Mount Hood: Leuthold Couloir

  • Date: March 31, 2019
  • Start: Timberline Lodge
  • Distance: 8.1 miles
  • Duration: 9 hours 16 minutes (breaks included)
  • Elevation gain: 5,640 feet
  • Type: Balloon
  • References: Mt. Hood Climber’s Guide by Bill Mullee; SummitPost

Left tool, right tool, step up, step up. Breathe. Left tool, right tool, step up, step up. Breathe, and don’t forget to look around. Behind me stretched a vast, glaciated slope punctuated by rocky ridge lines and pinnacles. Above me stood the gatekeepers of the upper mountain, towers embodying the perfect marriage of rock and ice, a symbol of the mountain’s harsh yet captivating exterior. Time to move again. Left tool, right tool, step up, step up.

Ever since climbing Cooper Spur, I’ve made it a goal to attempt at least one new route on Hood each year (as long as I’m equipped with the necessary skills). After doing some research and receiving feedback from fellow mountaineers last spring, I set my sights on Leuthold, a steep snow and glacier climb on the mountain’s western flank. Although we started planning the climb back in January–obsessing over weekly snow and weather conditions, poring over maps and route descriptions, and practicing crevasse rescue in our living room a couple times a week–setbacks forced us to postpone weekend after weekend. By the final week of March I was feeling pretty defeated and certain that we’d have to wait until next year. That Saturday I happened to check Mountain Forecast for the following day. Sunny, clear skies. High of 16. It had snowed a little over the past few days, so I checked NWAC next. I could feel my face light up with joy as the map loaded. Green. Mount Hood was green. This was it. This was our window. I casually sauntered out of the room, trying not to appear too excited/desperate as I approached Mack, knowing full well that we already had other plans in place for the next day. “Any interest in climbing Hood tomorrow?”

We arrived at Timberline the next morning around 2:30 am. My mind and body were aching for sleep. The previous afternoon had been a hectic one after our last minute decision to climb. Following a day of volunteering in Tillamook State Forest, I hastily packed up our gear so we could attempt to sleep a little before driving out to the mountain. Sometimes I envy Mack for his ability to fall into a deep sleep at the drop of a hat. The night before our climb was one of those times, especially as I laid awake with butterflies fluttering around in my stomach, my mind envisioning all the various aspects of the route, while he slept peacefully next to me. 

We signed in at the climber’s register and began the all too familiar slog up to the Palmer chairlift upper terminal. It was nearly 4 am already, and the thought of daylight arriving in a couple short hours revitalized me somewhat. Save for a few headlamps high above and well below us, the mountain was surprisingly void of the climbing crowd. It was a calm, clear, and quiet morning. No howling wind. No human voices. Just the sound of our own breathing and our feet punching into the soft snow. The moon became a faint glow in the sky as blue hour struck near Illumination Saddle. A lone, little orange tent sat perched there overlooking the glacier. Even though I knew it wasn’t my tent and I wasn’t going to be wrapped up inside a sleeping bag when I arrived, the mere fact that it represented warmth made me pick up my pace.

At the saddle, I got to work getting our rope flaked out and attaching our glacier gear to our harnesses as sunrise colors lit up the sky behind us. Perfect timing. Aside from Mack’s poop break, our transition into glacier travel was relatively quick thanks to consistent practice at home. We walked to the edge of the saddle, peering down onto Reid Glacier and visually assessing the boot path leading to the base of the couloir. The boot path was a godsend and made for a speedy traverse. In these particular conditions, the rope actually felt like overkill (not that we regretted bringing it)! 

Daylight gradually swept over the rolling, forested hills far below and beyond. We knew we likely wouldn’t experience its warmth until we were on the summit ridge. At the end of the traverse, we opted to un-rope (especially since the boot track was so good) and take out a second tool to aid with the steep climbing of the next section. I looked back often as we climbed higher, expecting to see another party approaching the couloir on this unbelievably gorgeous spring day. Never saw a single soul. 

Directly above us, rime encrusted rock formations guarded the entrance to Leuthold, a brief, but narrow stretch known as the Hourglass. This section is notorious for raining down ice on climbers seeking to attain the upper reaches of the couloir. Somehow, on this day, we were graced with no ice fall whatsover! I was even able to stop and savor the rugged, crystalline beauty surrounding me and take photos of Mack as he climbed up shortly after. 

After topping out above the Hourglass, we’d now completed the steepest portion of the climb and the couloir had expanded into a wide, open slope. From here up to the summit ridge was fairly mellow climbing and, thanks to the continuation of the boot track, very straightforward navigation. On climber’s left we had an incredible view of the gnarly Yocum Ridge, a daunting, jagged spine that snakes its way up to the summit ridge alongside our much more manageable route. Definitely one of my favorite sights of the day (and one of those “maybe one day in the distant future” goals). At the top of the couloir, we were greeted by long awaited sunshine and warmth. We were now within a few hundred feet–maybe less!–of the summit.

I’ll admit the ridge felt a bit longer and more tedious than I’d expected (or I was just being impatient), but once the catwalk came into view, I couldn’t bring myself to keep moving. Up until this point, I’d only ever seen a small portion of this undulating crest from the times I’d ascended via Old Chute. Starting back further and being graced with an even wider, more zoomed out perspective made for one of the most picturesque scenes of the entire morning. We made our way across one at a time. I looked down at the Hogsback, expecting to see the typical swarm of late morning climbers. I was pleasantly surprised to see less than a dozen! We reached the summit at 10 am and celebrated with a few other climbers who had just ascended the Pearly Gates, and another who climbed via North Face Left Gully. After a celebratory photo we started our descent.

The Pearly Gates were in decent condition. It wasn’t quite as prime as it had been two weekends earlier, but it didn’t require much effort to get through. Also, the low traffic of climbers made the descent of this section much faster than the previous time. I was still in awe that the mountain wasn’t a complete zoo right now! Mack made a semi-serious joke that everyone was probably on Mount St. Helens since it was the final day you could climb without reserving a permit. The remainder of the descent was non-eventful and characterized by our continuous efforts to avoid overheating and escape the harshness of direct sunlight (which proved to be futile). Those last couple hours in the sun coupled with a near complete lack of sleep left me deflated and dizzy by the time we stumbled into the parking lot. Regardless of the hot mess I turned into by the end, I can still say with certainty that this was one of the most–if not THE most–perfect day of climbing I’ve experienced on this incredible mountain. Leuthold is by and large my new favorite route on Hood. I can’t wait to give it another go and start researching some other routes for next season! Maybe it’s time to try one of the headwalls? 

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