A personal experience climbing Leuthold Couloir on Mount Hood, Oregon.
Most of my enthusiasm for the mountains stem from an early introduction by my Father. He had my Brother and I skiing at 4 years old on the slopes of Mount Hood. My Brother, Dad and I would ski multiple laps down two runs at Timberline called Pucci and Magic Mile. In between each run on the chairlift during clear skies the summit of Mount Hood would be staring back at me day after day, year after year. My mind was in constant flux thinking about the upper mountain. I would sit in the classroom wondering what the mountain was doing.
After I graduated from High School my parents sent me to the North Cascades through Bellingham with the American Alpine Institute's 12 day Mount Baker course. This trip taught me all the basic mountain travel skills required for glaciated peaks. I learned basic rock craft at Mount Erie then the remainder of the skills on Mount Baker. The course was a perfect spring board into my love of alpine climbing.
It's 22 May 1999 and time to test our skills on a climb that is committing but not technically difficult. We head for Leuthold Couloir on the west side of Mount Hood in Oregon, an avalanche prone chute known for killing people throughout the history of Oregon Mountaineering. This route is viewable from Portland, Oregon with Mount Hood showing its most prominent feature, Yokum Ridge, dividing Sandy Glacier from Reid Glacier. Leuthold Couloir, couloir means snow filled gully on the side of a mountain, is the accumulation zone of Reid Glacier and is south of Yokum Ridge. Mount Hood has 12 glaciers covering most aspects of the mountain. On a clockwise rotation from north to south and back to north, the glaciers are: Coe, Langille, Eliot, Newton Clark (Mount Hood Meadows ski area is below this one), Whiteriver, Coalman (in the south crater west of Crater Rock), Palmer (Timberline ski area is on and below this one), Zigzag, Reid, Sandy and Ladd Glaciers. Our route starts at Timberline Lodge ascends between Palmer and Zigzag Glaciers to Illumination Saddle where the route contours onto the west side along the crest of Reid Glacier and then up Leuthold Couloir to the summit ridge and summit.
Mount Hood is also called Wy'east, a name given by the Multnomah Tribe after Chief Wy'east. The legend says that a woman was the affection of two Chiefs, one Klickitat and one Multnomah. A competition ensured and the resulting anger changed the Klickitat Chief into Mount Adams, the Multnomah Chief into Mount Hood (Wy'east) and the woman into Mount Saint Helens.
It's 0500 hours, Matt and I walk across the gentle rolling asphalt expanse of the Timberline Lodge parking lot to the north end. We climb the initial snow bank created by snowplows. At the knoll Matt straps on his snowshoes as I get my skis ready for uphill travel. We begin up the slope at a gradual pace that we’ll keep, until we reach Illumination Saddle on the southwest side of Mount Hood. The snow just touching underfoot, we can feel the exhilaration of spring conditions for our first summit together in alpine style. Alpine style consists of climbers going up and down a mountain in a single push. This can be accomplished with or without making camp on the way up or down. One end of this style has seen climbers doing big mountains in Alaska, climbing straight for 40 and even 60 hours with little or no extended breaks. The other side of the same coin, climbers set camp as they go up and move the camp with them, not using fixed rope or previously established camps.
The night before I had packed and repacked my gear. This has become a ritual allowing a double check of the weight, the gear I'm taking and whether that gear is too little or too much. I packed extra clothing, fleece gloves, water bottles with 3000 ml, a few Big Hunks, a bag of beef jerky, goggles, sunglasses, crampons (used on boots for climbing snow and ice), ice tools, skis, traction skins for skis and Alpine Trekkers (used in downhill ski bindings to give the user a free heel like telemark skiers for uphill travel).
We stop an hour into the climb near Silcox Hut to eat a Big Hunk and some beef jerky with water. We need to reach the summit before the sun hits the west face since Leuthold Couloir is on the west side of Mount Hood, this would be the warmest time of day and risk the most amount of rock fall.
The temperature of the snow permeates through my nike warmups into my base layer. I start to feel my body shiver as if bones and muscles were fighting in a pinball machine. I think of what it must be like to die of hypothermia. I remember one of the worst disasters in U.S. Mountaineering history. May 1986, the Oregon Episcopal School went for their annual climb of Mount Hood. Seven students and two faculty members froze to death high on the mountain, my brother was friends with a student's brother. The devastated family moved out of state. I was only 7 years old and don't remember the family. The cold sensation prompts us to move, more importantly we need to reach Illumination Saddle by 0800 hours. This way we can minimize the rock and ice fall hazard in the couloir. The cold clear skies is a good sign that the couloir will remain stable longer into the day.
