The Mountain Marathon, a scheme Kyle and I had conceived of while we were on the PCT, walking past ultra prominent giants in Northern California and Oregon. We were in great shape and itching to climb mountains, so what better to day dream about than long slogs up snowy slopes. The original concept was to do Lassen, South Sister, and Shasta – one a day for three days – ascending a dizzying 15,000ft of elevation over the course of the climbs. We had dreamed our dreams and so when we got back to real life we took to setting them into action. Memorial Day weekend seemed the perfect opportunity, with a day off work we would only have to dip out of our jobs for one extra day to make it all happen. The most challenging part, we both agreed, would be the long drive time to Southern Oregon. And we had found a foolhardy friend to undertake the monster with us – my college friend Conor who had hosted us on the PCT in Salem.
However, about a week before the climb, when we started planning our routes, we discovered that the road to the trailhead we wanted to use on South Sister wasn’t open yet. We watched it, hopefully, but a couple days out it was clear that it wasn’t going to be open any time soon. Time for a change of plans. Mount Hood was the obvious next choice. Instead of driving to Lassen, the furthest south, and starting there, we decided to meet Conor at Mount Hood (he lives in Salem) and work our way down the I-5 corridor. The logistics aren’t all that important – basically the plan was now to summit Mount Hood, Mount Shasta and Mount Lassen, upping our overall elevation by some five thousand feet (there was also some added feet on Mount Lassen because road closures there forced us to take a different route… like I said, unimportant logistics).
Before we set off in the trusty Tacoma with our car tent packed away, I downloaded a good number of books on Audible, including Tommy Caldwell’s “The Push”, which we were very excited to listen too. But to start with we let our conversation carry us to Mount Hood. We were both nervous. Someone had died on Hood just a couple of weeks prior and a number of people had mentioned to us how icy and steep it can get through the Pearly Gates. We talked our nerves out but I knew I wasn’t going to sleep very soundly that night.
Like a sleep predicting prophet I was right, although my nerves weren’t the worst of it. We arrived at the Timberline Lodge, found a nice flat place to park our car and were excited to see that there was no snow in the parking lot. That meant no snow plows in the middle of the night waking us up. The last time we had attempted Hood we hadn’t started our approach until 2am. This time we were planning on beginning up the mountain around 12:30am, just to give ourselves a good chance of summiting. So we attempted to put ourselves to bed at 9:00pm, only to discover the light breeze that was rolling around the parking lot made a pretty awful racket out of our car tent. When Kyle finally got out to try and tighten down some straps he accidentally ripped out a crucial strap that held the tent up. We temporarily rigged it back up with a sling and tossed and turned. When we “woke up” at 12:00am Conor had pulled in next to us, having driven straight there from Salem. We were all tired to say the least.
But despite our heavy eyelids were we all in great spirits. The night sky was twinkling and the mountain stood above us, a white sentinel, guiding our footsteps. After an attempted poop each we headed out. Conor led the way at first, blazing up the mountain. As always, shy climbing with new people and stubborn, I worked hard to keep up, even though I knew the pace was much too fast for me. If I was going to make it to the summit things were going to have to slow down. I got my chance when we stopped at the top of the chairlift for a quick snack, pee, and to put on some more layers. It was very cold and the wind was blowing hard. We had all started in minimal layers – so it was time to add gloves and coats to the mix. When we left the top of the chair lift, heading to Devil’s Kitchen, I took the lead, slowing down considerably, determined not to sweat any more.
As the faintest light of early morning began to reach our eyes we walked into Devil’s Kitchen. Up above us we could see where the Hogsback normally is, the bergschrund which was open, and above all of that the Pearly Gates. The route was so clearly laid out before us, inviting us upwards. Conor stopped for a break, took out his sit pad and plopped down. I had eaten a Banana Nut ProBar while climbing (although it had taken me at least thirty minutes to force the whole thing down) so Kyle and I quickly split a Snickers bar and then mentioned moving on. Conor looked a little surprised, as if he wanted to say “I just got comfortable!” but he packed up and we all filed out of Devil’s Kitchen, stepping into the well worn path of footprints. The Hogsback, which is normally a well defined knifes edge of snow, leading straight to the Pearly Gates, was nothing more than a steep snow slope and the bergschrund was open, leaving us with a choice. Later in the season when the bergschrund poses to much of a problem people typically choose to climb the Old Chute. However, it looked like we would be able to traverse under the crack in the snow and then step across where it was still narrow.
Without the Hogsback the slope up to the Pearly Gates was very sustained and steep. Then, when we got to the bottom of the Pearly Gates, we had a choice. There were two different chutes to climb through, the left one directly above the open bergschrund and the right one very steep. We had ended up closer to the right one so we decided to head up that way. Later, when we came down the left one we realized that the right one had been the wrong decision. It was very steep and covered in rime ice. I wished for two ice tools as I kicked my way up it. Once I was up and over the top I stood around nervously hopping from one foot to the next waiting for the guys to crest. When we were all safely up and swearing about the steepness we slogged the last hundred or so feet to the top. The sun was above the horizon now, although not by much, and it felt good on our faces.
