Sunrise on the sentinel: Splitboarding Mt. Hood

Comments by Mike Lewis/

The journey began as all do – with an idea. An inconsequential, ethereal thought, a suggestion that gradually built momentum into a tangible entity with force of its own to sweep one along until it becomes reality.

But perhaps we get ahead of ourselves. The idea was spawned several years ago, concocted in the mind of a son of Vail, who outgrew the big, 14,000-foot plus mountains of his native state after climbing them all in high school, then again in a span of forty days despite a two-week interlude in Russia, and yet again with an overnight bag strapped to his back, sleeping at their apexes and telling the story in 2012’s “Sleeping On The Summits.”

Climbing on Mt. Hood is not for the faint of heart.

Climbing on Mt. Hood is not for the faint of heart.

Dr. Jon Kedrowski is a man with ideas as grandiose as the peaks he parlays into unique experiences through lenses all his own, lenses that have shifted their gaze to the wilds of the California 14ers and the volcanoes of the Cascades that form the northeast rim of the Ring of Fire in a legendary land of Pacific Northwest lore.

Perhaps nowhere is this lore more ensconced than on the shoulders of northern Oregon’s Mt. Hood, the sentinel standing guard over Portland, a mountain that helped forge America’s love affair with skiing and eventually snowboarding and served as a springboard and cause de célèbre for pushing the country past the depression with the construction of the WPA and CCC’s Timberline Lodge.

But yet again we get ahead of ourselves.

Over lunch in early spring as Kedrowski outlined his plans for his #SleepingOnTheSummits2 Tour, hastily made plans for us to unite in mid-May were laid to splitboard to the summit. The sort of commitment you craft out of civility, but then gained possibility and weight as Kedrowski’s tour unfolded, with one peak after another on his northerly journey playing host to his high-country bivvy and the images and tales rolled in, forcing an inevitability to our joining him—to see for ourselves what so inspired him about experiencing these mountains differently.

And so for several days leading up to our departure we hastily gathered the necessities of camping in a place where no person is meant to live. A place that claimed the life of Father Robert J. Cormier on May 13, who tumbled 1,000-feet down the north face of the mountain after summiting solo ahead of his group. A fact that gave us pause and focus as we gathered crampons, ice axes, and dehydrated meals.

Gearing up for what's about to go down at Mt. Hood.

Gearing up for what’s about to go down at Mt. Hood.

The mission began to truly take focus through blurry, lidded eyes as the alarm broke the fog of sleep at 3 am on May 16. Feet trudged methodically through motions to a packed car, to DIA with eyes re-opening at PDX. Swooped up by the rolling lodge of a Chevy Tahoe that has become Kedrowski’s intermittent home between summit pushes and onwards to the parking lot of the Timberline Lodge.

Reflecting on how ideas of fun and human progression evolve over a lifetime, we trudged ever upwards on the low angle terrain, fodder for younger versions of ourselves to spray with snow and wonder what in the hell would compel a person to forsake a perfectly good chairlift to slog upwards when perfect jumps await mere yards away.

But onwards we trekked and gradually the angle began to lift under our feet, and as we peeled our eyes from the drudgery directly beneath us, the landscape unfolded into a detail that from even the top of the Palmer lift seems impossible.

Splitboarding can cut your ascent time in half if you're up to it.

Splitboarding can cut your ascent time in half if you’re up to it.

The crater greeted us with its sulphurous stench, the smell of impending victory and wariness as bergschrunds yawned above, fumaroles and crevasses gaped below and the pitch began in earnest up the side of the crater that began more than half-a-million years ago as the Juan de Fuca plate slid slowly under the Northwest extreme of the USA, blasting its top at interludes, shaping the countryside around it, with its last major top-popping morphology shaking the land in the 1790s, shortly before the arrival of Lewis and Clark.

With the classic route of the Pearly Gates blocked by a gaping bergschund more than a 100-feet wide, as the uppermost section of the White River Glacier peeled itself off at the top of the Hogsback in just the last week, we skirted around the West Crater Rim, reaching the wind-tattered summit at 11,239 feet as 7:30 pm as the magic hour started to descend along with the thermometer.

This is what you should avoid when climbing a glacier.

This is what you should avoid when climbing a glacier.

An old hand at assessing safe purchase, Kedrowski immediately began to dig in, carving a platform out of a leeward slope just yards from the perilous north face that had claimed the life of the 57-year-old Cormier just three days prior. With furious ice axe and Snow Claw slashes, a landing pad for two tents emerged, dry clothes were greeted and camera equipment emerged. A cloud bank rolled in seemingly on cue, bringing fire to a sunset that seemed to erupt below the sputtering volcano as far as the eye could see, bringing to life and light one of the most truly magical sunsets eyes ever beheld.

One of the few acceptable applications of the selfie technique. Dr. Jon Kedrowski and Mike Lewis

One of the few acceptable applications of the selfie technique. Dr. Jon Kedrowski and Mike Lewis

With light hearts, and heavy muscles we retreated to our tents and the embrace of down bags packed full of gloves, water, boot liners and everything we needed to protect from the freezing winds of our sub-standard two-season tent, whose rain fly welcomed the elements leaving but a screen between us and the stars through the night.

With earplugs and a zero-degree bag slowly bringing the embrace of sleep, dawn broke with equally energetic fire a few short hours later and the Saturday morning train of climbers began to crest the crater rim as eager expectations of being the day’s first to summit were shattered by the sight of our tents and a fast-moving cloud break made for a short-lived time on the peak and near zero visibility.

A fiery sunrise has new meaning on top of volcanic Mt. Hood.

A fiery sunrise has new meaning on top of volcanic Mt. Hood.

And so our time atop this sentinel came to a close as well, with hurried, measured crampons clomping down the upper regions, before smoother snows greeted the hungry edges of my snowboard on the lower reaches of the Hogsback, ushering us down by the grace of gravity to the smoother slopes of the gloriously groomed Palmer Snowfield at 8,540’ and the beckoning embrace of the Timberline Lodge’s magical buffet, hot tub, history and creature comforts—just over an hour below, yet an impossible distance away from the summit of Mt. Hood.

Be sure to catch the full splitboarding Mt. Hood story on Zeal’s blog.