The starlit night sky is a welcoming site at the start of what I expect to be a long, arduous day on the mountain. We’re standing at the base of the climber’s trail, headlamps illuminating our next several steps. I look at my watch before stowing it away in my pocket. It’s 11:11 pm. I smile with the realization that we’re going to succeed.
Nearly two years ago, Mack and I hiked up to Cooper Spur on the northeast side of Mount Hood. At about 8500 ft, it’s the highest point you can reach on the mountain (by formal trail). It was my first time hiking on Mount Hood, and I was in complete awe. On that day, I promised myself that I would one day reach the summit. My excitement for the day only increased after our Mount St. Helens climb, but it wasn’t until my second skills class with Timberline Mountain Guides (back in May) that I realized we’d be able to attempt the summit within the present season (as opposed to my original proposition of Spring 2017). And after the week long course with American Alpine Institute, Mack and I were on the same page and ready to make it happen.
We were alone when we began our climb. As we made our way up, I’d turn around every so often to see if the lights from other climbers’ headlamps could be seen floating in the distance. Each time, the trail behind me remained masked in darkness, save for the lights from the parking lot and the occasional snowcat. Navigation wasn’t too difficult. We stayed to the right of Palmer Chairlift until we were high enough to cut across to the Upper Palmer Lift House. It was here—after a couple of hours of hiking—that we finally saw more climbers. A TMG guided group arrived at the lift house via snowcat just as we were getting ready to move again. We set off separately, but eventually fell in line behind them since they were following a solid set of tracks. We took another short break at a rocky area adjacent to Crater Rock to strap on crampons, substitute ice axes for trekking poles, and throw on an insulating layer. The wind was picking up and the biting cold made it difficult to keep our gloves off for more than a minute. Staying any longer for a snack was, unfortunately, out of the question, so we packed up quickly and began the relatively short trek up to the Hogsback.
Though not terribly steep, the increasingly prominent odor emanating from the fumaroles was almost unbearable. I spent the entirety of this portion with a Buff pulled over my nose and mouth (though it did little to keep out the smell), and Mack was feeling lightheaded. We took another breather once we reached the Hogsback, tired, but incredibly excited to begin the final leg of the climb. With the Bergschrund wide open, nobody was ascending via Pearly Gates. The most recent tracks led over the Hot Rocks to the left of the Hogsback and up to the base of the Old Chute route. We followed suit and began our final steep climb of the day. By then, it was just after 4:00 am.
The route up to the Old Chute was well worn by previous climbers. Similar to the Roman Wall on Mount Baker, it felt like we were walking up a steep, long staircase. Since the sun hadn’t risen yet, the snow was still firm, too! Great conditions for climbing. We were most of the way up when the sky began to lighten. For the first time in several hours, I was able to see everything that lay before me when I turned around. I couldn’t believe how far we’d come! The sun was rising when we finally reached the chute. While we waited for the TMG guided groups to descend—they’d summited a few minutes prior—I turned around to admire and take in the alpenglow, as well as the shadow of the mountain itself, gracing the horizon. Once the TMG groups had safely descended the chute, the bottleneck subsided and we front-pointed up the 40-45 degree slope, additionally making use of the pick of the ice axe for the first time. We topped out around 5:30 am.
We were greeted by 30 mph winds, but, thankfully, the summit was just a short ridge walk away. I tried to stop and snap pictures,—the views were incredible!—but the wind was so strong that standing still felt unsafe. I actually think I would’ve been safer crawling on my hands and knees to the summit. Due to the wind, we weren’t able to actually stand on the summit, but we did get to sit on it. I wished we’d been able to appreciate our time on the summit a little bit more, but after a couple of minutes we’d had enough (and so had everyone else that summited right before and after). We all headed back to the (now very busy) chute to descend and escape the wind.
As is usually the case, going down was a lot more nerve-racking than going up, especially on the Old Chute. Although we brought rope and pickets to potentially use for this section, Mack and I decided to down climb without them (although we did see another couple use pickets and rope). The going was slow, but we never felt unsafe at any moment. The snow was still firm and stable, and as we got a little lower, we were able to step in the tracks that we’d used/made while ascending. Once we were in the clear (i.e. back to the 30-ish degree slope), we returned to side stepping and plunge stepping. When we reached the Hogsback, we took off our packs, de-layered (since we’d be stepping into the warm sun soon), and finally shoved some food in our mouths to get us through the descent. I glanced one last time at the Old Chute route. Now that the wind wasn’t pummeling us, I could finally let the moment sink in. We’d made it to the top. My heart was singing.
The rest of the way down was tiresome and uneventful. Seriously considering ski mountaineering. But despite my aching feet, muscles, joints, everything, my head was shouting, “We did it! We did it! We did it!” Upon reaching the last stretch of the climber’s trail, we sprinted down and I immediately pulled out my watch to stop the clock (which hadn’t been paused since we’d set off the night before). 11:03 am. Just under 12 hours round trip to make a longtime dream come true.
Mount Hood was a big turning point for us. We proved to ourselves that we are strong and capable climbers. Most importantly, we learned that it’s something we both enjoy and want to keep doing. Here’s to many more mountains in our future!