Mount Hood Trip Report
One of my life ambitions is to reach the highest point in all 50 states. Along with the physical challenge and beauty of nature, I find it to be a fascinating way to see parts of the country that I never would have visited otherwise. Standing on top of Mt. Washington, overlooking the White Mountain Range, after a 4200 foot vertical climb is no doubt exhilarating…but I think sitting at a certain bus stop in Delaware is unique in its own way too. As of a few months ago I sat at 38 highpoints and had a trip in the works to attempt Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood with my friend Bryan Best. We departed in the early evening on June 27th for the Pacific Northwest.
We arrived in our hotel outside of Seattle just after 1 AM and faced our first major challenge: finding beer. Fortunately the Washington-friendly drinking laws made this a relative breeze. We tracked down some Fat Tire Ale, which is always one of my great pleasures in life when heading west of the Mississippi. New Belgium Brewing Company…if you can hear me…it’s time to make your way to the Northeast. But I digress. We polished off a couple cold ones along with some authentic 7-11 cuisine and called it a night.
We stepped outside our hotel the next morning and were immediately awestruck by the presence of Rainier. This guy is an absolute beast. Our plan was to tackle Hood first, which is a little-easier-go. First we had to get the rental car. Like fools, we headed to the rental car location by the airport, which clearly wasn’t where our reservation was. Our Enterprise location was about 10 miles north – easy enough to get to…if we had a car. Many public transportation maneuvers later and we made it. The saving grace in all this was a nearby establishment that served some kick-ass bubble tea. The Lychee flavor was new to me but Bryan recommended it after some life-changing lychee in Korea. We then made our way to Portland and rented some mountaineering gear. Our final pit-stop was at Charlie’s, a steakhouse a few miles west of the mountain. Two top-notch prime rib dinners later and we were off to tackle Hood.
I’m often skeptical of the “you have to do this, you have to do that” approach I come across in my research for climbing certain mountains – it’s condescending and suggests there’s only one way to do it. So I’ll tread lightly and offer my general, non-expertise thoughts as a first-timer to Hood. The less avid climbers may want to skip the bullet points.
1) The Climb Itself – The standard south side route is an 8-mile round trip, 5300-foot vertical gain to the top of Oregon, which stands at 11239 feet. It’s physically demanding but relatively short by mountaineering standards. Personally I feel the climb can be divided into three parts: Bottom of lift to top of lift (there’s a lodge to warm up in), top of lift to Crater Rock, Crater Rock to summit. If all goes well and you’re able to move at a good pace, each part up should be in the vicinity of two hours and each part down will be around 1.5 hrs. Also of note is that crossing the ridge (aka the Hogsback) from Crater Rock up to and around the Bergschrund and through the Pearly Gates is no longer the standard approach; instead follow the boot path to the left.
2) Start Time – since Hood is glaciated, a start time of 12-2 AM is recommended. The snow is more stable at night (presumably colder) meaning there’s less chance of avalanche and rockfall. The idea is you get near the summit as daybreak approaches, yielding added visibility while conditions are still stable. As a first-timer I would recommend this start time but see no reason why the trip couldn’t be done in the middle of the day provided conditions are stable then too.
3) Weather – Obviously you hope for a good forecast but say you get to the trailhead, the sky looks a little questionable and visibility could be an issue. It’s ok. You can start up the first part of the climb, using the chairlift as your guide, until you get to the top of the lift (danger on this part is minimal). At this point, if visibility hasn’t improved, it’s probably best to turn around. Beyond the top of the lift is where large cliffs and canyons come into play so unless you know the mountain very well and/or are extremely proficient with a compass, it’s probably best not to chance it. The other element would be that even if visibility improves, precipitation may cause less stable snow conditions higher on the mountain. Long story short: start the climb, head up to the top of the lift, and make a smart decision from there.
4) Tools – I read many places that rope is a necessity. That’s not true. I’d say as long as you feel comfortable with some exposure (about 45 degrees max, possibly 50 in spots), you’re fine without the rope. On the flip side would be an ice ax and crampons. I’d consider these an absolute necessity and more so, making sure you’ve read up on and practiced self-arrest with the ice ax.
So how’d we do? Well, we made it to the top of the chair, couldn’t see a damn thing, and realized turning around was a no-brainer. Another more experienced group of eight decided likewise. The biggest lesson as always: there’s a good chance the mountain will still be there tomorrow.
After returning to the base of Hood at 3:49 AM, we caught a few hours of shut-eye in the car. I like sleeping in the car. The price is certainly right but more importantly it builds character. I’d go into further detail except that I have no idea why I believe this to be true. Oh well, such is life.
The next wave of good weather looked to be rolling in on Sunday night, which meant we had the weekend to do some sight-seeing. Our first stop was Portland and The Stepping Stone Café. Bryan had done his research. He watched the Man vs. Food episodes in Portland and Seattle and knew exactly where to go. (For those unfamiliar, this is the dude who visits establishments that offer outrageous portions, challenges himself to the dish, and often wins a t-shirt in the process. A true American hero). The gargantuan pancakes lived up to expectations and we continued on westward.
Our next destination figured to be the Oregon coast. Instead we stumbled upon one of the finest road stops known to man – the Cooterville City Hall and Land o’ Jerky. I don’t use these words lightly but the alligator jerky I purchased was quite simply the best jerky on the planet. I’m sorry Jack Link’s, step aside Old Fashioned, and you know I love you Rosie, but Mountain America Jerky has you all beat. Furthermore, it’s come to my attention that a combination of craft beer, quality jerky, and high-end gummy worms are easily the greatest snack this world has to offer. Whew, I need a breather. Time to ease up on the superlatives and cut myself off from all future jerky talk for the duration of this blog.
We eventually arrived in the seaside town of Astoria, located in the extreme northwest corner of Oregon, Astoria’s real nice: it’s got more going on than most beach towns but certainly doesn’t fall in the major city category either (for you New Englanders, I’d liken it to Portsmouth, NH). There’s also a very cool lookout from the top of town. Finally there’s been a number of movies filmed there, most notably The Goonies. A quick stop at the Goondocks served us well indeed.
On Saturday morning we headed up the coast en route to Seattle. I have some mixed thoughts on the Emerald City. By city standards, it’s incredibly scenic, offering views of the Puget Sound, Mount Rainier, and Olympic National Park. It’s also a very walkable city and most parts seemed well kept. On the flip side, it’s notorious for its lack of sunshine and I found the locals to be on the feisty end of things. We saw 3 or 4 fights break out – screaming matches, not physical – but a downer nonetheless. Perhaps we were just in the wrong spot at the wrong time…it’s tough to say.
That night we attended the Red Sox-Mariners game at Safeco Field. Much like highpoints, I enjoy racking up baseball stadiums, and this was ballpark number 14 for me. The Mariners won on a walk-off in 11 innings but the real stars were the seagulls. Repeatedly soaring above the fans, they did countless laps around the park, all while relieving themselves in the process. I’ve never seen so many people get shit on. This might have gotten old after awhile, only that something like this can never get old. “Oh boy, here they come”…”uh oh, there it goes”…one one-thousand, two one-thousand, three one-thousand….”ohhhhhh!!!!!” And a good laugh was had by all – minus one of course.
That night we stayed in Auburn, WA, which was highlighted by a stop at Jack in the Box. I find Jack in the Box to be one of the premier fast-food destinations of the west. The food is delightful and they have a lot of random items on the menu that you won’t find at similar establishments. The Jumbo Jack-Egg Roll-Soft Cookie combo served me well and I called it a night shortly thereafter.
By Sunday morning it was back to the task at hand, The forecast looked promising and we had Mt. Hood on our radar once again. But first we made a stop at Pyroland, a giant like flea-market in Auburn, dedicated to all things fireworks. There’s even a testing site nearby for any recent purchases. After taking it all in for awhile we cruised on down I-5 for a second-go at Hood.
We arrived back in town around early evening, allowing ourselves to acclimate to the altitude. I hit up the prime rib at Charlie’s that served me so well the first time and after that it was a quick snooze as the clock struck midnight.
Our trek began at 1:20. The sky was clear, the wind was calm, and I was ready to go. We made it to the top of the lift in good time, settling into the lodge around 3:30. From here we put on our crampons and began our march into uncharted territory.
Climbing up to Crater Rock was a good challenge and the route-finding was made easy by following the head lamps. Once at Crater Rock you get your first view of the final ascent – a daunting ½ mile, 900 foot gain, with 50 degree slope in places. Or as another climber put it, the summit has become “possibly obtainable”. By this point the sun had rose, offering vibrant colors and magnificent views. And damned if we didn’t man up, trek on, and make it to the top of Oregon!
The trip down was a relative breeze. There’s one chute right near the top where you need to exercise caution in down-climbing. This was the trickiest part of the entire climb and my ice ax got a good workout. Once below Crater Rock there’s long stretches where you can glissade – a joyous and time-saving activity that involves sliding on your feet or butt. As you return to the chairlift, the skiers are out in full force and the journey is nearly complete. Now it’s just a matter of getting back to the car, knowing that a hearty meal and cold beer await.
We entered the Ice Ax Grill feeling high on life, ready to take on the world. One delicious mac n cheese and major adrenaline crash later, and I felt like I was on my death-bed. The sleep deprivation (30 min in 27 hours to be exact) had taken its toll as had the physical exhaustion. We stumbled back to the car and cashed in on a well-deserved nap. On a side note, it’s truly amazing what the body is capable of during times of high adrenaline – not once did I ever feel sleepy on the mountain.
The rest of the day was non-descript as we stayed in Portland and caught up on a whole lot of sleep. The lone highlight was a second stop at Jack in the Box, which was becoming a staple of our diet. Mr. Jack and I had hit it off real nice.
By Monday night, we had come to the realization that Mt. Rainier would have to wait for another time. Since we were leaving on Thursday morning, Tuesday night into Wednesday would have been our only window, and the forecast didn’t look promising. So instead we explored Northwest Oregon, and had an absolutely epic day in doing so.
Columbia Gorge lies only a half hour east of Portland but is a world away. Highlighted by tall cliffs overlooking incredible waterfalls, this was some perfect light hiking after the odyssey that was Hood. I especially enjoyed winding my way up the creek with the ginormous boulders on either side. It had the feeling of a secret passage-way, never knowing what you might find next!
We then spent some time in Portland, visiting Voodoo Doughnuts. This was another Man vs. Food stop and they had some of the strangest and most unique doughnuts you’ll ever come across (Cock-N-Balls anyone?). We then made a stop at Deschutes Brewery, a local institution. From there we decided another round of the Oregon Coast was in order and we embarked on a trip to Cannon Beach.
I can’t overstate how impressed I was with Cannon Beach. First there’s Haystock Rock – an incredible boulder just on the edge of the shore that immediately captures your attention. We walked the beach, then ducked into convenience store for a refill on beer. I, like many people of my generation are often asked a standard question when buying alcohol – “Do you have id?” After multiple purchases in Cannon, I realized they too have a standard question – “Do you need that opened?” Ah, life on the Oregon Coast.
Without having a hotel for the night (and fearing July 3rd prices might not come cheap), Bryan and I devised a master plan. Cannon is known for its beachside campfires, and it was time to use this to our advantage. This was my vision: we walk the beach and a friendly group welcomes us in, seeing we are well equipped with beer. After offering up some PBR, we are immediately accepted by all. We speak of our Northwest travels and briefly mention something about climbing Mount Hood. From here we are pressed for details and begin waxing poetic about all of our adrenaline-induced, death-defying, consequences-be-damned determination that got us to the top. Instantly we are local heroes, our audience hanging on with every word. We then casually mention something about not having a place to stay, and like that, the group is practically tripping over one another to offer up their seaside retreats. Once inside we are pleased to see accommodations include unlimited crab, a butler, and Nintendo 64.
Clearly, none of this happened. Instead we came across a whole bunch of families with young kids. We never stood a chance. The fires were out shortly thereafter and we were resigned to our fate – sleeping in the car yet again. But hey, it builds character.
Our final day in the Northwest was a relaxing, laid-back day in Seattle. Hey, we needed it. America’s Birthday made for a lively scene and we were happy to be part of it. We hit up a few tourist spots, one of which was the famous gum wall (My take? Gross…but kind of cool…but still gross). By early evening we settled into the festivities by Lake Union and enjoyed some delicious sea fare. In the end, as we watched fireworks explode over the Pacific Sky, one thing had become abundantly clear: this trip was an absolute blast.