Mount Hood is a fantastic peak to climb for a beginning/intermediate mountaineer. Despite what many articles say, this is not a cakewalk by any standard. Just because you like to hike does not mean you can mountaineer.
How to Get There: Drive 90 minutes from Portland to Timberline Lodge
When to Climb: late April-early July is prime time but depends on the snow season. Do not climb if it’s windy. Watch the weather reports.
When to Start: Start before 1am. A late start is more problematic in late season (June-July).
Length of Climb: 8-12 hours- by starting at midnight, you can start this in a morning and fly out from Portland in the evening.
Special Gear: Ice axe, crampons, trekking poles are also nice, headlamp
Guide: While not necessary for experienced climbers, I would recommend going on a 2-day guided trip if you haven’t done mountaineering before. This will drastically increase your chance of success. I noticed a lot of amateur climbers that struggled at the top.
Lessons Learned: Hike on rock as much as possible, especially lower down. You can take the rock band all the way from just past the Silcox Warming Hut up to the crater. The Old Chute, while longer, is the easier way up. Only climb the Pearly Gates if you see multiple people going up.
Three years ago, my friend Andrew and I climbed Mount Shasta in Northern California. Since then, we have dreamed of one-upping that climb. So, we set our sights on Mount Hood, the tallest peak in Oregon. While shorter than Shasta, Hood requires more technical skills as the top of the mountain is covered in a glacier.
Like Shasta (and many of the other volcanos of the Cascade range), Mount Hood is best climbed in the late spring. The climbing season starts in late April and runs until early July. Late May- right around Memorial Day- is the most popular window. Starting in mid-July, the snow gets too soft and the crevasses at the top get too large to safely climb Mount Hood.
We set our sights on a June 24th summit date. While late in the season, climbers have historically been able to summit on this day and there appeared to be enough snow during the winter to make the attempt feasible.
In the weeks leading up to the climb, I continued to read trip reports of successful summit attempts.
Starting one week before, we checked the weather on http://www.mountain-forecast.com. We needed no precipitation, low winds, and temperatures cold enough to hold the snow. As luck would have it, we were supposed to have a break in the high winds during our climb. We were going to make an attempt.
My preparations for a climb start one week before. In order to focus and to help the acclimatization process, I stop drinking alcohol and change my diet to a carb-heavy but otherwise healthy diet. I also try to get 8-10 hours of sleep per night to compensate for the very little sleep the night before summit day. I also pack over a 3 day period to make sure I don’t miss anything.
On Friday June 22nd, I flew out to Portland and met up with Andrew at midnight. We immediately went to our motel room and went to sleep.
Day 1: Around and Up to Hood
The primary purpose of this day was to be acclimated at the mountain ready to climb by dinnertime.
But we also wanted to do some sightseeing. We took a quick trip over to Fort Vancouver National Historic Park in Vancouver, Washington. This site included a visitor center, recreation of the Hudson Bay Company fort and an air museum containing historic planes from WWI and the early days of aviation. We expected to spend 45 minutes here, but ended up staying nearly 2 ½ hours.
After lunch, we also did a quick drive through the Columbia Gorge and hiked to a few pretty waterfalls.
At 1:30pm, it was time to head up to the mountain.
By 2:30, we reached the base of the mountain and stocked up on food for the next day.
At 4, we drove up to the Timberline Lodge- the start of the climb. At 6,000 feet above sea level, this was the best spot to acclimate.
Timberline Lodge is the name of both a grand hotel and adjacent ski resort. The lodge was featured in The Shining and is one of the finest examples of Rustic architecture in the country. The ski resort is the only year-round ski resort in the US. During the summer, it gets packed with professional and teenage ski racers.
Today was no exception- the parking lot was swamped with a mix of skiers and tourists trying to get a glimpse of the mountain. Andrew and I hung out in the park lodge and played some shuffleboard. We then obtained our free wilderness permit in the climber’s cave, read trip reports and eyed the climb.
After an early dinner in Government Camp (go to the German restaurant), we then packed up our stuff and slept in the back of the car in the Timberline Lodge.
Day 2: Part 1: To the Summit!
At 11:15pm on June 23rd, Andrew and I woke up to climb Mount Hood. The weather was clear, windless, and a bit chilly aka perfect climbing weather.
We ate a quick breakfast. Then we donned our summit packs and at 12:05 am, started walking. At this point, the trail was dirt along a jeep trail. While we gained elevation quickly, it did not feel strenuous.
45 minutes later, we climbed 1,000 vertical feet and reached the Silcox Warming Hut. Weirdly enough, the light was on inside. We peeked in and noticed a guy cleaning out the dining room. The man came outside and chatted with us. He said that the hut gets rented out by groups of 30 people for overnight parties. This particular party just finished and all the guests were going to bed in the bunk beds down below. It certainly was funny starting my day as others were ending theirs.
We asked the man how long it takes to reach the summit. He said it really depends. The record is 2 hours roundtrip from the Timberline Lodge and 3 hours roundtrip from Government Camp! I have no idea how he did that without a personal jetpack.
Just above Silcox, we reached the snow. The snow here stays year-round so it considered a glacier. Despite the recent heat wave, the snow had frozen overnight so it was easy to walk on. We then put on our crampons (aka spikes over the shoes). With the crampons, we were able to settle into a nice pace walking up the groomed black diamond ski run.
Despite the snow, we were able to set into a groove and made it to the top of the highest point in the ski resort, the Palmer lift house (8,540 ft) at approximately 2:30 am. At this high elevation, we noticed tents of guided groups that climb the mountain in two days. I’ve also heard of some guided trips getting sno-cat rides up to this point. Some climbers would consider this cheating, but I disagree since the crux of the climb is still to come.
