I am not entirely sure what I was thinking a year ago when I proclaimed to my sister that we were going to climb Mt. Hood in the spring of 2016. All I knew was that I had caught a glimpse of that big beautiful mountain and I wanted to stand at the top of it. Easy enough right? At least that’s what I thought before I broke two small bones in my foot three weeks before we were due to climb. And before I realized that I had never even used an ice ax, never mind even held one. But this was a dream and soon enough I got my sister Jenny on board and we began training… or at least she did. I crossed my fingers, tried to make my foot heal faster and prayed to the skies above that I would somehow make it to the top, without being piggy backed.
Despite popular belief, climbing to the summit of Mt. Hood is actually quite difficult. If you don’t know anything about Mt. Hood, know this; it’s the tallest mountain in the state, it is one of the most climbed glaciated peaks in the USA and generally the weather sucks. Beyond the fact that you have to wear crampons and use an ice ax, you actually have to leave in the middle of the night. It’s important to reach the summit before mid morning as the sun heats the rocks and they start to fall. Here’s hoping I have a helmet to wear.
Despite all these unknowns and dangers, they certainly weren’t enough to deter my sister and I and we headed out to the beautiful state of Oregon to attempt this monster of a mountain. “Well there she is” I proclaimed to my sister as we swung around a bend and caught our first glimpse of the mountain, “and holy crap I don’t remember it looking this big”. Approaching the mountain by car, after driving ourselves from Vancouver to Mt. Hood Territory is absolutely terrifying. Coming from the Canadian Rockies where they are all mish mashed together, they don’t appear to be as big as they are. Facing a volcano that is jutting out of nowhere is much, much more frightening. “It is too late to back out?” my sister asked me. Not having any words, I swallowed loudly and kept driving.
If there was one saving grace in all of this adventure it is that we had the wits about us to team up with Timberline Mountain Guides, the most reputable guiding company in Oregon, and the best for keeping you safe while you attempt to summit this snowy, windy mountain. A little about this amazing company; Timberline Mountain Guides, Inc. was originally created in 1983 by Mike Volk. After it changed hands a few times throughout it’s thirty years, now Pete Keene and guide Cliff Agocs co-own and operate it, along with a few other guiding companies. It is their belief that “climbing and skiing in the mountains inspires us, exposes us to beautiful natural wonders, and creates bonds between people that transcend daily life. In short, it makes us feel more alive”.
As we parked the car and headed into the Timberline Mountain Guide’s office, located in the ski shop at the famous Timberline Mountain Lodge, it occurred to me that I probably shouldn’t tell them about my broken foot. Not wanting to sound weak in front of the other climbers we were joining and what if they didn’t let me climb. As we entered the office and I took in the faces of the people I would be climbing next to and the equipment they had, it was obvious we were the least experienced. True to their nature, the guides didn’t make one note of that, and instead just measured us up for helmets, boots, packs, crampons, ice axes and everything else we would need. As I pulled on my snow pants, laced up my boots and looked at my crampons with uncertainty I began to feel like a real mountain climber and my mind began to wandered to what the view from the summit might look like.
“Report outside for Snow School” Cliff proclaimed loudly to the room, quickly taking me out of my daydream. Snow school aka Steep Snow Climbing Course always takes place the day before the climb. As I was about to find out, it was the time that I learned how to walk in mountain boots, put on my crampons properly, attach myself to a rope and learned how to self-arrest with my ice axe, just in case I fell. Off we headed to “mini Mt. Hood”, a small hill where we were put to work. Three hours of training later and we were declared as learned as we could be, ready to take on the mountain the next day. And by the next day I really mean at 1:30am.
After one last look through our gear to ensure we had everything we needed, the guides sent us home for about 10 hours to get some rest and mentally prepare ourselves for the feat ahead. They asked us to try and sleep before our big summit attempt, which to us was funny, and instead we chose to relax in the hot tub at our Mt. Hood Vacation Rental with a big old glass of red wine.
