Wicked Weather on top of Mt. Hood
Updated: Dec 10, 2019
For the past few years, I have steered away from high mountain pursuits. Mostly because I had accomplished my summit list of the Big 5 Washington volcanoes in 2017 (Rainier, Baker, Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Glacier Peak). I was finding more joy in the chill nature of rock climbing and the immediate sense of accomplishment from finishing a route just 90 feet off the ground. There are things I love and miss about my mountaineering days, e.g. the early alpine starts, all the tactical hardware, the views of jagged mountain peaks. But mountaineering really focuses on one's tolerance for suffering. What is essentially stair-stepping up snowfields in chilly winds and silence for hours at a time, can be very monotonous and uncomfortable. And sometimes it can take days to feel the triumph of a successful summit.
Now that I'm living and working in Portland, eight new volcanoes are at my disposal. When I moved here a year ago, I still made the subconscious goal to climb them all. I quickly hiked up South Sister near Bend, OR one summer weekend. Then in January, I attempted to summit Mt. Hood and blew out my knee at 9,600 feet. I was saved by the Timberline Ski Patrol, which was a funny story... You can read more about that adventure here. I was 1-8 so far with no real drive to plan out the rest of my attempts. I spent most of the winter skiing and most of spring time climbing in Bend or the Columbia River Gorge. But Mt. Hood and the rest of the bunch still loomed in the back of my mind on a seasonal basis. And finally, a couple weekends ago, I finally got to check the Mt. Hood summit off my Oregon list.
It was a sunny start at the Timberline Lodge on the last Saturday of June. Derek and I skinned up towards the Palmer Lift while local ski teams zipped down to our sides. We reached the top of Palmer in good time and took a mini snack break. Multiple times throughout the slog, I wanted to ditch the summit attempt and ski right back to the car. The snow was in better condition than any time I'd been skiing in the winter. As it closed in on lunch time, we ascended above the lift with Hogsback in sight. The skies were slowly filling in with puffy clouds and I was weary about afternoon thunderstorms rolling in.
At 9,700 feet, we ditched our skis on a rocky patch and continued hiking up by foot. We were making good time and passed the Devil's Kitchen to our right. The fumaroles were gnarly. Mt. Hood is pretty well known for its sulfurous smells. We reached Hogsback around 2pm and headed towards the Old Chute route to the summit.
At this point, visibility had dropped and we were well in the clouds. The Old Chute route is another steep way to the summit on the left of the Pearly Gates. With the weather turning, we decided to avoid the gates for safety. I was a little glad we couldn't see much because it made the ascent up the loose, steep snow less daunting. We were close to the top as the winds picked up. I could only see about 20 feet ahead and Derek's fading figure. We reached the ice chute and used our ice tools and crampons to chip into the icy crust as we bear-crawled through the last leg. It was the most terrifying, most technical experience I've had on a mountain yet. Any miss-step inside the ice chute could send you flying down the slopes. It's strictly a no fall zone and makes sense why some folks like to belay beginners through it. We calculated each step with care and finally popped onto the summit. Unfortunately, we couldn't see anything.
I was carrying a celebratory beer in my pack the entire way to the top. However, in those weather conditions, we didn't care to celebrate for long. Derek and I snapped a few photos and soon after, heard a massive crack of thunder. The roar nearly gave me a heart attack. With thunderstorms in the vicinity, I urged us to get down fast. Hail started to fall as we descended down the ice chute.
I'd been lucky to have bluebird conditions for every other mountain summit except Rainier. As we dropped altitude, the winds quieted and everything became calm. I realized that it's in those moments, after pushing my body and mind to its limits, that I find the most solace. The rocky, jagged peaks surrounded us in the crater and it was the most beautiful thing. The toughest mental moments of the trip were over and we had a fun ski back down to the car to look forward to.
The hailstorm started again as we reached our skis. The snow was a bit soppy, yet the new layer of hail on top made for suitable ski conditions. Visibility was still low and I could barely see Derek as he turned down the slopes. He'd stop every 100 feet to wait for me and we'd readjust our bearings to aim for the top of Palmer. Finally, we saw the lift as we dropped below the cloud deck. The hail turned to rain drops and we cruised down Palmer with no one else in sight. It was the most glorious run I have ever taken. We were soaking wet once we made it down to the lodge, but we were still grinning from cheek to cheek. What an accomplishment.
We finished off the adventure with some food in Hood River. Wood-fired pizza had never tasted so good. With this successful trip, even with the wicked weather, I'm re-committed to high mountain pursuits. Skinning up slopes on skis is the easiest way to get up a mountain. It's also the fastest way to get down. I think it took us seven hours to reach the summit and about one to get back to the car. I've now got two summit caps of Oregon's Big 8. Only six more to go!