Monday, December 31, 2012

Portland/Timberline Lodge/Mt. Hood

This past week, I took a quick trip up to Portland. The main reason was to visit real winter, but more specifically I was hoping to climb Mt. Hood, Oregon's highest peak. While I didn't make it to the summit, I'm not particularly disappointed, as I had a pretty good time making it as far up as I did. In short, I gained 2500 vertical feet in the first two hours, up a groomed trail, and only 1000 feet in the next two hours, slogging through knee-deep snow.

I woke up at an absurd hour of the night on the 25th for a flight at an indecent hour of the morning. I flew through DFW to Portland, and managed to get a little sleep on the plane. I picked up my rental car and drove to my hotel downtown, arriving in the early afternoon. I dropped my gear and luggage in my room and went to Jake's, a restaurant suggested by the hotel staff, and one of the few places open on XMas. Perhaps the only traditional part of my holiday this year was to have goose for dinner (it was excellent). The forecast called for rain all day Wednesday, so no chance to climb. I decided to still go out to Timberline Lodge, but for alpine skiing instead of alpine climbing.

The snow was coming down above 2000 ft, and even though plows were running, the road was quite slick. It seems to be expected during winter in the mountains. While I did grow up in an area that occasionally got snow, I did not grow up in the mountains, and didn't really have to deal with the roads being snowy more or less all season. I passed the point of mandatory tire chaining, not really sure what I should do. When I got to the turn off for Timberline, I stopped to figure out what to do. The road to the lodge was worse than the main road, even though it was well trafficked and plowed. I was already further than the little rental car should have gone, and I didn't want to risk getting stuck, or worse. I went to the town of Government Camp back down the road a little ways. I considered other options, such as nordic skiing or another alpine resort. I finally decided to stick with the original plan of Timberline, and overpaid for a cheap pair of snow chains at the gas station in town. It was after 9 when I finally got to the resort, much later than I had hoped. By the time I rented skis and was ready to hit the slopes, it was almost 10. I would normally prefer to have been skiing when the lifts opened, at 9. I had a good time skiing, though the recent snowfall made it more work. Powder is fun, but it's harder to move through, especially since I didn't have today's fancy newfangled wide powder skis. Plus the fact that I tend to ski with my weight too far back doesn't help. It was probably just the fact that I haven't skied at all in almost two years, but the powder felt denser than the powder of Colorado or New Mexico, which I have more familiarity with.
I tend to prefer black diamond runs. Greens are too easy, and I go too fast on blues, such that it takes a fair bit longer to go up than to come back down. Blacks I at least have to stop now and then and assess the terrain. Timberline is not nearly as challenging of a mountain as Taos, where I've been the last two times I went skiing, but it's enough to be interesting. By 11, I was feeling warmed up, and kind of remembering how to ski properly. At noon I almost felt like maybe I was at least not embarrassing myself on the steeps. Then I went in for lunch (which was kind of terrible), and I was skiing like crap. I was being lazy and sloppy, and just couldn't get back into gear. It was still fun, I was just hoping nobody was watching. I called it quits at 3:30, even though some of the lifts and trails were open until 10. I had no intention of driving back down the mountain in the dark.
Back in Portland, I went out for some dinner, and later met up with an old friend from high school, whom I don't think I've seen since. It was good catching up, and we chatted until pretty late, as the bar we were in tried to close.
I didn't really do much on Thursday. The forecast looked good for Friday, so I spent the evening organizing my gear for a climb the next morning.

