Monday, June 30, 2008

Mt. Jefferson Failed Attempt

Too big with too little time is how I would describe our effort to climb Mt. Jefferson this weekend. Kalin and I thought we'd have enough time to climb the 2nd tallest volcanic peak in Oregon in just a night and a day but we were very wrong.

I had a very foreboding and nervous feeling about the climb all week long. I guess my instincts are right on still. We left Corvallis at 4pm after my shift at the bar was over on Saturday and headed towards the mountain. When I picked Kalin up he was still packing so I knew the likelihood something would be forgotten was high so I questioned him about all his gear. About 30 minutes into the drive on I-5 he remembered what he had forgot... his poles, an essential item for a climb on a cascade peak with skins and skis. So, after a few quick phone calls and gps navigation to a Big 5 sports store we were able to pick up some poles in Salem where I also grabbed some burgers at a fast food joint. We didn't make the trailhead until about 7:15 at night... I had hoped for 6pm at the latest.

We started hiking with our very heavy packs full of overnight gear and climbing gear. Kalin had forgotten that his light weight rope was with a friend so we had to carry a heavier full-size rope for our glacier travel part of the climb and summit pinnacle. I would guess that my pack weighed close to 60lbs... no joke. It literally hurt my back to pick up and put on. This was not a good sign to begin with. After walking about a half mile up the snow-covered road to the trailhead we started off and IMMEDIATELY lost all trace of the trail under 5' of snow cover still. The worst part was travelling through the trees which were melting out around the trunks creating ridges of narrow crusty snow between the trees that we were forced to walk on ski boots through, often falling into the tree wells and slipping with our very heavy packs on.

I quickly realized we were in the wrong drainage basin based on our GPS location so we climbed up onto Sentinal Hills Ridge and began hiking along the ridge hoping that the snow conditions through the trees would improve.... they did not. We found ourselves on multiple occasions on very steep slopes on the ridge trying to find the quickest and most efficient way to the base of the Jeff Park glacier but if felt as if we weren't making any forward progress on the ridge. Soon it was sunset which afforded us spectacular views of Jefferson in alpenglow and the sun setting over the hills to the west behind us. After the sun set it quickly began to darken and we were still a solid mile and half from where I wanted us to be positioned for the climb in the morning.

By 10pm both of us were quickly reaching the point of exhaustion and we had gotten sufficiently close to the col between Sentinal Hills Ridge and Jeff Park that I felt comfortable making camp. Sunday's forecast called for temps in the 90's on the glacier and possible thunderstorms after 11am so I decided to wake up at 3 am (we needed some sleep at least) and head out from there. As we fell asleep we could see flashes of heat lightning over the Sisters to the south and clouds in the valley below. In the middle of the night I woke up to a light shower of rain although all I could see above me was stars. It was very eerie and not a good sign.

I slept intermittently and morning came way too quickly. We put on our headlamps and I made sure we had plenty of water for the days climb. The previous night I'd spent 20 minutes melting snow to make water for us. We were on the trail and hiking with lighter packs at 3:45am and yet we still were making incredibly slow progress through the trees on the ridge. When we finally reached the end of the ridge above the lakes at Jeff Park we realized with great clarity that making the summit just wasn't in the cards for the day. It was anguishing to turn around after such a great effort the night before to get as close to the glacier as possible with those terribly heavy packs but we just weren't going to make it. It would have been late in the day with the possibility of heat exhaustion, wet, mushy snow for traveling, a heavy rope, possibility of avalanches due to the heat, and on and on... Thus, Jefferson became the first Cascade Volcano that I've had to turn around on, a humbling experience for sure.

On the walk out we saw a great rock cliff on the side of Sentinal Hills and decided to climb it for some photos of the mountain and of Breitenbush River below in the valley. It was a great view and we had a really cool vantage point of Three Fingered Jack as well.

I can only describe the hike out AS THE MOST HORRIBLE EXPERIENCE in Oregon I've had to this date. My back hurt under the weight of the pack, I only was able to ski a 200 yard stretch of clear trail at one point and a little bit through the trees. The way we chose to get down was straightforward but horrible conditions for secure foot placement and we both fell multiple times. At one point I dislodged a bent over sapling from the winter which sprung up like a catapult hurling me through the air... all I could do was laugh... almost out of hysteria. I kept checking my gps to see how close the road was and reaching it was one of those great moments in life of relief that you won't soon forget.

We were back in Corvallis by 11am in the morning. Besides some great photos as you can see the whole experience sucked. Jason told me that Jefferson is the kind of difficult peak that you have to EARN and I guess he's right. Hopefully, after this humbling experience the mountain will allow me to climb it easier later in the year. This experience has taught me to always allow more time than needed and it has given me even more respect for the mountains that provide me so much joy in my life. Below is a GPS track of our route showing how close we got... click the title for all the pics. I'll be back!

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