The Plan, Take 3
Just like most stories of success in life, the many failures leading to those successes go untold. This time, let me tell you about them briefly. Since Jessica and I’s previous successful climb up Mount Hood this winter, we ended up being beaten off the mountain twice. The first time on Jess’ birthday due to overly hot and melted-out condition. (Which resulted in us eating a sad cupcake in the parking lot.) The second time due to extreme cold conditions. Being my first and second times to ever fail on Hood, we kept our eyes on the weather to heal our damaged egos.
Having finally purchased the Mount Hood Climber’s Guide by Bill Mullee, we spent our evenings mulling over different possible routes for our next winter attempt on the mountain. The past two times we walked away, we were shooting for the Devil’s Kitchen Headwall so that was still on this list. 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 moderate, but hey, it’s supposed to be a classic.
We stopped by REI for some energy gummies, packed our bags, and hopped on the I-5 highway southbound.
Somehow going to Mount Hood never goes to plan, ever. Between the long drive and the ski resort, something weird always comes up. On this particular day, these were the unplanned events:
Un-planned Event A: I managed to get pulled over by a State Patrol officer who gave me a ticket for “not driving in the right lane” (verbatim from the ticket) on a 3 lane highway. Huh?
Un-planned Event B: As we pulled into the Timberline Ski Resort parking lot at 9am, we got stopped by a resort parking employee setting up a bunch of orange flags and a stop sign. Hating his job as the bearer of bad news, “Sorry bro, our parking lot just filled up. We’ll start letting people in at 11am.” We were first in line so we figured we’d wait. He let us in after about 15 minutes.
Once we finally got to the parking lot after 4.5 hour, we put on our boots and headed up the hill.
A little itch
Somehow mountains are always either too hot or too cold. During our last climb we battled temperatures of -20F where we struggled to keep our fingers from going numb. Today we were stripping off as many clothes as reasonably possible without being sexually inappropriate. When Jess told me she was wondering if it would be inappropriate to take off her pants and just wear her baselayer leggings, I told her that if it wasn’t for the family friendly ski resort I would already be down to my boxers. I made my way up the slopes in a t-shirt, which would leave me with the complexion of a lobster for the next few days.
The day was surprisingly crowd free, probably because it was still technically out of climbing season. One of the few groups we ran into was from Seattle who had just climbed the Reid Headwall, a route I had climbed a few years back and had been itching to repeat. We contemplated changing plans, but nagging thought in the back of my mind told me that with a 30 meter half rope and only 2 ice screws we wouldn’t have enough protection if something went wrong. After a few hours of nagging, I decided that my itch to climb it would have to go un-itched. We would stick to our original plan of the Leuthold Couloir.
A beautiful night to freeze
As soon as we arrived to Illumination Rock, we were greeted by a few nice fat chunks of ice bowling down the small snow slopes in front of us. According to my watch, it was just about 3pm. Note to self- better be out of any firing zones by 3pm tomorrow.
It was beautiful day with the sun in full effect, and aside from making the ice peel off the rocks around us, it was a fantastic day to set up camp and chill. We lit up the stove and melted water while texting our families a couple selfies as a friendly indicator that we are safe. We had a balanced meal of spicy ramen, chocolate granola, sour patch kids, and Benadryl. By the time the sun had set and we had zipped up our sleeping bags, we could hear another group coming in right above us. Kind of a weird time to be arriving we thought. I popped my head out of the tent and asked them what they were up to; they told us they had a late start and would be shooting for the Leuthold Couloir in a few hours. Jessica, apparently not wanting to be left out of the party, awkwardly squeezed her head out of the tent exclaiming “I want to be part of the conversation!”. Sadly for her it was a brief conversation and we crawled back into our tent.
As I tried to go to sleep I could feel my sleeping pad deflating, way faster than just from the cold weather. I blew it back up, it deflated again. Eff. That sucks. We grabbed our backpacks and laid them under my mattress. The rest of the night I would be interrupted ever hour by the freezing snow below reminding me to re-blow up my pad. At some point during my restless night I stuck my head out of the tent to look at the full moon and the sky full of stars. It was indeed a beautiful night to freeze on a broken sleeping pad.