We begin our diagonal pursuit up the Zig Zag glacier to the saddle. Illumination Rock stares at me with intent to mesmerize as it becomes my source for energy. Illumination Rock is the southwestern most spire continuing from the serrated Castle Crags. The rock is a broad cliff when viewed from the northwest and southeast. In stark contrast, it is a fin like spire as viewed from the northeast and southwest. Illumination Rock trickles with snow and ice climbs of a shorter scale than the couloir we're going to climb. I transfix my eyes, nothing waivers me from my goal. I must reach the saddle, the rock, I must speed up. My pace picks up, after what seems to be an eternity. My head turns and stops as I see Matt.
Matt is a few paces behind me. It doesn't take long before he’s beside me again. We drink much needed fluid to soothe the dry pain in our throats. The cold dry air depletes us of much needed moisture with each exhale as the crystals of our breath float into the dawn sky.
In a progression of steady steps we reach the saddle in what seems a matter of seconds. As I sit down, I look at my watch, 0730 hours. We take a long rest for 30 minutes, which is well needed after moving for an hour and fifty minutes. We sit facing southeast with the maw of the monolithic Illumination Rock to our right. The Castle Crags rising ever so higher to our left. There, just slightly left of east is Mount Hood's signature rock, Crater Rock; the centerpiece of most southside photographs.
I go scout the terrain over the saddle to determine the best path into the couloir. When I return, Matt and I discuss the options.
“It looks like there are a lot fewer crevasses high on the glacier, so if we hug the Castle Crags we should be less likely to fall into a hole. Most of them I saw over there look like we can just step across,” I say to Matt.
“Well, it sounds good. I'll just see after our break,” replies Matt.
I sit down. I take off my gloves and hold them between my legs, while I reach into my pack for water and beef jerky. My legs shift.
“Joe, your glove!” Matt yells. I get up and run for my glove as it flies on a gust of wind and disappears before my eyes into a vast white.
I turn around to see my other glove take flight, I just lost one I can't lose another. I run and barely catch it. I sigh with relief and sit back down. “Damn it,” I say as I think of what to do. I remember my fleece gloves and pull them out of my pack to use. I put the right hand glove on and store the left hand one in the fanny pack. The frustration takes me back to this last year with all the attempts, we can't stop because I'm missing a glove.
We have tried to summit Mount Hood many times over the last season, every weekend, all winter long. Last January we got to the Timberline Lodge parking lot in a full gale of white clouds. We started up along trees of one of the ski resort's many ski runs leading onto the upper mountain. The trees provided little shelter from the blast as each one tried to knock us over. We could see but a mere 10 to 20 feet, then nothing at all. The wind hit my left cheek as we continued into the white void. The only sensations, were the crunch with each step higher up the mountain upon fresh snow, the wind battered the left side of my face, numb and rough. My left cheek turned into leather from the exposure. Time was lost, sight was lost the only thing we knew was the direction of wind. We decided that to continue was futile and we took a right turn for a hopeful salvation. I started to see things in the mist, a bear in the distance? “Matt is that a bear or cougar?” as I pointed in the direction I had looked. We continued toward the unknown object as it quickly approached. It appeared to move, then float. “That can't be an animal up here and in this weather, can it?” as I turned my head to look at Matt. Matt was peering into the mist with intent. The object became uncomfortably close. The we realized that it was a sign stating the ski area boundary. We stood for a few moments looking left and right as visibility came and went. We noticed poles lined up running up and down the slope. Could this be a way out of the void? We noticed giants approaching through the mist, gladiators from the past perhaps on a climb to the future. They came into clear view, climbers with huge packs ascending the mountain. “Will these poles lead us back to the lodge?” I asked one as they passed. “Yes, follow these and they will take you straight to the lodge and parking lot,” one guy replied as they disappeared from sight as quickly as they had appeared. We took the leash and got off the mountain back to the car and drove home. The mountain awaited our return.
Here at the saddle, sitting, thinking of all the effort we have put into climbing Mount Hood until today May 22 has made it more important. Besides, I regard this climb as a memorial for Willi Unsoled and Tom Horbien's 1963 climb of Everest's West Ridge on this calendar day. I feel a breeze, Matt's sitting next to me and I realize we need to get moving. We leave for Leuthold Couloir at 0800 hours from the saddle. I use the fanny counterpart of my pack to carry a water bottle, the camera, a pack of beef jerky, a few Big Hunks and the left hand fleece glove. We leave everything else at the saddle. We get our ice tools in hand and crampons on our boots.
