or rope up, so that saved us a huge amount of time. Alas, we carried a whole bunch of training weight today.
We had to get down at some point, so we begrudgingly loaded up our packs again and started down the Old Chute. We walked by some people at the rim and maneuvered around some others on their way up through the narrow part of the chute as well. Matt went down first and I followed after him as the other two poked around, checking out the routes on the other side of the mountain. It was slow going; the chute had been well-traveled and there were mushy steps everywhere. Once out of the bottleneck area it was easier to travel, plunge-stepping in deep snow to the Hogsback. I had to step aside several times to get out of the way of skiers coming up. It was like a whole different world on the south side, there were people EVERYWHERE. But I was still on a major high from the ascent so they didn’t bother me one bit.
We hung out on the Hogsback for over an hour. I stripped down to my base layer top, ate a bunch of food, and drank almost all the rest of my water. I people-watched, checked out the steamy sulfur vents, ogled the rime-topped cliffs and chatted with my team. I felt like I was sitting on a beach in summertime. Then I looked around at all the snow and remembered I was atop one of the tallest peaks in Oregon, living the good life. Wow.
The trip down is excruciating. The parking lot is visible the entire way and it never seems to look any bigger, no matter how far you walk. The other guys made some successful and unsuccessful attempts and glissading, while I stuck to plunge-stepping the entire way. My damaged knee has come a long way; almost two years after ACL surgery here I was, pounding down a mountain with no pain at all. We arrived at Timberline almost 12 and a half hours after we started, which was well ahead of our conservative time estimate. I feel like I say this all the time, but: this trip is going to be hard to beat. And I mean it every time! It was an incredible day of climbing with a great team of guys, in gorgeous weather and perfect snow conditions. What more can I ask for?