Monday, August 24, 2009

Hardest Summit in Oregon - 8/22/09

Mount Jefferson is the second-highest peak in Oregon and has a reputation for being the most-difficult summit in the state. Certainly there are harder routes, but the easiest route on Jefferson is arguably more difficult than the easiest route on any of Oregon’s other volcanoes.

On Saturday I had the privilege of sitting on top of this prominent peak with views to the north of Hood, Adams, Rainier, and St. Helens. To the south we could see the Three Sisters, Broken Top, Mount Washington, Bachelor and Three-Fingered Jack.
Me on the summit

We set out Friday morning to hike into Shale Lake (el 5883’) where we set up camp prior to climbing the mountain on Saturday. The hike in from the Pamelia Lake trailhead was enjoyable in cool weather. The clouds burned off as we made our way up the 7.5-mile approach trail with an occasional light breeze to keep us cool.
Jefferson from our camp at Shale Lake

There was a lot of nervous energy around camp on Friday evening in anticipation of the long day ahead and the notoriously intimidating snow traverse that would be required to reach the summit block.

We heard from another Mazamas group that had climbed this route the weekend before that the traverse was in an exceptionally difficult condition. After hearing this I was mentally preparing myself to bail if the traverse looked too dangerous. This would have been a very difficult decision for me after so much work to get there, but I was determined to return home safe even if it meant not summiting.

We left camp at 1:45 a.m. to begin the tedious slog up the South Ridge. It was a moonless night, but the stars were out as we made our way up the ridge by headlamp. I saw several shooting stars and wished for favorable conditions that would lead to a safe summit and return trip.

Thanks to our trip leader Hugh’s amazing route finding in near total darkness we reached the notch adjacent to Red Saddle (el 10,200’) in 5 hours of climbing. Since we were on this route in late season there was no snow, which meant the entire South Ridge was boulders and scree, most of which we climbed in the dark.

Upon reaching the notch we got our first view of the dreaded traverse. After sizing up the route and determining it was doable I felt greatly relieved to realize I actually had a chance at summiting!

Our group headed over to Red Saddle to get ready while Hugh scrambled over to the snow to figure out the best way to safely navigate the steep snow. I joined him along with our assistant leader Greg to start setting up the anchors and put together a game plan. After getting an anchor setup I scrambled back to Red Saddle where I could wait safely out of the rock-fall zone while Hugh led the traverse and Greg belayed.
Hugh leading the traverse

Hugh completed the traverse and affixed the rope to a large boulder on the other side. With 6 pickets in between we had a fixed line that allowed the remainder of our party to cross the slope with reasonable protection.

One at a time we walked down from Red Saddle, put on crampons, and began the fixed line traverse. We opted to take a low line on the snow, which allowed us a shorter traverse before ascending straight up the steep snow to gain the ridge on the far side.

Water that melted during the day and ran off the snow field had frozen and turned to ice on the rocks below. This meant that we had feet on verglas and axes in snow.
Mark finishing the traverse

As I started across this portion of the traverse I regretted bringing my aluminum crampons. Making them work on the verglas was a delicate operation. I also longed for the security of an ice-tool in addition to my ice axe. I’ve learned from my experience in climbing that wishing for things you don’t have is a waste of energy, so I tried to push those thoughts out of my head and focus on the task at hand as I made my way across.
Three-Fingered Jack, Mount Washington, and Three Sisters in the distance

Soon all 6 of us were safely across and ready for the rock on the summit block. Though the climbing there is easy, the rock is loose and the exposure is great, so Hugh again setup a fixed line to protect the single rock pitch to the summit. Somehow we managed to get all 6 of our party on the tiny summit and record our names in the summit register, which we were surprised to find was chock-full of lady bugs!
An unlikely home

We then down climbed back to the traverse for round 2. By this time the sun was on the face so the snow was softer, but fortunately it was not yet too soft. There’s a fine line between snow that’s firm enough to provide purchase for crampons, ice axe and pickets and slush that’s difficult to navigate safely, so we wanted to get back across before it got too soft.

The ice that we had on the way up had now partially melted and mixed with the rock and dirt underneath to create a red mushy mess that was only marginally better than the ice, but I found it much more enjoyable to navigate with the confidence I had gained by crossing this slope earlier in the morning.

Our descent back to camp was long and tedious. We were headed downhill, but the sun was out now and was getting quite warm. After the long climb my feet were killing me. We made it back to camp 15 hours after we’d left. I’ve never been so anxious to get my boots off. I was extremely grateful that I’d brought along a pair of Crocs to wear as camp shoes. I went to bed early after soaking my feet in the lake and eating some dinner to refuel for the hike out Sunday morning.

I got up at 4:30 a.m. and cooked a big breakfast before packing up and hiking out the 7.5 miles back to our cars. It had been a great trip that ran smoothly from start to finish. This was one of the most difficult and memorable climbs I’ve done, so this summit came with a great feeling of accomplishment.

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