Mt. Hood, Pearly Gates Winter Ascent

Make it a winter ascent

My favorite time to climb Mt. Hood’s south side is during the winter.  Actually, let me rephrase- the only time I actually find Mt. Hood’s south side enjoyable is during the winter!

The Pearly Gates route is a route usually deemed for beginners during the spring and summer. However, when undertaken during the winter, the route really takes on an elevated level of seriousness.  Trail breaking, steep hard blue ice, and high winds, all make for what I consider a Cascade classic.

New (climbing) partner!

Last summer I spent a few quite unsuccessful weeks of climbing in the Cordillera Blanca.  I did, however, end up meeting an amazing girl named Jessica in the Ishinca Hut who would eventually become my girlfriend. So…success!

Fast forward 6 months, between forest fire smoke melting out some of our nicest routes and Jessica moving to Seattle, we had pretty much climbed nothing of real seriousness together.  By December, I was pretty certain that Jessica was convinced that either A) the Cascades was a horrible place to climb, or B) I secretly hated climbing and was hiding under the guise of poor conditions

Either way, I looked toward a winter ascent of Mt. Hood to save our relationship (/sarcasm).  We both kept an eye on Accuweather, Mountain-Forecast, and the North West Avalanche Center.  As does every year, a beautiful weather window eventually appeared in mid-January.

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The prep & the plan

Prepping for a winter ascent is always a little iffy for me.  No matter what the forecast says, I’ve learned that I really have to be prepared for anything.  A localized few hour storm not picked up by the forecast can really ruin the day if I’m not prepared for it. For that, I always err on the side of overpreparing.

Also, having been screwed in the winter on this route before and spending way more time on the mountain than I’d have liked, we opted to go for a 2 day ascent instead of a single day push.  Again, in the winter, better safe than sorry.  (Also, keep in mind that the round trip to and from Seattle is an 8 hour drive. That is my real crux for a single day ascent!)

For a 2 day ascent, we worked out 3 different options, priority in descending order:

A – the $150 plan

Now, I’ve done the march up the lifts plenty of times and have found it to be a rather unrewarding “challenge”.  For the cost of a lift ticket per person, you can take the chairlifts and/or a snowcat up the Palmer glacier.  The resort runs on pretty tight/random schedule, so this is always a somewhat unreliable plan. The people working there can be as finnicky as the weird schedules, so I like to bring a good amount of cash to “tip”

Update: As of January 26, 2019, the Timberline Lodge is no longer allowing climbers to take their lifts, even with a full day lift ticket.

B – the marching plan

A lot of people say that the only “real way” to climb Hood is to walk out of the parking lot.  (To those people, I’ll one up them and say that the only “real way” to climb it is from the North Side and see how many of them stick around. 😉 )  The long walk up the ski resort adds a few hours to the climb but is really the only practical way to do a one-day ascent.

C – the backup plan

If all fails for the 2 day plan, you can always grab a room around the Government Loop or hangout in the Timberline Lodge until midnight and do an alpine start from the parking lot.

Ski resort problems 😡

By the time we arrived to the Timberline Ski Resort it was around 11am.  With it being the first truly beautiful weekend of the ski season, the place was totally packed.  When pulling into the line up to the Timberline parking lot, a parking patrol fellow came up to our window.
“We are only allowing a car in for every car that comes out. People have been waiting here for a few hours.  You should probably come back tomorrow.

We told him we needed an alternative solution.
“You can park in the lower lot and take the shuttle up if you have lift tickets already.”

We spun around, parked in the lower lot, bought lift tickets on our phones, and lined up for the shuttle. As we got on the shuttle, we were told that we would need to get back to the lodge by 4pm to catch the shuttle back. Noted. We finally got dropped off at the upper lot and cashed in our digital tickets at Guest Services. 1.5 hours killed, which we knew was no bueno with the mid-winter early sunsets. The fun of dealing with a busy ski resort continued though.

We quickly loaded up on the lifts and only got mildly hassled for bringing overnight backpacks up.
“We don’t usually take climbers on busy days.”
I did’t really understand this sentiment considering we purchased full day lift tickets.  Screw it, I didn’t feel like arguing with the dude.

