Mount Hood is a 11,250-foot (3,429-meter) active stratovolcano located in the Cascade Range of the northwestern United States. It is the highest point in the state of Oregon, located some 50 miles southeast of the city of Portland. It boasts a prominence of 7,700 vertical feet above the surrounding forested hills, making it appear much taller than its true elevation. In fact, mid-19th-century explorers reported a summit elevation of nearly 20,000 feet (6,000 meters) above sea level, claiming that the extreme altitude caused them to ooze blood from their eyes, ears, and even skin pores. While this might be a brutal exaggeration, Mount Hood is indeed a very isolated mountain capable of producing anomalous weather and pressure patterns. High-altitude conditions are further mimicked by the fact that at least 80% of the mountain’s surface area above treeline is covered in glaciers and permanent snowfields.
As a composite volcano, Mount Hood has undergone several distinct eruptive periods in the past 15,000 years. During this time, a series of overlapping andesite and dacite domes formed inside the summit crater. Despite its current appearance of glaciated dormancy, Mount Hood continues to show volcanic activity. Fumaroles in the vicinity of the crater (such as Devil’s Kitchen) emit gases rich in SO2 and CO2, continuously melting holes in the glacial ice and occasionally sending thin plumes of vapor into the sky, which can be seen (and even smelt) on a clear day.
The standard path to the summit ascends the south side of the mountain. The angle of the snowfields are generally shallow (less than 30-degree angle) until reaching the crater. The final thousand vertical feet consists of steeper (up to 60-degree) ice, placing it at low-AD on the French Alpine Grade system.
SUMMARY: I climbed Mount Hood by myself in mid-April of the year 2015, on the third day of a lengthy road trip from my home in Calgary, Canada to Los Angeles, California. Excellent winter snow conditions allowed me to bring my snowboard to the summit crater and ride all the way back down. I left the Timberline Lodge at 4:00am and marched uphill parallel to the Magic Mile and Palmer chairlifts. From the upper Timberline ski boundary, I stomped up through deep snow to the interior of the active crater. Leaving my snowboard next to the Devil’s Kitchen fumarole at 10,000 feet, I traced the narrow Hogsback Ridge up to the base of the final ice walls. I gained the summit via The Pearly Gates, a narrow chute of steep blue ice. As mentioned above, I descended back to Timberline Lodge on snowboard.
13 APRIL 2015
The engine of Misti (my Outback wagon) roars as we climb out of the Columbia River Gorge and up onto the greater plateau of Oregon. Already the air feels cooler and more crisp. Coming around a bend and clapping eyes on the great pyramid of Mount Hood, however, causes us to suddenly feel rather lowly. The big snow-cone towers above us at a scale fit for a J.R.R. Tolkien novel. It’s almost hard to believe that we are “only” 7,000 vertical feet beneath the summit because it looks like the tallest mountain in the universe from this perspective. It’s no wonder that early explorers documented it’s summit elevation at nearly 20,000 feet above sea level.
We come zooming across the foothills, merging onto the famous highway-26 which circumnavigates the volcano, passing the historic Timberline Lodge at 6,000′ on the south flank of the mountain.
Dad and I arrive to the Timberline Lodge and check in to one of the small rustic rooms. The crudely-excavated crater of Mount Hood looms more than a vertical mile above us, less than five miles away. This is to be my start-point for the climb tomorrow morning.
Dad and I take some time to admire the mountain from the Timberline Lodge. The singular spirituality of the volcano is emphasized by the presence of a gorgeous lenticular cloud, which conceals the true summit. I familiarize myself with the route by identifying major features (like Crater Rock, the Hogsback, and the Pearly Gates) and tracing the line up into the cloud.
The only other mountain in sight is Mount Jefferson, which lies a great distance to the south. After Mount Hood, it is the second-tallest point in Oregon.
Dad and I enjoy a good meal in the Timberline Lodge and lie down early for a night of rest. I plan to rise at 3:30am tomorrow to start the climb.
