"Can we do this without the pack?" I joked when climb-leader Keith Dubanevich had us practice using an ice axe to climb (and descend) a steep slope. But no, there's no shedding the 40-pound pack during this training and there are good reasons for it.
Members of the Oregon Field Guide crew and I were on Mt Hood last week with the Mazamas training for a climb of the mountain later this month. The objective was both to learn basic mountaineering techniques and simulate our pack loads during the real ascent. So each of us was loaded down with all of our gear, including over 50 pounds of TV equipment we'll need to shoot an upcoming story for Field Guide about our climb.
That beautiful, graceful mountain sitting on Portland's eastern horizon has tantalized me since I was a child. When I learned that Mt. Hood was the most-climbed peak in the Western hemisphere, and second only to Mt. Fuji in the world, I figured, "how hard could it be?"
So, with the excellent excuse of working on Oregon Field Guide, I decided to find out.
I managed to convince videographers Todd Sonflieth and Michael Bendixen to make the climb with me, both of whom had summited the 11,239-foot peak before. OPB Ecotrope blogger Cassandra Profita hadn't done much climbing but eagerly signed on and we had a team.
I then went to the Portland-based Mazamas (the mountaineering organization founded on top of Mt. Hood in 1894) and asked if they would guide us. Not only did they accept the task, they also offered to train us. Their first suggestion was to get into "reasonably good physical shape." That sounded reasonable.
Now, I've heard stories of people hiking up Hood in an afternoon and seen archive pictures of 19th-century women in full-length dresses post-holing their way to the top. Lots of other people have, too, so I was not surprised when Mazamas membership services manager Lee Davis told me that some of the calls he gets give him pause.
"I get calls every week asking about climbing Hood. People ask about conditions and skill requirements and it's not an easy question to answer because you don't know who you're talking to."
The months of late spring and early summer are the most popular for climbing Mt. Hood. The weather conditions are generally more favorable and the winter snow pack is still basically frozen, making climbing easier and less dangerous.
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This June, conditions are particularly good for climbing, the Mazamas tell me. Our long, cold, wet spring has left a higher than average snowpack, making the slopes more stable and the routes more predictable. Even with the best of conditions on our side, though, we're leaving as little to chance as we can; Instead of picking a single day for the climb, we've left open an entire week so we can look for an optimal weather window. And we'll be doing most of our climbing in the dark, leaving Timberline Lodge around 11:30pm and hoping to reach the summit around 6:30am, just an hour after sunrise. We want to do our climbing when the snowpack is coldest and the most stable.
According to Davis, the main thing to remember is the mountain is unpredictable. Climbing accidents happen nearly every season and well over 100 people have lost their lives trying to climb Mt. Hood.
"There are lots of objective dangers on the mountain and conditions change all the time. If you don't have the training or experience to assess those dangers, you're out of your league," says Davis.
Taking Davis' advice to prepare, I started climbing stairs a couple months ago. Lots of them. Everyday. Then I did strenuous day hikes with friends — Saddle Mountain near Seaside, Dog Mountain and Mt. Defiance in the Gorge. Finally, our training session with the Mazamas taught me some mountaineering skills that will help keep me (and the rest of the team) safe during the climb, including using an ice axe to self-arrest and how to climb on a rope team.
It also gave me sense of what I'm in for as I make my way up the iconic mountain. It's pretty hard to ice-axe up a steep slope carrying a backpack of climb essentials in heavy climbing boots with metal crampons even after months of conditioning. But if I need motivation during the hard parts, all I will have to do was look up at The Mountain herself.