By the time we got off the lift, we could see there was a big line for the snowcat to get up the Palmer Glacier.  As we got into the line, the fellow working there came over to us.
“These people have been waiting here for 45 minutes and that will be the last ride for the day.”

At this point, I was pretty pissed with the ski resort. (I still am.) I plead my case to the guy working the line, and being a reasonably likeable individual he told me that if I could convince the cat operator to do one more run or squeeze us in it would be fine. The cat operator seemed like a cool guy and with a little “convincing” he squeezed us on.
“She can sit in the toddler seat and you can ride with me upfront.”

Up we went!

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A midwinter’s night

We unloaded from the snowcat and started moving upwards.  Finally off the ski resort, Mount Hood’s south side begins to look like a real mountain. It was about 2pm and we knew that we had about 2.5 hours until sundown.  We knew that we wanted to be fully situated in our tent before that, so we made our way up for an hour or two until we found a nice flat-ish spot to pitch our tent.  We knew the winds would be picking up overnight, so we dug in a nice little snow wall for our even littler Direkt2 tent.

As the wind picked up and the sun set lower, we hopped into our tent and huddled for warmth.  I spend the next hour or so struggling with my MSR Reactor to boil snow in the wind.  (Note to self: buy the tent vestibule attachment.) With spending most of our day in the car and dinking around the ski resort neither of us were very hungry, but we forced our food down anyways.  Less food to carry tomorrow.

As expected on a winter night, it was cold. Windy and cold.  We had our Feathered Friends 10F sleeping bags zipped together.  Jessica was convinced this kept her warmer.  I was convinced this made me colder. Classic couple’s disagreements, huh?

A cold morning

Regardless of who was right, by 6:30am our alarm was ringing and we were up.  We uncomfortably waited for the sun to hit our tent.  It finally did, but with my core temperature being so shot from the cold night, I knew the only way to fully warm up would be to eat something hot.  Unfortunately, our stove ran out of fuel before we could fully heat up the water. I drank my cold water and geared up. I was grumpy.

We began moving and I was frozen.  We could see that there were a lot of climbers on the route, way more than what’s typical for the winter.  We must have not been the only people looking at the weather.  Most folks were going up the Old Chute, a route I am not particularly fond of due to avy hazards.  We swapped info from a few climbers making their ways down and figured the Left Pearly Gate would be a solid option.  According to them, it was mostly solid blue ice with a nice big near-vertical step in the middle, while the Right Gate had weird access.  My fingers and toes stayed frozen, but as long as they still hurt there isn’t frostbite!

We seriously punched it all the way up the hogsback.  We made great pace, mostly because I was trying to keep warm (lol).  We also knew that our pace would slow down as we planned to pitch out the steep sections.

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To rope or not to rope

To rope or not to rope, that is a good question on Mount Hood. On one hand, very few people rope up on Mount Hood’s “typical routes”.  On the other hand, people die relatively frequently due to big falls on these routes.

Not to rope

Mount Hood’s south side really only has one crevasse fall threat.  It is a big bergschrund that is either covered in snow or dramatically obvious. There isn’t much worry about falling into this thing. Roping up for the sake of protecting a crevasse fall is clearly unnecessary.  If the route is often fairly beat in, even if there is big fall potential it is considered pretty unlikely.  In fact, roping in could actually present some dangers in that sort of terrain if some sort of belay is not used.  Belays slow us down, and speed often equates to safety.

To rope

We cannot deny the fact that people do unfortunately often die on these routes.  There are plenty of no-fall-zones even on the easiest routes of this mountain.  A single slip can result in death.  Even good climbers can make tiny mistakes, and unroped, those mistakes can be fatal. A good efficient team can place running belays or pitch out steep sections without sacrificing too much time.

For me, I rather work on my efficiency and strength and reduce the risk of falling.  In my humble opinion, I believe that people do not rope up on Mount Hood simply because other people don’t rope up on Mount Hood. I’ve never seen another climb in my life where so many new and beginner climbers solo terrain of this nature in such close proximity to other new climbers.  On all my Mount Hood climbs, I carry at least a 30m rope and a bit of pro.  Anticipating that this climb would almost certainly be icy, I opted to bring a 60m rope to maximize efficiency.

