Within days before performing the piece “Lost” for the First Speak storytelling series at the Tin Pan Theatre, I climbed Mt Hood. I still performed the piece intact as it tells the story of how much climbing provides community, satisfaction and even validation…but at that moment, I had already been found…
The climbing season on Hood was nearly over. Temps were increasing, crevasses widening, fumaroles exposed, and rockfall increasing. Timberline Mountain guides, who are the exclusive climbing guides on Hood would be shutting down their operations in a matter of days.
I called my buddy Cliff, one of Timberline’s guides, to check on conditions and pick his brain. There was a short weather window, literally about 18 hours that was aligning perfectly between my crazy summer schedule and John’s schedule at the bike shop. Cliff said we should be fine. That there would be a nice boot track. In fact, we were able to get in on a friends and family deal (usually reserved for guided clients) and pay for the snow cat up to 8500ft, skipping the first 2500ft of slogging.
Now you might this this is “cheating,” and to some degree it felt that way. However, John had gotten up to 9 or 10k ft twice before and I had two false starts on Hood. The tough part is at the top, and that’s what we needed to surmount in order to calm the demons that unfinished business can conjure.
We drove up to Timberline Lodge’s overnight parking lot arriving around 8pm, and along with a handful of other determined souls, we tried to get a few hours of fitful sleep before waking at 12:15am and meeting the snowcat at 1am.
The snowcat driver was all business. “Sharps” (ice axes, trekking poles) get stashed in a cage on the outside of the cabin. We were warned of the prospect of the snowcat rolling and all signed a separate liability waiver just for the ride. The ride proved uneventful though and in about 20 minutes, we blasted up 2500ft ensuring we would be get a taste of real climbing quickly.
John and I were conscious to get ahead of the two guided rope teams (mostly so that they wouldn’t feel like we were just following in their footsteps and effectively skirting guiding fees). We were dialed, threw on our crampons, and set out with intention. I was nervous about my fitness level, so I employed the “one earbud” technique. It’s generally considered bad form to listen to an iPod while climbing with a partner in the middle of the night on a glacier, but I kept the volume down low enough so that I could still get a solid rhythm to follow and be able to hear my partner and stay aware of the specter of rockfall. It made me crank and we made solid progress.
There was another team we passed in a crevassed section who already looked wasted and it was barely 3am. “They’re not going to make it,” the little voice inside my head stated dispassionately. “I wonder what they think of me.” The last glaciated peak I attempted to climb was Makalu in Nepal in 2010. Four years out of practice makes you rusty. Injury makes you weak. Fear makes you tremble.
I was nervous and the echo in my head became deafening. I trepidatiously expressed my frustration with my nervousness to my partner who has cojones many times greater than my own. He admitted nervousness as well. Although John has a freakish level of fitness right off the couch, he’s experienced enough to know that if things go wrong on Hood, they can go really wrong. Remember those crevasses, fumaroles, and rockfall that I mentioned early? Add avalanches to that list earlier in the season. He’d gone up twice and turned around due to concern about avalanche conditions. Although I’m always the physically weaker of the two of us, I have more experience in that area. He wanted to come back with me to try to get ‘er done. His response didn’t inspire confidence, necessarily, but it did make me feel less alone in my nervousness.
We kept inching along, passing people, figuring out section by section, testing the waters…or the snow rather. We traversed north of the “Hogsback” to go straight up the “Old Chute.” A HUGE fumarole lurked at the bottom of the ascent up the Old Chute. A fall here could mean a deadly tumble into that fumarole. The climbing was not that tough, but that fumarole never vacated the back of my mind.
We began following a boot track that went straight up which makes the going a LOT easier. However, there were three crazy slow rope teams ahead of us who would not yield. We shifted right and began kicking in our own steps – exhausting work in these soft conditions. John took the lead and ended up kicking steps the entire way. Although he was doing the tough work of breaking trail, the snow was sugary and I still had to kick in a few more times to get good purchase with each step.
We passed the three rope teams and what we saw was astounding. Each team was roped together by some kind of hemp rope, the rope was tied around their waists (no harnesses), and they were carrying coils in their hands (providing no protection in case of a fall). No one was wearing a helmet. They were all clearly inexperienced except for the guy in the lead barking orders. No wonder Hood has a reputation for accidents due to its accessibility to the uninitiated. We wanted to put as much space between us and them as quickly as possible.
The chute got steeper and steeper. I knew some climbers rope up for the steepest parts and some people use two ice tools, especially when the snow is more firm. The slope really got my attention but I was comfortable forging forward front-pointing with one axe. We surmounted a slightly unnerving bouldery section with verglas (thin ice) in between the rocks to reach the crater rim right as dawn broke.
It was magical.
All those times when the alarm goes off at some ungodly hour, I think to myself EVERY time, “What the hell is wrong with you, girl???” But I muster the will to get up and get ready in the cold and dark. And then I am rewarded with this.
We made the mistake of roping up for the final section on the crater rim due to the big exposure (drop-offs) on each side. A guy died here a few weeks prior when a cornice on the north side of the rim broke. However, it was all reasonable scrambling and walking to the true summit to call Hood mine, so we wasted some time since it wasn’t necessary to bust out the rope.
I only took one summit photo holding a sign saying “Michelle was/will be here” for my mountaineering friend currently battling cancer. No need to dwell when the conditions were only going to get even softer now with the sun rising.
We reversed our steps to head back down the Old Chute. The temps began warming quickly and the snow was loosening up. It was becoming like weird chards of broken glass that wouldn’t hold your weight. I was gliding down with each step for a couple of feet before my weight would settle the snow. Unnerving but fast. Thankfully the snow firmed up a bit more after a few hundred feet.
The three rope teams were retreating without summitting. They were so nervous that they were going down backwards, facing into the slope, creeping along painfully slowly. We walked down facing forward, plunge stepping with increased confidence despite the fumarole lurking in direct sight.
The rest of the descent was uneventful until we reached the 8500ft. No snowcat now. We began to slog down the snowcat tracks when a lightning storm broke out on the horizon just a few miles away. So we began to jog toward the lightning, toward the safety of the lodge and civilization.
When it was all over, I was intensely satisfied. Mt Hood is a coveted objective and has turned around many seasoned mountaineers when the conditions weren’t right. But I was also left thinking, “Really, this is what I have been feeling so incomplete and lost about for the last four years?” It’s a funny thing how easy it is to take for granted what you have or what you can do, and how much you can yearn for it when you cannot. The human condition.
I’ve crossed Hood off my list. And I am found again.