Part II: A return to Mt Hood and the sport of Mountaineering
By Charles Chandler
If you read the first installment of this compelling tale from the keyboard of Mr. Chandler, today we bring you part II. Mr. C. is a wonderful storyteller and this particular autobiographical tale is truly one of his best.
What? You missed the first chapter?
Well here it is.
On arriving back in Tulsa, I took the card pulled from the bulletin board in the Timberline Lodge on Mt Hood and called the mountaineering Guide. We talked and he asked a few questions about my age and physical condition and why I wanted to climb a mountain.
We made a date for the next year as it was now October and the climbing season was coming to an end. He gave me a list of the gear that would be needed and some tips for physical conditioning. The next nine months were consumed with conditioning and the gear this flatlander needed to climb a mountain. I lived on a stair stepper, and it was squats, lunges and running, running and endless miles of running. Every spare moment was spent reading technical articles and scanning mountaineering gear catalogs. The Canon Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills became my nightstand reader. At last, the time arrived and it was off to Portland and my date with Mt Hood. This time there were no zealots at the Avis Counter and hopefully, he was in Tulsa happily attending Oral Roberts University.
My car was a sporty Mustang rather than a tank all of which I took as a portent of good luck. The next morning in the chilly predawn hours I and another climber met our Guide at Timberline lodge. I learned then that all climbs began sometime between midnight and dawn. The reasoning was to reach the summit before the sun began to melt the snow and ice on glaciated or snowbound mountains. Or in the case of mountains like the Rockies to be up and down before the afternoon thunderstorms. With no time to acclimate to the altitude, my first climb was a challenge. Every step between the trailhead is either a step up or a step-down. Being a volcanic mountain there was pumice that was like walking on little ball bearings, lava rocks, snowfields, crevasses, sulfur vents, and unrelenting cold wind. We climbed through a cloud layer at around 9,000 ft where I learned that it is wet and cold inside clouds. There were technical pitches where we were on the rope with ice axes in hand. Finally, we reached the summit and took a few minutes to sign the climber's log, take a 360 degree look around and snap a couple of quick photos and then head back down. It was here on the summit that I made my first mountaineering mistake when I took my glove off to sign the climber's log. Today when my hands get really cold my thumb will still remind me of that careless moment. Mountaineering is a challenging and sometimes dangerous sport.
Many of the Cascade Mountains are near big west coast cities like Portland and Seattle. According to our Guide, this brings the weekenders, the innocent and unprepared out to these Volcanic Mountains. He said what gets the weekenders in trouble is first underestimating how long and physically demanding the climb to the summits are. Then they don't have the technical gear, like adequate clothing, ice ax, crampons and they often try to climb solo. The thing that gets many in the most serious trouble is the fast-changing weather. These Cascade Mountains are near the Pacific Coast and the fast-moving weather fronts jam up against the mountains and one minute you are in sunshine and a few minutes later a whiteout or howling blizzard.
On the way down we encountered two examples of weekender tragedy. Our first was at a steep pitch that our Guide called the staircase. We were roped up and were using our ice axes and working our way down when we came to a man that was lying face down in the snow. Our Guide stopped us and kneeled and started to talk to the man.
The wind was strong so we couldn’t hear what he was saying. In a few minutes, he patted the man on the back and we started back down the mountain. I looked back and the man never moved or looked up. Later our Guide told us that the man (a Portland weekender) had gotten to the staircase and had begun to slip on some of the icy spots. He didn't have crampons on his shoes and had become paralyzed with fear and could not retreat down the staircase pitch.
The next event happened in a dangerous place by a crevasse and in a rockfall area at the top of the famous Hogsback Ridge. Large rocks were lying in the snow around us and our Guide said that we needed to move down and get on the Hogsback and soon as we could. The intense sun shining on the snow above us will loosen these big rocks and send them flying downhill.
The Hogsback Ridge is a narrow ridge that runs between a huge smoking fumarole by Crater Rock and a deep steep-sided ravine that becomes a rocky valley. There was a large party of climbers that stopped about even with the big ugly fumarole. We could hear what appeared to be the Climb Leader talking loudly on what looked like a handheld radio or Sat phone. We waited for a bit and then our Guide shouted down that we needed to get out of the rockfall area. The Leader waved us down. When we got even with the group, we saw that the Climb Leader was holding a young man that kept repeating this unusual motion. He would keep reaching behind his back like he was drawing an arrow out of a shoulder quiver. He wasn't talking and kept making this motion over and over. The motion reminded me of one of those old fashion mechanical banks that when you put a penny in it the cowboy or monkey would tip their hat.
