- Written by Ben Jacklet
- Category: Ski Mountaineering
- Last Updated: May 11, 2018
Editor's Note: This Mount Hood adventure took place in May of 2016, but it stands as relevant for any spring season on Mount Hood, where thousands of people climb to the top and ski and snowboard down every year, with all the joy and pleasure and occasional terror that accompanies a climb to and descent from 11,11,249 feet above sea level.
Would you climb a mountain with Donald Trump? Me neither... but I did climb Mount Hood with a Donald Trump impersonator, with winds gusting 50 miles an hour in exactly the wrong direction.
Actually, on the way up it felt like the wind was blowing in exactly the right direction, a strong tailwind boosting me up the mountain as I tried to catch up to my buddy Jason on the way from Palmer to the Hogsback. That's Jason Murray, the killer snowboarder who played Donald Trump with his Running Mate Satan in the Mt. Hood Meadows Pond Skim Contest two weekends before our trip, winning Best Costume. I met Jason through Grant Myrdal, and we shared some epic powder days this winter, the kind of days that are so damn good that you really don't want the season to end, and you're willing to do just about anything to extend the bliss, like climb up thousands of feet of vertical even though you didn't even come close to training for this level of exertion.
This was Jason's first time climbing up to the summit of Mt. Hood, but you never would have guessed by the way he was powering up with his board on his back, getting ever smaller uphill in the distance until he vanished altogether. Jason doesn't work out, doesn't run, just rides hard from first chair to last, whenever the snow is good. Apparently that will do the trick. He's also got the right attitude for adventure. As Grant says, "Jason is down for anything. When he sees a challenge, he's like let's go do it. Now."
It was about 10:30 am on Friday by this point, and about half the traffic was coming downhill. There were a few people butt-sliding down with ice axes for canoe paddles, and a few hardy souls skiing down the climbing route, but I didn't feel particularly envious. The snow was refrozen crud and the ride was anything but smooth between the boot holes everywhere and the chunks of ice. I asked one guy skiing doing how it was going and he admitted not so hot. Skier's right as far as you can go, I recommended. Illumination Saddle. The longest left-footed turn of your life, and then the longest right-footed turn of your life a few thousand feet of vertical later when the snow turns sticky, to avoid the canyons of the Mt. Hood Triangle.
He thanked me and banked a big right turn, bound for the Saddle, where life no doubt improved dramatically for him.
I was struggling a bit with my new ski mountaineering set-up, lacking the key gear element of the thingie that lifts your heel up as the slope steepens. I wasn't flailing, but I wasn't sailing either. Jason was long gone, probably up on the Hogsback wondering what was taking me so long. But each step reminded me that the whole skins thing wasn't working for me. So I took a gear and oxygen break at White River Headwall to pull off my skins, put on my crampons and attach my skis onto my pack, plus drink water and chomp chocolate to try to gather my strength. By the time I finally got started back up on the uphill, I was in a distant last place among the 100 or so people who set out to climb Mt. Hood on this beautiful but blustery May day. Oh well, somebody's got to be last. Much as I hate to admit it, I am 49 years old, and I do weigh 215. The numbers don't lie.
I did manage to catch up to Jason and reach the Hogsback eventually. Ah, the sweet smell of sulfur. Trump's running mate Satan would have felt right at home. It was beautiful up there as always, but a bit crowded. And some of the crowds were roped up climbing parties, which didn't feel particularly good to me downhill from them, because if one of these roped-up climbers goes, they all go, and so goes the rope. And there be fumaroles below, nasty sulfur caves with toxic air that I have no interest in exploring whilst tangled up with a bunch of crampon-wearing climbers I don't even know. In the world of fishing and crabbing the act of standing in the potential path of rope spilling overboard is known as "being in the bite," as in "Get out of the bite, dumb-shit!" So if you don't mind I will move quickly and decisively up-hill from your potentially hazardous rope, thank you very much.
'If you fall, fall left'
It was nice and clear out, but our weather window was due to close fairly soon. After three days of sunshine a storm was moving in for the weekend. So we had clear skies and all sorts of visibility, but something was definitely moving in, because that wind was strong up high.
