Saturday, June 28, 2014

The Mountaineering Bug (For Newbies)


I've lived in the pacific northwest for nearly ten years now and have been into backpacking for some time. I've hiked and camped some beautiful backwoods over the years and every once in awhile I would catch a remarkable vista of one of the surrounding snow-covered peaks that famously dot our horizon. Well, it was just a matter of time before the same invisible force that inspires my long walks in the woods would be coaxing me up those mountains. Last year I went up Mt. Adams with some friends and that was my first taste of what it was like to travel up to 12,000 feet in elevation via my own two feet. Now I can add Mt. Hood to the list.

Ever since the Mt. Adams hike, I have been on a mission to properly prepare myself for a more technical mountain. Even though Adams is just a basic walk-up (on the route we chose) it still is a mountain, and when we were there it decided to prove it by producing a severe white-out snow storm with 50mph sub zero wind gusts at the summit. You can read the blog entry and watch the video I made here: Mt. Adams Hike. During that hike I had zero experience of how quickly weather can change from beautiful sunny skies/warm weather to zero visibility, freezing cold with ice forming on my face. I was wearing regular hiking pants and short sleeve shirt with no base layers. On my feet were my flexible Merrell trail boots. I wore a pair of super thin stretchy gloves, a soft shell rain jacket and a puffy synthetic coat (that I sweated through) for warmth. I had rented crampons and an ice axe at least. Oh, and my water bladder froze.

I have since spent a lot of time and money researching and buying the necessary equipment  that will help me endure the harsh elements of future mountain climbs. For example, here is my new and improved list of items I now own and have used on Mt. Hood:

Minus 33 merino wool (base layer)
Weatherproof alpine hiking pants
Marmot Alpinist Hybrid Jacket (mid layer)
North Face Point Five hard shell (outer layer)
Salewa Condor Evo GTX mountaineering boots
Black Diamond crampons
Kahtoola microspikes
Mammut Skywalker climbing helmet (w/ Contour Roam2 mounted camera and headlamp)
Black Diamond alpine harness
Black Diamond ice axe w/ slinger leash
Outdoor Research high gaiters
Smith goggles
Outdoor Research Arete mountaineering gloves w/ liners

When wearing all this gear I am reminded of what a coal miner might look like, and in continuing that string of thought I find it interesting that the deeper or higher one goes on planet earth, you end up looking the same. Also, the conditions are life threatening in both directions, though I would much rather risk my life for a summit view rather than a dirt tunnel.

If you've ever looked out your window and stared at Mt. Hood and wondered to yourself what it would be like to climb it, I'm going to attempt to give you an idea of what you're in for within the words of this blog post. When I decided that climbing snow-covered mountains was going to be my new passion, I started watching every mountaineering film I could find. YouTube is a rich source information; anything from short clips to full length documentaries. Honestly, the best thing to do right from the start is watch a disaster scenario video that way you know exactly what you're getting yourself into. Especially if you have a spouse and children that are depending on you coming home alive. Don't go unprepared. Knowing the potential dangers is part of the preparation and the following video clip is a terrifying example:
You'll notice that all it took for this climber to fall was a small chunk of ice tumbling his way followed by the instinctual reaction to block it with his hand. During my ascent on Mt. Hood, a chunk of ice almost identical in size to the one in this clip came loose from above, gained momentum as it rolled down the slope, and hit me square on the back of the hand that was gripping my ice axe. It hurt badly, like when you're a kid and you catch a fast pitch in your glove from an adult. I never saw it coming so I didn't have an opportunity to react, I simply took the hit and had to shake off the pain. I realized then just how serious all things can become when climbing a mountain and was reminded why wearing a helmet is essential.

