Of Uncertain Outcome
By Rick Mannshardt
Part 1 of 4
TIMELINE: June 2001, Mount Hood, Oregon
Early on the second day of the climb, still hours from the summit of Mount Hood, I said to myself, I’ll never do this again. With the volcanic throat of the mountain waiting one careless step below me, it was just too harrowing; too stressful. I didn’t like having to expend so much energy worrying about my safety; worrying about the consequences if I screwed up. And the danger was only going to get worse.
Several hours later, standing beside the ominously named Pearly Gates, we watched two young women, perhaps 25 years old, materialize through the clouds. They’d just come from the summit. Joined together by a twenty-foot length of climbing rope, they passed within a few feet of us. Wispy strands of ice blown from a frigid wind clung to every part of their bodies. Frost matted their hair. Icicles grew from their eyebrows and lashes. With down jackets and pants more white than black, the two figures looked like ghosts… mummies… angels.
The woman at the rear stopped briefly beside me without saying a word. Her long blonde hair, falling down below her woolen cap, was as white as an old woman’s. She looked like she’d just been hauled out of a meat locker. I thought, My god, what are we getting ourselves into? The summit that we still couldn’t see was up there– now waiting for us. As soon as the women had passed, we proceeded up into that same cloud ourselves…
It’s been said that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. On a clear morning in June of 2001, my brother and I began a two-day climb up Oregon’s Mount Hood– with a group of complete strangers. That’s not the way we wanted it; we preferred climbing with people we knew and trusted. Yet the trip we’d signed on with was open to anyone with sufficient funds and the desire to reach the summit. How these strangers would perform on the mountain was, of course, unknown.
Initially, Steve was convinced the group would be full of beginners—inexperienced and unprepared. I felt differently, thinking we might just find ourselves struggling to keep up. Regardless, we both failed to take something more important into account: teamwork. With everyone tethered to a common rope, the weaker members aren’t simply a hindrance to themselves. They endanger the entire group. Yet until we got onto the mountain, we wouldn’t know. Any one of us could easily be that weakest link in the chain.
Though it’s a full 3,000 feet lower in elevation, Hood seemed far more intimidating than Shasta, the 14,000 foot Northern California peak I’d climbed more than a dozen times by this point. Hood’s northerly location, steep glaciated slopes and notoriously dangerous weather make it the scene of far more injuries, disappearances, and deaths. And unlike Shasta, every one of Hood’s routes is technical. There’s no way to simply walk to the summit with a pair of crampons and an ice axe. That’s why we’d hired a professional guide.
As several weeks of waiting went by, the excitement (and some measure of anxiety) continued to build. On the morning before we were scheduled to leave for the mountain, I was working as a carpenter. Counting down the hours till quitting time, I was hoping to get through my last day before the trip without incident. I was lying flat on my stomach twenty feet off the ground, repairing the flimsy chicken wire roof of an aviary, using a sheet of plywood to distribute my weight. I’m pretty sure this roof wasn’t designed for this sort of thing. It swayed every time I moved. So I tried not to move very much.
When I’d finished the job, I climbed back down as carefully as I could, relieved that I’d gotten through it without any problems. Then as I was pulling the plywood off the roof, it slipped out of my hand. The edge of the 60-pound sheet came down on my right foot with its full weight behind it. I thought my foot was broken.
Later that evening, not only was it still hurting, but the tingling in my foot suggested some sort of neurological damage. Yet there was no swelling or discoloration, and I could put my full weight on it. These conflicting symptoms were hard to interpret. It wasn’t until I gently coaxed my foot into two socks and a climbing boot that I was convinced Mount Hood was still possible. But I still didn’t know what was wrong with it—or if it was going to get worse.
Arrival at the Mountain
Two days later after a 700 mile drive, Steve and I found ourselves in a basement staging room at Timberline Lodge on the southern flank of the mountain, meeting the other members of the team.
Our guide’s name was Dylan. Tall, well built and strikingly good-looking, he could’ve been the twin of actor Keanu Reeves. I liked his manner from the start—competent, yet casual and with a good sense of humor.
The other two climbers, Robert and Artie, were 35 year old commercial real estate agents who lived just over the border in Washington state. Weekend warriors who’d been friends for several years, they seemed reasonably fit and looked like they could take care of themselves.
Then came the question I didn’t want to hear. Dylan asked if any of us had any physical problems that might compromise our ability to make the climb. He said it was better to admit any problems now, while there was still time to do something about it. Nearly 48 hours after the injury, a periodic hot buzzing throb was still emanating from my foot. I looked around the room, surrounded by macho sports posters and shelves full of professional climbing gear. No one in the group was saying a word.
In the silence I couldn’t help thinking that somehow Dylan knew about my foot and was testing me. Yet in a vote of self-confidence over integrity I opted to keep quiet. Rationalizing, I knew that once the climb got underway there’d be a whole load of new concerns to take my mind off my poor little foot…
Dylan then told everyone to dump the neatly organized contents of their packs onto the floor. His motive: trust but verify. He needed to be sure that we’d brought exactly what the official packing list had dictated—nothing more, nothing less. Realizing this was probably our only chance to climb Hood, Steve and I had taken that list seriously. In fact we’d contacted the guide service numerous times in the previous weeks, asking questions about various pieces of equipment to make sure we were bringing exactly the right gear.
Yet not everyone approaches life this way. Two such people were sitting on the floor across from us. As Dylan went down the list one item at a time, it became clear that Artie and Robert weren’t only inexperienced climbers; they had trouble following simple directions. One piece of equipment after another that they’d brought was either unnecessary or completely inadequate. Some items were missing altogether.
Artie seemed to excel at this lack of preparedness. He had no boots, no ice axe or crampons; half his clothes were made of cotton, and his protective leg gaiters were as thin and useless as sandwich bags. Even his water bottles were the wrong type (the list was particularly clear about this last item.) It made me wonder how a guy like this managed to close a single sale in the real estate market.
According to Robert, Artie preferred to do things his own way. This philosophy may have worked great for a day at the beach, but not for climbing a snow-covered volcano. It looked like our guide was going to have his hands full keeping an eye on him.
Rummaging through a nearby cabinet, Dylan managed to locate some spare gear to fill in the gaps in Artie’s supplies. I guess he’d come across this situation before.
