“You have 20 more steps
You have 10 more steps
Katie, that’s a great foot hold – trust it
Alex, your ice axe is in there deep – trust it.”
These words of encouragement were shouted at us from below the Old Chute, 30 minutes after we had already successfully summited Mt. Hood and stood on top of Oregon. The feelings on top of that mountain were far from relief – we knew the hardest part was yet to come. Due to the end of season being near, going up the Pearly Gates was not an option. The final and steepest section of the climb, known as The Old Chute, required both Alex and I to perform mountaineering skills we had never practiced before. Each step required an intentional kick to make sure our crampons could hold the weight of our bodies, and with each movement forward our hands and ice axe searched for an adequate hold of snow – in case our toes failed us. While it was up to our individual bodies to physically lift us both up and back down the mountain, the support of our climbing partners is what allowed our bodies to push past this mental and physical impasse. On our way back down The Old Chute, those words of encouragement shouted at us from our climbing partners below allowed two beginning mountaineers to descend safely, smiling, and feeling pretty darn triumphant.
This mountain is not to be underestimated. While the 6.8 miles roundtrip may not seem to be much, the 5,000 feet of elevation change and 60 degree slope of the final push will catch anybody climbing unprepared. Thankfully, we were smart enough to know that the two of us could not stand on top of Oregon by ourselves – so we made sure we had a team. When our original climbing plans fell through, leaving us five hours to rent gear and find a new partner, simply making it to the trailhead was a struggle. Meeting up last minute with a climber we had met on the summit of Shasta and his partner, we caravanned to Timberline Lodge and managed to hit the trail shortly after midnight on July 6th. Meeting up with another solo climber, the first few dark hours on the trail melted away under the bright July sky as we chatted about everything from our college degrees to best (and scariest) mountain misadventures. First light hit the mountain as we rested near Crater Rock shortly after 4:00 am, and the conversation shifted from getting to know each other to which route we would need to take up to the summit.
At this point in the climb, we were feeling GREAT. The degree of the mountain was so far slightly less steep than Shasta, and our legs were up for the challenge. However, as we looked up and saw the climbers ahead of us trekking forward at what seemed to be less than 1 mph against an unquestionably steeper than Shasta hill, we knew it was time to get serious. Tightening our crampons and gripping our ice axes with a purpose, we steeled ourselves for the last push from Crater Rock to the summit, choosing the longer Old Chute route due to unsafe conditions on the Pearly Gates.
Up to this point in our short lives as climbers, Alex and I had definitely had to rely on our crampons and ice axes to help ourselves up the mountain – but never had we had our lives depending on a few spikes attached to our feet and a tool in our hands. In order to successfully summit, and avoid falling into a deadly fumarole, our calves and shoulders were burning as we dug our toes into the snow and our axes deep enough to make sure we had three solid points of contact with the ice at all times. Though our partners all had significantly more experience, they assured us we would be able to do it. Without ropes and anchors, the climb was up to us but made possible with the coaching of our new friends. After a few pictures at the summit, we wasted no time in celebrating as we knew the toughest part was looming: climbing back down the Old Chute in questionable conditions.
Down-climbing off the Old Chute required the same amount of focus as going up, minus being able to see. As I (unsuccessfully) held back a few whimpers, having experienced climbers below me and Alex above me kept me focused solely on each movement. “If all these people before you can do it, you can do it to,” repeated in my mind as I made it down the steepest part of the mountain. Even after successfully descending the Old Chute, Alex and I knew better than to start celebrating – as a steep slope with a fumarole at the bottom was still a threat. As we made our way lower and lower, putting breath and intention into every step, our accomplishment began to sink in with every step sinking lower under the warming July sun.
As our feet left the snow and found their way to the last mile of dirt of the trail, we trailed a bit behind the rest of our group. The two of us are so used to pushing each other through every challenge, and being the rock when either one of us isn’t feeling 100%. Today, both of us relied on three new friends, previously strangers, to get ourselves up and down that mountain safely. Sharing our thoughts in that last mile, we acknowledged the fact that had we known exactly what the climb would entail – we would not have done it. We would not have attempted to summit Mt. Hood if we had known that it would require an hour-long stint of every step meaning life or death, even though we did it. Reflecting on this realization – we concluded that we are capable of so much more than we think. Though we would have called it quits had we decided to climb alone, our two bodies had the physical and mental strength to stand on top of Oregon. Maybe it’s seeing your friends do it first, or maybe it’s having someone yelling from behind that you CAN in fact do it – but either way, we couldn’t have done it alone.
Three Biggest Takeaways:
- Know your climbing window.
While we were still able to successfully summit – we were at the tail end of climbing season for Mt. Hood. Because of this, we had to take the Old Chute route instead of the shorter Pearly Gates, giving ourselves ample amounts of time to sufficiently freak out. Had we gone a few weeks earlier – there would have been soft, powdery snow for us to dig into as opposed to sheer ice!
- Find your friends.
Or strangers that you meet on Mt. Shasta! We were smart enough to know that as a technical climb, we would not be able to do this by ourselves. When original plans fell through, we had the fortune of having one other connection that we knew would be climbing Hood a night earlier – so we sent it. Both of us are so incredibly thankful we were able to pull together a climbing team, as their encouragement and coaching led us through the most difficult parts of summit #2.
- Trust and breathe.
We were physically capable of completing that climb. Though we would have denied it beforehand, we clearly made it off alive. In those most stressful sections, we needed to just trust that our toes and calf strength could hold us, and breathe into each new movement. Staying focused on every foot and hand hold got us off the mountain safely.
With our first two summits completed, our confidence in this project has grown exponentially. Not only are we gathering priceless stories (seriously, everyone has something to tell), but we have also summited the tallest mountains in Northern California and Oregon. Moving forward, we know we can do this. Because we completed more than we knew we were capable of on Mt. Hood, we know that as long as we have proper gear, good conditions, and faith in ourselves, we can do it. To our newest friends and our day one supporters – thank you for propelling us up these mountains.
Heading up to Washington, 1/3 of our journey is already over! While there is still so much more adventure to come, it’s already feeling nostalgic to reflect on the experiences we have been blessed with. For more visual content on our climb up Mt. Hood, as well as more stories from our travels across the Western US – be sure to look out for future blogs and vlogs!