Our Guide and the Climb Leader of the party stood to the side and talked. Then the other climbers began moving up the mountain leaving the young man with us. He was dressed in army surplus clothes, field jacket, fatigue pants and some kind of leather high-top boots. No hat. The young man had begun a solo climb and had gotten to the Hogsback and had slipped and fallen, tumbling several hundred feet down the side of the deep ravine. Had he fallen on the other side of Hogsback Ridge he could have slid into the huge fumarole and would probably have died. The climbing group had rescued him and the Climb Leader was trying to get a rescue helicopter up for the medical emergency when we stopped. It appears that the available helicopter was out on another rescue mission and the solid cloud bank below us was problematic. The young man's eyes were glazed, he was mumbling and probably had a serious concussion. He could walk so our Guide had agreed to try and take him back down to Timberline lodge. Once there we could hand him over to the first responders.
Our Guide took some one-inch webbing and quickly made a harness, clipped in a carabiner to our rope, and away we went. By the time we reached Timberline Lodge the young man had stopped mumbling and making the repeating motion with his arm. He was able to answer a few questions but had no memory of where he was or that he had fallen. Mountaineering in the Cascade mountains is dangerous for the unprepared and those that make poor decisions.
“In May 1986, in a tragic series of events seven students and two faculty from Oregon Episcopal School died during an excursion on Mount Hood. The students were participating in an adventure program required by the school for sophomores. The disaster is the second deadliest alpine accident in North American history.”
In the parking lot at Timberline Lodge, we turned our unlucky climber over to the waiting first responders. My rope partner and I shook hands and thanked our Guide for getting us safely to the summit and back. I knew I would try this adventure again now knowing that this flatlander was in no way prepared or had the skills to safely assume the risk of this extreme sport. Asking the Guide for advice, he suggested that I should join one of two Pacific Coast climbing clubs. Either the Mazama’s out of Portland or the Seattle Mountaineers. He chuckled and said for you I recommend the Mazama’s. The folks in that Club are kinder and don’t eat their weak or leave their wounded behind.
Good advice indeed.
After getting into my car and looking in the mirror I remember seeing the faces of the climbers from the year before. Those exhausted, sweat-soaked, sun and wind burnt faces were now looking back at me
After resting for about a month, the process of joining the Mazama climbing club began. https://mazamas.org/. Meeting the Club requirements and being assigned a mentor my adventure into the demanding and rewarding sport began. In the following decade, I would have several opportunities to enter the high shocking beautiful and rugged alpine world. Being a member of the Mazama’s was a wonderful experience. I had the privilege to climb some awesome mountains with some great skilled, passionate and responsible Mazama members. Those rugged Swedes were amazing and friendly to a fault. I would like to note that I always wanted to be on a climb with female leaders. Sorry guys, in my experience they had more endurance, made better decisions for the group and were pleasant to be around. They always set a comfortable pace. Some are still friends.
It was on a Mazama climb on Sahale Mountain in the northern Cascades of Washington State that this story took a turn. The Sahale Mountain climb was a moderate ascent of a gentle peak in the Cascade Pass area in central Washington. It is popular because it has outstanding views of the northern cascade and classic alpine terrain. This area is often called the American Alps. Sahale has a nice approach trail, a short bit of glacier travel, and some 4th class rock scrambling on the summit block. I was eager to climb this Mountain because I had made the attempt the previous year and had failed. It has been my experience that you only summit on about 50 percent of your attempts. This year we made the summit and our climb leader decided rather than downclimb from the summit block we would make two long repels.
Repelling and rope handling is one of the more dangerous activities in mountaineering. This is because you have several pieces of technical equipment to manage and therefore more things to malfunction or break. Also, it takes time to set up and make a repel especially when you have a team of climbers making the repel. After the repel down Sahale Mountain I knew that I needed more skill-building practice. I didn't have hard rock mountains nearby or a bunch of Mazama club members as coaches or to practice with.
However, back in Tulsa, I did have Redbud Valley and it had some places that would work.
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