Netflix also has its fair share of mountain related movies. Amongst them are two of my all-time favorites: Touching The Void and The Summit. Both of these films are remarkable in their own right and shed a harrowing light on how dangerous mountaineering can be, while simultaneously illuminating just how addictive the sport becomes for those that catch the bug. Every expert mountaineer seems to have their own personal tale of tragedy and loss, yet they continue climbing peak after peak as if the loss of friends and lovers is nothing compared to the mystical spell the mountains have cast upon them. And it's true, I can already attest to the magical pull of Mt. Hood. When I see it against the horizon on a beautiful clear day from Salem, I long to be there. I can smell its sulfur stinging my lungs. I can feel its frigid air and hear it whipping against my clothing at 40 mph. I can taste the debris of ice as it sprays back into my face from digging my axe in. I can sense the weirdness in my head from being so high up and working so hard to get there. I can feel it breathe beneath me as I climb up slowly.

So you've bought all the equipment and watched all the films, now what? Well if you're like me and are not the athletic type and find working out to be a chore and not a pleasure, then you have some work to do. You can't just go from couch potato to mountain climber, sorry. You have to at least get used to walking long distances with a weighted backpack. That's the bare minimum. Even better, start doing squats and lunges and jumping jacks and core work and stretching every single day. For at least 45 minutes. On your days off, drive out to Henline Mountain and climb it with your weighted pack. If you do all that stuff you'll be getting into better shape, but even so, when you take that first step onto Mt. Hood and realize everything from that point forward is straight up and forever long, you'll quickly realize where your weaknesses are and wish you had trained harder and longer. My first attempt resulted in me having to turn back about an hour and half from the summit due to a muscle in my left hip (lliopsoas or sartorius maybe?) seizing up and hurting so badly it brought tears to my eyes. I was so disappointed. I had climbed for so long and was within an hour push to the top, but I knew it wasn't safe to continue. So start conditioning yourself and get used to the exhaustion because that first time up a mountain will be the hardest thing you've ever done, trust me.

Okay, so now you've completed everything up to this point and you're ready for that first climb, but you can't stop wondering what you're getting yourself into. Well, let me explain what you have to look forward to. It's called an alpine start. If you plan on climbing to the summit in one day, as opposed to climbing part way, bivouacking through the night, and summiting the next day, then you will have to begin your climb really early in the a.m. This is due to the sun. Once the sun rises and begins its march across the sky it begins to heat up the mountain which creates greater risks such as ice and rock fall and avalanches. For example: I worked all day on Friday and clocked out around 3 p.m. I went home, showered, gathered up all of my equipment and left Salem by 7 p.m. After stopping for gas and food I arrived at Timberline parking lot at 10 p.m. I assembled my Therm-a-Rest LuxuryLite cot and set it down between the front bumper of my car and the concrete parking barrier. I then pulled out my Western Mountaineering down bag and bivy sack, plopped them onto the cot and voila! My temporary sleeping arrangement. I napped until 1:30 a.m. Upon awaking I changed into my mountaineering outfit, packed up my cot and sleeping bag, locked my car and hit the "trail" by 2 a.m.

I put trail in quotes because the first several hours of the climb is merely steep hiking up crunchy snow in the dark of night. There is no designated trail. The Palmer ski lift is to your left. You will be walking up the bumpy paths the snow cats make with a headlamp illuminating your way. When you look above or below you, you will see the bobbing headlamps of other climbers. You will also see the spotlights of the snow cats far up near the top of the ski lift. They will be in constant motion as they groom the slope getting it ready for business day. When you get within range of them always be attentive and keep your headlamp on, for they are large and loud and the drivers are probably jamming to metal music and enjoying the shit out of their job while you are just a tiny human walking slowly by. Getting run over by a snow cat isn't a mountaineer's idea of a noble death, so give wide berth and don't dally in their work area.

Once you've passed Palmer ski lift it's now just you and the mountain and the rest of the climbers. Depending on your conditioning, the sun is either up by now or soon will be and you are probably nearing the good stuff. You'll enter into the Triangle Moraine and at this point (or sooner) you will have to stop and attach crampons to your boots. It is colder now and steeper and icier and you will need better traction. You might also want to start using your ice axe as a walking stick. As you get even higher, the ice axe doubles as your self arrest tool in the event that you should fall and need to stop from sliding down the mountain. It's a good idea to practice this technique on a less aggressive slope that way you have the feel for it ahead of time.

