Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Illumination Rock in December.

(returning from my trip to illumination rock)

After doing the Paradise Park trail in the snow last week and breaking out of the trees just under Mississippi Head to a great view of the top 5000 feet of Mt. Hood, I was inspired by the sight of its upper peaks, and decided to get the ice gear I needed to start working my trips a little further up the mountain. We had been having unusually clear weather for December in the Cascades, and beginning a week prior, the forecast looked especially good for Sunday. With a wary eye on the forecasts for changing conditions, I tentatively planned to make my first climb above the Palmer lift to Illumination rock. I discussed my plan with friends, and even arranged to go up with a buddy, but concerns about often dangerous and rapidly changing winter conditions on the mountain ultimately sidelined him until spring. Undeterred, I chose to go up the mountain alone the following day.

In the morning, I hit the road out of Portland about an hour before sunrise. After making a few stops for gas, snacks, and a sno-park permit for my car, I was in the timberline lodge parking lot by 8:00, suiting up for the trudge up Mt. Hood's south side. The first part of any climb from the south approach is just getting above the resort's upper ski areas. The lodge itself sits at 5960', but two lifts continue up the mountain from there, with the second topping out at 8540'. There were two ways to clear the ski area on this trip; paying to take a sno-cat ride up to the top of the Palmer glacier, or hiking up on foot in it's compressed tracks. Illumination saddle, at the base of the formation, tops out at about 9300', and although it is a nice glacial traverse to the west from the rest of the peaks (and the ski area), it would be impossible to justify knocking 2580' off a 3340' climb by hitching a ride up the mountain, so I chose to go by foot. It appeared that about half those on the mountain took the easy route, although most of them were just looking for access to the top of the ski area, and climbed no further.

(The view from the base of the climb. The top of the lift sits a couple miles and 2840' up slope. Illumination rock sits another 760 feet up slope and far enough to the west that it's not visible in this photo. The included peaks, from left to right, are Castle Crags, Crater Rock, and the Steel Cliffs.)

(This photo is taken from above the Silcox Hut, looking south west)

(Looking south at Mt. Jefferson with the Sisters making an appearance in the distance.)

At the top of the Palmer lift, I stopped to eat some lunch and take in the changing views to the south. The small plateau at the top of the lift serves as a staging area where climbers prepare to ascend above the groomed hiker's path, and skiers and snowboarders prepare for their descents. The area was also popular with the local ravens, which looked accustomed to being fed by hikers and climbers, and eager to accept handouts. While I ate, I watched a group of three men proceed from the lift area in the direction I was to head. They lost traction immediately and had to stop to affix their crampons before proceeding across the ice.

(mountain hoagie)

(friendly raven)

When I finished eating, I unstrapped my ice axe, and began my own traverse across the glacier toward illumination rock.
The first section was very slick indeed, and consisted of thick ice-coated rocks that were difficult to gain purchase on with my crampons or axe. Once over this rocky area however, the footing improved and I was able to move a bit faster. After a very short time, the topography settled into a more gradual slope and illumination rock came into full view in the distance. As I traversed this section, I experienced a few strong gusts of wind that came unexpectedly from the direction of the saddle. When the gusts came through, I drove my axe down hard, got low, and waited a moment for them to pass before proceeding. A good distance above me, another climber was also moving west toward the saddle. I observed him remove his pack for a moment to take a break when one of these gusts came through. It managed to dislodge some piece of his gear and sent it sliding down slope. I was far enough from the fall line to ever make out what it was, but its several thousand foot fall out of view served as a reminder of the consequences of losing traction on this icy surface.

(illumination rock comes in to view)

(crater rock)

(castle crags)

Eventually, I made my way up to my final destination, Illumination Saddle. I stopped for some photos of the rock, and then climbed up toward the spine to see the views to the northwest of the mountain, which had previously been obstructed. From the top, Mt. Saint Helens was clearly visible on the horizon. I stayed long enough for a couple of photos, but the strong winds and my lack of confidence in the snow that made up the cornice I had been seated on sent me back down the way I had come shortly after. From here, I contemplated moving further up the mountain toward crater rock, but eventually decided to save that peak for a future climb.

(illumination rock viewed from the northeast)

(illumination rock from the north)

(the view from illumination rock, looking northwest, with Mt. Saint Helens on the horizon)

(Mt. Saint Helens, closer)

From this point, I turned around and went back the way I had come. Progress was much faster on the descent, and the surface of the glacier had softened considerably in most spots, which allowed for better footing. What had taken me 3.5 hours to ascend took me 2 hours to descend, and before I knew it, I was back on the parking lot, loading my gear into the Honda.

(a raven flying down slope)

(I can't believe this thing is still running)

(three and half hours up, two hours down, and another eighteen minutes to the nearest brewery)