This story was originally published on Medium, December 1st, 2016.
It’s been over five years since I climbed Mount Adams with my friend John and subsequently got hooked on mountaineering. Since that first of many summits, my experiences above treeline have led me to believe that certain peaks have a peculiar gravity, an ineffable lure that hooks you and pulls you in, in some cases against your better judgment. Over the last five years, I’ve daydreamed about, then obsessed over, then summited many such mountains.
Certainly, every one of the one hundred and thirty-three peaks I’ve summited so far has been memorable in some way, but those that inspire that sublime mixture of beauty and terror in me are the really special ones. Standing at the tops of mountains like Mount Shasta or South Sister or Oregon’s Matterhorn, I’ve felt both awe and relief: awe because that moment atop the mountain that I’ve imagined tens or hundreds of times is always even better in real life, and relief because that voice in my head insisting “You have to go there! You have to see it!” will finally shut up…for a little while, at least. Then I find another such mountain and it all starts over again.
Mountaineering is a strange obsession. Maybe all obsessions are strange obsessions. Is the strangeness what makes them obsessions? Or are my obsessions just strange because I’m strange? Hmm…
Of all the peaks that have exercised this weird magnetism to pull me to their tops, Mount Hood has been the most insistent. From my very first day of mountaineering, Hood was on my mind: to climb the south ridge route on Adams, you can orient for the first few miles by looking over your shoulder at Hood jutting up to the south, and we did. Up nine-thousand feet high at Lunch Counter, Piker’s Peak and the Adams summit looming above us, Hood was the lone sentinel in the distance, a single mast sailing through a sea of clouds as the sun set on our high camp. From Adams’ summit, looking out and down on the snowstorm that we’d hiked through on the way up, Hood to the south and Mt. Rainier to the north were the only landmarks tall enough to be visible above the storm. Privy to such an awesome vista for the first time in my life, the view of Hood blurred as I cried tears that were almost immediately frozen to my face by the wind. On my post-climb drive back east to Pullman, Washington through the Columbia River Gorge, Hood still loomed in the distance, finally falling out of view just before I turned north out of the gorge toward Umatilla and the Washington border, over one-hundred-and-fifty miles from the mountain’s base.
So in the late summer of 2011, Hood seemed like the clear next step for me after climbing Adams. It was a gorgeous mountain, a “mountain-shaped mountain,” as my wife would say. It was easily accessible from Portland, where John lived. It would require crampons and an ice axe — which I already had from the Adams climb — but no truly technical climbing. I wanted to go there, right away.
But there were complications. I wasn’t yet skilled enough to navigate the hazards of the climb myself, and John couldn’t fit another trip into his schedule before the end of climbing season. Nearly everyone I talked to recommended climbing the mountain in May or June, but the summer was already turning to fall. And the more I read about Hood, the more the history of the mountain began to obscure the task of climbing it. It had been summited by a woman in high heels and many, many dogs, but it was also ridden with crevasses and claimed lives nearly every year. It was the second most-climbed major peak in the world (after Mount Fuji), but the weather could turn in an instant and trap parties above the summit chutes without warning. I was inexperienced and confused, and so I reluctantly put Hood on the back-burner.
Over the next few years, I took a few long trips south from Pullman to solo peaks in the Seven Devils range and the Wallowas, but my new obsession was a strain on my limited time and my graduate-student stipend. I remember those trips fondly now, but at the time, I had no idea what I was doing in the woods alone, and spent more time huddled in my tent jumping at the sounds of passing animals or trying to read this or that rain-ruined topo map than I did triumphantly scrambling up exposed ridges under the sun. Once, I drove all the way down to Enterprise, Oregon from Pullman only to find that after a quarter-mile of bushwhacking, I couldn’t read my topo map well enough to find the beginning of the trail that would have led me to the summit of Mount Sacagawea. I retreated back to my car, cried in frustration for a half-hour, knowing I’d spent the last of the money in my savings account on gas for no good reason, and then drove home.
The only thing that got me out the door and out into the wind and rain and darkness alone back then was chasing that feeling I’d had on the Mount Adams summit, wanting to capture it again. Occasionally, like on my second attempt on Mount Sacagawea, when I somehow talked myself into crossing a knife-edge ridge during a gale to reach the summit, I did.
