Handful of Hoodlums Hike Hood

10 May 2003 - by Aaron Schuman

"Meet me at the Avis desk at the Portland airport," Nancy instructed her companions. With ice axes and crampons tucked away in our checked baggage, we converged on Oregon, ready to test our luck on Mount Hood.

Our team was Nancy Fitzsimmons, Tom Driscoll, Chris Prendergast, Charles Schafer, and your reporter, Aaron Schuman.

Tom drove the rented Windstar only about 75 miles to the vicinity of the mountain. We stayed Friday night at the Mount Hood Inn, which was a mighty fine motel, with a pleasant fireplace and a hot tub. Too bad we didn't get to enjoy it. We set the alarms for 4:30 a.m., so we could meet the snow cat at the Timberline Lodge at 6:00. Our motel rented us an emergency beacon for the low, low price of $5. Pull the ripcord and a positional signal goes out to Search and Rescue.

At the lodge, I filled out a wilderness permit, required even for day use. It included a long checklist: do you have extra clothing? ice axe? headlamp and fresh batteries? common sense? The price was right for the permit, gratis.

The snow cat driver piled us into his vehicle. It rolls on tractor treads like a tank. Inside, it has two facing benches that could hold ten in a pinch, but it was roomy enough with five. The air inside was laden with diesel exhaust and the rumble of the engine was deafening. It was quite a mechanized way to start a wilderness experience! But it made the mountain a lot more reasonable as a day hike, taking us from the lodge at 5900 feet up to the top of the ski lift, at 8400 feet. It cost us $25 each.

By 6:45 a.m. we were walking. The visibility was worsening, and we couldn't see the whole mountain, but we could follow the footsteps of earlier climbers in the snow. By the time we climbed to 9000 feet, we had crossed through the cloud ceiling, and we were unable to see much of anything but the trail through the snow at our feet. Someone had left a trail of wands (slender bamboo stakes tied with reflective tape). The idea is that even in fog, the traveler can see ahead to the next wand. But it didn't work all that well for us. Occasionally we could see one wand ahead, but most of the time we just continued in the same general direction as the wand trail, up the mountain.

Around this time we put on our helmets, because Mount Hood has a reputation of dropping crumbly rock onto the glacier. My helmet fit snugly with my polar fleece cap and my balaclava worn underneath. We were still hiking with ski poles and crampons, with ice axes stowed. The snowshoes we wisely left back in the car; they weren't needed at all on the consolidated spring snow.

We passed under a place called the Hot Rocks, which stink of the sulfur of vulcanism. We crossed above Devil's Kitchen, a large bare area where the volcanic heat prevents snow from accumulating, and a malodorous mist rises. Mount Hood is a grumbling, discontented volcano, but it hasn't become deeply angry during recorded history. Tomorrow most of our party would go to Mount St Helens, which has earned a much harsher reputation.

The top of Mount Hood is an old volcanic plug. To the geologist, a plug is a place where lava filled an earlier crater, and then remained as a tower after the more friable surrounding rocks eroded away. To the climber, a plug is a place where a volcano becomes significantly steeper for its final 200 vertical feet.

The glacier arises at the base of the plug, and begins with a bergschrund. The crevasse appeared to be about 25 feet deep (although I can't estimate the depth of the soft snow in the bottom). It was easily bypassed to the left. We stowed our ski poles and prepared to self arrest with our ice axes.

We didn't require a rope. There were two other parties nearby that did choose to rope up. They used three pickets left behind by previous climbers as protection pieces.

With words of encouragement shouted from one to another, we passed the steep area and at 11:30, came upon a broad, flat place. "The summit!," Tom exclaimed. "Where?" "You're standing on it!" We were at 11240 feet, higher than all of Oregon, but in the weather, we couldn't see more than about 50 feet of Oregon. It's fitting, in a way. If we had come to Mount Hood and the sun had been shining, we would have missed the true Oregon experience. If we wanted to climb in sunshine, we would have stayed in California.

We took a couple of goofy posed photos and started moving. The summit was no place to linger on a day like that. We were motivated to get down before the weather got any worse.

Descending the steep snow of the volcanic plug was tricky for a couple members of our team. They took plenty of time, faced into the mountain, and planted their feet with care. Soon enough, we were back on the moderate slopes above Devil's Kitchen and walking down.

The foot path in the snow that we followed up the peak was filling in with fresh snow and windblown old snow. We followed the wand trail for a while. At about 9400 feet, we couldn't see the route at all. The sky was gray, the mountain was gray, and there was no horizon in our featureless world. There were just five climbers stepping through blankness. We followed a compass bearing, and felt fortunate to have a GPS and waypoints for the top of the ski lift and the lodge.

At 8400 feet we dropped below the cloud and saw the towers of the ski lift. There is a climber's trail at the ski resort out-of-bounds fence, and it goes right down to the lodge. The day finally began to warm up. Snow balled up on our crampons, and we removed them. We peeled off a few outer layers of clothing. Though we had only seen a couple of dozen climbers on the mountain on our climbing day, it looked like there were about one hundred backpackers heading up for a high camp and a Sunday summit.

Down in the parking lot at the lodge, at about 3:00 p.m., though soft, fat snowflakes fell on our bare hair, the clouds parted just long enough for our only glimpse of our peak.

We drove back to Portland, where the team dropped me off for a Sunday flight and a Monday workday. The others drove on to Mount St Helens. The remainder of my report is second hand information, pieced together from the accounts of Charles and Tom. Most of it is probably false. Don't look so shocked. Climbing stories always benefit from the imaginative impulse.

The post-eruption ecosystem of Mount St Helens is rare and fragile. 25 years after the cataclysm that killed 57 people and ravaged a huge swath of Washington state, the forest is slowly returning to the ashen soil. For this reason, the rangers strictly limit the number of people who can use the mountain in summer. But before the snow melts, human footsteps can't do much damage, and there is no use quota. A ranger told the PCS group that there were 800 permits granted before theirs for Sunday, and that they expected to issue 400 more in the morning.

Because the last open weekend day before quota season is Mothers Day, for the last 25 years there has been a tradition of making a Mothers Day celebration of the climb. Climbers wear the costume of mothers, whether they are mothers, or whether they are even women. Over their polypropylene and polar fleece and spandex, they wear dresses. Nancy claims to have documented this uphill costume party with a roll of photos. I hope she shows her pictures at the PCS Kwaanza party next December.

The climb up St Helens is longer than the climb up Hood, and after Saturday's push, the party was fatigued. They turned around at 11:30 a.m., with another 1600 feet remaining. At least they saw a little more of their mountain then we did the day before.

There are tasty rumors of a return visit in 2004, prompted by Kelly and Landa, who missed this trip, and the five of us, who still want to see what the area looks like.

Aaron's Aunt Betty responds, in an email titled what would your mother have said !!!!! :

OMigosh, what a report! Sounds like a long, exciting and exhausting day. And thank heavens nobody slipped. Seriously, tho' - to me,it seems rather scary. I guess it's always poor visibility?? And I know you are a pretty experienced climber, so I shouldn't be worrying, right?? I must say I'm delighted to have your colorful report. Here in my sunny corner I'm wondering what my father would have remarked about you favorite pastime. Not to mention your own father!

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