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Mount Hood, Reid Headwall Route

Hi SACsters,

Now that I've been home for a few days, I figured I should provide the club with an account of our April 3, 2004 Mt. Hood escapade. After an alpine start, Debra Marsh and I geared up at Illumination Saddle (9,300) with the intent of climbing Castle Crags en route to the summit. Castle Crags is the evil-looking rock formation that forms the southwest terminus of Mt. Hood's crater rim. Neither of us had done the route before, but the initial ramp looked very inviting. The day was clear and the temps in the west side shade felt perfect. We donned the usual gear and headed up a ramp from Illumination Saddle on fairly easy snow slopes (40-50 degrees). Snow conditions were generally excellent with a firm neve predominant. It was easy to get solid axe self belay and most footwork was French technique. Ascending further around Castle Crags, the ramps faded into ever-steeper traverses. Again, while the angle sometime approached 70 degrees, the snow was so firm that our solid foot placements (two kicks to an ankle-deep step) and secure two-tooled self belays were all the protection we felt we needed.

Although we knew that the first obvious "notch" in the crater rim was not likely to provide the cross over to the more benign snow slopes of the crater interior, we figured we should at least go up there and "ring the bell." We discussed traversing lower but decided to go for it. The last 20 feet were an interesting wresting match with layers of rime ice, and the actual rim itself was a knife edge of rime and rock with a view of Crater Rock and the summit. Although there were several servicable slings festooned around a rocky out cropping, our short rope would only have yielded an additional 20' of descent beyond where Debra was then positioned. While she really wanted to come up to the rim, I cautioned against it due to the difficulties in the upper 20' section and she relented. The only obvious option was to downclimb the upper portions and then begin traversing the Reid Glacier Headwall.

We began to angle north traversing the steep snow slopes about 100 feet below the rime-encrusted rim. We moved slowly but steadily across difficult terrain ranging from 60 to 70 degrees. After surmounting several technical obstacles and feeling that we were getting quite close to the crater rim crossover point, I hit a fluting of extremely soft, light and seemingly bottomless snow. Somehow, I managed to move across it, headed up a couloir about 30 feet, and waited for Debra to reach the crux. I could not go further and still attain a solid position due to large rime ice obstructions (needed sculpting) and a short section of rock. I planted both of my tools solidly, reinforced my feet, placed a picket and hung on. While the snow was solid, it was probably not very thick - my first picket placement hit rock. The slope was between 65 and 70 degrees with a drop off (little cliff?) about 50 feet below us. Due to the dropoff, downclimb opportunities were effectively nonexistant, so we forged ahead.

Debra slid moderately on her first attempt at the fluff section but recovered. Her second attempt resulted in a fall. When the force of the fall hit me, either the whole snow slab peeled or all of the pro pulled. Down we went, bouncing, spinning and free falling. I saw stars, novas, and several shades of hell. Eventually, as the slope angle lessened, we began to slow. When the slope moderated to about 20 degrees, we ground to a halt. After about 15 minutes we figured out that the reason I couldn't move was that Debra had ended up on top of me, with my head on the downside of the slope. Eventually, we were able to correct this position, sit up, and take off our packs. Frankly, even as red, bruised and bloody as her face looked, it was a joy to see it. After about an hour, we had sorted out our respective circumstances, slowed some of the bleeding, untangled the rope that had wrapped us up, and determined that we each thought the other had brought the cell phone.

We were just about to draw straws to see who would begin the 1,000' crawl over to and up across Illumination Saddle to seek help when we heard voices from that direction. The voices asked if we needed assistance, we confirmed, and soon a Portland Mountain Rescue team was skiing our way. They assessed our situation and potential range of injuries, helped provide some needed warmth and encouragement, and rapidly determined that a helicopter evacuation was the only speedy and efficient way off the mountain. They relayed a request for assistance from the Salem-based 1042nd Air Rescue unit. Before too long, the helicopters arrived and dropped medics and carrier baskets. We were prepped for transport, placed in the baskets, but then clouds rolled in and we were in a whiteout. The helicopters descended to Timberline Lodge but returned 30-45 minutes later when the ceiling lifted. We were wafted away to Portland hospitals and the formal recovery process began.

I suffered a tibia plateau fracture of my left leg along with various other minor damage. Debra suffered multiple breaks in her right ankle along with a severely sprained left ankle and her share of bumps and bruises. Both of us will be in rehab for months, but the prognosis for a full recovery is excellent. Amazingly, after less than two weeks, most of our face rash is gone. We've resolved to go for a snow hike up the South Side no later than next Easter - and you are all invited.

Doug Adair


Santiam Alpine Club


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