At one point, another guide wandered in and began to chat with Dylan. In his late twenties, tan and fit, he’d just returned from a climb, and couldn’t help sharing some of the juicier details of his trip. I overheard only about half the conversation, but managed to learn that he’d been through a hell of an ordeal at the summit. When the guy said that they needed “seven layers of clothing but were still cold,” and that “the ice-laden wind was an absolute killer,” I started getting worried– they said we needed only five layers for this trip. Just when my confidence had eroded to a new low, I realized that the guide wasn’t even talking about Hood. He’d just returned from 20,000 foot Denali in Alaska!
After dividing the communal gear (food, stove, fuel, tent, snow shovels, rope, etc.) among ourselves, we stuffed it in our packs with the rest of our gear. I opted for the food, since it took up the least amount of space. (I’d also learned from experience that by carrying the food, your pack becomes mercifully lighter throughout the trip.)
By this point we’d already burned up a good chunk of the morning. Dylan didn’t seem to be in any real hurry. He still hadn’t gotten fully dressed. Realizing the time, he threw on the rest of his clothes and managed to get us out the door by 9 o’clock. Before we even left the building I managed to jab myself in the wrist with my ice axe as I hastily shouldered my pack in the hallway. No blood; I just nicked the skin.
Hitting the Trail
Today’s goal was relatively modest: to reach our base camp at 9,000 feet, where we’d spend the night in preparation for our summit attempt early the next morning. It wasn’t going to be very exciting; actually it was going to be one long laborious slog up the glacier. But on the plus-side, today would be reasonably safe. Dylan mentioned that he’d been up to the campsite a few days earlier, and had spent some time digging a level platform in the snow for our tent. Those of us who’d dug tent platforms in the past were very happy to hear this.
Dylan set a brisk pace across the Palmer snow field that rose gradually from the lodge. Around us were hundreds of boot prints from earlier climbers, preserved in the snow. It made me think of the many trips on Mount Shasta I’d taken with my brothers. Yet the similarity ended there; the pace here was much faster than I was accustomed to. And the rest breaks were too infrequent. Making things more challenging still was the temperature, which had quickly soared into the sixties. Apparently I was overdressed; within the first half hour a flood of sweat and sunscreen was stinging my eyes. Already this trip wasn’t as fun as I was expecting. I wanted to say something about the pace, but I was trying to fit in.
Artie, on the other hand, clearly wasn’t. He wasted no time becoming a worry for Dylan– and the rest of us. Apparently our manly pace wasn’t fast enough for him. He pulled ahead and went off on his own, hiking twenty yards ahead of the group. This wasn’t a problem until the trail approached a particular snow-covered ridge.
Dylan called out to him to stop but Artie kept walking. So he called again… still no answer. After yelling a third time was he able to get Artie’s attention and waved him back. It was only after Artie sauntered over to re-join the group that he learned we were dangerously close to a crevasse hidden beneath the snow. Ooops. After that he stayed with the group, but I sensed this wouldn’t be the last time he’d be a cause for worry.
Part 2 of 4
We Reach Our Camp
Four monotonous hours later, after passing the upper end of the ski lift and a small hut surrounded by several groups of cavorting snow boarders, we reached an outcropping of exposed rock at 9,000 feet that overlooked the entire southern face of the mountain. Dylan turned to us:
“This is it,” he said. “Base camp!”
Relieved but surprised, I was expecting more shelter from the wind and certainly a more level area, but I couldn’t complain. The long grunt was over; we could take it easy for the rest of the day. In unison we threw our packs down in the snow.
To the west stood the craggy spires of Illumination Rock, the most prominent feature on the mountain. It stands out like the conning tower of a submarine, giving Hood one of the most recognizable profiles of all the Cascades. Taking in the view, we could see the lodge down in the distance. Off on the horizon lay Mount Jefferson, fifty miles to the south. What we didn’t see however, was the tent platform that was supposed to be waiting for us. During the past few days, enough snow had fallen to completely obliterate Dylan’s hard work.
We all knew what that meant. After only a few minutes to rest, we hauled out the snow shovels and ice axes. While Dylan sketched an outline with his axe, we started in, re-leveling the 10 x 16 foot platform in the side of the mountain. The slope was such that we needed to dig the high side down by nearly three feet. It was exhausting work. In the time since the snow had fallen, it had re-frozen into a layer of virtual armor. We traded off with the two shovels, each man taking a five-minute shift that felt like twenty.
After nearly half an hour, it began to look like something. But it was far from finished. We stripped off a layer of clothing in the heat and continued working. Somehow, the subject of girlfriends came up. Dylan began to muse about the young woman he was currently living with.
“Man, when I got out of bed this morning,” he said, “I looked back and saw these two sexy little braids sticking out from under the sheets. I said to myself: Damn, I don’t want to climb a mountain this morning. I wanna go back to bed.”
He stopped shoveling for a moment, straightening his back. Robert made a similar remark, agreeing how nice it was to wake up next to someone special. “Yeah, she’s fantastic,” Dylan continued, “… tall, blonde, German … and really athletic.” At this point, I’m envisioning him living with the St. Pauli Beer girl. His life sounded pretty good to me. He went on:
“We do a lot of outdoor stuff together too… climbs, white-water trips… And she’s really supportive… always there for me. I tell ya, they just don’t make ‘em like her anymore.”
I’d never heard a man in his twenties admit to being so appreciative of his partner. And he wasn’t just talking about sex. Dylan was surprisingly mature for his age, and had the enviable trait of already knowing what he wanted out of life. And more importantly, he was doing it. In addition to being a mountain guide, he was an avid whitewater kayaker, a snowboarder, and of all things, a poet.
This last item impressed me the most. The world is thick with macho types these days— extreme sports fanatics who thrive on the edge of constant danger. It was refreshing to meet one with something more sensitive than testosterone coursing through his veins. Previously married, he’d been with this girlfriend for only five months, yet he appeared to have it all figured out.
While the four of us continued to work on the platform, Dylan walked twenty paces across the slope and began digging our latrine. On Hood, as with many of the more popular mountains these days, policy requires that bathroom duties be accomplished in a small plastic bag. Climbers then pack this solid waste off the mountain at the end of the trip to help protect the alpine watershed. The snow “latrine” Dylan was constructing for us would merely provide privacy and protection from the elements. We still had to poo in the little baggies.
