If you’re climbing it from the south, Hood is really two mountains. From Timberline Lodge at 5,800 feet to the top of the Palmer Lift at 8,500 feet, the mountain slopes gently — albeit relentlessly — upward. Ski lift towers mark the route clearly, even at night, and the Silcox Warming Hut provides shelter near the halfway point. There's another shelter at the top of the lift, as Greg and I found out during our ascent. During ski season, most or all of the snow underfoot will be groomed. It’s possible that you’ll need snowshoes or crampons at some point along the way, but aside from that, there’s little to suggest that you’re climbing up the side of a 11,239 foot volcano. This mountain is dotted with the signs of civilization — not the least of which is the solid line of other climbers proceeding above you and following below you. Aside from the odd rampart of lava rock impolitely thrusting up through the unnaturally smooth snow, this Hood is entirely devoid of wildness.
Climb above the Palmer Lift, though, and everything changes.
Your route up this Hood leads you up and around the massive outcropping of Crater Rock, its pinnacle perpetually spewing volcanic steam into the sky. As you emerge from behind the Rock, The Hogsback comes into view, an icy finger tracing your only safe path forward. To your right rises the massive, imposing Steel Cliff, and at its feet, the sulfuric rocks of Devil’s Kitchen shine, eerie and stinking and yellow-green against the snow. Higher up, crevasses hang open like sinister grins and in the heat of the day, rocks hiss down the mountainside as the ice holding them in place melts away. Even higher, above all of this, your climb concludes with the ascent of one of a number of icy chutes, each of which can range from easily climbable to impassable depending on conditions that can change by the hour. If you’ve ever been above it, it’s easy to understand why the Palmer Lift stops where it does. This second Hood is something different. I’ve climbed one hundred and thirty-three mountains at this point, and the last 2,500 feet of Hood are as wild as any of them. Here, there be dragons.
Fortunately, while obstacles abound, the routefinding is easy enough. Right of Crater Rock, left of Devil’s Kitchen, traverse up and onto The Hogsback, don’t fall into any crevasses, keep moving up through the most friendly-looking chute, and voilà, mission accomplished. The dangers were all potential dangers only, provided you stayed on-route.
At least that’s what I kept telling myself as we moved upward.
Above the Lift, the climb immediately steepened, and the groomed snow was gone, replaced by a crusty sheet of near-ice that occasionally gave way into deeper, softer stuff. For the first time, I felt unsafe and off-balance without my ice ax. So, I made a brief, standing stop to swap out my trekking poles for it, and Greg did the same.
The change in the mountain’s aspect wasn’t lost on the climbers around us, either. The higher we went, the more the crowd thinned out, many slowing down significantly and others turning around and heading back down the way they’d come as the sunrise illuminated the gauntlet that awaited them. I felt bad for the climbers who turned back, but at the same time, in a selfish way, it felt good to be entering the second phase of the climb, hitting my stride just as others were running out of gas.
The warmth of the rising sun and the dawn-lit beauty of the views around us filled me with an enthusiasm that slowly but surely overrode my fear of the dangers we were climbing up into. The heavy clouds that had hunched over the mountain all night began to break up as the sun rose, and the gusting wind faded to a slight stirring of air. It was the closest thing to a welcome that the mountain was likely to give us.
It’s hard to describe the feeling of a mid-climb sunrise to someone who hasn’t experienced it before. If you’ve ever stayed up all night until morning, and then felt that mysterious, unexpected jolt of energy as, on some level, your exhausted body registers the beginning of a new day and grudgingly-but-wonderfully reboots itself, it’s like that feeling, but multiplied many times over. I’ve pulled enough work-related all-nighters in my life to be intimately familiar with this feeling, but it still snuck up on me on Hood. I’m sure that had something to do with being so high up on the mountain. You’re not just seeing the sky light up from the ground from the slopes of a mountain like Hood, the way you would from your back porch or the sidewalk of your town; instead, you’re seeing the sky light up from up in the sky. If climbing up into the night sky feels like you could break loose at any moment and tumble off into the darkness — and it does, sometimes — the sunrise paints in the earth around and below you in a way that’s both grounding and breathtaking at once.
At this point, I’d been awake for twenty-four hours, but as the landscape lit up around us, it felt like I was waking up from a long, restful nap. I knew from long experience that this feeling wouldn’t last forever, but for the time being, I felt invincible. The chutes looked so close it felt like I could run up The Hogsback to them. For a brief, ridiculous second, I considered trying. Then, I forced myself to slow my pace instead.
I'd been a bit concerned about Greg ever since I'd unilaterally cut our "lunch" break short. Throughout the last of the night and the beginning of the day, he'd been hanging back a bit, never complaining, but encouraging me to take the lead for the first time and (it seemed to me) struggling a bit to keep up. I worried that the elevation was hitting him hard: typically, climbers start to really feel the lack of oxygen between 8,500 and 9,000 feet, and we were still climbing at what was, for me at least, a breakneck pace. He'd also been carrying skis on his back in addition to his normal gear since we'd left the parking lot — in the hopes of making a ski descent after our summit attempt — and they certainly weren't making his load lighter. Or maybe it was just the long night catching up with him finally, as it had caught up with me just below the Lift, before our break.
