Mount Hood/String Summit

Callin’ it Good

Written by Mark E. Leininger, Ohio, USA

It’s 12:15 a.m. and I’m working my way to the bottom of a stack of blueberry pancakes big enough to make a lumberjack squeamish.  Rick, Nathan, Craig and I are doing some last-minute carbo loading at the only restaurant in Government Camp that is still open at this hour. We’ve all come here to climb Mount Hood as part of the Kiss the Sky to Conquer Diabetes fundraiser climb.

Camping at Mountain Music For A CureEarlier that afternoon, we had discovered a picturesque campground near the base of the mountain that seemed to be perfect.  It was located in a stand of massive conifers at the confluence of two rushing streams, the camp trails were flanked by giant ferns; I half expected Hansel and Gretel to come skipping through the forest.  To our surprise, the campground was relatively empty and we were able to locate a nice level tent site framed by four giant firs.  Better yet, the camp host agreed to let us set up our tents for a few hours free of charge so we could rest before our climb.  Gracias!  I couldn’t believe our luck.  Everything was perfect! Well, almost.....as it turns out, the campground was positioned closer to the highway than we realized.  After dark, the headlights of passing cars illuminated the insides of our tents and the droning of their labored engines as they started the climb up the mountain made sleeping a challenge.  I covered my head with my shirt, put in my ear plugs and tried to catch a few z’s before our early start up the hill.  I was still trying to fall asleep when my watch alarm beeped. It was 11:30 p.m.; time to break camp and get ready for the climb.
playing musicplaying music
After gorging ourselves on pancakes and bacon, we drove to Timberline Lodge where we conducted one last gear check in the parking lot and then shouldered our packs and headed for the hill.  Within minutes, we were on the snowfield above the lodge and the climb had officially begun; it was about 1:30 a.m.  Our tentative plan was to reach the summit by 8 a.m.  It was a stunningly clear night and the sky was ablaze with stars.  The temperature was just below freezing and when the small talk faded, the crunch of snow beneath our boots became the hiking in snowsoundtrack of our ascent.  Craig, our guide, set a moderate pace and we soon fell into a wordless rhythm of stepping and breathing, stepping and breathing, stepping and breathing.  As we weaved our way up the gentle snow slopes of the lower mountain, I realized that I was free of the worries and obligations of everyday life – a rare gift that climbing always confers upon me.  As if to fill a worry void, I began considering the various problems that could derail our climb -icefall, crevasses, avalanches, storms. Though our route up the mountain was relatively straightforward, and the conditions were great, experience and mountain lore were an ever-present reminder that there can be many a slip betwixt a cup and a lip....and, the summit is never, “Just right there.”

I scanned the upper mountain for the reflections of other climbers’ headlights and saw none.  It appeared that we had the mountain to ourselves.  I brought up the rear of our group and watched the others kick steps up the mountain.  I was pondering our chances of topping out, when my thoughts were interrupted by an aggressive olfactory assault - a massive sulfur-scented fist to the nose - and I wondered if anybody else had noticed it. Nobody said anything and I thought to myself, “Uh-oh, somebody on this team has a bad case of HAF (high altitude flatulence)...better move to the front of the group.”  Then I remembered the Devil’s Kitchen - a fumerole near Hog’s Back Ridge that belches sulfur-scented steam from deep within the mountain.  Once released, the steam rides the downdrafts to the lower slopes of the mountain where it reeks havoc on the nostrils of scavenging marmots and unsuspecting climbers.  I surmised from the aroma that we were just below the Hog’s Back; we were making good time.

snow ridge hikingBy the time we reached Hog’s Back Ridge, the sun had come up, so I removed my headlight.  We stopped on the ridge to take a break, eat and re-hydrate. We had arrived here in good form and in good spirits; we were all optimistic about our chances of reaching the summit.  After our break, we strapped on our crampons, grabbed our ice axes and tied back into the rope to begin our traverse around the high side of the Devil’s Kitchen.  This last leg of the climb above the Hog’s Back is the steepest part of the route.  The slope below the summit approaches 45 degrees near the top, so we were careful to step deliberately, ensuring good purchase with each kicked step.  After an hour of steady cramponing, we had gained the summit ridge.  Once on top of the ridge, we walked the remaining, meandering (but exposed) yards of the route to the summit.  We reached the top at approximately 8:00 a.m. under a clear, bright sky.  The view from the top was well worth the effort to get there.  After celebratory high fives, and some summit photos, we took a minute to acknowledge the cause that has taken us to this beautiful, high place - raising money for diabetes research.  Rick has always said that he would climb the highest mountain to find a cure for diabetes, and I am inclined to believe him.   After some drinks and snacks, we roped back up and started our descent to Timberline Lodge.

