Stuck on the “Hogs Back”

Hood the night before my climb

I didn’t need to wait for my alarm because I was already rolling around and mostly wide awake in the back of the Highlander.  Outside the window towered 11,239 foot Mt. Hood glaciers glowing in the 11:45PM moonlight.  I knuckled what little sleep I had in my eyes, for I had spent the last 3.5 hours laying down with my mind racing.

I was really too excited for my climb to really get any sleep and I had to remind myself that in order to sleep, I was going to need to close my eyes.  I geared up in the darkness of the parking lot, and I could hear other climbers rousing from their cars, with the tink-tink of climbing harnesses and carabiners as they got ready.

As you know this past weekend was my climb of Mt. Hood with Timberline Mountain Guides as part of the Summit for Someone benefit climb for Big City Mountaineers.  Since last November, when I was approved as a climber for Big City Mountaineers I had been raising funds to help inner-city under-privileged youth go on a once in a lifetime backpacking and development trip with Big City Mountaineers volunteers.  I have raised over $5000 for this cause, and because I hit  and far exceeded my goal of $3400 I was presented with a chance to climb Mt. Hood as part of a guided mountaineering trip.  Read more about SFS and my reasons for participating here…

I really took this climb seriously, and it became my main goal as I trained beginning back in January.  Many evenings were spent doing P90X and a lot of cross training exercise to build proper strength and endurance for the climb.  I continued the training into Montana with some moderate hikes and climbs around Bozeman, then picked up longer trail runs, and double-digit mountain bike rides when we finally arrived in Bend.  I really felt that I was as prepared physically as I could be, because the last thing I wanted was to be high on the mountain laying on a glacier, mouth O-ing like a goldfish on the carpet.  No sir, I wanted to be sure the only thing that would stop us was something out of my control.

Highway 26 meanders over the high-desert of Central Oregon between Bend and Mt. Hood and follows the famed Deschutes River north towards the mighty Columbia.

Hood stands of Hood National Forest

As I rounded a corner coming out of a deep desert canyon, Mt. Hood appeared in my windshield like a huge floating iceberg over the northwest conifers of Hood National Forest.  I turned up the Pearl Jam to max, and pounded some more coffee.  I really wasn’t nervous, I was ready!

I was headed to Timberline Lodge, which is where the climb would start.  I was scheduled to take a full day “snow school” course with Timberline Mountain Guides all that day, and learn the basic skills of mountaineering.

The lodge sits at 6000 feet altitude, and is the

Timberline Mountain Lodge

only year-round ski resort in the USA.  The place was packed with skiers and snowboarders as part of the yearly summer camps, and all were doing their best Shaun White impersonations both in clothing, and “duude”-like speech pattern.  It as a full-fledged teeny bro-fest, and I was ready to get out into the snow.

You may recognize Timberline Lodge from the opening scenes of “The Shining” as they were filmed around Timberline and Mt. Hood.  The historic lodge hasn’t changed much, and really seemed like a cool place to visit.  Too bad I was planning on sleeping in the back of my car.

After meeting our guide Joe and the other climber in the party, we geared up and headed out to a deep bowl that was still filled with snow.  Joe warned us to cover all exposed skin with sunscreen (including the inside of our nose) because the UV rays reflecting off the glacier would be so strong!  He proceeded to give us a crash course in mountaineering.

With Joe after snow school

After having followed expeditions and famous mountaineers for years, it was so awesome to be practicing various types of footwork that would carry us up the mountain.  We learned different booting skills, including American and French style climbing techniques.  We learned how to use our ice axe as an extension of ourselves, and strapped on crampons for some glacier climbing on a 60 degree slope.  I was happy with my progress, and really glad to get the 6 hour course!

The snow skills “bowl”

I grabbed dinner and a couple of beers down lower at the village of Government Camp (“Govie”) I drove back up to Timberline pack my gear and layout my bed for the evening.  In true alpine style I was trying to make my

sleep? Not so much

summit pack as light as possible.  A few extra layers, some shells and down, a couple PBJ’s, some energy gels and H2O.  I laid out my air mattress and sleeping bag, made a couple of calls, then went horizontal at 8:30PM.  It was full light out, not to mention I could hear a huge wedding reception at the lodge.  All I could do was listen to the music and try to drift off.  It never happened.

At 11:30 I heard the guy in the carnnext to me starting to get ready, and I still hadn’t really slept.  “Screw it”, I thought, and jumped up to start getting my gear on.  The moon was just rising and there was a steady, warm wind almost like a “chinook” wind you feel in Montana.  I knew that we needed it to be cold in order for the mountain to freeze, and I was hoping 5500 feet up the wind was colder.  After tossing back a 5-hour energy shot, a banana, some coffee, and a Powerbar I was ready.

Ready to go, skis and all

I met Christine and Joe at the climber’s log station at 12:30AM where we loaded into a snowcat that would take us higher on the mountain.  At 1:00AM the cat lurched forward and took us 2,000 vertical feet above the ski resort.  When the cat dumped us (and another TMG group) at 8,000 feet we still had almost 3,500 vertical feet to go before the summit.  I ditched my skis and ski boots in the snow and shouldered my pack.  We would be climbing up the face of a volcano by headlamp and starlight, the highest mountain in Oregon…pretty rad eh?