With the groundwork done, it was now time to set up the tent. This thing was so heavy it had taken two people to carry all of it. I’d never seen one so large on a climb before. The two and three person tents that dotted the campsites of Shasta and Whitney were tiny by comparison. Dylan said this one could sleep six, and was aptly named the “Himalayan Hotel.” Yet by the time the five of us managed to cram inside it that night, it wouldn’t seem that big anymore.
A Classroom in the Snow
As promised in the brochure, the first day of our climb included a brief class called “Basic Snow.” This hands-on session was mandatory for anyone wanting to summit Mount Hood with this particular guide service. For the next hour we’d be learning the basics of snow travel—the use of crampons, ice axe, rope and harness, as well as footwork, balance, and self rescue techniques. Steve and I had been using many of these techniques on our own for several years now, but had never been professionally taught. Although we’d had no problems in all that time, we soon found out that we’d been doing several things wrong. Here was a chance to forget what we knew and make a fresh start. On the sloped snow bank just above camp, Dylan led us through various scenarios we might encounter on the mountain and taught us the techniques to deal with them.
Then he paused to tell a story regarding the use of ice axes. It was his opinion that climbers shouldn’t use the strap that’s attached to the head of the axe. If you’re falling out of control, he said, the last thing you need is some “sharp pointy steel thing” flying around next to you. He believed it was better to simply grasp the axe in your hand. If you find yourself totally out of control, just let it go. He then told us why.
A young woman on a recent climbing expedition with several male companions slipped and fell on a steep slope. The axe, attached to her wrist by the long nylon strap, managed to get caught underneath her as she continued to tumble out of control. When she landed on it, the eight-inch long head of the axe ripped through her clothes and severed the femoral artery in her groin. Unable to notice the blood beneath her waterproof wind pants and hesitant to check, the other members of the group did nothing. As a result, the woman bled to death. While Dylan continued with the lesson, Steve and I began removing the straps from our own axes.
During a subsequent demonstration on self-arrest (stopping one’s self from sliding on snow or ice) Dylan had us fall on our backs with our heads pointed downhill. This isn’t a fun position to be in, even when you’re not moving. Once we started to slide we were supposed to flip over on our stomach and use our ice axe to spin around 180 degrees, and then drive the axe deeper into the snow to stop ourselves. It took considerable practice to get good at this move, using your core muscles and keeping your arms flexed to keep from dislocating your shoulder. Halfway through the lesson, Dylan noticed that Artie was still on his feet, standing off to the side by himself. When asked why he wasn’t participating with the rest of us, Artie replied:
“Oh, I’m fine right here. You guys are doing OK by yourselves.”
Dylan had seen enough by this time. With Artie out of earshot, he pulled Robert aside and whispered:
“Is he all right, or is he just being Artie?”
Robert had known him for several years. He wasn’t concerned.
“No, he’s just bein’ Artie. He’s always been sort of a loose cannon.”
Dylan wasn’t completely convinced. He turned to face the other direction.
“No, I think he’s getting loopy from the altitude,” he said under his breath. The lesson continued without Artie’s participation, though he did agree to watch.
With the class concluded and all of the necessary work done, we spent the remainder of the afternoon at leisure. Everyone found something to occupy his time. Robert slept. Steve read a book. I tried to stay hydrated. Artie gazed at the view. And most likely, Dylan worried about Artie.
Evening on the Mountain
About 6 o’clock, Dylan fired up the stove to begin preparing dinner. The first course consisted of a hearty cheddar and broccoli soup. This in itself would’ve been enough to satisfy me, but then again, when I’m on a climb, I eat like a squirrel. The much anticipated couscous and carrots were a big hit, although Dylan had made enough to feed a small platoon.
Dylan kept pushing us to take in as many calories as we could manage, so regardless of appetite, we forced ourselves to keep eating. Artie however, continued to vex us with his aberrant behavior. While most of us were already into our third servings, he remained off by himself sitting on a rock, fumbling with his unused eating utensils and a tube of toothpaste. Dylan couldn’t help noticing.
“He’s definitely getting dehydrated,” he whispered to the rest of us.
He’d noticed earlier that Artie wasn’t drinking enough water which can often lead to altitude problems. He’d warned him about it several times. But Dylan knew there was only so much that he could do for the guy. Ultimately Artie would have to take care of himself. But since his behavior affected the safety of the group, he did need to be watched.
High above our camp on a steep section of snow, a party of climbers was making their way toward the summit. Dylan watched them for a minute, skeptical. Though there were still two full hours of usable daylight left, it was far too late to be on that part of the mountain. The sun had been warming the snow all day. Right now, it was at its softest and most dangerous. Hundreds of feet above the climbers, huge ramparts of loose volcanic rock lay waiting. By now, the rest of us had noticed the group too, and were watching them. Dylan turned toward us.
“You know what I don’t like about that sort of thing?” he motioned. “If those guys get into trouble, I’m the one who’s gonna have to hike up there and rescue ‘em. I mean, if people want to act stupid on this mountain, that’s their business. There’s nothing I can do about it. But company policy requires me to go to their aid if they screw up. And you know what that means for you guys?” he asked rhetorically. “You can pretty much forget about making the summit. That’s what really sucks. I mean, right now, you guys are probably better trained and better equipped than 75% of the climbers on this mountain.”
“You’re shittin’ me,” I said. “That’s a scary thought.”
“It’s true. Most of these people hardly know what they’re doing.”
While the climbers continued up the slope we finished up the last of the couscous as the sun began to turn the clouds, and the entire mountain above us, a storybook shade of pink.
On a climb, once dinner is finished and cleaned up, there isn’t much left to do with the remainder of the day. Within half an hour, even though it was still light, everyone was heading for bed. We needed to be up at 4:00 AM for our summit attempt the next morning, so sack time was in short supply.
According to the design of the aforementioned Himalayan Hotel, the six bodies are supposed to lie next to each other (not unlike sardines in a can) parallel to the doors, which lie at either end of the tent. This means that only two people have easy access in and out. Realizing this, we all began maneuvering for the best spots. Finding one of the doors already blocked, I quickly slipped my sleeping bag and pad next to the other one, hoping no one would notice. I knew from experience that after keeping well hydrated throughout the day, I’d be up at least two more times in the middle of the night to pee. Yet my plan was foiled. As I was crawling inside, Dylan yelled from the kitchen area:
“Whoever’s nearest that door, leave enough space for me. I might need access to the stove tomorrow morning from inside the tent.”
