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Jul-02-2009 05:00printcomments

Mount Hood's Dangerous Awe-Inspiring Beauty

High altitude affects you in many ways. By the second break we are at 10,100 feet and I care less and less. I wonder, “What have I done?”

Mount Hood, Oregon ascent
Photos provided by Daniel Bielenberg

(SALEM, Ore.) - The Snow Cat spins 180 degrees and backs up about 30 feet. The ramp is lowered and the driver opens our door. Six climbers and two guides exit, one guide scrapes the snow with his toe and says, “crampon’s for sure”.

Without hesitation, we all turn our head lamps and strap crampon’s onto our mountaineering boots. Its 12:25 a.m. Father’s Day morning 2009.

My adventure starts with a very small article in the Salem local paper back in January. I learn that if I raise $3250.00 for the American Lung Association of Oregon they will send me on a professionally guided trip to the summit of Mt. Hood. I also learn that Mt. Hood is the second most climbed mountain in the world. With some 9000 people ascending annually.

I send out donation requests to friends and family, attend training hikes weekly and begin to purchase the right gear. Learning is an experience for me at 44 years old. Cotton is forbidden for people that seriously work out. Moving forward I set three goals of losing a few pounds, getting into shape, and ending up on the highest point of Oregon at 11,239 feet in June.

By 12:35 a.m. Geoff Lodge our guide from Timberline Mountain Guides asks his peer guide, “Should we wait for you, or head out in our own pods like Wednesday?” The answer back is, “go for it, and we will see you on the way up”. With out hesitation, Geoff, Randall, Aaron, and I turn right and head up the South side of Hood. I met Geoff at the information meeting in January. He personally convinced me to go, when he informed me that he will summit the mountain some 75 times this year alone. At 31 years old, what a job!

1:40 a.m. Geoff stops us for our first break. We have passed 2 other groups climbing for the same cause. Geoff has 3 of us on his team and with congregations in his voice says, 1000 feet in the first hour, very nice job fellows”. I have learned that in mountaineering everything is measured in feet; that are vertical feet. We have to climb 3500 total feet, so at 1:40 a.m. we have gone less than a third of the way; the easy part of the climb.

After about a 6-minute break Geoff says, “two minute warning”. Like precision team members we all four take our “big puffy” (down) jackets off, store them in our packs. Strap our packs on and set foot up hill. Geoff announces, next break in 800 feet, vertical feet.

High altitude affects you in many ways. By the second break we are at 10,100 feet and I care less and less. I wonder, “What have I done?” My focus becomes no further away than my next two steps. Geoff notices that I haven’t eaten anything and asks me, “How are you doing?” “A little nauseated” is my reply, but truth be told I my stomach hasn’t cramped that bad in years. Geoff says, “you need to eat Daniel”. I say, “no I am fine, I usually don’t eat breakfast” I answer forcing a smile. Geoff says, “you HAVE to eat”. I open my pack and throw down two handfuls of trail mix.

We are off again. I focus on good footing and the sounds of ice crunching under our feet. Crampons are sharp spikes about one and a half inches long and triangle shaped. Twelve spikes on each foot. The sounds of 96 spikes entering the ice in a synchronized format that would make any Marching Band Director proud.

Our third and final break comes at about 10,439 feet. We are 800 feet from the top and Geoff says if we keep up the pace the final push should only take about an hour and a half. This part of Mt. Hood is called, “The Old Chute”. And the reason is that the chute looks just like you are looking straight up a Chimney.

Geoff looks at his group of three for which he assumes full safety and responsibility and says, “I need you to focus! Once we start up this, we can’t stop till we hit the top.” Ice axes come out. Its 3:45 a.m. and if we hurry we will hit the summit at sunrise! We are “short roped together”. This is a mountaineering technique tying loops or a figure-eight-on-bight knot about every six feet. The figure eight is clipped to our carabineer and to our harness. . The theory being that if one slips the others will be able to arrest the fall. Only problem I see is that if the theory proves wrong, we are tied together, or just six feet apart with many sharp points flailing about as we would tumble in unison to the bottom.

About 200 feet from the top Geoff says, “You guys each stay there, set your ice axes and don’t move until I give the signal. When I am ready, I will call you up and give a hand signal.” Geoff spools off the 200 feet of rope from his shoulder and begins the final assent “free climbing”. If he slips we will arrest his fall but he may have a large head start. There is 600 vertical feet below us and this ground is steeper than any fire service ladder I have climbed in 21 years.

When Geoff is 200 feet away from me, he drives a four foot anchor into the snow. I remember one of the team members in the snow clinic the day before asking, how do you know that will hold? Geoff’s answer, “nineteen years of experience, and I really don’t have any other explanation.” Geoff then clips a carabineer to the strap and ties a munter hitch and gives the hand signal for us to ascend.

I have never been so challenged in my life. Geoff is encouraging us all the way. We hit the summit of Mt. Hood around 5:20 a.m. A Father’s Day dream comes true for me! Clouds are about 7000 feet below and the view is breath taking to say the least. All I can say is, “wow”. I say this at least a dozen times out loud. I can’t think of anything else to say. I then tell Geoff, “nice job”

We snap a few photos, congratulate each other with high fives and I get my picture taken. Video is running from my teammate’s helmet cameras. Geoff checks the temperature, and 18 degrees is the reply. About a 30-mile-per-hour wind means that with all of my clothes that I own on, I am shaking out of control in less than 5 minutes.

As with any adventure the decent proves just as challenging. Keeping my vertigo in check looking down the 800 foot chimney is yet another challenge. I face the mountain (so I don’t have to look down) and start back climbing down the mountain. Geoff has us on belay, which is an amazing comfort for me. “Trust yourself, and trust your gear” I keep telling myself. This doesn’t even begin to tell how much I trust Geoff.

Coming from a 21-year career of being in the Fire Service (as a volunteer) says a lot about my level of trust. This is not easily earned. But all of the guides working at Timberline Mountain Guides have earned this trust.

By 6:30 a.m. I am at the bottom of The Old Chute, and for the first time I look to the top. I literally have to tip my helmet back otherwise the top does not come into view. I mean this is straight up. I remember thinking that I can not believe that some body thinks this is a good idea. To safely ascend and descend time and time again is something that I still am not able to get my mind around.

Walking back to Silcox Hut I enjoy every step of my day. Thinking it’s a pretty good thing that I did most of the climb in the dark. Because if I’d been able to see just how steep this climb was; I might have thought about turning back. The guides like climbing at night because the ice is solid and won’t have a chance to melt or fall causing injury. But as I descend I think, was it this steep going up?

If you are considering your next adventure on a mountain, please check out Timberline Mountain Guides. TMG has an outstanding safety record. They manage all of the risks and safety. Spend quality time in controlled situations teaching all of the necessary skills. The best part, is knowing that I will return to my family safely.


Daniel Bielenberg is a native Oregonian and father of 4 children who lives and works in Salem, Oregon.

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Fellow climber July 2, 2009 7:35 pm (Pacific time)

Really nice, well-written piece. I appreciate the action perspective, and thanks for raising funds for a great cause.

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