When 5am rolled around, I woke up again to the freezing snow below me. As I blew up my sleeping pad, I could hear a few groups talking outside our tent. Unlike the previous day where we had the peak in near solitude, this morning the peak was crawling in headlamps. The solitude of being alone on a peak or route is an unbeatable experience, but having a nice bootpack in the snow to follow is also pretty nice. I figured we would stay in our tent for a little longer to allow a team head to put in a bootpack.
When looking into the climb, I had been told many times that climbers often get lost on the Leuthold Couloir. According to many, it is easy to get sucked onto the steep galleys of the Reid Headwall or the ever imposing Yocum Ridge. Getting eyes on the route, it was hard for us to imagine how a party would get lost. We roped up and dropped down into the Reid glacier, quickly moving across the scenic south west aspect of the peak.
When we spotted the route’s hourglass bottleneck from the Reid Glacier we started booting upward. The nice snowpack made us wish we brought trekking poles instead of ice tools. I am not a big fan of unroping on steep terrain, but with the stable snow beneath our feet, the rope imposed more of a tripping hazard than protection. We both agreed to unrope and move freely up the route. We also both agreed that if either of us felt unstable at all we would rope back up. That never happened though; instead we enjoyed a nice stairmaster-like workout, even stopping multiple times for photos. Coming in, we had some mild concerns about the avalanche conditions, but the only unstable thing we saw on the peak was a rouge waterbottle gently tumbling down the hourglass.
As we topped out of the hourglass, we took our first real break on the landmark feature known as the Queen’s Chair. Jessica claimed that she could not see how this looked like a chair due to her “limited vision” (she has particularly strong prescriptions.. lol). I claimed that even with my 20/20 vision I couldn’t see it either, probably due to some “limited imagination”. Regardless of how much of a chair it actually looked like, we made our way up looking down the west aspect of the mountain with a gentle breeze moving over us.
A rather dull knife
The whole way until this point, we had been particularly surprised by the less-than-moderate difficulty of this classic route. Jessica wanted to punch it up this final section of the route, but I reminded her that we still have a “quintessential PNW knife-edge ridge traverse” above us that we should reserve some energy for. I had in mind a notch down from something like the ridge of Artesonraju that I had climbed 18 months prior. Technical ice climbing, zero protection, zero room for error, 100% commitment, but a notch down. I had apparently not made the connection that such climbing probably wouldn’t be present on a grade II climb in the PNW.
Arriving to the ridge, it was beautiful but a little less (ie. a lot less) dramatic than either of us expected. Having hauled a rope and pickets up the route, I figured why not do a running belay in the name of “an abundance of caution and team practice”. To be honest, I felt a little silly.
Arriving to the summit, we were greeted by a number of happy climbers and skiers. We pulled off our technical gear and sat down for a snack. For the first time, I realized that my stomach was feeling pretty bad. I eventually had to drop trou right below the West Crater Rim to blue bag. I caught a woman skiing by surprise, but she kept her eyes locked ahead and didn’t make eye contact whatsoever- what a pro. As we packed up our tent and plunged down the Zig-Zag Glacier (much prettier than the monotonous Palmer Glacier), my stomach didn’t stop talking. I dropped trou once again. Once we got down to the Timberline Lodge I raced to the bathroom a third time. I figured that by not treating or boiling our water at such a popular camp site, I probably picked up a stomach bug. A stomach bug as such could obviously only be cured by humanity’s greatest medicine- 20 McDonalds chicken nuggets.
A classic ticked.
Up next, maybe something more serious?
“Stepping onto the route itself was pretty exhilarating. It was something I had been dreaming of for the last few years. Even more exhilarating was our high speed crossing of all the lower slope’s avalanche debris that we did not want to hang around in.” [read full, Mount Baker via the Coleman Headwall]