February 3-4, 2007.
Since I moved to Oregon, climbing Mt. Hood was a goal. I was hesitant to try and get up there this season until I started talking to climbers about the mountain and building up my confidence about my ability to take on the climb. My opportunity came this weekend, on a clear, beautiful Saturday morning.
We took the South Side route, which is an 8 mile round trip ascending 5300 ft above the Timberline Lodge. Much of the route is a cakewalk, but there are some potentially dangerous sections just before the summit. The weather this year has been unusual, creating some steep ice in the Pearly Gates. Brad and I planned for these icy conditions up top. He carried some rope, ice screws, and other intimidating looking bits of gear. Of the two of us, he was by far the more experienced, so I figured he might be able to teach me a few things if we hit sketchy conditions up top. We each carried lots of warm layers and emergency gear in case of anything unexpected. We felt great about the climb and hit the trail at 3am under a full moon.
We walked without headlamps up to the Silcox hut, following the ski lift. The winds were blowing pretty steadily but the temperatures were mild (for winter) so we adjusted some layers and pressed on. The route got steeper and icier so we donned crampons, making the walk much easier. Approaching Crater Rock we passed another group on their way down, turned back from the summit by 60-80mph wind gusts. We figured we’d continue on and continually assess the situation, turning back if need be.
We took a quick snack break before tackling the last section of the climb. As we crossed the Hogsback, we started getting nailed with the wind gusts we were warned about. I proceeded slowly and cautiously, making sure my ax was planted with each step. It was exhilarating to be on this beautiful mountain, surrounded by dramatic rime-covered cliffs, smelling the choking odors of sulfur-spewing vents nearby, and battling fierce winds with the summit in sight. Now it was feeling like an adventure.
There was one more obstacle before the summit could be attained. Brad decided the Pearly Gates were too dangerous, so we followed the bootpath veering left and headed up an icy chute that looked good. I was careful to kick my crampons solidly into the ice and perhaps put more faith in a well-planted ax on this day than I have in all of my previous winter hikes. Again, the exilaration kept me moving and it was so exciting to hear Brad say “Hey, guess what’s up here? The summit!”
The summit was totally socked in with clouds so we took our celebratory photos and retreated. Downclimbing the ice was very slow and methodical; it was nice to feel the somewhat solid, flatter slope at the bottom. The clouds began to thicken as we followed the Hogsback down the mountain. We ended up on a narrow ridge between steaming sulfur vents and became disoriented. Visibility was reducing quickly, and as we wandered back and forth to regain the route, we realized we were lost.
After much discussion, analyzing the map, checking the compass and weighing our options, we found the route, a safe path between the vents. By now, we were completely engulfed in whiteout conditions. We walked for hours with minimal visibility. Everything looked the same; we were in a white, featureless void. The winds continued whipping and trying to take us down. I began getting really annoyed and frustrated, wishing for just a 2 minute break from the winds to relax my legs for a bit. Every step was a struggle because I hate walking downhill on crampons on crusty, textured snow. Being amidst a cold cloud for much of the day, ice was forming on all of our clothes and wetness was gathering inside. Wet + cold = bad news.
After hours of walking, we began traversing a glacier covered in soft snow and perforated with narrow cracks. I was terrified of falling into a cravasse and couldn’t wait to stop walking. We’d already decided we would have to spend the night and so I suggested we find a good spot quickly.
Oh, the wind. The demoralizing, irritating, freezing, gusting wind. We scoured the landscape for cover, but there was none to be had. Treeline was not visible. Nothing was visible except for a few rocky ridgelines. We spotted a large rock and decided to hunker down there. As I jogged in place to keep my limbs warm, Brad shoveled out a platform and we crawled into our sleeping bags. With only one bivy between the two of us, we jammed in there together and struggled to get minimally comfortable. It was only about 4pm.
We were both nervous, scared, and wondering what would happen next. I knew my friends and family were expecting me to call them before noon and that by this point they would be worried and wondering what to do. I was more concerned about their well-being than my own. I knew I wasn’t in a life-threatening situation but they would assume that I was experiencing the worst.
Brad and I kept each others’ spirits up by having silly conversations and snacking on Clif bars and chocolate. Time passed incredibly slowly. It seemed like days before the sun went down. I caught 5-10 minute naps now and again but neither of us got any good sleep during the night. The wind continued to blast through the rocks and chill the water gathering in my sleeping bag. At this point, all of our gear was getting soaked through. There was just no getting around it.
I didn’t have cell phone service all day, so we were unable to let anyone know where we were and how we were doing. During a break in the weather, however, I saw 4 bars on my phone. We were both surprised and relieved. Brad called 911 and gave some info to the Mountain Rescue folks who had already been contacted by our friends and family. Since we finally had some views, he was able to figure out that we were in ZigZag Canyon, to the northwest of Timberline Lodge. We stayed in touch for several hours before they confirmed our location and gave us directions to get back to the lodge. We packed up as quickly as possible and set off across the soft, slushy snowfield.
10 minutes later we saw a headlamp moving towards us. Oddly enough, it was another hiker who had been wandering around all night, disoriented. He joined us as we crossed Little ZigZag Canyon, proceeded to the ski lift, and followed the Sno-Cat packed snow down to Timberline. The sight of that lodge lifted the corners of my mouth and suddenly I had more energy in each step. I believe we walked for under an hour before meeting the SAR folks at the climber’s register.
The whole experience was incredibly humbling. I believe we made both bad and good decisions on this trip. I am certainly re-thinking what to pack as far as emergency gear. We both had enough supplies to make it uncomfortably through the night, but if one night turned into two, we may not have been so lucky. I am very glad we were able to make it out under our own power, but I feel awful that so many people were up all night worrying about our safety and working hard to make sure this story had a happy ending. One quick turn of the weather changed a near-perfect climb to a near-disaster. The mountains are unmoved by human endeavors.
I will continue to explore the mountains. I’ve taken away some valuable lessons and learned a great deal about myself. Certain risks are inherent in mountaineering and I am willing to accept those risks. I will make adjustments to my preparation, attitude, packing list, and skillset as a result of this episode. Each foray into the backcountry provides learning opportunities and some are more challenging than others. I have no regrets and I hope to stand on the summit of Hood again, on a day with a view 🙂