Paul Pottinger’s Adventures from the Top of the World

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Mt Hood

Cascades  •  April 20

The plan: Climb Mt Hood via the standard route, south side.

The crew: Teresa, Marjorie, and me.

The timing: A weekend in April… Because of work, I really wanted to climb Saturday, getting home Sunday to be ready for work the next day.

The issue: Weather was rotten on Saturday night. 2 inches of snow and 25 MPH winds forecast… until 2-3 AM, when it was predicted to dry up and calm down. This time of year, it gets plenty warm during the day, and the mountain turns to mashed potatoes… so an early summit is mandatory. This meant starting in the rain.

And so we did.

But first, we spent a day taking in the lovely scene at Mt Hood.

Laurel Hill marker. Impressive that so many people negotiated this steep, wooded, wild route in covered wagons.
I am all about conflict reduction….
Will the Pearly Gates look like this?
Paved toll road, abandoned decades ago.
This route is in excellent condition.
Lots of precip, even this high, nourishes the land.
The road really is getting consumed by the forest.
Yep.
The Oregon Trail
This is crazy. It’s a forest. On a steep hill.
Covered wagons still allowed, right…?
Spring just beginning here.
We found it this way, I promise.
Looking over the highway at our objective.
Cloud cap tells the story: it is RIPPING up there today. Only question is: When will it calm down?

After a grueling 0.5 mile flat loop on a paved road, we were ready for some R&R at the Lodge. On the way, we checked out the ski basin.

The bowl’s magic carpet… looking a bit sad today.
No stopping us now…
Timberline Lodge.
Our objective. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)
Heidi…. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)
Best climbing prep, ever.
Same spot… 10 years earlier.
10 years ago… hard to believe she is now in college.
Looking over to Mt Jefferson at dusk. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)

That evening was spent tinkering with gear, gazing at the forecast, and pretending to sleep while we waited for the appointed hour to arrive. Originally, we wanted to start walking at 1 AM… but the forecast suggested that the storm would pass up high closer to 2 AM, so we agreed to delay the start until 1:30.

We did not realize it at the time, but this turned out to be a brilliant idea.

BRRRRRRILLIANT! Because it meant that hours later, while everyone else was running down the mountain, nursing their frostbite, we were the first ones headed UP, into a storm that cleared for us. But, we had no way of knowing that would happen as we got ready for the climb.

Teresa sorts gear like a pro. I am actively engaged in this process. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)

Driving up to the parking lot was a stark experience: such nasty-ass weather! Microflakes of freezing rain / spitting snow and a steady breeze (not too fast, I would say 10 MPH, but with that cold precip it was CHILLY). Occasionally we had a hint of the full moon, but mostly it was a dank, dark start. A couple other parties were there, doing strange dances to stay warm while packing up, just like us. We chatted amicably–there is something bonding about doing stupid things like this outside that brings strangers together. It’s one of the best parts of mountaineering.

And then we had to pee.

And the lav in the Day Lodge was padlocked closed.

Which meant trudging up the parking lot to Timberline. I was mindful of the moisture saturation point of my shell, which was probably getting closer by the minute. Another party approached us, headed down the parking lot towards the trailhead. “You guys climbing by a different route?” They sounded concerned.

“Nah, gotta take a leak.” That put things to right.

The lodge door had been locked since 11 PM, but we followed the protocol by announcing ourselves and our room number (we were staying at the Gov’t Camp facility, meaning we had full access up here). The night watchman let us in, then admonished us to keep quiet that he had done so with other climbers. Dude, we are guests here….

It was great being indoors for those minutes: Warm, dry, quiet, still, smoky air… we were surrounded by mountaineering artifacts from a bygone age, standing among the spectacular timbers, stone, and ironwork construction of a century ago. Timberline was built in the WPA, mandated by FDR himself. Trump says no one will remember you unless you put your name on what you build. What a complete effing douche. He can’t even build a wall that no one wants… this is what presidents are supposed to build, you deplorable turdmonkey.

The mountain would not climb itself. We had to go back out there and get started. It was 2:00 AM.

Although the air felt cold, the snow was SOFT. A hot mess of mashed potatoes! This is great on the way down, but NOT what you want during the ascent! I should not over-emphasize this, except to say that it was concerning that it might get so warm as to turn into a full morass.