The wind was a big help powering up the Hogsback and through the Pearly Gates, but it was not helpful at the summit. Not only was it billowing and buffeting my big beloved ON3Ps and Jason's snowboard around like sails, it was also blowing us rather forcefully in a direction we were not eager to go, off the north side of the summit, where things get STEEP in a hurry and stay steep. Maniac friends of mine like Asit Rathod and John Loseth ski the north side from the summit routinely, but one look over that ledge convinced me I was NOT ready for that line. I'll just take five large steps back from here and duck down as low as possible, thanks. Don't mind me. Fawwwwwk.
The wind shortened our stay at the summit, but we did get to witness a cool little ceremony, a young woman spreading the ashes of her sister into the wind at 11,239 feet, then skiing off with her friend.
Another cool thing about being on top of Mt. Hood during a wind storm is watching the ravens ride the wind, overhead. Ravens love big winds, they love altitude, and like all intelligent animals, they love to play. They swoop up, dive down, and then arc into the weather and hold a steady position facing straight into the headwind for a while before arcing off into the distance. Their improvisational flights of fancy bring to mind the in-the-moment flow of an extremely skilled windsurfer in the Gorge when the wind is howling, or dolphins out at sea when the waves are huge. I've got major respect for ravens, and I love to watch them in the wind.
There was no way we were dropping into the refrozen, rope-strewn mess we had just climbed, when sweet lines awaited just a few hundred feet over at West Crater Rim. The only barrier between here and there was that one short ridge. The last time I was on that ridge I remember Asit saying, "If you fall, fall left." Because if you fall to the right you are dead. Of course, falling to the left wouldn't be much fun either. But who knows? Maybe you'd survive that fall.
Jason is facing back to me in this photo, so the north side is to his left:
Nothing like being on top of a mountain with a fierce wind blowing you in exactly the direction you do not want to go. Jason had butt-scooched across to the relatively safe side where he was waiting for me. I stood there for a while trying to decide whether to shit or go blind, gathering my courage for a short walk to relative security. The wind was howling hard enough that it was difficult to communicate. A strong gust kicked up and blew away the velcro thingie holding together my skis at the apex of their A-frame position. Down the silly piece of velcro flew north, gone in an instant. Of all the things that could have tumbled that-away—my ice-axe, one of my skies, me—that little velcro doo-dad seemed the best choice. Still, it was holding my skis stable on my back, and things could get a little weird without it next time a big gust rips through. So. Time to walk the walk before something else gives way.
In the end all it took was a few steps in a straight line, and I was safe. Relatively.
For me, the best part about ski mountaineering is clicking into solid alpine bindings on top of a mountain. Once I have my boards underfoot my heart rate slows, my breathing eases back, and I feel almost giddy with relief and anticipation, because this part I know. This I can do. Back in the 90s I was a skinny-skis, leather-boots telemark guy, stomping around the backcountry free-heel and landing all sorts of spectacular face-plants in the Cascade Concrete. Have I mentioned how much I love modern skis? I can't tell you how nice it is after all those years of balancing on banana peels in the high country to be 11,000 feet up with big, solid skis underfoot and firm boots and bullet-proof bindings. Time to Shred Hood, baby.
The snow was wind-affected and fairly firm up top, but plenty soft to hold an edge. Ball bearings of melting ice rolled downhill underfoot as I cut my first turns down West Crater Rim, skier's right, snaking in and out of the gaps between the beautiful sculptures of ice up there. Jason was right behind me, carving round turns down the steeps, and we angled our way to the right as we dropped down into the cream, shredding that lovely creamed corn all the way to Illumination Saddle, where we took refuge from the wind and broke out the picnic lunch. A crowd of freeskiers was gathered on the saddle to build those huge jumps that send you off into the sunset next to Illumination Rock, and they were joking around and having a fine time. Other skiers were arriving from above, but it never got too crowded, and when we got up to rip it down from the saddle we had the whole wide-open slope to ourselves, with perfect spring snow. It is amazing how much terrain there is to skier's right of Timberline, down the fall line.
Nothing left to do but rip it down the pitch from Illumination Rock and carry our speed down that lovely expanse of spring snow, arcing as many smooth round turns as possible before it all turned to glue and it was time to angle hard left, back to civilization. Beers in the parking lot, videos and photos zinging back and forth from smart phone to smart phone as we returned to our city lives as relatively respectable family guys, pausing every now and then to enjoy a small reminder of the large rewards ever waiting, just beyond the comfort zone.