Relegated to one of the inner spots, I telepathically convinced my bladder to go to sleep with the rest of me. After settling into my allotted 18 inches of space, I zipped up my bag, popped in a pair of earplugs and tried to get unconscious as soon as possible. But I knew I was kidding myself. I couldn’t recall a single climbing or backpacking trip where I’d been able to get more than two or three hours of sleep the first night. It came as no surprise that Dylan beat me to it. Within ten minutes he was sawing wood like a lumberjack. So was the rest of the group. It was going to be a noisy night. I looked up at the ceiling of the tent, barely four feet above my face. It was still light enough to read a book.
A few hours later, jammed in between Dylan’s shoulders, Steve’s knees, and my empty boots, I was still awake. Contemplating for perhaps the twelfth time as to why I kept putting myself through this sort of thing, a flash of light caught my attention. Only now did I realize that a stiff wind had been blowing– along with the unmistakable patter of tiny snowflakes against the fabric of the tent. Thirty seconds later the distant rumble of thunder confirmed it. A storm was coming.
Weather is probably the single most critical factor in the success of a climb. Mount Hood’s weather was notorious for being rapid and unpredictable. The bucolic sunset we’d enjoyed before bed hadn’t given any clue as to what lay ahead. Another flash lit up the interior of the tent. The snoring from the other four continued uninterrupted, even through the next roll of thunder. It didn’t sound any closer, but the wind was picking up, and snow continued to blow. It was well past midnight at this point—less than four hours until we had to get up. Several more sets of lightning and thunder came and went. I didn’t see how the weather could possibly clear in time. It seemed obvious now that we wouldn’t be able to make a summit attempt. Almost relieved, I fell into a light sleep for the remainder of the night.
Part 3 of 4
The next thing I knew, Dylan’s alarm was beeping. He unzipped the door of the tent and poked his head out. Three seconds later, he pulled it back in and zipped up the door again. Then he fell back down and buried his head in his bag. I guess he didn’t like what he saw out there. Well that settles it, I thought. We’re not going. A minute later though he sat back up, turned to us and said:
I bolted upright and mechanically began the process. Soon the tent was a writhing mass of arms and legs, all struggling to get dressed before stepping out into the darkness. Even with head lamps, it was hard to see what you were doing. Dylan reached into a bag and threw each of us a couple of granola bars.
“Here’s your breakfast.”
Dylan was a firm believer in the cold breakfast philosophy. According to him, the less time it took to get up and out of camp on summit morning, the better. Graciously, he augmented the meal with an orange for each of us. But he still had us on a brutal Marine Corps schedule, insisting that we be on the trail in less than half an hour. (The night before he said he was aiming for 15 minutes!) Good God. That’s barely enough time to eat and get dressed; which doesn’t leave much room for dealing with bodily functions or re-checking one’s pack. I’d hoped to do both. Sure enough, my system needed more time to work with. Still clutching my folded little baggie, I came back from the latrine empty-handed.
I hate being hurried. With the five of us stumbling around outside in the darkness, things were getting off to an anxious start. It seemed like everyone in the group was more together than I was, but that probably wasn’t true. Men are so good at keeping their problems to themselves. I was sure I was forgetting something crucial, but I’d gone over everything in my mind so many times now that I was numb. Despite the mass confusion, the five of us managed to scramble out of camp in the allotted thirty minutes.
As we started up the darkened slope, my stomach was tight. I’d left half of my orange lying in the snow beside the tent. And I was hoping my uncooperative bowels wouldn’t decide to awaken before we got back. The steep upper slopes of the mountain were no place to be squatting down with your pants around your ankles. In short, it was the beginning of a typical summit day.
Our technical gear remained in our packs for now. Until conditions demanded otherwise, we’d get by without it. All we had to work with for the time being were the trekking poles we’d been using since we left the lodge. With Dylan in the lead, we continued toward the summit that was waiting 2,200 feet above us in the darkness.
Aside from the snow beneath our feet, there wasn’t much to see. Cloud cover blanketed the sky—and much of the mountain up ahead. Dreary and dim, things didn’t look too promising. But Dylan wasn’t concerned about visibility. Having spent the last four years guiding climbs on Hood, he knew the route well enough without it. He was more interested in two other things: air temperature and the firmness of the snow. Several times, he stopped to assess both factors. The reason? The area we were approaching was steep and unstable. Avalanches and rock fall were extremely likely.
Hood, like most volcanoes, is one monstrous pile of loose rock. Snow, along with a few prayers, is the only thing holding all that rock in place. And air temperature is the only thing holding the snow in place. In order to get through here alive, we needed everything to stay right where it was.
Every year, despite the prayers, a little more of Mount Hood falls downhill. Gravity, like rust, never sleeps. Dylan said he’d seen rocks the size of basketballs flying down from the summit. He said they looked like they’d been fired out of a cannon. If one of them were to hit you on its way down, it would definitely take you with it. The helmets we’d brought to protect against rock fall were useless against that kind of artillery. It was crucial therefore to stay out of the danger zone when rock fall was likely to occur.
This was the reasoning behind our pre-dawn start this morning. We needed to be out of that zone before the snow started to soften. Dylan had determined 8 AM to be our turnaround time. This meant he wanted us off the summit and on our way back down by then. Other things might have been negotiable, but there was to be no discussion about this one rule. As soon as he said that, I thought of Artie. I imagine Dylan did too.
By 5:30 it was already beginning to get light. We stashed the head lamps in our packs and continued on. An hour later, Dylan stopped at a level spot on the trail and told us to give up our trekking poles. The terrain was steeper up ahead, requiring the use of ice axes from here on in. Poles, he said, would only get in the way. One by one, he stuck them upright in the snow beside the trail and we continued on without them.
I was a bit concerned. I’d been having periodic knee problems for the past two years—(probably from pack-hiking on granite trails and diving to the floor during twelve years of volleyball.) Investing in a pair of trekking poles had been the one thing that had allowed me to continue enjoying the mountains. So it was difficult for me to leave my poles behind in the snow; I felt vulnerable without them. In fact, a full twenty minutes passed before I gave up on the thought of going back for them.
The weather that had looked questionable earlier had manifested into a solid wall of cloud, which now completely obscured the upper half of the mountain. Moisture-laden air pulled from the nearby Columbia River Gorge contributes to Hood’s reputation as one of the cloudiest peaks in the Cascade Range. On the several occasions I’ve visited the Portland area over the years, I’d never once seen the entire mountain free of cloud cover. On some days, I couldn’t see it at all. I’ve often wondered which particular day of the year those gorgeous calendar shots of Mount Hood were taken. It certainly wasn’t in June.
