Technical climbing info
- Mountain: Mount Hood
- Elevation: 11,250ft
- Route: Sandy Glacier Headwall
- Length: 3000ft
- Grade: III, AI2
A year ago, Jessica and I climbed a route on Mount Hood that we had been eyeing for quite some time, the Cathedral Ridge, one of the most dramatic and stunning routes we’ve climbed. The massive Sandy Glacier Headwall struck awe in us as it first towered over us. “Oh my god, this is huge”, distinctly went through my mind.
It went on our to-do list, and we went for it just a few weeks later. We were thwarted by strong winds. Then the summer came. And it would just be a route for the future.
We went on to spent most of the season focused on improving our rock climbing, with almost every free moment spent at Smith Rock. I barely noticed the amazing winter windows on Hood come and go, but eventually the peak was undeniable. I wondered if this would be the year I’d climb the Black Spider, a long time goal. But the weather was posed to be warm, and I had not climbed ice in about a year. Ego and desire had to be put aside. We decided to go for the Reid Headwall, maybe a different variation than we had climbed in the past.
“Oh my god, this is huge”,
distinctly went through my mind.
The start (w/ 80s Rock Anthems)
12:45am, we parked the car. I was still feeling tired after slurping up the last few drops of my Yerba Matte. I turned on my last playlist on my phone, it was “80s Rock Anthems”. Gun N’ Roses blurted out of my phone. Sweet, I’ll take that. I dropped my phone in my chest pocket, Van Halen played through my Gore-Tex.
An hour in, I could feel the blood flowing. We were hauling up the Timberline resort. The night was clear and the temperature was just right. In what felt like no time, we had passed the last ski lift, Ozzy Osbourne busting out of my pocket now.
The Sandy decision, LeT’S Do It
We dropped out bags at Illumination Rock in the dark, Bon Jovi rocking away. Dang, we got here too quick; not something we often think in the mountains. The Reid Headwall was our target, but the Sandy Headwall was in the back of my mind. I threw it out that maybe we could climb 2 or 3 laps on the Reid Headwall and go home early. Jessica looked at me, looked at the gear on the ground, looked back at me, “How about the Sandy?”. She knew how to read my mind. “If there is no avy debris below the Reid, let’s go for the Sandy”, I responded.
We popped over the ridge onto the Reid Glacier, and conditions looked stable. Let’s do it.
We noticed an illuminated tent parked at the base of Yocum Ridge. We followed their fresh bootpack. Maybe we wouldn’t be alone. By the time we go to the ridge, their tent was gone, and no bootpack was in sight. We wondered where they had went. Weird.
Remembering when we crossed here for the Cathedral Ridge, I remembered that almost any crossing that could go from the Reid side would go on the Sandy side. We picked the closest crossing and went for it. It ended up being a little more techy than expected on the Sandy side, worth not descending further down the ridge though.
The Headwall’S Base
We punched through the snow on the Sandy Glacier. The only beta we had was a GPS trace of unknown quality, and two photos I had downloaded at the Illumination Saddle of decidedly poor quality.
Avalanche being our biggest concern, we looked out for the typical signs. Aside from a few patches of wind deposit down low, the Sandy Headwall seemed to be in perfect condition. The sun was just coming up; ideally we would have been here even earlier, but we knew the wall would remain in the shade for most the day.
I opened up our only possibly reliable piece of beta, the GPS trace of unknown origin, and we headed up.
The lower Headwall
We shot towards the obvious bergschrund ahead that our GPS pointed us to, still filled in snow. The snow was in friendly condition as route started to steepen. I looked back at Jessica, “I think we may be getting this route in insanely easy conditions!”, I naively exclaimed. As the route steepened, the beautiful neve turned into snice. We went from step kicking to front pointing. Okay, maybe this will be long.
We headed up towards what looked like complicated section of rocky terrain plastered in ice. I felt confident, but as we got to it, it turned out to be easy to navigate around without too much technical requirements. I had way too many ice screws racked on me, but I was happy to have them nonetheless.