And then suddenly I had moved from Pullman to Klamath Falls, Oregon, where there were mountains in every direction, and where I had a tenure-track salary. Hood was still on my mind, of course, but now I had many, many more accessible summits in my immediate vicinity and lots of gas money. I started with dayhikes of the non-technical variety, like Aspen Butte or Mt. McLoughlin, but then suddenly it was 2015 and I had soloed Mount Shasta and Mount Whitney within a year of each other, as well as forty-five other mountains in-between the two.
I was on a roll, and somewhere in my head I realized now all that stood between me and the Hood summit was my superstitious fear of the mountain, instilled by apocryphal tales told to me by other mountaineers and a lot (too much?) reading. So this past June, as a way of overcoming my fear, I threw up a hail-mary post on Facebook asking if anyone was interested in climbing Mount Hood. I didn’t want to solo the mountain, but if I could rope some other poor sap into the venture, I knew I would feel a lot safer about the attempt. I didn’t really expect anything would come of that post, though, and so I was surprised when my friend Greg, a much tougher and more skilled mountaineer than me, responded immediately. I knew then that this was it: provided we could find a decent weather day in June for the ascent, I was not going to get a better shot at Hood’s summit.
So it happened that on a Sunday morning in June, I jumped in the car and headed up to Greg’s place in Troutdale by way of Portland. Our plan was to spend the second half of Sunday sleeping, wake up at 11pm, make the hour-long drive from Troutdale to Timberline Lodge on the south face of the mountain, and start climbing the monster just after midnight. With any luck, we’d be up and then back down by noon or so, and thus out of reach of the dangerous rockfall that rising midday temperatures often created below the Pearly Gates.
Now, it’s worth mentioning here that for me at least, the climb from Timberline to the Hood summit is no joke. It’s around three miles horizontally to the top, but when you take into consideration that you’re also gaining almost a mile of elevation and that all of that is, by necessity, on snow (since you’re climbing up the Palmer Glacier and then the Zigzag Glacier), doing it all in one morning is not an insignificant feat. And then you have to come back down. This.
It is possible to hike up to near the top of the Palmer ski lift and Illumination Rock in an afternoon, camp out overnight below the rockfall danger zone, and then summit the next morning, and at first I tried to push Greg to consider this approach, concerned that I wouldn’t physically be up for doing the entire climb in one go. In the end, though, we decided that the fast-and-light approach would be best. No tents, no heavy cooking gear, no extra food weighing us down. We’d either make it in one morning or we wouldn’t. In the end, there was a simplicity to this plan that appealed to me. Of course, like nearly all simple plans, it didn’t end up being quite so simple in practice.
To start, I rolled into Troutdale around 6pm Sunday night, having been held up by a last-second side trip to the Portland REI when I realized that I didn’t own glacier glasses. On one hand, this last-second realization likely saved my entire trip (and my eyeballs), but on the other hand it meant that I gotten to Greg’s two hours later than planned, just in time to say “Hi” to him and his family, shuffle some gear around, eat a decent meal, and then attempt to sack out for something like two hours before our 11pm deadline.
I say “attempt” because despite Greg and his wife Melanie’s largess in providing me with an entire fifth-wheel trailer of my own to sleep in, I was way too nervous about the climb and still amped up from the stressful drive through Portland to sleep. I laid on the floor of the trailer for about ninety minutes, watching the moonlight track across the floor and trying not to think about what falling into a crevasse would be like, and when Greg knocked on the door to wake me up, I was already dressed and ready to go.
Despite my failure to fall asleep in the trailer, as we began the drive to Timberline I was groggy and couldn’t stop yawning. I spent most of the drive in a state of half-consciousness, occasionally jerking fully awake just long enough to eat a handful of trail mix or potato chips before fading again. I’d been awake for nearly sixteen hours already, it was 11pm, and I was about to start one of the most physically challenging days of my life.
We drove from Troutdale to Timberline in the eerie dark of a near-full moon, grey and blue light glinting off of the green trees, throwing weird animal-like shapes into the road. When we rounded a bend and I finally got a glimpse of the mountain in the distance, I was surprised at how busy it looked. I knew, academically, that at night during this time of year snowcats ran up and down the first few thousand feet of the south side, grooming ski trails for the next morning, but I’d misunderstood the size and number of the things. Even from ten or more miles away, their headlights reflected off of the snow, blasting artificial light off the side of the already moonlit mountain. I thought I could see a few smaller dots low on the slopes, weaving between the huge metallic insectoids, moving upward: headlamps attached to heads already headed for the summit.