14 APRIL 2015
Alpine starts are never easy, and I frequently find myself reluctant to get out of bed. But the prospect of glorious Buddha-smashing summit victory is enough to motivate me into action.
First I put on every layer in my possession because the ambient temperature outside is below negative-20 degrees Celsius. In fact the air is absolutely frigid; I try not to imagine what horrible conditions must await me at the summit.
Next I strap my crampons to my snowboard boots, pack my rucksack with several jaw-chompingly frozen granola bars, and attach my snowboard to my backpack. This setup makes me feel rather bulky and awkward, but I remind myself that it will be worth the trouble for the sake of being able to snowboard down the mountain from the top.
Just past 4:00am I dip out the back door of the Timberline Lodge, stepping directly onto the snowpack and thus initiating the great solo ascent. I feel quite lonely being the only soul on the mountain besides the snowcats. Those monstrous machines groom and sculpt the wet Cascade snow while I trudge pitifully up-mountain, marching directly under the chairlift lines so as not to lost the way.
The route follows the entire length of two chairlift lines: the Magic Mile and the Palmer. I reach the top of the Magic Mile at 5:30am, continuing without rest to the top of the Palmer chair, which I reach at precisely 7:00am.
Beyond the resort chairlifts, the snow changes drastically from packed groomers to deep wind-sculpted drifts. There seem to be pockets of waist-deep snow scattered throughout the glacier. Where the glacier crops out of the snow, the ice is cold and blue. With my crampons, the blue ice offers a preferential walking surface; still it is difficult to completely avoid the patches of deep snow.
Despite the exhausting march through the snow – and despite my mildly frostbitten extremities – my excitement mounts as I approach the rim of the crater. I tuck my face into my jacket collar and try to push upwards, waiting for the sun to crest the rim of the crater.
The first rays of daylight illuminate Mount Jefferson on the horizon, and through studying the projected arc of the sun, I realize that I will not be able to bathe in its healing warmth for quite some time. Cursing my choice of hobby (seriously, why am I marching alone 5,250 feet uphill in winter conditions? Dad is certainly safe and warm down in the Timberline Lodge…) I continue up to the south lip of the crater.
The crater is an impressive sight to behold from within its depths. Awesome walls of sheer blue ice guard the opposite rim, while steaming fumaroles give evidence to the volcanoes continued activity. Approaching the Devil’s Kitchen fumarole, I begin to detect the familiar odor of sulfurous gas. In my cold, frostbitten state, the prospect of jumping directly into the Devil’s Kitchen seems tantalizingly comforting. Thankfully I am able to resist, choosing instead to admire the fumaroles from a safe distance.
Next to the Devil’s Kitchen fumarole (10,000′) is where I decide to drop my snowboard. It will be easier to ascend the steep ice of the Hogsback and the Pearly Gates without the cumbersome thing on my back. I bury the board slightly into the deep snow, so as to negate the possibility of it blowing all the way down the mountain due to the wind. As soon as I take my first few steps away from it, however, I notice that the wind causes drifts of snow to pile up around it. Sighing, I take a mental photograph of the location of the snowboard – just in case it does in fact get buried by the snow before my return.
Crossing the interior of the massive crater, I encounter several more hotspots of fumarolic activity. The sight of the volcanic steam melting giant holes in the glacier is almost otherworldly.
The time is 9:30am when I reach the opposite side of the crater and begin climbing the Hogsback – a ridge of snow leading directly up to the Pearly Gates, a gap in the blue ice walls. With each passing minute of the morning, the weather conditions seem to deteriorate. The fierce wind is all that I hear; not to mention its sadistic tendency to shower my frostbitten face with sharp pellets of ice.
The Hogsback terminates at the base of a steep pitch of ice, at which point I deem it necessary to begin using my ice axe. I climb up a short ways before encountering the main bergschrund – the large crevasse separating the glacier from the ice-covered cliffs above. Cautiously I step across this gap and into the deep snow above. The steepness of the pitch should make me feel uneasy (as a solo climber), but as per usual it serves only to invigorate my mountaineering spirit.
