Mount Hood Trip Report, June 1998, by
Richard L. Carey
Mount Hood is the highest mountain peak in Oregon and one of the 50 state high points that I had on my "to do" list. It is one of the cascade volcanoes and while not one of the higher peaks the ascent is not just a casual walkup. The guide books say May and June is the best time to climb it while there is still snow on the upper rock cliffs. After July 4th climbing is discouraged because of hazardous rockfall. Even in May and June the peak is climbed with the typical "alpine start" which means getting up in the middle of the night and getting going by about 1:00AM while the snow is still firm. The idea is to reach the top by about sunrise and get down through the steep sections before the sun reaches them and softens the snow.
I asked my friend Shelley Rogers if she would like to give Mount Hood a try and she said yes. She is an enthusiastic climber and doesn't need a lot of coaxing so I booked seats on Alaska Airlines for two round-trip tickets for May 17th returning May 20th. I also reserved a small car from Budget which we would need to get to the mountain which is about 40 miles east of Portland. The normal, easiest ascent route starts from the Timberline Lodge at 6,000 feet on the south slope so I called and got a room there for one night. Due to the height of the peak and also because we live near sea level it is desirable to help acclimatization by sleeping the night before as high as possible.
On Wednesday the 17th we left San Diego at 10:30AM and enjoyed the two hour and twenty minute flight to Portland. The route goes up the central valley and visibility was exceptional so we had wonderful views of the Sierra, Yosemite Valley, and later Crater Lake and the whole Oregon countryside. The Sierra was loaded with snow due to the heavy snowfall this past season which was rated at 150% of normal. As we descended and curved into the Portland airport Mount Hood looked impressive, steep, and loaded with snow... rather scary really. But I said to Shelley that upwards of 10,000 people climb it each year so it can't be that difficult.
We got our duffel bags and our Hyundai Sonata and drove out toward the mountain arriving at the lodge by 3:00PM. The snow level was right down to the lodge and we could see people skiing on the slopes up toward the peak. The summit is deceptively close and one might think it would take only an hour or two to the top and this lures some unprepared climbers into a dangerous situation. Many times clouds can roll in from the coast obscuring the lodge, and people without map or compass get off route coming down and head too far west onto the Zig Zag glacier where they must be rescued.
The Timberline is one of those grand old lodges like the Ahwahnee in Yosemite Valley which were built during the 30's by the WPA. The massive wood beams and stone work inside are amazing as is the custom ironwork on furniture and doors. A picture in the lobby shows President Roosevelt at the dedication ceremony around 1937. The rooms are small and expensive at $95 a night, but ours had a view of Hood which one can't get at a Motel 6. We wandered around the area and found the self-registration booth where we filled out a form stating our intent to climb the mountain the next day and got a wilderness permit to hang on the pack. There is no limit on the number of climbers and no fee so weekends get crowded.
Dinner that evening in the lodge was very good, although again rather pricey, but the other restaurant in a building catering to skiers was not open on a week day so we didn't have much choice. Knowing we had to get going at midnight we organized our packs and went to bed by 8:30 even though we weren't sleepy. The alarm went off much too soon and I realized I hadn't slept much at all, but the mountain beckoned, so we got ready nonetheless. The sky was clear with no moon and a cold wind coming out of the west. I wondered if I had enough clothing so I put on most everything I had including nylon pants, wind pants, two layers of poly undershirts, an outer shirt, a pile jacket, and Gore-tex wind parka. Shelley bundled up too and we headed out to the parking lot to dump our gear in the car. The dreary-eyed attendant at the front desk unlocked the front door when we needed to get back in. I said we were checking out since we didn't know if we would be back down by the 11:00AM checkout time. He didn't seem too surprised at us checking out at close to 1:00AM.
I wondered how we were going to find our way up the mountain in the blackness with no moon and small headlamps. I saw four other fellows near the start who had apparently slept in their cars in the parking lot which seems to be OK. They were heading up too so I thought that would be good since we could follow them, assuming they knew the way. We headed up the groomed slopes by the ski lift and the fellows, all a lot younger than us, soon disappeared up ahead, but we could occasionally see their head lamps. A mile or so up the slope was the Silcox warming hut, actually the size of a house, which had lights on so this served as a guide too. The wind was cold as we crunched along in the snow to the hut where we stopped to drink some water and munch on a food bar. There didn't seem to be anyone staying in the hut and the doors were locked, but it served as a good windbreak.
The next stop was a small hut at the top of the ski lift where we ate some more and put on our crampons. The other fellows, now only three since one had gone back, were just leaving. The moon was just coming up at 2:00 so that provided a bit more light. A little ways above this last hut a lone fellow passed us coming down and he said he had already been to the top! I wondered how he found the way and it didn't seem much fun to be on top in the dark, but some must enjoy these alpine starts more than we did.
At about 4:30 it started to get light and we could see our objective which was not too far now or at least it seemed so. Several other fast climbers had started later and passed by on their way up. The slopes were not bad and footing was secure with the crampons. Then we saw a tent on a small flat area and soon confronted a steep section. Shelley as usual was in front and I was pushing to keep up. She is amazingly strong at altitude where I tend to poop out a bit. A smell of sulfur soon drifted by. I couldn't see where it came from. Plodding up the slope we took a break on the dirt and rock to the side. It was loose and sliding and nearby I saw a fumarole where steam was spewing out. Fortunately it mostly blew the other way so we didn't have to breathe in the sulfurous steam.
Up ahead was the hogsback, a ridge leading onto the upper slopes, and several climbers were making their way left around the gaping bergshrund. Above that was a wide chute through the snow-covered cliffs called the Pearly Gates. So there was the route and it didn't look too bad and I was sure we would make it now. The wind which was fierce on the ridge below had subsided a bit too. I was warm enough except for my hands which got cold when the wind was stong. I was wishing I had brought my overmitts. Shelley was doing OK except she had to fiddle with her contacts when some dirt was kicked up by the wind. After another short break on the hogsback we made it up the slope on a well-beaten path which then turned left and became a narrow track about one boot width on a steep slope. Gradually angling upward for 100 feet or so the track made a sharp switchback at the end of the bergshrund, a deep crevasse in the snow running horizontally. Then it became steeper heading up to the chute coming down through the cliffs. Along here was a sneaky hole in the snow which we carefully stepped around. The snow was an interesting texture, like shaved ice particles on top which were continually streaming down from above and filling the track.
In the chute there were the three climbers we met at the start who were coming down now. It was a fifteen minute grunt up to the summit which was in bright sun. There were two other guys there and we had them take our picture. And what a sight on top! The wind was not too bad and all the volcanoes were out in the sun. Up north was Mt. Adams with Mt. St. Helens just peeking above the cloud layer and giant Mt. Rainier in the middle. To the south the next big volcano was Mt. Jefferson then the Three Sisters stood out in a row. We spent a half hour enjoying the view before heading down.
Descending on the steep slope I stopped to see how Shelley was doing and some ice particles blew down on me, one stinging my wrist. Fortunately they were not very large. I could see the danger if big chunks started falling down from the cliffs. We got down past the bad area by 8:00 at which time the sun was starting to shine on the cliffs. It had taken us six hours to the top and would take about three to get down. On the lower slopes skiers and snow boarders were swarming all over the slopes having a good time and the lifts were running. We moved far left at the edge of the groomed area to stay out of their way. Amazingly quite a few climbers were still coming up intending to go for the summit at this late hour. Evidently they weren't too concerned of the hazards up higher. We wished them well and headed on down the mountain.
Mt. Hood GPS Route