Friday, March 9, 2012

Mount Defiance winter night hike

(sunrise from Mount Defiance summit)

This week, I planned on climbing the south side of Mount Hood again, and while the weather looked great, the avalanche reports were not, so I was left looking for an alternative.  I had heard there was a recent surge in solar activity, and that the aurora borealis might be visible from Oregon, so my plans remained to get somewhere high up and away from city lights at night.  My go-to training hike for when mountain conditions keep me off Hood has become Mt. Defiance.  The vertical gain is comparable to the Mt. Hood south side approach, and the lower elevation makes it more accessible when conditions aren't ideal.

(Mount Hood in the morning)

 Even though I had slept poorly the night before and put in a full day at work complaining of feeling a little out-of-it and worn out, I was motivated by the opportunity to see the aurora borealis, so I rushed home, grabbed gear and supplies, and was on the road by 8:00 pm.  Shortly after 9:00 pm, I was at the trailhead and making my way into the forest.  Mount Defiance is often considered the hardest day-hike in the region during the good season, and unhikable until late spring.  This is partially due to the snow, but also because the trail is unmaintained in the winter.  Not more than a few hundred yards into the approach, I encountered my first blow-down, and would spend the next 4 hours scrambling off trail with my hands on the ground because of hundreds of downed trees, sections of trail wiped away by mudslides, and other sections that were too hard to detect in low light under a blanket of downed limbs.  Without any discernible trail, I navigated by gps and compass; deciding to point in the general direction of the summit, and hoping to intersect the trail at some future point.  The wall of the gorge that I was climbing was very steep, and is usually ascended by using a long set of steep switchbacks.  Without the switch backs, the angle is too extreme to walk up, so I climbed with my hands on the ground, using exposed roots and branches from downed trees to pull myself up.  I didn't see any poison oak, but a thought back to a nasty case from a scramble in this area from the previous summer had me a little concerned to be grabbing at whatever foliage I could to progress up slope. This continued for 2000 vertical feet of gain and brought me to 1:30 am, when I was finally reunited with the trail to Mount Defiance.

(my tracks and Mount Adams)
The relative ease of navigating on the terrain above 2000' freed my mind to think about other things, and my imagination began to turn the shadows cast from my headlamp into bears or cougars - thoughts planted by seeing plenty of tracks from both on previous excursions in the area.  These invading thoughts caused me some alarm when I clearly heard something large moving in the forest below me.  When I turned to look in the direction of the sound, my headlamp faded between the trees into complete darkness briefly, and then the reflection of two large eyes appeared as an animal faced my beam of light.  Then two more sets of eyes appeared, and I was certain they were just deer, which was confirmed as they began to move, and the way the reflections bobbed in the darkness demonstrated their gait.

(Mount Adams and the Columbia River)

In a short distance, the branch-littered ground gave way to snow, and at about 2500' it was thick but well consolidated.  I wasn't post-holing, but the grade was causing me to lose traction, so I donned my snowshoes, which have aggressive crampons and heel lifts which significantly reduced the strain on my calves.  The trail was easier to follow in these conditions than I had expected, and I continued on like this for another 2000' of gain.  It was in this section that I quietly and briefly heard the sound of two people's voices in the distance.  It sounded like there was a man and a woman, and they were talking, but it didn't make sense on this trail in the winter, especially at this hour.  I hiked on.

(Mount Adams)

At around 4500' of gain, the trees opened up to large open snowfield. It was as this time that I was first Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens in the distance.  Illuminated only by the light of the moon, they were crisp and white on the horizon.  I stared north for some time, hoping to see the aurora, but nothing appeared, so I pushed on across the crusty snow.

(Mount Saint Helens and Mount Rainier)

At 4:30 am, I reached the summit.  For the uninitiated, all three north approaches to Mount Defiance are challenging climbs from the Columbia river through beautiful and natural terrain, but the south side of the mountain has an access road leading to the summit, which is marred by an ugly radio tower facility.  In the predawn darkness, I explored the facility.  The road to the summit hdn't been plowed all winter nd ws under many feet of snow, and I noted that my tracks were the only ones present here, indicating the summit hadn't been visited in some time.  The snow depth was as high as the chain-link fences that surrounded the radio equipment. 

(Making tracks)

At this point, the exhaustion carrying over from the night before, compounded by nearly 24 hours without sleep and 5000' feet of demanding vertical climbing set in fully, and my body went on autopilot, thinking only of sleep.  The summit was exposed, well below freezing, and very windy, so I retreated back down into the protection of the trees to find a place to lie down.  I found a large tree which had blocked enough windswept snow to create a hole as wide as the trunk and 3' in depth behind it.  I removed one of my snowshoes and used it to dig the hole to a length long enough to accommodate my body.  I lined the trench with a mylar emergency blanket I had carried, unrolled my sleeping bag onto it, removed my boots, and climbed in.  I ate a peanut butter sandwich from my pack, set my alarm for sunrise, which I guessed was only 45 minutes later, and settled in to sleep.  There in the darkness, from my hole in the snow, I heard the voices again.  They were similar to the ones I had heard before.  Faint, unfamiliar, but... there.  It couldn't be though; it just couldn't.  Who would be up here in these conditions at this time?  I had covered a lot of ground and saw no tracks.  I had to be alone.  My mind thought of outlandish explanations to rationalize away what I was experiencing: "maybe it's the radio towers... am I somehow detecting a broadcast?"  Then I heard a new voice.  A familiar one.  A family member.  She wasn't talking to me, or anyone in particular, but I recognized her voice, and she said clearly and loudly "I'm sick of it!".

