Skiing the Summit—Reflections on a December Mt. Hood Ski Descent

Words by Jordan Machtelinckx. Photos by Kevin Machtelinckx.

Faraway sounds wake me periodically from a fitful sleep. Giant machines meander around the empty parking lot, putting my REM cycles just out of reach each time they rumble by. Through my iced-up windows I can see windblown snow pass under glowing streetlamps. The wind creaks as it passes between the glass and the metal of my frozen-half-shut window. I continue to straddle the worlds of the waking and that of dreams as I drift off a few more times.

A sharp knock on my window scares the sleep away for good.

Assuming that’s my brother bundled up in the dark out there, then it must be five o’clock. I’ve slept in this parking lot at Timberline Lodge a number of times before, and I fall into the same ritual of emotions brought by an alpine start in December.

It’s cold. I’m tired. Maybe this was a bad idea.

I could be in a real bed.

There are many key attributes to the perfect climbing partner, but the most important one right now is that it’s someone who holds you accountable to get up at a ridiculous hour, in a ridiculous place, to do a ridiculous thing, when the last bits of slumber inject an ominous sense of doom into the day’s undertaking.

I force down a pre-dawn granola breakfast and reward myself with as many sips of thermos-tepid coffee as I can force into my waking body. Freezing fog gently coats my sleeping bag with ice crystals and going back to bed becomes significantly less appealing.

Packs are closed. The beeps from our avalanche beacons are swallowed by the gloomy dark of the overflow parking lot. I realize I’ve got more neighbors now than when I went to bed in the back of my Element. Lights flicker on through foggy windows in one car. Another van lays newly empty as its owner also starts his way toward the edge of the parking lot; the first steps toward the frequently-sought summit of Oregon’s Mt. Hood.

Clicking into my bindings, I tune into the music playing through the wires from my pocket to try to pass the time slogging through the last trees and onto the slopes.

I’m not wearing a watch today, but the milestones are familiar.

Breaking through the final trees: scrambled thoughts contained within the ring of my headlamp on the snow.

Passing by the rime-covered Silcox Hut: doubt.

Starting up along the Palmer express lift: anxiety.

I see climbers’ headlamps shining through the last siege of darkness above, hours ahead of us. Maybe we should have started earlier, too.

A rest near the Palmer lift house—the highest outpost of civilization, past which hikers become climbers. I watch as daybreak washes away the self-doubt. Rays of sunlight illuminate safe, mellow skies.

Not much further up, climbers who have reached the summit are passing us on their way back to the waking lodge, now 3,000 feet below. I leave my self-doubt below Illumination Rock as I enter the spectacular, rime-encrusted cirque of the summit crater. We are now committed to a summit attempt, graced with pleasant weather and agreeable snow conditions, and my rational mind knows that self-doubt has no place in this final 1,500 feet of technical terrain.

The question is no longer “if,” let alone “why,” but “how.” Which of the many routes up the final headwall will present us with the optimal balance of challenge and safe passage? We opt for an exciting attempt on the spectacular Pearly Gates, climbing a few hundred feet of steep, deep snow into a narrowing couloir. The right Gate is occupied by a slow-moving rope team, and melting chunks of ice from the sunlit cliffs above warn us that we have no time to wait around.
I ascend the left Gate, hoping it goes, because I dread downclimbing our steep, unconsolidated boot track extending below.

But alas, I’m stopped by a six-foot vertical wall of hard, blue ice. The longer I debate whether I should attempt it, the more I realize my forearms may not hold out long enough. The obstacle is spectacular, well-featured. A boulder problem of ice. I want to climb it, but more importantly I want to have climbed it. I want to push the threshold of my climbing past this icy couloir.
I take a few steps toward the feature, shattering holds with the tips of my ice tools. I search for solid foot placements, but my calves are burning. I reach up, hesitate, and reach down.

I want to be good enough. I want to live up to my expectations. But my instincts know better. I’m tired. My pack is heavy. One slip and the weight of the skis on my back will catapult me off the wall, tumbling a thousand feet into the summit crater. It would be foolish.

I curse myself for not bringing a rope and ice screws to make an attempt realistic. I immediately thank myself for leaving them behind since we made good time without the extra weight. I am terrified of the downclimb out of this couloir. I am wrestling with the thought that I may have sacrificed our summit because of my selfish desire to climb a route that is beyond me.

My mind is running wild but I am still clinging to the steep ice by the metal tips of my crampons and tools. I acknowledge the rampant emotions and set them aside, one by one. They have no place here. I have a job to do and I know how to do it. Nothing else matters until I get back to the ledge below the couloir.

Downclimbing seems endless. I hate my footholds and my ice tools plunge deep into useless powder.

We meet back at the ledge. I think we both know it was my lust for the Gates that cost us an hour and a half in that couloir. Our skis will save us hours on the descent compared with our previous bootpacking attempts on this mountain, so we agree to make a second attempt up the Old Chute, where most parties are summitting today. I let Kevin take the lead across the wide-open slope. I’m not going to let my ego fuck this one up, too.

The slope steepens, the chutes narrow, and we pick our way through the final rime formations to the summit ridge. Two hundred easy meters take us to a breezy summit, where we realize our fingers are frigid and we have no time to waste.

The summit is the halfway mark to safety. Long, deep breaths lower my heart rate from its frenzied battle against 11,241 feet of thinning air. I have to maintain control of my body so it can keep me safe as I cross a dizzying 20 meters of one-slip-and-you’re-dead knife-edge summit ridge to gain the descent chute.

The steep, soft snow is a cakewalk after that. We find the highest spot to feasibly transition to skis, as skiing off the true summit is impossible for us amateurs.

Perspectives change in downhill mode. Steep slopes which intimidate the uphill climber in me now appear as ideal ski terrain. My interface with the mountain changes as I now want to be sliding across its surface. I distance myself from the summit, with no more desire to be there.

I ski back toward the lodge, my car. To civilization, to safety, to satisfaction and self-fulfillment. Away from fear, self-doubt, and primal danger.

Back down to where I may find the courage to face my demons once again on another dark, cold morning with my brother knocking at my window.

Wake up. We’re going climbing.

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