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Mount Hood

Mount Hood (11,239‘):

    Mount Hood lies just South of the Columbia River and about 50 air miles East of Portland, Oregon.  It is the highest mountain in Oregon, and its height is further accentuated by its striking beauty and dominant position above the Columbia River.  Mount Hood is so prominent and well known that its image is used to represent everything from the commercial to the sublime.

    As anyone who has climbed the South Side of the mountain knows, Mount Hood is a dormant, not a dead volcano.  Signs of recent volcanic activity are everywhere.  Geologists say that some of this activity occurred about 200 years ago between 1760 and 1810, producing ashflows, mudflows, lava, and at least one pyroclastic flow.  All of these events apparently originated from vents just above Crater Rock in the areas known as Devils Kitchen and Hot Rocks.  Because thermal activity continues around these areas to this day, geologists believe that “Liquid Hot MAGMA”, baby, yeah, is still present beneath Mount Hood, and that further activity is very likely…

    Future geologic hazards are not the only threat to us.  Geologists say that of the major Northwest volcanoes, only Mt. St. Helens has a higher percentage of pyroclastics.  Pyroclastics are loosely compacted fragmental material formed during an explosive eruption.  Climbing on pyroclastics is similar to climbing on vertical rubble, you are never sure what is going to pull loose and what else it will bring down on top of you.  Most of this type of rock is concentrated in the upper 4,000 feet of Mount Hood, ample explanation for why Mount Hood isn’t known for it’s rock climbing.

    A huge glacier smothered Mount Hood during the last ice age, and probably removed at least 1,000 feet from the top of the mountain.  Scars on trees lining the Eliot Glacier show that current glaciers on the North side of Mount Hood were extensive enough that ice could be collected conveniently by the proprietors of Cloud Cap Inn to refrigerate food.  Glaciers on the South Side of Mount Hood were also advancing in the recent past.   Today the 11 named glaciers on Mount Hood are retreating, probably as a result of a world-wide warming trend.  Warmer weather has also reduced the amount of permanent snow.

    Despite poor rock and a diminishing snowbase, Mount Hood has the right mix of accessibility, altitude, and variety.  The mountain is easily reached without the burden of organizing a major expedition.  In fact, we’ll most likely either ride the ski lift up the first quarter of the mountain or step from pavement onto glacier ice.  It is high enough to test y our abilities at altitude but low enough to descend quickly in an emergency.  The variety of routes and snow conditions, if approached intelligently, gradually expose the aspiring alpinist to the hard lessons of mountaineering.

    Timberline Road leads to Timberline Lodge (roughly 5,960 feet), and provides the best year-round access to routes on the West, South, and Southeast sides of the mountain.  In winter, some climbers even use Timberline to approach climbs on the North side.  Drive to Government Camp Loop road, turn left onto the Timberline Road, and drive about 6 miles to the Lodge parking area.  Climbers can self-register 24 hours a day in a protected area just outside Timberline’s Wy’east Day Lodge.  The day lodge is on the  West side of the upper end of the parking area.  When registering, climbers can also listen to a 24 hour weather forecast on a radio, broadcasted by the National Weather Service.

    Pundits claim that the South Side of Mount Hood is the most-climbed mountain route in the world, with the exception of Mount Fuji in Japan.  To anyone who has climbed the South Side on a good weekend in May or June, this claim seems to be irrefutable fact.  The mountain is crowded, and getting form the top of the Hogback to the summit often requires waiting in line.

    According to the latest USFS records, somewhere between 20,000 and 25,000 climb Mount Hood every year.  The USFS also states that these numbers do not accurately reflect the actual number of people on the mountain, because many parties choose not to sign in.  Although there are no official estimates, most of the people who climb Mount Hood climb the South Side.

    Many climbers also believe that the South Side is an easy climb which can be done by senior citizens carrying 200-pound packs and preschoolers unaccompanied by their mommies or daddies.   The written record does show that in the right conditions, almost anyone can slog up this route.  Over the years many couples have climbed the South Side and been married on the summit.  Ivan Woolley states in Off To Mt. Hood, 

    Upon two occasions the Knights of Columbus engaged Ray Conway to guide parties from their lodge up the mountain and each time Ray packed an altar on his back all the way to the top so that mass could be held on the summit. 

    Material to build a fire lookout was packed up the South Side by the USFS in 1916.  When the lookout finally collapsed in the forties, a group of Crag Rats hauled loads of powdered rubber from recapped tires to the summit and set the remains on fire.  Ty and Marianna (Sinclair) Kearney and their party packed a bicycle up the South Side and rode it along the summit ridge in 1947.  The South Side has been climbed by blind people and people without limbs.  At least 2 five-year-old children have climbed the South Side under their own steam.  Uncounted senior citizens, some in their eighties, have reached the summit.  50th anniversary climbs are not uncommon and one gentleman, Hank Lewis, made his 64th anniversary climb in 1986.  A dog, Ranger, holds the record for the most ascents of the South Side, estimated at over 1,000!!!  When he died, his body was packed up the South Side and buried on the summit.  Wild animals, including bear and deer, have also been observed climbing or descending the South Side.