Arriving in the pitch dark, with only the full moon and the light from our headlamps to guide us, we quickly loaded into a Snow Cat which took us up to the top of the ski lift, where we would begin our climb. As the Cat drove away Cliff once again asked us if we had everything and if we were ready to go, following it up with “too late now to turn around” and a semi-evil laugh. If there was one thing to be thankful for at this moment, it was that the darkness didn’t allow for us to see just how far it was to the top. Squeezing myself in behind Cliff, our ever faithful leader I got to talk to him about his love for the mountains and guiding. It turns out that his love for the mountains started at age 11, when he began winter camping in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Years later he traveled to Yosemite and became an expert in technical climbing. His love for the Pacific Northwest brought him to Oregon and has since guided in Oregon, Washington, California, Wyoming, Montana, Mexico and Ecuador. His toughest decision on his day off; whether to rock climb, backcountry skiing or alpine climbing, with all three being less than an hour from his front door in Bend.
I got so caught up talking to Cliff and learning more about him, the company and the epic mountains he has conquered that before I knew it, it was time for the second break. It was only now that I realized the advantage of being in the front, you got a longer break. In order to stay warm breaks are kept to a maximum of about 10 minutes and we were highly encouraged to put our big puffy jackets on for the duration of the break. As sissy and I sat down, munched on a snickers bar the sun began to slowly rise turning the sky into breathtaking colours of red, orange and pink. With the full moon still visible and mountains popping up in the distance, there wasn’t anywhere I would want to be rather than here. Yes, my broken foot was sore, yes we weren’t even halfway up yet and yes I was already tired. But that didn’t change the view in front of me, in fact it made it that much sweeter.
The first part of the climb was long, switch backing our way up a large snow covered hill but then it was time for the fun stuff. As we ditched our poles, pulled out our ice axes and roped ourselves in, the second half of the climb promised to be exciting. As we made our way up a steep hill, only to go down the other side it was then when you catch a glimpse of just how steep the next part is. Those climbers who are not roped in are using two ice axes to climb their way up and down. One misstep and you better know how to self-arrest. I thanked my lucky stars at this point that Timberline Mountain Guides were leading me up this mountain, roped in. Step, ice axe in, step again, repeat. It was drilled into my head. Have two points of contact on the mountain at all time. As we made our way closer to “the chute” I turned around to look at my climbing partners and gasped. The mountains shadow was thrown over the landscape below, creating the absolute picture perfect moment.
Climbing through the chute was as scary as I thought it would be, forcing us to be near vertical with the mountain and making sure every step you took was a deliberate step. The sweetest part about the chute though is when you poke your head over the top and alas the summit awaits you just a short walk ahead. I spotted my sister, in the group ahead of me already on top, throwing her hands up in the air in absolute joy and I picked up the pace to join her. Words cannot describe how it felt, standing at 11,240 feet in the air, knowing that with no technical experience under my belt I still managed to be here.
As I fought back tears of joy, knowing that I had checked off a bucket list item alas with a broken foot, I caught something happening behind me. As a fellow climber got down on one knee and proposed to his girlfriend, I couldn’t help the tears. It was truly the perfect moment. After a few hugs, pictures, sneaked in sips of wine we smuggled in our flask and a lot of celebratory high fives, our moment was over and it was time to descend. While going up is hard and dangerous, going down is worse. With bodies that are aching and a rush to get off the mountain before the sun heats up the rocks and cause them to fall, descending is challenging.
As we trekked our way down, stopping to enjoy some cold pizza that I had stashed in my pack, stripping off layers as the sun warmed the day up, I got to chat more with guides and fellow climbers. From the newly engaged couple who were beaming with delight to my new friend Jean who summited Mt. Hood for her 70th birthday, I couldn’t imagine reaching the summit with anyone else. As my sister and strode step in step I realized that this wasn’t just a mountain I had conquered, it was a lifelong dream.
A huge thanks goes out to Mt. Hood Territory for arranging this epic journey. It wouldn’t have been possible without Timberline Mountain Guides, including Cliff Agocs, Brian Campbell, Brandon Seymore and Henry Whitehouse. We can’t wait to climb with you again!
Thanks to Mt. Hood Vacation Rentals for the Dream Catcher Cabin, this beautiful property provided us with the perfect place to lay our head after a long climb, and a hot tub to whisk all the aches away.