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Trip Report    

Intermediate Alpine Climb - Mount Hood/Leuthold Couloir

2021 finally started

  • Road suitable for all vehicles
  • Perfect cat track all the way to the top of Palmer, and easy crossing to the Illumination Saddle thanks to the packed snow. Crusty powder on chicken heads was pretty nice to walk on, especially so on the descent as the crust softened up, although sadly, glissading was out of question. Everything on the South and Reid side seems to now have a bootpack. That, plus the snow conditions, made descending down onto the Reid glacier and crossing it very easy. We did not find any ice on the route.  The condition was powder snow  with some embedded thin layers of crust. Anything that looked like beautiful Alpine ice from the outside turned out to be at most one inch thick, aerated and weak, and very easily shattered by an ice tool, revealing nothing but loose powder underneath, and offering no structural support. Placing screws anywhere was out of question, but the snow was firm enough to offer secure purchase for crampons - enough so that kicking steps was not possible, and French technique was needed for upwards progress. As usual on any route on Hood, there was rime coming down, but as expected following several days of warm weather, it was not that much, and the chunks coming down were fairly small.

The original plan was to climb the Northeast Buttress of Chair, but between the recent massive slab avalanche in the Chair bowl, rapid +10F warming on the day before the climb, and temps upwards of 36F during the day, it did not seem safe to play in the area. At first, it looked like a day later might work, but it seemed unlikely, so we decided to look for an alternative.

The weather at Mt. Hood looked good, so we set the Illumination Saddle routes as the backup, which shortly became our main objective as the forecast for Chair continued to deteriorate. The forecast for hood continued to improve, and ended up at 5-10mph winds, 25F temps, clear and dry. A few days of warm weather mid-week meant low avy risk.

Initially, we planned to explore the Reid Headwall. The main concern was the complete lack of beta from that side of the mountain from this winter season, so the plan was to get up there and assess the situation up close. Leuthold was the safer bet, and the preference for most of our group. Just the day before the trip, one party ventured to Leuthold and reported good conditions, so we got a last minute confirmation that our long drive won't be in vain.

At first, my hope was that we might have the option of climbing the first gully on Reid and bailing to Leuthold if the conditions are not favorable, roughly by following the yellow arrow on the picture below. Following a discussion on a social networking site, it was inconclusive whether the traverse is doable. The majority opinion among experienced climbers who  offered advice was that even if the traverse is possible, it's likely sketchy, and continuing upwards is the safest bet. This helped to reset our expectations.


We started to gather at the Timberline parking lot shortly after 12:45am for the planned 1:30am start time. As is the tradition on winter ascents of Mt. Hood, some felt that 1:30m was too early, and wanted to spend more time in the parking lot. Fortunately, we managed to move out more or less as planned. After filing the self-issue permit, we hit the cat track at 1:50am. The cat track was perfect - easy hard pack to walk on in boots, yet cushy.


(PC: Justin Blackburn)

Our first stop was at 3:12am at 7500ft. One of the climbers at that time reported feeling intense nausea. We agreed to wait 25 min. to see how it changes during the rest break, but there was no improvement. Since up until that point, we were on a perfect cat track, navigation or terrain was not an issue, and everyone in the party was experienced, we decided to split the group. The sick climber went down with another person, while the rest of us continued pushing.

We resumed at around 3:40am, and continued pushing. We arrived at 9000ft at just around 5am, and took another 15-minute break to rest and refuel.

Resumed again at 5:15am and pushed a bit more straight up, then broke left to get onto the ZigZag glacier at around 9150ft.


(PC: Justin Blackburn)

We reached the saddle at 9200ft at around 5:50am, just about 1.5 hours before the sunrise. The timing was good, as it was already bright. We might in fact have gotten to this point up some 45 minutes sooner, since gearing up  and roping up took some time. The ideal time to hit the cat track for this route, and at this time of the year, would have been in the ballpark of 1am. It would have left enough time to gear up and still be bright enough to see the terrain on the glacier. With a full moon (we didn't get to see the moon that night), it could possibly be even sooner than this, and assuming comfortable pace and refuel stops, perhaps one could plan to hit the cat track as early as 0 dark 30 (later also being possible, but unless you are one of the lucky superhuman few who are able to fall asleep anywere and can squeeze in an hour or two of sleep at the parking lot, it begs the question why).


