Sunday, December 29, 2013

Solo Christmas climb of Mt. Hood

Much like last year at this time, I spent my Christmas vacation in Portland, OR. This time I was more determined to summit 11,249-foot Mt. Hood. While it's not a super tall mountain, the final climb to the summit ridge is quite technical, especially with the conditions I faced. Frankly, I feel lucky to have made it up and back without injuring myself; I would recommend against anybody attempting this climb by themselves, at least if conditions are like what I found. In terms of ranking its difficulty, it's kind of a tie for second with Granite Peak, MT; Granite was longer, and my legs hurt a lot more the next day, but I think the crux move on Hood was more technically challenging than anything on Granite. Fortunately I survived to tell the tale, and I get to end 2013 with 40 state highpoints, 80% complete.

I flew up to Portland on Tuesday the 24th. I got to my hotel downtown around 8pm. The forecast for the week was pretty similar every day, at least in Portland and Government Camp, the town closest to the mountain- mid to high 30s, low wind, no precipitation. Since I thought it would be kind of fun, and I figured there wouldn't be much else to do, I planned for a Christmas day climb. So, I spent most of the first evening sorting through my gear and packing up my backpack. I went to sleep at a reasonable hour and set the alarm for 3am.
I woke up at 2, dozed off until 3, got up, ate a couple bars for breakfast. I left around 3:30; at 4 I stopped in the town of Gresham at a 24-hour place for some sugar. Just for fun I picked up a Santa hat for $5. I'm not much for holidays, but I figured it would at least make for a festive summit photo. I got to Timberline Lodge a little after 5. I put on my climbing boots and gaiters, and gathered my stuff. I registered for a permit, made a pit stop in the lodge, and set out on the snow.
I wore snowshoes from the lodge (6000 feet elevation) to the top of Palmer, which was all on groomed ski trails. Fortunately my headlamp worked this time, but it wasn't really necessary, the moon was so bright. I was keeping pace with a guy skinning up on skis who wasn't using a headlamp. I made a couple of brief stops for water and a little snack while following the ski lifts up the mountain. At the top of the Palmer lift, about 8500 feet elevation, I took a full 15-minute break. Dawn was just breaking, so I took a few pictures. I continued up from there in my snowshoes, but within 20 feet it was quite clear that was not the best choice. The snow was covered in rime ice; apparently there was some freezing rain recently that made for some kind of crappy conditions. I turned back, ditched my snowshoes near the lift, and put on my crampons. It was a lot easier moving with spikes on, particularly as it got steeper. The surface of the snow was inconsistent, but almost all pretty hard.
I made good progress up the mountain, but I would climb 20 feet, then take a short breather. I finally remembered the rest step, and moved a lot more steadily as long as I took at least a slight pause between steps.My next full break was at Crater Rock, about 10,500 feet. I kind of wished there had been a decent place to stop before then to put on my helmet, as I was getting ice fall from the rocks above. I got hit with a little bit of it, but it was all small pieces, so not enough to do any real damage, more of a nuisance. While Crater Rock was a good rest spot in terms of it being flat, it wasn't the nicest spot in terms of it smelling of sulfur from a vent, known as the Devil's Kitchen. Once I was rehydrated and refueled, I put on my helmet, stowed one pole and pulled out the ice axe. The climb up from there to the "Hogsback" was pretty steep, but actually crossing the Hogsback was just a walk along a snow ridge. I took another short break at the top of the Hogsback, at the bergshrund. The bershrund itself didn't seem like a problem, it was almost entirely closed up, with a little crack to the left. It was above this point that it got hairy.
Up to, and across the hogsback, I had been following either the very obvious route or someone else's footsteps. In fact, someone had left a whippet pole at the lower end of the hogsback that made a nice "signpost" to navigate up from Crater Rock. However, I couldn't discern any footsteps above the bershrund. There was something that looked like a slide to the right, along the Pearly Gates route. I had no idea what would have caused it to look like that. Well off to the left, it looked like there was a fairly gentle climb to the summit ridge. The Pearly Gates looked really steep, but it seemed doable from where I was looking at it, and it seemed a lot more direct than going to the left. I left a pole sticking up at the bergshrund, and got into some real climbing. It started out pretty steep, and got even steeper. The snow was stable enough I wasn't too concerned. Then I got around the corner of what I could see from the bershrund, and there was a big rock, nearly vertical, about 6 feet tall, with a solid ice coating and a bunch of rotten rime ice. I was in a pretty tough spot: Backing down such a steep slope would have been treacherous, and going up seemed pretty dicey. It wasn't the most dangerous spot- a fall would probably just