Sunday, April 13, 2014

Mount Hood Summit Ski Descent

This past week Matt and Mike D from the office invited me to join them on a climb of Mt. Hood with a hopefully ski descent from the top.  The weather looked amazing for the weekend and I didn’t have any other plans so I was happy to join, yet scared about how out of shape I currently am.  Matt also wanted to get up at 4am which both Mike and I thought was a tad bit early but because Emily and made an offer on a house in North Portland I was hoping that I might be able to get down in time to go see the open house with Emily.  The climb and the views were epic even though the ski descent was terrible and dangerous.  Click the title to read on…

I had debated getting up super early on Sunday and driving up to meet everyone but after some consideration I thought it best to join the group the night before in the Timberline Parking Lot.  It was a busy day for us Saturday as we had toured a house in the morning and ended up making an offer on it in the afternoon.  There was an open house on Sunday which Emily planned to attend and I was tempted but I was also excited to have the chance to finally ski from the summit of Oregon’s tallest volcano.  So, I packed up my stuff, got my new GoPro setup, ate some quick dinner and headed out the door.  

I made it to the parking lot around 9:30pm where I found Matt and his buddy Graham already parked.  I was surprised not to see many other climbers in the lot.  Soon Mike D, his buddy Brayden and Josh from work showed up.  Then, to my surprise Leanne (used to work at WSI) and her boyfriend Dave also showed up.  Leanne planned to take a lesson while Dave joined us for the climb.  We shared a few beers but with 4am quickly approaching we all called it a night pretty quick and I climbed into a bivy in the truck bed for the night…. a night where the wind picked up to over 50mph gusts and pretty much kept me up all night… hence my desire to stay home and get a good night’s sleep.

Matt shook me awake just after 4am.  It took us a good hour of eating and prepping our gear before we were clicked into our bindings and skinning up the corduroy trails of Timberline in the dark.  It was actually bright enough that we didn’t use headlamps as we began our climb.  About a half mile into the skin I was overheating from the puffy pants and jacket I had on so I stopped to take them off, and also to rest.  The guys were smoking me up the trails and I told Josh before he got ahead of me to just keep going as I had driven myself.   At that point I honestly felt defeated and vastly overweight and out of shape… disheartened.  

Thankfully, after changing clothes, cooling off and popping a Shotbloc with large gulps of water I began to feel better.  I also had a gear advantage as my nylon Black Diamond skins held their grip on the icy corduroy ski trails while I watched others in our group slip and slide and occasionally fall down trying to gain traction.  Soon I saw several of them switchbacking left and right up the steeper slopes to maintain their grip.  I, on the other hand, powered straight up in a beeline towards them which allowed me to catch up fairly quickly.  Once back with the group I found my stride and my 2nd wind and for the rest of the day held my own with the rest of them.

Dawn was of course beautiful as always high on Mt. Hood with spectacular views south past Mt. Jefferson all the way to Diamond Peak beyond the Sisters.  The sun cast a very cool shadow of Mt. Hood over Skibowl far below us.  The views made up for the 20mph headwind coming down the mountain directly at us.  I remembered this wind from a previous climb… not pleasant.  By the time we got to the top of the Palmer Lift I had caught up to everyone and we all took a breather behind a wind block near the lift exit.  It was rock solid ice with little hope of things softening anytime soon and with steeper, rougher slopes above us we decided it was best to strap the skis to our packs and slip into our crampons for better grip.

From there it was the usual slog up above the Palmer and Zig Zag glacier towards “the kitchen” which is the old volcanic crater of Mt. Hood.  As we neared the depression we could smell the strong sulphur coming from the volcanic vents and unlike my last climb with Chris, the Steel Cliffs did nothing to abate the wind in our faces.  We took some time to rest there, soak up the views and eat some snacks before traversing the steep slope up to the base of the Hogsback Ridge.  I had been here twice with my skis before and turned around at the same spot.  This time I was set on going all the way to the top, hoping the conditions would soften.  

Mike D and I were the only ones who had been to the summit before and I had only been up through the Pearly Gates so climbing the Old Chute to the west was new for me.  Ascending the Hogsback and looking back down the ridge towards climbers coming from below is always an exciting experience.  Because we didn’t have rope we opted out of the Pearly Gates and instead traversed a 50 degree slope to the base of the chute that would lead us towards the summit.  Thankfully, because of good weather and many climbers there was a clear and well-stomped footpath the entire way, but falling was still out of the question as you would need to self arrest or slide into a big crevasse at the base of the hogback which was also a volcanic vent.  

