Technical climbing info:
- Mountain: Mount Hood
- Elevation: 11,250ft
- Route: North Face, Right Gully
- Length: 7,835ft
- Grade: III, WI4
- Day 1: Approach via the Tilly Jane trailhead, camp on moraine
- Day 2: Climb the North Face, descend the Elliot Glacier, descend the Tilly Jane
The double barrel
Although I have climbed Mt. Hood quite a few times, the North Face has been especially appealing to me. The face is really defined by two significant gullies running almost completely from bottom to top, reminiscent of some sort of double barreled musket. It’s the sort of feature one would should really only climb when conditions are solid, otherwise it would be a game of bullet dodging.
During the last week of April, I came across some photos of the face. It looked nice and solid so there was really only one option: to go for it!
I left home in Seattle at 6am, picked up some terrible cold grocery store chicken strips for breakfast, and headed south. The plan was to meet Max at 10am at the rest area in Government Camp (a weirdly popular hangout spot). We hadn’t seen each other Max we climbed the Cooper Spur together in 2017, so once we met up we were psyched to catch up, especially about his recent trip to Patagonia.
I had been climbing Mt. Hood’s more predictable south aspects pretty exclusively during this year’s off season since being in the Boston Basin last summer. It was nice to finally be back on a classic Cascade trail. We saw a sign to watch for unsuspecting falling trees above; it doesn’t get more real than that! Maybe it was because I hadn’t been on a trail for a while, or maybe the Tilly Jane trail is just that beautiful, or maybe I just love the weight of an overnight pack on my shoulders, but the combination made me feel back at home.
A reinforced love
We made our way up the trail, first through the woods, then up through the woods that were deviated by a massive fire years ago. The dead trees were left standing in the snow, leaving a spooky fairytale forest feeling. We popped into the Tilly Jane Hut for a quick break and wished a lone skier drying out his gear luck.
Before we knew it we finally broke the tree line. Mount Hood’s North Face dramatically dropped into view, towering 6,000’ above us. It was undeniably awesome, I was struck.
We picked our way over the moraine ridge and debated camping low in the warmer terrain or camping above on the glacier to save us some time in the morning. I had spent too many cold nights this winter, so I voted for spending the night on the warmer moraine. Plus, why carry a pack longer than you need to, am I right?
We built camp and boiled water while I struggled to send inReach messages to Jessica and my family. As a bonus, I finally got to break out my Direkt2 vestibule I had been hunting for since it got discontinued. (A huge loss to the climbing community.) Once we got comfortable, we took some photos of the route with hopes to gather a bit more beta. The left gully looked in. We couldn’t quite tell if the right gully would fully go to the top. The bigger problem was the massive bergschrund guarding the bottom of the face. We couldn’t quite tell if it connected at all, and we knew that if it didn’t, we would be shot down instantly.
I popped a couple benadryls with my ramen dinner. Before I knew it, I was asleep.
The stuff alpine dreams are made of
2am always comes sooner than anybody likes. The forecast predicted cold weather, almost -20C and the wind was blowing on the tent hard enough to loosen the guy line by Max’s head. (No fun..) We figured we would get blasted by the cold so we fully layered up. When Max decided to step out of the tent I shielded myself with my sleeping bag, but surprisingly, it wasn’t so cold after all.
By 2:30am we were off and running. I had a full 8 hours of sleep under my belt so I was feeling pretty good. My sleeping pad also didn’t fail this time, so that was a nice bonus. After a few minutes on the moraine, we strapped on our crampons and began moving through the lower glacier. What a different Hood experience.
By 5am, we finally made our way to the bergschrund as the dawn peaked over the horizon. From our photos the day before, we knew that the bergschrund crossing would be the make or break event. We weaved our way through the broken terrain looking for the blip of a crossing we spotted in our photo. Right where we thought it would be, we found a mostly melted out crossing. Some commitment, a hop, a wide step, and a few sketchy vertical meters later, we were over the bergschrund. (We would later call this AI4+ish.) Not too bad of a start! We figured that crossing wouldn’t last even a few more days.
