- Date: March 17, 2019
- Start: Timberline Lodge & Marble Mountain Sno Park
- Distance: 17 miles total
- Duration: 19 hours (breaks, lunch stop, and drive time included)
- Elevation gain: 11,000 feet total
- Type: Out-and-back (for both climbs)
- References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot
- Ancestral land of the Chinook people and Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs (Hood), and the Cowlitz people (Helens)
Out in the open above timberline, the hot, merciless sun beat down on our tired bodies. Less than 10 hours earlier I’d been wiggling my fingers and toes to keep them from going numb while hiking up to the Hogsback on Hood. Now here we were shedding layer after layer and taking giant swigs of Gatorade every couple hundred feet of climbing. The snow had turned to mush from the heat of the sun. I groaned with each sinking step, trudging slowly up the steep slopes of unconsolidated snow. Just a few thousand more feet to go.
Back in January, the PNW was graced with an unbelievably gorgeous weather window for Saturday and Sunday. On a whim, Mack and I decided it would be fun to attempt a doubleheader mountain weekend: Helens on Saturday, then Hood on Sunday. Unfortunately, neither summit was reached despite enviable conditions. We’d have to wait for another opportunity to arise. Fast forward to March…
After spending over two weeks sick with the flu and having to forgo numerous climbing opportunities and general social engagements, I was desperate to get back out to the mountains. The PNW was gifted yet another beautiful weekend and I wasn’t about to let it go to waste. On Friday afternoon, we decided to give the Saturday-Sunday doubleheader another go. Earlier in the day [Friday], I’d attempted a pre-work Hood climb, which threw off my sleep schedule and left me physically and mentally depleted by the time Friday evening rolled around. When our midnight alarm went off for Helens, I reluctantly told Mack that I didn’t think I could do it and we went back to sleep. Helens was off the table, and I hated myself for it. At least we were still planning to climb Hood.
I woke up well rested a few hours later but couldn’t shake the guilt of having let our doubleheader weekend slip through the cracks yet again! Then, all of a sudden, something switched on in my head. From my sulking and self loathing, an idea came about. One that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t even considered before. Why not climb both mountains on the same day? Mack agreed to it without hesitation–BEST. ADVENTURE PARTNER. EVER!–and before we knew it we were driving out to Timberline Lodge for the start of a long, adventurous Sunday.
We met up with our friend, Emily (who was climbing Hood for the first time!), and proceeded up the climber’s trail. With a good deal of people having climbed up the previous day, numerous tracks were in place and made the overall ascent very quick. We were doing so well that we made it to Devil’s Kitchen over an hour earlier than I’d anticipated! Extremities began to succumb to the cold, so we decided not to linger despite being so early. We hiked up to the Hogsback and began the ever steepening crawl up the narrow spine. The Pearly Gates were a breeze–compared to the sheet of ice it had been at the end of January during my last climb–and we followed previous tracks all the way to the summit. The sun had yet to rise, but we made it for blue hour!
Sunrise was still 10-15 minutes away. On our way up (while we were still near Devil’s Kitchen), we saw behind us the inevitable stream of headlamps gradually moving up the mountain. Not looking forward to down climbing the gates and sharing such a small space with potentially large groups (or having to wait our turn while our fingers and toes froze), we opted not to wait for sunrise and descend while the crowds were still down lower. Still in the shadows and not having been exposed to the sun yet, the gates were in fantastic shape for easy down climbing. Probably the best shape I’ve ever seen them!
We could see light from the sunrise slowly wash over the lower slopes where we were headed. The ever majestic shadow of the mountain, a sight I’ve been fortunate enough to experience numerous times now, stretched out to the west. It’s a sight that never fails to breathe life into me no matter how exhausted I am from climbing through the night. Aside from the unfailingly breathtaking sunrises, one of my favorite reasons for climbing so early is getting to witness the life cycle of this shadow. You’re only graced with its presence for a short window before it dissipates with the rising sun.
After the Hogsback, the rest of the descent passed fairly quickly. The snow was mostly soft enough to plunge step all the way down to the parking lot. We arrived back at our cars shortly before 10 am and enjoyed a late breakfast/early lunch in Government Camp with Emily before we began the long drive out to our next objective, Helens.
