“If its too windy, we should postpone.” Mira said as we scanned the forecast on the large monitor inside the gear shop in the small town of Ashford, Washington.
“I can deal with cold but if its too windy, I will get thrown around.”
Mira was fairly short in stature. She was a strong skier but well under 130 lbs.
Born in Colorado, she moved out to Washington for college and said she now much prefers the Pacific Northwest over the Colorado Rockies.
With peaks such as Rainier, Hood, Baker and Adams, I certainly agreed. Fully glaciated mountains offered opportunities in mountaineering that Colorado just doesnt have.
We were planning on climbing Mt hood on a day off from the gear shop, where for eight to twelve hours a day, we fitted clients with hiking or mountaineering boots, as well as renting out other outdoor equipment.
Hood is an extremely alluring mountain. Certainly not an untrekked and unclimbed mountain but still a beacon in the Northern Oregon sky as it rises above the clouds at over 11,000ft.
Like its siblings in Washington state, Rainier, Adams and Baker, Hood is a Stratovolcano, complete with glaciers, crevasses and a Bergshrund; a wide crevasse that goes deep to the bedrock of the mountain below the glacier ice.
Climbers on Hood even have to contend with Fumaroles, or vents that expose toxic gases which percolate up from deep inside the mountain’s magma chamber. The smell of these gases are horrendous and can certainly make people sick.
It is all of these elements that make Hood so appealing to climbers and adventurers. It is the challenges and unique features that it holds which make it such a beautiful mountain.
While there are many routes to the top, Mira and I were taking the basic south route that would have us ascending through a feature near the top called, The Old Chute. It was adjacent to the well known jutting ice slabs and route called, the Pearly Gates.
This section of the mountain was steep, treacherous and incredibly beautiful. Though there was a risk of congestion, rock fall and avalanche that required extra vigilance.
Thus with a decent forecast projected, Mira and I packed up my Ford escape on a thursday afternoon after work and hit the road for an almost three hour drive to Timberline lodge at the foot of the mountain.
We were aiming for a 1am start which would mean summiting preferably no later than 830am.
On the way, while passing through scenic south Washington and then Portland Oregon, Mira and I got to know each other a little better.
“I’m going to be a scientist.” She said.
She was studying biochemistry at Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma.
The age difference between us was fairly stark, she was twenty-one and I, twenty-nine.
“I am the only person in my family who likes adventure. My brother, he is not into mountaineering at all.”
Despite her youth, Mira radiated a maturity and competence that made me feel more at ease.
It was 11:30 when we pulled into the parking lot of Timberline Lodge. There were a few other climbers, sitting on the tailgates of their SUV’s. It was cold, for May at least. 31 degrees.
We filled out a climber registration form inside the lodge which is a completely self serve process and then rolled out our sleeping bags and tried to get at least an hour of rest.
The alarm on my phone went off at 1:45 and we immediately began gearing up, harness on, helmet and headlamp.
There was a light gust that passed through my layers and chilled already quite, stiff muscles.
Mira wrapped the rope around the shoulder and beneath her left arm. We didnt plan on using it but having it certainly wouldnt hurt to have one.
“Lets go.” She said with a nod.
With the darkness, our headlamps lit the way onto the snowfield and more headlamps hundreds of yards in the distance, revealed our tentative path forward.
Mira had downloaded the route onto her smartphone and tracked our position in real time. It was a system similar to that of Mapsme that I had used in abundance while backpacking through China and southeast Asia while having no cell signal.
There was a cold gust that ripped through our layers and highlighted my sense of sleep deprivation.
The snow was relatively deep and I plunged forward onto the snowfield within my La Sportiva Nepal Cubes. I pressed hard onto my trekking pole and was grateful for it in light of the IT Band syndrome that was cracking on the sides of both of my knees.
One step in front of the other within the cover of darkness, I led while Mira trailed behind. As the hours went by, the blackness began to turn to dark blue and off to our left about a hundred yards, snow groomers illuminated our route.
Large tractor sized machines, who were maintaining the ski runs on the mountain, their presence was a reminder that we certainly werent prodding onto an untrekked backcountry.
Though as we continued climbing, we soon left behind the more pedestrian ski and hiking areas and came onto the mountaineering section of Mt Hood.
The lights of Portland could now be seen shining brightly far off to the West.
We stopped for a quick rest break, unclipped our ice axes from our packs and spoke few words.
“Feeling alright?” I asked.
“Yep.” Mira replied.
I sensed she was slightly annoyed by the question.
“We arent far from Devil’s Kitchen.” She pulled out her phone.
I examined the screen. We had gained considerable elevation over a few hours but still hadnt encroached near Crater Rock, a towering rock cliff that formed the Chin of Mt Hood’s crater.
We continued plodding onward with trekking poles and ice axes in hand. We passed a group of six climbers who had begun an hour before us and were now taking a long rest break.
We crossed an edge known as Traingle Moraine which separated the snow field from the White River Glacier. Dawn was breaking and light illuminated the top of the mountain. The views were spectacular, with the ice covered Pearly Gates in full view.
We stopped for a quick bathroom and food break before the Hogsback and at the base of the Devils Kitchen.
The gases from the fumaroles were now in full scent and the potency was much stronger than what I Imagined.
It was like being locked in a car with a college football player after they had a twelve egg breakfast, I was nearly noxious.
We trekked forward with the size and scope of the top of Mt Hood in clear appreciation. Crossing an open crevasse, I shuttered at the thought of falling in. It would either be death by impact or death by suffocation.
We crossed the Bergschrund and made our ascent up the Old Chute which was left to the more travelled Pearly Gates route.
The terrain was steep, much steeper than I had imagined. It was defiantly pushing it for a Grade II climb.
I climbed upward while pressing my ice axe into the mountain, knowing that in the event of a fall, it would be my only saving grace from tumbling down and potentially knocking out Mira.
Glancing back was a beautiful site, though in light of the steep terrain and open crevasses, it was better to focus my attention on the slope in front of me.
Step and Punch, step and punch. It was a mountaineer’s meditation.
Finally I made it to the summit ridge and as I reached my hand over the top, a sharp gust of wind came racing over the ridge and nearly sent me tumbling down the mountain.
Mira soon joined me as we rested at the top of Oregon.
It was about 8am and the sky was a beautiful blue, with a few white streaks of clouds. Mt Rainier could be seen to our north standing proudly in the Washington landscape.
We looked down at a group of ski mountaineers, roped up and ascending the Old Chute.
“Next time, thats what Im doing.” Mira said.
“I have to ski this mountain.”
“I’ll watch.” I replied. I certainly was not ready to ski this sort of terrain.
Beginning our ascent at the Old Chute, I was immediately reminded how descending big mountains is often just as much or more of a bitch as going up.
Two hours later, we had crossed the Triangle Morraine and were cleared of potential crevasses. Plunging downward, with the sun beating hard on our faces, I felt a tweak in my right knee within the patellar.
“Fuck.” I cursed aloud.
I had done so much to try and protect my knees over the years, ever since overdoing it on Mt Rainier a few years back. Though there was only so much i could do given my hobbies.
Mira and I were back at Timberline Lodge a little after 11 and after a fistbump, we quickly packed up my Ford Escape and drove North back to Ashford.
We had to work that night.