I recently found myself in possession of a Rapid Rewards round trip ticket on Southwest. The great thing about these is that as long as there’s an available seat, you can change the dates and destinations as many times as you want, free of charge, until they expire. I figured I’d use this on a highpoint where the weather would really make a difference in whether or not I made the summit. I thought back to July 2002, when I turned around on Hood to help an ailing teammate back down and quickly found my goal.
The next question was whether I’d repeat the 2,700' snow slog up the ski area or to pay for a ride in a snow cat to the top of the ski area. Since we turned around not far above the ski area in 2002, and since I live on the opposite side of the country, I was of the mindset to maximize my chances of reaching the summit this time and resolved to take the snow cat.
For the next several weeks it seemed that as soon as I’d book the dates with Southwest, the weather forecast would take a turn for the worse. After several date changes, the weather forecast for June 3rd looked good, and I flew out in the morning of June 2nd.
A few minutes after midnight on June 3, the snow cat appeared. Twenty or so minutes later, I got out above the ski area, having cut off the drudgery portion of my climb.
For a while I proceeded up bare-booted, making sure to head towards climber's left, away from the area where a hidden crevasse had recently swallowed up a fellow highpointer. I stopped to put on my crampons at a pair of fairly small rocks poking through the snow, a spot I dubbed "Crampon Rocks" while eyeing Crater Rock above me. Eventually one trekking pole gave way to a pole and an ice axe, and I made my way to and around the right side of Crater Rock.
As the base of the Hogsback came into view, a double flash of light briefly turned night into day. The snow cats were too far below, and no headlamp would have had that kind of effect unless someone was directly behind me. The moon, full the night before, illuminated a clear, starry sky above. Nervously I looked behind me towards the patchy clouds in the distance, trying to imagine what a thunderhead would look like against a black backdrop. I was comforted by not having heard thunder, though somewhat disturbed by not knowing the source of the flashes. I wondered briefly if it could be some bizarre form of altitude sickness, though I was otherwise asymptomatic. Gradually thoughts of the incident faded to that place where you start to wonder if it really happened. I learned the next morning that I didn't have a hallucination: the local news reported that people were searching for the meteorite that was thought to have impacted somewhere Mount Saint Helens. Clips from several security cameras showed the same brief moments of daylight I had seen on the mountain.
I had been making great time and really began to question whether or not I'd wait for sunrise at the summit. I chopped out a small seat at the bottom of the Hogsback and sat down to put away the trekking pole and have a snack. From here on, however, my pace slowed considerably. I approached the bergschrund looking for footprints heading towards climber’s left, recalling an e-mailed report from a fellow highpointer telling me how his foot poked through just above the bergschrund as he descended. I was able to skirt the bergschrund without much trouble, but the area on the upper side proved to be fairly icy, repelling all but a few inches of my ice axe. The sound of icefall from the rocks above didn’t add to my sense of comfort. I found that the more I progressed towards the crest of the Hogsback, the deeper the snow got. So, despite finding myself directly above the bergschrund, I opted to stay just on climber’s left of the Hogsback. Evidently I was the first one up since some new snow, as there was no boot path to follow. I took to using the French technique, kicking in steps as I went along. This slowed progress considerably, and I noticed that it wasn’t as dark anymore. Eventually even the snow along the crest of the Hogsback thinned out as I approached the Pearly Gates, but I had made a great set of steps to guide my descent.
As I reached the summit alone, I found it to be socked in with clouds. The view in the direction I had just come up was now nonexistent. Great, I thought to myself, I plan and plan for perfect weather and I’m going to be rewarded with no view. I took some pictures and was about to start heading down when I started seeing some redness on the horizon. Sunrise! That would be nice to see. I made my way to where the South Side route reaches the ridgeline and stopped in my tracks. An absolutely phenomenal red disk was starting to appear on the horizon. I don’t know if the clouds were a contributing factor, but this was one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve ever seen. I snapped quite a few pictures, and started heading down after the show.
The descent proved uneventful. As I was making my way down the steps I had created, I spotted another soloist just ahead of a Timberline group coming around the bergschrund. I was rather surprised to find that I was the only one at the top for the sunrise. As I descended, I took all the pictures I couldn’t take on the way up in the dark. 200-plus images and videos in total. I mused about having “breakfast at Timberline” and stopped for a rest break at “Crampon Rocks.”
One stupid little tip for anyone, whether you’re climbing in snow or just descending a steep slope: trim your toenails beforehand. Yeah, it’s stupid, but I didn’t and kicking the steps on the way up did a number on both big toes.
The next day, on the flight back, I ended up shooting lots of images of Hood, Rainier, Adams, and even Humphreys Peak in Arizona as we approached Phoenix. I particularly like the shot of Hood in the foreground with Rainier in the background; a perfect Highpointer shot.
In conclusion, I need to thank my wife for watching our daughter while I headed out on another crazy highpointing journey. I’d also like to thank Southwest Airlines and Genean Hay at Timberline Lodge for putting up with all the date changes, as well as several highpointers, including Ted Tylaska and Alan Ritter for providing me with valuable information. 27 down, 23 to go.