By the look of things, that white wall ahead of us was going to remain there. There’d be no dramatic clearing of the clouds; no blue-skied dawn. If we wanted to reach the summit of this mountain, we had no choice but to pass through it—to actually venture up inside that cloud.
For me, this brought our adventure to a whole new level. I’d been caught in a whiteout only once before. I didn’t like it. The risk of getting lost is only part of the problem. With so little visibility, there’s also no way to see whatever might be hurtling down from above– be it rock, snow, or jagged chunks of ice. Worse, you can step off a white ridge into the nothingness of white airspace before you even know what’s happened. And being inside a cloud increases the risk of being struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. Add to this, the whole psychological trip— the uncertainty, the anxiety, and the poor judgment that comes as a result. Any way you look at it, whiteouts are a fancy word for trouble. Over the years, I’ve learned to turn around and head back down whenever this sort of trouble showed its face.
But things were different this time. Escorted by an experienced guide, we ascended into the depths of a cloud that none of us would ever have attempted on our own. When visibility instantly shrank to 30 feet, so did our entire world. The feeling was eerie— silent whiteness in every direction. Things couldn’t have been more disorienting if we were hiking through a cave. But none of that mattered as long as one of us knew which way to go.
In single file with Dylan in the lead, we continued up the slope, each of us following the only person he could see– ten feet ahead of him. Feeling both lost and found at the same time, I had no choice but trust that our guide knew exactly what he was doing and could get us through this.
The Throat of the Beast
Yet this security wouldn’t last long. Ahead of us lay one of the most formidable features on the south face of the mountain: the sulfur fumaroles of the Devil’s Kitchen. The Hogback route skirts the edge of these active volcanic vents, where constant emissions of hot gas and steam seep into the atmosphere. Geologists say that Hood is one of the most likely of all the Cascade volcanoes to erupt in the near future. Standing beside a steaming fumarole makes you believe that this could occur at any moment.
I’d seen small fumaroles before. Several times, I’ve hiked past the one just below the summit of Mount Shasta. There, an innocuous trickle of steaming water seeps out of a crack in the rocks, sending the distinctive smell of sulfur a few yards downwind. That particular fumarole is easy to spot and easy to avoid so I never gave it much thought. Hell, John Muir and a buddy of his actually spent the night lying down in it one time—the hot water kept them from freezing to death. But the one we were approaching now was a different sort of animal.
Dylan had warned us about it the day before at base camp. What made this one so much more dangerous was its location and its size. It’s a monster. And the trail we needed to follow inched along a sharp ridge directly above the monster’s gaping vent. If you lost your footing on the ridge you stood a good chance of tumbling down the 45-degree slope into the toxic fumes. The atmosphere waiting at the bottom was a virtual oxygen void.
A macabre phenomenon had been known to play out here. Anyone unfortunate enough to fall into the fumarole would quickly be overcome by the gas, and would lose consciousness. Invariably, another member of the team would venture in to rescue him, and be overcome himself. Then someone else would attempt to rescue them, with the same results. On at least one occasion, an entire group of climbers was later found near the steaming vent, having died of slow asphyxiation. It sounded like a horrid way to go. But until we got closer to it, the fumarole wasn’t worth worrying about.
Our altitude was approaching 10,000 feet. If it had been clear today we’d have been soaking up calendar views of the evergreen state of Oregon. But from within the clouds, our eyes experienced nothing but white. We could’ve been anywhere on earth. Location, direction, and time of day had become mere abstractions. Our only reality was the steepness of the slope and the increasingly real possibility of falling from it.
This was where the previous day’s training began to kick in. I’d never paid much attention to my footwork in the past. I never needed to. Yet now, it was the only thing that mattered. As if enduring a deadly serious dance lesson, I found myself mentally rehearsing each move: Place your axe… Move your left foot… Move your right foot… Place your axe… and so on. Whenever we stopped during a traverse, I made sure to keep my uphill foot forward; whenever we changed directions, I made sure to use the splayed-toed stance known as “duck.” One slow step at a time, the world had shrunk to the three feet of space directly in front of me.
Nothing outside of that sphere registered until I heard Dylan say we were now approaching the Devil’s Kitchen. This was it. We couldn’t see it and for the moment we couldn’t smell it, but he assured us the fumarole was down there at the bottom of the slope. Any shift of the wind would’ve sent the acrid rotten egg stench of hydrogen sulfide gas in our direction. This far from the vent however, the vapors weren’t dangerous— merely a potent warning.
At this point, we weren’t using the rope. Having sufficient faith in our ice axe skills, Dylan felt confident we didn’t need it yet, so it remained coiled inside his pack. Like any other piece of equipment, Dylan knew there was a right and a wrong time to use it. He’d seen too many situations where people had got into trouble because of their gear—not for lack of it. This meant however, there wouldn’t be a second chance if any of us screwed up here.
I peered over my right shoulder into the abyss. I wanted to see something— something I could grasp or define, even if only out of fear. Nearly every mountain I’d ever climbed was a volcano. Within the heart of each of them burned this same fire—the same deadly power. Here finally was a chance to see its face.
But there was none to see. Only a blank mask of cloud stared back at me. I returned my attention to the snow beneath my feet, once again summoning the footwork mantra to guide me. Steve was only a dozen feet ahead, yet I was barely aware of him. I don’t think I would’ve noticed a $100 bill lying three feet from the trail. Stay focused, I kept repeating to myself. One slip and gravity would finish the job.
It brought to mind the harrowing desert rescue scene from the Star Wars film Return of the Jedi, where Luke Skywalker is suspended above the pit where the huge gurgling mouth of the Sarlacc is waiting to devour him. The fact that we couldn’t see this monster didn’t make it any less frightening.
Staying focused on our footwork and balance, we eventually managed to climb high enough and got off the ridge—away from the Devil’s Kitchen and out of reach of the waiting fumarole. The danger was past, at least for now.
All this time the whiteout continued to envelop us. Unable to see above us or below, our progress was difficult to gauge; mental energy difficult to budget. So it was hard to envision the whole picture; you never knew when you could stop holding your breath. Then Dylan once again called for the team to stop. What now, I thought.
