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.

Yoga and the Art of Climbing

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I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. Certainly, when I have been training for various climbs and treks, adding cardio to my work out was an essential component of success. But much of climbing or trekking is the sheer grit of simply keeping on going even when every part of you is saying stop right now. And that’s where yoga has made all the difference – and here’s a shout out to my many, many yoga instructors over the years, whose voices were in my head on so many of these hikes. Elbrus on the long slushy slog on the way down. Mt. Hood, where the 60 mile an hour winds were blowing me into the mountain and I couldn’t see because the blinding snow had totally occluded all vision.

I remember my first Bikram yoga class in 2007 or so. At that time, Bikram Yoga Orlando was located next to an elevated expressway in an small old strip center (and I mean old – circa 1960s) next to a pet grooming place. That’s the reason I had seen it – I had dropped off the dogs (who are now 14!) and picked up a schedule from the pile outside the door. I’d been doing yoga for a long time and had heard of Bikram, but had never tried it. But I was then working long hours on an arbitration – the precise contours of which have long escaped me – and I thought, maybe this is just what I need as a break.

Bikram is supposed to be practiced at 105 degrees and 40% humidity – and at the new studio it is. But at that old place down on South Street I swear you could see clouds forming overhead and I am sure there were a couple of times rain drops actually came down.

After my first class – and I didn’t leave the room nor did I lie down, despite the heat – I thought – Ok, I’ll try this every other week. But the next week I was back. And, although I’ve kept “regular” Wednesday and Sunday yoga classes, pretty much every week I’m also at Bikram. For someone whose job is comprised of making decisions, to be in an environment where there is no decision except the one to go on is an incredible luxury. I follow what the instructors say; I know the dialogue; and each class I feel my body respond and become stronger. And there is a particular moment where listening to the dialogue and your own physical presence merge and become one – and for once, you can be in the present – no decisions to make except for the one to keep going.

And I don’t want to dismiss my so-called “regular” yoga classes either. Where else have I learned the ability to literally stretch my body into shapes and places it wouldn’t normally go. The beauty of Bikram is that it’s the same every week – but the beauty of the other yoga is that I’m challenged to see where I can move my body in space and create that extra last dimension around me and fill it with movement.

So why does this relate to summits? I’ve learned to control my breathing. On the mountain, I think – breathe normally, in slowly and out even longer. On Elbrus I recited the Bikram dialogue in my head. I went into that quiet place of the present that allows you to take those last few steps that lead to the summit – and just as importantly – that allow you to descend.

The Gear Check

The packing/gear list for these trips always seems to occupy at least 3 single spaced pages and to contain various incomprehensible descriptions such as “soft shell guide pants.” And there is a dreaded moment of truth when you set everything you have for the trip on the bed in your guest bedroom. My stuff on one side of the bed; husband’s on the other. Shared equipment in the middle (such as the multi pack of carabiners – the use of which we only have the vaguest idea).

That’s the moment where (a) somehow despite hours of shopping you seem not to have certain pieces of what could be essential equipment and (b) even if you have it, you don’t have the faintest idea how to use it.

This is what happened on Mt. Hood in June 2012. This was to be our first climb that involved anything as complicated as a climbing harness and a rope – all of which, fortunately, were supplied by the guiding company that operates Mt. Hood climbs. When we got off the snow cat with our guide at 1 a.m. or thereabouts – having taken off or not put on all of our equipment – we were met with over 40 mile an hour winds that rapidly increased to plus 60 mile per hour gusts. This is what I learned:
Cheap dark ski goggles do not provide night vision.
Goggles cannot be pulled over helmets.
It is impossible to pull up a zipper without a long tie when you are wearing thick gloves.
Gaiters outside your pants will let in snow.
There is apparently no such thing as a water proof glove.
Oh, and if you don’t really know how to attach your ice axe to your back pack in a high wind at night said ice axe will definitely be lost. (Husband and I managed to lose both of ours.)

So, lessons learned. And despite the 80 plus degree heat in Florida I plan to spend quite a bit of time rehearsing how to use all my winter climbing gear for Mt. Elbrus. Now, if I can just remember again how to attach my brand new crampons to my boots.