Monday, April 26, 2010

Timing is Everything - 4/25/10

I’ve been assisting with a Mazamas BCEP (Basic Climbing Education Program) class this year, which has been a good opportunity for me to refresh my skills and learn new teaching methods. On Saturday we had our snow skills field session near Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. This was the final weekend of the class and it had been a couple of weeks since I’d worked with the students. This weekend I could really tell that they were starting to get comfortable with the gear and techniques they’ve been learning. They’re actually starting to look like climbers!

After the field work we headed to the Mazama Lodge for dinner and to rest up before Sunday’s activities. I’d never been inside the lodge before - it’s a very nice facility and the food we had for dinner was excellent!
Mazama Lodge

For Sunday the students were planning a hike to Illumination Saddle high on the southern flank of Mount Hood. Myself and two of the other assistants had planned a summit climb.
The weather was looking somewhat questionable for a summit bid; it had been fairly windy on Saturday, but not too cold. The forecast was for clearing overnight before becoming warm and sunny Sunday afternoon. It appeared we would have a good window early Sunday.

After some debate about what time we should leave, we decided on midnight. We wanted to be up and down before the forecasted sun and warm temperatures turned the snow to slush and started a barrage of falling ice high on the mountain. We also wanted to avoid the crowds that can typically be found on spring weekends.
This is the earliest start I’d ever had on Hood. I had never climbed with Don and Dan before, so I wasn’t sure how fast we would be. There was almost a full moon, so we didn’t need to worry about light too much and the idea of watching the sunrise from the highest point in Oregon sounded great.

After dinner at the lodge we crashed for a few hours in one of the basement rooms in the lodge.

Mazama Lodge Basement

By 12:30 a.m. we were one of the first teams headed up the mountain. The higher we got, the windier it got. After about a half hour of marching we stopped for a break at Silcox hut (~7000’). There were still a lot of clouds up high, but we were hopeful the forecasted clearing would come to fruition. We continued on to the top of Palmer (~8500'), where we were met with fierce winds and no opportunities for shelter. It was quite cold and we all added a few more layers. Dan decided the cold wind was a bit too much and decided to head back down. The clothing he had wasn’t as warm as what Don and I had brought, and his teeth were starting to chatter, so this was a wise decision.

Anxious to get moving again so we could warm up, Don and I continued up the mountain. The wind was continuous out of the West until we reached the elevation of Illumination Rock (~9600’). Here we found a brief but welcome respite for maybe 500’ of climbing. Soon the winds returned, but this time out of the East, carrying small ice pellets that sand blasted our faces.

I looked at my watch as we approached Crater Rock. It was 10 to 4:00 and the clouds were still obscuring the upper part of mountain and blocking the moonlight. By now we had passed every other team on the mountain. I suggested to Don that we needed to kill some time until it cleared or the sun came up, but it was too cold to stop moving and the only shelter from the breeze was now several hundred feet below us.

With very low visibility and driving snow we began to make our way around Crater Rock, hoping to find some shelter in the vicinity of the Hogsback. This is normally a trivial part of the climb as far as route finding goes, but in the dark with clouds and driving snow we couldn’t make out the usual landmarks, we had only the contours of the terrain to guide us. Being the first party up there also meant we had no footprints to follow. I was concerned about inadvertently wandering onto the upper part of the White River Glacier where I knew there were steep slopes and crevasses, so we ended up high on Crater Rock before beginning to traverse around the East side. Here we encountered steeper slopes than either of us remembered on this route and there was a layer of loose unconsolidated snow on top, which made for slippery footing. It was decision time. We had not adopted crampons yet because they were not necessary and the thought of stopping to put them on in the wind to traverse this slope was not appealing. Especially in light of the fact that if we did continue to press on we would probably end up waiting at the Hogsback for the clouds to clear. At this point we were highly skeptical that there would ever actually be any clearing and were not anxious to wait around in the cold and wind to find out.

In our quest to beat the cold we’d kept moving without many breaks and Don had been fighting freezing water bottles for a while. He was beginning to experience some leg cramps, likely as a result of mild dehydration. The combination of these factors led us to decide that it was time to head down. The wind continued to punish us as we descended. Once we got below the top of Palmer we started to catch glimpses of the upper part of the mountain.

View of the Top After Heading Down

By the time we reached the top of the Magic Mile chairlift the winds were starting to subside. Don continued to fend off the leg cramps as we descended, which reaffirmed that our decision to head down was a good one.

By the time we reached the lodge we could see the top of the mountain with climbers on the Hogsback. I’m sure many of them summited. If the forecasted warm weather and clear skies had come to pass their late start would have meant descending in loose, wet snow and potential ice fall. It turned out that on this day those who slept in a few extra hours may have ended up with an advantage.

I’m a bit disappointed at not summiting, but have no regrets. I learned some lessons about weather and timing. It was a good opportunity to test my gear and fitness, which all passed muster this time around. I enjoyed climbing with Don and Dan and look forward to doing so again in the future. Overall it was a good day in the mountains!

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