I'd climbed the entire night imagining Greg as our Team Leader, the tough one, the smart one, the one who would get us out of trouble should trouble arise. So, even as the sun thawed me out and filled me with new energy, the fear that Greg might be looking to me as the leader now, or that he might even need to turn around below the summit due to sheer exhaustion came to life in the back of my mind.
Ultimately, though, I needn't have worried. As we approached Crater Rock, he seemed to get a second wind, too. Whether it was the extra calories from our "lunch" finally doing their work, or the reprieve from bad weather, or something else entirely, suddenly I was no longer taking rest breaks to let him catch up to me but skipping rest breaks myself so that I could keep up with him. I found my suddenly-sore-again legs a comforting sign that things were back to normal.
By the time we passed the Rock to the right and drew even with the slope of The Hogsback, I was beginning to worry that I would run out of gas before the summit. So when Greg suggested we take a rest break at Devil’s Kitchen, I was so happy for the reprieve that I stormed up the fifty foot rise, passing him in the process, and then stood there grinning, completely oblivious to the rotten-egg smell of the sulfuric fumes venting from the mountain around me.
This rest stop was, in part, an opportunity for us to literally and figuratively absorb the sunrise while catching our breath, but it was also tactical. Thirty minutes or so before, during a brief standing stop, Greg had suggested that we lose our ropes and harnesses before continuing up higher. While we'd carried them three thousand feet up already just so that we could use them to safely navigate the chutes below the summit while avoiding any crevasses, I understood his reasoning.
Though we could already see a crevasse above us, gaping open beneath The Pearly Gates, it was huge, and crossing it safely would be well beyond our abilities. So, then, we weren’t going to summit via The Pearly Gates. We weren't even going to go anywhere near them. It was that simple.
Our other option for reaching the summit was the Mazama Chute, to climber’s left of The Pearly Gates. The snow below that chute was currently getting heavy use from climbers, who appeared to us at a distance as ant-like specks as they inched westward in a traverse across the mountain's south face. There was no sign of crevasses along their route. So, there was no real reason to carry our harnesses further: one route was impassable — for us, at least — and the other route had no crevasse danger. And those harnesses were heavy. I dropped mine in the snow just downslope of Devil's Kitchen. Greg did the same. In the name of losing even more pack weight, I wrapped a bottle of water and a few other as-yet-unnecessary gadgets into a waterproof stuff sack, and dropped the easily-seen, neon-colored bundle in the snow as well. Greg stood his skis up in the snow, astutely observing that he wasn't going to be skiing above Crater Rock due to the unpredictable topography. They made a great erstwhile landmark that we'd be able to use to find the gear again later.
This is something that always strikes me about climbing; namely, that you can leave your prohibitively expensive gear out in the middle of nowhere for hours or days at a time with nearly no fear that someone is going to take it before you get back. Certainly, part of that is likely down to the fact that taking someone else’s gear on a mountain like Hood might be literally condemning them to death, but I also like to think that part of it is just a generally considerate sort of mountaineer’s ethos. In fact, the flat spot where Greg and I laid down our gear was already decorated with a number of other climbers’ gear caches, comprising thousands of dollars of equipment all told and expressing their owners' faith in this same ethos.
On a different day, I might have been concerned about leaving our extra gear so exposed because of the wind or the weather, but this morning was shaping up to be shockingly clear and still. Besides, we'd be back down at the Devil's Kitchen again within a few hours, and there was nothing on the horizon to suggest that the weather would turn again before then.
We ended our second sitting break on the mountain by strapping on crampons. We'd gotten further than I'd expected to without them — they'd been completely unnecessary on the groomed snow below the Lift and we'd done alright without them since — but things were going to get rougher from the Kitchen on; or, as Greg put it, "There's going to be some real topography coming up." It seemed like a good point in the climb to start having little metal knives strapped to my feet.
Thus, balanced on crampons and with noticeably lighter packs, we began traversing up the side of The Hogsback, trying to gain the crest of it just north of Crater Rock. It was easily the steepest pitch so far, and the crampons were immediately useless in the deep drifts. I actually managed to fall forward into the loose, piled snow twice on the way up, stabbing a crampon point through one of my gaiters (but not the leg underneath, luckily) during one fall. By the time we finally pulled ourselves up onto a pleasantly flat plateau of snow directly behind the Rock, I was panting heavily and my feeling of sun-powered invincibility was definitely completely gone. On top of that, my gloves were soaked and my hands were numb.
It had only been twenty minutes or so since our stop at Devil's Kitchen, but we took another break here. I slammed my waterproof gauntlets on, and we stood looking out from the small plateau, through the volcanic steam, at the snowfields and then the forest spreading out below us as I massaged the feeling back into my aching fingers. At least ten other climbers had dropped their excess gear here instead of at the Kitchen and were lounging in the increasingly warm sun, and they were in markedly better spirits than the group we'd shared "lunch" with just before sunrise.