It did not. Initially we dropped a layer each, which is customary after 20 minutes on the move. But then I started to miss the merino under my Ansilta softshell. In fact, it got downright COLD up there, thanks to the wind and the wet. Teresa led out strongly, and we made very nice progress, in spite of conditions that were genuinely adverse. We could just barely see the ski lift on our left, illuminated by the headlights of the Snow Cats grooming the trail. We talked about taking a break each hour, but it was just too cold to take more than a quick stop once on the way to Palmer (above the lifts). I recalled the last time I was here, precisely 10 years earlier (April 18, 2009), with Doug Black. That night had been clear and so very, very cold and windy. If we had not been ushered into the bullwheel bunker to warm up, we surely would have had to spin that night. This is miserable, but at least it’s not as cold as it was then.

Our start. Yeah… it was like that.

At one point we realized that the snow had stopped falling, and that the upper mountain was illuminated by a full moon. Had we beaten the storm?

And then we saw them: The mountaineers who had left the parking lot before us, while we were urinating in Timberline. All of them. Heading towards us… down the mountain. All of them told the same story:  A huge wind event above Palmer had raked the mountain. No one was able to tolerate it, and some worried that they would have suffered frostbite if they had pressed on.

I kept thinking of the forecast graph, showing summit winds dropping off between 2:00 and 3:00 AM. The wind should stop any minute!  We discussed it briefly, and all agreed: Press on, slowly, and hope that the forecasts turn out to be correct.

And, dear reader: Correct they were!

As we climbed higher and higher, we waited for the fierce blast to hit us. But it never did. Now, it was breezy and COLD that night, and my fingers were numb much of the time. However, there was nothing close to the roaring storm that had turned back so many before us.

For approximately an hour on the lower mountain I struggled to stay awake. I was not fatigued, just intensely sleepy. My eyes simply would not remain open, and I slipped in and out of dreams. Many were short, just a step or two long, others seemed to last much longer. I spoke with old friends, some of whom I could not quite identify, in a strange guttural language. I thought of my warm bed and warm wife at home. I saw medical charts flip past, smelled hand sanitizer in the hospital, tasted cafe latte, felt beach sand between my toes, fed Jinx (our pet axolotl)… I rarely left my body, like I had on Everest, but in summary I lost my flipping mind due to sleepiness. And I never fell over. Must have looked like a creepy, frozen zombie up there.

Teresa and Marjorie climbed very well, and pulled ahead. I forced myself to take some photos.

Looking down the route from Palmer.
We are above the clouds now. That full moon lent a bit of cheer to the very cold night.
Dawn! Teresa and Marjorie making good progress above Palmer.

Somehow my limbic cortex rattled awake soon after dawn. I am not sure why. Was it the searing cold? I did develop early screaming barfies in the right hand, but just early and not full-on agony. That may have helped wake me up. Or perhaps it was the sight of Crater Rock looming so close that we could literally touch it–and be squashed by falling rime if we dared try. Or perhaps it was just the desire to help my friends fulfill their ambition that day. This was Marjorie’s first shot at Hood, and I really wanted to help her make it. At least, that is what I was thinking of when my vision became confocal again and I realized where we were: We are almost at the crater! Smell those rotten eggs? “Hey guys! It smells like victory!”

“Hell yeah!” said Teresa.

Crater Rock and the summit rim beyond.
Just… a few… more… steps… to the… break….. (photo: Teresa Hagerty)
Marjorie Rising (photo: Teresa Hagerty)
So very, very cold….
Crater Rock seen from immediately below.
Trudging the last few steep, painful steps into the crater. Crater Rock on the left.
Cold? Check. Psyched? DOUBLE check.
Almost to our break spot in the crater.
Looking down from the bottom of the crater. You’ve come a long way, baby.
T$ and I enter the crater. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)
Pulling into the crater… cloudsea below.
Eastern side of the crater just after sunrise.
T$ is all business here. Marjorie… not so much.

We pulled up to the Hot Rock for a break. The mountain opened up before us, clear and still and very cold. The clouds had parted. It was going to be a splitter day. SPLITTER. And for a few minutes we were the only people up there (except for a single dude who skied down from the Gates soon after we reached the crater). We could not believe how fortunate we were. I was amazed to see the great quality of snow on the rampart, with no sign of slides and a friendlier appearance than I had remembered in 2009. There was absolutely no sign of the bergschrund–none at all, even knowing exactly where to look for it. “Guys,” said Marjorie, “I’m so happy. I can’t believe this is happening!”

