After almost six hours of stair stepping, the final stragglers in the group (me, an 18 year old Japanese exchange student named Koz, a guy in his late 20’s, and the poor guide who had to stay behind for us slow pokes) arrived at the part of the mountain that made this an official “technical” climb – where being roped together would save our lives. It was a straight up sheer cliff of ice about 20 feet tall that we needed to plant our feet in the toe holes and hold on for our very lives. I was terrified. But I was roped to these guys and I had to go. It went fast because there was a line of people behind us, and the lead guy set the pace. This was Andrew, and he was as scared as I was. He wanted to get the heck done with it.
After we survived the Cliff of Terror, we had only a few steps to go before we reached the top. When we got there, we saw the other 20 people in our group, plus about 80 more crazy people. It was 8:30 in the morning. I was exhausted and just shy of the point of passing out and already dreading the climb back down, plus I had to pee. All that stopping for drinks of water caught up with me. I don’t mean to be indelicate here, but next time you look up at a snowcapped mountain, see if there’s a bush or a tree up there. There’s not a one. I was in a panic, because as miserable as every muscle and joint in my body were, my bladder was worse off. I had to go.
In case you ever find yourself in this situation with a hundred people around and nowhere to hide, here’s what you do. You move a little down slope of the crowd. It’s about 15 degrees, but take your coat off anyway, lie on your back in the snow, arrange your coat discreetly over your midsection, wiggle out of the three layers of clothes that have not been enough to keep you warm (despite what the guides said) and relieve yourself for as long as it took Austin Powers when he was first awakened after being cryogenically frozen for 20 years. This may take a full ten minutes, depending on how many water/rest stops you’ve took. Breathe a huge sigh of relief, and then move a little sideways (remember, you’re still lying down on a fairly steep incline), struggle back into your clothes, put your coat back on, and pretend you don’t know a thing about the steaming yellow river cutting little snow valleys into the snow as it flowed down the mountain right beside you. I’m sure this information will come in handy for you someday.
After all the agony of getting to the summit, nobody stays at the top for long. It’s freezing up there! Plus, even though the view is breathtaking, you can only look out over the vast empty plains and mountain peaks for so long, and then it’s blasé. Seriously. You look at Mt. Rainier and The Three Sisters and Mt. Bachelor for a few minutes; then you’ve seen it. I’ve noticed in movies that the people who reach the summit of Mt. Everest don’t linger around either, and I bet they can see more than we could.
Getting down, for the most part, was more fun than going up. Having a baby and getting a root canal at the same time without drugs is more fun than going up. Going down, you get to slide part of the way. It’s got a technical name, glaceeing, but it’s basically taking out the plastic garbage bag you put in your backpack and sitting on it. Gravity does the lion’s share of the work, but there’s danger in this simple act, too. I saw Kos go sliding at 250 mph straight toward a smoking, belching, stinking sulfur pit that probably went straight to the core of the earth. Luckily our guides had gone over “self arrest” where you roll over and dig your ice pick into the snow to stop sliding. Kos frantically did this repeatedly before he stopped on the edge of the foul pit, and then he had to climb all the way back up to the Hogsback, the narrow ridge we were on.
The guide who herded us slower ones to the top kept telling us we needed to hurry. We ignored him as we were trudging upward, but I found out why he was so insistent as we made our descent. When the sun beats down on the snow, even when it’s cold, the surface starts to soften and get slushy. Gravity and the slush duke it out, but the slush wins and you are no longer able to slide. Plus the snow gets so soft that you sink to your knees with every step. I can’t tell you how difficult it is to walk like this, but it takes forever to pull a heavy foot out of a deep hole and then pull the next one out. This went on for about two days or the last half hour, it was impossible to tell the difference. Everyone else in our group was already at the bottom, and had been there for an hour or more. Even Kos and Andrew were there. Just the guide and I straggled back at noon.
Let me tell you this. I hated climbing Mt. Hood more than anything I’ve ever done. But having survived it, I have to admit I’m proud to be able to say I did it, especially when I’m around a bunch of jogging, weight-lifting, buffed-up people. It’s nice to ask casually, “Have you ever climbed Mt. Hood?” Like it’s something I do for fun on weekends.
But I wouldn’t advise anyone else to climb it, ever. If you’re too foolhardy to listen to me and insist on going anyway, I have one parting thing to say. Don’t drink too much water.