(this is where I slept)

I awoke 45 minutes later to my phone alarm.  I was quite warm, and when I poked my head out of my bag it was quite cold.  Sunrise hadn't yet come, so I hit snooze and retreated back into my bag.  15 minutes later the alarm sounded again, and I told myself "if I don't get these sunrise photos, then this was all for nothing."  I hastily packed up the mylar and my bag, put on my boots and snowshoes, and ran to the summit with my camera.  I was just in time, and took many photos before heading back down to retrieve my gear.

(Mount Saint Helens)

The trek back to the trailhead was much easier and less eventful than the nighttime ascent.  Before I knew it, I was taking my snowshoes off and entering the blow-down section.  I thought back to the night before, astonished I had decided to take on such a trip.  My memory of the night seemed less like a first-hand experience, and more like something I had watched someone else do.

When I reached my car, I drove back to Portland and collapsed in bed for the afternoon. When I awoke, I thought again about the voices.  A quick search on google turned up hypnagogia - the state between wakefulness and sleep, and hypnagogic hallucinations - auditory or visual hallucinations brought on by extreme exhaustion.  Articles on hypnagogic hallucinations describe the voices that I heard as the most common manifestation of the condition.  While still alarming, this explanation soothed my fears that I was finally losing it.

Monday, February 6, 2012

To the Bergschrund.

When I last went up the mountain to Illumination rock, I had set my next goal at the crater passed Devil's Kitchen, or maybe higher. This past week, the weather and avalanche reports were looking good for Mount Hood after weeks of more typical winter conditions, so I decided to take advantage of a day off, and see how much further up the mountain I could proceed.

I woke up in Portland at 3:30am, and was on the road shortly after 4:00. The plan was to get to the mountain early enough to get to the higher elevations while the snow was still stable. This required beginning the hike before sunrise with the aid of a headlamp. When I arrived at Timberline Lodge, I parked my car among a half dozen vehicles that were in the lot already, and made my way up the now-familiar climbers route to get above the ski area. The beginning of any south approach ascent begins with a trudge up past the Magic Mile and Palmer ski lift areas. From this elevation in the predawn darkness, I could easily see the lights of Portland to the west, as well as the whereabouts of the climbers ahead of me on the mountain from the glow of their headlamps. The sun began to light the skies to the east with gorgeous oranges and reds by the time I was half way up the Palmer lift. Around this time I could see two climbers making their way up the ridge towards crater rock, as well as some light coming from the crater itself and a skier beginning an early morning run from more than 10,000 feet. I took several photos of the sunrise and the light creeping up on Mt. Hood on the various peaks to the south, and then continued my trek to the top of the Palmer lift.

Beyond the softened tracks of the climbers route, the surface of the mountain was slick and icy, making it impossible to proceed without crampons and an ice axe. I stopped here to change my gear out and have a sandwich before continuing to higher elevations. From the top of the lift to all points further up the mountain, there are no set routes and the hard snow and ice on the way up to the crater rarely shows the tracks of previous climbers in the winter, so you're left to find your own way. I followed the crest of the ridge to the east of the snow field below crater rock on my ascent. This probably wasn't the best route. While direct, the icy rock and proximity to the cliffs to the east made this a more difficult and exposed route than I had intended to take. Still, the views were stunning, and with some effort, the ridge route brought me to just under the east side of crater rock, ready to climb past Devil's Kitchen and into the crater itself. This last bit is particularly steep, and care must be taken to get good footing and maintain balance above the eastern cliffs.

As I entered the crater, the smells of sulfur intensified with the proximity to Devil's Kitchen and the various other fumaroles on the crater. I stayed close to the eastern edge of crater rock and made my way up to the hogsback. Another steep climb and I approached the spine and continued up the edge to the area of the bergschrund, which is most typically a crevasse where the glacier has pulled away from the rock of the mountain, but today was just a light indentation that had been filled with recent heavy snow fall.

At that time, I saw another climber up close for the first time on this trip. He was descending the mountain from the area of the old chute route, and we met at the bergschrund. He described his climb, and we discussed the conditions on the various routes to the summit. The pearly gates were described as a bit too icy to ascend without a second ice tool. The old chute and mazama chute routes were softer, but there was concern that the loaded chutes might be unstable after a morning of warm temperatures and intense light. At this point I decided to descend with the first climber, his partner, and another climber that also decided to turn back given the current conditions on the upper slopes.

Stopping just 500 feet from the summit was difficult, but I had already climbed higher than I intended to, and the mountain isn't going anywhere. I'll have to go again the next time the weather and avalanche reports are favorable, and wake up a bit earlier than 3:30 this time around.