August 7 – 8, 2007.
Mt. Jefferson has the reputation of being the baddest of the bad in the Oregon Cascades. So when I was approached by a friend to join a climb, I said, “why not?” Actually, right from the start I dashed any hopes of reaching the summit, but I wanted to see how far I could get. After all the hoopla about how beautiful Jefferson Park is, it was hard to turn down the invite.
Brad, Marc and I took off from the trailhead early in the afternoon and walked a pleasant 6 miles up to Russell Lake. Here, we found an open campsite on the lake and set up for the evening. It was chilly up here, with a brisk, constant breeze carrying our residual heat away. We took some time to scope out the area and plan tomorrow’s route. We had several options for getting from the lake to the ridge, and the boys argued about the best way while I admired the flowers and tried to seal the mental image of my surroundings into my brain.
Dinner consisted of my favorite, famous meal: meatballs, gravy, mashed potatoes, baguette and cheese. Some cold beer would have made it perfect but dilute Gatorade fit the bill just fine. We slept under drizzly, foggy skies hoping for the best in the morning.
The next day’s weather was disappointingly cloudy, so we got off to a later start than we’d planned. It was cool and the visibility wasn’t great, but it improved as the day went on. With light summit packs we tromped off through the wildflower meadows to the base of the climb.Our route crossed through some forest before reaching one of the usual Cascade scree slopes that I’ve come to hate so much. Two steps forward, three steps back…somehow we managed to get to the top of the slope without too much struggle and I was able to employ my four-limbed scree climbing technique. We continued scrambling up some slightly more solid rock and then gained the ridge. Up here, stunted evergreens dotted the boulder-strewn ridge line. We picked our way to a sheltered spot where we took a nice lunch break and discussed the next portion of the climb. So far, it was nice to be here. The weather had cleared up, Hood was coming into view, the sun provided plenty of warmth, and the scenery was breathtaking.
As we continued along the ridge we had options of going on to snow. We were fairly sick of the rock so the three of us crossed a large snowfield to reach the base of the summit pinnacle. There were a few steep sections but we didn’t need crampons or any protection. I had my ice axe out and the others went back and forth between using poles or not. As we stepped off the snow for the last time, we decided to leave our packs behind as we made one final push to the top. The scree pile ahead of us looked rather treacherous and the instability of climbing with a pack would be a safety issue. It did not appear that ropes and rock gear would do us any good either, so after a few swigs of water and a bite of food we carefully set out up a rocky gully.
Marc went ahead and scouted a route; Brad and I followed. Soon it became apparent that Jefferson’s nasty reputation is well deserved. Each step let loose a torrent of dust and rock. I quickly fell behind as the two guys seemed to glide ahead without worry. I clung to the mountain in fear, hating every move, and doubting every inch of the ground below me. As Brad disappeared into the distance, I shouted up ahead that I’d be heading back down to where the packs were stashed. This is supposed to be fun, I thought, and once it becomes terrifyingly un-fun, that is where I draw the line.
I picked my way back along the slope, trying to avoid being beneath the climbers ahead. Shortly after I began my descent, I heard one of them scream at the top of his lungs, “ROCK!” My heart stopped for a second, and then I began scrambling hard to my left. I listened to an avalanche of rock pour down another gully far to my right as my mind feared the worst. I was overjoyed to hear two distinct voices yelling at each other, indicating to me that they were both alive and probably unhurt. My pace quickened a bit since I just wanted to get off that part of the mountain–back to water, back to safe ground, back to my cell phone and other goodies. They were crazy for continuing on, and I was happy that I turned tail when I did.
After a bit of route finding, I made it back to safety and collapsed in a pile. I continued to monitor their progress by listening to the constant, thunderous rockfall and watching the progression of the resulting dust clouds. It appeared that they would, in fact, go for the summit, so I settled down and prepared for a long wait. I watched the smoke from the fires burning on the Reservation. I watched the clouds change shape as they crested the mountain and rolled over the valley. I added a layer, took off my boots and socks, and made myself comfortable. The sounds of my climbing partners’ voices couldn’t come soon enough. A sarcastic shout of “where’s the helicopter?” reassured me that everything was okay. Eventually, I caught sight of them slowly descending the bottom of the gully where I had turned around. I was greeted with a big hug and stories of how they will never, ever, under any circumstances, climb that pinnacle again.Now the route seemed like cake. We altered our course to include more snowfields–perfect for plunge-stepping and glissading. Near the bottom of the ridge, we avoided some scrambly stuff by following a stream back to the welcoming meadows of Jefferson Park. My feet adored the solid earth! We meandered back to the lake to break camp and bang out the 6 mile hike back to the car. Although we arrived after dark, the hike out was pleasant. The trail descended gradually and gracefully, unlike much of the ground we covered today. Unfortunately, I’ll have to return to bag Jefferson, but it will most definitely be via a more palatable route in very snowy conditions.