May 25th, 2016, around 7:00 am
Ryan Cragun & Tom Triplett
For the previous 45 highpoints I had done, my wife had expressed some concerns, but had never insisted that I hire a guide. With Mt. Hood, given that people die on the mountain regularly and that it is snow-covered year round and that I had no prior experience climbing in such conditions, she insisted I hire a guide. And, frankly, since I climb mountains as a hobby and would rather not die, I found her logic compelling. My hiking buddy, Tom, and I located the Timberline Mountain Guides online and made a reservation for late May.
The way the guiding service worked was that we paid for a package. We were supposed to arrive at the Timberline Lodge (which is a ski resort on Mt. Hood) two days before we would try our ascent. I had a nightmarish experience with Spirit Airlines that almost killed the trip before it started. Their flight into Tampa that would then take me to Dallas before heading to Oregon was delayed, and the only way they could get me to Portland that day was without my checked bag with all my gear. I ended up canceling my flight with Spirit and re-booking on Delta last minute (which wasn’t cheap) but was able to get to Portland to meet up with Tom on the night of the 23rd. We picked up our rental car and some supplies, then headed to the Timberline Lodge where we had booked the cheapest room they had (with bunk beds).
Bright and early on the morning of the 24th we headed to the offices of the Timberline Mountain Guides and met the guides and the other hikers who would be headed up the mountain with us. There were nine hikers with three guides, for a 3 to 1 ratio. Of the nine hikers, 8 of us had a fair amount of experience; 1, Terence (not his real name), did not (we’ll come back to him). We first went through the gear we brought and then were outfitted with any gear we were missing. I don’t have an ice ax, mountaineering boots, or crampons. I also didn’t have a puffy jacket at the time (though I do now). I ended up renting all of those.
After we were all geared up, we headed out of the office and to a nearby slope where we spent about 4 hours going over snow climbing techniques. We covered all sorts of topics: hiking in the snow without crampons, hiking with crampons, how to use ice axes for balance and for self-arrests, and how to hike short-roped in groups of four. It was a pretty good crash course on snow and ice mountaineering. We also got a pretty good sense of which of the 7 other hikers could be trusted, and who was not as skilled on the mountain (ahem, Terence). Tom and I ended up working with a guy named Jim who was the oldest in our group, but he was a solid hiker, even if he was a little slower than the rest of us. His reliability on the ropes (we could be tied to him the next day) made us want to have him on our team, but the guides ultimately got to choose the rope teams.
After our morning of training, the guides gave us some final instructions about when we would meet and what we should bring, then let us go. We had a few things we needed to do. The guides mentioned the possibility of taking skis or snowboards up on the snowcats to the top of the resort, which is where we’d start our hike the next morning, so we could ski or snowboard down from there after we had summitted. Tom and I decided to rent snowboards so we could take advantage of that opportunity. I also realized that my thick gloves I bought in the early 1990s for snowboarding had lost their ability to keep water out. They were completely waterlogged after the 4 hours of training. I needed new gloves. Luckily, we found a ski shop in the nearby town that had some really nice gloves (that cost a small fortune). I would have been miserable if it were not for those gloves. We also picked up some last minute supplies and had a big dinner before heading to bed early to try to get some sleep.
We didn’t sleep all that much, maybe three hours, before we got up around 12:45 so we could meet at 1:30 to catch the snowcat to the top of the resort.
The snowcat took about 30 minutes to get to the top of the resort. We then had to gear up, and Tom and I had to stow our snowboards and boots. That meant we were a little later getting ready than everyone else, which drew the attention of our third guide who had not helped with the training the day before and we were just now meeting for the first time. He was probably in his 50s, European, and very professional. He also was completely no nonsense on the mountain. He started out eyeing Tom and I as we took a little longer than everyone else to get geared up because we had to ditch our snowboards. As a result, we were at the end of the pack when we started out.
We hiked for about twenty or thirty minutes to get us warmed up, then stopped for about 5 minutes so we could adjust our layers. At that point, Tom and I snuck up to the front of the pack as we didn’t like being slowed down by the hikers who weren’t moving as fast as we wanted to. That was a good move. We stopped a couple more times between that first stop and the Hogsback, which was the staging zone for our final ascent and the place where we would get our harnesses on and be divided into rope teams. Every time we stopped, it seemed like the group was getting more and more spread out; some of the hikers were much slower than others. Tom and I were nipping at the heels of the guide who was breaking the trail for us, but only because we do a lot of hiking and are in pretty good shape.
