A Look Back: Padre Castor!

10 pm, May 2nd, I peaked out of my bivy. In my hour of sleep, the rain had turned to snow and the storm had swallowed the once-visible city lights. The mountain itself had disappeared. Anxious, I lay back into the truck bed and zipped shut the bivy. Sleep did not come. Unaware of the intensifying conditions, Tim snored blissfully beside me. 

Mount Hood the day we arrived


At midnight, we talked. With the storm now near whiteout, the start was postponed. But, with water quickly seeping into our sleeping bags, patience was thin. At a break in the white, we abandoned the truck. The endeavor began. It was 1:30. 

Moving upwards, our headlamps intermittently irradiated the falling snow again enveloping us. Single flakes, caught in the beam, glowed incandescently, lighting up the sky in bright white flashes. The illumination, a welcome distraction from our apprehension, was fleeting. Our lights nervously redirected to a more essential purpose, locating the chairlift poles, just 10 meters to our left, which served as the markers for the route’s first stage. We could barely make them out. And this was supposed to be the easy part. 

Tim’s truck bivy

Still, the elevation came quickly. By 3:30, we’d crested 8,500 feet, the top of the ski slope. The groomed trail ended. Compass in hand, we followed some footprints. They seemed headed in the right direction

The slope then steepened, the temperature dropped, and the storm intensified. Needing rest, around 4, we took a break. With elevation inhibiting my appetite, I choked down some water and part of a cliff bar. Then the shivers started. The storm had frozen my jacket. The belay jacket went on. They still didn’t stop. We kept moving. Our brief break was over; rest was not an option. 

Doug on Mount Hood, sometime around 5am

Sometime after, the storm abated. Dawn brightened the sky, revealing the mountain around us. A beautiful picture, but I’d liked dark better. Now able to see more than just a cone of light, I was intimidated by the surroundings. 

Ice axe now in hand, the sulfuric stench of the fumaroles wafted in our direction. Avoiding the most obvious, we switch-backed up a snowfield, now following a group in front of us. With each step, we gained ground. But mountaineering is not a race. Our gains were incremental. They crossed the ridge, temporarily disappearing from our consciousness. 

Tim on the last slope before the crater

Cresting the ridge, we made eye contact with the group. They looked at us like we were crazy. And maybe we were; trying to hike the whole mountain. They’d passed us several hours before in a snow-cat, deeming the first 3000 feet unworthy of anything but motorized travel. 
 
Seeing us approach, they started moving, up the steepest terrain yet. With their progress hindered by another snow-cat aided group, we took a break. I sipped water, trying to encourage the elevation-induced headache to subside. It didn’t. Not surprisingly, I wasn’t hungry either. 
 

Doug smiling despite being turned back before summiting

Restarting, we joined the slow moving line up the slope. Progress was deliberate, due in part to the multiple inches of newly deposited snow which lay precariously on yesterday’s melt-freeze crust. As the guide of the group in front of us kept noting, the avalanche conditions were problematic. 
 
Soon, the parties melded into a whole, one after another cresting into the crater of this mostly dormant volcano. Unsure of conditions, uncertainty prevailed. Uncertain of the route and not wanting to cut in front, Tim and I waited. And waited. Precious minutes passed. Eventually, the guide did some tests. Hastily, I conducted a quick examination. It confirmed his results; not favorable. 
 

Doug above the clouds on Mount Hood

Despite the clients’ noticeable deficiencies, the guide decided to push onwards, up the last 600 feet to the summit. They roped-up, departing the crater‘s southern rim and heading for the narrow chute leading to the summit. The other group got in line.
 
We continued to hesitate. Recent avalanche activity on an adjacent and similarly-angled slope was visible. By continuing, we were placing ourselves in a vulnerable position, at the bottom of a tight chute, in the run-out zone of possible natural and now, with the groups ahead of us, human triggered avalanches. Agreeing that the degree of exposure was too much, the descent began. It was 7 am. Two-plus hours and 5,000 feet of elevation loss still lay ahead. 
 

The Pearly Gates

The tension mostly relieved, and only a downhill slog remaining, sleep kept trying to reclaim my body. Finally back in the parking lot, the ordeal complete, Tim collapsed into the truck bed, falling asleep almost immediately. Jealous, I pointed the borrowed-truck north, heading for my brother’s “cabin” at the so-called Global Headquarters for a Common-Sense Approach to Religion and Reality. Dinner with Father Beaver, my brother’s landlord, awaited. Our humorous introduction, less than twenty-four hours before, now seemed like a distant memory. Really, it was just one long day. 


Doug 5/9/2008

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