Mt. Hood, Steel Cliffs South Face

Technical climbing info

  • Mountain: Mount Hood
  • Elevation: 11,250ft
  • Route: Steel Cliffs South Face
  • Length: 1,000ft
  • Grade: II/III, AI2*

*While the grade II/III is appropriate, this route “felt” like a step up in seriousness than some of the grade III routes on the peak, such as the Reid Headwall (III, AI3).

First shot, denied

What a winter it’s been, good for the glaciers but bad for climbing. It had been so long since a good weather window that I am even feeling rusty writing this. Like any climbers during a dry spell, Jessica and I put together an unachievable-ly long list of routes that we’d like to undertake this season. This route made it to the list for it’s obvious presence and apparent lack of popularity. Having a relatively low technical grade, it seemed like a good way to get back into the jive of things without breaking a leg. 

So, when the weather finally cleared this February, we went for it. But what Mother Earth givith, Mother Earth taketh, and after a few meters up the route we could feel the storm slabs reverberating under our weight. Another day it would be.

Another day came quick

Well, it turned out that “another day” would be 2 days later. With far too little sleep, a couple beers too many, and an unrelated sprained ankle, we found ourselves once again gearing up in the parking lot at 3am. 

This would be our second time using a ski setup, the first time being a couple days ago. I never quite understood how people managed to get up above the Palmer in just a couple hours until putting on ski skins. Still getting back into the groove of things, paired with the hostile February weather, we fussed around a bit more with our gear than necessary. I could still feel the previous jaunt up as well, so our upward momentum was a bit slowed. We also tried appreoaching the route from a different direction, which turned out to be a huge waste of effort. All things combine, we found ourselves at the base of the route, staring up at the sun beating down onto the rhyme pinnacles of the Steel Cliffs above us. Non ideal. 

We ditched our skis in the snow and packed as much food into our pockets as possible. The terrain above us didn’t look like it would provide many spots where we’d want to stop and chill. 

You and your precarious ways

We followed the traces of our boot pack from 2 days prior, almost completely erased by the constant spindrift. The snow was a ton more stable and far less of a pain in the ass to break trail through. (That wouldn’t last.) We pretty quickly realized that we didn’t do much research about the route, and the lower section proved to be far longer than expected. The windscowered slope took our front points and tools nicely, so with speed and safety in mind, we simulclimbed the terrain while getting blasted with wind and spindrift. 

Sticking to the right of the long ramp attempting to shield ourselves from the obvious rhyme cannons above us turned out to be a major butt-saver. A few huge blocks of ice shot down beside us as the sun warmed things up. Oh Mount Hood, how I’ve missed your precarious ways. 

Upon reflection, this route gives a false sense of security when approached due to the lack of debris at the bottom of it. Accidentally dropping my helmet the last time we were here, we concluded that the lack of debris wasn’t due to the lack of icefall, but due to the fact that everything just shoots wayyy down into the valley below. Like a ninja, it’s deadly and covers its traces…

The enjoyable part of the day

Neither the wind nor spindrift refused to cease, and the climbing remained straightforward while strenuous. As usual, I had a printout of the route stuffed into my pocket. We saw a nice little bail out gully onto the Wy’east. It was tempting considering the weather was forecasted to get bad that evening and we were running late, but it seemed like a shame to cut the route short. This route deserved to be done right. The rhyme steps our map pointed to ahead looked fun and straightforward. I didn’t want to tempt fait without a belay though, not to mention the fact that I hadn’t ice climbed for a few months, I banged in a picket. 

Our 30 meter skinny rope didn’t take me too far over the hero-style ice. I don’t often associate “hero” and “rhyme” very frequently, but the climbing was solid and unneeding of protection. I worked my way up a few short but steep steps and a little ice chimney. It felt more akin to moderate rock climbing than the usual brittle rhyme ice climbing Mount Hood is infamous for. 

We set up a couple more mediocre belays, but mostly because I was afraid falling rhyme could knock one of us off. Loosing a bit of time would be our penalty for the call for a bit more safety. Popping out of the ice would conclude the only part of the day that I would actually consider “enjoyable”. 

The clock is ticking 

Not extremely certain we were on the right track up while making our way through the rhyme formations, I again double checked my map printout while Jess looked at her GPS. Just as a friendly reminder that the clock was ticking, a shower of loose rhyme sprayed down, hitting my helmet hard enough to rip off my GoPro. (Sadly, it had run out of battery so that wasn’t recorded. Happily, I caught it!) 

Eventually we made our way up to what seemed like would be the final chute of the route. We were both a bit uncertain, but we were more certain than uncertain, and we didn’t really have much time to second guess ourselves. We continued to make our way up. The snow was in brutal condition. Powder with a thin crust of ice. I could see climbers on the Palmer below us looking up at us. I could imagine the comments from below.

“Why do people even climb that thing?” 
“Why are these two idiots so late on the route?”
“They are slow, huh?”

I couldn’t disagree with those comments, hell, I made them up in my own head. At least I can make jokes to myself during times of strain and uncertainty. I continued to wade my way through the heinous snow. I alternated between kicking deep steps into the power and delicately climbing the ice crust. I begged to the powers up high that we were on the right path up, because downclimbing this could flip the situation from strenuous to desperate. 

“F*** you snow!!”

Contrary to finishing school, swearing loudly does have its benefits. As I yelled, “F*** you snow!!” repeatedly, a couple climbers over the ridge on the Wy’east route must have heard us. Two tiny helmets popped over the ridge to our east, “Hey, I think you guys are lost!”. The brief conversation of snow-muffled yells was a very welcome encouragement through the struggle in the horrible horrible snow. 

Seeing the other climbers gave me a visual indication to help me pick out the line to complete the route. I continued to force through the snow upwards, now with a hopefully heart, while the I’m pretty sure the other climbers snapped some pretty sweet photos of us.

Familiar terrain

Finally cresting over the ridge above us, we were presented with a sincerely glorious view. We looked over the Palmer, Devil’s Kitchen, Hogsback, and all the way up to the summit not too far ahead of us. The familiar terrain was a sight for sore eyes. 

We made our way through the path of least resistance over Wy’east ridge. The route was officially completed. Feeling the solid ground underfoot felt pretty damn good.

Its never easy is it

Looking at our watches, we knew that the weather would be closing in on us soon. Talking to the folks we saw on the ridge a few minutes before and looking at a bunch of reports online, it sounded like the upper section of the Wy’east was not “in” yet. We took the call to descend the Wy’east route. It would be a long way back to our skis. “I’m so fucking sick of breaking trail”, I muttered after walking through far too much deep snow and crossing more rhymey ridges than necessary. As we approached our skis sticking up like popsicle sticks in the snow, the wind and spindrift was still battering them since the morning when we left them there. Glad to see some things never change. We grabbed our gear and beelined to the Palmer. 

“I’m so fucking sick of breaking trail”

Still getting used to our ski gear, we took a moment to de-gear and buckle up in the wind. In the process, the two climbers that came across us up high on the mountain recognized us and skied over to say chat. Night finally fell and we made our S turns down in the dark. 

Overall, this route was more strenuous than I anticipated. Maybe it was the winter conditions, maybe I just got soft. Although the technical level of the route is modest, I would certainly place this as more challenging than one like the Reid Headwall

Some beta

Lots more where that came from…

Mt. Hood, A Love Story (2019 Season Recap)

I met Jessica this last summer in the Cordillera Blanca. Our relationship kindled quickly, and a few months later she moved here to Seattle from Montreal. As they would say- the rest was history. I guess we could say that this would be the start of our climbing history. I believe that the definition of…

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