It can’t be very often that you get such a spectacular view of your objective. Approaching Portland airport on the best of days, just a few thousand feet above this 11,250ft mountain. Wow! Mount Hood is one of the group of volcanoes that run in a line down the west coast of the northern part of the USA. These include Mount Shasta, Mount Jefferson, Mount Adams, Mount St Helens (which you might recall blew itself apart in 1980) and, the highest of them all, Mount Rainier in Washington State. This is the Cascades range.
I had long wanted to visit this area as a frequent visitor to the USA. Although I had been many times to the Rockies and the high deserts to the west, the far north west had so far remained unvisited. Now, however, I had my opportunity. Thanks to a pass out granted by the rest of the family I had flown out to the USA a week before them with a view to climbing two peaks. Just two days before I had succeeded on Borah Peak and now it was off to Mount Hood.
This mountain dominates the skyline of Portland and is about 50 miles to the south east. Having picked up the hire car I sought out a supermarket to stock up on a few provisions and then set off for the short journey towards the peak. It was late in the day. I had carried my one man tent from the UK in my luggage and found a Forestry Service campsite as the sun was setting. The site was very organised and my little tent was dwarfed by the size of the pitch! Still struggling with the jet lag I soon fell into a deep sleep…
The morning light awoke me early. It was as well. I had an appointment at 8am. When looking at what to climb from the distant UK a number of factors came to mind. These included a summit with a moderate degree of challenge for someone who never acquires the right degree of fitness, a glaciated peak, a semblance of altitude and a volcano (having never been up one of these before).
Mount Hood is probably one of the most climbed glaciated volcanoes in the world. It is also one that is regularly battered by storms that come in from the Pacific Ocean. Being by myself, I thought it wise to get myself a guide – so I booked myself in with one of the two guiding companies that operate on the mountain, Timberline Mountain Guides. Because they do not know who is going to turn up they insist that you participate in a day’s “snow school” at Timberline Lodge. For anyone who has undertaken a degree of Scottish winter mountaineering, this does not really teach you much more. But the seven clients and I did get a great view of our objective with the route up the south side of the mountain in view.
You can see here clearly how one side of the crater was blown out in a massive explosion millennia ago.
Timberline Lodge is an early 20th century hotel located at about 7,000ft and is the centre (or should that be center) of year round skiing. Even in July the slopes were busy, though most skiing finished by early afternoon as the surface of the snow changed to slush.
We were told that we were lucky. The mountain had just cleared from a couple of weeks of rain. So not only did we have good weather, but a lot of the upper level ice had been stripped off as well.
Under instructions to meet up again at 11.30 that evening we would be off to an early (!) start. So I drove down the road to the town of Government Camp, named such because it had been one, to find some food to stock up on energy for the night’s endeavours. Having had a perfectly pleasant meal in a hostelry there I returned to the large car park at the Lodge with a view to getting a few hours kip.
Four hours later, having at best rested my eyelids for four hours, I was making final preparations in the chill night air. We were a group of 11, eight clients and three guides. Having been checked over by the guides we were off. The first 15 minutes or so were a bit of a cheat. We hopped into one of the piste bashing snow cats. This took us perhaps half a mile and the first 800ft of ascent before disgorging the team at the top of ski area. Here we donned helmets and head torches.
The continued volcanic life of the mountain was evident as we set off. There was a strong sulphurous stink. This rather unpleasant and, occasionally, gut wrenching smell would come our way from time to time as height was gained.
In the pitch black all the could be seen was the snow in the halo of the beam of the head torch and the beams and shadowy figures of the rest of the party. The gradient varied as did the snow conditions. Occasionally there was nice firm neve but most of the time the snow was refrozen shards that crumbled under you at every step. The air temperature was well over freezing, though the windchill kept the surface frozen, just.
After half an hour or so we stopped very briefly for a drink and after a further 40 minutes for a longer snack. We continued on and up with the occasional quip coming out of the darkness. We were aiming for a feature known as the Hogsback. This is a snow ridge that runs down from the bottom of the final climb (which comprises the inside of the crater wall). Towards the top of this feature is a bergshrund. Shortly before reaching the bottom of the Hogsback (though we could still not see it) we donned crampons and left our walking poles behind.
There then followed a rising traverse up the side of the Hogsback to Crater Rock which stands in the middle of the crater. Here we roped up for the final 800ft or so to the summit ridge. There were three separate ropes and the process gave time for further refreshment to be taken. Far below a few further lines of head torches could be seen snaking their way up the slopes.
There are a few routes up to the crater rim that forms the summit ridge. They are all at roughly 50-55% on average. We took the Old Chute route. The snow conditions were not any better. Crampons were needed because of the steepness and the risk of the occasional hard patch of snow or ice. We maintained a strong pace, thighs burning and lungs gasping in the slightly rarified atmosphere.
Of course, the darkness meant that no photos had been taken. As we hit the ridge, we could see a thin red line on the north eastern horizon. It was 4am and the world was waking up. Mountains reared up to the north – Mount Adams and Mount Ranier.
The summit ridge was narrow and undulating, falling into darkness to the right and precipitously to the left, the slopes here beginning to show in the growing light. Care was needed in the suncupped snow. Fifteen minutes along this fine ridge saw us to the top of Oregon. The summit area was a little larger so we unclipped from the rope and were able to wander around taking in the views that were opening up. The lights of Portland and surrounding cities could be seen off to the west. But in every other direction there were just pinpricks of light showing other settlements.
The wind was keen. On with the down gilet. Some further food and drink and soon the sun itself was over the horizon. The guides were keen to leave, but the clients rebelled! Eventually though it was time to go. Some of the party were getting cold and the thought of snow conditions deteriorating further below once the sun caught the slopes was enough. We clipped on again and reversed the route. Now we could see it though.
Here is a foreshortened view from Crater Rock looking up at the final climb to the summit ridge.
Next is the view south west showing the shadow being cast by the mountain
and then Crater Rock itself (the smells around here were strong!).
We unclipped finally from the rope and were left to make our own way down the slopes. It was a race against time before the sun turned the snow from mildly slippery to bottomless porridge! It was quite interesting to see the character of the snow change at height was lost. Many climbers were still on their way up. It was a gorgeous day. They would have fantastic summit panoramas but would flounder on the way down.
The views for us were not bad either. Here is Mount Jefferson to the south
and cloud streaming in below into the valleys
and some further views up the mountain
The snow did turn into porridge. The sun reflected off the snow. It was dehydrating. I had stashed a drink near where we had been dropped off by the snowcat and that was demolished by one of the guides and myself. We slithered, slid and occasionally plunged into the snow. Gradually the Lodge began to look bigger and bigger. The car park was reached. It was 8am.
What a walk to do before breakfast!
I sat in the car and fell asleep in the warm sun….