I almost died this weekend.
Actually, that’s not exactly true. But I COULD have died. And there is no doubt about that.
Fortunately, that reality didn’t sink in until I was trudging my way down Mt. Hood at about the 9,500 foot level.
After spending 15 years admiring the highest peak in Oregon, I temporarily lost my mind, and decided to climb it. I’ve never climbed a mountain, but how hard could it be, right? Thousands of people climb Hood every year. Let me just say, I have a new respect for each and every one of them.
This wasn’t something I took lightly. For several weeks, I worked out on the Stairmaster, and ran up every hill in our neighborhood. Some of them are hard to DRIVE up. I thought I was in pretty good shape. I was wrong. Those hills were like speed bumps, compared to the mountain.
PHOTO GALLERY: Joe's Mt. Hood Climb
About a week ago, a friend of mine sent me a text that simply read, “Make sure you hydrate this week.” It was from Michael Leming. I knew the weather window on our climb was about to open. This was all Michael’s fault, by the way. He was the one who invited me to join him on his next Hood ascent!
When he’s not working for Nike, Michael is either BASE jumping, climbing mountains - or saving other climbers as a member of Portland Mountain Rescue. He was near the summit in 2002, getting ready to load an injured hiker into a Pavehawk helicopter hovering above, when the rescue cable suddenly dropped from the sky. Michael looked up to see the helicopter spinning out of control, and watched as it crashed and rolled down the Hog’s Back, just feet away from him. Chances are, you were watching it unfold live on KGW. If not, you’ve seen the video. He still has that cable in his equipment room, and he can still smell the jet fuel every time he gets to that spot on the mountain.
I knew I would be in good hands, but I had no idea how true that was. I also had no idea -- someone else on the mountain on the day of our climb, would be in good hands, too.
Michael and I left his house in Portland at midnight, and with little sleep, we were on the mountain by 2am. Another member of PMR I hadn’t met, Erik Broms, met us at Timberline, and we were on our way.
I should have known what was ahead, when Erik asked me a question. “Do you have a wife?” Seemed like an innocent enough question, until I thought about it for a second. I paused long enough for him to follow up with another question. “And she’s okay with you doing this?”
We were ten minutes into our journey, and I was already sweating bullets - just as my partners had predicted. I wasn’t wearing a jacket, or gloves, and my cap was soaking wet. The snow was sloppy and my boots felt extremely heavy. Michael and Erik were both on ‘skinned’ skis, which they would leave at the top of the Palmer Chairlift for the trip back down.
As we made our way to 7,000 feet, I was starting to feel much better. The initial aches were passing, and the snow was starting to firm up, which made it easier to climb. By the time we hit the top of the Palmer at 8500 feet, I was ready for a break. I slammed a GU gel energy pack and some trail mix, and sat for a minute as my partners tucked their skis away. Truth is, I was getting too comfortable. Now I was cold, and starting to shake. I grabbed a jacket from my pack, and knew Michael was serious when he said, “Come on, we need to keep moving.”
The next two hours, were sheer misery. However, the night sky was clear and brilliant, which made for a spectacular morning. I’d like to thank the climbers who left the boot tracks for us to follow. It not only helped me find a nice cadence, but also lead my tiring legs up the mountain - one step at a time.
As we approached Crater Rock, I was running out of gas. More GU, snack breaks, and encouragement from my partners kept me going. At about this point, the smell of sulphur became overwhelming. It makes a lot of people sick, according to Michael. It certainly wasn’t helping me.
Erik told me if I could make it another 500 feet or so - and get to the Hog’s Back, we’d take a longer break and assess the situation. I took a look in the distance at the Mazama chute -- our final route up to the summit -- and I said to myself, ‘There is NO WAY I’m going to make it up that.”
Michael told me I had made it this far, I could make it to the top. “I’ve been here with plenty of people who couldn’t do it, but based on what I’ve seen from you this morning, you can.” Erik was more scientific about it. He asked me how much I had left. “If you were on a 5 mile run right now, how far in would you be? Can your legs get you back down?”
That was a great question, but I couldn’t answer it. I knew I was running on fumes, but I had never been in this situation. I truly wasn’t sure if I had enough left to get to the summit. Especially since my rented climbing boots were killing my shins.
Erik started pulling things out of his pack for me to drink. A can of some energy drink I had never seen or heard of, followed by a jug of something he had mixed with coconut. I could have been drinking gasoline at that point, and I’m not sure I would have noticed. But it worked.
