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An overnight base camp
high on Mount Hood in May, 2010
Overnight high camp on Mt. Hood in May: “It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun"
By Larry Beck
The wet, snowy and unpredictable weather during the spring of 2010 made early
season Mt. Hood climbs iffy at best. Our official Mazama climbs in early May had
all scrubbed. Fortunately, some members of our
group had found good weather windows for Hood summits on Mother’s Day and the
week after. But we had several recent BCEP grads from Team 5 and non-Mazama
friends eager for their first summit attempts and
targeted the Memorial Day weekend for a possible climb. Heavy snow leading up to
the weekend made avalanche danger up high a reality, but a two day weather
window loomed for Saturday and Sunday. We
decided to play it by ear, monitor snow and weather conditions and make a final
decision for the climb, and ultimately for a summit push, when we got to the
For a twist, we decided to make a high camp on our first day, rest and enjoy the
solitude of camping on Triangle Moraine for the night, then get up early the
next morning refreshed and knock out the last 2,000 feet to the summit. I had
done this same trip last June and enjoyed the change of pace.
Amy Mendenhall, the most experienced member of our group, was the organizer and
climb leader. Mike Maguire and I assisted. 2010 Team 5 BCEP grads Angie Freyer,
Michelle Van Kleeck, Regis Krug and Rick
Reddaway from Portland, and Bruce Ludwig from Hood River, joined in, as did
Mike’s son, Guy, and his friend Evan Barnett, both early 20-somethings from
Olympia. Amy’s friends, Daniel Sherman and Andrew
Wimer from Lebanon, rounded out the team. This would be the first Hood attempt
for 9 of our 12 member party.
We planned to leave Saturday morning, arrive in camp by mid-afternoon and then
run the newbies through rope skills and snow skills the afternoon prior to the
climb. The weather had other ideas. We arrived at
Timberline at 8:30 a.m. on Saturday to light rain and limited visibility. The
forecast called for clearing by late morning so we were hopeful. We decided to
wait it out. Making good use of our time at the day lodge, we
practiced tying prussics to climbing ropes, travelling on a fixed line with
prussics, and rope travel and passing through protection. The BCEP grads had the
opportunity to teach their newly acquired skills to the other
climbers. We got good practice in and entertained the skiers and boarders at the
lodge as we rope up and climbed the steps and railings. We fueled up on chili,
pizza, fries and burgers at the lodge for lunch (more
on that later). Then, as forecast, the skies cleared, the rain stopped, and the
summit appeared brilliant white against the now blue sky. How do the forecasters
know what they know?
We geared up in the parking lot, smiling at our good fortune. We left the
climber’s registry about 2 p.m. The winds were calm, the snow conditions good,
and the sun was shining. We made slow, but steady progress
on the climber’s trail past Silcox Hut and up the cat track to about 8,000 ft.
Then some physical challenges arose. Regis, one of the strongest hikers in the
group—who routinely peals off 20+ mile hikes on consecutive weekend days—was
having trouble catching his breath at elevation, and decided to turn around.
Mike, a vegan, was feeling the effects of his greasy garden burger lunch which
was probably cooked in hamburger grease. My chili fueled HAF (“high altitude
flatulence”) was making life difficult for Andrew climbing behind me. The rest
of the team felt strong.
The clouds still lay thick around Timberline, but above it was blue sky and high
wispy clouds. We climbed on, past the top of Palmer. With the recent snow, none
of the rock shelters that I had camped in the year
before along the moraine ridge were visible. At 9,135 ft. we decided to dig in.
With our four shovels and ice axes we dug into the 20 degree slope, packing down
the excess snow to build a ledge on the downhill side.
Our goal was to increase the width of the platform to accommodate our five tents
and one bivy sack. (Note: next time bring one shovel per tent!) It was a
surprising amount of work and took much longer than we had
The low level clouds below Timberline had started to dissipate. Mt. Jefferson
and the Sisters, whose peaks had barely been visible above the clouds two hours
ago, were now in full view. The valley floor began to clear. The sun was getting
low and the temperature began to drop. Several team members were getting cold,
so we added layers and cranked up the stoves to prepare dinner and melt snow to
fill our water bottles. My MSR Whisperlite performed like a champ and held up
well against the Jet- Boils. Hot food and drink warmed up the cold feet and
hands and re-energized the team.
The early evening views from our camp were incredible: the very reason why we
had wanted to camp on the mountain in the first place. Having seen the mountain
shadow in the morning on other climbs, we now got
to see the evening mountain shadow to the east. The Steel Cliffs were bathed in
a warm, amber light. Crater Rock, the Hogsback and the Old Chute route to the
summit seemed so close. The lights of Portland twinkled to the west. We had the
mountain to ourselves for the night. If the weather held as planned, we would
summit and be back to camp within 12 hours. We took photos, prepared our summit
packs for the morning, took a last look around and then turned in to prepare for
a 3 a.m. wake up call.
