Friday, April 11, 2008

The Legend of Blue Ribbon Expeditions (Part 1)

Twelve years ago my good buddy Doug and I were at Northwest Folklife festival sitting in a beer garden contemplating our larger plans for the weekend. As fun as the folk life festival can be, we decided we needed to kick things up a notch. It was Friday after a long work week, and another weekend drinking beer just wouldn’t cut it. In those days Doug and I would often embark on ill-planned unsafe crazy adventures with the single goal of having stories to tell people on Monday (Doug still does this). Our plan: see if we could drive to the California border and still be back in time for work on Monday. ROAD TRIP! (Gas prices weren’t so high in 1996).

By 10 PM we had packed Doug’s tiny 88 Subaru hatchback, filled it up with gas, and we were off.

Sixty miles later as we were passing though Olympia and becoming terribly aware of how unrealistic our original goal was. Mid trip we changed our plans to something that seemed much more sensible: climb Mount Hood. A slight change in route and we were headed to Mount Hood.

By 2 AM we were hopeless lost on a very foggy road somewhere on what we believed to be the side of Mount Hood. The fog was so thick that Doug and I had the car doors open so that we could confirm where the stripes were on the road. We were also quickly getting to the point of not-awake-enough-to-be-driving head bob. Before something really bad happened Doug found a place that looked safe to pull off of the road, he pulled over to sleep (did I mention how small his Subaru was?). I opted to sleep in a sleeping bag inside a bivvy sack near the car. Doug was happy sleeping in the car (or just too tired to get out of it).

At 8 AM the next morning I awoke to find that it had rained a fair bit and I was now sleeping in a large puddle; while Doug on the other hand was in severe pain from managing to sleep in positions that would make any yoga master impressed. The spot we had picked to stop was not more than 100 yards from the Timberline Lodge parking lot. Despite wetness and extreme bodily discomfort the need for food was our highest priority so we headed off and eventually found a small convenience store where we loaded up on junk food. Then it was off to Timberline lodge (the starting point for our climb up the south route up Mount Hood). At 9 AM, with no crampons, no rope, no safety gear, and completely neglecting to register our summit attempt, we start up the mountain along Palmer glacier. As we headed up we notice that the only other climbers we see are coming down; actually they’re all just about down at the bottom of the hill. This would be a quick climb we thought; it didn’t dawn on us that most climbers had started up at 4 AM!

Mount Hood is known for very unpredictable weather, but we were lucky. The sun was shining, it was warm and so we hiked on. The hiking trail took us along the perimeter of the ski area and it was depressing watching all the people taking the chair lift up half the distance that we had to hike; but we opted not to use the chairlift. It wasn’t that Doug and I were trying to be purist and avoid mechanical aid in climbing the mountain; rather we were too cheap to buy a lift ticket for just one ride.

Half way up the ski area is the Silcox Hut which was a nice stopping point for lunch. We pathetically hiked across the ski area into the hut and got a couple of bowls of chili and continued on. After a long slog we reached Crater Rock and eventually found ourselves crossing Hogsback; the ridge that must be crossed to reach the summit. Hogsback is verry narrow and stretches a fair distance dropping on either side into two of the volcanoes fumaroles. At the end of Hogsback is the infamous bergschrund that swallowed up and killed three climbers on May 30, 2002 (and led to a dramatic televised crash of the rescue helicopter). The real danger of the bergschrund was unknown to us, since it was snow covered. But to be safe I had Doug go first. (I remember back to my mocking of the climbers we had seen earlier in the day who had been roped up).

We eventually reached the summit around 3 PM, enjoyed the view. We were completely spent nothing left to give, and we still had to go back down the mountain. Then suddenly Doug thought it necessary to get naked, something about being on top of a mountain and the feeling of freedom. The view suddenly became a lot less attractive; enough so to get me back on to my feet and begin my descent.

As I headed down I could see Timberline Lodge was off in the distance, the size of a pin point. I started to realize the first reason that everyone else had started up at 4 AM. All the other climbers we had seen returning were able to gently glissade down the mountain in still frozen snow. The retuning climbers had formed a toboggan like path. However, by the time we were got around to descending the snow was complete mush from the day’s warm sun. Attempting to use the glissade path only succeeded in getting by butt wet. I tried to use my arms to get my body to slide, but it didn't help, so I walked. With most every step, my legs sunk knee deep in soft wet snow. Post holing our way down the slope we reached the top of the chair lift only to witness it get shut down for the day.

Eventually Doug and I did reach the car at about 8 PM. We packed up and began the drive home. We made it all of 15 minutes out of the parking lot before we decide we needed to find a place to sleep for the night and there was no way I was going to sleep on the ground or in Doug’s car again (ever!).

We found relatively affordable lodging in the nearby town of Government camp. After dinner, and a good night of sleeping on an actual bed I awoke to find the other reason that hikers start up the mountain at 4 AM. My face was stuck to my pillow. It turns out that a single application of SPF 8 suntan lotion is not enough sun protection when you spend 11 hours in the sun hiking on glacier, between 6,000 and 11,245 feet elevation. My face was beyond burnt, it was actually purple and oozing something.

Despite a week of suffering from painful radiation burns, we did have fun on that trip, but it would be nearly eight years before an attempt was made to repeat the trip…

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