Matt follows me since I am the only one of us, who's been on a glacier. We follow the base of the Castle Crags as rock and ice chunks whistle by trying to peg us. “Abort, abort,” I yell after one hits my right elbow. I run right by Matt back towards the saddle. As the pain subsides, I begin to move my arm. I think about how many times we've attempted this mountain all winter, every single weekend. In my frustration I grunt and yell, “Matt, let’s do this thing.”
Once we reach the edge of the couloir, we follow a ten foot wide crevasse, crevasse is a slot or crack in glacial ice that moves closing and opening as it travels over concave and convex terrain, on our right to a logical snowbridge. We continue to contour with our ice tools and crampons. We reach a flat spot below a huge cliff that had so much debris below it, making me hope I wouldn’t get hit again.
We gain the 50 degree slope of the south edge of the couloir, after we cross three consecutive crevasses. Now, with the danger of the glacier behind us, we move into an area with less predictable avalanche hazard. Crossing the final crevasse presents an exhilaration in my soul. Being here on Mount Hood climbing with a noble friend curates unity in my life. The pace creates a rhythm of efficient movement as we progress up the couloir.
As the sun gradually crests the headwall above, we lose time. We begin to move fast to make up for our late start, until falling ice and rock explodes around us. We crouch in close to the slope as we assume a fetal position, crossing our tools above our heads and sliding our knuckles behind the shafts. We repeat this process several times, since we’re not wearing helmets. Possibly, the most idiotic flirt with death I've committed. All it would take is one rock or ice chunk cascading down, hitting us squarely on the head.
I spot a small exposed rock above, so I aim to reach that for our first break since the saddle. The rock creates a natural bench big enough for both of us to sit in relative safety and have some water, while debris shoots over our heads. It's 1030 now as I look around at Yokum Ridge, Reid Glacier and the surrounding foothills below. My feet dangle over the edge of our little natural park bench. My gaze pierces the low level haze as I look beyond the Columbia River to Mount Saint Helens. The mountain is warming up more and prompts us to move again.
I go out first, into the unknown fist of Leuthold Couloir. Somehow, I gain a level of confidence and spot our next break. As we head towards it, I maintain a meditative state as my eyes do not flutter from the rock marking the split in the couloir. The sun crests the west face further, sending more and more chunks on a glissade down the mountain. Still, we clutch our tools above our heads for a sense of protection during these intermittent barrages. Atleast I thought we did, as I hear a sound behind me and look to see Matt leaning away almost falling backwards. Both his ice tools are in the mountain ice. “Matt pull in on your tools.” He struggles to pull himself back. He pulls on his ice tools. Then rests for a moment with his head on the snow.
We continue climbing to our next break at the fork in the couloir. Here, we are protected from the falling debris. Matt pulls off his hat and already the bruise is shining with color on his forehead. I feel a numbness as if a thousand needles prick my right hand. I had forgotten until now about the fleece glove, utterly soaked from the melt of snow crystals. I take out the dry left hand fleece glove to use on my right hand for the remainder of the climb. We drink the last of our water and decide to go climber's left towards the top of Yokum ridge. I start a diagonal traverse to the left roughly at about sixty degrees.
The sun fully crests the western flank of Mount Hood as it begins to warm our bodies and my hand.
The slope angle is about 40 degrees and we continue to traverse the upper portion of the couloir. As we approach the center of the couloir, I notice that the snow, for the next 15 feet across, is flowing as if it were an inch deep stream. I look back to Matt, we make eye contact as if to say be careful here. I step first, my only hope is that the snow would not lose its bond, for that would be my last step, into an avalanche and death. I'm sure that I would not survive a slide from this high up the mountain with the huge cliff halfway down, that I would rag doll over and splat on the snow below as if I were a bug on a windshield.
We cross the snowy rapid with six strides to the safety of stable snow. The view to the north of Hood captures our attention, as we stop for a breather. Fatigue and altitude have begun to take control of my mind. The dizziness and weakness presents as I collapse again and again. “Get up Joe, we're almost there, come on,” Matt says. I fall over trying to stand up. “Come on man,” Matt’s voice gives me strength to get up again and walk. The sound of someone there, someone that matters gets me on my feet and moving, in an effort to preserve that connection and avoid a youthful death. I could have just sat there to relax and die, if I had been alone. I might have just sat to enjoy the view for eternity.
We start heading south, towards the crest of Cathedral Ridge. On the way to the crest I collapse, as I realize now that I'm feeling the affects of minor altitude sickness. I stand up again at the sound of Matt’s voice and we continue the push to the summit.