When we rolled into the parking lot at Timberline Lodge, the circus of light was even larger and closer and the night’s climbing escapades were already in full swing. It felt a bit like arriving fashionably late to a party, if it was a party full of loud, slightly-crazy lumberjacks preparing to haul themselves up a giant mountain in the dark for whatever the hell reason mountaineers do these things. Individuals and teams were gearing up in the parking lot, piles of axes and backpacks and rope coils and skis spread out in the backs of SUVs and trucks. Headlamp beams crisscrossed all around us, and within the first few minutes of our arrival, at least two teams emerged from tricked-out old-school Vanagons, clearly having just awoken from some deep parking-lot sleep or weed-induced comas.
Above it all loomed the mountain, white, silver, and blue depending on where the snowcat headlights and moonglow touched, and black where the veins of volcanic rock lay uncovered by snow.
When I opened the passenger door of Greg’s car to step out, the wind was howling. And I don’t mean that metaphorically. The wind literally started howling through the cracks I’d just created by opening the door. I fought my way out, as did Greg on the other side, and we commenced to attempt gearing up via the car’s hatchback. In the process the wind caught one of Greg’s lashing straps and just blew it off the mountain. We never saw it again.
The pounding wind didn’t do much to calm my nerves about the upcoming climb. As we checked our gear and changed our clothes, the gusts threatened to snatch yet more of our equipment away. Exposed skin went numb in seconds. And dark clouds were racing in from the west on a night where clear skies had been forecast. We kept moving as best we could, though, and finally, finally were headed up to the beginning of the trail by 1:45am, over an hour later than we’d planned.
A note about the trail here: since much of this route is climbed on glaciers, even in late summer there isn’t much of a “trail” per se, though enough people walk the route (it seems) on a daily basis that you could likely follow others’ footprints all the way to the summit. Or, more easily, you could just follow the person that’s probably already hiking up the mountain slightly in front of you. Lots of people take slight variations of their own going up the south face, especially near the summit, which confuses “the” route a bit, but if you can’t make an informed decision about how best to proceed above Crater Rock based on the snow conditions and the current weather, then you really shouldn’t be climbing a mountain like Hood in the first place.
Greg and I had crampons and ice axes strapped to our packs, of course, but at the start of the climb, the snow was well-packed, having just been groomed by the snowcats for skiing, and the pitch wasn’t steep yet, so we started with just our boots and trekking poles. I had bought new trekking poles a week before, but had left them at home, not wanting to risk trying new gear for the first time in such adverse conditions. So of course one of my old poles refused to extend, the first time I’d ever had that problem. Greg’s solution was to graciously give me his longer pole to use and to use my dysfunctional one himself, since we’re something like eight inches different in height, and the partial extension put my pole near his ideal length.
So it was that, despite not getting any sleep that night, despite a broken pole, despite the wind blowing our gear off the mountain in the parking lot, despite the incoming weather, despite getting started an hour late, and despite realizing after five steps that my rock helmet didn’t fit under the hood of my rain jacket, we were off, and I was finally headed up the south face of Mount Hood.
I started off nervous, as I often do. But I began to feel better as soon as we were climbing in earnest, as I often do. Five years of anxieties about Mount Hood began to evaporate once we started moving up the mountain. One foot in front of the other, eyes up, poles biting into the snow, ice crunching under foot. The world shrinks to just you and the mountain, the staccato rhythm of your footsteps against its face, and it becomes quite simple at that point. There’s just one thing you have to do: walk uphill. And you either walk uphill until there is no more uphill, or until you can’t do it anymore. Everything else becomes background noise.
That might sound silly, but I think it also explains why I love mountaineering so much. It’s a simplification of our often (unnecessarily?) complex lives. It’s you, separated from your goal only by the terrain and the limits of your own body, humans’ most primal obstacles. After everything, the summit was right there, three miles away and a mile above us. We just had to put one foot in front of the other.
We had started the climb with our headlamps on, but quickly realized that thanks to the moonglint, we didn’t need them. So instead, we humped along for the first few hours without artificial light, the terrain immediately in front of us never-changing (groomed snow punctuated by veins of exposed lava rock), the Palmer ski lift always to our left, the summit a roughly visible, otherwordly wedge thrusting up into the sky above us.
