Memory is a poor record. Four years ago, Alex Ragus and I decided that it would be a good idea to go rock climbing on Illumination Rock. We went, and I swore that I would never repeat the experience. But memory fades, and yesterday I found myself once-again climbing Illumination Rock.
For the uninitiated, Mt Hood is a volcano made of notoriously poor rock. It is composed of three different types of igneous rock: Kitty litter, Cascade Crumbles, and Superchoss. Illumination Rock is a prominent ridge on the Southwest flank of Mt Hood so-named because of hair-brained schemes to illuminate the summit of Mt Hood for New Year’s. The schemes failed, but the name stuck.
There are, astonishingly, seven or more summer routes on Illumination Rock, as well as several winter mixed climbs. The winter climbing is, according to Wayne Wallace, Colin Bohannan, and several others, of excellent quality and decent protection. The summer climbs, bare of binding ice and obscuring snow, are renown for their poor rock quality and questionable protection.
To quote Oregon High author Jeff Thomas (paraphrasing Tom Patey): “Any fool can climb good rock; it takes a special fool to climb bad rock”.
Nick Till and I climbed the South Chamber Route to the West Gable, Topo Here. FA Smoke Blanchard 1945 (5.4). We approached on skis and had to climb a few small rock moves before finding a spot where we could put on our rock shoes and continue in comfort. The heat of the preceding days had both softened the snow for an easy skin approach, as well peppered the snow in the chamber with softball-sized or larger rocks.
Nick’s first pitch was of OK quality, relatively. The climbing is very steppy, and the top of each step has a pile of loose rocks which an unwary climber might loose on his belayer. Further, it astonishes the climber the size of the blocks which he can wiggle or move about with just small applications of force. A safe path must be chosen with care, and even the best choice isn’t safe. That’s just sporty, right?
I took the second pitch to the West Gable (which could have been reached in one pitch with a 70 m rope) on even greater quality rock, as the above photo shows.
The Gable, a small saddle on the ridge, affords excellent views of the Reid Glacier, it’s headwall, Leuthold’s Couloir, the Queen’s Chair, and Yokum ridge. We didn’t learn this until we descended, but the climber who was missing for many days was finally found the same day among the many crevasses of the Reid Glacier. It is an unfortunate thing.
A friend of mine was the last to see the climber in question, veering left at the top of the Queen’s chair, moving off-route. The climber must have either descended or fallen back down to the Reid in the subsequent low visibility. This and several other accidents illustrate that the route-finding on the summit ridge is non-trivial and not intuitive. Familiarity with the summit ridge and the descent should be a must before climbing routes on the Southwest through Northwest aspects of the mountain.
The wind at the Gable was splendid, whipping the rope about and making our debate about its speed impossible even at close quarters.
At my suggestion, NT and I had a powwow about the 300 ft of traversing to the summit. Looking at the rock quality, I had no desire to repeat the experience. I offered, nevertheless, because it had been my silly idea to go up in the first place. Nick, intelligently, agreed to call it at our safe high point.
Rappelling from the Gable is nontrivial because of the prevalent loose rock and the funny, improvised anchors.
The anchor at the West Gable is an armchair-sized rock slung with many loops of ancient cord and webbing. We scavenged some carabiners from other manky anchors and clipped all of the available strands, leaving none of our own, and removing some obviously terrible cord.
Three raps total brought us back to our boots. When we finally made it back to the snow, we were glad to put boots on and walk away from the rock unscathed. The danger of an outing can add to the spice of the day, but when it comes to Illumination Rock, the danger might outweigh the benefits.
Climbing is a risk sport, and we who climb are risk-takers. The risks and the consequences of our sport are what make it so engaging and so rewarding. We enlist in climbing many of our faculties which find no use in the city, and we discover that we are more capable than we thought. It is better, though, to assume manageable risk and to minimize that which is beyond our control. Climbing loose blocks over protection of dubious quality is an experience to have, to bank, and to not repeat willingly. Better to face our imaginary fears on solid rock. That’s the stuff that careers are made of.
In June, Mountain Lessons had 2,300 (!) distinct visitors, which was the biggest month ever for the site. It’s still small change in the world of million-like Redbull videos, but I’m floored and humbled by your attention. Thank you! If you like what I do and want to support Mountain Lessons, you don’t have to do anything extra. The next time that you’re going to buy some gear for an adventure, just use a link on this site to a vendor like Backcountry.com and anything that you buy will give a small chunk to keep this site running. You can start by updating you kit with a sweet new helmet before your next choss ramble. Thanks again!