The Cathedral Ridge crest is finally underfoot. “Beautiful, it's amazing up here,” I shout. “Awesome, having fun?” I yell to a pair of climbers on the Mazama route on the south side of Hood. They respond with mumbled enthusiasm as we look east and see the gnarled ridge crest.
Our movement gains control of our souls as we begin to trek on the knife blade ridge. The ridge has a 2,000 foot drop with an occasional cornice to our left, while the right side drops 500 feet to the 45-degree slopes of the Coalman Glacier. I reach a sketchy section where I must step onto a small cornice to the right. I extend my right leg with trepidation as a breeze makes the hair on my neck stand as if they were pool cues. Quivers race throughout my lower body as I hope the cornice doesn't give way. I place my right foot close to the ridge crest; the cornice keeps me from plummeting 500 feet down the south slope. After which, I step down to the left with similar meekness onto another cornice. It holds, above 2000 feet of air. One more step, I gain the broadening ridge to realize how scary that should have been. Due to the level of fatigue, it didn’t phase me until I turn around to face Matt.
I see he's about to reach the cornice section. “Watch out! Two cornices, there and there,” as I point them out for Matt to notice. I watch as Matt continues toward my position. I feel a weight, a great pressure builds as I realize if a cornice breaks under his foot I would be able to do nothing except watch his fall. I watch his progression as I hold my breath for a few moments. A rope may have helped erode some of my apprehension.
The breeze dissipates as a serene peace sets the scene of Matt taking his final few steps onto the broadening ridge. Blue sky surrounds with the landscape dropping to the north and west away and behind Matt on a sharp cascade towards the Columbia River. Mount Saint Helens, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams form a northern ring basking in the blue sunlit sky beyond the great meandering Columbia River Valley on it's course to the Pacific Ocean. A green landscape bubbles beneath the snow capped peaks in the distance, a sign of the moisture laden Pacific Northwest. Matt and I turn east and walk the final 100 yards.
We reach the summit of Mount Hood 11,235 feet at 1240 hours. I drop my fanny pack as my sore muscles overwhelm my ability to act. I sit down to rest as a rush of realization hits. I'm on the summit, I'm alive and my arm is feeling odd. I take off my coat and roll up my sleeve. The pain at the sight of my arm surprises me. I realize my arm is black and blue, swollen twice its normal size. I wonder if it fractured from the hit I received earlier in the climb. However, this is not the place to dwell on that as I know that we have to get down the mountain to safety. I stand up to take in the view before the walk down. The Pacific Ring of Fire extends north and south. Mount Rainier, Mount Saint Helens and Mount Adams create the big boys to the North. The majestic Columbia River snakes down from Canada on a curve as it scours the landscape around Pendleton and Hood River. Downstream through the Cascade Locks as the eastern rampart of the Columbia River Gorge begins, hiding the mythical Multnomah Falls the river continues unheeded to the ocean.
I turn towards the Pearly Gates as the view south slaps my face. A green blue landscape extends south until it hits Mount Jefferson near the Warm Springs Reservation. Mount Jefferson is a classic pyramidal mountain hosting steep cascades of ramparts and glaciers. Further south dome-like mountains raise the land, the Three Sisters, make a unique cluster of volcanoes for the Southern Cascade Range. All through Oregon there's not another cluster of high volcanic mountains like the Three Sisters.
We have been on the summit for about an hour as I notice the cold getting to me. We decide it’s time to get going, so we head down to Illumination Saddle via the Pearly Gates and the Hogsback. The air is still, only a slight breeze as I walk by other climbers on their way up the mountain. We continue through the Pearly Gates as my awareness keeps my focus on the success of each cautious step. One slip here and I'll break myself in the crevasse at the base of this narrow chute, possibly die from the impact. A hint of sulfur is noticeable from the volcanic vents surrounding us; it clouds my head with each breath. I keep my focus on each step downward until we reach the Hogsback.
After we reach the Hogsback, the adrenaline subsides as I start to collapse again. I just lose control now...the snow is soft; I just let myself fall into it's soft cradle over and over as I descend around Crater Rock. I'm out of any serious danger and it's all downhill to the saddle. After each collapse, I sit and collect myself; then in one solid roll I'm on my feet walking again. Finally, I reach the saddle sometime after Matt. Matt was full of energy and running down the mountain as if an antelope at play on the plains. I take a nice break, step into my ski bindings and start a dreary eyed ski down to the Timberline Lodge parking lot.