August 6, 1995

Strike Two Despite Picking An Easier Mountain, Sports Writer Fails Again In Attempt To Reach A Summit

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Confession time.

I was on the south side of Mount Hood, the most climbed alpine route in the world with the possible exception of Mount Fuji, and didn’t go all the way.

This bothers me because the serious climber’s typical response to Mount Hood is, Big Wooo.

A dog did it 1,000 times. (I looked it up.) Mount Hood in ideal weather is the bunnyslope of the climbing experience.

Still, it’s the highest mountain in Oregon and since I failed on the highest mountain in Washington last year I thought I’d try another state. I’ll just keep lowering my sights. There’s a bluff or a hump out there somewhere for me.

From everything I read, Mount Hood (11,239 feet) was the makeable shot. In his book “Oregon High,” Jeff Thomas writes that one climbing party actually packed a bike up the south side and rode it along the summit ridge.

Imagine the planning.

Hey, let’s pack a bicycle up a glacier and ride around in the snow! Somebody actually thought that was a good idea. If you’re thinking of climbing mountains, remember there are people up there who are a few spokes short of a true wheel.

I need to interject a sobering note here: About 60 people a year die in mountaineering and back-country accidents. That’s tragic but the danger is not what it might seem. Climbing experts were asked to rank mountaineering with other types of human activity that can get you killed.

Mountain climbing came in 29th behind operating a power mower, police work, school football, using contraceptives and surgery.

That’s in a book. I won’t swear that mountaineering beats everything that has been known to kill people, but on a sunshine-splashed Sunday in May, going up Mount Hood was a lot more fun than operating a power mower in Spokane.

Knowing what I know about climbing, which is essentially zilch, the best advice I can pass along is, pick your climbing companions carefully. I have the best in Seabury Blair Jr., a Lewis and Clark High School type who migrated to the west side of Washington to live on a lake in the shadows of the Olympics and the Cascades.

Blair brought the harnesses, the rope, gloves, gaiters and jackets (the Santa Claus-red one I’m stuffed into in the photograph is his). He also brought the food, crampons, altimeter, watch, his dog, compass, matches, water, camper (with shower) and his girlfriend Marlene.

As usual I was responsible for the tequila and the mixer, for the salutary mountain margarita. The mountain margarita is lemon/lime concentrate, snow and ice off a glacier and tequila, shaken well. It is quality of life in a plastic goblet.

We pick our spots when it comes to exalting in alcoholic beverages. Drinking and climbing don’t mix, which is why horse racing is my favorite sport.

Climbing to me isn’t a lifestyle. It can’t be to anyone who is oh-for-two. I have, however, improved my diet and watched my weight. I have to, to fit into borrowed clothing.

I’ve also had to quit lying.

Until my initial test on a mountain I thought I was in pretty good shape for a guy pushing 50. I was, in fact, worthless and weak.

I didn’t redeem myself on the less challenging but every bit as beautiful Mount Hood, but it went better. Mount Hood has accessibility, altitude and variety. If you’re like me you won’t remember exactly when it was that you stopped asking, when do we get to the fun part?

On May 14 I was up at 3:30, pulled on my rented boots and sat in the dark in the back of a bouncing camper in high-tech long johns with Blair’s whimpering dog. We were on the way up to Timberline Lodge (5,960 feet).

Outside, winds gusting to 50 miles an hour blasted the camper. This was not promising.

We registered at Timberline for the climb anyway, so the St. Bernard would know where to take the rum if we got in any trouble, and saddled up under packs that were lighter than our Rainier experience. Hood is a day trip, Rainier an overnighter.

We stumbled into the snow and started up in the darkness, into a wind that the weather service reported was gusting to 60 miles an hour on the summit.

It was like slogging uphill with somebody pitching sand in your face.

Even in the early stages you find yourself alone with your thoughts. My first thought with the wind howling was, why didn’t I stay in Spokane and operate a power mower? The unrelenting wind convinced others to turn back but Blair suggested we’d come a long way so why not keep moving until we got sick of it? The climber’s creed.

The snow was perfect, the sun rose to reveal a stunning view of Mount Jefferson and we pressed on to the initial goal, the Silcox warming hut.

That’s at 7,000 feet, or 3,000 feet below the Landers Line, named for outdoor editor Rich Landers, who isn’t nearly as arrogant in person as he might seem in print.

Landers once wrote that 10,000 feet is the altitude that separates actual mountaineering from mere backpacking. I kind of wanted to cross the Landers Line - the big 10,000 - wind or no wind.

At the Silcox warming hut the only warm people were sleeping. A guy who’d had a long night stepped out to say have a nice day and basically get lost.

At this point you are not exactly where no man has gone before. There is a picnic table outside, next to an outhouse and snowmobiles.

You begin to distance yourself from all of that walking along the Palmer ski lift to about 8,600 feet. Under a cloudless sky we followed the steps of the many who had climbed before, eventually slipping from time to time through the warming snow to our knees, and above. Breaking through snow drags you down but the annoyance was nothing, since the wind began to shift and die.

We headed for Crater Rock, first skirting an exposed headwall known as Devil’s Kitchen. We walked around the east side of the rock up to the hogsback, a distinctive ridge of snow extending to the summit.

Summit? We were at 10,600 feet, 600 above the Landers Line and some 639 vertical feet from the top. I was leaning into the hogsback with something new in every direction. Up was the sculpted, whitecapped Pearly Gates, to one side the bare and sulphur-spewing Hot Rocks, which remind us that Mount Hood is alive, volcanically speaking.

Off in the distance stood the Three Sisters mountains. Way down lay the forests and lakes and lesser hills of the great state of Oregon.

So here’s my excuse: time. Sunday held a long drive home, followed by an early Monday morning wake-up call. The last time Blair climbed Hood, the going down was harder than simply putting on the plastic pants and sliding down.

The trip down was in fact little more than a long glissade down. As mentioned, the snow was better than good. We figured later that we probably should have gone for it.

But we didn’t and I didn’t get it done. I did meet my family on time in the parking lot back at Timberline Lodge, where I did get my mountain margarita.

Remembering the glow, I might yet take the next steps, maybe buy some gear, familiarize myself with crevasse rescue and at least look up the word belay. It’s a climbing term. I’ll try to have a definition next time, if there is a next time.

That and a jacket that fits.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo


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