Summiting the Mountain in my Backyard
June 24, 2017
Heart racing in my chest, full of trepidation and nervous energy, I stare up in the dark toward the peak that's too far away to see in the weak light of a new moon from the Timberline parking lot. I can see tiny little pinpricks of light steadily bobbing and twinkling as the bodies they're attached to steadily advance up the slope.
It's 12:30 am and our group is starting the ascent of Mt. Hood. Lauren, Mike and I start hightailing it out of the parking lot, anxious to get started. We're blessed with warm temperatures and a gentle breeze. As we start to climb, I begin to despise the sulfurous smell that continually wafts up my nostrils. I'm jittery with nerves and begin wondering what the hell I got myself into. Am I really going to hike for 7 hours straight up a dormant volcano in the middle of the night? Someone passed away up there not even a month ago, and I'm cognizant of the fact that this is a risky adventure. I've hardly cross trained and am paranoid that I'll be too weak, get left behind.
Yet here I go, steadily placing one mountaineering boot in front of the other. Up and up steadily, shedding layers as my core warms up and the cool breeze tickles sweat glistening on my brow. Every so often, we stop to wait for the rest of the group and munch on a granola bar. Once we stop moving, that warm breeze quickly becomes chilly and all the layers are hastily pulled on. Light is slowly starting to illuminate the landscape and the summit is like a dark obelisk against the soft, predawn colors. After reconvening with the group around 3:30 am, the three of us take off again, heading north as the terrain steadily gets steeper.
Looking behind us, we are rewarded with the sun highlighting Mt. Jefferson in a pink hue. The land sweeping out below us comes into focus languidly. Everything looks so peaceful from up high in the pastel light. It's so serene, with nary a sound except for our breathing and crampons clinking on the icy snow. We make our way diagonally between Crater Rock and the aptly named sulfurous Devil's Kitchen, breathing lightly to avoid the rotten egg smell as much as possible.
That, combined with mild altitude sickness results in me feeling a little nauseated but my body feels strong and still has plenty of strength to carry me even higher. By this time, I've settled into a good pace and am feeling confident in my abilities.
With a final pit stop on Hogsback, we are blown away by the long shadow of Mt. Hood stretching out seemingly for miles. I can't help but to elicit excited noises - chirps, laughs, expressions of disbelief - at all the beauty we're overlooking. It's absolutely incredible and certainly nothing I've ever experienced before.
We begin the final push for the summit at 5:50 am. Mike decides the safest route is up the Old Chute and we swap out a trekking pole for an ice axe and begin the steepest, most dangerous, and technical part of the ascent. Mike leads and has us going at a very slow pace which is integral for our safety. The Chute is about 40-45 degrees and is icy as the sun has not yet crested the summit to start warming up the snow. Up we go, chipping with the ice axe to get a good hold, then moving one foot, toe kicking the ice for a solid foothold, and repeating with the second foot. We move one body part at a time to ensure three solid points of contact and to reduce the possibility of falling and sliding.
The pace is slow enough to not get out of breath, so I'm feeling great, like I could do this all day. It's nerve-wracking, knowing that one little mistake could lead to serious repercussions and I avoid looking down to see how far we've come. The last 20 feet has us going up right next to folks down climbing and the enthusiasm in the air is tangible. They're on a high from summiting and it's contagious, spreading to us and adding to our excitement at being so close.
Once we crest Old Chute, it's a short walk along a ridge to the summit, arriving just before 7 am. We watch the sunrise over miles and miles of varied terrain. There are the trees of Mt. Hood National Forest in a circle around us, stopping north at the Columbia River Gorge. Over the river into Washington, I gawk at the sight of Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Rainier all seemingly so close. Gazing westward, my eyes follow the path of the Columbia River as it cuts through the Gorge, and I can barely make out the lights and haze of Portland. Turning towards the east, there is a line of delineation where the forest abruptly ends and the arid landscape of Central Oregon begins. Rotating to the south, I feast my eyes on the now completely lit up form of Mt. Jefferson, which seems to be lower than us. I can see steep, rolling hills covered in trees as far as the eye can see, and I fall in love even more with the magnificent state that I call home
We share a celebratory beer and take the obligatory summit photos while soaking in the 360 degree panoramic views, congratulating fellow climbers as they join us. I'm in disbelief I just climbed up the mountain that's been in my backyard for 11 years, where I come to ski in the winter and camp in the summer. I climbed for miles and hours on my own two feet to reach this point, and realize this is the greatest accomplishment of my life.
After half an hour, we begin the slow descent back to the car and swear this is the last time we summit without skis or snowboards to swiftly carry us back to the parking lot. The trudging takes hours but we make it back to the car around 11 sweaty, exhausted, triumphant. We gave up on glissading after the snow was initially too hard and icy then quickly became too soft and mushy.
Upon arriving back home in the heat of the afternoon sun, I relax half in and out of a kiddie pool on the back deck while happily admiring the view of Mt. Hood in all her snow-covered glory, knowing that merely hours before, I was on top looking down towards my home.
Later that day, I get a text from my Mom with an aerial photo of Mt. Hood. My parents were flying to Denver and flew right over us around 6 am just before the final push to the summit. They were so close to me yet so far, separated by the atmosphere and a sturdy steel flying tube.
This summit was my second, (for all three of us together, we conquered St. Helens in April) and it transformed me. Knowing that I'm capable of climbing a mountain means that I'm capable of so much more than I could ever dream to accomplish. Now that I have discovered the joy of summiting, I yearn to get more peaks under my feet. I have found my calling.