Oregon: Mt. Hood (11,240 feet)
Date: June 23, 2013; June 28, 2017
Distance: 8 miles round trip from Timberline Lodge (about 6 with snow cat use?)
Elevation: 11,240 feet
Vertical gain: 5,300 feet
Bathrooms: Flushing toilet at the climber’s registration near the trailhead
Time: 9 hours from snow cat departure, including a few delays
Attempt #1 (June 2013)
“I hate this mountain,” I heard myself mutter aloud to no one in particular as we descended the steep glacial face. I may have even included expletives in my ever-growing frustration as I said it again, and maybe again. Our climbing team made it the highest of any other team on the mountain that day. But, that wasn’t consolation for our efforts. Like all other teams that day, our climb was sabotaged by the constant deluge of rain and sleet mixed with high wind and astonishingly low visibility. I could see the boots of my friend, Anna, immediately in front of me, but not those of the man in front of her.
We took a break at Devil’s Kitchen (10,400 – 840 vertical feet short of the summit), while the three guides weighed the risks of moving onward. After much deliberation, they turned us around.
As frustrating as it was, turning around was probably for the best since I had been on crutches only 1 ½ weeks prior and was just learning to walk again. Badass or foolish, I still don’t know. But, despite my foot being taped tightly and the double plastic boot holding my ankle firmly in place, the dull ache from slamming my still injured foot into the snow cover for hours found me buckling against a sharp, intense pain. I hated this mountain. I had no intentions of returning… until I began highpointing.
Joined by my long-time friend, Karen, and highpointing friends, Rob and Cody, we returned for Attempt #2 on June 28, 2017.
Attempt #2 (June 2017)
After four years of stewing about this mountain, I was nothing short of wound up the weeks leading into this climb. Physical conditioning was within my control, but weather was not. My fear was that, even though I wasn’t on crutches this time, history would repeat itself with another failed attempt. Seven months in advance, highpointing friend Rob promised to bring the good weather and he delivered. Thank you, Rob, for this important contribution.
Still, Hood was a monkey on my back. I found myself analyzing all of my pre-climb rituals on successful climbs and identifying which of those I had neglected to do before the 2013 Hood and 2011 Rainier attempts. Shopping for food at a particular chain and eating cheese pizza the night before were the clear missing ingredients. So, naturally, Karen and I course corrected on both of these.
I was also surprised to discover that Aaron, one of my three guides from 2013, was leading this climb. I wasn’t sure if that was a good or a bad sign. All I knew at that point was that it would be enjoyable to climb with a familiar face.
Day 1 begins in the Timberline Mountain Guides office, where climbers introduce themselves and gather their needed rental gear. Immediately following, the team heads out to the practice snow field to work on various crampon and ice axe techniques. Our team of 10 (9 climbers, plus one who just wanted training) met at 10:00 am and wrapped up around 4:00 pm.
Karen, Rob, Cody, and I left training feeling mentally strong. We grabbed an early team dinner, then returned to our quarters to sort gear and finish final preparations for the big day. Four hours of sleep later, we made our way to to meet the full team of nine climbers and three guides.
Our 2:00 am snow cat made a wrong turn coming to fetch us, so we kicked off with a 15 minute delayed start. After about a half an hour ride to the top of the Palmer chair lift, we suited up in our crampons, shouldered our packs, and began climbing. The mountain immediately begins like a stair master in snow. Still, this is, by far, the easiest leg.
At the first stop, one climber voiced the need to turn around, which required two others also to turn around in order to maintain the climber to guide ratio. Drama and a notable delay ensued as the team resolved this hurdle. Finally, on the move again around 4:30 am, we pushed past Devil’s Kitchen (my previous high water mark), and into a flat area just before the Hogsback. Here, we paused for food, water, bathroom needs, and took the time to stow our poles and retrieve our ice axes.
The final push up the Hogsback and Old Chute was urgent. Another climber bailed, leaving us with five, and a further delay as we waited to pass the climber off to a descending team. Now, the sun was coming up, melting the snow; the weather was almost too good. Guides were showing signs of considering whether we would push on. If we were quick, we would have a shot. Our team was hungry for the summit and ready to step up our game.