After five languid minutes of chatting with them in the (relative) heat, we threw our packs back on, wished the other climbers luck, and started ascending The Hogsback in earnest. It had been close to two hours since sunrise at this point, and we knew we'd only have a few more hours before the ice in the chutes above us started melting, sending rocks rolling down the mountain, right across the path of the traverse. If we wanted to stay on something approximating a safe schedule, this would have to be our last real break before the summit.
Foreboding as it looked from afar, The Hogsback wasn’t really that bad. My crampons were biting effectively, the ridge was a few feet wide along the top, and the snow had softened enough even by 8am or so that a foot sliding off of its edge was more likely to end in a slow tumble into soft snow than an uncontrolled fall. That said, a serious fall to the right would send your body crashing into the hot, sharp rocks of Devil’s Kitchen, and a fall to the left would send you on a long slide out around the other side of Crater Rock — and then off of the cliffs of Mississippi Head for a few hundred-foot freefall. I kept my ice ax at the ready, making sure I could self-arrest in the case of a misstep.
We spent the last third of our hike up The Hogsback gawping at the enormous crevasse dangling above and to the right of us, directly below The Pearly Gates. It was the closest I’d ever gotten to a crevasse of that size, and the closest I ever want to get. Near the top of The Hogsback, we turned left, following the track made by the vast majority of the day’s climbers, and headed toward the mouth of the Mazama Chute, away from The Pearly Gates and that hungry-looking mouth hanging open below it.
Traverses this high up on a mountain often make me nervous. I actually have a pretty pronounced fear of heights, but it’s a fear of the “I don’t want to fall” variety and not the “I don’t like being up high” variety. I can look down from great heights as long as I don’t feel like I’m in danger of falling. Heading straight up a steep pitch doesn’t make me feel like I'm going to fall. Heading straight down a steep pitch doesn't make me feel like I'm going to fall. Heading across a steep pitch, however, absolutely makes me feel like I'm going to fall. I’m always afraid the snow is going to let loose and I’m going to slide sideways before I can plant my ice ax to stop myself. In my defense, it's because that exact thing has actually happened to me twice before — once on Mt. Adams and once on Mt. McLoughlin — but it definitely makes traverses really unnerving to me.
Fortunately, traversing west to the bottom of the Mazama Chute actually went really quickly, helped along as it was by the many, many footprints of the many, many people who had walked the same snow already that day. The snow was soft enough that their boots had built reliable steps into the side of the mountain rather than filing the existing snow down to a line of frictionless ice — as sometimes happens when there’s been a lot of freeze-thaw action along a well-traveled route — and yet wasn't so soft that it felt likely to let loose at any moment.
Then, suddenly, we were standing at the bottom of the Mazama Chute, and I was looking up at the scariest shit I had ever seen on a mountain in person.
In the grand scheme of things, the Mazama Chute is not steep, and it is not long, and if you are a technical climber (as were a few of the guys who swarmed up the chute right in front of Greg and I) it is probably an absolute joke. But I am not a technical climber, and I wasn’t laughing. To me, this was like something I’d seen in Outside magazine, but had never expected to have to face in real life. Compared to the thirty-degree snow slopes I was used to ascending, a forty-five degree chute that was visibly all ice only barely coated by a sheen of snow seemed like a death trap. It was crowded, too, choked with two lanes of human traffic — right lane ascending, left lane descending, some roped, some not — that looked like an accident waiting to happen. But there wasn’t time to wait. The sun was getting hotter, and even as we stood there, tiny balls of ice started to drop out of the chute and skitter down the mountain. I was either going to try it or I wasn’t. We were either going to continue or turn back. And I wasn't turning back now. Greg started up ahead of me after checking to make sure I was ready to continue, and I followed him, merging into the line of ascending climbers. I would have crossed my fingers if they hadn’t been holding my ice ax in a white-knuckled grip.
In retrospect, it wasn’t that bad, save for one particular moment. Like most of the mountaineering challenges I’ve faced in my decidedly non-technical climbing career, the difficulty was more mental than physical. Once we got into the chute proper, it felt a bit like rock-chimneying, which, despite my fear of heights, I had done a number of times back in college with absolutely no problem. And, relatively speaking, a forty-five degree pitch is not that steep — it’s really more of a hill than a true chute. I just made sure to keep leaning forward to keep my center of balance low and fought the temptation to look down between my legs, and before I knew it, I was halfway up. There was just enough snow built up on top of the ice that formed the foundation of the chute that my crampon points were finding easy purchase, and it was actually really fun to be able to swing the pick of my ice ax into a wall of ice and use its handle to lever myself upwards. For a few minutes, I felt like a real mountaineer. Then I hit a spot in the middle of the chute where the ice was too hard for my crampon points to penetrate and I freaked out. I was stuck.
