I have been climbing mountains for ten years, now. My addiction with climbing started when I climbed to the rim of Mt St Helens in 2006. Over the years, the climbs became more technical, more challenging, and (the best part 🙂 ) I accumulated more and more gear. I climbed Mt St Helens 3 more times and South Sister twice. I also became a member of The Mazamas, a mountaineering club based in Portland. I started climbing with friends I met through The Mazamas and did more and more technical summiting of Mt Adams, South Sister (again), and Broken Top. I also had my first Mt Hood attempt in there, which ended in an ice storm/whiteout. I finally got to summit Mt Hood for the first time that following spring. That had been a seemingly unobtainable goal for me for a long time. It just seemed so intimidating and like only professionals could do it. I mean, people die on that mountain! Right after that, I moved to Florida, where the highest point is 312 ft. Seems kind of like a weird decision, right? At least from a climbing perspective. I spent two years there missing mountains until I came back to Oregon realizing this was where I belong. In order to be as safe as I possibly could up there, I thought it best to take an official class this time through the Mazamas. Then I did some more serious climbing to Mt Shasta, Mt Hood (2nd summit), Mt Washington, Mt Baker, and I even got lucky enough to summit Mt Rainier. I started attending meetings as a prospective member of Corvallis Mountain Rescue Unit (CMRU) and graduated from Oregon State Search and Rescue Academy. I figured with my skills as a critical care nurse and as a fairly accomplished mountaineer, I could be of use. I was also feeling somewhat detached from the community and knew this would help me be more in touch. Plus, someday I would really like to be a nurse on a life flight helicopter, and I heard you get to ride in helicopters on CMRU! I became an official member in August of last year.
So, I climbed Mt Hood again last weekend. My CMRU mentor sort of gave me the charge of organizing and leading this climb as kind of like a skill to accomplish. Well, planning and preparing is probably my favorite thing, so I dove right in. I’ve gotten pretty lucky with weather and ideal conditions on all the climbs I’ve done (except for that one time we were in an ice storm). Right now, being a new dad and having everything else in life, scheduling would be the hardest part of it all – I thought. So, I set some time aside where I could possibly make this happen. My luck continued to hold, and weather forecast/conditions were pretty ideal the few days before. This whole time, I figured I would lead a climb up a route I have done before. Made sense to me, obviously. But, my mentor gave me kind of a CMRU-like scenario. He suggested, fairly last minute, we do a route I wasn’t familiar with. It made sense. If a mission came up for the unit on a mountain or route I wasn’t familiar with, I might have to make decisions I hadn’t made before. I might have to do some route finding or improvise depending on the situation. So, after checking out some alternate routes we could do in the planned amount of time we had, I opted for Leuthold Couloir. Honestly, I had never heard of this route before this year. I admit I was a little nervous researching this route two days before we planned to climb it. It looked intimidating! I would say I approached it with a healthy amount of nervousness, though. But, it was definitely the most amount of nervousness I had felt before any other climb. Maybe I just felt that way because it was my first climb as a dad. I felt pretty prepared and, the day before our climb, my mentor suggested we invite a couple other long-time members of the unit along. This certainly helped to quell my nervousness thinking having these guys along would make it better. Not only because of the experience they would bring, but also because suffering as a group is much better than suffering alone, or even as a pair.
Finally, the day arrived. We started climbing at about 1am (which is a pretty standard time to start, if you weren’t aware) from Timberline Lodge. I had been awake for 18 hours at this point, with exception of a couple 20 minute naps. There were dozens of other climb teams all slogging their way up the snow cat track in the moonlight (yay for no headlamps). Pretty typical amount of climbers for a nice spring day like this was supposed to be. Seeing all these climbers made me feel a little better about our route choice thinking we might get stuck in a human traffic jam on one of the standard routes. We arrived at the top of the Palmer Ski Lift, where the nicely groomed cat tracks ended. It was cold! Temps in the teens as the water in my insulated CamelBak straw started to freeze. I put on every layer I brought with me as we strapped on crampons and had a good snack. My feet were starting to get cold. This has always been my problem area on snow climbs. My feet seem to get cold fairly quickly and easily. Ever since a February camping trip several years ago in Paradise Park of Mt Rainier when I may have gotten a little frostbite in some of the toes on my left foot, it seems to happen even more quickly. As first light broke in the clear sky, we made our way across the Triangle Moraine to Illumination Saddle. Just starting to get into unfamiliar terrain here, for me.