When we arrived back at the lodge that afternoon, we said our farewells to guide Craig and thanked him for a job well done.  After we sorted our dirty gear, and grabbed a late lunch, we made plans for a celebratory dinner.  Knowing that we would all appreciate a good night’s sleep and a hot shower after the climb, Rick had booked a deluxe room in the Timberline Lodge for the three of us - no highway campsite for us tonight; we were going to live it up in the lodge!  When we returned to the room to clean up, I was the last in line for the bathroom and when I came out after showering, I found Rick and Nathan stretched out on their beds sleeping sounder than narcoleptics on Nyquil.  “No worries”, I thought, we could all use a little power nap.  So I stretched out on the bed to rest my eyes for a few minutes.  As it turned out, none of us would awaken until the following morning.  Our celebration had turned into a sleepabration, but nobody complained.
summitsummitsummit sky
After breakfast, Nathan and I headed to Portland for some Stumptown coffee and Rick was off to meet a friend.  We made plans to rendezvous at Horning’s Hideout the following afternoon for the Northwest String Summit.  I had no idea what a “string summit” was, but the name conjured images of some good-natured yokels grinning and stomping to the pickin’s of Buck Owens and Grandpa Jones.  When Nathan and I arrived at Horning’s, I soon realized that my notion of the event was a bit off the mark.  As it turns out, this was not the Hee Haw scene I had envisioned; instead, it was a full-on hippiefest. Horning’s was like a Tom Robbins novel come to life.  There were birkenstocked guys hocking chocolate mushrooms (is there such a thing?), hemp-clad hucksters offering advice for a dollar, creeching albino peacocks (seriously), dreadlocked gals lounging amongst tree-slung tapestries, hippy chicks hula-hooping like it was their job, and there in the midst of it all, was my slack-jawed face taking in the scene with the wonder of an Amish boy at a  ieronymus Bosch exhibit.  Nathan and Rick seemed to get a kick out of my surprise.

Rick had arrived at the festival early and scouted a great spot at the edge of the woods for our campsite.  We pitched our tents and then headed out for supplies.  We returned with a box of crackers, some cheese and beer.....yep, that’ll just about do it.  You’ll hear no complaints from me about our menu, but we all agreed that when Nathan’s friend, Sarah, joined us in camp the following day, the standard of living improved tenfold.  When she arrived, Nathan and I helped her carry in more bags of fresh fruit and vegetables than I typically buy in a month.  In the morning, she sat Indian style on the dirt in the area between our three tents (our de facto living room/kitchen), and in ten minutes with a pen knife, small camp stove and a few supplies she whipped up egg, bean, cheese and cilantro burritos that I swore were the best I’ve ever had.  Yeah, the addition of Sarah to the group was a good thing.  As for the goings on beyond the bounds of our camp, I enjoyed listening to the music and watching the various shows.  However, the best part of the Summit for me was the people watching.  The whole scene was so foreign to me that I got a voyeuristic thrill from just wandering around taking it all in....the campsites, the food, the conversations, the people (hula hooping hippie chicks in particular).  I spent most of the first day skulking about the festival grinning like Opey at a peep show.  Eventually, I realized that I didn’t quite fit in to the scene and became concerned that the hippies might identify me as some kind of corporate agitator.  So, I pulled my hat low on my head, slowed my gait and did my best to look laid back and nonthreatening.  Despite my efforts, I felt as conspicuous as Waldo at a nudist colony picnic.....of all the times to leave my baja poncho and patchwork pants at home.  Fortunately, I managed to escape detection and made some interesting observations, perhaps the most revealing of which was this - even a hardcore hippie can have his mellow harshed.  Case in point, I overheard one shirtless fella, who wore a cardboard sign around his neck offering advice for a Dollar, tell somebody, “Man, giving advice is just too stressful.  I’m going to start offering hugs instead.”  Later that day, I saw that he had modified his sign and was now officially in the business of huckstering hugs.  I chuckled to myself, adjusted my hat and set out in search of the hula hooping chicks.

When I was leaving the festival the following morning, our camp neighbor, a white bearded man with a pair of bib overalls stretched over a santa belly, turned to me and asked, “You callin’ it good?”.  I thought about the trip for a minute - our climb up Mount Hood, the String Summit, spending time with an old friend and making a new friend - smiled, gave a nod and replied, “Yeah, I’m callin’ it good.”