GOVERNMENT CAMP, Ore. – Oregon’s tallest peak rises above the streets of downtown Portland, its gorgeous snow-capped slopes luring 10,000 climbers a year.
The picture postcard view of Mount Hood makes it one of the most visited snow-capped peaks in the U.S., a destination to check off during any respectable visit to the City of Roses.
“It just stands there and calls to you – and during clear weather like we’ve had the past couple of days, that mountain is there calling to anyone who’s ever thought about climbing it,” said Mark Morford, spokesman for Portland Mountain Rescue.
But Mount Hood’s accessibility and beauty obscure a treacherous history that once again came into focus Tuesday, when one man plummeted 1,000 feet to his death and three more were stranded on its icy slopes as a storm approached.
More than 130 climbers have died trying to reach the top of the dormant volcano, including a party of school children and teachers who froze to death in 1986 and several climbers whose bodies haven’t been found.
Compounding the difficulty Tuesday’s rescue was the fact that for at least several hours, officials weren’t sure exactly how many people remained on Mount Hood. At one point, they said they could be looking for anywhere between seven and 15.
Unlike rules in place for climbing some other iconic peaks in the West and Alaska, there is no registration requirement to scale Mount Hood. And no one monitors the skill level or preparedness of those attempting ascents. There is also no limit on how many can summit the 11,240-foot mountain daily.
That honor system and the peak’s proximity to a major city can combine for a chaotic climbing environment on a mountain that’s home to 11 active glaciers and deep crevasses, and prone to avalanches and erratic weather.
It takes only 90 minutes to drive from Portland to Timberline Lodge, where climbers can park in a lot only 5,000 feet below the summit. Properly prepared climbers in good shape can complete the climb and return to Portland for dinner.
“There’s a bunch of warning signs in here but if someone says, ‘Hey, I’m on vacation in Oregon and I’ve never climbed a mountain before and I want to climb Mount Hood,’ there’s nothing keeping them from doing it,” said Sgt. Brian Jensen, spokesman for the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Department.
Sheriff’s officials on Wednesday identified the dead climber as Miha Sumi, 35, of Portland and said he and his group had “mid-level experience” and were properly equipped with ice axes, crampons and helmets.
Other climbers not in Sumi’s party reached him and found him bleeding from the ears with fading vital signs. They performed CPR for 90 minutes before a helicopter could airlift Sumi.
Jennifer Wade, recreation and lands program manager for the Mount Hood National Forest, said in response to an email Wednesday that the mountain does not have a “check-in, check-out” system and that rescues are only triggered by 911 calls. Mountaineering clubs offer training, but there are no requirements for scaling the peak, she said.
Accidents like Tuesday’s periodically stir debate about whether Mount Hood should have a permit system, Morford said. Climbers obtain wilderness permits and are encouraged to fill out forms listing planned routes and the equipment they have. But it’s not mandatory and many don’t do it, he said.
That’s different from the approach on some other peaks in the West.
While there’s no limit on the number of people who can climb Mount Rainier each day, there are limits to how many people who can camp nightly in specific zones. Most people take at least two days to climb that peak.
Nearly 11,000 people registered to climb the tallest peak in Washington state at 14,410 feet in 2016, the latest figures available.
At Mount Rainier National Park, there are 12 to 14 climbing rangers, some seasonal. During the peak climbing season that begins in mid-May, there are seven rangers at any given time on the upper mountain, said Stefan Lofgren, climbing program ranger.
Mount St. Helens, which is also visible from Portland on clear days, requires permits for those going above 4,800 feet. During the summer, permits must be purchased in advance for the 8,328-foot volcano.
In Alaska, climbers attempting to scale Denali, North America’s tallest mountain at 20,310 feet, must register at least 60 days in advance and attend an orientation, said National Park Service spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri.
Climbing parties on registration form list expertise or comparable wilderness experience. Mountaineering rangers review applications, and if teams appear to lack experience, rangers speak to them about other training they might consider. But there’s no “screen-out” based on experience or skills, Gualtieri said.
There are 12 to 16 people on the Denali from 7,000 to 17,000 feet ready to help climbers in trouble, she added.
Mount Hood is much smaller, but veteran climbers like Scott Schoenborn don’t take an ascent lightly.
Schoenborn, 53, always fills out the information forms before departing, even though they’re not mandatory.
“Mount Hood’s killed a lot of people and when I take new climbers up, the first thing I do is I tell them to go to Wikipedia on ‘deaths on Mount Hood’ and start reading so that they know it’s a serious mountain and to take it seriously,” he said, as he rested with his ice pick still strapped to his back.
Schoenborn added: “You need to be trained (and) you need to go with someone who’s experienced.”
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