I had good contact with the wall of the chute at two points, my left foot and my ax, held in my right hand, but the points on my right boot wouldn’t bite, suddenly. Carefully, slowly, I lowered myself back down and planted my right foot back where it had come from, embedded in the softer ice I’d pulled loose from when I’d lifted it to take the failed step. I gulped with a suddenly dry throat and risked a look down. The view down the chute (and the runout down and potentially over the edge of Mississippi Head below that) wasn’t exactly reassuring, but Greg — who had been checking on me over his shoulder regularly during the ascent — shouted encouragement and then suggested different crampon placement. The move he wanted me to try would involve me briefly planting both feet on loose snow while I shifted my ax to my left hand, which was not something I was particularly excited about doing. At that moment, I really just wanted to stay exactly where I was, unmoving, until my heart slowed down a bit (or even until I died of old age and it just stopped entirely). But with the chute above and below me crowded with other, understandably impatient climbers, I didn’t have the luxury of time. Or really, the ability to descend back the way I'd come without getting tangled in someone else's ropes. So, it was full speed ahead. Or, more accurately, low speed ahead.
Very, very slowly and carefully, I slid my feet, one at a time, off the ice and onto the softer, thicker, looser snow nearer the middle of the chute. When I reared up to pull my ax back away from the ice wall, I had to forcibly stop myself from trying to overcorrect as my center of gravity swung out away from the wall. I switched the ax from one hand to the other, a process made agonizingly awkward by my ungainly waterproof gauntlets. Then I swung the ax's pick back into the wall, stepped up a bit higher than was comfortable with my left foot, and swung my right foot up and over the hard, exposed ice I’d gotten hung up on previously. When the front points of my right crampon bit into the next patch of ice, I felt a surge of elation. I wasn't going to inadvertently turn myself into a human bowling ball of death after all. I was going to make it!
The rest of the chute passed in a hurry. I didn’t notice at the time, but descriptions of the Mazama Chute that I've read since say that it levels off near the top, and it probably does, because after I passed the three-quarters mark, I was flying toward the summit. I had to stop a few times near the top as the increasing narrowness of the chute made it into a one-way road, and it became necessary to cling to the ice wall and stay in place to let a descending climber pass me on the left. Then, the next descending climber would “pull off” for a minute while I passed them on the right, and so on. It seemed like such a ridiculous place to get stuck in a traffic jam. At one point I muttered “Only in Portland…” to myself under my breath, and that made me laugh out loud.
Then, without much warning, I was up and over the lip of the chute. Like magic, the mountain was suddenly just a big hill again and not a shafty nightmare. There is a knife-edge ridge leading from the top of the Mazama Chute across to the summit of Hood proper, with an absolutely life-ending drop off the north face to the left, but I don’t remember it at all. I was off in a rush, (apparently) across the knife-edge and up to the true summit of the mountain, following in Greg's seconds-earlier footsteps.
Any residual hints of exhaustion, nerves, or doubts all dissolved as soon as I walked up those last few feet, until there was no more up to walk up to.
The view from the top of Hood really is spectacular. For much of my brief mountaineering career, I’ve specifically sought out high-prominence peaks, so I’m no stranger to expansive views, but Hood’s 7,706 feet of prominence stands out in my memory as one of the best nonetheless. The view north is especially striking, as the north face falls away precipitously from the summit, and the first thing I did after reaching the top was stand there for a minute or two goggling at the flank of the mountain plunging down a few feet in front of me. Then, of course, Greg and I took turns taking each other’s pictures, and slapping high-fives and pounding fists with random strangers, as you do in these situations.
So many of the high summits I’ve reached in my life have ultimately been anticlimactic. Not because the summits themselves have been disappointing, but because by the time I reach the summit of a truly challenging mountain, I’m typically exhausted, at least a bit disoriented and disaffected from the elevation and subsequent lack of oxygen, battered by wind, rain, and/or snow, and above all suddenly painfully cognizant of the fact that I still need to climb all the way back down before I'm done. In my experience, the moment of summiting a mountain is generally something you don’t feel like celebrating in that moment, but instead when you're finally back at the car.
This time, though, it was different.
The conditions at the summit were the complete opposite of what we’d faced crawling out of the car at Timberline the night before. The sky was clear, the sun was nearly blindingly bright, and the air was still save for the occasional whisper of wind. The snow along the west ridge of the summit was just soft enough for crampon points and dry.
As I stood there taking in the view, smiling until my face hurt, the realization really, truly hit me with a weight of emotion I typically can’t physically feel at 11,000 feet: I’d been waiting five years to climb this mountain, and now I’d done it. It felt like having a weight lifted off of my shoulders and being given a gift at the same time. I was tremendously, almost uncomfortably happy. Looking to the south, I could see our route curving down and away, jumping The Hogsback and curving around Crater Rock to the left before unspooling across the broad, relatively flat south face below the top of the Palmer Lift. At this point, I had been awake for twenty-eight hours, but the prospect of working my way back down the mountain still didn’t lessen my joy in the least. I’d cross that bridge when we came to it. For now, I felt like I’d be happy to stand on the summit of Hood, basking in the sun, forever.
Little did I know how ironic that thought would seem an hour later.