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The interesting part(s)

Getting up past the Hogsback is really where the fun begins for me.  As we topped out on the Hogsback’s gentle ridge, we knew we would be aiming for the entry into the Left Pearly Gate.  I figured with the somewhat exposed and sugary traverse over the Devil’s Kitchen below, it would be a good time to bust the rope out.  We set an anchor and tied in. I made my way over to the base of the Pearly Gates, and after a few muffled climbing commands yelled back and forth, Jessica followed.

As Jessica made her way in, I tucked myself into a little spot that seemed safe from the shower of debris coming down the climbing chute.  With how pristine the hard blue ice looked, I figured there was some solo climber up there bashing their way through.  As the minutes went by though, more and more debris showered down.  I began to realize that it was the sun peeling the rhyme off the rocks. A climber beside us deemed “this ain’t my jam”, and downclimbed to the Hogsback.

From there, we serious-ed up and moved as quick as possible through the icy terrain.  Knowing there was crap falling overhead, I placed a screw mid-pitch and set up an anchor to belay Jess in. Mid-pitch, Jess had a mishap with her new crampons (ie. it fell off), not made any more pleasant by the ice raining down on her head. I pulled the belay in tight and she worked her way up the icy bits until she could get some good kicks into some snow. Getting above the gates, we hit the summit ridge where we were greeted with winds from both sides of the mountain. We figured with the heavy winds, the mountain heating up, and the sunlight fleeting, this was not the time for a summit photo.  We aimed for the Old Chute where we could descend a lot faster than downclimbing the icy Pearly Gates.

As we got on the Old Chute, I noted that it was taking a much steeper variation than usual. Unsurprisingly, the team below us roped up.  With the exposed sugary snow beneath our feet and the overhead ice hazards above us, we set up a running belay and moved with purpose. Once we ran out of pickets with not much further to go, we quickly debated whether or not to run the belay once more or just unrope. Heck, it was just a few more meters to go. We unroped

“Rock! ROCK!!!”

We heard yelled from above us. I could hear a sense of panic in the climber’s voice, and I knew that this was not a trivial thing falling towards us. (Technically it was “ice”. A lot of ice.) Unroped, Jessica and I braced to get hit and dug our ice tools and crampons into the snow. Bowling ball sized blocks of ice blasted over us. We both held on as tight as possible as we got smacked hard. Once we finally felt the shower turn to sugar and come to an end, our heart rates lowered and looked at each other knowing that this could have ended a whole lot worse. A little reminder that a fun day in the alpine can turn serious fast. Lessoned learned- when in doubt, don’t unrope.

Thank you, Mt. Hood

From there we quickly moved over to the Hogsback and made our way down to our tent. The wind picked up a lot, but we brushed the discomfort off. After breaking down our tent, I enjoyed a minute of chasing a rogue fuel canister cap in the wind like an idiot. Upon catching it I quickly popped it into my mouth.  I think littering on the mountains is terrible karma, but I sure as hell didn’t want to unzip my jacket pocket in that wind! During the mix, a tent stake I lost in the snow emerged. I’d like to think it was the mountain giving back to me for my effort in not littering.

We made our way down the remaining gentle slopes, heel plunging as fast as we could towards the parking lot. We finally caught up to the happy families sledding around the lodge with their kids and dogs. We called ourselves safe and done.

We unfortunately missed the last shuttle to the lower lot and the next bus was 2 hours out. With a little “convincing” we managed to hitch a ride with one of the hotel employees to the lower lot. Once we got to our car we drove right to the nearest McDonalds and crushed their 2/$5 menu.

Another successful climb.

Up next, a Hood classic


Mount Hood, Leuthold Couloir

I had always wanted to climb the Leuthold Couloir, an apparent Pacific Northwest classic, but being a grade II climb I just never really got around to it.  When we saw a 2 day weather window open up, we made the call to shoot for the Leuthold Couloir with a camp at Illumination Rock. It would be a little easy, but hey, it’s supposed to be a classic.” [read full, Mount Hood, Leuthold Couloir]

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