If I can get into a rhythm during a climb, it can become a meditative experience. Heading up Hood in the middle of the night, surrounded by darkness save for the wan light of the moon and the occasional lance of brighter light from a snowcat headlight bouncing off the snow, this was even easier than usual. The mountain was silent, except for the occasional groan of the wind and the slow tempo of our boots breaking footholds into the ice again and again. Against this background, holding on to my anxieties would have taken an act of will. For hours I walked like this in the dark, my body precisely drawn, aimed, and fired at the summit like an arrow, my mind drifting, attached to nothing.
So it was that we completed the first stage of the ascent in a companionable silence punctuated by the occasional short conversation (memories of previous climbs, fart jokes, my insistence that groomed snow resembled nothing more than the icing on Zingers, a follow-up explanation of what Zingers are and a narration of the pivotal role they’d played in my childhood lunches, and so on), but it was the kind of night and the kind of landscape that made talking too much feel like you were yelling in a church during the sermon. It certainly didn’t help either that the wind continued to blow throughout the early hours of the climb — albeit with less fury than it had across the flattened parking lot area — which made talking difficult unless you were standing mouth-to-ear, or at least shoulder-to-shoulder.
After nearly two hours, we had climbed almost 1,500 feet up the mountain from Timberline, to the 7,500 foot mark. At this point, the wind slackened, but as it did the dark clouds we’d seen earlier in the night settled in over our heads and started dropping freezing rain on us. It started out as only a sprinkling, but I began to worry again that after all the build-up to the climb, we’d get “rained out” halfway up the mountain. Greg hitched his waterproof hood up over his helmet and I elected to keep my too-large helmet on in spite of the sleet, hoping it would deflect most of the precipitation from soaking into the fleece cap underneath it. We kept going.
There were a lot of people on the mountain by this point, both ahead of and behind us. Many of them were less reserved about using their headlamps in the night, so by 3:30am or so there was a long trail of headlamps stretching out behind us to the parking lot, and a slightly shorter chain stretching out ahead of us toward the summit. We were a dark spot along the spine of a surreal snake of artificial lights slithering its way up the mountain.
Occasionally, we’d be passed by someone coming up behind us or — more rarely — pass someone who had been ahead of us, and most of these encounters were…weird, to be honest. Typically, when I’m hiking or climbing alone, coming across another kindred spirit in the wilderness is an opportunity for conversation, the sharing of pertinent route information, and/or a moment of companionship during what can often be a pretty lonely endeavor. A third of the way up Hood, though, I was surprised to find that nobody seemed inclined to say hello, or to even acknowledge our existence. I suppose everyone was just trudging up the mountain and didn’t want to be distracted. Maybe it’s a Portland thing?
Just below Trail Crest on Mount Whitney, I’d shared a 4:00am snack in the star-cold darkness with a group of complete strangers, who hadn’t turned surly despite the altitude and the temperature and the long night. We’d stood together and looked east to watch the first flickerings of dawn warm up the bottom of the sky, then parted ways after making plans to meet up again on the summit in an hour or two. On Hood, things felt much different. It crossed my mind that maybe, to a lot of these people, this wasn’t fun, especially in the increasingly dicey weather. I had the cynical thought that many might be urban types who were there more for the notch on their belt or the Instagram likes than for the humbling-but-inspring experience of dragging themselves up a beautiful and challenging mountain. I guess I’m just not sure why anyone would climb up a huge, ice-sheathed volcano in the middle of the night if it made them miserable. There are much easier ways to be miserable.
For my part, despite occasional flickers of concern about the ultimate success of our climb, I was having the time of my life, even in the sleet: my helmet was doing a serviceable job of keeping my head dry, and there was nowhere I’d rather have been than moving up that mountain in the dark, kicking toeholds in the snow, with the sunrise sneaking up over my right shoulder.
We’d taken a few quick, standing breaks below the 7,500 foot level, but had never stopped to rest in earnest for the first third of the climb. We were pushing it a bit for my endurance level, but at first we’d been trying to make up for the time we’d lost because of our late start, and then we’d kept moving as quickly as possible because of the sleet. As tired as the pace was making me, it’s just flat-out unpleasant to take sit-down breaks on snow and ice during a freezing drizzle, so I tried to focus more on the scenery than on my aching legs and to keep moving forward. We both knew that this pace wasn’t going to be sustainable indefinitely, though, so we agreed that when we reached the top of the Palmer lift, at 8,500 feet, we’d take a longer break.