The three hour drive to Marble Mountain Sno Park (which Mack was kind enough to do so I could get some sleep) meant most everyone was finishing up their climb by the time we pulled into the parking lot. Folks were either packing up or lounging about enjoying celebratory beers. The air was warm and the sun high in the sky when we stepped out of the car. Were we really going to do this climb in the hot afternoon sun and crappy snow?
By happenstance, we ran into our friends, Ali and Brad (we all climbed Eldorado Peak together over the summer), who had just finished skiing the mountain. It was tempting to just skip out on the climb altogether and enjoy some post-climb beers and BBQ (I mean, we’d already summited a mountain that morning!), especially after getting beta from them about the snow conditions. We pushed past the temptation and headed over to the trailhead.
The hike up Swift Ski Trail wasn’t too bad despite the mushy snow. We stepped aside for numerous skiers flying down the trail, envious that we weren’t quite at that level yet (and that we didn’t own our own set-up to even give it a try). One day that’ll be us, I thought. Unfortunately, the cool air and shade of the forest gave way to complete sun exposure and softer, deeper snow once we reached timberline and started up the ridge. We received a few confused glances from climbers descending the mountain and one seemingly veiled warning from the climbing ranger (or volunteer?) who inquired about our equipment (mainly checking to see if we had emergency overnight gear and headlamps) and informed us we were still a few hours from the summit.
We encountered less and less people as we climbed higher, until it was only us two. As expected, the going was slow as we sank into the snow with each step. We kept a pretty good pace for awhile though, but near the seismic station (which sits about 2,000 feet below the summit) we were hit with strong, sustained winds. Our energy began to dwindle, sucked out by the incessant gusts that bombarded us. The final climb up the snow field to the crater rim, and subsequently the quarter mile climb along the rim to the true summit, felt never-ending. It was certainly the slowest we’d moved all day, but just as we’d hoped, we made the summit before sunset.
Daylight was on its final leg now. Shadows had spilled into the mountain’s crater, but to the north, Spirit Lake and Rainier were illuminated by the remaining light. To the south stood Hood, and we suddenly remembered that that climb had taken place several hours earlier! It already felt like an entirely different day.
Mack took out his phone to take pictures of his own and realized it had died. We’d been tracking and mapping our route on Gaia so we could easily navigate the descent. We’ve always mixed it up one way or another on every Helens climb we’ve done together. Not particularly interested in digging out my map and compass, especially with the wind still being an issue, we booked it off the summit and followed the boot track while we still had light. I knew once we made it off the snowfield and onto the correct ridge we would be fine.
We’d hoped to save time and effort by glissading down, but the paths were too icy now that the temps had dropped. Thankfully, the snow was still soft enough for plunge stepping (or, rather, plunge step running with how fast we were trying to move). The tracks were easy enough to follow though and I didn’t fear us getting off route this time around. Alpenglow now stretched across the horizon in bands of rosy pink and orange. The last light of the day. I thought back to that morning. How fortunate we were to have witnessed all the beauty and magic that comes with the start of a new day, and now to see it all again at the end while still in the mountains!
We were finally forced to turn on our headlamps somewhere around the seismic station. At least we’d already descended 2,000 feet! We even managed a little bit of glissading below that since the paths were less icy and steep, but it was short lived when the zipper on Mack’s snow pants got stuck and he could no longer zip up the side of his pants. The last part of the ridge just before reaching the forest was the worst. The post-holing had been bad, but tolerable, on the way up. Now that we were exhausted and ready to be back, I was no longer feeling tolerant about sinking into knee, thigh, and sometimes waist deep snow.
Once we made it back into the trees we were able to start moving uninhibited again and finally collapsed at the car shortly before 10 pm. We were starving, dehydrated, and a little delirious from lack of sleep, but the experience of climbing two of our favorite mountains in a single day, something we never would have thought as being fun or reasonable for us even a couple years earlier, was more than worth it. We couldn’t have asked for a more perfect day. Hopefully when we repeat it, we might even be capable of skiing down both mountains!