written by Conor Foley
Climbing a mountain is about putting one foot in front of the other. Starting among the trees of the valley and staring up at your objective thousands of feet above with this step by step process in your thoughts causes the mind to wonder and the will to falter. Suddenly, your car never seemed so inviting. Perhaps, there is a nice bench nearby where you can lie down. Then the wind picks up and hardens your resolve. Doubts are blown away like cobwebs from a corner. There is no uncertainty as you step off the pavement and set your boot with a crunch in the snow, there is only the tug of The Question: what does it look like up there…what does it feel like?
We are drawn to mountains for many reasons, for some it is as simple as existence: “because it is there” is as good a reason as any. Towering over Northwest, Oregon Mt. Hood provides a constant reminder that the snowy realms of the high alpine are not far out of reach. Driving in its shadow or skiing its slopes we come to think that we are familiar with its appearance, its canyons and caverns, its slopes and saddles. For me, the desire to climb goes beyond an urgency to be on top, though there is a healthy measure of satisfaction to be gained through that achievement. I know there is more to this mountain than meets the eye. I can sense there is something just out of sight, and if only I could get around the next corner or crest the next rise its splendor would unfold before me. I am filled with these powerful queries whenever I venture off the pavement.
So it was two weeks ago when I awoke from a few hours of fitful sleep in the back of a car and pieced myself together, fortified by several layers and the promise of something new. As I crouched in the parking lot to tie the laces of my boots my mind ran through the list of essentials I would need to double check before we started the climb: first layer, second layer, third layer, fourth layer…how cold was it going to be? I cinched the laces tight and gazed up toward the snow covered peak above. The moon had not yet risen and the snow held a soft blue light cast by the star filled sky. Several other lights flickered high on the Hogsback, the narrow ridgeline leading toward the summit. We were starting our ascent at 3 o’clock in the morning, surely the people behind those wavering lights must have camped high on the mountain in order to have traveled so high so early. It would be several hours before I found myself looking down across the valley from their vantage point and I tried not to think of the many steps between now and then.
Once assembled we joined our climbing party to register our names on the list of climbers vying for the summit. Introductions were made between those who had not yet met and we distributed technical gear among ourselves to balance the load. Final checks and we were off. As we left the empty parking lot and looked east in the direction of the sun, still several hours away, we were greeted by another celestial orb. The moon had just risen over the Blue Mountains on the eastern horizon and it was bathed in an orange glow. It seemed a good omen, especially considering that its visibility was not hindered by a single cloud, in fact, there was not a cloud in sight. The weather had favored our expedition and all signs pointed toward an excellent day on the mountain.
We meandered through the groomed ski trails above Timberline Lodge reaching our first rest point at 7,000 feet, Silcox Hut. A quick pause to consume a few energizing bites and some water and then we were off again, departing before the sweat on our backs had time to chill. We made good time on our ascent thanks to the eagerness of our group and the nicely cut steps laid by the stiff boots of the climbers above us.
We were now walking directly beneath the lines of the Palmer chairlift. Although the sky was becoming increasingly lighter we still had a hard time defining the outlines of objects beyond the reach of our headlamps. My eyes oscillated between the uneven snow below me and the dangling wires above that stretched into the darkness until the light illuminated another tower. This was perhaps the most arduous part of our journey, as we found ourselves slogging forward still bound by the familiar, not yet able to see a hint of the wild terrain that lay above us.
We reached the top of the Palmer and donned our crampons in response to the dropping temperature and hardening snow conditions. The small pressure at the back of my head that was present in the parking lot and dismissable as fatigue, had slowly grown to become the prominent point of unease in my body thanks to the altitude. I had a few sips of water and devoured a snickers bar which seemed to calm the tension. Still, there was something else bothering me, something no one had mentioned about this majestic mountain. Mt. Hood for all its glory is a stinky place. Without lava flows or even the occasional eruption it is easy to forget that Mt. Hood is in fact an active volcano, complete with a series of openings, known as fumaroles, which spew poisonous gas which smells not unlike rotten eggs. Not having ventured higher than the confines of the ski resort before, I had not experienced the toxic nature of these gasses, but with little wind the smells of Devil’s Kitchen periodically wafted down and threatened to upset my stomach.
