The Memorial Weekend jaunt to Oregon to attempt Mount Jefferson's West Rib evolved out of an innocent email between Nabeel and I: "We should get together for another climb."
After weeks of salivating over route descriptions and pictures of Jefferson, plus hiking with loaded backpacks and other training exercises I was packed and ready to go. But first I needed one last Thai dinner in Bloomington. Unfortunately, I had too many iced teas at dinner, or I was really excited about the trip since I didn't fall asleep until after 1am.
Two hours later my alarm starts me on my trip to the Indianapolis Airport and a 6am flight to Portland. At least I was rewarded with views of Mt Hood and Jefferson rising over the clouds. Waited at the airport for Nabeel's flight to land and we dealt with our first Thrifty rental car hassle of the trip. Arriving at the off-site car pickup, there was no vehicle in our assigned spot. Nabeel dealt with the desk clerks while I chatted with a couple who at least had a car in their assigned spot, abet a downgrade from what they were promised. Nabeel came out of the office with an upgrade and we were off.
Before hitting the mountains, we had a little sightseeing to do in Portland. Somehow we ran right into Powell's Books with out knowing much more than which side of the river it was on. We also connected with lunch at a Lebanese restaurant Nabeel remembered from the year before. Then we strolled through Washington Park's Zen Gardens and Rose Garden. Our tranquility was interrupted by a call from Thrifty informing us we'd taken the wrong car. Nabeel argued with them and we kept the car.
Headed south out of Portland to Salem for an excellent Mexican dinner. We both ordered the fried ice cream, which we hoped would fuel us to the summit of Mt Jefferson, if it didn't put us to sleep on the way to Detroit. On reaching Detroit we stopped at a grocery store to double check directions to the hotel, and were pleasantly surprised to find the store was on my list of locations to buy NW forest passes for parking at the trailheads. We joked about our luck in finding places so easily this trip, maybe we should buy some lottery tickets.
Checked into the All Seasons Motel at 11pm and threw out duffle bags and repacked backpacks in a cluster of ice axes, fleece and pack straps. Then we dumped everything on the floor and fell asleep for a few hours.
Quick 6am coffee stop at the same grocery as last night, then found the Pamelia Lake Trailhead for Mount Jefferson and met our guides, Pete and Bob. The trailhead was socked in with clouds and we debated about the weather conditions. The West Rib would need a good freeze for safe climbing, and North Sister (further south) was suggested as an alternative that might have clearer weather (and thus colder nighttime temps).
After salivating over pictures of Jefferson's West Rib it took a bit of rational thinking to realize we should move south to North Sister. I had originally picked Jefferson to climb to work on the "2nd highest mountains" list. While I don't think there are any bad reasons to want to climb a mountain, it is always foolish to be obstinate, and there are no bad mountains to climb.
Fifty minutes later and we parked at the Pole Creek Trailhead in sunny weather, to repack our bags with food, climbing equipment, and tents. The moment I'd been waiting all week for finally arrived as we shouldered too-heavy packs and started off down the trail.
Before long we were rewarded with views of South Sister through the trees and I realized just how quiet the woods were without the 17 year cicadas I'd grown used to in Indiana. Broke off the main trail and started picking our way over patches of snow mostly solid in the shade of the trees. We hiked higher toward a moraine ridge as the trees thinned out and the snow grew softer. Now our legs were post-holing into the snow with every step.
Found a campsite with dry ground for cooking and hanging out, snow for clearing level tent sites and krumholtz for wind blocks and tent anchors. Pete and Bob started melting snow for hot drinks as the clouds rolled in thicker and the wind picked up. Spent a brief time relaxing and joking around then Bob whipped up an outstanding dinner of couscous and vegetables in whole wheat tortillas. After a few more hot drinks we crawled into bed around 7pm.
Alarms once again announced the start of the day, this time at 2:30 am. I don't remember having slept a lot, but I also don't remember lying awake for 7 hours, so I must have gotten some sleep. During the night the wind had calmed down and the sky cleared and the snow had frozen up somewhat.
In slow action we crawled out of our sleeping bags, zipped up layers and tied on boots. Packed my small summit pack with a shell jacket, 2 1/2 quarts of water, snacks, ice tool and camera wrapped in the security of a down jacket. A bowl of quickly cooling oatmeal and cup of instant coffee would serve as breakfast for our 4am departure.
The snow did have a decent frozen crust, but we still broke through occasionally, each of us in proportion to our weight. We quickly determined who were the lightest and heaviest climbers this morning. The sun began to rise over the horizon and we decided the snow was too soft to do the route we wanted, the Sunrise Couloir. Instead we began working our way straight up to the Southeast Ridge, watching the sun's light reveal the nearby volcanoes, Broken Top, South Sister and Middle Sister.