This has routinely been a rejuvenating time for me while climbing. After wandering up a mountain for several hours in the pitch blackness of night, having the light of sunrise bask the landscape in a warm glow seems to give me energy. It’s also one of my favorite times of day to take photos! Another team had obviously camped here overnight. There was a nice big patch of yellow snow right in the middle of this shot…thanks to the magic of post-processing, I easily got rid of that. Here at Illumination Saddle, we took another break to rope up in preparation of crossing the Reid Glacier. I took a few photos of the sunrise until I couldn’t feel my fingers any longer.
This is, by far, one of my most favorite things about climbing when it happens. Being above the clouds like this is so surreal. Almost makes me feel like I’m flying. It’s such a pleasant thing to see. Kind of feels weird having this pleasant site while in this inhospitable environment.
We did our final checks and descended over this ridge onto the Reid Glacier. Here’s where things started to feel a little hairy for me. It was quite a beautiful scene on the other side of this ridge. Nice puffy clouds in the valley below as Mt St Helens on the horizon basked in some warm alpenglow with the ice-clad Yocum Ridge and the Reid Headwall looming above. But I didn’t take a single shot of this scene.
I was the second person in line on our four-person rope team and had to focus on moving safely and purposefully down and onto this steep slope. We probably walked over a few snow-filled crevasses and some old avalanche runouts as we made our way to the other side of the glacier up against Yocum Ridge. As we neared the couloir, crossing above a mostly snow-filled crevasse, I started to have mild crampon trouble. Of course, hanging out above a somewhat open crevasse, forcing the whole rope team to stop while I adjusted my crampons made it seem like more than just a mild issue! We arrived at the couloir and the cold sweat kind of started to pour a little more heavily for me.
This was a pretty steep slope. Maybe 40 degrees. I’m not sure if that’s communicated through this photo, but it was pretty intimidating. There was a lot of different types of snow on this slope, making travel a little challenging. Wielding two ice axes, I slowly picked my way up, advancing one axe at a time ensuring I was anchoring myself adequately with each swing into the snow. To ensure each step I took had purchase in the snow, I had to angle my ankles so that my crampons were parallel with the slope. Those stabilizing muscles on the lower/outer aspects of my legs were quite sore 48 hours after this. It took a lot of work. Plus, there was a pretty strong wind being funneled down the couloir raining shards of ice onto our helmets and faces. It was cold! Even though the sun was up, we wouldn’t be in it for a couple more hours.
The summit shadow, which is another one of my favorite things about climbing, didn’t even really interest me. I had to make myself quite safe to take any photos and I didn’t want to hold up the rest of the team for very long. That wind really does take a lot out of a tired climber. My nervousness, I think, had officially evolved into a mild level of anxiety. This routine repeated itself every few seconds. Advance one axe at a time, jabbing it into the snow, bend over and lean into the axe, move one leg at a time twisting my ankles, making little traverses across the slope, and occasionally being tugged on by the rope team leader. That’s another thing about this situation I was feeling anxious about. I felt like all my actions were being evaluated by my mountain rescue peers. I felt I should be performing at the height of my abilities, and that just exhausted me that much more.
We made our way through the narrowest section of the couloir, The Hourglass. Above here, we could see several other chutes above us that all looked like potential routes.
My mentor was the only one on our team who had done this route before. He was at the end of the rope, so we turned it around. I was quite thankful to see him move to the less steep way.
We took a break and, I don’t know if I can express how validated I felt at this point, we all started complaining about how tired we were! Yes! Suffering as a group! I was so glad I wasn’t the only one suffering. Definitely some Type II fun here. I haven’t had Type II fun very often, but this was certainly it. We all finally started to appreciate how beautifully unique this place was. The ice formations everywhere just seemed so other-worldly. Like Hoth. Definitely felt like we were on Hoth with how bloody cold it was. I would have given up quite a bit for a warm Tauntaun to cuddle inside of.
Just a few more traverses and we made it into the sun as the wind finally started to die down. My CamelBak long frozen, I pulled out my insulated water bottle from the side of my pack – frozen too! My mouth was so dry. My mentor offered me some of his own water.
We were on The Queen’s Chair. We still had 700 more vertical feet to go. One of my fellow climbers pointed out the ‘Bear Glass.’ The snow was coated with a thin layer of ice, giving it some unique texture. It reflected in the sunlight with a bright sheen. This shot of my mentor turned out kind of badass, I think, with him standing on it.