In spite of foul odors we departed from the unruly tracks of the snowcats and followed one of several sets of footprints upward. Now the mountain began to change in subtle ways. Mounds of snow covered rock loomed to our right and the wind-carved ice began to resemble tiny sculptures embedded in the snow. We passed several tents staked firmly against the constant threat of wind. Surely these must have served as base camp for the climbers whose lights we saw from below.
As we lifted one foot in front of the other, we also took moments to pause and gaze at the beauty of the mountain unfolding around us. As we hiked the sky had begun to lighten and now the first rays of sunshine were playing upon the ridgetops and stretching into the valley below, setting the stage for the second surprise of the day. Being an ultra-prominent peak, that is one that is not only deemed tall in its height measured from sea level but also for its prominence above surrounding mountains, Mt. Hood casts quite the shadow. In fact, as the sun rises in the east over the Columbia Gorge the triangular shadow of the mountain is cast across the land to the west. It’s definitions were stark and unlike any light show I had seen before.
We took many short stops on our way to the top, whether to rest legs already weary from exertion or to snap a few photos of our stunning surroundings. However, no stop was extended for we all felt the growing chill of the altitude, nowhere more so than in Devil’s Kitchen . Devil’s Kitchen is the name given to the broad flat area which lies below the final ascent toward the summit. It is home to one of the larger and more offensive fumaroles and it also sits in the shadow of a tall band of cliffs to the east, known as the Steel Cliffs. Though my legs were tired from the last push I was eager to keep moving. We could now see the light of the sun on the Hogsback above us and it seemed only a stone’s throw to the summit.
We also began to see many more people on the mountain. Some were making their descent having witnessed sunrise on the top of the mountain. Others seemed content not to make a summit bid but to explore the upper reaches of the mountain and snap a few pictures. Upon reaching the Hogsback and consulting with descending climbers we made a plan to scale the Pearly Gates, a narrow chute with the most direct access to the summit. In worse conditions this can be a perilous option with ice falling from all angles and a treacherous runout should you make a mistake. However, the weather had been exceedingly kind to us. Temperatures were colder than expected despite the persistent sunshine and the snow consistency was holding. Those factors combined with a better than average snow year and little wind made for a thrilling trip up the spine of the Hogsback and through the Pearly Gates.
Once through this last hurdle we were truly within sight of the summit, lying only a short distance up a small slope. We waited for the rest of our party to gather and then pushed on through shortness of breath and faltering legs. The summit was ours! Along with several other groups. It was no surprise that the mountain would draw so many visitors on such a beautiful day. To the north we had clear views of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier, and Mt. Adams. To the south we could see the full panorama of peaks in Central and Southern Oregon: Newberry Crater, Mt. Bachelor, the Three Sisters, Mt. Jefferson, even Diamond Peak loomed in the distance cast in a pinkish haze. The view was made better by the shared joy of my climbing partners as well as the sharing of summit treats. Nothing tastes quite so wonderful as the food you carry in your backpack.
As we snacked away we considered the task before us. Any mountaineer knows that the top is only half way. Although this certainly holds true from a distance perspective there are ways to cheat. Several of our summit companions had carried skis up the mountain making their descent more lovely than laborious. The rest of us were left with the clothes on our back, or our butts to be more specific. Once we had reached the bottom of the Hogsback and were out of the serious fall zones, we secured the items on the outside of our packs to reduce drag, plopped down in the snow and began to slide down the mountain. This highly advanced technique is known as glissading, and it is the climber’s favorite way to get down the mountain.
In a short period of time we had descended 3,000 feet, stopping only when the consistency of the snow and the angle of the slope made it impossible to slide much further. After a short bit of trudging through the snow we arrived back at the car, totally spent and ready for a nap. We removed our gear to change into something more comfortable and I sat in the rear seat of the car and unlaced my boots. My climbing partner said he had no desire to make that climb again in the near future. I stared up at the summit considering the many steps between where I was and the top and I shared his sentiment. Total exhaustion had quieted the eager questions in mind for a time but they could not stay submerged for long.
After a restful sleep in my own bed I was up early the next morning looking at pictures of our climb, researching alternative routes and planning the next adventure. There is so much that I haven’t seen, so many secret views to enjoy, and I intend to find them.