When we finally made it to the Hogsback, it was just beginning to get light (the sun wouldn’t come up for about another hour).
It took almost 20 minutes from when Tom and I arrived at the Hogsback with the lead guide before Terence showed up with the last guide. The guides told us to get our harnesses on, then snuck off to the side to have a conversation. They came back a few minutes later and announced to the group that Terence would not be going any further as he was not physically fit or skilled enough to continue. Unbeknownst to Tom and me, who were at the front of the group, Terence had been struggling since our first stop. He was asking other people to carry stuff for him, was trying to walk up the mountain backward in crampons because he was tired, and was generally causing problems. There was no way the guides were going to let him continue up the mountain – it was way too dangerous.
All the hikers in our group had signed forms saying that the guides had final authority on the mountain and that we would do whatever they said. We had also signed a form saying that we would maintain a 3 to 1 ratio with the guides, and if that meant that one person had to turn around, two others would go with them. Now, in this situation, the guides gave Terence an option. He could stay on the Hogsback and wait for us to summit and then come back down, after which we would all descend together. Or he could hike back down with a guide. Terence chose option 3: He would pretend to wait at the Hogsback, but as soon as the rest of us left, he said he was going to try to summit without the guides. Considering the liability issues associated with what Terence was saying, the guides had no choice but to insist that Terence went down the mountain tied to a guide. And that meant that two of us had to go with him.
No one volunteered.
We were all pissed. This also delayed us on the Hogsback for about 30 minutes while we tried to work things out. The guides made a number of calls, to their bosses, to Terence’s emergency contacts, etc. Nothing would change Terence’s mind about waiting. Eventually, the guides came up with an alternate plan. There were a father and son doing a private hike up the mountain with another guide from Timberline Mountain Guides. When they got to the Hogsback, our guides asked them and their guide if he would take one of our hikers in light of our situation and they agreed. That meant just one person would have to go down with Terence. Again, with no one volunteering, we were kind of stuck, until one of our guides decided that, if we didn’t tell anyone, he would take four of us. He put Tom, Jim, and I together with another hiker (basically, four of the more reliable in our group). Terence was then short-roped to the new guide who wasn’t putting up with his nonsense at all and pulled off the mountain.
With Terence out of the picture, we then started our ascent. We skirted around the Bergschrund and the primary chute that most people climb and instead went up the Old Chimney route, which wasn’t as busy. Even so, there must have been close to 50 or so people climbing the mountain the same time we were.
I should note at this point that we had absolutely perfect weather on our climb. Once we broke through the clouds, we had an amazing view. We basically climbed Mt. Hood above the clouds, as you can see in this photo:
We made slow and steady progress up our route. About 100 feet below the ridge, our guide anchored us to the mountain, climbed that last really steep section, set another anchor, then belayed us to the top. It isn’t quite a 90 degree, vertical slope there, but it’s close. I’m sure that is the most dangerous spot on the mountain. Just to be extra cautious, our guides made sure we couldn’t fall there.
We made it to the summit around 7:00 am. There were a few other people up there, but not many. Our guides gave us 20 minutes or so to grab a bite to eat and take some pictures before we headed back down.
The reason they climb Mt. Hood at night is because the sun can heat up the ice at the top of the mountain. When the ice warms up, it’s more likely to break and fall on hikers and is generally just less stable. The idea, then, is to summit as early as possible and then get off the mountain before any ice starts falling. I did, actually, get hit in the leg with a piece of that very dense ice that was dislodged by a hiker above me and can attest to the fact that it is insanely dense. It left a good bruise where it hit me on my thigh. Also, on the way down, we did hear a lot more cracking than we did on the way up.
Our descent was much quicker than our ascent. Once we got back to the Hogsback, we took off our harnesses and stowed our ice axes. We then made very good time down the mountain. At the top of the resort, Tom and I had our snowboards waiting for us, and one of the guides had brought up his skis so he could make sure we made it off the mountain alright. We switched out our boots, packed everything into our packs and then headed down the resort on our snowboards, capping off an amazing hike.