After our break, I felt refreshed. It was about 7am and the sun had come up. This time, when I looked up at the remaining 600 feet or so to the summit, I told Michael, “I don’t care what I tell you from here on out -- there is NO WAY I’m stopping. I’ve come too far not to finish. Don’t let me turn around.”
So, up we went.. stopping every four steps or so, just for a few seconds, as we approached the summit. We were roughly 200 feet from the top, when my partners noticed a climber – sitting down, across the chute from us. They had seen her from down below, but were now close enough to yell out to her. No answer. They yelled again. No answer. Michael took off across the face of the chute and when he got to her, waved Erik over to help him. The climber had fallen, lost a crampon, and injured her shoulder, elbow, and ankle.
It’s still unclear to me, how she got separated from her party. I’m also not sure what she would have done, if my partners hadn’t been there to rope her down to safety.
Either way, Erik yelled across to me – that they were going to have to get the climber back down the mountain, and our ascent was over. 200 feet short.
Suddenly, I realized I was now on my own, getting back down the Mazama chute to the Hog’s Back. Using my ice axe on the uphill side, I took a few steps sideways – toward the next level below. Another climber nearby must have noticed I was a rookie, and gave me a couple of quick pointers. I felt much better about my technique. Within minutes, I also felt more comfortable with my crampons digging into the snow. This was one of the more unsettling sections of the climb. Looking around, it was clear to me that if I were to fall here, I probably wouldn’t survive. Michael and Erik were very clear about the importance of using my ice axe correctly - to self arrest, in the event of a fall.
But there were other obstacles to deal with, namely – falling ice chunks. Climbers ‘above’ yell out, ‘ICE!’ any time there is a piece of ice large enough for those below to worry about. Most are roughly the size of baseballs, but some were much larger. On more than one occasion, I had to dig my ice axe into the snow, and drop to my stomach – hoping it wouldn’t hit me.
When I rejoined my partners at the Hog’s Back about an hour later, I felt like I belonged on the mountain – for the first time all morning. I was proud to be with them, and truly felt like a member of their party, as they formulated the plan to get the injured climber the rest of the way down the mountain. I was more and more confident with my crampons (which are truly life savers). And I knew, at that point, I was going to be okay.
For the next several hours, I made my way down the mountain, with only my thoughts – as I shed layers of clothing on what turned out to be a glorious day. Several times, I looked back up at the summit and said, “I can’t believe I just did that.” There were other crazy steep sections on the way down, that I truly don’t remember climbing up – in the middle of the night.
As a first time climber, I’ll leave you with a few observations. It’s not easy. As Michael said at one point, “If it were easy, more people would do it.” Fitness is probably the most critical element. I wish I had trained even harder. I felt GREAT the next day, due in large part to my training, but my legs were absolutely gassed – at more than one point on the way up.
I had fairly wild swings. At times, I felt fantastic. Other times, again, I wasn’t sure I was going to make it. That’s the point where Michael would tell you – the ‘mental’ aspect of climbing kicks in. He was right. Getting past that hurdle, helped get me up that last section.
Go with people who know what they’re doing. I was lucky to have the two partners I did. They were fantastic. Their technical advice and guidance on the way up, made a huge difference for me. They knew when to rest, when to fuel up, when to keep moving, and even when to take pictures. They also pointed out several mistakes other climbers were making on the final ascent. Climbers with way too much rope between them. I could tell – if someone in that party went down, that section of rope would probably take out everyone below them, too.
If you go with a guide company, chances are you’ll get a lift in a snow cat – to the top of the Palmer. Don’t pass up that opportunity. Purists might tell you it’s cheating, and they’re probably right. But bypassing the work and effort of those first 2500 feet in elevation would have made a big difference over the next, and far more demanding 2500 feet in elevation.
Finally, I wish I had brought skis – to get back down. Climbers have worn several tube-like paths in the snow, allowing people to ‘glissade’ down the mountain. Basically, a sled ride on your bottom – which gets you back to the parking lot much faster and with less work.
I did it the hard way, and I’m glad I did it. I learned a lot – about the mountain, about mountaineering, and how far I can push myself physically and mentally. I also learned the inherent dangers of climbing a mountain. It is not to be taken lightly. Everything Michael and Erik told me along the way – made complete sense to me the next day. At the time, I was just trying to survive – and follow orders.
The entire experience will only make it easier for me – the next time. Wait. Did I just say that? Next time? Really?
I’d be up for it again, no doubt. Just don’t tell my wife.