Thursday, July 2, 2009

Da Boyz On Da Hood

“Happiness only real when shared.” – Alexander Supertramp, Into the Wild.

I have to admit that there was more than a little trepidation on my part as I prepared to leave Seattle on Tuesday for Oregon to climb Mount Hood, at 11,239 frozen feet, the highest point in the state. It would be state high-point No. 42 for me if I was successful.

Before I left to come to the Pacific Northwest, I had climbed Monadnock just to discuss this climb – and this weekend’s trip to bag Mount Rainier, at 14,411 feet the highest point in Washington – with park ranger Dave Targan, who had climbed Hood two years ago. He warned me about how dangerous Hood can be, not just from falling rocks and ice and the occasional crevasse, but mostly from the other climbers, the ones who are usually kicking the afore-mentioned rocks and ice down on top of you!

So I was more than relieved when the night before I left Seattle I got a return call from Doug Seitz, known to many of you on Views From The Top, who said he’d go climb Hood with me. This was great news, not only because Doug had climbed Hood twice before, has extensive technical climbing skills, and is familiar with the trail, but simply for the company and camaraderie. Plus, I hate to admit, he knew how to get to Mount Hood … I mistakenly had grabbed my California 14er book instead of my Fifty High Points of the U.S. guidebook, when I hastily packed last week, so I didn’t even have directions to the mountain!

I picked Doug up at his apartment near the University of Washington on Tuesday afternoon and we drove the four hours to Mount Hood. We had to pass Rainier, Mount St. Helens and Mount Adams on the way, so we had already viewed three spectacularly massive mountains before we even got to Portland and headed east. Soon Hood was clearly in our view and it too was a massive behemoth, though seemingly not the feared dragon that I had been expecting.

We stopped to eat and get a couple beers a few miles from Mount Hood in the last town we went through, Government Camp, at Charlie’s Mountain View Saloon. To say it was a seedy looking place would give it too much credit … we walked up to the bar and the first thing we noticed was that the guy sitting to our right was reading an out-of-date copy of Playboy. Wait, let me clarify that … I’m not sure he looked capable of reading, so I think he was just looking at the pictures!

We sat outside to take in the last rays of another brilliant day in the Pacific Northwest, a day that in the winter would be termed a “bluebird” day. Of course, it still is winter on Mount Hood. There were some ski instructors milling around having a beer and one of them turned out to be a recent graduate from Plymouth State College in New Hampshire. They soon left and we ate our hamburgers to the sounds of kids riding skateboards in a skate park across the street. Then a guy who looked like he was headed off to get high ran out into the street with his “skateboard” that looked like a log that had been whittled flat on one side and had wheels screwed to the bottom go riding off up the street. The skateboard looked like it came right out of the Flintstones!

Then we drove the six miles up to the Mount Hood Ski Area and the full mountain came into view … as we got closer, it started to shrink in impressiveness, but mostly, I think, because the ski area – open year-round – gave the mountain a benign look. Doug knew otherwise, though, and I would find this out myself in the morning. Well, actually we drove down the road a half-mile and threw our sleeping pads and bags out under the open sky, and set the alarm for 1 a.m. I think I was still awake when it went off and we broke camp and drove back to the parking lot and were headed up the ski slope in the dark by 1:40 a.m.

We climbed steadily up past the ski area and up an ever-steepening slope and decided it was time to put our crampons on. Now, normally I am very organized when it comes to my backpack, and, usually, I am the one setting the pace. Not on this day. Doug led the hike all day, not because he knew the way, but because I couldn’t keep up with him! I could use the excuse that I was still suffering from an Achilles problem from the Massanutten 100 back in May, or from the tight-fitting and uncomfortable mountaineering boots that I had borrowed for the trip. Or hadn’t slept a wink. All of these were true, but even on a good day I would have had trouble keeping Doug’s pace.

And as for being organized, my pack was ass-backwards … I had to dig everything out of it in order to reach my crampons on the bottom … they should have been near the top. So I had about six things in my hands when I finally got to the crampons, and immediately dropped my helmet, which went skittering down the slope into the darkness until we suddenly didn’t hear it anymore. Doug quickly assessed that the helmet had fallen over the lip of a crevasse and disappeared, headed for helmet heaven.

