Tallest Mountain Peak in Oregon
I am wary of heights, sometimes find myself wishing that the earth was absolutely flat despite the discovery of Columbus. And yet, for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to climb Mount Hood which, at 11,235 feet, is the tallest peak in Oregon. Time and again, I have stared up at the mountain and wished I could stand on its steep, conical peak for a moment. I am not sure why I wished to be up there; I only know that it has been a dream of mine since I was a small boy. From where I stood on the ground Mount Hood seemed as far away as one could go and still remain in Oregon, ostensibly as remote as the darkest corner on earth, and increasingly I longed to explore such dark corners.
For years, for one reason or another, I have postponed my intention to climb Mount Hood. But finally, on an impulse early one morning, I sent in my application to make the climb with a guide service. Later that same day I learned that some Portland school children on a wilderness expedition were reported missing on the mountain. At first, I was not particularly concerned about their absence, figuring it was only a matter of time before they would all be discovered safe and sound since Mount Hood is regarded as a relatively easy climb. Little more than a hike, according to many climbers. Indeed, after Mount Fuji in Japan, it is the most frequently climbed mountain in the world. However, there was still not a trace of the lost children the next day, and with the rest of the community, I grew concerned about their safety and attentively monitored the newscasts on the radio for the word of their discovery.
Mount Hood, which had seemed so serene in my imagination, suddenly seemed menacing and dangerous. Even so, I stubbornly refused to believe anything pernicious had happened to the children, no doubt because I was scheduled to climb the mountain in another two weeks and did not want to believe that something could seriously go wrong up there. Repeatedly, I assured myself they would return as secure as they had been when they set out on their expedition.
Then the terrible discoveries were made on the mountain. The bodies of three children were found frozen in the snow on Wednesday morning. And late in the afternoon, on the following day, the remaining eight climbers were found tangled together inside a cave, buried under some four feet of snow, which they had dug with their own hands for protection against the mile-a-minute winds. Only two children survived the worst climbing accident in Mount Hood’s history.
Along with everyone who had followed the ordeal of the climbers, I shared in the shock and anguish of their families and friends. Yet, at the same time, I tried to repress this tragedy from my thoughts, since I was afraid to consider the possibility that this could happen to me when I attempted to climb Mount Hood. Diligently I kept my plans to myself, suspecting that others if they discovered what I was going to do, would regard me as foolish. At times I considered postponing this nagging ambition of my youth, as I had done so many times before, but in the end, I resolved to go ahead with the climb as if the terrible tragedy had never occurred.
Southside of Mount Hood
The climb began early in the morning, shortly after two o’clock, so that we could take advantage of the firm terrain before the sun softened the snow. Slowly we moved up the south side of Mount Hood, following the same route the children had taken in their ascent. It was so dark, I was scarcely able to make out the identities of the other climbers in our party. We had become little more than shadows in the moonlight. At once, I remembered one of the parents of the lost children referring to their climb as “a death march,” but just as quickly I pushed the thought from my mind. Instead, I recalled some of the pleasant memories I associated with Mount Hood, especially the stories of the long weekends my parents used to spend at my grandmother’s cabin which was situated at the base of the mountain. I had heard the stories so often I almost felt I had been there with them, sipping mugs of hot buttered rum and dancing to the music of Glenn Miller on the radio. Then, I believed, Mount Hood surely must have been the most wonderful place to visit in the entire world.
Moreover, to avoid thinking about what happened to the children, I concentrated on practicing the rudimentary climbing skills that our guides had instructed us in toward the outset of the climb. Meticulously I stepped into the footsteps of the climber in front of me, planting my foot squarely and locking my knee to conserve my strength, then stepped again and locked my other knee. I breathed through my mouth, with every step, as our guides suggested, to avoid suffering a painful headache later in the climb. And repeatedly, in my thoughts, I practiced how to self-arrest, picturing myself falling face down in the snow and planting my ice ax in one motion.
An hour into the climb, one of the guides told us to look back down the mountain if we wished to see our destination. Puzzled, I turned around as he then pointed out the shadow of the summit that now eerily stretched behind us like an immense cape.
“We are surrounded by the mountain,” he cracked.
Earlier, the other guide cautioned us that we must discover the rhythm of the mountain, whether it was tolerant or obstinate or hostile or insouciant, for each time up its mood was different he declared. Three weeks ago, when the children were on its slopes, the mountain had been vicious, but today, apparently, it was going to be tolerant of our novice group of climbers.
I climbed with the sun, slowly becoming more assured in my movements. The mountain felt smooth, familiar, forgiving of my awkwardness. It had accepted me, I thought, as if I belonged here after all. Still, I found it hard to believe that I was really here, moving up the sparkling white slopes that, ever since I could remember, I had stared at with such curiosity and dread. At times, I had to pause and glance back down the mountain to make sure I really was up this high moving toward the clouds.
At the Hogsback, a steep snow ridge some 1,000 feet from the summit, we stopped and strapped crampons to the soles of our boots. Briefly, I practiced walking on them, trying not to snag myself with their sharp points. Then our guides roped up together, five climbers to a coil of rope, which was as blue as the sky. The air smelled of sulfur from the Devil’s Kitchen, an area of rock kept bare by the thermal activity of the mountain. The smell made me ill, and once again I tried to breathe only through my mouth.
The final 1,000 feet promised to be the most challenging part of the climb because it was so steep. For a moment, as I stared up at the stretch of sheer ice that seemed to disappear into the sky, I wondered if I would be able to make it all the way to the summit. Then I felt the rope tug at my waist, and instinctively I moved ahead, dismissing any doubts I might have had as I made my way toward the top in a trance of concentration. I felt more tired than I had at any time during the long climb, the backs of my legs burned, my breathing became labored. I thought of Sisyphus rolling a rock to the top of a mountain, and not for the first time that morning, I imagined my own body as a rock that I had to struggle with and push if I wished to make it all the way to the top.
Gradually the mountain grew smaller, barely seeming to have room to hold everyone in our party, then almost before I realized it I was standing on top of the world, tiredly receiving the congratulations of the guides and the other climbers. I walked along the surprisingly narrow summit for a moment, feeling a little triumphant as I peered down at the world below me, at the streams and trees and the other shimmering white mountains in the distance. Then, suddenly too tired to take another step, I sat down and thirstily sipped some water. I was exhausted. My head felt numb, my eyes ached.
One of the guides mentioned, as we sat there on the summit, that the previous week it had been covered with wreaths brought up by other climbers in remembrance of the lost children. “It looked like a garden up here,” he said solemnly.
Suddenly my grief returned as I recalled the terrible fate of the children. They were within a hundred feet of the summit, apparently, before they had to turn back because of the worsening storm, which caused them to lose their way and eventually their lives. I swelled with anger and remorse, and briefly, bitterly reprimanded myself for coming up here this morning, as if to do so was somehow to forgive the mountain for what it had done to those children. The mountain should not be climbed but condemned for the death of the children, I told myself silently, angrily. My head hammered, and I pressed a wedge of ice against my temples, trying to soothe the ache there.
Moments later, as I prepared to make the descent, I stood at the edge of the summit and looked down at all the climbers who were still making their way up the mountain. I realized, as I watched them, I was wrong for reprimanding myself for climbing Mount Hood after what happened to the children. Indeed, thinking again of the futile struggle of Sisyphus, I recognized that what is noble about him is that he refused to let the rock lie at the bottom of the mountain but continued to shoulder it and struggle back toward the summit. This is enough to fill his heart; perhaps it is enough to fill the heart of all who attempt such struggles, including young children who also will never reach the summit.