Reaching the ridge we took a quick break, then followed the main crest of the ridge as much as possible. Many times we had to skirt gendarmes (rocky pinnacles) on either side, dropping down a little then climbing back up to the ridge. One of these diversions was steeper than the others and wind hardened. Pete setup a quick belay and I turned into the slope to front point downward, stabbing my ice axe into the snow at waist level before moving my feet. Finally, I felt like we were doing some real climbing, front-pointing with our crampons on hard snow.
The remainder of the ridge was too rocky and steep to the summit, so we traversed along the West Face of the mountain in snow that was a little too soft. Pete and Bob lead the traverse, putting in anchors to catch a fall and we all stamped out a walking platform in the snow. Traversing across two gullies brought down small bits of ice melting off the cliffs above and funneled down toward us. Hopefully, nothing larger would come down while we were standing there.
Two other climbers who had forced their way up the Sunrise Couloir and reached the summit ahead of us now descended toward us. They were appreciative of the large path we had made in the snow and continued downward. They would be the only other people we saw all day.
While waiting for Bob to lead one of the traverses, I began to chill just sitting in the snow and shade so I put on my light down jacket. Still cold when we began to move I kept it on, and the wind kept my face cool, while the constant contact between the snow and my hands left those perpetually cold. By the time we reached the bottom of the next gully, the Bowling Alley, our ascent route back to the ridge and summit, my core had overheated. Feeling lightheaded I put my head down as well as I could on the 50 degree slope and when Pete asked what was wrong, I suddenly realized how hot my torso was. A few minutes after taking off the jacket I was fine again.
Bob lead up the Bowling Alley, a steep gully that funneled lots of falling ice as the sun warmed the cliffs above. Once at the top Nabeel, myself and Pete followed. The slope angle increased to near vertical for a short section. More real climbing! I had almost forgotten how much fun vertical ice climbing is. When the ice is solid the improbably small picks of metal on crampons and ice axes stick amazing well, allowing one to climb what is otherwise smooth, hard ice. It always feels to me like accomplishing the impossible.
All too soon the gully leveled out, and we had a short walk to the main ridge. We could look down the incredibly steep gullies we would have liked to have attempted, but more amazingly, we could see the final rocky summit, covered on the west side with frozen ice. The moist Pacific air hits these frozen rocks and instantly freezes to their windward side, growing icy coatings and little spikes.
At the base of the cliff, Bob again lead up shortly reaching the summit. He belayed Nabeel, myself and Pete to the top where we all admired the view. So clear, we could see the volcanoes stretching northward past Mt Jefferson and Hood into Washington where we could make out Mt Adams. South we could see well into southern Oregon and what was probably Mt Scott in Crater Lake National Park. We all took turns signing the summit register, which was the first time I'd seen a guide do that. Normally, I got the feeling that guides felt signing the registers was below them. Pete and Bob however seemed as excited to do so as Nabeel and I. Also, this was the first trip I'd been on where the guides were carrying cameras and called out "stay there, that's a great picture" about as often as we did.
It was now 12 noon, we'd been climbing for 8 hours and still had a long way to go back to the camp, the trailhead and Portland. Two lowers brought us back to the base of the Bowling Alley, and then Bob had to re-setup the anchors on the traverse since the snow was even softer now than earlier. More ice chunks were funneling down the gullies and we moved rapidly past their low spots. The snow was soft enough now to stick to our crampons, and we had to knock it off every few steps with our ice axes.
Finishing the traverse we headed down to the saddle between North and Middle Sisters, mostly following old tracks through the snowfields, still knocking snow off our crampons and plunge stepping in places. As we reached the saddle, large clouds moved in from the west to obscure the surrounding peaks. Taking off our crampons we rapidly dropped elevation as we plunge stepped downward. From here we cut across the South East Ridge, alternating bands of loose rock and patches of snow to regain our camp.
We reached our camp around 5pm and quickly dismantled the tents and repacked our backpacks for the walk out. 4 hours of wishing for the trail to end and the cars to appear finally came to pass, a finale to 17 hours of constant movement.
Under a darkening sky we said our goodbyes to Bob and Pete and managed to find our way back to Sisters, Oregon. No restaurants were open this late on Monday night, so we loaded up on some junk food at a gas station and I drove the winding road back to the interstate. We stopped at a 24-hour dinner, a Shanti, for a midnight dinner and coffee for Nabeel who took the next driving shift back to Portland.
Reaching our hotel around 2am we repacked our bags back into duffles and returned the rental car. Our tired minds found amusement in the realization that we'd also stopped at a Shanti the year previous after our Mt Hood climb. After one hour of sleep I was up to catch a hotel shuttle to the airport for an early flight home. When not sleeping on the plane I was granted clear morning views from the plane of Mt Jefferson, the Sisters and Longs Peak in Colorado.