Mount Hood (11,250 ft) is the most climbed mountain in America for good reason. The South Side Route begins at the Timberline Ski Lodge at 5,800 Feet allowing folks to climb to the summit of the volcano right from their vehicle as opposed to an overnight base camp. This is the route most commonly used to the mountain and it sees hundreds of climbers each day. The unfortunate consequences to the mountain accessibility is the attraction of ill-prepared people who treat the technical and dangerous ascent as if it was a day-hike. Thus, the death toll on the mountain huge. I was going to count the fatalities, but the list was too long. Mt Hood is known for ice & rock fall and quickly changing weather. No to mention the bergschrund, avalanches, fumaroles, cornices and high winds. It is not a place for trekking poles.

With that being said, Eric and I came prepared to deal with the hazards of Mt Hood’s S. Side Route. We were elated since last year high avalanche danger prevented us from attempting the ascent. The weather looked great. It was supposed to be rainy and cloudy right up until 11:00pm which is when we intending to start the climb. Most folks begin the climb between 12am-3am due to the ice fall that occurs after the sun has been shining for a few hours. However, Eric and I knew that many accidents occurred on Mt Hood due to inexperienced climbers falling on other parties or kicking down ice from above. We wanted to be first teams in the long line of climbers heading for the summit to avoid danger and ensure that we arrived before the sun began to melt the ice.

When we arrived at Timberline we went straight the climber’s registration cave beside the Ski Lift Ticket Sales. A screen indicates the avalanche danger and weather predictions. There is also a diagram of the infamous Mt Hood Triangle. In bad weather folks tend to descend the fall line (route a ball will take if allowed to roll down a slope). However, this leads to the rocky cliffs of Zig Zag Canyon. The diagram stresses that when one cannot see the ski lifts to use a compass and descend South as opposed to just guessing. Blue bags are provided for free in the cave. There is also a free permit to fill out for the Forest Service and an option climbers register. The register document is optional, but is recommended in case you never return. It details the names of folks in your party, emergency contact, route taken and even has a checklist for all the gear they recommend you have (in other words there is no excuse to be unprepared. They tell you what you need!).

The signed climbers trail begins in the overflow lot. We parked there and after a dinner of couscous turned in for a very short rest in the front seats of my car.

Three hours later my alarm went off at 10pm. Rubbing out eyes we stretched and began our preparations. We had hydrated and carb loaded the previously day, but somehow managed to consume some more food. The sky was clearing as we clicked on our headlamps and headed to the trail. We were the first climbers to leave the parking lot at 11pm. We used our trekking pole to ascend the cat track up the right side of the mountain. Groomers were already out smoothing out the surface for skiers. Our first landmark was Silcox Hut. We never saw it in the dark. We were then supposed to follow the Palmer Ski Lift. We never saw that either. However, the cat track is a very obvious trail and made for a easy ascent up to 8,500 feet. The weather shifted from clear to rainy, to clear again with varying wind. It was a bit annoying to mange our layers, but that was all the trouble we had.

At the top of Palmer Ski Lift the cat track traverses left. This is the end of the easy walk. We put away our poles and took our of crampons and ice axe. Get to get technical. We climbed straight up following boot tracks under the stary clear sky. The smell of sulfur and various other volcanic fumes drifted in the winds. The going was steep, but using the rest step and french technique was move efficiently and constantly up the slopes.  We noticed some folks had set up a base camp on these slopes and we ahead of us. Setting up camps on Mt Hood’s South Side is frowned upon since it is an unneeded impact on the environment. Our next landmark was Crater Rock.

We could barely make out the outline of Crater Rock as we came to the base. We roped up here on the steep slope and pressed on. We passed to the right of Crater Rock and left of Devil’s Kitchen & Steel Cliffs. We found ourselves in a flat crater in the under a slowly brightening sky. Roping up in this area would have been easier. The teams ahead of up were resting or roping up here. We passed the area. Ahead I could see The Hogsback, (an obviously snow ridge) rising up to our right. I lead up the slope breaking the trail to the ridge crest. From the top i could see massive holes in the snow that looked like crevasses, but they were really melted out cave vents formed by fumaroles. The rocky towers also released smoke… more fumarole vents. I followed the Hogsback. Ahead of me right in the middle of the Hogsback was the famous bergschrund. The classic route is to go around the right of the bergschrund and then up the narrow Pearly Gates Chute known for ice fall and rotten rock. Many folks do not take the route anymore due to its deteriorating condition. Eric and I had decided prior to take the Old Chute Variation.

