Reaching up to 11, 240 feet into the Oregon skyline, Mount Hood is a fun challenge for a beginner alpinist. This mountain, known as Wy’east by the Multnomah tribe, is an active volcano, located in the Cascade Volcanic Arc of northern Oregon. It is about 50 miles southeast of Portland, on the border of both Clackamas and Hood River counties. In addition to being Oregon’s highest mountain, it is one of the loftiest mountains in the nation based on its prominence. Timberline Lodge is a National Historic Landmark located on the southern flank of Mount Hood below Palmer Glacier, with an elevation of about 6,000 feet. This is also where most of seasonal climbers start their summit bid. You can do this as a day hike, starting from the Timberline parking lot, or you can camp above the ski lifts, around 9,000 ft of elevation. The mountain has six ski areas: Timberline, Mount Hood Meadows, Ski Bowl, Cooper Spur, Snow Bunny, and Summit.
Here is little bit of native history, which I thought was quite interesting. The Multnomah, who are the original inhabitants of the area, call Mount Hood Wy’east. In one version of the legend, the two sons of the Great Spirit Sahale fell in love with the beautiful maiden Loowit, who could not decide whom to marry. The two braves, Wy’east and Pahto, burned forests and villages in their battle over her. Sahale became enraged and smote all three lovers. Seeing what he had done, he erected three mountain peaks to mark where each fell. He made beautiful Mount St. Helens after Loowit, the tall and proud Mount Hood for Wy’east, and the somber Mount Adams for the mourning of Pahto.
The last three eruptions at Mount Hood occurred within the past 1,800 years from vents high on the southwest flank and produced deposits that were distributed primarily to the south and west along the Sandy and Zigzag rivers. The prominent Crater Rock just below the summit is hypothesized to be the remains of one of these now-eroded domes. This period includes the last major eruption of 1781 to 1782 with a slightly more recent episode ending shortly before the arrival of the explorers Lewis and Clark in 1805. The latest minor eruptive event occurred in August 1907.
Mount Hood is host to 12 named glaciers and snow fields, with Palmer Glacier being the most visited, due to being within walking distance of the Timberline Lodge. Mount Hood is Oregon’s highest point and is visible up to 100 miles away. It is easily accessible and offers some minor technical climbing challenges. But just because it’s a great climb for beginners doesn’t mean it’s easy. There are no direct trails to the summit, and even the “easier” southside climbing route is a technical climb littered with crevasses and falling rocks with dangerous weather conditions as well. Ropes, ice axes, crampons and other technical mountaineering gear are necessary. Peak climbing season is generally from April to mid-June. After that the mountain suffers significant snow loss due to the temperatures, leaving rocks and boulders exposed and susceptible to falling. Due to that prominent rock and ice fall danger climbing is not recommended in the late summer. Professional mountain guides run trips to the summit of the mountain on daily basis from May to beginning of July.
Our climb was scheduled for mid-June and as the weather had been great all May and June, had high hopes of summiting. We had an overnight climb scheduled with Timberline Mountain guides, where we would set up camp around 9,000ft on the mountain and plan for a summit bid in the early morning of the next day. The day started easy with gear check, using the ski lift to go up to our camp followed by a light snow/climbing training course. Unfortunately, the weather quickly took a turn for the worse, and just before dinner we got the news that a lightning storm was coming from the northside of the mountain. The lodge below us quickly disappeared in thick clouds as the sound of thunder grew louder. What followed was one of my least favorite hiking adventures ever, as we ran down the snow covered mountain with our packs while the guides yelled that the lightning is only 5 miles away. Not fun. We made it back to the Lodge in probably record time, but had to try to summit the next day. So we went home, got a good night’s rest and went back up the very next day.
We began our second attempt at 6am. Unfortunately the area was under a high wind advisory, so the ski lifts were shut down and we started hiking from the parking lot. The skies were sunny and it was very hot, but also very windy and the higher we climbed, the stronger the wind, up to 40mph. Just below the sulfur-fuming Devil’s Kitchen (10,400 ft) near the wind carved snow formation called the Hogsback, thick clouds rolled in and the visibility dropped. The wind whipping up snow while clouds are already obscuring your vision is a dangerous combination. Mountaineers call this combo “The Soup” and navigating through it is extremely difficult and not recommended during a technical climb. So even though we were 840 vertical feet from the summit, we decided to turn around. Reaching the summit would have been an amazing experience, but not when the risk is that high. You should never let ambition overrule reason while climbing any mountain. Besides, with all that cloud cover, I wouldn’t have gotten any great photos :P.
Our two day summit bid was not successful, but our group definitely showed good judgement on the weather and turnaround from the summit. The mountain will be there next year and we will come back.
- Most parties do Mt. Hood climbing routes as a one-day climb from Timberline Lodge. If done as a two-day climb, it is possible to camp in snow around 500 feet above the top of the Palmer Chair Lift (9,000 ft).
- As a one-day climb, the lodge or a car camp is recommended. To car camp, either sleep in cars at the parking lot or camp at a Forest Service campground (both would be noisy). An early start at 12 or 1 am will avoid soft snow and limit rock/icefall danger near the summit, as well as crowd of climbers at Hogsback.
- Check with the ranger station after July for potential rock fall danger and even possible closure of the route.
- Mount Hood Locator Units (MLUs) are available for rent at Mount Hood Inn in Government Camp just off SR 26 on Business Loop. Their use is recommended, but not required.