Once the bergsrund, we were now faced with making the call of which gun barrel to move up. To the left, there was a clearly challenging thick steep curtain of blue waterfall ice, probably in the WI4-5 range. To the right, there was a much more approachable curtain of ice, probably in the WI3 range. We knew that the left had a nice connection to the summit from our photos, while the right left a bit more of a question mark. We debated doing a challenging start to the left, or an unknown finished to the right. With it being just after 5am and only the beginning of a very long day, we agreed that this was probably not the moment to practice our ice skills.
Now illuminated by the sunrise, we turned off our headlamps and tackled the first pitch of ice. The ice took our picks and crampons like butter, making for one of the most enjoyable (ie. stable) ice pitches I’ve ever climbed in the alpine.
After that, we climbed through pitch after pitch after pitch of steep snow, broken up by more perfect WI3+ waterfall ice. 15 pitches total we counted. To quote Max directly, the face was in “full hero conditions” and “the stuff alpine dreams are made of”. I couldn’t agree more. In fact, I really don’t have much to say about the climbing because it was so consistently amazing.
The summit is only half way
Approaching the summit, I really had to go #2 style. I happened to find a rock I could potentially take the position on around 11,150’, just 100’ below the summit. In fact, I could see the summit cornice right above me. I contemplated dropping my pants right there, but figured I would wait for a more stable surface on the summit plateau.
12 very physical hours since we woke up, we broke through the summit cornice. Popping onto the summit from the North is a cool experience, crawling through a cornice and surprising unsuspecting South Side summiteers. The whole experience on the North is so solitary that seeing the ski resort and ant-trails of climbers down to the South feels like discovering civilization for the first time. Neither that nor the other dozen climber on the summit stopped me from breaking out a blue bag though. Sweet relief.
I think my favorite climbing quote goes along the lines of, “you don’t quite know where your a**hole is until you shit in a bag”.
Coming down was a whole different story. We decided to drop down the Queen’s Chair to the Elliot Glacier, which I can definitely tell you was neither in full hero condition nor the stuff alpine dreams were made of. Peaking down off the Queen’s Chair onto the Elliot Glacier, I looked back to Max and said, “Dude, I think I need a belay for this”. I could tell that Max was thinking I was just being soft, but being the nice guy he is, he put me on a belay. Now on belay, I starting down climbing over a big hump of snow. Below it, it became pretty evident that it was an avalanche crown. Sweet.
The route that has it all!
Max peeped over the edge to start his downclimb and yelled down, “Yeah, this is a lot steeper than I expected!”. I was glad to see that it wasn’t just me being soft and put him on belay. We had a couple more pitches of downclimbing, gingerly making our way over crevasses. We were eventually forced onto steep icy terrain between a rockfall zone and a huge overhanging serac that had clearly spewed off blocks of ice recently.
Between the avalanche crown above us, the hidden crevasse fall risk, the rockfall, the serac’s ice fall, us potentially just tripping and falling on the steep ice…and according to the sign at the trailhead, apparently trees falling, this route had all the falls!
Getting down to camp over the icy terrain was just a big pain that left me with a lot of blisters. Arriving to camp, not wanting to prolong the suffering in our boots, we packed up and booked it down to the parking lot.
Mount Hood has always held a special place in my heart, and getting to experience it from its wild side really solidified that special place. The North Face is truly one of the most spectacular climbs I can think of in the Cascades. I’m putting this one down as a world-class classic.
Up next, another big Cascade face!
Somewhere on the internet I read that people could climb Shuksan’s North Face in a long day. I knew that would probably be a bit extreme, so I figured 2 days would be optimal. I sent Chad a message with my timeline and he said he would really prefer to do it in 3. In fact,…