| Mt. Hood
Route: South Side from Timberline Lodge, over the Hogsback to the Hot Rocks, then up the Old Chute variation
Total Elevation Gain: 5,300’
Total Round-Trip Distance: I’ve read that it’s approximately 7 miles, but it seemed like more; plus it really depends on how much switchbacking you do up the slopes.
If you distill it down, mountain climbing could be described as just a long series of decisions. Pre-climb, you have some easy ones, such as which mountain to climb, when to climb it and what route to take. But as you delve deeper into guidebooks, route descriptions, trip reports and Internet forums, the decisions become more complicated.
Then, once you’re on the mountain, you face a barrage of more serious, high-consequence decisions. How is the snow? How is the weather? Is there any rock fall danger? Which way should we angle up the slope? Is it safe to continue? Are we venturing out of our league?
From Trillium Lake, Mt. Hood seems so safe and serene:
We made our easy decisions of what to climb (Hood and Shasta) and when to go (June 9-15) only a couple weeks ago. But the more I looked into Hood, two questions created a bit of consternation. Should we rope up or not rope up? And: Should we go guided or unguided?
On most glaciated peaks, the decision to rope up or not rope up is usually pretty clear. But on Hood it depends on who you ask, as many experienced climbers disagree.
If you go unroped and you slip, your life is entirely in your own hands on a steep, unforgiving slope. But if you go roped and you slip, and then you or one of your teammates can’t arrest in time, you could pull your entire team down with you. And you might even take out a solo climber or another team (i.e., “flossing”) on your way down.
Going roped can be done safely, relatively speaking, especially if you use protection. But you really need to know what you’re doing.
After much thought and consideration, we chose to go with a private guide from Timberline Mountain Guides. For one, we decided to go roped and we needed a third. For two, if snow conditions became questionable, we wanted someone with us who had an intimate knowledge of the mountain and the local snow behavior. And three, if things got dicey, we wanted someone with us with the skills to set pro (i.e., ice screws, bomber anchors, etc. – skills I’m still trying to develop), which would not only increase our safety, but also our odds of making it to the top.
Even though I believe Jen and I have the skills and experience to climb Hood on our own, we’re very humble and conservative, and we're ok with progressing slowly into glacier climbing.
Originally, we wanted to invite other climbing friends on this trip (you know who you are … Pete, Craig, Matt, Ryan, David, and others), but it was such a last-minute plan, it wouldn’t have given them enough time to plan, book airfare, get time off, etc. On a whim, we invited our friend Pavel from British Columbia, who lives about an hour north of us. In an email to him, I asked him to let us know if he was interested in joining us, though he’d have to let us know ASAP crack-a-lack. To our surprise, he immediately replied that he was all in.
Unfortunately, the weather forecast wasn’t all in. Spring storms were raging in the Pacific Northwest and there was a special statement from NWAC about high avalanche potential. Meanwhile, winds on Shasta were screaming up to 115 mph.
Things weren’t looking good for the home team. But even if they had been, it’s always a crapshoot in the mountains, especially in the Pacific Northwest. So we began our $4-per-gallon-of-gas road trip anyway. In the least, I reassured myself, I’d get to hit a new brewery or two along the way.
On Saturday, June 9, we rolled into the 6,000-foot-high Timberline Lodge parking lot and started up the cat track with our planned acclimation hike. The weather wasn’t cooperating with our plans, though. At times, blowing snow reduced the visibility to 50 feet, and I had to constantly wipe wet snow from my goggles so that I could see.
At about 6,500 feet, some ski patrol guy zoomed up to us on his snow machine. “It doesn’t get any better farther up,” he warned.
So at about 7,000 feet we turned around. We may not have gotten very high, but we took what we could get. Although it was still 7,000 feet higher than our home, so the red blood cell manufacturing was taking place in our bodies, and that’s all that mattered.
That evening we stayed at a condo in the town of Government Camp, which is about 4,000 feet in elevation. The Ice Axe Grill / Mt. Hood Brewing Co. offered good food and good beer.
Fortunately, the weather drastically improved the following day.
Mt. Hood from our condo in Government Camp:
On that second day, we spent more time at Timberline Lodge breathing in the thin air and eating overpriced food.
Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson from the Timberline Lodge parking lot:
Three-photo vertical pan of Mt. Hood from Trillium Lake, which is a short drive from Government Camp:
After getting a whopping one hour of sleep, we met up with our guide Ben in the climber’s registration “Cave” at Timberline Lodge at 11:30 p.m. Just before midnight we started up the mountain.