The Hot Rock.
Upper mountain in pale dawn light.
Selfie in the crater, summit ridge behind. Those goggles were clear during the night, and have darkened in the daylight. Technology… it’s a good thing. Thank you, Zee Goggles!

But, damn, it was cold.

We had lots to do in the transition, getting the rope arranged and harnesses on. I brought my BD Alpine Bod–I know, impossible to manipulate in the cold, but I had been seduced by its lightness! Now, I paid the price: I could not feel my fingers, and there was no way to get the friction plates apart except by using my skeletool. I anticipated that, and brought it for this very purpose, crazy though that may seem. Bottom line: It took longer than I had wanted, and my teammates had to wait in the cold while I prepared. Putting it on loosely was not an option, and I recited the mantra like every other time, “No Marty Hoeys, rest her hot amazing soul.”

By the time I was ready to go, several teams had arrived and moved ahead of us, not surprising as none of them were roped. It was decided that I would lead this portion, which I was happy to do. I have always wanted to climb the Pearly Gates, and this was my chance. The sun had risen above the crater rim, and I walked directly towards it, out of shadow. And DAMN that UV felt good!

Hogsback Glacier bends upwards towards the bergschrund–totally covered in snow bridge–and Pearly Gates on at center… Old Chute on the left.
Closeup of the Pearly Gates. We chose to climb via the gully on the right (partially obscured in this view.)

I tried to find the right pace on our way up. It was so cold that I wanted to push it, but that would just make us break a sweat, and my legs are longer than my teammates. Soon I found the right stride and pace. And we gained the Hogsback ridge easily. Last time I was here, the ridge was very sharp, just one boot wide, then dropped down sharply to both sides. This day it was gentle, broad, and welcoming.

The Pearly Gates are two couloirs separated by a building-sized outcrop. You have to choose: go left, or go right? This day, the parties ahead of us went right, which was my preference too, because it was in shadow. But, that also meant that we needed to wait for traffic to clear. At least that gave us an opportunity to shoot some photos of the amazing scenery.

Looking back at the Hogsback, Marjorie and Teresa on my six.
Looking up the Hogsback, several parties ahead of us. Pearly Gates still in shadow, just right of center.
Up the Hogsback, from T$’s POV. (photo: Teresa Hagerty)
T$ delivers the goods. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)
Now I remember why we went up the Old Chute in 2009… not too much ice, but too much SNOW in the Gates!
Looking left from the upper Hogsback.
Looking right form the upper Hogsback.
Looking up at the Gates as we begin traverse-ascending right from the Hogsback ridge. Nice steps for us in fresh powder.
Looking back from the upper Hogsback.
My better side… we are paused here waiting for traffic to clear from the Gates. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)
Quick selfie while waiting for traffic to clear in the Gates.
Teresa and Marjorie rocking the Hogsback, just below the Gates.
Pretty excited to be at the mouth of the Pearly Gates. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)
An epic ussie. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)

When traffic cleared it became our turn, and the climbing was just perfect: Plenty of snow underfoot, but no concern for slides. Having the second tool in hand felt like a luxury. We moved well as a team.

The Gates opened up to a broad snowfield, covered in fancy hoarfrost feathers, glinting in the sun. The sky was perfectly blue. The wind was minimal. The route was clear. We were steps from the summit, nothing to do but put one foot in front of the other.

A highlight: Another team descended past us, and stopped to ask whether we were a professionally guided group. I set them straight. Then they said, “You just look so professional and so safe using that rope.” Teresa advised them to turn around and descend the Old Chute because it had looked less spicy from below (it turned out to be plenty spicy, more on that later). They thanked us and wished us well.

As we approached the summit I turned around to shoot the scene with my iPhone (the GoPro7 failed to work AGAIN, in spite of being attached to an auxiliary battery… I truly want to thrash the weenie who invented it against the snow when this happens. Why…. WHY!). Marjorie came up first, really excited to be topping out, as was Teresa. Such a fabulous team: careful, supportive, strong, delightful.

There was time to enjoy the view from the summit, and to get ourselves straightened out for the descent. It was a good vibe. The last time I was here, 10 years earlier, it was also spectacular… and more stressful. Now, I am more experienced and more relaxed on high terrain. This was a moment to savor.

