Famous U.S. Summits: Mount Hood, Oregon

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Visible from the city on a clear day, Mount Hood is to Portland, Oregon, what Mount Rainier is to Seattle, three-hours’ drive north. At 11,239 feet in elevation, Hood is not quite as monumental as 14,411-foot Rainier, but this iconic peak has long challenged climbers. Hood has proven itself to be a serious mountaineering undertaking, even though it’s almost always climbed in a single day.

Mount Hood is an active volcano (currently dormant), featuring a dozen glaciers, a half-dozen ski areas, and miles of trails traversing its flanks below the snow line. More than 10,000 climbers tackle a summit bid every year. The peak is often cited as the second-most-climbed glaciated peak in the world behind Mount Fuji, a claim that’s hard to prove since climbing registration is voluntary. But show up on a Saturday in May or June at 5 am, and you’ll no doubt see a line of headlamps stretching up Hood’s south side attesting to its popularity.

Timberline Lodge

Nearly two million people visit Timberline Lodge at 5,960 feet on Mount Hood’s south flank every year to ski, climb or just to sightsee. Constructed as a Works Progress Administration project during the Great Depression, the hotel was named a National Historic Landmark in 1977. The Timberline Lodge Ski Area is open year-round, and has the longest ski season of any resort in the United States—a fact that’s convenient for mountaineers.

The majority of summit attempts on Mount Hood begin at the Timberline Lodge, which is the start of the most popular climbing route on the mountain, the South Side/Hogsback route. From the lodge, it’s almost exactly a vertical mile to the summit—or only about 2,700 feet if you climb with a guide service that utilizes the snowcat ride from the lodge to the top of the Palmer Chairlift at 8,500 feet.

The Timberline Lodge is also famous for being one of the shooting locations for the 1980 Stanley Kubrick horror movie classic, The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson. The story takes place in a hotel—not the Timberline Lodge, but a composite of hotels. Exterior shots were filmed at the Timberline Lodge and the Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado. All interior footage was shot at a studio in England, so don’t expect to get creeped out by any of the hallways at the Timberline.

The First Ascent

Mount Hood’s climbing history, like that of other famous North American mountains, is rather muddy when it comes to establishing whose name should appear next to the words “first ascent.” Three different parties have claims on the first ascent of Hood, dating back to 1845 when Joel Palmer allegedly made it to the top—although according to Palmer’s own published writing in 1847, he didn’t make it to the summit. Another story has Thomas Dryer, who notched what was likely the first ascent of Mount St. Helens in 1853, climbing to the summit of Hood the next year, and recording a description of the summit that sounded an awful lot like an area far lower on Mount Hood. The summit elevation, at the time of Dryer’s attempt, was believed to be 18,361 feet. Three years later, Henry Pittock, L.J. Powell, William S. Buckley, W. Lyman Chittenden, and James Deardorff made what’s widely considered to be the true first ascent of Mount Hood on August 6, 1857.

The Climbs

Hosting a number of classic mountaineering routes, and “only” a bit higher than 11,000 feet, Hood nevertheless offers no walk-up route to the summit. The permanent snow on top means every climb requires crampons and an ice axe, and knowledge of how to stop a fall. Out of the 15 routes to the summit, the easiest is the South Side/Hogsback, which averages about 35 degrees of steepness.

The South Side/Hogsback climbs just under 5,300 vertical feet in three miles of travel, and takes most parties four to seven hours to ascend and three hours to descend. The route begins at 5,960 feet and follows a snowcat track to 8,500 feet, then climbs snowfields and chutes to the summit, crossing one bergschrund on the way. Although the route is popular and has been many mountaineers’ first snow climb, it’s no hike—rockfall, falls in the bergschrund and into crevasses, and navigating the descent route in a whiteout have caused many accidents and epics on the mountain. Climbing accidents on Hood have killed 73 people since 1883.

The Skiing

Mount Hood has six ski areas: Cooper Spur, Mount Hood Meadows, Ski Bowl, Snow Bunny, Summit, and Timberline Ski Area. The latter boasts the only year-round ski resort operation in America, as well as the most vertical feet of skiing in the Pacific Northwest—3,590 feet. Timberline’s Magic Mile lift was the first chairlift built in the state of Oregon, in 1939, a year after the Timberline lodge was finished. Together, all six ski areas total more than 7.2 square miles of ski terrain—it might not be known for champagne powder, but Hood has tons of acreage—and that never ending ski season.

Hiking

Not all of Hood is covered in snow—there’s plenty of terrain that doesn’t require crampons or skis. Hood’s most famous hiking trail is the Timberline Trail, the 41-mile path that winds above and below treeline and across streams in its circumnavigation of the peak. Most hikers take four days to do the entire trail, but plenty of people have done it in two days. In 1938, a few years after the Civilian Conservation Corps finished building the trail, a group of high school boys hiked the entire length (at that time only 36 miles) in 47 hours. Most hikers park at Timberline Lodge and hike the trail clockwise, starting with the portion shared by the Pacific Crest Trail, hitting the trail’s lowest elevation, Ramona Falls, on Day 1, and the trail’s highest point, Timberline High Point, on Day 3.

Hood’s most popular day hike is the trail to Mirror Lake, a 2.9-mile round-trip walk to the aptly-named lake, which on still days reflects an image of snowcapped Hood in its waters.

Resources

U.S. Forest Service Mt. Hood Climbing Information
OregonHikers.org

Photography by ©Scott Kranz