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Winter Ascent

In mid-December 2006, many of us watched a tragedy unfold on the upper slopes of Mount Hood. Three experienced climbers — Kelly James, Brian Hall, and Jerry Cooke — began what they expected to be a two-day expedition up the perilous North Face of the mountain. Though they reached the summit, a combination of injury, deteriorating weather and unfamiliarity with the terrain prevented them from descending to safety.

On Dec. 17, mountain rescue teams found James' body inside a snow cave; he had died of exposure. Three days later, the Hood River County sheriff called off the rescue mission. To this day, Brian Hall and Jerry Cooke remain missing and are presumed dead.

Not long into this sad saga, the media, especially the cable news networks, used this ongoing tragedy to fill their pre-holiday news vacuums. Talk-show hosts questioned the money spent on the search, and then came the inevitable question — why the heck were these guys climbing in the middle of winter? Fox News Channel's Bill O'Reilly complained about winter mountaineering "thrill seekers" and called for Oregon to close the mountain to climbers during the winter season.

Many mountaineering experts, however, say that winter months can be the safest and most enjoyable time to ascend this magnificent volcano. The mountain is less crowded, the sustained freezes keep rock fall at a minimum, and cold, firm snow makes for easier, slip-free climbing.

Yet, there is a caveat: Experts stress the importance of proper training in mountaineering basics. Unless you have years of intensive climbing experience, all Mount Hood ascents — regardless of the season — must be done in the company of a highly qualified mountain guide. Otherwise, your safety will always be at risk.

Steve Baldwin, an owner and guide of the Bend-based Timberline Mountain Guides, says he enjoys the quiet and secluded winter climbs up the mountain.

Just one hour away from downtown Portland, Mount Hood attracts a large number of climbers: carnival atmospheres often are the norm during the spring months as multiple rope teams aspire to reach the same peak. On certain popular routes, like the Pearly Gates, traffic jams often are the norm, and can sometimes turn deadly.

Just ask those who witnessed a calamity that unfolded on May 30, 2002. A helicopter was called to rescue injured climbers after a four-person rope team fell down the mountain into the paths of two more rope teams. Nine climbers in all fell more than 250 feet into the Bergschrund crevasse.

Three of the climbers — two from the first group and one from the second — sustained fatal injuries, and four more were critically injured. As the chopper was on its way to rescue the third victim, it lost control and crashed into the steep slope. This bizarre incident occurred during the busy spring season when many climbers must, as Baldwin put it, take a number before traveling up the peak.

The winter's below-freezing temperatures often are essential for a safe mountain journey, says Mike Ochsner, a volunteer for Portland Mountain Rescue (PMR). He says that as the sun in the spring and summer warms the mountain, rock fall becomes a hazard. It's not unusual to see small boulders fly off the upper cliffs and land perilously close to popular climbing routes. In the crowded spring months, climbers can accidentally dislodge rocks into the paths of rope teams farther down the slope. In cold winter weather, rock fall from Mother Nature or from other climbers is a rarity.

To avoid rock fall, spring and summer climbers must begin their treks as early as midnight so they can summit by 6 a.m. and walk off the mountain by 10 a.m., when the sun has just started to melt ice and snow. During the winter, however, climbers can often stay on the mountain all day in much safer conditions.

As Ochsner explains, winter climbers can sleep in until five or six in the morning if they want and have a party on the summit. Those who are not rushed to meet a deadline often make better decisions and enjoy safer climbs.

Inordinate heat also produces soft, slippery snow that has led to many fatalities. The best-known tragedy occurred in May 1999, when two highly experienced climbers — Carey Cardon and his wife, Tena Cardon, slipped on soft melting snow, just below the summit; they tumbled, roped together, more than 2,000 feet down the mountain to their deaths. Winter snow is more consolidated, much easier to negotiate and far more enjoyable, Ochsner says.

So what happened to the three climbers who perished last December? Basically, they broke a big rule in winter mountaineering on Mount Hood — they tried to beat the weather. They had a certain amount of time to get up and down the mountain before a winter storm hit the area, and because they got lost or because James got hurt, or a combination of both, the weather beat them. Ochsner likens their decision to "racing a train to the tracks."

The old adage describes Mount Hood winters the best — "if you don't like the weather, wait five minutes."

Oregonians are accustomed to having the weather change on a dime, dressing in layers and often carrying raincoats when it's sunny. Mount Hood climbers confer with the National Weather Service and rely on their own experience to know when they can safely ascend the mountain. Last year's trio, though experienced in climbing, was not from the Pacific Northwest but from Texas.

To fully appreciate the winter climbing experience — and to live to tell about it — you must rely on either your own in-depth mountaineering experience or on a qualified guide, experts stress. After all, experience is the teacher, and luck — or the illusion of it — is often the killer.

Laura Kneedler is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.

Photo by Nick Pope / Timberline Mountain Guides