We admired in the view for a few more minutes, took some more photos, and then traversed the west ridge back to the top of the Mazama Chute. That’s when I noticed the problem for the first time. The chute was absolutely choked with climbers. In the fifteen or so minutes we’d taken to exult in our success, the traffic jam in and around the chute had reached critical mass due to the climbers coming up the mountain behind us. At least five if not more climbers had ascended to the top of the chute since we had summited. Combined with us and the others who had already been on the summit when we'd left the chute, there were now at least fifteen people needing to descend. And even though it was almost 11am at this point, there was also a significant number of people still trying to come up the chute. The result was that the two-way traffic jam we’d faced during the ascent had gotten worse: movement had ground to a near-halt.
Not sure what to do, we dropped our gear and sat in the snow, queuing up like the Mazama Chute was a ride at Disney World. Twenty minutes later my legs had gone numb from the cold and not a single person had been able to descend yet. There were at least eight people ahead of us “in line.” I stood up and started walking back toward the summit, hoping to warm up my legs.
Suddenly the drop off of the west ridge to my left seemed all too close. The air seemed harder to breathe, and the sun wasn’t warming my sweat-soaked clothes anymore. With all of us lined up awaiting our turn to descend but nobody moving, Hood’s broad summit suddenly seemed claustrophobic. I took a deep breath to calm myself down, then paced in a circle for a few minutes until my legs had fully warmed up. Then I walked back over to where Greg was sitting and asked if the line had moved at all even though I knew the answer: no. He looked legitimately concerned for the first time since the wind had blown his packing strap off the mountain the previous night.
We agreed to switch places, and while I held our place in line, Greg headed left across the west ridge rather than right in hopes of finding another descent line for us. I knew from studying topo maps of the mountain that there likely wasn’t one, but I still hoped he might find a way that we could access the chute from the side, or something.
The knife edge was even more pronounced to our left, but Greg didn’t have my fear of heights. I watched him shuffle carefully along the edge briefly, and then he descended slightly and disappeared from sight. I did my best to curl myself into a ball to conserve warmth while I willed the line to move faster.
A few weeks before the climb, I’d been daydreaming about how it would feel to reach the summit. There’s a version of my favorite Phish song, “Harry Hood,” where, during the refrain, instead of yelling the customary “You can feel good about Hood!” line, Trey sings “You can feel good about Mount Hood!” and it had crossed my mind that it would be a really memorable moment to pull that version of the tune up on my phone and listen to it while I was on the summit. In the end, I had decided not to download the file to my phone, not wanting to drain my battery atop a mountain with a 5,500 foot descent still looming, and not wanting to subject Greg to waiting on the summit, possibly in inclement weather, while I listened through the fifteen minute long song. I chuckled darkly to myself now, recalling that decision. At the rate the line was moving, I’d have time to listen to an entire three-hour Phish concert before my turn in the chute came up.
On the heels of that sobering thought, Greg’s head peaked back up over the ridgeline again. He looked hopeful, and as he got closer, he explained that there appeared to be a potential way into the chute from that direction. Encouraged, I followed his footsteps to meet him as he regained true summit elevation. I made it about fifty feet across the summit plateau in his direction before the smile fell off of my face. The route he’d had to take around the rock and ice piled up at the top of the chute was much, much closer to the sheer edge of the north face than I’d imagined. It looked like there were points where traversing it would require walking one foot in front of the other, like walking a tightrope, with a few thousand feet of sheer drop to your right and implacable ice towers to your left. I knew almost immediately that I wouldn’t be able to handle it, and was amazed that Greg had already walked it twice. I said as much to him, and, to his credit, he immediately accepted this and didn’t try to pressure me into trying the alternate route.
Instead, we traversed across the summit plateau to the east, finding the bootprints of the few intrepid climbers who had risked ascending The Pearly Gates above the bergschrund that day. It was the only other alternative that we could imagine at this point. Climbing up through The Gates had looked incredibly dangerous from near the top of The Hogsback, but staying on the summit for another hour or two — if that's what it came to — held its own dangers. Maybe the view from the top of The Gates would show us something clearer, safer, that we hadn’t seen from below?
We didn’t even make it to the top of the chute. En route, we crossed paths with two of the few climbers who had ascended through them. They were preparing for their descent with two axes apiece, harnesses, rope, and a multitude of other tools that I vaguely recognized from watching mountaineering documentaries about Everest. We chatted with them for a few minutes, but didn’t learn anything more than what the sight of their gear had already told us: namely, that descending through The Gates was going to be scary for them even with their professional kit, and they were doing it specifically for the thrill and the challenge. Their descent line was firmly out of our league.
We were trapped. Dispirited, we shuffled back to the queue at the top of the Mazama Chute and sat back down in the snow.
All told, it took well over an hour for our turn to come up. By then, it was past noon. Originally, we’d expected to be safely below Crater Rock by noon, but that goal was still 1,500 feet below us. At this point, we’d be facing extremely soft snow and possibly ice- and rockfall while traversing back across the face to The Hogsback. And, of course, we had to get back down the chute before that. For Greg, that part was no problem. For me, who had only been able to ascend the chute in the first place by not looking down, it was another story.
