by Susan Hess
I first saw Horsethief Butte on a day just like this one. From November to March, the Pacific pulls wind from frigid plains of eastern Oregon and Washington down the Columbia River Gorge, and winter’s first cold days bring back that day we spent trying to hide from the bitter wind among the Butte’s basalt canyons.
My husband, Jurgen, and I spent our courtship hiking Colorado’s Gore Wilderness, Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness, and Loveland Pass. After we married and moved to Portland, Oregon, we found out about the Mazamas, a non-profit mountaineering organization. Because hikers sometimes get lost (like ourselves one time, looking for the appropriately named Lost Lake) and find themselves in hazardous spots, we thought knowing some climbing techniques would be a helpful.
It shocked me to see 200 people in the auditorium where they held the first night’s class. I thought 20 or 30 of us would cozy up to the instructor absorbing knowledge for the wilds. Shock 2: the instructors told us class from then on would be in the field. I can, and will, hike all day, but my climbing bravery extends as far sitting in a classroom and reading the Freedom of the Hills.
Still the first assignment to go to outdoor stores and rent climbing boots, buy pitons, ropes, carabineers, etc. I liked. Fun actually. All those outdoor colors and new leather smells.
But then, if you sign up for a climbing class, it makes sense to start the students right off climbing. I think I would if I were teaching it. But I was not teaching.
Horsethief Butte lies about 70 miles east of Portland. Its basalt cliffs hem the north shore of the mile-wide Columbia River. In late February, an east wind shoots down the Columbia Gorge, cold enough, thankfully, to keep the resident rattlers dormant. This is a historic place, spiritual to Native Americans; Lewis and Clark’s expedition slept here, too.
Instructors broke us into groups of 15. We learned to belay and to walk a slope without leaning into it. Our first climb was up a 30-foot vertical basalt cliff. Half way up, I froze, unable to move up, down or sideways fearing the wind would smash me into the cliff if I slipped. While I clung to the cliff, our 250-pound, 6’3”? instructor strolled (no belay for him), false teeth clacking up to me. “Okay, there’s a hand hold. Try your foot there.”? And in a minute I reached the cliff top.
Two teenage boys in our group, bored by our learners’ pace, raced up our next practice: the crack climb, where you wedge your hands and feet into a crack in a rock and pull upward. Our instructor made the two repeat it – using technique. A mother taunted her terrified teenage daughter, calling her sissy when fear brought the girl to tears. Rappelling came next, an activity more fun than any carnival ride.
The following week’s class, compass practice, seemed tame after the thrill of Horsethief Butte. Then came snow practice on Mount Hood. We started the session under sunny blue skies, and as if on cue the mountain produced an instant white-out. “See how handy that compass practice is. Don’t wear cotton; cotton kills. Be prepared for white-outs.”?
We practiced self-arrest. Time after time we ‘accidentally’ slipped on the steep snow and threw ourselves onto our ice axes. I still don’t understand the physics, but none of us impaled ourselves we skittered down the slope or ripped a leg with our crampons. Glissading, where you slide on your rear or feet, was almost as much fun as rappelling. Unknown to us, while we practiced near Timberline Lodge, a mountain climbing party high above us got caught in the same white-out. By the time rescuers found them days later, two men had died.
With that news, we faced the final exam. To pass the class we had to climb a mountain with a living glacier within the next few months. We picked a mid-June Mazamas climb on Mount Hood, figuring the danger of a sudden white-out unlikely.
Jurgen and I jogged daily, building endurance, yet as the days ticked by my fears multiplied. A week before the event, I was waking up worrying, pausing from my job to gaze at Mt. Hood on the skyline and worry, and going to bed worrying. I came back to work from lunch three days before C-Day and found a dozen red roses on my desk with a note saying, “It’s okay if you don’t want to go. I love you whatever you decide.”?
And I decided to go. The 20 or so of us making this climb slept in the Mazamas’ lodge near Timberline (if you can call going to bed at 10:30 p.m. and getting up an hour later, sleeping). We started up Mt. Hood at midnight under a full moon, and hiked the first mile on the snowfield fast. Our leader whispered, “We have to weed out people who don’t have the stamina.”? Several people turned back at the mile mark.
All that jogging? Not enough. Every step on the stretch before the Hogsback required will. I remember every step. Breathe. Step. Breathe. Step. The team leader fell in beside me, chatting as if walking down a city sidewalk, about Iowa and football, transparent in his kindness. We spread out for lunch across the Hogsback, a knife-sharp snow ridge at 10,600 feet, sun shining on the snow slope spread below us, blue sky above. From a patch of yellow-green snow nearby, sulfurous fumaroles (the mountain’s gas vents) steam was melting deep pits in the glacier.
Two people decided to climb no higher. The rest of us started through the rock towers, the Pearly Gates, up the steep icy snow chutes leading to the top. I carved more ice steps (with ice axe) than standard mountain climbing calls for. Jurgen waited patiently, but our assistant leader, one of those 16-year-olds, rolled his eyes.
the summit , about the size of a small room, seemed so small for a 11,240-foot mountain. I don’t remember much about being on top. I felt the thrill of the climb in the slope before the Hogsback, when gravity pulled me back and the mountain pulled me up and on that icy notch right before the top. And I felt it going down, glissading hundreds of feet down the snowfields. I don’t remember my rear getting wet or cold; I just remember how much fun it was.
The leader handed us our certificate and pin in Timberline’s parking lot. It was still afternoon when we arrived back at our Lake Oswego apartment. We fell on the bed still in climbing clothes, not sleepy but spent. On the mountain, we forgot about sun reflection on snow. The sunburned underside of our chins, ears, and noses throbbed. Our lips swelled.
The instructor, who built our confidence that cold windy day in Horsethief Buttes, was killed several years later — not in climbing the rugged Cascade Mountains, but in a logging accident. We keep our certificates in a safe deposit box with other mementos we’ve earned with sweat and perseverance.
Horsethief Butte watches over the Columbia River. Today the frosty wind surges through its black crags, and it waits.
Susan Hess is an award-winner columnist and freelance writer. She lives in Hood River, and can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.