Climbers ascend the final broad summit ramp after exiting the Pearly Gates.
Climber behind us, just topping out from the Gates.
Looking down from the summit. I can see our car from here…
Summit Selfie.
Summit selfie, sans goggles.
Summit of Hood, 10 years and 2 days ago.
Wondertwin powers… ACTIVATE!
Summit cornice bends down towards the Eilot Glacier, 2000 feet below.
Hoarfrost fingers on the summit. The entire upper mountain is adorned in beautiful formations like this.
I’m chillin’ (photo: Teresa Hagerty)
T$ on top. (photo: Teresa Hagerty)
Looking North from the summit. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)
Getting ready to descend.

Our descent first took us west along the summit ridge, over a tight spot with full exposure on the right, 2,000 feet down to the Eliot Glacier. Felt almost like the Southeast Ridge on E… except that is 10,000 feet down the Kangshung to Tibet.

A climber heads west along the summit ridge, towards the drop-in spot for the Old Chute.
The traverse to the top of the Old Chute. Drop on the right is pretty spiffy… check that cornice. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)

Then, there was nothing to do but drop in. The upper portion is wide, steep, and exposed to the fumaroles a few hundred feet below. I did not like that the sun had been working on this aspect for a couple hours, but the ambient temperature was so cold, and the snow so very fine and powdery, that it seemed quite safe. Teresa led out, and in some cases had to kick steps multiple times to establish a firm footing, that’s how powdery it was. Again I tried to record this, and again the camera failed.

Some skiers decided to drop in above us, but mostly stayed to our left. Mostly….

The route cut a dogleg left and began a long traverse back towards the Hogsback. Initially this was fine, but soon the snow became quite firm and it was impossible to kick steps, meaning our ankles were bent to the side at painful angles. Proper technique here is to just face down the slope–or even to face up–but this made the traverse less appetizing than simply dropping down towards the fumaroles. We decided to turn in and downclimb. I protected the others with a simple axe belay, and then they did the same for me. In this way we inchwormed our way down the face. It took an hour, but was exceedingly safe and perfectly fun (although I eventually got plenty hot under that unfiltered sunshine). I constantly thought about the threat of icefall from above, as the rime warmed up and spit tiny shards down on us. It was a precarious position by any measure, but we were handling it very safely. I recited the mantra: Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast.

Marjorie during the downclimb of the Old Chute.
Teresa just about to gain the Hogsback ridgeline during our descent.
Climbing the Old Chute in 2009. We entered the right-hand gully to avoid traffic on the left.

Back at the Hot Rock we took a break, and I stripped off my layers in the sun. How good does it feel to get that balaclava off… am I right? There was nothing left to do but to make the long, slow trudge back to Timberline. We all agreed: Never, ever again without skis! I glissaded on my keyster twice, which felt pretty good, but not half as good as skis would have been.

See those little dots in the snow, top left of the image? Climbers…
Zoomed-in on climbers near the top of the Hogsback.
My sun avoidance system on the descent. Works well… except for my lips.
Eastern side of the crater rim.
Looking back at the crater rim on our way down.
Teresa drops down towards the clouds. (Photo: Marjorie Clark Houk)

We encountered lots of colorful characters on the way down: The woman who kept glissading down 50 meters and running back up to slide down again, joyously… the dudes who were planning to climb Wy’East at midnight that day, having a super time while sweating under the hot sun… the woman who hollered to her boyfriend right in front of me that she only enjoyed cunnilingus while sitting in a chair (“I TOLD you, only when I’m SITTING in a CHAIR!”)… and the super nice person who shot our portrait at the bottom of the trail.

Fabulous teammates… fabulous day!

I was terribly dehydrated, and found it surprisingly difficult to buy a soda. Seriously, it took me 10 minutes to get a can of grapefruit soda water. The issue: Everyone was busy tending to a catered event. The main level was occupied by a wedding reception. I loved the stark contrast between the dapper guests and us stinky mountaineers. We listened to the peppy quartet and marveled at those hand-hewn timbers, each carved from a single tree. A single tree! The entire structure is wood, except for the central chimney stone core. If this place catches fire… I thought of the catastrophe at Notre Dame, fresh on everyone’s mind, and was relieved to see sprinklers dotting the ceiling of Timberline. I want my kids to bring their kids here. 

The jacuzzi was a wonderful way to recuperate, and we met some great people. Food, drink, and blessed REST awaited us… no need to drive home apres summit and prepare for work. This was true luxury.

And this happened. Pretzel… sausage… molten cheese… Yes… Yes we did.

So delighted to have made this climb with my friends… we were thinking about our many other friends who could not be there that day… and planned for the next adventure together!

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