All I could do was shrug my shoulders, and try to get my shit together … I did manage to get the crampons on, but then when we reached a flat spot at about 10,000 feet or so, Doug said we should put our harnesses on there in case we found the need to rope up later. I got out my harness – also borrowed for the trip – to find that I couldn’t put my feet through the stirrups with my crampons on … so I had to take them off first. More lost time. Back home I consider myself an accomplished hiker, but on this day, I was coming across to Doug as an embarrassing beginner!

We reached the Hog’s Back, which is a drift of snow that used to lead to the main route to the summit, called the Pearly Gates. However, a couple years ago the drift shifted and created a new “standard” route up the Old Chute to our left. The Old Chute is the crux of the hike, a steep snowfield that surpasses 45 degrees in angle for some of the nearly 600 feet of climbing up to the summit ridge. There were four others climbers we caught up to on this slope, which we reached shortly after the morning sunrise chased away the darkness. Doug took a great photo of Hood’s shadow cast by the rising sun against the far horizon, creating a perfect triangle.

We reached the summit in about 4 hours, 45 minutes, the first two climbers to top out on a glorious July 1. Two other climbers promptly arrived from the other direction, having come up the east side of the mountain, and three of the four men we passed also soon arrived to join us. After eating “lunch” around 7 a.m., we headed back down. Doug gave me plenty of pointers on how to properly use an ice axe and how to step correctly on the steep descent back to the Hog’s Back, tips that will certainly come in handy this weekend when I climb Mount Rainier on a guided trip through Rainier Mountaineering.

We steadily made our way off the mountain, meeting others who were ascending and overtaking others who had taken one look at the Old Chute and chosen retreat. When we reached 8,900 feet, Doug said this was the place I had dropped my helmet in the darkness, so we detoured left to take a look into the crevasses clearly visible below. I had long since given up on it and was prepared to buy a new one later in the day at Second Descents, an outdoor outfitting store not far from Charles’ house (I had to return to Charles’ anyway as I had forgotten my camera there the day before!).

We peered into the first crevasse and saw nothing, then made our way to the second one and looked over the edge. Far below, under the lip of a 50-foot wall, was my helmet … but how to get it? Doug noticed that the top end of the crevasse rose up, creating a possible path down into its depths. I put on my harness and Doug roped me in and belayed me into the maw of the crevasse. The helmet was lying on a section of snow that looked like it could be a snow bridge as there were open gaps on either side that led further into its depths. But the snow held, I retrieved the helmet and saved myself buying a new one! I explored around the crevasse a little bit before climbing back out … I think this was the highlight of the day … after all, I’ve climbed lots of mountains, but I’ve never been belayed into a crevasse before!

We got back to the car after what seemed like a full day of hiking to find that it was … only 9:30 in the morning. We had done the round-trip in less than eight hours despite me dragging my sorry ass most of the day … not a record, but a damn good time nonetheless.

We took the scenic route back to Seattle, going through Hood River, where we had a beer at a brewery and then lunch at a hilltop restaurant overlooking the Columbia River, which normally is littered with kiteboarders and windsurfers. But it was such a perfect day that not even a breeze could be mustered.

We got back to Seattle, I picked up my camera and we went to Second Ascents anyway, where I bought a new pair of Koflach double-boots, which I hope will be kinder to my aching feet on Mount Rainier. Then we went out for pizza and another beer.

Considering that I had only met Doug the day before, having him along not only made the climb a safe and efficient one, but his company was greatly enjoyed. He even let me crash on his couch that night!

I really appreciated that he took the time to teach me some of the basics of glacier mountaineering, skills that I am sorely lacking if I hope to climb some major mountains in the next couple of years. I felt as if I had been “guided” up Mount Hood, which, in fact, I had. It was a brilliant, glorious day full of sunshine and good memories … as only life should be.

No comments:

Post a Comment