6/1 – 6/4/02
By Scott Schechtel
West Face of Mt. Jefferson from near camp
Every mountain with at least one climbable route is not necessarily going to be a guaranteed “bag”. My first attempt of Mt. Hood in the spring of 1992 was a very easy success even though my roommate and I set out three hours late. The conventional route above Timberline Lodge, past Palmer, Illumination Rock, the ever-gaping Bergschrund and finally through the Pearly Gates to the summit was actually a lot easier than it looks from the lodge. I guess “easy” is a relative term when discussing mountain climbing.
When Jill and Rick invited me to climb Mt. Jefferson this June along with Roger, I was obviously ecstatic and simply couldn’t wait to gear up for the ascent. We set out around noon Sunday morning and had heard of deep snow still blocking the Woodpecker Ridge and Pamelia roads from a week or two earlier. We simply decided to go for it and hope we could get close enough to the actual Woodpecker Ridge trailhead. This is the closest access trailhead to our route directly up the mountain’s west face via the Milk Creek Glaciers. After a brief delay of plowing through a 100-foot stretch of mashed potato snow, we thought we were home free only to find around the next bend the rest of the way in was under about two feet of snow! It was time to park and hike. My Jefferson Wilderness map indicated we were about a half a mile from the trailhead. As we started slogging up the road, I began to worry about snow conditions further up the mountain. The trailhead was at the edge of a clear-cut and the snow was still deep enough to support 8-foot tree wells in places. The trail itself was buried and we had no choice other than to go up!
After a steady hike through fir and hemlock forest we occasionally would catch a peek-a-boo view of the mountain until about a mile in.
With the mountain in full view we were able to break and study the tentative route. The west ridge or rib looked like the most obvious way up. It actually splits the Milk Creek Glaciers into three smaller snowfields and since it lacks crevasses and a well-defined terminal moraine, it is not a true glacier. We were soon in a deep forest and with every aspect change from north to south, we experienced deep snow on north slopes to no snow on south slopes and the actual trail. It weaved through classic western Oregon forest complete with the famous green understory, within a few feet of every turn. At about three miles in, we came to the sweeping alluvial valley of Milk Creek, an avalanche-scarred swath of ground leading right up to the West Rib. It was the final leg to our base camp, somewhere up in the snow.
The relatively flat trail through the timber was enough to warm the legs up for the mile and a half ascent to camp. The climb was characterized by a long tongue of snow under which was Milk Creek. Groves of annihilated trees marched down the canyon walls, centuries’ evidence of fire, wind and avalanches. The typical freezing and thawing events of spring in the mountains made the rocks very unstable, but nevertheless added to the experience. As we trudged further up, we could finally notice the vegetation was thinning to alpine krummholtz. The profile of Jeff was also changing. The broken cone shape we observed when we started was now a broad jagged ridge with several pinnacles, as if it was another mountain. Jill, Rick and Roger must have had a turbo boost as they all started gaining speed on my pace. At one point they were so far ahead of me, they were out of site. It gave me a chance to take my time and reflect on other climbs that I’ve done and recall stories of early climbers of Mt. Jefferson in a book entitled On Top of Oregon, by Don Alan Hall. I was also getting cramps in my quads, which slowed me down even more.
Jill, Rick and Roger were scrambling up a small rocky ridge and met up with another party of climbers coming down the mountain. The elevation was a mere 6,400 feet but it happened to be a decent spot for base camp. I had finally made it and was soon helping leveling a spot for the tent in the sloping snow. There was a shortage of flat ground but after getting the tent up and changing into dry clothes, the evening sun was illuminating the massive west face of ole’ Jeff. We were now able to relax and get a better look at the mountains features including the “rib”. It looked somewhat easy until the summit block, a 400-foot near vertical wall of rime ice. I quickly reflected back to my Mt. Hood climb and remembered looking up to the Pearly Gates. The upper reaches of Jefferson looked similar to Mt. Hood. I would soon find out what the summit of Jefferson would possess and tried to ignore the climbing tragedy on Mt. Hood just a week earlier.
After a quick dinner, we discussed a wake up time and agreed on 4 AM.
SUMMIT DAY: MONDAY JUNE 3, 2002
Even though we all agreed on a 4:00 wake up call the night before, amazingly no one heard an alarm at 4:00 and we simply over-slept. We had plenty of light and soon after a quick breakfast we were roping up for my first technical mountain climb. Jill and Rick and I had practiced self-arrest and ice axe techniques the day before trailhead day at Bachelor. Though it is nothing like the frozen face of Jefferson, I had an idea of what I was in for. We set out at a pretty brisk pace gaining a hundred feet every few minutes. I wasn’t really keeping track although I enjoyed looking back every once in a while at our ever-shrinking tent. The snow conditions were text-book perfect, with pretty good steps kicked into the steep slopes. It took me a while to get the hang of the rope in relation to the down slope. I was second behind Jill the entire way up. Milk Creek Glacier was completely visible on the left and the series of ice-coated spires loomed closer. At one point around the 8,500-foot level, it was hard to pick out the actual summit block from the other icy crags. One of which was the Prehistoric Monster to the left. It is described well in the On Top of Oregon book and is more prominent from the north side of the mountain, especially from Jefferson Park.
10:00 AM, 9,000 feet
Fatigue was starting to set in for all four of us and the sun halo that we enjoyed further down began to show its indication of poor weather approaching. By this time we were looking at the massive bulk of the summit block. Unfortunately, the sun started to warm the snow more than we would have liked and eventually chunks of rime began crumbling off the pinnacle like icicles off of a gutter. We all had hard hats but the chunks ranged from marble sized to softball sized and would tend to bounce. One small piece hit Jill in the hand. The slope was approaching 90% and the weather was anything but improving. After a break and consensus to bag the bag, we decided to do an about face and make the decent. Now for the hard part. My desire to reach to top was only briefly saddened since I knew I needed to test my patience and endurance for the Terrible Traverse. A near vertical wall of ice with at least 1,500 feet of exposure lay between us and the next “flat” ground at Kerby’s Landing. Rick and Jill called it Red Saddle, though the Top of Oregon book referred to it as Kerby’s Landing. This took every bit of patience I had as I literally clung to the wall making my ice axe my new best friend. Luckily I was not afraid of heights. If so, this would have been the ice breaker, no pun intended!
We finally reached the Landing/Saddle and the start of the descent, but the weather became cold and windy and we started to post-hole in the softening snow. Frustrating it was, but we knew the hard part was over. The slope was easier going down as we got closer to the camp. We could see the entire Cascade chain to the south as far as Diamond Peak while the snowy ridges of Jeff choked the view to the north and west. When we could finally see the tent is when the weather calmed down. The final 1,000 feet to the camp consisted of a fairly steep traverse, a run-for-your-life sprint across an avalanche chute and back up a hundred-foot ridge to camp.
The only thing on my mind at least was a quick dinner and change of socks. I looked at the mountain for a long time and basically cussed at it for defeating me twice. My first attempt was in June of 1988. I had only planned on reaching Kerby’s Landing then but even in 88 I was stifled by the mountain’s overwhelming dominance. The weather the following morning of our climb was perhaps another reminder that this mountain is nothing more than a moody bastard. It rained pretty much the entire hike out and back to the car. I know the summit can be accomplished but I started to let my spiritual feelings haunt me. Does this mountain have my number or is it just an O for 2 thing. There was nothing else for me to do than plan another climb someday. Will the third time be a charm or will it be three strikes and you’re out??