Because, of course, descending is only looking down. I had been aware of this on some level during the ascent, but had been so excited about reaching the summit that I’d filed the fear away for later. Now, the moment the mouth of the chute became steep enough that I had to switch from shuffling downhill face-forward to turning around and climbing down ladder-style, that fear came back in spades. It didn’t help that during our nearly two hours on the summit of the mountain, the sun had melted out a significant amount of the snow in the chute, leaving behind bare, hard ice in its place. Also, the two-way traffic continued to make moving around in the chute extremely claustrophobic, especially when one ascending climber froze up halfway up the chute and refused to move up or down.
Me and the descending climbers above me spent a few minutes shouting encouragements to her, and at one point I even offered to shuffle across the chute to give her a boost up to above the point she was stuck on. After about ten minutes of this, our shouts of encouragement changed to groans of exasperation as she continued to cling in place. I still feel bad about this in a way: I could have ended up stuck just as thoroughly during my ascent had I not had Greg's assistance. On the other hand, this woman was blocking descending climbers who had already been stuck on the summit for between one and two hours, and, frankly, to still be ascending the chute (and the mountain) at noon was irresponsible of her at best. Her climbing partners, rather than taking the time to reassess their situation in light of her struggles, had cut line in front of some of the descenders and were coming down to clip her into another rope so they could literally drag her the rest of the way to the summit.
This was a bad situation all the way around, but there was no way that I could see to intervene that wouldn’t make things worse. Finally, with a disregard for my own safety born of desperation, I skittered slightly up the sidewall of the chute, squeezed past the growing knot of people to my right without stabbing any of them (or myself) with my crampons, and slid/fell another five feet before arresting my slide with my ice ax. From there, adrenaline powered the rest of my descent. Typically, I’m hyperaware of times when I place my weight on unpredictable ice or snow, and maybe do it once per climb if I have to. During this descent, almost every step involved a cringe-inducing shift of weight from loose snow to rime ice and then back again. When I finally reached the bottom, legs shaking with nerves, relief washed over me. The slope down to Crater Rock, which had seemed exceptionally steep three hours before, now seemed like a relative cakewalk. Which was good, because the mountain was melting.
I noticed almost as soon as we started traversing back under the ice cliffs that made up the east wall of the Mazama Chute: tracks in the snow above and below us from rolling rocks and ice balls. Even as I stood there at the base of the chute, a few marble-sized ice balls hissed by between Greg and I, one of them striking my left gaiter. It didn’t hurt, but it definitely hit me harder than I would have expected something that small to. No words were exchanged between us; we both took off as fast as possible toward The Hogsback, trying to get out from under the cliffs before they rained something larger than ice marbles down on us.
I made it about fifty feet across the traverse before I was slowed down significantly by a woman struggling with either exhaustion or the altitude, or both. Through a quick conversation, I established that she was okay to keep walking, but would have to go slowly, and that she had a climbing partner who was waiting for her all the way down on the Crater Rock plateau roughly five hundred feet below.
The next ten minutes or so were nearly as unnerving as the time I’d spent descending the chute. We crept along the narrow traverse track together, traveling at a speed closer to crawling than walking, the woman struggling to walk in a straight line, all the while the cliffs above us looming in the corner of my field of vision, threatening to dump more ice and rock at any time. I told myself that people with poor time management skills (so, people like me) likely descended the mountain at this time of the day all the time, and you didn’t read endless news articles about them being pulverized to death by rockfall.
Still, it was hard to ignore the fact that we were descending below the cliffs three hours later than the recommended time on a sunny, relatively warm day. Every time another ice marble hissed by, my jaw clenched a little tighter. When we finally reached the relative safety of The Hogsback's slope, I was so relieved that I was happy to climb it at my erstwhile climbing partner’s stumbling pace.
Once on The Hogsback, the entire descent line was visible again. My partner could see her friend waiting down near Crater Rock, and I could see Greg in front of us, opening up a bit of a lead, but looking back occasionally to keep an eye on the proceedings. The woman’s condition was improving as we descended — I suspect it was altitude-induced — but she still had a tough time navigating the relatively deep snow of The Hogsback's ridge. At this point, though, I was much less worried about time: having gained the ridge, I knew that the rest of the climb was straightforward. Before long, we’d be back at the Palmer Lift and then onto the groomed slopes. It was warming more and more as we descended, and though I was definitely starting to feel tired, I wasn’t yet as dead on my feet as I’d expected to be after thirty straight hours of consciousness.
We we finally reached the plateau behind Crater Rock where Greg and the woman's real climbing partner were waiting, I decided that I could spare a few minutes to take in the view of Hood and its environs from above Crater Rock one last time.
Greg and I chatted briefly while I ate a snack. He was surprised to discover how scared I'd been descending the chute. We'd both been worried about getting stuck for so long on the summit, but the chute descent proper hadn't concerned him at all. And apparently from his vantage point below me, I'd looked like I knew what I was doing. I recommended that he get his eyes checked as soon as possible. He laughed.