“Welcome to the Hogback!” he yelled. I wasn’t sure if this was good news or bad.
Steep Pathway to the Top
We now stood on the foot of the knife-edged ridge that would take us nearly all the way to the summit. But with only twenty feet of visibility we couldn’t see anything. Still obscured by cloud, the dramatic scale of the upper mountain remained a mystery– an enigma like the Devil’s Kitchen. Huddled together on the ridge and surrounded by utter whiteness, we could only imagine the scope of our surroundings.
Then Dylan informed us that we’d be leaving our packs here. Apparently this wasn’t just a rest stop. It was our staging area for the summit. Ahead of us lay the most dangerous pitch of the climb, so we’d be using the rope from this point on. Packs, he said, would only get in the way. This meant that anything else we wanted to bring along– cameras, water bottles or good luck teddy bears would have to fit into our pockets. I remember wishing that I’d known about this earlier. But there wasn’t time to gripe about it. We threw on one final windproof layer and pulled all the climbing gear out of our packs.
We didn’t have much room to work with. Although we’d practiced getting into our harnesses the day before in camp, it still seemed like the first time. Dealing with our crampons and helmets was only slightly easier. Fumbling with straps and buckles while trying to stay balanced on the ridge, I felt like I was teetering on a tiny island in the middle of a shark-infested sea. Often hanging onto each other for balance while standing on one foot, I don’t think any of us moved more than a few inches during the entire operation.
While the three of us continued getting into our gear, Dylan noticed Artie fumbling around in his pack. Then, out came a roll of toilet paper. Dylan shot him a disbelieving glare that needed no translation: You can’t be serious! You’re going to get yourself killed if you try to deal with that here!
I wasn’t sure if it was Dylan’s Look of Death that persuaded Artie to delay his bodily functions or he was simply rearranging his belongings for later. Either way, Dylan’s panic subsided when Artie eventually returned the roll to his pack and continued getting ready.
Dylan then began to pile our packs along the edge of the ridge so they’d be secure from the wind. When I handed him mine, he groaned.
“What do you have in here—a baby elephant?”
“Just the head,” I assured him.
He then tied the packs to the one trekking pole he’d been saving. As we were getting ready to go, stuffing cameras and water bottles into our parkas, voices came through the mist from below. Another climbing team was just reaching the Hogback. Leading the group was Greg, the head of the guide service whom we knew from our earlier correspondence.
“Nice day for a climb!” he called out, grinning.
I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic. But it didn’t matter. Everyone in his group was pumped up, ready to push on to the summit. We chatted with them briefly.
Then Dylan arranged us in a line along the rope he’d laid out on the snow. It was time to clip in. The order he’d established was by no means random; he’d thought this though carefully. He started by positioning himself at the lead.
“Artie,” he said, motioning him over, “You’re next to me.”
“Oh that’s OK. I can be down at the end,” Artie offered.
“No. I want you up here with me,” he repeated.
Robert was right about Artie. Every time the group was doing something, Artie wanted to do something else. Apparently he saw no reason to be a team player, and seemed to view Dylan’s instructions as mere suggestions. Predictable only in his unpredictability, he never once broke character. I was beginning to think he was doing it just to be difficult. But as Robert had said, he’s just bein’ Artie.
Either way, he’d failed to instill much confidence. And this was the last place we wanted to have to worry about him. From here on in, every move he’d make would directly affect the safety of the group. Dylan was keenly aware of this as he clipped the carabiner on the front of Artie’s harness into a knotted loop on the rope and locked it down.
Robert was next, followed by Steve, with me at the end; each of us clipped into the rope in the same manner. Dylan was using a technique known as short-roping. Generally, the distance between climbers on a rope might be twenty feet or more, to allow room to maneuver in the event of a crevasse fall. But here, it was simply a matter of keeping us from slipping off the ridge. This also allowed Dylan to have more control over his biggest problem. If Artie got into trouble, which was becoming increasingly probable, Dylan would only be seven or eight feet away.
Just as we were leaving, a third team reached the foot of the Hogback. But there was no time to chat. We had to keep moving.
Earlier, while creeping above the mouth of the fumarole, I’d told myself that I’d never do this climb again; I felt I was always one step away from tragedy. Even the day before at base camp, I was uneasy. Despite our safe perch at a balmy 9,000 feet, I was never fully able to relax. I was restless, preoccupied with the many dangers awaiting us.
This was a typical mindset for me. Most of my climbs have begun tentatively—one foot in, one foot out. But now on the rope, a sense of strength and confidence found me. Ironically, it was a bizarre time to be feeling safe. The most treacherous part of the mountain lay ahead of us. And we were now tethered inextricably to a man whose judgment we knew to be suspect. Still, I found myself enjoying the upper mountain more than any other part of the climb. Sometimes, I guess, the best and the worst happen at the same time. Ready for some serious adventure, I’d finally stepped aboard with both feet.
Part 4 of 4
A World of Ice and Mystery
The team’s progress wasn’t so much slow as it was deliberate; every move mechanical and measured. From my position at the bottom end of the rope, I could see the four other figures, each a few yards further away, receding into the mist. Yet most of the time I couldn’t see either Dylan or Artie on the upper end. Sometimes there was only Steve. And despite the proximity of the other teams, it felt like we had the mountain all to ourselves.
In the middle of a leftward traverse across a steep slope, Dylan stopped at the head of the group, bending down to look closely at the snow. He turned and signaled us to stop where we were. He said there were crevasses ahead.
Formed where a glacier splits open on its way down a mountain, these cracks can be 20 feet wide and over 100 feet deep. The problem is that they’re nearly impossible to see since the layer of snow atop the glacier often remains intact over the crevasse, even after the gap continues to widen. This crust of snow, known as a bridge, may or may not be strong enough to support the weight of a person crossing it. You wouldn’t know anything until it was too late. Even if you survived the fall, you’d still need to find your way out. Clearly it was better to avoid crevasses in the first place.
Moving one methodical step at a time, Dylan probed the snow with his ice axe, searching for what he couldn’t see but knew to be nearby. Yet he looked unsure. He probed a few more times, then moved ahead a few steps and stopped again. I didn’t like his body language and was starting to worry– this seemed to be taking a long time. I had a feeling he was going to make us turn around and go back. While the four of us waited, the probing continued. A few more steps… then he stabbed once more with his axe… and finally found the hidden fissure he was searching for.
