Mount Hood Climb, May 2006

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An attempt to climb to the summit of Mt. Hood May, 2006


When we gathered in the parking lot to leave for the Mt. Hood climb, a lot had already happened leading up to this trip. Months before, Peter Green had posted a sign up sheet in his office and encouraged students to consider climbing Mt. Hood this spring. Almost twenty kids signed up for the nine places, eager for adventure. As the actual trip approached, we went on conditioning hikes together, reassured our parents we wouldn’t fall off the mountain, and went to REI to buy gear and rent identical orange boots. Checking the weather reports in the days before the climb, we wondered whether our attempt to summit would be successful. But our hopes were high as we got on the bus that morning.

The first day of the trip we had snow school. We avoided the freezing half-rain, half-snow as long as possible, sitting on the heated floor of Timberline’s entryway while Peter and John Youngman explained the purposes of mountaineering gear. Feeling somewhat well informed, we headed out to a snowy slope above the parking lot. We rest-stepped up the hill and plunge-stepped back down. Greg grumblingly ran back to the bus to get the rope while we learned about avalanches. Then we split into two groups to take turns roping up and self-arresting. The lesson on self-arrests started out civilized but turned into a group wrestling match down the side of the hill. We ate our lunch in the Timberline cafeteria and scared passers-by with our attempts to toss yogurt containers into the trash can.

With snow school over with, we got back in the bus, failed to start it, got a jump, and drove down to the Mazamas lodge. Most people’s gear was soaked so we took over the drying room with packs and jackets and gloves. The rest of the afternoon was spent in cozy comfort, playing card games and foosball and warming ourselves like cats in front of the fireplace. After a dinner of stir-fry, we looked over the latest weather reports and debated when to climb the next day. The weather was supposed to be windy and cold but improve over the course of the day. We eventually settled on waking up at 3 the next morning. I fell asleep right away but kept waking up, wondering groggily if it was time to go yet.

My memories from the early morning are a blur. I remember Mary Green’s voice telling us to get out of bed and pack up our gear, and I remember drinking several cups of earl grey tea. I remember sitting in the bus in the dark, waiting through several unsuccessful attempts at starting it before patience and a jump from Mary’s car got it to shudder to ignition. Before I knew it, we were back in the Timberline parking lot, strapping the last pieces of gear to our packs and starting up the trail.

The sun rose as we climbed, turning the clouds along the horizon hazy pink and purple. Gradually the clouds cleared and the morning sun illuminated the summit. “Wow … that’s high,” I thought as I gazed up at it, and remembered that every step up the snowfield was bringing me closer to it.

As we moved into more open terrain, the wind hit us harder. I pulled up on my neck gaiter and tightened my hood to keep it out. Later I would find a windburn on my cheek, on the one spot that wasn’t covered. We moved in a single file line up the mountain, following exactly in each other’s footsteps. We had to remind ourselves to occasionally look up from the monotonous steps to appreciate the view. Behind us stretched the slope of the mountain, then an expanse of misty clouds dotted with distant peaks.

After traversing the snowfield, we paused by an abandoned chairlift building to rest, and a few members of the group who were suffering left us to head back down the mountain with one of the leaders. At that point, we all wondered if reaching the summit was really a possibility. The wind didn’t seem to be letting up like we had hoped. We pressed on determined to stick together and at least reach the top of the ski run. When we finally did, we dropped our packs and exchanged hugs. Peter told us it was time to turn around, and even though we were disappointed no one argued.

Halfway back down, we gathered in the lee of Silcox Hut and Peter explained why we had turned around. Higher up on the mountain it looked like the wind would still be blowing hard. While we seemed to be doing fine while we were hiking, we would all risk frostbite in stopping for five minutes to rope up and put on crampons. He also told us to be sure to tell others the truth about what we had done, to neither downplay nor exaggerate the climb. So here’s the truth: Although we failed to reach the summit, the trip wasn’t a failure at all. We learned about mountaineering, and about each other and ourselves. We hiked to the top of Palmer, halfway up the mountain, in icy 30 mph winds. The weather was bad, so we made the wise decision to turn back. We went as far as the mountain would let us that day. And at some point in the future, we’ll try again.