Halfway up the Hogsback I turned left and descended a bit before heading straight for the first wide snow chute between the icy rock towers on the mountain ridge-crest. I soon discovered though that the chute was not snow, it was ice… steep alpine ice. Easily the chute was 55 degrees and I would have really enjoyed having a second ice tool. However, I am a confident ice climber and seeing this as something similar to a W1 climb i stopped using French technique. Instead I held the middle of the ice axe shaft and swung the pick into the ice with my right hand. I place my left hand on the ice for balance and front pointed up the chute. Eric followed suit behind me. I was confident that I would not fall, but I could have easily hammered in a picket or two here.  Ice screws, which i also had, would not that worked as the ice was pretty rotten. In the chute a large chuck of ice from above hit Eric’s knee. The sun had barely been fully out for 45 minutes.

At the ridgecrest and stayed away from the thin edge as a peaked over the North Side to see Mt St. Helens, Rainier and Adams fearing a cornice. I then belayed Eric up. The final section to the summit was to our right along the ridge on a “catwalk” that was about 1 foot across in sections. Eric belayed me out as far as he could before following in case of a cornice.

We topped out at 6:30am. The summit is a broader area and the clear day granted us 360 degree views of Jefferson, Three Sisters, Rainier, Helens and Adams. We were the first to reach the summit that morning! Looking down we could see hundreds of climbers at Crater Rock and along the Hogsback. The summit was extremely windy so we didn’t linger too long. Plus we wanted to avoid ice fall on the way down from the sun. We headed back along the catwalk. Several climbers were making there way up the narrow Mazama Chute beside Old Chute. We opted to take the wider Old Chute even though it was steeper so we could keep a safe distance away from other teams.

However, we soon noticed as we descending backwards on Old Chute that there were many folks that were not in teams! There were several solo climbers. Then there were the teams that were not roped up. I saw some people with just trekking poles. Many did not have helmets. I saw teams that were roped up but with just over the yard of rope between them. Pointless! My favorite sighting, however, was a man ascending in snowshoes (no crampons!)… and to top that off he had a helmet attached to his pack, not his head! I actually stopped and suggested that he put his brain bucket on his brain due to the ice fall. I was surprised that he took my advice.

We reached Crater Rock at about 8:00pm. Surrounded by other climbers who had apparently slept in and were just roping up, we removed our harnesses and untied. We attempted to take off our crampons, but quickly realized that it was too icy to plunge step and put them back on.. We attempted to take off our crampons and glissade when the slope angle easied, but quickly discover that with so much ice glissading was more like self arresting every several feet. So the crampons went back on and were not removed up we reached the top of the Palmer Ski Lift. At this point I also removed a massive chunk of layers and plastered on more sunblock. The sun was ridiculous strong and blazing hot.

I was able to get in some pretty whimpy glissades beside the cat-track. However, I was way ahead of eric. I could see him delayering further up the mountain so I laid in the snow to keep cool. When he finally reached me he was suffering from heat exhaustion… why do we always get so hot when we’re playing on ice! We stopped so he could drink and to rest.  I rubbed snow on his face and hands to cool him down.

We finally made it down at 12:30pm. We would have been faster is it hadn’t been for the heating and the taking on and off of crampons numerous times. Mountain Rescue was in the parking lot. At 8:45pm an unroped climber descending the mountain slipped and fell. He was unable to self arrest and left go of his ice axe as he fell about 800ft and was sucked into a fumerole hole in the glacier. He was 20feet down in a tunnel of poisonous gas. We overheard a rescue working mention that he was wearing snowshoes…. was this the man I had met earlier? I’ll never know. Luckily, I later learned that mountain rescue was on the mountain practicing when the accident happened. They were able to pull him out and airlift his to a hospital. He suffered 14 broken bones. He’s lucky to be alive.

As for Eric and I, we were exhausted. We registered ourselves as returned in the Climber’s Cave and changed our clothes. Then we headed to Government Camp for lunch at the Mt Hood Brewery… and then we fell asleep in my car… while parked. Two hours later we headed to the Columbia River Gorge for our next adventure!

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