It is true for many endeavors that mistakes are a catalyst for learning and growth. Two Sundays ago I made a mistake and broke of one of the most important ski mountaineering commandments: Thou Shalt Not Get Cliffed Out. My hope is that by sharing my story I can cement the lesson I learned and help you avoid making the same mistake.
I’ve dreamed of circumnavigating Mt Hood on skis ever since Patrick and Ethan did so in February 2013. After a season with a healthy dose of long days, steep snow climbing and avalanche terrain navigation, I finally felt confident enough to attempt the “High Orbit.” Furthermore, I saw this objective as a capstone to my three years of climbing and skiing in the Pacific Northwest, and I thought it would provide satisfying closure before graduating and moving away.
After climbing and skiing the Wy’east Face and Superbowl on Saturday with Patrick, Taylor and Hallie, my legs and spirit felt hungry for more. I began skinning from Timberline at 4:45 am and soon thereafter found myself transitioning on Illumination Saddle.
I looked across Reid Glacier and planned my route (pictured below). I could see a steep snowfield on the other side that would give me access to Yokum Ridge, and I compared its location to an image of the route I had on my phone. At the time the snowfield seemed a reasonable match to the route shown by the image. Looking at it now, however, it was obviously too high.
I climbed the steep snowfield to gain Yokum Ridge and found myself high above the Sandy Glacier. Looking down from where I stood, the head of the Sandy funneled into a choke and steeply rolled over out of my sight until flattening a couple hundred feet below. This route was not an immediate winner, so I skied down the ridge a short ways in order to investigate a different option. No luck–I ended up making a couple turns down a steep chute only to have it drop off out of sight. Thankfully I had stopped at a relatively secure bench created by a rock fin, so transitioning to crampons wasn’t an issue.
At this point I decided to climb back to my original position on the ridge and check out the roll-over choke despite my initial doubt. I dropped in and made some fun turns until hope turned into desperation. I was 10 meters from the rollover and still couldn’t see it go. I scraped a few more meters down the 45˚ ice until I realized it was stupid to go any further. Then it hit me. F*$%. I was cliffed out. For a minute I froze. Then, as if the powers that be were mocking me, I saw a party of three skiers cruise across the lower Sandy. If it wasn’t clear already, this made my grievous route-finding error utterly obvious. They paused for a moment, and I imagined them observing my situation in horror.
Next I pictured myself skiing the drop-off. Maybe it wasn’t that big of a cliff. Maybe it would just be rad as hell. That idea was quickly nixed by the image of my body crashing onto the glacier below. I knew I had to do something, but what? Side-hill back up the chute using my whippet to self-belay? Too steep and too far. That left me with only one option. There were two small outcrops of 4th class rock a few feet to my right. The first one was narrow and steep, the second one wider and more moderate. I traversed to the first rock and positioned my skis so they were half on rock and half on snow. Unfortunately, the angle of rock to snow was such that my skis flexed underfoot, leaving my edges without complete purchase. I took my gloves off, set my poles down, and held onto the rock with my right hand. Then I balanced on my right foot in order to lift my left foot up and remove my ski with my left hand; I felt like I was pulling through the delicate crux of a slab climb. Getting the first ski off was a huge relief, and I felt way more secure with one boot on relatively solid ground. This made removing my other ski much easier. With both skis and poles now on my back, I planned my next move. It was about four feet to the other rock outcrop. I took nearly my widest possible step in order to bridge the gap over the icy chute. I subsequently scrambled 10 feet to the top of the rock, which was flat and provided direct access to the snow. I was finally safe! From here I put on my crampons and scurried back to Yokum Ridge.
I’ll admit I was a bit shaken. Removing my skis above the cliff was probably the least secure and highest consequence situation I’ve ever experienced. Back on Yokum Ridge I considered retracing my steps to Reid Glacier and skiing down to the proper crossing in order to chase the party of three I had seen crossing the Sandy. However, I had already wasted a lot of time, and I felt inclined to be conservative. I headed back to Illumination Saddle with my tail between my legs and pride hurt, but mostly I felt relieved and happy to have handled the situation calmly.
In hindsight, perhaps I was overconfident in my abilities. After all, I’m still a newcomer to the discipline of ski mountaineering and have much to learn. This experience revealed I likely did not put enough time into researching the route. I had identified a later section (crossing Elliot Glacier to access Cooper Spur) to be the crux of the route and thus gave less thought to earlier sections. I also believe I made a poor decision in climbing back up Yokum Ridge (after getting cliffed out the first time) in order to attempt the route I had previously decided against. In the future I should be more critical of rescinding such decisions.
If I were to attempt the Circumnavigation again for the first time I would focus on each ridge crossing and have a clearly written description and/or mental image of what to look for. This image would be created by gathering information from people who have done the route and synthesizing this information with a map and any available pictures of the route. I would refer to this description, along with the map and said pictures, before making a committing decision. In an ideal world, I would also be able to estimate the altitude of critical points along the route. That way my altimeter could help me stay on track.
However, it’s also important to reflect on the things I did well in order to ingrain their importance. I was able to escape my somewhat dire position thanks to skills I’ve worked hard to cultivate through rock climbing. Bouldering and sport/trad climbing have taught me the importance of precise movement and a quiet, focused mind. I believe these skills are foundational to mountaineering. Without the ability to efficiently navigate a boulder, how can anyone hope to navigate a mountain? Secondly, I was very happy to have a backpack that allows one to attach skis while wearing the pack. Without this capability, transitioning on the steep rock outcrop would have been much trickier and more dangerous.
I hope this report inspires thorough route planning and reflection on past mistakes. At the very least it should provide additional beta for the circumnavigation route, of which there is a relative paucity. Lastly, I would truly appreciate your input. How do you prepare for large objectives in unfamiliar terrain? Have you ever been cliffed out? What has been one of your greatest learning experiences in ski mountaineering and/or climbing? I look forward to hearing your stories!