The volcanologist side of me delights in looking down upon the small fumarolic pots as they actively melt their individual holes in the glacial ice-cap.
As I climb higher towards the summit, the walls of ice loom ever more ominously above me. Carefully I traverse the base of the vertical cliffs to the entrance of the ice chute known as the Pearly Gates.
The Pearly Gates gives me the most cause for fear. The ice chute measures some 50 vertical feet, but is only five feet wide (bound by terrifying walls of blue ice). The angle of the slope is more than 50-degrees, meaning that I need to rely heavily on the use of my ice axe.
The difficulties are compounded by the weather conditions: gale-force arctic winds howl directly down the chute, crystallizing shards of ice onto my face and threatening to push me back off the mountain for a dreaded thousand-foot slide into the steaming fumarole pits of the active crater. I lean faithfully into the chute, protecting my poor face with my Buff mask and using every psychological tactic in the book to motivate me upwards.
Against all odds, I climb out of the Pearly Gates chute and find myself up on the 11,250-foot summit plateau! A short walk across the windswept ice brings me to the true highpoint, where I am able to gaze down the incredible north face of the mountain and revel in the numerous glaciers below. The wind persists at a speed of over 50-mph, preventing me from getting too close to the edge of the cornice – which is probably a good thing anyway. I do fear, however, that if the wind were to suddenly stop, my momentum might cause me to tumble off the lip of the north face.
Needless to say, I don’t stay long at the summit. Of course I do admire the 360-degree panorama: Mount Jefferson and other Cascade volcanoes to the south, foggy Portland lowlands to the west, endless forest to the north, and more endless forest to the east. I feel immensely powerful to be standing more than 7,000 feet above everything in sight, especially after all the hard work earlier in the morning! Forget the “airplane view” analogy – I feel like I’ve reached the gates of heaven!
So I make the dicey descent down the Pearly Gates – which proves to be even more terrifying than the ascent! Whereas on the ascent I had the wind in my face, now on the descent I feel the strong force acting on my back, really threatening to tip me forward and sending me sliding down the crevasse-ridden glacier.
It’s a proud feeling to be able to look straight down and see the massive complex of the Timberline Resort so far below – and to know that I walked up to this point from there! Again as I brace my poor frozen face against the harsh wind, I think of Dad presumably comfortable in the warmth of the historic log cabin.
And then comes the really fun part of the excursion: snowboarding 4,000 vertical feet directly down to the Timberline Lodge! The surface of the snow takes on a bizarre form similar to peanut butter spread on toast, causing me to bounce from one drift to the next. These drifts are of variable density (some softened snow, some hardened ice) and it is an exhausting affair, particularly on the knees. Still it takes me all of 13 minutes to go from 10,000′ at the crater rim to 6,000′ at the back porch of the Timberline Lodge. Many resort-going skiiers gawk up at me from the Palmer chairlift, making me feel like a rockstar.
Back down in the Timberline Lodge, Dad treats me to a buffet brunch of every food imaginable. In no time at all, my belly is warmed and I’ve forgotten all about the cold and pain that I experienced alone on the mountain. The best part of returning to the lodge is probably the massive mug of “Timberline Special” hot cocoa.
Dad and I pass the afternoon skiing at the Timberline Resort. The snow conditions are excellent – the best powder all year (in a bad year, albeit) according to the locals. My body is fully exhausted from the climb, but it’s still enjoyable to cruise the interesting terrain of the lower slopes of Mount Hood.
Upon learning that Mount Hood is the second-most popular glaciated mountain to climb in the world (after Mount Fuji-san in Japan), I have to ask some locals why I was the only one on the standard route that day. Besides the arctic weather conditions, they say that people are hesitant to climb to the summit because a female climber had been killed by an icefall in the upper crater only three days prior.
My experience had enough hardship and melodrama – perhaps it’s best that I didn’t know about the icefall death until having summited the peak.