- Date: May 28, 2018
- Start: Tilly Jane Sno Park
- Distance: 9.9 miles
- Duration: 16 hours 5 minutes
- Type: Point-to-point
- References: Mt. Hood Climber’s Guide by Bill Mullee; SummitPost
“Rock!!!” The sound of my voice felt so small and helpless against the vastness of Wy’east’s intimidating northeast flank. I looked behind me to make sure Mack had actually heard my warning. Here we were, practically crawling up the mountain’s “deadliest” route, hoping to not be crushed or thrown off it’s side by the watermelon-sized boulders that were tumbling down in sporadic intervals. Despite the fact that we were together, I’d never felt a greater sense of solitude on a mountain. It was both beautiful and terrifying.
Long before I dreamed of climbing other mountains and even the standard south side route of this mountain, I dreamed of climbing the Cooper Spur route. When we first began hiking more regularly in 2014, the trek to Cooper Spur was my favorite day hike and was the highest I’d ever been on Wy’east at the time. I hoped that the next time I was back up in the same spot that it would be to complete the final 2,000+ feet to the summit. Just under four years later, I was back to fulfill that promise to myself.
After a failed attempt two days earlier due to an accidental long nap at the Cooper Spur shelter on the approach, we decided to take advantage of the three-day holiday weekend and return for another go. We set off from Tilly Jane Sno Park shortly before midnight, moving through an eerie landscape of skeleton trees (remnants of a wildfire that swept through several years earlier), passing the Tilly Jane A-Frame, and finally breaking treeline at the Cooper Spur shelter a couple hours later. It thankfully wasn’t nearly as windy as it had been two days earlier so we didn’t feel the need to take shelter like we had then. We decided this was still a good time to stop for a snack and make any adjustments to clothing before pushing the rest of the way to the base of the snowfield, which still required another 2,000 feet or so of climbing.
We navigated with surprising ease and swiftness through the steep, boulder field leading up to the spur. I remembered how slow, difficult, and never-ending this section had felt under the hot afternoon sun back in 2014. Definitely a stark contrast to how we were faring now. It made me smile to realize yet again how far we’ve come since our out-of-shape, cotton-wearing, lack-of-ten-essentials-carrying days outside. Upon reaching Cooper Spur, we took another snack break and traded a trekking pole for an ice axe in order to traverse the narrow ridge before us safely. The sun was just starting to rise now and we had a front row seat (well…whenever we turned around at least) as we made our way to the base of the snowfield.
The entire northeast face was engulfed in the warm and radiant light of the now risen sun once we reached the end of the ridge. The salmon pink glow of the steep snow climb before us seemed inviting at first, but the longer I stared at it, allowing my gaze to move upward to the summit, the more that facade began to crumble, forcing me to face the reality of what we were about to attempt and the consequences if we made a mistake. I take every climb I do very seriously, but this was the first time I was filled with more fear than exhilaration. I turned to Mack as I stood there paralyzed and put on a brave face. “You still want to do this?” I asked. Part of me hoped he’d be so scared and nervous that he’d want to turn around, then I wouldn’t feel so bad about backing out. Instead, we took our first steps up the 2,000+ foot climb.
For a short while we were able to walk upright, but it quickly turned into a comparable grade to that of the Hogsback on the south side. We were still a long ways from the summit. Rock crumbled from the bands high above us. The sound stopped us dead in our tracks each time and I could only hope we weren’t directly in the fall line. It was difficult to see the rock cascading down until it was a couple hundred feet away from us. Although we brought along pickets and rope in order to set up a running belay as the slope steepened, we decided against using it when we saw how frequent the rockfall was. Better to move separately and quickly in order to get out of the bowling alley we were stuck in.
It’s not very often that we have to kick steps on the routes we climb because they’re usually so well worn that we’re almost always following in someone else’s tracks. This was not the case on Cooper Spur. I expended nearly all of my energy kicking steps for us until we reached the first rock band a few hundred feet or less below the summit. By this time, we were mostly out of the danger zone (in regards to rockfall), but now we were on the steepest part of the climb and the snow quality was less than ideal since the sun had been warming it for a couple of hours. One slip could easily send either one of us rocketing down into the Eliot Glacier a couple thousand feet below. One slip could easily mean death.
I pushed past my physical and mental exhaustion to stay as focused and cognizant as possible, acutely aware of the quality of each kick step and ice axe purchase. I could only hope that Mack, who was now in front of me kicking our steps through the Chimneys, was doing the same. Above the Chimneys, the end was now in sight. Despite being far easier than what we’d just come through, we were both moving pretty slowly up the final part of the slope. After nearly ten hours, we meekly pulled ourselves up and over the rim at the feet of some skiers eyeing the line we’d just ascended. Damn were we looking forward to descending the south side.
After a few words with the skiers, we realized our south side decent was not going to be the cakewalk we were hoping for. Maybe an hour or so before we summited, three roped climbers had fallen on the Hogsback and a rescue was underway. (Side note: all party members survived) We stayed on the summit longer than planned while deciding which way to descend (and so Mack could take care of some altitude-induced bowel movement). In the end, we opted for Pearly Gates. Neither of us was in the mood to traverse the knife edge leading to the Old Chute.
Unfortunately, the gates were not in the excellent shape they’d been in two weeks prior. The consolidated snow and kick steps were almost completely worn away, leaving crumbling ice instead of firm platforms. Once past the gates, we could see the rescue taking place below us. I decided to climb down facing into the slope so I wouldn’t be able to see what was happening. The last thing I wanted was to get freaked out, make a mistake, and cause another accident for PMR to deal with. We made our way down extra slow now that the snow was complete mush and we had a gaping bergschrund to contend with. On the way down, we passed off our handwarmers to the group of rescuers who were seeking out resources to warm one of the patients as they waited for a helicopter. I felt bad there wasn’t more we could offer.
Just below Devil’s Kitchen, we finally took a more relaxing break and were able to breathe again (a little ironic if you’ve been to Devil’s Kitchen). We removed our crampons, but I kept my axe out since the rest of the way down looked unpleasantly icy and not at all ideal for plunge stepping. We hiked the rest of the way down at a far slower pace than we’d hoped due to the conditions. Numerous, well-equipped rescuers were now making their way up to the Hogsback as we descended and once we were within a half mile or less of Timberline, we heard the whirring blades of a helicopter overhead. We stumbled into the parking lot dazed and dehydrated but extremely happy to have made it through our climb unscathed. Cooper Spur was maybe a little more than we’d bargained for (mainly due to the rockfall that intensified the exposure), but I was absolutely ecstatic that we’d pushed and supported each other through it, and that we’d completed the most “out-of-our-comfort-zone” climbing route so far. I’m not sure we’ll be back to do this one again for awhile, but I have to say I’m pretty excited for us to try many more routes on this incredible backyard mountain of ours.
A few photos from our first attempt: