End Games or Beginnings? Mt Hood.

On the way to Mt. Hood  - photo from a car window

End games. What a great phrase. And it is what I think about as I trudge up the stairs with my backpack to prepare for this summer’s summits.

To remind myself of one of the original reasons I embarked on this journey to Cotopaxi and Chimborazo and what the end game actually is, here’s an account of an unsuccessful trek up Mt. Hood in June 2012.

We had just returned from our hike along the Inca Trail with daughters #1 and #2 in May 2012. But June is a month of brides and we were already scheduled to attend a wedding of a dear friend at the Columbia Gorge Hotel on the Hood River. What could be a more obvious add-on than an attempt on Mt. Hood.

We left the lovely afternoon wedding reception perhaps an hour early and drove off in the general direction of the biggest mountain we could see. Now, we’d been to Mt. Hood before, many years ago when the daughters were small, but that involved a car, a visit with old friends, and lunch at the ski resort. It did not involve ropes, plastic boots or crampons.

This time, we stopped at a grocery store to buy what we thought we might need food wise, and continued on up the winding road featured in the intro scene of the movie of Stephen King’s The Shining. It’s steep and windy and the pine trees lean in at you from both sides of the road. We eventually arrived at the Timberline Lodge, built in 1936. It was constructed entirely by hand, using many craftspeople from Europe, as part of a Depression era Works Progress Administration program. It is perched at the side of Mt. Hood at an elevation of about 6,000 feet, and an entire ski complex has grown up around it. The rooms are small, and retro. No televisions; there are quilts; and the phones have rotary dials.

This was our first experience on ropes and ice. One main guide company leads climbs up Mt. Hood, and they supply most of the equipment, from helmets to plastics boots to ice axes and crampons. Neither husband J nor I had used any such exotic gear before. Kilimanjaro just required leather boots and a strong set of legs.

The first day consisted of skills training. The two of us were the only climbers in our party. Our guide, Phil, was from Ireland, had learned to climb in and around Sheffield, England, where my mother is from, and had trained under classic alpinist climbers in Chamonix.

We knew knew we were off to interesting start when we checked in at the guide office. Just a few days before, an expert climber, climbing solo, had fallen to his death. Some of the guides had been involved in the rescue attempt, and were filling out accident reports as we were signing all of our liability waivers.

We spent several hours on an ice bank behind the hotel learning how to move on rope, self arrest, and the varying types of steps needed to ascend a mountain. Rest step (well, we knew that one from Kili), traversing (ascending steep sections in an s shape), “duck” steps straight up ….all the while remembering to keep that ice axe in your uphill hand.

By early afternoon the sun was beating down and it was time to go back to rest and prepare for our 2 am date with the snowcat that would take us to the point where we would start climbing. Even though it’s a little hard to sleep at 7 pm we managed a couple of hours before we got up at 11:30 – we knew it would take us ages to strap ourselves into all of our unfamiliar equipment without tangling ourselves up in carabiners, climbing harnesses and the like.

We expected problems as soon as the snowcat arrived – and out tumbled three very shaken looking climbers – a middle aged couple with a grandson – who had arrived at the point of departure up the mountain only to decide it was too windy and wet even to attempt a climb. They came down without ever even getting out of the cat! Phil said he had never actually seen that happen before. We had been watching the weather all afternoon and knew things didn’t look promising. We were offered a raincheck (appropriate use of words) but a Florida residence didn’t really lend itself to an impromptu trip up Mt. Hood any time over the next twelve months. We told Phil we recognized the risks and the likelihood we wouldn’t summit, but we wanted to go as far as we could while staying safe.

After we were unceremoniously dumped out of the snowcat at about 8,500 feet, what we didn’t know about mountain climbing became more and more apparent. Winds were gusting up to 50 MPH or so, and we were still struggling to get goggles on over our climbing helmets. That should say it all. Our lack of experience was obvious. The procedure for attaching our ice axes to our packs had become an absolute blank. Phil immediately took off to test the snow and to check conditions – which were awful. It was too soft for crampons. We took off, sinking into snow up to mid calf on most steps. Phil broke trail; I was in the middle; and J was behind me. There were very few other headlamps heading up in the swirling fog/rain/snow, and all I could do was keep watching Phil’s light in front, and follow along in his footsteps.

After several hours, it was clear we hadn’t fitted our boots, pants, and gaiters together properly, and we were getting ice and snow in our socks. My supposedly waterproof gloves were soaking.  And the wind was picking up, close to 60 MPH gusts. Fortunately, it was blowing toward the mountain, or I am convinced I would have been blown off. We started to feel chunks of ice and snow and, I suspect, some rock, hit our helmets,and ultimately reached a point that required crossing a large exposed area. At that point, Phil gave us the best of all guide advice. “We are not going to summit. No one is going to summit tonight. And I can’t keep myself safe and that means I can’t keep you safe.” The follow up was obvious – we had to descend.

As we descended, it became apparent that my short 5’1″ stature made it easier for me to go down – husband J, at 6’2″ and with a much higher center of gravity, had a harder time. I was able to glissade (boot ski) down as the sun rose over Mt. Hood, while he was a ways behind. (Two years later, on Elbrus, he made up for it with a much stronger descent than I!)

As the sun rose, we passed by the ski trail groomers, looking very zen, and could see the untouched ski runs that would would soon be home to the summer ski school skiers of Mt. Hood.

Did I mention that at some point we realized we had managed to lose both of our ice axes?

It’s a summit we didn’t achieve. But we played the end game. That afternoon, after a few hours nap, we found part of the Oregon Trail to hike. End games aren’t ends – they’re beginnings.

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