He gave the signal and we started to move again. He then cut a wide path around the hidden crevasse, which the rest of us followed with careful deliberation. Again, here was another monster that we couldn’t see. A few minutes later, we’d put it behind us, and continued up the ridge. One more danger averted.
After what seemed to be twenty more minutes, we found ourselves near the base of a steep rocky chimney at a place called the Pearly Gates. Dylan assured us that although the reputation of this place was notorious, the name itself was quite innocent—by which I suppose he meant that we wouldn’t be meeting Saint Peter here today. We pulled up and rested on a narrow snow ledge beneath a wall of crumbling rock.
The wind which was easy to ignore up till now had become stronger—and colder. Rime ice had begun to form on the surrounding rocks, creating ghostly sculptures. They were fantastic, like something out of a dream— knife-edged ridges and twisted frozen fingers reaching out into space. This place had been well named. Every surface lay thick with a crystalline armor. I looked at my arms and chest. Ice was beginning to form on us as well.
Most of the morning, I’d kept my camera stashed in my pocket, preferring to concentrate on footwork rather than mementos. I knew I’d missed out on some beefy action shots, but things had been too dicey to drop my guard. Now that we had a brief respite, I pulled out my camera to capture a few images. I wouldn’t discover until days later however that most of these photographs were a blurry mess—nearly ruined by condensation on the lens that I couldn’t see.
It was here at the Pearly Gates that we saw the two ghostly women returning from the summit, covered in a layer of ice. To look at them you’d think they’d been lost in a blizzard for hours. It made me wonder what sort of frozen hell was waiting up there for us. The crust of ice looked painful, but the two of them were more concerned about getting off the mountain. After they’d passed by us, Dylan noticed how they were roped together and shook his head.
“They’re way too far apart,” he said. “On a slope this steep, if one of them slips, she’ll pull the other one down with her. They’ll both go all the way to the bottom.” His resignation reeked of experience; he’d probably tried to offer advice to lots of climbers over the years without success.
The women continued their slow hike down, soon vanishing through the mist—first one, then the other. They, like everyone else on the mountain, would have to take care of themselves. There were simply no spare resources to go around. I was beginning to understand why Hood had claimed so many victims. Poor judgment by inexperienced climbers was all too common here. I’d seen the same thing on various other peaks, but Hood seemed to have more than its share. And I’d heard that when people die on Mount Hood, they don’t perish singly, but in threes and fours—all on the same rope.
With the route now clear, the five of us started up through the Pearly Gates– Dylan still leading at the head of the rope. Because of its horrendously steep slopes, this area was notorious for its rock fall and avalanche danger. Anything flying down the narrow chute had nowhere else to go, so you were always right in the line of fire. But this early in the day, the surface still lay frozen solid; this was as safe as it was going to get. So there was no point in worrying about it.
It was more important to concentrate on footwork. Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about the two ice-frosted women we’d just passed. They’d been our only clue as to what sort of conditions we might expect at the summit. Back at the foot of the Hogback, I’d grabbed only my Gortex wind-breaker, leaving my hooded down jacket inside my discarded pack. It seemed like the right choice at the time. I hoped it still was. Step by step we continued up the frozen chimney, each of us consumed by our own thoughts; watching our feet and listening for signs of trouble from above.
Twenty minutes later, after a hundred feet of steep challenging footwork, the slope began to level off. At the same time the rock walls to either side of us dwindled down and eventually disappeared into the snow. We were coming out of the chute. Perhaps the rest of the way would be easier.
I knew we were fairly close to the summit, but wasn’t sure how long it might take to get there. Still I was relieved because I could stop focusing on my feet for the time being. I looked up ahead through the mist and saw Dylan. For some reason he was standing beside Artie and Robert. He seemed to be shaking their hands. What the hell was going on? Had they given up? Were they turning back around?
“Where are we?!” I yelled from the end of the rope. Then it hit me. “Oh, we’re there!”
Dylan chimed in, “We’re halfway there!”
I knew what he meant. This was the summit, but we still had just as much mountain to cover on the descent. But yes, we’d finally made it. Smiling, I joined the rest of the team at the cloud-bound summit for a welcome round of congratulations and hugs.
But before we got too comfortable, Dylan warned us that ten feet behind the spot where we were standing was a sheer drop-off. In other words, Enjoy the moment, guys… but don’t move.
There wasn’t anything to see from the summit. A world of white enshrouded us. Strangely, I don’t remember feeling cold, as I imagined I would. Too many other things were streaming through my head. The wind was quickly turning us into the same ice-frosted mummies that we’d seen at the Pearly Gates. Steve already had a beard of tiny icicles growing on his chin. And I could see one dangling down off my left eyebrow.
We weren’t planning on staying long. Dylan wanted us out of there in five minutes. That was barely enough time for our traditional summit rituals: nibbling a piece of rock-hard Kendal mint cake (of British / Himalayan fame) and posing for a few photos with my well-traveled Norwegian flag. When I pulled the red, blue and white banner from the pocket of my parka, Artie took a sudden interest.
“Oh cool. A confederate flag!”
Uh, not quite, Bubba, I thought to myself, uncomfortable with the implication. But I didn’t feel like launching into a political debate. “No… actually it’s Norwegian. Like me.” There was no response.
We then handed our cameras to Dylan, who snapped a few photos of us huddled together. It was all very quick. After getting a few self-indulgent close-ups of our stubbly ice beards and eyebrows, we were ready to go. Sadly, the panoramic view we’d hoped for never materialized. We had to settle for twenty feet of visibility with a background of white-on-white. The summit photos we’d hang on our walls back home would look almost faked– like we’d staged them on a three-foot snow bank by the side of the highway. But there wasn’t time to wait around for the sky to clear. We had to get going.
Dodging Fate a Second Time
Five minutes after we arrived, we were on our way back down—to face the second half of the climb—and the same hazards that we faced on the way up. The problem was that gravity was now making everything more dangerous. Instead of slowing us down, it was trying to make us go faster. Staying in control was going to be much more difficult now. That, along with fatigue and a feeling of well-deserved absent-mindedness, makes the descent the most dangerous part of any climb.
Our positions on the rope remained unchanged, but the order was now reversed. Dylan needed to stay uphill from us to keep everything under control, so he went last. This meant that I would be leading the descent.