The entire climb up to the base of the Hogsback was essentially just a long snow slog that gradually steepens.
Just below the Hogsback, there’s a steep-sloped traverse to the right of Crater Rock (where the sulfur vents of “Devil’s Kitchen” become nauseating), but it has a fairly safe runout.
As the sun was just beginning to crack the horizon, we gained the Hogsback, crossed it, and then headed to the Hot Rocks, which is just an area of geothermally heated rocks and dirt near sulfur vents. They were so warm, in fact, that they were completely snow-free.
At the Hot Rocks, we stashed our poles, got out our ice axes, harnessed up and roped up.
Ben and Pavel clipping in a Super 8 at the Hot Rocks:
From there, Ben employed a short-roping technique, with each of us separated by only a couple yards of rope. Theoretically, if anyone slipped, he/she would be caught before the momentum of the slip turned into a fall. None of us slipped, though, so we didn’t get to test it, but I’m sure it would have worked.
When people describe their Hood climb as “easy,” it’s usually because they climbed it with good snow conditions, a clear boot track to follow, and steps already kicked into the steepest section, creating a well-worn “staircase” up the mountain. This wasn’t the case with us, as the slope up the Old Chute variation was completely untracked, and some sections were disturbingly firm and icy. Had Jen and I decided to climb solo, we probably would have turned around at that point because it was a high-risk, high-consequence situation that was beyond my threshold of acceptable risk.
To add, the technical section of the South Side route may be short, but it shouldn't be taken lightly.
Ben digging a small pit to check the condition of the snow:
In many spots, self arresting would be extremely difficult to damn near impossible. Hard ice axe plunges only resulted in the spike penetrating about an inch deep.
The four of us slowly marched up the slope, following the path of least resistance, which was up to the left in the beginning.
In my mind, I kept repeating a “left, right, axe … left, right, axe …” mantra, continually switching my steps from the French technique to duck walking to T stepping.
During one short break, while anchored to the mountain, I got out my inclinometer and measured 38 degrees. But we weren’t even on the steepest part of the climb. In the upper portion of the Old Chute, the angle pushed to 45 degrees – steep enough to warrant daggering (and, later, down climbing while facing into the mountain).
Sunrise, at the base of the Old Chute; Mt. Jefferson and Mt. Hood’s shadow can be seen on the horizon; Jen in the foreground:
At the base of the Old Chute, Ben built an anchor and then climbed up to belay us from above.
Ben leading up the chute:
The chute was steep, but it was much easier to climb than the slope below because Ben had kicked in steps already. Plus, the snow in the chute was much more forgiving than the hard crust farther down.
Pavel and Aubrey (photo by Jen):
After topping out, we unroped and began the short and easy hike to the highest point on the mountain.
View from the top of the chute; a couple climbers can be seen far below:
People talk about having to cross a “knife edge” to get to the summit, but it’s really just a one-sided “knife.” Granted, the drop-off side is so steep that you can’t even see the bottom over the cornice, but you can easily keep clear of it by walking farther to the right.
Just before 6 a.m., the four of us stood on the highest point in Oregon and exchanged high fives and hugs. It was a wonderful feeling, and I felt lucky to have experienced it.
Pavel, Aubrey and Jen on the summit:
Aubrey and Jen on the summit, with St. Helens, Rainier and Adams in the background:
Broken Top, Three Sisters and Mt. Jefferson from Mt. Hood:
Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams from Mt. Hood:
We didn’t spend very long up top because it was cold, and we wanted to get off the upper slopes before the rising sun had a chance to warm the ice on the upper mountain, increasing the likelihood of rock and ice fall.
Getting ready to descend the chute:
View down to the Hogsback:
Some images of the descent:
Hot Rocks area below the Old Chute:
Looking up the Hogsback and the Pearly Gates:
Illumination Rock, with downtown Portland barely visible in the distance (far left):
By the time we got down to the top of the ski area, we were baking under the sun. The last couple thousand feet was a slushfest, and it felt more like walking down a white-sand dune in a desert than walking down a glaciated peak.
Our descent from the summit took us about 2.5 hours, which was less than half the time of our ascent.
After a tiring drive to Bend, we decided to hit the Deschutes Brewery for some beers, and it was probably the best decision of the day.
Here was our approximate route:
And here’s a photo of Mt. Hood that I took from a jet (on a flight from San Francisco to Seattle) a few weeks prior:
*Sadly, an experienced solo climber died from a fall in the Old Chute area just a couple days after we were there. Sincere condolences to his family and friends. It sounds like he was a great person.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):