Now that we were out of immediate danger, our usual rapport was restored. During the ascent, we'd walked side by side or at least within five feet of each other nearly the entire time. Since we'd begun the descent, though, there'd been at least fifty feet between us at all times. It was oddly nice to catch up. It had only been a little over an hour since I'd entered the chute the second time, but a lot had happened, from my perspective at least. We left the struggling woman with her capable partner in that utterly pragmatic way that decisions are often made on mountains like Hood, and from where The Hogsback terminated into the north face of Crater Rock, we turned left and stomped/slid down through relatively deep snow back to Devil's Kitchen. This occasioned another break while we gathered up the ropes, harnesses, and other equipment we'd stashed there earlier.
As during the ascent, two long stops with so little time in between them felt overly indulgent, but below The Hogsback we didn't face any danger of falling rock or ice and, theoretically at least, had until sunset to finish descending back to Timberline Lodge. Practically speaking, though, I was low on food, getting extremely hungry, and figured I only had a few more hours of exertion — at best — before the lack of sleep caught up with me in a serious way. We repacked our bags as quickly as possible, and then began the final portion of the descent: to drop below Crater Rock, march down to the top of the Palmer Lift, and then follow it to the car. Or at least I would be marching. Having collected his skis from our gear cache below Devil's Kitchen, Greg would finally be taking advantage of all the groomed snow downslope from us and skiing the rest of the way to the car. I'm a hiker through and through. I dabble a bit in cross-country skiing, but generally speaking the largest thing I strap to my feet is a pair of snowshoes. That said, I couldn't help but feel jealous of Greg when, two hundred or so feet below the Rock, he strapped on his skis, promised to buy me pizza at Timberline, gave me a jaunty military-style salute, and kicked off, bulleting down the slope. I watched as he dwindled to a Greg-colored blob against the snow, then as the Greg-blob merged, further down the mountain, with the many other fast-moving blobs populating the area just above Timberline. No more than two minutes after he'd kicked off, I'd lost sight of him completely. For me, the descent would take at least two more hours.
Alone now, with Crater Rock looming behind me and a few ragged-looking groups of climbers spread out around me, I oriented toward the brown roof where the ski runs all converged and started walking.
Frankly, most of those last two hours passed in a blur. With nobody to talk to and no immediate danger to pay attention to, my mind wandered and exhaustion set in more quickly than I'd expected. Walking uphill certainly takes more energy than walking downhill does, but this downhill was undulating, well-groomed snow that had become positively slick in the light of the afternoon sun, so keeping my footing took a lot of energy. I fell. I picked myself up robotically and kept going. I fell again. I was dimly aware of other climbers descending around me, but they were so focused on putting their own feet in front of them that they didn't seem to notice when I went down yet again, cartwheeling awkwardly into the powder, perversely welcoming the ice sliding down the front and back of my shirt because the chill shocked me back to being fully awake for a minute or two. At some point, I passed from the low slopes of Hood that I'd known during the previous night's moonlit ascent into a carnival of noise, color, and skiers. Technically, climbers are supposed to descend along the line of the ski lift, but at a certain elevation this became impossible to do safely. This late in the day, the bottom of the mountain was absolutely swarming with enthusiastic skiers and snowboarders of all ages, and to have descended along the lift line would have been to invite a high-speed crash. Admittedly, it's possible that there was a clear climber's lane or something that I missed in my half-awake haze, but if there was, I never saw it.
I spent the last forty-five minutes of the descent making an awkward, zigzag path through a series of ski and snowboard runs. I never saw another climber again once I entered the amusement-park portion of the mountain, and it was easy enough to imagine, walking those gradual, well-groomed slopes, surrounded by laughing children and GoPro-equipped teenagers, a perfect sun beating down, that the previous twelve hours had never happened. At least five times, a passing skier asked, slightly incredulous, if I'd climbed "the whole mountain." I answered with a triumphant shake of the fist or with downturned eyes depending on my current energy level.
If climbing above the Palmer Lift in the first light of dawn had been a stirring introduction to a second, wilder Hood, revisiting the bottom third of the mountain in the light of day felt like trading all that wildness back for the county fair. Icy alpine silence, broken only by the crunch of my crampons on snow, was replaced by weekend-warrior cacophony. The clean, unbroken snow had been chopped up by thousands of feet, and was now mostly covered up by a quilt stitched of hundreds of neon-colored down jackets and waterproof shells.
I felt like a trespasser, staggering through the snow as if drunk while skiers and snowboarders roared past me, focused on their runs, paying no attention to the ancient mountain rearing up behind them. After the intensity of the previous few hours, I found it all surprisingly alienating. Nobody here cared about what happens on Hood above the top of the Lift. Crater Rock might as well have been two thousand miles above us instead of two thousand feet.
At some point, I'm pretty sure I actually started hiking straight down the middle of one of the ski runs, albeit mistakenly, inviting strange looks and a few catcalls from passing skiers. I'd imagined that this last section of the descent would be celebratory; instead, I felt like an intruder. I'd felt more welcome in the confines of the Mazama Chute than I did here. I kept walking.