As soon as we arrived at the saddle, we saw one party approaching the hourglass on Leuthold,  another group at the base of Reid, and yet another party at the saddle in the process of gearing up, planning to tackle Reid.


We started descent onto Reid at about 6:50am (or about an hour after arriving to the saddle). The snow was soft, but supportive, there was a bootpack pre-made for us, and walking down the steep snow slope was easy.


(PC: Justin Blackburn)



(PC: Ashish Rawat)


(PC: Justin Blackburn)

We agreed as a group that we will skip Reid this time and just go with Leuthold. As we traveled, we took many pictures of the Reid Headwall that will hopefully come handy one day. Looking forward to the party going up Reid filing a trip report.


 Approaching Leuthold:


(PC: Ashish Rawat)

We started climbing the route at around 7:30am. As expected, the route was just a moderately steep snow slope. The surface was a fairly hard crust that offered great purchase for crampons. However, under that crust was just poorly consolidated powder, and no alpine ice was to be found anywhere - not even in the constriction.


Opinions on the merits of having rope varied, but we decided to continue roped and simulclimb, and just placed some pickets along the way in the constriction.


(PC: Ashish Rawat)

Normally, any route on Hood will offer its share of rime and ice fall, and we certainly did hear some bullets wheezing by, albeit less intensely than expected. Still, we tried to move reasonably quickly.

By around 9:45am, so in about 2 hours of climbing, we reached a spot at about 10,400 or so that was outside the shooting range, unroped and took an extended break to rest and refuel. With this being my first trip this winter, and having been pretty drained by insomnia this week, I felt pretty wasted at that point, and barely noticed the 30 minutes pass by.


The rest spot was also a good place to examine from a distance the spot where I had expected to be able to cross over to Leuthold from the left variation of Reid. Looked like it could be a bit sketchy, indeed, although from a distance, I couldn't quite rule out the possibility of it being doable.


We started moving again around 10:15am, albeit super slowly, and took about 30 minutes or so to reach a flat spot at 10,600 just to the east of Queen's Chair, where we stopped again to gather and regroup.


(PC: Justin Blackburn)

We arrived at the summit at around 12pm, so in total about 4.5 hours from the start of climbing the route. With better conditioning, without rope, and without the rest stops, it can probably be done in about 3 hours, but we were not planning on beating any speed records.

The views were amazing, with perfect visibility in all directions. We could see all the volcanoes.


At the summit, we have spent about 40 minutes or so resting and refueling. Those of us who have not been to the summit proper yet went to check it out. 


We started making our way down the Old Chute at 12:45pm. There was a boot pack, and the condition of the snow enabled walking down while facing out plunge-stepping, even outside the bootpack.


Arrived at hogsback at around at 1:15pm, and took another 30-minute break to rest more and to refuel to gather energy for the descent. Fatigue was setting in quite a bit at that point.


(PC: Justin Blackburn)

While sitting at the Hogsback, Adrien and I tried to remember which of the rime tunnels was the DKH variation 2 we had climbed last winter. We weren't sure, as everything looked different from this persprctive. So confusing!


By the time we were descending, snow softened up - the freezing level was down to 9,500 or so. Not good for glissading, but thankfully cushy enough to make knee injury just a bit less likely.


Nevertheless, going down is always hard, and especially so this time, so it took a while. Back to the top of Palmer 3pm, back to cars shortly before 4:30pm. Overall some 14.5 hours or so car-to-car, a bit less than the anticipated ~15 hours.

Here's the entire upper part of the route we took:

Screenshot from 2021-03-14 12-18-51.png

Overall, a great day and solid workout. The total lack of ice anywhere on the route was a little bit disappointing, but the weather was beautiful, and we had a great team.