Kyle was starting to feel a little nauseous and dizzy so we ate a quick snack and started heading down. The left chute was very easy to descend, Kyle rappelled it first, off of a short picket one of the guys on the summit had left in the snow, but I felt comfortable walking down it face first. From there I lowered Kyle on a boot ax belay until he was comfortable, his dizziness making him unsure of his footing. By the time we were at the bergschrund he was more than confident on his own two feet and we all hoofed it back to Devils Kitchen. Here we took another quick break and removed our crampons. One of the biggest boons of the whole climb was that Kyle and I had decided to wear our lightweight aluminum Camp crampons and promptly discovered when we started up the steep stuff that they are, in fact, awful. No matter how tight we made them they wiggled loose and threatened to fall off our feet. I spent most of my climb, up and down, obsessively watching them and kicking them back into place. Even though the snow wasn’t quite soft enough yet for no crampons I couldn’t wait to get them off my feet.
While we were de-cramponing and snacking a kid walked by with his crampon half off his boot. Conor called out to him to let him know and he shouted back his acknowledgement and thanks but kept going. We shrugged.
We slipped and slid a little bit as we headed down the mountain but a couple of seasons of snow travel has made me fairly confident in mountaineering boots. As we made our way down the slope, praying for the sun to hit us so we could start glissading we noticed a little huddle of climbers over to our left. Behind me Kyle said, “Uh oh, that looks like an injury.” We shifted our descent to intersect them and as we got closer it was clear that someone was on the ground, with two other people hovering over him. As we stomped into their bubble we realized it was the loose crampon kid and his foot was bent off to the left at completely the wrong angle. He was calm and asked if any of us knew how to set a bone, we laughed and said hell no but we are WFR certified and could preform a rescue. I next asked what had happened and he admitted that he had been glissading in his crampons. I chastised him but quickly stopped, he had learned his lesson. His leg was still facing forward but his boot was twisted at a complete right angle to his body, making an L shape, and even back a little bit, the toe pointing into the slope.
We jumped into action. Conor got on the phone to find out about a rescue while Kyle and I worked through the injury. One of the biggest things he was facing was hypothermia. The sun was still a while away from reaching us and he was shivering badly. Which was a good sign, but only for as long as it lasted. After a quick assessment of his injury and having his friend remove his crampons, I managed to slip an alpine harness on him so we could tie him onto an ice ax anchor. Then we added a fleece to his layers (he was wearing a cotton t-shirt under his hardshell and it was soaked through with sweat), tucked him inside a sleeping bag liner, a sleeping bag, and an emergency mylar bivy. We stuffed all of our extra layers and downs inside the sleeping bag and filled him up with some food. I was so thankful that we actually travel with the ten essentials and emergency gear. I was really tempted to whip out our stove so we could heat up some tea but I reined in my excitement, we still had a long way to go.
Conor’s chat with the authorities revealed that we had two options. We could wait three hours for the County’s Search and Rescue to show up or we could lower him ourselves to the top of the chair lift for Ski Patrol to take over. We opted to lower him ourselves. At that point a skier who had been headed up stopped to help, along with four other climbers who had been headed down. We used the skier’s skis and our shovel to build a sled which we lifted the patient onto. Then we used two pickets to create a backed up anchor and Kyle and I both anchored in to lower him on a backed up belay. Four folks surrounded him, using hand held slings that went under the sled to steer him as we slowly lowered him down the mountain. Our rescue began.
As it went on plenty of people stopped to see if they could help. One woman was a doctor and offered to reset his bone, but having seen the angle of his foot I knew the boot was going to have to be cut off in the ER so we thanked her and continued on. Other folks stopped and all of them said something along the lines of, “I hope this is for a class.” We assured them it was not. Eventually a mountain guide stopped and seriously helped us streamline our system! Kyle and I were ecstatic for the opportunity to learn some new techniques and asked him a lot of questions. He also added a second rope into our system which made the lowering go twice as fast. When we got to the end of our rope we would shout down to the group steering and they would anchor him off on an ice ax. Then we would sprint down, set up our anchors again and begin the process over. We moved pretty efficiently, all of us working hard, moronically not eating or drinking although we checked on our patient constantly, making sure he stayed hydrated and well fed.
Finally the top of the chair lift came into view and we were lowering him the last hundred feet. In total we lowered him some 1,500ft on a steep slope over the course of two and a half hours. When we got to the top of the chair lift we had to stick around for another half an hour or so to pass him off to Ski Patrol and get all of our emergency gear back. We ate and applied sunscreen and drank water, resting our adrenaline filled bodies. Finally they had him on the sled and he was off and we were left, standing in the wake of the injury, exhausted and still 3,000ft from the cars. We slipped and stumbled our way down the slushy slopes, grumbling and bitching, but also elated after our accomplishment. We reached the cars feeling like shit, so hot and tired, I just slumped down into the shade of another car, guzzling water.
Our dreams of making the nine hour drive to Shasta at that point were shattered. It was too late in the day and we were all way to beat. Instead we drove to Salem, Kyle and I hashing out the details, working through what we could have done better and committing our successes and our failures to memory. I was still a little in awe of us, how quickly we had dove head first into action, how much we had remembered and how successfully we had improvised. All in all I was proud of us. Once we reached Salem we fell into a death like sleep at Conor’s house, and awoke a couple of hours later, feeling groggy but satisfied. Kyle and I had decided to continue on to Shasta the next day, Conor had decided one crazy climb was enough for him. Regardless of what lay ahead, we all knew we had just experienced a climb to remember.