The wind picked up during the night to 20 knots or better. The flapping of our
tent fly in the breeze drowned out Mike’s snoring. Amy peaked out of her bivy
sack after midnight and it was still clear. At 3 a.m. it was a
different story. The stars and summit had disappeared. A fine mist became sleet
and then freezing rain. Visibility was near zero. The soft snow was now coated
with a layer of ice. Rick, up for an early morning pee
break, slipped on the ice and skidded about 30 ft. down the slope before he came
to a stop, almost losing a boot in the process. (Note to self: tie your boots
even if you are just getting up to go to the bathroom.) At 4
a.m. there was still no change. Amy, Mike and I huddled in our tent at 5 a.m.
for a meeting, but with no change in the conditions, we knew the climb was over.
Time for a new plan. (Note: one day weather windows
may close a day early.) We decided to wait for the sun to come up, break camp
and head down the mountain. Mike passed the word to the rest of the team.
What a change awaited us when we got out of the tents. The windward (north)
sides of our tents were covered with a ½ inch of ice. Our three season tents
held up alright, but were stressed by the wind and ice
accumulation. (Note: next time bring fourth season of three-season tents.) Our
ice axes, trekking poles, wands, and anything else left out in the open, were
encased in clear ice an inch thick. Visibility was limited
down the mountain and there was no sign of the summit which had glowed so
brightly only a few hours before. As we packed up, a group of climbers on their
way up arrived at our camp and took a rest break. We
compared notes. They descended soon after we did. Another group also passed by
our camp and continued up. Why they did in those conditions we were not
sure—perhaps hoping that the weather forecast would
be right and it would soon be clear and sunny.
We started down about 7:45 a.m. with compasses out, ready to follow the 180
degree magnetic course back to the Palmer snow field. I led us down, plunge
stepping through the thin ice crust with my plastic boots to
the softer snow below. Amy was close behind constantly checking and rechecking
our course. The rest of the team followed. Mike was sweeper. We could see each
other, but nothing else. Then Daniel had a
problem: the heel had fallen off one of his boots recently purchased at the used
gear sale, and traction was difficult. How does a heel fall off? He put on
crampons which helped and we continued.
As we descended, I thought I heard the “beep beep beep” of a snow cat somewhere
below, but could not be sure. Fog plays tricks with sound. Then I caught a quick
glimpse of the upper-most tower of the Palmer
chairlift before it disappeared again. Taking a bearing, we altered our course
and headed for the chairlift. The Palmer chair would not be running in this
weather, so we decided to follow the chairlift down to Silcox and then traverse
east to the climbers trail and home. While our trip down from camp to the top of
the Palmer chair may have been only ¾ of a mile, if that, we were relieved to
know exactly where we were and then follow the lift cables down. We could now
relax a bit. As we approached Silcox, the fog lifted and the Magic Mile and
Timberline Lodge appeared. We called Regis, who had spent the night in this car
at Timberline, to let him know we would be there soon and headed down.
We celebrated with beer and donuts in the parking lot. This being a private
non-Mazama climb these things are allowed, plus with Evan, a Canadian along, it
was fitting. From the lot we could look up to just past Silcox, but nothing
beyond that. The summit never reappeared that day. We drove to Government Camp
for hot coffee and breakfast at the Huckleberry Inn.
While it is always disappointing to be denied the summit attempt, I don’t think
anyone on our team felt cheated. We enjoyed being among the highest elevation
campers in Oregon for one night, adapted to changing
weather conditions, and then we made wise and safe choices when we knew it was
not meant to be. We made new friends, got to know old friends better, got some
exercise, and then talked it out over beer and
coffee. Not bad for 24 hours on the mountain.
That night back at home in Portland, safe, warm and dry inside while outside the
rain came down in torrents, I felt fortunate for the experience with my climbing
friends and thankful to be inside. When I awoke the next morning just before 7
a.m. on Memorial Day, exactly 24 hours after we arose from our ice camp to head
down, with the rain still pouring down outside, the memories of the days prior
warmed me. My only down
climbing for this day would be a flight of stairs to the kitchen to brew my
Copyright© 2010 by Larry Beck. All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission from the author and the Mazamas from the September 2010 Mazama Bulletin
Photos Copyright© 2010 by Climb Members. All
Webmeister's Note: I really liked this
story of controlled Risk and adventure with great companions. I called Lee Davis
at Mazama headquarters in Portland. He gave me the phone numbers of Larry Beck
and of Publications Chair Diana Schweitzer. Their permission to reprint the
story was cordial and quick. I would trade a summit for this adventure in a
heart beat because "it is not the summit or the route that I remember, it is the
shared companionship of the climb". --Robert Speik
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