You’d think that finding our way off the summit and back down to camp would involve little more than re-tracing the same trail of boot prints that we’d followed getting here. But it’s still easy to stray off course, especially when visibility is low. I turned back toward Dylan.
“You sure you want me in the lead?” I joked. “I got lost coming off Mount Lassen once!” (And that was on a clear day.) He politely gestured to keep moving.
I may have been steering, but Dylan was still the navigator. The slope dropped off quickly. I’d already forgotten how steep it had been coming up. Here, it was crucial that we were able to hear his voice, so he had us remove the hoods from our heads. Side-stepping to keep my footing, I tried to maintain a slow pace. But Dylan called down time and time again, cautioning me to slow it down even further.
In spite of the footprints, I managed to get confused about the route more than once, and had to call back up for advice. I lost track of how many times he warned us to be careful. This was where most of the accidents on Hood occurred.
Once past the Pearly Gates, the terrain opened back up again. This was where we came upon another crevasse, half-hidden in the snow. One at a time we crept up and peered down into its sculpted blue interior filled with twisted stalagmites of ice, eerily back-lit from within. Dylan was wary.
“Keep it movin’ guys,” he said. “I’m standin’ on air right now.”
We continued down, retracing our steps along the steep slope. It wasn’t long until we found ourselves once again at the top of the Hogback. Dylan called down to us with one final warning.
“OK. All I need now is another twenty good minutes from you guys,” he urged. “And then we’ll be all right. But you don’t even wanna know how bad it would be if you fell here, so please be careful.” We looked down into the surrounding mist, but it revealed nothing. “You might not be able to see where you’d land, but believe me, it’s a long way down.”
That sort of language has a way of getting your attention. Every step for the next twenty minutes was an exercise in meticulous perfection.
During this time, the clouds had begun to clear. Every few minutes, windows would open, revealing parts of the mountain or dramatic views of other peaks in the distance. The temptation soon became too great. Careful to avoid Dylan’s attention, several of us tried to sneak some pictures. Yet each time we yanked a camera out of our pocket, the window in the clouds snapped shut again. The mountain simply refused to be photographed.
Eventually as we picked our way down the ridge, the visibility increased and the full scale of the Hogback finally revealed itself. Now we saw what Dylan had been talking about. It seemed like a completely different mountain. We’d been tip-toeing along a ridge that dropped off on both sides at a 45-degree angle, and didn’t stop for a thousand feet. Perhaps it was better that we hadn’t seen this on the way up. Following our old footprints, we continued down the ridge, one hyper-cautious step at a time.
And then with little advance notice, we were there– the foot of the Hogback. We’d made it. The most treacherous part of the climb was now behind us. Though we still had a long way to go, reaching the packs we’d stashed here earlier made it feel like we’d made it back to the safe haven of base camp. The relentless stress had finally vanished. Smiles replaced the grimaces we’d worn since leaving the summit. Casual chatter replaced the terse instructions from above. A very relieved Dylan congratulated us on our safe passage off the ridge.
We looked around. The surrounding mist had cleared even further, giving us our first taste of blue sky since the day began. Off in the distance to the south lay Mount Jefferson, clad in its own mantle of snow. It was turning into a magnificent day. We were still above 10,000 feet, but the load was finally off our shoulders. We were breathing again.
Getting Back Down
At the base of the ravines in the distance, we could now see some of Mount Hood’s volcanic evidence that we had dreaded on the way up. Smaller fumarole vents and hot rocks, gently puffing out steam, were clearly visible from our vantage point. From here, they didn’t look like monsters—merely the fascinating geological features that they were.
Robert reached into his pack and retrieved the cell phone he’d been carrying. Now that the upper mountain lay free of cloud, he had an idea. After punching in the number, he soon found himself talking to his wife, who lived near Seattle, 150 miles away. Looking off to the north, he jokingly raised his arm and moved it back and forth.
“Hey honey, we just left the summit! Can you see me waving?!”
It was the first laugh all morning—and long overdue. Later, as we were gathering up our packs, Robert went on talking about his wife. He said that after many long years, his marriage was still fun and full of romance.
As we were getting ready to go, we looked back behind us. The entire summit stood clear of clouds for the first time. Later we’d learn that the group right behind us had been lucky enough to experience that brief window at the summit. They enjoyed a spectacular view of Washington and Northern Oregon for miles around. Yet minutes later the clouds returned, and the view vanished again. It was like rolling a pair of dice. You either got magnificent blue sky or dreary whiteout. But the backdrop of our commemorative summit photos wasn’t the issue. We’d all made it to the top of the mountain and back safely. That’s the only thing that mattered.
The rest of the descent was easy. Three hours later, after we’d broken down and packed up our camp, Artie and Robert managed to find a stash of reserve energy. They pulled ahead at the Palmer snow field near the bottom of the mountain, leaving the three of us behind to take our time. Even now, Artie wanted no part of the group. This time we let him go.
Despite the worry that he’d caused everyone, he’d come through OK. He’d negotiated the fumaroles of the Devil’s Kitchen, the crevasses, the Hogback and the Pearly Gates every bit as well as the rest of us. He was definitely our weak link, but the chain held together. Neither he nor Robert had ever done a climb like this before. You had to admire them.
You had to admire Dylan as well. He’d gotten us through the entire trip without a problem. Yet he hadn’t met any of us before yesterday. We were just strangers to him. He had no way to know how well we’d perform. He was taking a chance– just like the rest of us were with each other. But that’s what his job entailed. Every time he put his boots on, he’d soon be fastening himself to a rope with a group of strangers. It was a gamble that he thrived on.
We looked down the hill toward the two figures in the distance. They really had left us in the dust. That was OK. In less than two hours, we’d all be back at the lodge.
That final stretch ended up being one of the best parts of the trip. Steve and I were able to talk at length with Dylan in a way that hadn’t been possible earlier. This had been the first time Steve and I had done a climb with people we didn’t know. Here was an opportunity to find that which was originally missing—a sense of familiarity and friendship. On those lower slopes of Mount Hood, we found that in Dylan.
In addition to dreams about other climbs, Dylan and I each talked about our writing. I was impressed with the depth of his poetry. He, in turn, expressed interest in my travel stories. We promised to keep in touch and share our work with each other. It reminded me of one of my favorite expressions: “A stranger is simply a friend that you haven’t taken the time to get to know yet.” Good words to live by, regardless of how strong the chain is.
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