mean a frightening slide (I later saw something suggesting this is what caused the "slide line")- but it was fairly frightening. Really, I was wishing I had put my harness on at the bershrund; it was useless for protection stuffed in my backpack, and it was too late to put it on there. It may not have been the smartest idea, but I decided to continue upward. I just inched my way up, really. It was a rocky gully, so I was able to get some holds on the wall to my right. I was wishing I had a second ice axe, but at least there were some decent hand holds on the rocks (I did chip away some ice to improve them). I'm not sure how long it actually took me to get over that crux rock, but it felt like ages. Once over the hump, I still had some fairly steep climbing to get to the summit ridge. But first, once I was clear and stable, I needed to catch my breath and let my adrenaline subside a little.
Once I finally made the summit ridge, I had to figure out which was the highest point. It looked a little higher to my right, so I went that way. It was just a little ways to a spot a little higher than the rest. It was pretty windy, making it a lot colder than the ambient temperature, which really wasn't bad. I took a break for water and snacks, and of course photos, including a selfie wearing the Santa hat (this was about noon). I was quite relieved to have made it to the top without injuring myself, but I still had to get down, which was not a simple matter. I had absolutely no intention of going back the way I came, I had decided that before even getting to the crux. My only option was to go a down a gully to the west. Just traversing the ridge was dicey- a lot of exposure and not a lot of footing. I came to a narrow, steep gully that I hadn't seen from the bergshrund. There looked to be two sets of footprints- my guess is they were the prints of the whippet's owner going up and down (I'm not sure how I never actually saw this person). This did not look like the easy way down, but at least it was better than the Pearly Gates. I finally put on my harness at this point, so if I felt like actually using one of the pickets or ice screw I was carrying, it could do something. I know the proper method is to go straight down, but it was so steep I made zig-zags to feel like I wasn't going to slide down the mountain. Complicating matters, a cloud had formed about 10,500, so visibility was low. It was far from a whiteout, it was in and out really; sometimes I could only see 20 feet, sometimes I could see all the way down the mountain.
I got back to the bershrund, collected my pole, and headed down the hogsback. There was another guy who was about halfway, but turning back; we spoke briefly, but he was moving very deliberately and much more slowly than I was. I took a short break at Crater Rock. Already my feet were hurting, and I was hoping to glissade some of the way down just to get off of them. I had to get down a ways before it was even remotely safe. I got to a section that wasn't that steep, and didn't lead to any dropoffs or hazards, and gave it a go. I slid pretty well, I wasn't sure I would in my climbing pants, but it was way too bumpy. The surface was all ice balls and every one of them hurt to go over. So, I had to walk down, but I hoped once I got to the groomed trail it would work. It was about 2pm when I finally made it down to the top of Palmer. I took a good break and rearranged my gear, stowing my crampons and snowshoes. My plan was to ride my shovel down the hill. I did for a little ways, but there was little control, I just followed the fall line. It was also quickly apparent that I didn't need the shovel to slide, I could slide pretty well just in my climbing pants. It wasn't the most pleasant way to go- the snow conditions were really crappy, pretty much an inch of crushed ice on top of a layer of solid ice- so it was a rather bumpy ride. I also was worried a resort employee would yell at me, but none did. I slid most of the way to the bottom of Palmer and walked some. I was about over the whole thing by that point, and it felt like three of my toes were bloodied. I went to the operator at the top of the Magic Mile lift about riding it down. He wouldn't let me ride the lift without a pass; going down with the ski patrol might have been an option, but I think it would have been in a litter, which I was not about to do. So I walked the rest of the way down the hill, off to the side of the ski run. A couple skiers stopped to ask how my climb went. I got back to the car about 3:30 and dumped my gear. I took off my boots and hiking socks, but didn't want to take off my liner socks to see what my feet actually looked like. I went into the lodge to see about some food; the only real option to me was the dining room, and they were full. I got some snacks in Government Camp to tide me over until I got back to Portland for a real dinner.
My feet didn't turn out quite as bad as I had thought- some blisters but only one dead toenail, the second toe on my left foot. My legs were really sore for the next two days, particularly going up or down stairs. On Saturday I attempted some real exercise with a three-mile run, which wasn't too painful, but was not the most pleasant run ever.

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