Ever since I was little, I’ve been captivated by Mount Hood’s majestic peak rising out of the forest east of Portland, Oregon. Each year, as winter ends and ski resorts close, skiers and snowboarders from around the world converge on Hood to ride its plentiful snowfields and year-round operation of lift-accessed terrain.
For nearly a decade, I have devoted time from my vacations to ride these slopes, always admiring the menacing, ice-encrusted peak standing gloriously above me. Last year, I made the decision to climb the 12,245 feet to summit Mount Hood, and succeeded on my second attempt.
Mount Hood holds the heavily debated title of the second-most climbed mountain in the world, after Mount Fuji in Japan; as many as 10,000 people are believed to attempt the summit each year. The mountain’s notoriety brings with it inexperienced mountaineers who lack respect for the very real dangers of the mountain.
Since records began in the late 1800s, 130 people have perished while attempting to climb Mount Hood, with one of the worst accidents occurring in 1986 when nine people in a school group froze to death after being caught in a vicious storm.
Aware of the risks and rewards of mountaineering, I began to plan my trip soon after the start of winter quarter. Physical conditioning, proper gear and a competent, reliable climbing partner were on my itinerary. If any one of these conditions were left unchecked, my chances for success would diminish significantly.
As far as gear goes, two pieces are absolutely critical for mountaineering. The first was an ice axe, a tool that allows you to climb steep icy surfaces by jabbing the sharp end of the axe into the ice. The second were crampons, spiked boot attachments that kick sharply into the ice and aid in the climbing of steep faces.
Much to my parents dismay, my partner, Austin “Squirrel” Headrich, and I elected not to use climbing ropes. Our decision was based off the abundant snowfall this winter that prevents deep glacial gaps called crevasses from being open at the time of our climb; many experts would probably decry our decision as naive.
I maintained a strict regimen of weightlifting and cardiovascular training in the months leading up to the climb. From my experience, once I reach about 10,000 feet of elevation my body starts to become much weaker from the lack of oxygen in the air.
On the morning of our push to the summit, my partner and I awoke to find the weather conditions could not be more ideal. Zero clouds, no wind and a cool spring temperature. In order to beat the crowds, we chose to take a later start than most climbers. We hopped on the first chair possible and rode up the high-speed quad to the top of Palmer snowfield located at 8,540 feet.
The climb starts with a long and monotonous hike above the Timberline ski area and took us up from the top of Palmer Snowfield.
The next section took us from the top of Palmer to the Devil’s Kitchen, a section of open thermal vents at around 10,400 feet that intermittently release steam and gas reeking of rotten eggs. Despite the smell, this is one of my favorite sections of the climb; it provides a direct view into the geothermal activity of an active volcano.
One climber close to us joked that the smell was not helping with his hangover; I tried to ignore him as not to think about the beers I too had consumed the night before.
After the Devil’s Kitchen, my awareness heightened as we approached the Hogsback, a narrow and steep ridge that runs up the mountain to the final obstacle between us and the summit.
With my ice axe in-hand, I left the physically exhausted Headrich behind me and carefully proceeded up the hairline ridge one step at a time. This was the time when experience in the mountains and ability to control one’s body really comes into play; a fall on the Hogsback likely means a long and painful slide into the volcanic rocks waiting below.
Reaching the top of the ridge, I looked back to find Headrich had overcome his fatigue and was not more than five minutes behind. I took the time waiting for him to eat my last energy bar and drink a few more sips of water while staring up at the last and most difficult section of the climb, a narrow 700-foot scramble through the ice-shrouded crown of the mountain, aptly named the pearly gates.
Descending under the 500-foot cliffs to the entrance of the gates, I was profoundly scared by the realization that if the mountain decided to shed its winter ice I would be crushed to death by the mountain I love so much. I moved through this section as fast as possible, and made it to the entrance of the pearly gates of the summit before me.
Climbing tenaciously up the 50-degree slope, the next 10 minutes felt like hours but I crested the final slope and was greeted by a view that filled me with a sense of just how small human beings really are.
The Journey Down
Our late start gifted Headrich and I a summit devoid of the hoards that were now making their way down. I took the time to drink a beer and gaze into the limitless horizon stretching for hundreds of miles around me. Caught up in the moment, I was startled by Headrich’s observation of the storm moving in.
I pointed my skis downhill and dropped over the edge into the slopes below. I skied fast–but in control–to the top of the 60-degree pitch adjacent to the Mississippi Headwall that I had my eyes on skiing since I made my way to the top almost one year to the day before.
After waiting for Headrich to reach me at the top of the pitch, I dropped into one of the steepest slopes I’ve ever skied in my life. Linking together short turns I almost immediately set off a shallow wet slab avalanche, which I quickly skied over and away from before screaming down to the bottom of the slope. After reaching the bottom, I was thankful I hadn’t been lifted off my feet by the powerful stream of heavy, wet snow.
Headrich skied down without incident, and with only gentle and low consequence pitches beneath us we linked turns down the mountain and back to the parking lot as fast as our bodies would allow.
After skiing nearly 5,000 vertical feet, I collapsed at the base of my truck and lay in the warm sun. Staring up at the peak that was now shrouded in dark clouds, I reflected on the journey and how lucky I was to be able to make it up and down safely.
Just as life tends to unfold, however, the fleeting feeling of accomplishment I cradled was soon replaced by another thought: The next peak, the next mission, the next journey.