The ungroomed glacial terrain was marginally more difficult to walk through. The mountain wasn’t any steeper, but the unevenness of the snow forced me to constantly look for comfortable footholds.
Occasionally, we would find places where climbers kicked footsteps into the mountain- essentially creating a snowy staircase. These pathways helped a lot and probably helped us climb 50% faster. Andrew joked that we found the “H1 Interstate”. As we continued to climb, the slope got steeper and steeper- up to nearly a 40 degree pitch.
Eventually, the snow leveled off and we found ourselves in the volcanic crater. Here, Andrew and I were greeted by a most unusual sight: a volcanic fumarole known as the Devil’s Kitchen. The planet’s crust has opened up and hot sulfur is emerging from the barren rock. I would guess that the ground is hot since it was the only patch of dirt surrounded by the glacier. The stench of sulphur was strong, so we pressed on quickly and climbed up a snow ridge.
At the top of this snow ridge, known as the Hogsback, we were only 45 minutes from the summit. However, the toughest part of the mountain about to start. We now had a choice: to either climb straight up the Hogsback and ascend a narrow chute called the Pearly Gates or to veer to the left, cross another fumarole known as the Hot Rocks and ascend the Coleman Glacier which would take us to the wider Old Chute. While a few people were heading up the Pearly Gates, we noticed headlamps going up the old chute and had read trip reports saying the Old Chute was better.
I figured the most direct way to the summit via the Old Chute route was to ascend the Hogsback and then traverse along the snow slope to the left. That way we would avoid downclimbing into the fumarole.
The move backfired. As we climbed the steep slope, we hit a major obstacle: a bergschrund crevasse! This type of crevasse usually runs horizontally near the top of a glacier. This particular bergschrund was between 3-5 feet wide and at least a few stories deep. It is narrow enough that the desire to jump over it was there. Obviously that would never happen given the huge risks. Here is a link that shows someone looking down the crevasse: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UdFWToTHvlg
This was truly one of the scariest sights I have ever seen. The eerie glacial blue fading into the abyss was visible even in the low light.
As we ventured to climber’s left, the bergshrund followed us. Eventually, we noticed a narrow snow bridge crossing the bergshrund. We noticed a few footprints on the snow and after a short discussion, decided to go for it. Andrew led the way. It only took 2 steps and Voila we crossed it!
It was now starting to get light.
A few minutes later, we reached the final chute. As the ice walls narrowed in on us, the pitch got steeper. At its steepest, the chute was 51 degrees- so more vertical than horizontal. As we emerged from the chute, we reached the flat summit plateau.
From here it was an easy 5 minute walk to the true summit: 11,249 feet above sea level!
At the summit, we had a 360 degree view of Oregon and Washington. Many of the high volcanos of the Cascades were visible: Mount Jefferson to the south, Mount Adams, Mount St. Helens, and Mount Rainier to the north. The view was truly incredible!
10 minutes after arriving at the summit, we got to watch an incredible sunrise!
Part 2: And Back!
After watching the beautiful sunrise, we knew it was time to head back. As the sun rose in the sky, the snow would get softer, making our return trip more difficult and potentially dangerous.
As we reached the top of the Old Chute, the shadow of the mountain became visible. The shadow was so long, it reached the horizon!
In my experience, the descent of a technical element is always more difficult than the ascent. Mount Hood proved to be no exception. About one-third of the way down the 51 degree chute, my crampon broke in similar fashion to what happened on Mount Whitney two years ago. I was able to keep my composure, focus and work my way down the slope using my ice axe and other crampon. Eventually, I reached a flat section and was able to fix the crampon. This scenario was considerably less-scary than what happened on Mount Whitney as I only had to downclimb for about 45 feet.
With the sun up, we now had much better visibility and noticed a well-trodden path heading far to the skier’s right (climber’s left) down the Coleman Glacier to the Hogsback. This route completely avoided the bergschrund and had nice steps that made the descent effortless. The trail actually continued into the fumarole, but we decided to traverse around it.
On the way down, we met another climber. He had followed us all the way to the top and trusted us enough to find the way down the mountain. Yes, this sounds a lot like Gollum from Lord of the Rings, but this guy wasn’t creepy. I pulled a similar stunt on Mount Tyndall two years ago and was able to get a “free” guide to the summit of a technically difficult mountain.
Our new friend was a captain of a naval submarine. He goes underwater for about 3 months and then gets a few weeks off. During those weeks off, he has been trying to climb the high points of all 50 states. Oregon is 46. He has Wyoming, Alaska (the toughest of them all) and 2 Midwestern ones left.
As we descended, the snow continued to get softer. What once was hard pack was now slush. What once was slush was now knee-deep posthole slush. Something I did not notice was a clear path through a band of rocks that led from the Silcox Hut all the way to the crater. We could have avoided walking in the snow the entire time! Alas, hindsight (and sunlight) is 20/20.
When we reached the top of the Palmer Lift, we noticed that the ski resort was packed with ski racers! There were approximately 40 lanes of ski race training going on. Each lane had a spandex-clad kid bolting down the run. We veered far to the skiers left to avoid all the racers. The snow was now dangerously soft. While probably nice for skiing, it would have been nearly impossible to climb the peak at this hour.
Finally at 8am, we reached the car. Our legs were tired, but our spirits were high. Andrew had cleverly stashed a beer bottle in the snow, so we partook in the obligatory celebratory beer at the early hour of 8:15 am. By Midwest standards, 8:15 am is a fine hour to start drinking so we easily downed the beer.
We spent the next hour relaxing and rearranging our gear before heading down the mountain towards Portland.
5 minutes in, we both were exhausted and napped in the car on the side of the road for an hour. Then we finally had the energy to continue on.