That’s where we were going, the high ridge to the left of my mentor, now leading the rope team. There were just a few mildly steep humps to get up and over before we were on the crater rim. This ridge was quite wind-scoured and some of the snow formations had to be mounted. They were really only a couple feet high, but it took so much energy to lift each leg over it. The view behind us was incredible. The steep slopes of the north face of the mountain giving way to the Hood River Valley, and beyond that, the gorge and the high Washington Cascades. I really could care less about photos at this point. That should tell you how tired I was. Awake for 26 hours at this time.
We finally reached the rim and took a minute for some premature summit celebration. We shamelessly took several selfies before manning up to make the short walk across the rim. There was actually some talk of bypassing the summit completely and simply descending into the Old Chute without summiting. But we all kind of silently ignored that option and trudged over to the summit. Our rope team leader moved from the back to lead again and gave a victorious thrust of his axe, posing perfectly for this shot.
We made it. 11,250 feet. The top of Oregon. There’s an interesting phenomenon, well, interesting to me and some fellow climbers I know, that occurs when climbers reach the summit. They let their guards down completely. We just sit there, taking it all in, not speaking to one another for a few minutes. It’s just so finite. Obviously it’s finite, it’s a summit. But, it’s just so hard to describe. Finally reaching that destination and having no where else to go that’s up. It’s weird. I was elated. This is why I climb. That feeling I get being on top of a tall mountain can’t be duplicated.
We made our way back over to the Old Chute seeing that it would be the less people-jammed option over the Pearly Gates. Finally some familiar terrain! We downclimbed into the crater, which is basically crawling with an ice axe in each hand. Backbreaking. It was quite different than I remember it here. All these slopes up the crater wall were very steep. Much steeper than I had seen them before.
Below these slopes at the bottom of the crater is a deep fumarole. Which means if you slip and fall, you may end up in the bottom of the fumarole, suffocating by poisonous gases. So, we downclimbed the whole way. All the way to the bottom of the Hogsback. Except this guy. I think that, because he’s kind of short, he was able to just walk so confidently down the slope having his center of gravity so much lower.
I met back up with my mentor. He told me there was a rescue mission in progress above Devil’s Kitchen. He told me there were members of Portland Mountain Rescue with a climber who had fallen about 500 vertical feet from the top of the Hogsback. I immediately said I didn’t think I was in good enough shape to assist. He agreed. He had been dealing with a headache most of the day. We were all a little dehydrated. I had been awake for 29 hours. We took another long break here and thoroughly enjoyed the sun. It was still cold, but not like it had been all morning in the wind and shade. My water sources had finally melted out.
I was right about being evaluated, by the way. My mentor told me that, after seeing how I performed, he’d be completely comfortable working with me on any winter mountain rescue mission. The other guys verbally agreed. My spirits were lifted. The exhaustion was paying off.
I’m sure you’ve noticed by now that everyone else on the team has skis with them. I don’t have skis…yet. At least, not the type of skis you need to get down a mountain like this. So, I got a head start and walked out of the crater to the bottom of Crater Rock. As I walked by the fallen climber, considering whether I could at least ask if they needed any medical treatment, I heard a rescuer asking him neuro-assessment questions. I thought at the time it could have been a head or spinal injury. Figuring the rescuers had what they needed, I continued on.
Now it was time for some Type I fun. I put on my crappy shell pants, secured everything to my pack, poked holes through my construction-grade trash bag, shoved my legs through them, and put the head of my shovel under my butt. I only rode that shovel down for a minute before I completely lost control. Snow was still a little too hard and unforgiving. So, I glissaded the old fashioned way…for quite a ways. All the way to the top of the Palmer ski lift! I beat the rest of the guys on their skis! I took long strides down the snow cat track, now sweltering in the warm sun, but not complaining about it. Finally made it back to the parking lot where we had a yard sale with our gear, drank some beer, ate some cinnamon rolls, changed into some dry cotton, and loaded up for the long ride home. By the time I got to sleep that night, I had been awake for 36 hours. Worth it.
The president of CMRU had texted us about the mission in the crater. We saw a Blackhawk from the parking lot. Apparently it was a 32 year old man with a head injury. He was pronounced dead at Legacy Emmanuel hospital. People still die on this mountain. There were plenty of unprepared climbers up there that day. Apparently the deceased climber didn’t have an axe with him. He had no way to arrest his fall. It really is dangerous. Perhaps people don’t completely understand how dangerous. Maybe there aren’t enough warnings or notices detailing its danger. Maybe something should be done about that.