Joe set a nice pace off the bat.  His experience in the mountains had me enthralled, and I didn’t shut up asking him questions for the first 1,000 feet.  He had climbed mountains all over the USA and Canada, including Denali (the highest mountain in North America is in Alaska).  He also lives in Montana, and is a ski patroller at Yellowstone Club in the winter.  I was amazed at how much we had in common, and I felt bad for Christine because Joe and I wouldn’t shut up the whole time.  We took at break at each 1,000 feet of elevation gained.  At 2:30 AM we reached 10,000 feet and the inside of the volcano’s “crater”.  Taking a break below “Crater Rock” was where we began to hear some ice and rockfall.  Nothing too bad, but a few cracks and slides in complete blackness will make you pucker up a bit…

Our route: #3 is Crater Rock, and our planned route was to scale the route above 3 called the “Old Chutes” just to the climber’s left of Hood’s headwall.

Climbing the Zig Zag Glacier in moonlight was an amazing experience.  Joe’s pace allowed us to focus on our surroundings instead of just slogging it out.  To my north, and dead ahead, lay Hood’s crater and summit cliffs.  Moonlight reflecting off couloirs and the various glaciers that cover her face. To the east, a half-moon and the sprawling eastern Oregon desert.  To the south, blackness of Hood National Forest and it honestly looked like an vast black ocean.  Somewhere out there was Bend, and my wife and dog sleeping soundly at home.  To the west, I could see the entire city of Portland.  City lights shimmering, even though it is over an hour and a half drive from Timberline’s lot.

After breaking at 10,000 feet, we headed up the backside of Crater Rock, deeper into Devil’s Kitchen.  One might forget, but Hood is still an active volcano, and scientists predict it is the “most likely” of the Cascade Volcano’s to erupt next…Hopefully not tonight.

Inside Devil’s kitchen is where the mountain took on an eerie, different planet feel.  I could hear streams of water running under the glacier below our feet, and there was steam and sulfur  emitting from sulfur-colored rock piles around us.  I could tell the guides were a bit unhappy with the climbing conditions.  We were at over 10,000 feet altitude and still didn’t need crampons because the snow was so soft.

standing on the “Hogs Back” facing East/ Southeast

All of a sudden, from Hood’s headwall (#2 in the diagram/picture above) we began to hear what sounded like shotgun blasts echoing inside the crater.  Loud enough for us all to say a few swear words and stop dead in our tracks.  To hear enormous rock and ice chunks break and fall like that was a visceral sound, and nature at it’s best.  It was especially hair-raising to hear this in the 3:45AM darkness, headed basically straight into it.  It was the only time I got a quick nervous pit in my stomach.

At 4:00AM (we made torrent pace) we had reached the “Hogs Back”.  A wind-loaded spine of glacier snow and ice that connects Crater Rock to the back, and final wall of the climb.  We had been climbing for over 2.5 hours, and gained 2,500 feet elevation to this point (hauling ass).  The summit ridges stood an almost vertical, 55 degree climb 800 feet above us.  The next part of the climb would require crampons, ice axes, and team short-roping.  Just what we had trained for!  As the two teams guides convened, I took some pictures, threw on my puffy, drank some water and choked down some food.  The sun was just beginning to rise, and Hood’s gnarly summit spires on her headwall came into full view with the early morning light.

There was something nagging us though. Every 2-3 minutes we would hear ice and snow above us break off and come crashing down from 800 feet.  As the sky lightened, and her headwall was illuminated we began to see what was happening.  Because the night hadn’t frozen, the instability of the ice on the rock faces began to melt and break off (the freeze point that night was well over 14,000 feet altitude).  Just like icicles falling on your porch, but imagine blocks of rock and ice the size of shoe boxes screaming down a couloir 800 feet above.  The guides were worried, and I was too.  It didn’t help that Joe had been hit by a watermelon sized rock 3 days before and had gone to get x-rays.  Needless to say he was hesitant.  He came back and delivered the news.  “Sorry guys, but a summit attempt is not going to happen today.  It’s too warm, and even if we went up, by the time we came back down, it would be full-on sunshine and this thing would be shedding like crazy.”

We were headed back down…

Looking up the backside of Crater Rock to our route in the back (middle right) of the picture. Note all the climbers coming down. No one made it to the top that day.

Joe descending from the Hogs Back, down into Devils kitchen

On the Palmer Glacier

Disappointed climbers getting the sad news

The “Hogs Back” – notice the spine, then the head of the glacier marked by crevasses at the top.  The summit is top right.

Active steam/ sulfur vents near the Hogs Back

Our route “Old Chutes” near center of the picture. Note the two climbers near the middle of the picture just above the exposed rocks. This gives you some scale as to what our second-to-last pitch would have been. There was rock and ice fall screaming down these chutes. These two climbers headed back when a cooler sized chunk of rock screamed by them…so did we.

I was really disappointed.  All the time spent getting ready, planning, thinking about climbing this classic peak were flushed, just like that.  I now know what “summit fever” feels like.  We threw on a few extra layers as the wind picked up, took some pictures with our summit banners, then packed it in to head back down.  Hood had defeated us on this day, but it was out of our control, so I could live with it.

While it was disappointing, it was important for me to remember what the main goal of my BCM/SFS campaign was.  To raise money to help these inner-city kids!  I will get to the top of Hood, and maybe bring Jeneé next time!

Disappointed on the Hogs Back

Hood’s headwall. the summit is on the ridge top-left of this picture. So close, yet so far!

TMG + Summit for Someone

THANK YOU for supporting BCM and my initiative!! Over $5000 raised for at-risk teens!  Sparty On!  The summit is just above my head on the looker’s left.

Devil’s Kitchen. Note the steam and sulfur. Top-left is the summit ridge

Hood’s shadow stretching for miles towards Portland – A perfect pyramid

Ready to ski some turns lower on the mountain

Down, bummed, but not out! Next time…

Click HERE to view an album of pictures from the climb On Facebook.

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And…If you are curious, here is a GREAT POV video shot with a GoPro Hero on the summit ridges of Hood.  This video really makes me want to get back up there!

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