I got to Timberline on the 28th a little later than I had hoped, at 5:30. I was quite pleased to find two other parties in the parking lot, gearing up for a climb. Beforehand, all the information I got about climbing Hood suggested it could be climbed any time of the year, but spring is the most popular (apparently to the point of crowding). Nobody would fully endorse a solo winter ascent, but other than my mother nobody tried to dissuade me. In that parking lot, it seemed like much less crazy of an idea than it had before. I filled out my paperwork with the National Forest Service, and started out around a quarter to 6. I put my crampons from the start. The probably weren't really necessary, but they were strapped very loosely to my pack, and were bouncing around too much to leave them there. Having them on did not pose any problems. Within minutes, a minor emergency struck: My headlamp went out. I had a flashlight, but that's not as practical, and I would have had to find it in my pack. The moon was out and nearly full, but there was a thin layer of clouds. It wasn't great illumination, but between the moon and the lights of the lodge (and later, occasional light from snow cats), I figured I could see well enough for a groomed trail. Plus, there were some headlamps ahead for me to follow. Actually, I had thought about not using my headlamp at all beforehand, but figured it would be safest to use it, mainly to be seen by others.
I wasn't entirely sure I was on the right track at first. Although I knew the lay of the land to some extent from skiing earlier in the week, the ski slope I had to follow hadn't been open. I pretty much just went "up" at first, but after a little while I was pretty sure I was following the proper "Magic Mile" chair lift (there isn't another lift at that height). I was climbing pretty fast, too fast really. It was my usual problem of not pacing myself at the start. Eventually I settled down and my pace was more deliberate. I passed the party of two that had left about 15 minutes before me right below the top of Magic Mile. I never saw them again. A little further up, I intersected with a party of three, who had come up a different line. I would spend the rest of the morning with them, more or less. The front guy, Brock, and I wound up going at the same pace, and had a chance to chat. It also gave me the opportunity to "borrow" his light, so to speak. Brock, like almost everyone else high on the mountain that day, had on snowshoes. I had opted not to bring mine, based on the advice of someone at a guide company I contacted before going out. This was not a problem going up along the Palmer lift, as the snow cats had been running up to the top. They weren't grooming like a ski slope, but just them driving up packed the powder enough that the going was pretty easy (if a bit strenuous).
Dawn broke just before I got to the top of Palmer, giving a beautiful orange tint to the snow, the mountain, and the valley below.
It was about 7:30 when we got to the top of Palmer, and realized that Brock's friends, Malakai and the other guy whose name I forgot, were still a ways behind. I put my down jacket, sat on my pack, and drank a bunch of water, and ate some food. I took some pictures, but mainly tried to take a proper rest break. It was almost a half hour, and the other guys were just arriving. I set off without them, trying to head for some tracks I saw further up the mountain. I wound up going a little far left, toward the face of the glacier, rather than following a bit of a ridge as prescribed. Basically, from the first step away from the cat tracks, I was knee-deep in powder, so I was traversing a little to see if I could find something harder. Eventually I intersected with Brock & co, who had gone a slightly more direct route and had caught up. Since all three of them had snowshoes, I followed them, as they more or less followed the tracks of the guy who was ahead somewhere. It was a lot easier going than on my own, but I was still postholing much of the time, especially on some of the steeper bits. It was slow, and it was tiring. They paused now and then, but hadn't taken a proper break since the top of Palmer. When they did pause, I either used that time to catch up again, or have a mini break myself.
Finally at 9:45, I decided to take a proper break at a little flat spot. The three of them continued on, further up. I needed fuel and water, and I needed to put on some warmer gear. I wanted to switch to heavier gloves, put on my balaclava, and possibly switch from poles to ice axe. As I was sitting there, I was kind of cold, and the climbing didn't seem to be getting any easier. Before leaving, I had set, somewhat arbitrarily, at 10 o'clock turn-around time. It seemed like weather wasn't going to be an issue any time soon, so I definitely had more time, but I was seriously thinking about turning back. I had my right hand ungloved for a few minutes, messing with stuff, and it got very cold. Even when I put my heavier gloves on, both my hands were freezing. They probably would have warmed up quickly enough once I started moving, but when shaking and spinning them around didn't make it happen, I decided I was done.
I really thought I was pretty close to Crater Rock when I stopped, but frankly it had seemed really close for the previous hour. According to my watch (later), I was just below 9400 feet elevation, still nearly 2000 feet below the summit, with the actual technical part still to come. I have no idea how I would have done if I had made it that far. My best bet would have been with the three guys, since they actually had pickets and route flags. They might have let me join their rope or use their protection, but who knows? I would have had to actually put my harness on first, for one thing.
I made much better time on the way down. I was still postholing, but I could take much larger steps with gravity on my side. I didn't attempt to glissade above Palmer, it seemed to have some potential for danger, if it was even possible. I stopped for a few minutes again at the top of Palmer. I took of my crampons, put on my waterproof pants, and switched to my axe. I was really hoping to glissade down, like I did in Wyoming. It's a really fast way to descend, and it is quite fun. However, for whatever reason, it was too cold or the snow was too dry, I didn't slide more than an inch. I was very disappointed to have to walk the whole way down. I ran some of the way, and occasionally paused to chat with snowshoers and skiers. Magic Mile was running by the time I got back to the top of it. I wasn't entirely sure how the resort would prefer me to descend, so I went the way that I preferred- along the side of the groomed trail. There weren't any collisions, but it turns out some snowboarders liked jumping off the lip between the groomed and ungroomed portions of the bowl area. I got back to my car around noon and stripped off my gear. Even though I was stinky, I went to the lodge for lunch. The buffet was excellent, much better than the other place I ate. Once I had stuffed myself, I drove back to Portland, where I had to rearrange my gear for another flight much too early the next morning.

In the end, this really amounted to a training run and gear test for my trip to Denali in June. Most of the gear did pretty well. Much of it I had used before, but some items were new. My new 105-liter Mountain Hardwear BMG pack did well; oversized for this trip, but seems to have lots of stuff built in. My new Spantik boots were great; totally warm, and much more comfortable than my plastic boots. I didn't wear my new First Ascent Igniter pants climbing, but they worked pretty well skiing. I've used it a little previously, and it's been okay, but this time my handheld GPS froze up partway in (I think in the software sense, since it didn't snap out of it in the car). Fortunately I didn't have to rely on it. I already mentioned my headlamp died, but that might have been just the batteries. I haven't tried replacing them yet.

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