The last hundred feet down to Timberline Lodge was on a hot asphalt sidewalk, and as I stepped off the snow onto it, suddenly the whole thing caught up with me. The air seemed baking hot, and I couldn't strip off enough layers to cool down. I dozed a bit as I walked, receiving strange looks from passerby as I zombied past them. But I was intent on reaching the registration hut at the top of the Timberline parking lot, and when I finally stepped into its shade, it felt like a waking dream.
There, under the massive topo map of Hood hanging on the back wall, stood two of the climbers Greg and I had shared the sunrise with at the top of the Palmer Lift hours and hours before. We three shared the kind of smile that doesn't need words to go with it. They looked as haggard as I felt, and I took some solace in the fact that even if some people could climb a mountain like Hood and shrug it off like it was nothing, I wasn't the only person to have been pushed to my limit that day. I staggered around inside the hut for a few minutes, longer than it should have taken me to realize that Greg wasn't there. Grudgingly, I plunged back out into the heat and the light to look for him.
If navigating the ski area after spending all morning in the wilderness above Crater Rock had been disorienting, weaving in and out of car traffic while crossing the parking lot was absolutely boggling. Nothing makes less sense after climbing a real mountain than cars. But I fought my way through them, then realized that I had no idea where we'd parked the night before, found the car anyway, and was happy to see Greg unpacking, his climbing clothes draped across the roof to dry in the sun.
We high-fived like the protagonists in an 80s movie, an act that seems hilariously fake if you think too much about it, but totally natural if you don't. He asked how the rest of the descent had gone, and I considered trying to explain to him the sheer weirdness of descending on foot through the circus of fair-weather skiers, but decided against it. My stomach was rumbling, but Greg hadn't been enthused by the Timberline's food selection (which is saying something considering we hadn't had a legitimate meal in something like eighteen hours), and with the ordeal over, we were both in a hurry, all of a sudden, to get off the mountain and call it a day. We decided to get food on the way back to Troutdale.
I stripped out of my climbing clothes right there in the parking lot and changed into the dry set of clothes I'd left in the back of Greg's car, we took one more picture with the mountain in the background — the setting made a bit ludicrous now in the daylight as compared to the moonlight-drenched mystery it had been the previous night — and then we were off.
I'm typically the driver on return trips from trailheads. I like driving, and I tend to get carsick as a passenger, especially on roads like the one that leads back from Government Camp to Troutdale. This time, though, it was Greg's car, and even though we were both exhausted, he seemed more than happy to drive and I was more than happy to let him, assuring him that I never, ever fall asleep on car rides.
I was asleep within two minutes of pulling out of the parking lot, my face smushed up against the passenger window, drooling (I was told later) all over my own shoulder.
I woke up a few minutes later to the blaring opening chords of, of all songs, "Free" from Phish's album Billy Breathes. I wouldn't have pegged Greg as someone who would own a Phish album, and yet there it was. It wasn't "Harry Hood," but as Trey sang "I feel the feeling I forgot," it was the perfect accompaniment for groggily reflecting on everything that had happened since I'd woken up the day before, a five-hour drive away in Klamath Falls thirty-three hours earlier. Greg, of course, had just picked the loudest CD he could think of and put it on full blast to keep himself from falling asleep and driving off the road. I thought of trying to explain the serendipitous thematic connection to him, but chose to just go back to sleep instead.
The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur. I was awake off and on through the first half of Billy Breathes, then we were at a Taco Time and I stumbled into the restaurant, bleary-eyed in the bright sunlight, stumbling with the awkwardness of walking on flat asphalt in tennis shoes instead of on uneven, slick snow with heavy boots. I ordered some food, ate it in the car, and fell asleep again. Woke up again to find we'd pulled into Greg's driveway. Wanted to go into the house, say hello to everyone, but couldn't make myself do it. Staggered around the side of the house, past the lumbering sheepdog's preponderance for kisses, and back to the trailer where I'd lain sleepless the night before. At this low elevation, the day was outright hot, and the last thing I remember doing was cranking the air conditioning in the front half of the trailer before I fell as hard into sleep as I ever have in my life.
I woke up later that night, just before sunset, and just in time for a wonderful homecooked dinner thanks to Greg's wife. I'd slept for almost four hours — one solid sleep cycle — and woke up hungry and unbelievably cottonmouthed. We ate, we talked, we laughed, and then everyone else went off to bed. Left alone in a strange house with nothing but a pile of backpacking gear to entertain me, I worried that I'd be up all night, unable to sleep, stuck in that strange limbo you end up in when you sleep too long in the middle of the day. I shouldn't have worried: ten minutes after laying back down in the trailer, I was asleep again, and I didn't wake up until the sunrise woke me the next morning.
After breakfast, finally well-rested and well-fed, I thanked Greg and his wife again, jumped in my car, and pointed it toward home.
There aren't great views of Hood headed south out of the Portland area, but as I crested one particular hill on my way out of town on I-5, blaring "Harry Hood," I did get one final view of the mountain, just as Trey and the rest of the band sang "You can feel good...feel good...good about Hood!"
And I did.