    Ironically, the gentle, broad slopes which are so simple to climb in good weather become windy, whited-out hell in bad weather.  Trapped on the South Side in such conditions, it matters little whether you can ace 5.14 on sight or Downclimb vertical rime ice backwards and upsidedown.  Climbing is reduced to the basics of navigation and survival.  Anyone planning to climb Mount Hood must be familiar with the South Side and how to get down it in a storm (See Descent). 


    The South Side is the only recommended descent from the summit of Mount Hood in an emergency or storm.  Time from summit to car, roughly 4-5 hours.  Portland Mountain Rescue distributes a 2-page brochure on how to get down the South Side in low-visibility conditions.  Anyone climbing Mount Hood should read and understand this brochure (some of which is quoted below). 


    Most search and rescue operations on Mt. Hood are the result of climbers becoming lost on their descent from the South Side route.  Others have become lost while descending from camps at Illumination Saddle.

    The most common problem occurs when visibility becomes poor and climbers descend without aid of map and compass, thinking that if they simply go back downhill they will surely return to the lodge.

    However, the fall line (route a ball would take if let roll down a slope) from the base of Crater Rock down to about the elevation of the top of Palmer Ski Lift, does not fall toward Timberline Lodge on the South, but rather, Southwesterly in the direction of the Zigzag Canyon and the cliffs of Mississippi Head.

    An area of descent that has caused a number of people to become confused and lost is the traverse around the East slopes of the base of Crater Rock.  Occasionally, a climber will drop too low on the traverse and descent into the White River Glacier and canyon to the East of the route.  This is bad.  Don’t do this.

    More often, climbers will traverse around Crater Rock, staying on the correct descent route, but then glissade down the fall line to the Westerly, unaware they are in trouble until they reach the canyons and cliffs below.  This is also bad.  Don’t do this.

    Carry a map and compass.  Use your compass and believe it!  Once you have descended around Crater Rock, it can be noted that by simply following the direction of the Southerly end of the magnetic compass needle you will descend very close to the ski lifts and Silcox Hut.  In low visibility the descent by your compass may seem strange in that you will find yourself sidehilling considerably to the left as you descend from Crater Rock to below 9,000 feet. 

The South Side via the Hogback:

    Start on the East side of the Timberline Lodge.  Do not follow the groomed ski trails; instead stay East in the trees and hike 1mile to Silcox warming hut (approx. 7,000 feet).  Continue another mile to the end of the Palmer ski lift (approx. 8,600 feet).  From the end of the ski lift, climb toward the right or East side of Crater Rock, then continue around and up the East side of the rock to the Hogback (approx. 10,600 feet), a high ridge of snow extending from the North side of Crater Rock toward the summit.  Follow the Hogback to a large bergschrund.  If you don’t know what a bergschrund is, get the book, Freedom of the Hills and read it.  Cross or go around the bergschrund, depending on conditions.  Enter a gully, commonly called the Chute, which leads through several rock towers (The Pearly Gates) to the summit ridge.  Time from Timberline Lodge, 6-10 hours.

Be careful of the cornice at the summit hanging over the North Face. 

Interesting Quotes:

    That night, hardly anyone in camp would say that they wished ever to ascend Mt. Hood again.  After a nights rest several of us thought we might be willing sometime; and before we had gone halfway home every member of the party had made some plan to climb again.       

    Here’s a quote from the summit register that describes a small section of one party’s amazing ascent of the hardest route on Mount Hood, Yocum Ridge. 

    A mushrooming tower threatened progress and so Leo decided to try the south flank.  After chopping downward and across a groove, he disappeared around a hidden corner.  Some 15 minutes later he came into view again, cutting up a gully-wall that needed both hand and footholds. 

    Another description of this route describes a particularly harrowing section of rappels and traverses on rime ice.  Contrary to what common sense would dictate, rime ice is more solid than the rock on Yocum ridge.  The catch is that rime ice is often impossible to protect.  You can take your ice tools, pickets, and other technology, but know that on this route the old school mountaineer advice still holds true; the leader must NOT fall. 

    …the ramps quit, forcing the route up steep gullies and chimneys to the Third Gendarme.  Climb the ridge crest of the Third Gendarme.  The Gendarme ends at an obvious drop-off next to a short rock pillar.  The pillar looks unstable, and probably is.  Sling the pillar and rappel.