When you reach Crater Rock followed by Devil's Kitchen, you have arrived at what will now be the upward half of the hardest part of your day. You've been walking all through the morning and your body hurts and from this point forward every step you take gets harder and harder, steeper and steeper, not to mention you're now in the danger zone. A fall from anywhere here could very easily result in death. On either side of the Hogsback ridge are large fumaroles and crevasses that you would almost definitely slide right into, SO DO NOT FALL. Be careful and take your time. Let faster climbers pass you and if you are unsure of how to do it just stand still and call out to them as they get near you. Dig your crampons and your ice axe in and tell them you are secure and they will go around. Don't worry, if they are moving fast that means they've probably done this before and they're used to it. When they're past you, continue on. Once you've committed to the final stretch, that is, everything from the Hogsback and up, it isn't very easy to stop and take breaks. You will always be sideways, clinging to the mountain face at an extreme angle that you are not used to. It feels awkward and unsafe and stopping to straighten your body and stretch feels scary and dangerous. There are no flat spots until you reach the summit.

You'll see experienced climbers act as though it's no big deal. They will stick their ice axe into the hard snow, take their pack off and attach it to it, dig out food and water and remove jackets or put jackets on, all while standing there nonchalantly like a fearless mountain goat. You, on the other hand, will be too terrified to try that. Instead, you will suffer in the smoldering heat from all the layers you are still wearing because attempting to remove them is too risky. That level of skill and courage probably comes after a few more climbs I imagine. I suffered and sweated all the way up the Old Chute.

When navigating the steepest part of the climb it's best to simply kick your toe spikes into the ice and whack your ice axe above into anything solid. If it's soft and mushy, yank it out and whack again. When it's a good hold, pull yourself up and repeat the process until you reach the top. Oh, and DO NOT FALL! I'm fairly certain that it would be impossible to self arrest from anywhere inside the Old Chute. It's just too solid and steep.

Reaching the summit is a wonderful feeling because of two reasons: a) you get to bask in the glory of achieving a difficult and dangerous task and b) you get to finally rest on flat ground again. Rest, relax, drink water, eat some food, enjoy the gorgeous view from 11,250 feet above sea level. If you explore the summit be careful around the edges. Cornices can be deceiving death traps that will break off if too much weight is applied, so be conservative with your vantage points and don't try creeping up to the lip and peeking over. It's not worth the fall.

At this point the only thing to do is go back down. In every movie I watched and article I read about mountaineering accidents, 90% of all deaths occur on the descent. This is because you are extremely fatigued having worked so hard to get to the top, and now gravity is working against your tired body as you retrace your route back down. When I reached the edge of the Old Chute and looked down at what I had just climbed up a half hour ago, I freaked out a little bit. My stomach knotted up and I felt like a little kid who climbed high in a tree and was now too scared to climb back down, but in this situation my father would not be bringing a ladder to rescue me and staying on the summit was not an option. I had to go back down, it was that simple. When there are zero options it certainly helps the decision making process. I stood there awhile and watched others go down and finally got my courage up to make my descent. That first moment when you turn around backwards, look down through your legs and step awkwardly down, hoping like hell you're placing your foot in a good spot and that you're properly balanced, is a frightening thing. I was pretty scared most of the way down actually. I was scared that a crampon would pop loose, or that the head of my ice axe would pop off, or that a muscle would cramp up, or that a chunk of the ice face would dislodge. All of these things spelled disaster. You just have to push those thoughts to the back of your mind and focus on every step. You do this all the way down until you finally reach the safer section of the mountain. And then you simply... walk forever... all the way back down... glissading when you can... but trudging along mostly... through the thick melted snow... deep steps... post holing... exhausted and sore and so ready for sleep.

The next day, after you've slept harder than you ever have before, you get to feel your body react to what you just put it through. All the wonderful pains in places you didn't even know existed. And while you're nursing all those sore spots and reminiscing about the insane adventure you just experienced, you will find yourself smiling and thinking about the next mountain that you'd like to climb. Maybe Mt. Shasta? Am I ready for Rainier? Holy shit, what about... Denali? Could I actually climb something like that?!? And that's when it hits you... yep, you've got the mountaineering bug, for sure. This is how it happens, I'm telling ya.

Here are my two Mt. Hood videos:

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