Tri-Cities mountaineers tackle Mount Hood’s treacherous north side

Local mountaineers conquer Mount Hood

Local climbers Dustin Wintczak and Jason Fidorra recently climbed to the top of Mount Hood in Oregon.
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Local climbers Dustin Wintczak and Jason Fidorra recently climbed to the top of Mount Hood in Oregon.

This may be the middle of winter, but last weekend two veteran mountain Tri-City climbers conquered the highest point in Oregon.

Dustin Wintczak and Jason Fidorra successfully summited Mount Hood via the challenging north side Cooper Spur route.

First summited in 1857, Mount Hood is one of the most highly coveted peaks for climbers in the Pacific Northwest and over 20,000 people attempt to reach the top each year.

Most go up the less difficult south side — the north route to the 11,245-foot peak is less frequently attempted.

“A couple of us have been discussing climbing this particular route for about a year now. This had been a goal for the past two years,” said Fidorra, a wildlife biologist with the Washington State Fish and Wildlife.

“And then a week ago,” said Wintczak, a financial rep for Gesa in Richland, “we saw the weather forecast and snow conditions looked like they were going to be ideal, so we started planning out the trip in hopes that the forecast would hold out.”

And it did. They left the Tri-Cities at 8 p.m. on Jan. 12, drove to the Cloud Cap Snow Park and started hiking just after midnight.

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Close-up of Dustin Wintczak climbing on the ridge below the Mount Hood summit. Courtesy Jason Fidorra

There is a small snowy trail out and up to a large ridge above the Elliot Glacier before hiking the ridge and starting the real climbing up the northeast side.

“The night was calm and fairly warm, around 34 degrees. We hiked up above tree line into a moonless starry sky with Orion practically sitting on top of the silhouetted Mount Hood,” Fidorra said. “Above the tree line, the trails and footprints of past hikers were gone, and we continued uphill towards an obvious point on the left shoulder of the mountain which is Cooper Spur.”

“From here we got blasted with 30-mph winds that stayed with us the remainder of the day, and walked a 3-foot wide ridge towards the mountain, avoiding falls in either direction that would send you down cliffs onto glaciers in the darkness below.”

“As we approached the base of the steeper climb, we witnessed unobstructed views of the sunrise over a surreal fiery horizon, and the morning alpenglow casting pink light onto the snow and rock that was our destination. (Mount) Rainier, Adams, and St. Helens were on the right and Jefferson and the Sisters could be seen on the left.”

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Three volcanoes are visible to the north from the top of Mount Hood – Mount Adams, Mount Rainier and Mount St. Helens. Courtesy Dustin Wintczak

At that point, three others who also went along on the expedition — Dave Freepons, James Durrett, and Pauline Leonard — decided to head back. Wintczak and Fidorra continued on.

They had started at 3,800 feet and gained about 7,400 feet in the seven miles from the parking lot. To get to the summit, the top 2,500 feet of that is in the last mile of climbing steep snow slopes over 50 degrees.

“I felt the altitude in my heart rate,” Wintczak said. “I noticed it was taking longer to come down during breaks.”

“Once the snow slope rises above 45 degrees, you get to use both of your ice climbing tools and transfer some of the effort from your legs to arms, which was welcome at that point,” said Fidorra.

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Looking north from Mount Hood with Mount Adams and Mount Rainier in the distance. Courtesy Dustin Wintczak

“The route is completely exposed. ... It can be a bit dizzying and distracting, so once we really got into the steep stuff, I just tried to focus on what each hand and foot was doing, and stopped looking around, especially down,” he said.

Wrong turn

The most challenging point of the climb was when they found themselves off-route on the wrong side of a rock buttress near a 1,000-foot cliff. They had to traverse across and over an icy gap back to the correct route. Since they were in the 10th hour of climbing, this was a real mental test. They summited just before noon.

“Coming up over the summit felt terrific,” Wintczak said. “I felt great and immediately forgot about the previous 10 hours of suffering. I didn’t even notice the winds once on top. I was just thankful for perfect weather and snow conditions.”

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Dustin Wintczak turns his head to snap a GoPro photo of Jason Fidorra climbing up the ridge behind him. Courtesy Dustin Wintczak

Fidorra said he didn’t think he’d ever been more mentally and physically exhausted.

“It’s a feeling of elation and accomplishment and mental release, spoiled too soon by a dash of reality and dread ... you are only half way done,” he said.

The Southside descent goes through a feature known as the Old Chute and drops 5,300 feet in just over four miles to the Timberline Lodge.

“By that point in the day the snow was starting to soften up and the ice walls in the crater were beginning to shed,” Wintczak said. “The biggest danger was the constant stream of falling ice ranging from pebble to softball size chunks randomly whizzing by.”

In all, they gained and lost 12,700 feet in over 11 miles. It took 11 hours to reach the summit and two hours to get to Timberline Lodge, where they had a car waiting. They were back in the Tri-Cities by Sunday night and at work the next day.

Carrying the essentials

Each carried essential equipment and 12-15-pound packs, including crampons, helmets, ice axes, harnesses, ropes, an emergency shelter or bivy, avalanche beacon, probes, shovel, climbing pickets and ice screws, warm weather gear, eye protection and mountaineering boots.

Not a single inch of their bodies was unprotected and exposed to the unforgiving elements. Both packed about 2,000 calories worth of energy gels, stroopwafels, Oreos and energy bars, which they consumed at a rate of about 100 calories an hour.

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Tri-Citians Jason Fidorra and Dustin Wintczak at the summit of Mount Hood. Courtesy Dustin Wintczak

Each also packed about a gallon of water and consumed nearly all of it during the climb.

Both climbers had enrolled and completed the backpacking and mountaineering schools offered by the Intermountain Alpine Club (IMAC) in the Tri-Cities, which teach skills, such as snow travel, rock climbing, crevasse rescue and more, required to take on larger complex climbs.

They’ve previously climbed Mount Hood three times up the south side and also Mount Rainier. Fidorra has also climbed the other 4 four Washington volcanoes, Mount Stuart and Mount Olympus.

What’s next?

Wintczak and Fidorra are talking about climbing Mount Jefferson and Mount Shuksan this year.

Both also will be helping teach in the IMAC mountaineering school and sharing their love of climbing in the Pacific Northwest. For more information about the IMAC backpacking and mountaineering courses visit www.imacnw.org or IMAC on Facebook.

Upcoming: The latest Reel Rock movie with amazing footage of some of the best rock climbers and mountaineers will be shown at 7 p.m. Jan. 25 at Southridge High School, at 3520 Southridge Blvd, with doors opening at 6 p.m.

The special one-time screening event is sponsored by REI, rock climbing guide Dean Olin and IMAC. Tickets are $10 in advance at REI in Kennewick or $12 at the door.

Paul Krupin is an avid local outdoor enthusiast and a member of the Intermountain Alpine Club. He can be reached at pjkrupin@gmail.com.