Once at the base of the very steep chute we slowly made our way up.  The steepness was comparable to climbing a ladder to a roof, but imagine the ladder was 300 or so feet long.  Climbers coming down could not walk face first, they instead had to turn around and descend with their face to the slope, just like a ladder.  Some were experienced and went fast but one was clearly nervous and was going at a slow pace.  As per proper mountaineering etiquette we waited for him to descend and gave him pointers on where to safely go so as not to get hit with ice we were kicking off on our ascent above him.  

When we got up to the summit ridge I was surprised to see how narrow it was.  From the top of the Pearly Gates it is an easy and broad climb to the summit but from here we had to traverse a very narrow knife edge ridge to the true summit further to the East.  With high winds this was a little sketchy but we all made it just fine.  At the top we relaxed and enjoyed the view.  Oddly, the wind was minimal at the top and it actually felt warmer than the climb up.  We had clear views south to Diamond Peak and north to Mt. Rainier.  It was also impressive to look down the much steeper north face of Mt. Hood but we were careful not to get too close to the edge as it might be a hanging cornice from the winter.  

We ate some food, snapped some photos, and I got out the GoPro for the descent.  The best video of the whole day was the super wide angle view of us traversing the summit ridge back to where we had dropped our skis at the top of the chute.  We took our time and you definitely didn’t want to trip in your crampons.   It was one of the few times that video does justice to how crazy the actual experience was.  Back at our skis I grabbed mine first to click into so I could ski down a bit and get video of the others with the GoPro.  This turned out to be one of the sketchiest situations to try to click into the toe pins of the Dynafit Bindings that I had ever experienced.  The only flat area was about the width of a 2x4 that someone had kicked into the icy 50 degree slope.  

It was barely big enough for one ski to lie flat in.  It took me 5-6 tries of balancing on the steep slope to get both skis in and each time my boot failed and the ski slipped it was super unnerving because it could rocket down the icy slope at any second.  Finally, Matt helped out by holding the ski tip while I clicked in and locked both toes for the descent.  If I popped out of the skis on that slope in the icy conditions I would be sliding uncontrollably and need to self arrest.  This was the first instance that I really used and appreciated my whippet pole.  

After skiing down about 10 feet and balancing awkwardly on the slope I realized that it would be safer for me to descend further to a milder slope to film the guys coming down.  I had asked if they all knew how to self-arrest at the top but despite their assurances I had never seen any of them ski besides Matt on his split board so I was concerned about all 7 of us making it down that first slope safely without a spill.  It took some time for everyone to click in and get ready at the top which was nerve wracking for me far below but miraculously we all made it down without anyone popping out of a ski or sliding over the sharp ice.  

From there I followed Mike D as we went down skiers left of Crater Rock past bare rock that was spewing sulphur from nearby vents.  With the wind block the snow softened briefly and we had about 30 feet of descent turns before we hit the wind again and it all turned to shit once more.  Matt hadn’t seen where we had descended and ended up sliding down the slope all the way to the rocks below where he was able to stop himself with his axe before the vents preventing any damage to him or his board - like a pro.  Everyone at this point had sore knees and was just anxious to get down.  

Mike D and I went ahead of the others and made a side trip up the shoulder of Illumination rock looking for better snow but not finding any.  From there we traversed far east across the Palmer Glacier back to the top of the lifts where we waited for the others in a wind block.  We were very excited to be back on the smooth ski trails.  After a quad-burning descent down alongside the Palmer Lift on ice we hit softer snow just above the lodge.  We had climbed for 7 hours and our ski descent took almost 2 hours and out of the whole day we had about 2 minutes of soft snow and that was at the resort which had been skied on all day by many others…..

Once we unpacked and all of us took our Snow Park tickets off our cars (yeah, we all forgot about that one) we headed on down the road to Calamity Jane’s for large mugs of beer and giant burgers.  Many of us were burnt and all of us were exhausted.  Mike D and I tried to eat 3/4lb burgers (I got the Bonanza) but failed in our efforts.  It was a great day and we were all successful in skiing from the summit of Hood.  I’ll never do it again though, unless the snow is soft up there.  Hopefully a few of the guys will be able to join me on a 4 day trip up Glacier Peak this spring.  

And the best part of the day was when I got home.  I walked in the door as Emily’s phone was ringing and we found out our offer was accepted on what will become our new home in North Portland!  Damn it was a good day!

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