Roped up with Cody and Karen, we began our final ascent up the Old Chute. At this point, the mountain is seemingly vertical. This terrain requires daggering ice axes and a combination of side stepping and front pointing. Midway up this leg, my calves began burning like I’d never before experienced, ready to explode. A new extreme for my body, I wasn’t sure how much more I could push. But, we functioned seamlessly as a team, communicating with every step and each necessary 5 second pause. During one brief rest period, Cody commented that we should take in the scenery. I turned behind me to a spectacular view that took my breath away. When you’re putting one foot in front of the other for hours and then staring at an ice wall, it’s easy to lose sight of how far you’ve come and how much elevation you’ve gained. While it didn’t feel safe to take out my phone and capture it, I encourage all climbers to pause safely on the Old Chute and take in that same view. It’s truly remarkable.
My calves were so shot by the time we reached the top of the Old Chute that I was nothing short of shocked to have made it. The summit, a basically flat stroll from that point, still seemed questionable. As I’d been doing the whole way up, I channeled words from various friends: “You’ve got this” (the main mantra of the climb), “Put one foot in front of the other and get your skinny butt to that summit,” and “Go climb that mountain, girl” all played into my mental chatter the entire way up. Positive thinking, physical conditioning, and a little luck was the magic formula that got me to the top.
It felt unreal to be at the summit. We snapped countless photos, took in the view, and ate a quick snack. I was surprised at how much room there was to stand near the top. From pictures and descriptions, it sounded like a razor edge where one false step would send you plummeting to your death. This didn’t seem to be the case as I never felt in danger of falling from a misstep. With full cell coverage, I was able to keep in touch with the outside world, which was a big boost. My time at the summit was a happy, yet foggy and surreal moment.
With our notable delays on the way up, we needed to descend the rapidly melting glacier quickly, so we rappelled the top part of the Old Chute. This was my favorite part of the adventure. I was on a high from reaching my 43rd highpoint and now felt like I was playing. Great fun.
At one pause, still in a very steep spot, I decided to snap a picture of our rope team. Unfortunately, my heavy gloves were not looped around my wrist. As I watched my right glove fall from my hands in what felt like slow motion, then slide 50 or so yards down the mountain, expletives may have escaped my mouth. Two additional sets of gloves in varying weights nestled safely in my pack, but were unreachable on this steep terrain. I am grateful to the man on my team who, unprompted, removed his outer glove for me to borrow. And, thank you to Aaron who retrieved my fallen glove. I was willing to make this sacrifice to the mountain, but was delighted ultimately to reunite with my gear.
The rest of the Hogsback, we sidestepped as a roped team. Balancing out my calves, this was a definite quad burner. We unroped just before the flat area where we’d ditched our poles. Here we took another break for food and water, this time in fierce wind that no one seemed to have enough energy to acknowledge. From here, we descended to about halfway between the Palmer chair lift and Timberline Lodge. At this final break, we removed crampons before the last push back to the Lodge.
Nine of us started and five finished. This is a formidable mountain, for sure.
The guides advise two liters of water. I typically consume more water than recommended on any climb, so I carried three. That was a mistake. I ended up drinking only half a liter, so this was needless weight. While I don’t recommend consuming as little water as I did, I do recommend listening to the guides. They’re experts and know how much you’ll use, even though you know your own body. No sense in carrying extra weight.
If you’re in need of a solid, high quality headlamp that you can maneuver through thickly gloved hands, consider the Fenix HL60R Rechargeable Headlamp, which I tested on this climb. For energy boosts on a major endeavor like Mt. Hood, Vital 4U’s Screamin Energy Max Hit got my team and me going again each time after hitting a wall.
You’ll be connected with the outside world the whole time. Mt. Hood offers strong cell service the entire way, including at the summit. My ability to text, email, and post updates contributed to keeping me strong mentally. Thank you to all who helped me through the mental aspect of this mountain, especially those cheering me on in real time. Your support means a lot to me.
Special thanks to Karen, Cody, and Rob who shared in this epic adventure – and Luann who supported us from the base. I consider you all family and feel deeply happy to have experienced this mountain with you.
While I hated this mountain in 2013 and returned filled with anxiety in 2017, I can now say those negative feelings are replaced with fondness and a sense of pride.
My advice to future climbers is to train hard, carry only two liters of water, bring your phone to connect with outside positive forces, choose supportive climbing partners, and take in the gorgeous scenery along the way. This is an adventure to remember. And, may you not hate this mountain. I no longer do.
In 2013, Anna and I discovered Stepping Stone Cafe for breakfast in Portland. I’d been dreaming about returning for their Banana Bread French Toast for four years. Karen and I had a celebration breakfast following the climb, then decided we needed another round the next day. It’s that good. Great coffee, delicious menu, and friendly service. Plus, you’ve earned the calories.