We’d started near 6,000 feet at Timberline Lodge and so by the time we reached the top of the lift we would have climbed around 2,500 feet, or about a half-mile up. Technically, this was the halfway point of the climb in terms of elevation gain, but we both knew that above the lift, the topography of the mountain became a lot more complicated. At that point, we wouldn’t be walking on groomed snow any more; instead, we’d be be shimmying across narrow, snowy ridges and climbing ice-encased chutes while dodging volcanic vents and at least one enormous bergschrund. The hard part hadn’t even started yet, and taking at least one long break before it did was going to be absolutely necessary.
Once we’d assigned ourselves the goal of reaching the top of the ski lift before we took that break, though, I became the kid in the back seat on the family car trip: my every other thought for the next half-hour of climbing was “Are we there yet?!” It definitely took me out of my meditative frame of mind, but being mindful of our pace and metering out our rest breaks strategically was necessary for success during such a prolonged and exhausting climb.
We kept plugging on, the ascent slowly becoming less breathtaking and more monotonous, and every time a new lift tower would appear out of the dark above us, I’d hope it was the last one, which of course it wasn’t…and wasn’t…and wasn’t…until it was. And as if by some signal, as the end of the lift came into sight, the precipitation tapered off as well. The clouds began to scud away to the east, and we were rewarded not just with the feeling of accomplishment the feat gave us, but to an actual snowcat garage. In front of the garage, where the snow had been dug out to allow the vehicles access, there was a rare flat spot for us to sit on. What’s more, the garage structure and a large snowdrift cut the west wind significantly. If you’re going to have a picnic at sunrise on the side of a frozen volcano, this is how you do it.
As we sat down and began to break out snacks and water bottles, the eastern horizon began to hum with the coming of dawn, which meant more warmth and the sun. Hiking up an icy mountain in the dark by moonlight is sublime and adventurous and romantic and all that, but really, once you’ve been doing it for four hours or so, you’ve gotten the idea, and the notion of there being a huge, warm light in the sky instead of scattered flecks of icy starlight becomes an appealing one.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the space in front of the snowcat garage was already Hangout Central for about twenty or so other climbers. After finding a spot to sit in that didn’t require us to sit on anyone else, I took a moment to appreciate the fact that despite this being an obvious mid-hike shelter, there weren’t piles of piss and shit all over the place as there often are at natural stopping points on mountains (although I didn’t look behind the garage, and in retrospect am glad that I didn’t). We took a long break, ate a decently-sized “lunch,” (at 5:30am or so) and drank a lot of water, but spent most of the time in silence. The other groups were all huddled in a feral sort of quiet, and it seemed wrong, somehow, to start our litany of fart jokes back up in the midst of them. So I limited my conversation to expressing to Greg how fucking good my caffeine-infused CLIF bar tasted.
As happy as I was to find such a great spot for our first big rest break, it was in some ways a weird half-hour or so. Rather than being celebratory or even inviting, the other groups of climbers were giving off the same gruff vibe I’d been picking up from passers-by all night. That, combined with the sky taking on that light-black tinge it gets an hour or so before the sun climbs over the horizon, made our little impromptu garage village feel less like a group of like-minded climbers revelling in the completion of their first big milestone en route to the Hood summit and more like we were the last exhausted, strung-out partiers left on the sidewalk after hitting the bars too hard, just now realizing it was time to go home because the birds were singing and the stars were fading away. It was uncomfortable, honestly, and once we’d sat still long enough for me to start feeling chilled from the lack of motion, I was happy to kick some steps into the snowdrift alongside the garage and start climbing upward again.
The first hundred feet or so above the snowcat garage was the steepest pitch we’d encountered so far, but I tackled it with ease: resting my legs and getting some calories in my belly had given me new reserves of energy, which I put to use immediately. The sun was rising through a pink froth of cloud to the east, and I started feeling warm for the first time since I’d stepped out of the car at Timberline. Despite having already climbed a half-mile into the sky on what was quickly approaching twenty-four hours without sleep, this felt like a new beginning.
Above us, in the new light, Crater Rock loomed, bursting out from between the Palmer and Zigzag glaciers like the rime-encrusted prow of a polar icebreaker. Behind it, still out of view, were the ridge known as The Hogsback, the gaping bergschrund above it, and the Pearly Gates, the last obstacles between us and the summit, but also the most dangerous.
I kept putting one foot in front of the other.