Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Devil's Kitchen Headwall Solo

Caitlin and I got back to Bend Friday night after visiting family for the holidays. The weather was looking good and I was craving something challenging after mainly sitting around eating food for almost two weeks. So the next day I repacked the car and drove to Mt. Hood. My intention was to solo the Devil's Kitchen Headwall. This is a relatively short and easy route on Hood's south side, very near the standard walk-up gullies used to reach the summit by peak baggers. Its easy access and short, straightforward technical difficulties made it an ideal target. The only question was whether or not there would be enough ice to climb it with the abysmally low snow fall we have had this winter.

I got to Timberline around 5PM (I had yet to replace a burned out headlamp and wanted to drive while it was still light), walked around the lodge, found a quiet dark parking space, ate a dinner of leftover potatoes and chilli, and settled into my sleeping bag in the back of the car. I set my alarm for 3AM but apparently I was a little too comfy and awoke at 5:30! I threw on my clothes, jumped out of the car, laced my boots and grabbed my pack. I was hiking by 5:45, and hiking fast due to my frustration. I even forgot to put on my headlamp and went half a mile in the dark before letting myself stop to get it out.

The wind was blowing fairly hard and carrying bits of ice shrapnel with it, but once I drew level with the Steel Cliffs it cut out. By this time the sun was peeking over the horizon and bathing the east facing slopes in a red glow. I could see the Headwall by now and it looked like ice would be sparse. I berated myself for sleeping in... perhaps with more time I could have dropped down to investigate Reid Glacier Headwall or another line. With limited options I hiked around the Devil's Kitchen, exposed geothermal vents reeking of sulfur, to the base of the Headwall and evaluated the various gullies.

Route overlay of south side routes on Mt. Hood from the Oregon High climbing guide by Jeff Thomas. 1b- Old Chute, unlabeled line- Pearly Gates, 1c- Devil's Kitchen Headwall left variation (my route right of the gendarme in red added by me), 1d- DKH right variation, 1e and 1f- shorter routes to the crater rim and the upper Wy'east route.
My ideal line up these cliffs is called the "left variation" on the Mountain Project page and is marked as route "1c" on the topo in Jeff Thomas' "Oregon High" guide book. This gully is the longest and most direct on the headwall. The lesser "right variation," or route "1d," seemed to have enough snow and ice in it for climbing but wasn't what I wanted. Unfortunately the left variation looked very sparse and at first glance I thought it would be impossible. I climbed to the bottom of the first step to investigate anyway and once I was close I could see some snice chunks on the right side and a thin smear of verglas on the left. I checked the right and found it was poorly bonded and I couldn't get a solid pick. The footing on the left looked easier despite the thin ice so I moved over to check. I climbed and down climbed the first couple moves twice, considered retreating, and then committed to the mandatory mixed moves. Maybe I have been reading too much Colin Haley and Steve House or maybe I was just too amped up to back down, but either way, once up it would have been very difficult to reverse and the ice for a v-thread was non-existent. In short I was now committed to continuing.

Looking up the first step. The left side looks totally bare but actually had enough verglas for a pick. The right side was worthless snice.

Looking back down the first step, now committed. I came up the lookers right. Sorry for the poor quality photos, I was not in a secure enough position to get out the camera while on route so I used the cell phone in my jacket pocket.
As I climbed up the ice stayed very thin with plenty of exposed rock. More than once I swung my pick into black ice, only to have it punch through and release a plume of volcanic dust into my nostrils. Luckily there always seemed to be a fairly solid rock block where I needed it, although not that solid... lets just say that you know it's chossy when you can use a sloper for a foothold in your crampons! Below the second step I glanced down and realized just how bad a fall would be. I watched a couple I had passed earlier, now black specks resting on the Hogsback. I briefly contemplated how quickly they could reach my body if I fell. Would I survive a fall like that? Would my body stop on the snow slopes below or would it tumble into a steaming vent? I quickly forced the thoughts away. Then I thought about Caitlin... she had suggested we go to a movie if I was back early enough. Could I make it in time? Would I make it at all? Those thoughts didn't help either and I forced them away too. I looked at the next section and thought about the moves. There was only one way to reach my future and that was to climb up and out. "Fuck the movie," I muttered. "Who wants to sit on a couch when you could be here?" And by "here" I meant living in the moment, in oneness with this ribbon of rock and ice.

Looking up the second or third step and sheltering beneath the ice blobs from the ice falling down the gully.
Looking back down the gully from beneath the gendarme, finally some good neve. You can see a party of two on the Hogsback snow ridge in the shade.
At some point the neve between steps became thicker and more comfortable, which was good because ice chunks were starting to come down the route in random bursts. I reached the point beneath the gendarme on the ridge where you can go right or left. Left looked easier, right looked more direct with one last step. I climbed up and right and rested beneath the step at good stance in the snow. Then pulled some final mixed moves with one tool dangling from its leash so I could grab exposed rocks. I climbed solid neve above the step to a notch, enjoying the easy movement where every placement felt good. Then I rounded the gendarme onto sunny east facing slopes and realized that it wasn't over. The snow here was sugary powder with breakable crust. I could feel rock underneath and it was steep with a big drop beneath. I contemplated down climbing and trying the left variation but realized it was probably safer to traverse 20 feet on this than spend more time trying to find an alternative. I very carefully moved down and around a rock bulge, my feet supported on snow that I didn't trust, my tools scraping on rock I also didn't trust. I climbed up to the ridge line as quickly as I could and, finally on safe ground, trudged up to the summit.

Looking up the last step.

Finally able to release both tools comfortably at a rest stance beneath the last step. Don't bring your fancy tools if you're going to scrape them up on this choss... oh wait I don't have fancy tools. Any reps out there want to just give me a pair? I'll like them so much after these old things that I'll rave about them to everyone, guaranteed!
There was one other person up there (I forget his name... think he said he was from near Oregon City?). Several parties were visible on their way up or down. I hung out for a while, ate some food and took pictures before down climbing the Pearly Gates chute which had a short little ice step in it, quite solid and easy by comparison (4th class ice?). I hiked down fast and made it back to the car before 11AM (under 5:15 car-to-car). I even made it back to Bend and showered in time for the 2PM movie with Caitlin.

L-R Mt. St. Helens, Rainier, Adams from the summit of Hood... it was a beautiful day to be outside.
Looking west along the summit ridge from the highest point.

In retrospect, I think that the experience may feel bigger in my mind than it was in reality. After all, it's just a dinky little AI3 route. The ice was thin, sure, but it's relatively low angle and was mainly an exercise in having really solid footwork. That said I can see how this would be an easier and more enjoyable route if the ice was in thick enough to take screws, and I don't really intend to get on it again unless that's the case. When the "uninitiated" ask me about soloing, usually with the assumption that it's suicide, I often tell them that I think driving to a climbing area is more dangerous than the soloing I do there. I honestly believe this, but after the drive home under sunny blue skies I feel like this may be the first solo where I could argue that climbing was the more dangerous activity. Regardless, I definitely don't regret it.

Mandatory selfie on the summit. Adams is just right of my head.
Looking down the North Face... maybe a future solo?

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