After quite a bit of traversing, we realized that the line we had chosen to climb was probably not the optimal path up this headwall. It seemed that we had started closer to the Yocum than necessary, requiring us to traverse over much more terrain than would have been necessary if we had started closer to the Cathedral. The headwall was plastered in ice, and patch of neve felt like a gift to our calves. I was starting to be concerned about the remaining water in our bottles, but we pushed up in good spirit.
Getting up to 9,200′, my body actually starting to notice a lack of proper hydration. I briefly considered bailing, but bailing this high on the route seemed more challenging and dangerous than finishing it off. Plus, it was still early and the snow in my bottles would probably melt once we could climb up onto the Queen’s Chair. Okay, we push on. I was still feeling quite good anyways.
The upper headwall
As reached the bottleneck of the route we again found ourselves looking at some pretty technical terrain. I felt good about climbing it, and just that feeling boosted my confidence about ice a little bit, something I had been lacking just a few days ago. But like below, a far less technical crossing presented itself. While plenty of lines looked appealing, not taking the easiest path seemed silly. We pitched it out anyways. I led up, ice screws were…hopeful. The terrain was rime feathers filled with sugar, my favorite.
With a bit of navigation, and still in high spirits, we navigated on our front points though more and more terrain, mostly ice. Our calves were burning, and my hydration situation was becoming more and more apparent and it was taking a toll. Just a bit further to the sun and this damn water will melt.
We got up into the final chute, and we could see the sun illuminating the very familiar exit of the Cathedral Ridge. I distinctly remember looking down the Sandy Headwall from right there a year ago and really feeling inspired. I felt that inspiration come over me again. We were so close to finishing it off, just a few more rope lengths above.
We had never really merged with the proper line up the mountain, and now it was obvious that we had been climbing more steep and icy terrain than necessary. We moved through the final terrain ahead, belaying until we ran out of pro them moving to simulclimbing.
Our spirits remained high as we pulled up above the headwall. But now, I was feeling the reality of the dehydration, and it was still too cold for the snow to melt in my bottle. The Queen’s Chair was ahead, but in my mind it seemed a million miles away. I asked Jessica to take the lead for the rest of the climb, up and down. I progressively slowed down, and we got back to the car in the dark. That last hour was painful.
A few key takeaways, ordered in no particular way:
- According to various reports, this route seems to have a higher accident to attempt ratio than most others on the peak for whatever reason. For better or for worse, soloing is the norm on Hood, but I felt simulclimbing this route was the right blend of efficiency and safety. I would have liked 4-6 pickets.
- There is a particular amount of overhead rime that will certainly shed on the route in the wrong conditions. This being on the western aspect of the peak certainly helps keep it cool though.
- This is not a techy route, but it felt much “bigger” than routes of a similar grade in the Mullee guidebook.
- Hard to say if doing this in 2 days would make it any less strenuous. Camping at Illumination Rock wouldn’t save enough time to make sense in my mind. Camping on the Yocum would require a carryover.
- Dehydration struck me much harder and faster than I expected. I’ve climbed Mount Hood countless times in the winter without an issue, but assuming that the day will get warm enough in the winter to melt snow with just solar radiation in a Nalgene may only work 99 of 100 times.
A bit of photo beta
UP NEXT: A FEW SELECT HOOD ROUTE
There are really 2 ways to climb the Cathedral Ridge. Either approached by Lolo Pass, all the way from the far northwest flank of the mountain. While scenic and pure, it requires climbers to somehow get back to their car when descending to Timberline. Alternatively, it can be approached from the good ole south side. It begins with crossing over the Illumination Saddle, then the Reid Glacier, then the Yocum Ridge, then the Sandy Glacier, and then finally make the way onto the Cathedral Ridge. This effectively circumnavigates half the mountain. […]
Bad luck or poor planning, whatever it was, Jessica and I set our eyes on this climb a couple years back but never managed to send it. Whether it was bailing in very dry conditions or forgetting our boots at home, we ended the 2019 season shot down by this “fairly straightforward” Mt Hood south side techy classic. And as 2020 came and left, we managed to keep ourselves busy with plenty of other climbs. But this spring, spotting a splitter sunny but cold weather window, we snuck out to Oregon to finally (hopefully) bang this one out together. […]