Mt Washington is a striking 7794 foot peak in Central Oregon. Its dagger pinnacle is amazing to look at and appears quite intimidating from afar. The most common route climbed is via the North Ridge, which starts on the Pacific Crest Trail. You follow the PCT for a few miles before turning left at a climber’s trail (usually well-marked with a cairn). This trail steepens and eventually gains the ridge. Continue on the ridge until you encounter a large genderme. The best way around this is to skirt around the right side of it before making your way back to the ridge. Read further down the page for our epic that was started when we passed this gendarme on the left and got into some really ugly rock.
After passing the gendarme and regaining the ridge, most climbers rope up for the final scramble to the summit (2-3 pitches if you climb the whole thing roped). There are several possible routes up the summit block. It is low-5th and 4th class climbing, but the rock is truly awful. I remember at one point discovering I was able to make hand holds in the rock with my finger nails. Not a real confidence booster. There is very little in the way of solid proteciton.
So now on to our little epic on this peak (yikes!):
In July 2005 I got it in my head that this peak would make a spectacular first rock climbing route for Joanne and I to attempt. Before this the only lead climbing of any sort that we had done was some real easy lines out at Horsethief Butte in the Columbia Gorge. But our confidence was high and we were pretty certain we could knock off Mt Washington, Three Fingered Jack, and Middle Sister in a 4-day climbing marathon. Of course, we would soon realize that the mountains are not always the best place to learn basic climbing skills.
Unknown route at Horsethief Butte. Here’s what I’m thinking about now: “Hey – I just lead this wicked dihedral: I’m ready for crumbly, exposed choss!”
Mt Washington’s North Ridge: I’ll give you $10 if you can find a piece of solid rock anywhere here. Just loose rubble as far as the eye can see. Actually, I think the rock on Broken Top was even worse than this.
“F***” was all I could utter as the loose block I had slung pulled loose and careened down the mountainside. The man-sized boulder took a bad bounce and headed straight for Joanne. She only had enough time to turn away from the run-away rock as it struck her in the shoulder and head and threw her off her belay stance. Our flimsy belay anchor probably would have held little more than body weight and failed instantly as she tumbled down. The rope, still running through her belay device pulled me with her.
My fingernails, boots, and knees dug into the steep scree, desperately trying to stop my slide, as I was pulled towards the cliff edge 100′ below us. I remember thinking, quite clearly, “We’re dead…”. And then, just as quickly as the rockfall had begun, I came to a rest, quite alive.
Somehow Joanne had managed to land on a ledge 10 feet below her initial belay position. If she had fallen any further she would have landed on a steep snow slope and would have certainly dragged us both right over the steep East Face of the mountain.
I quickly scrambled down to Joanne and tried to assess her injuries. She had blood coming from her ear, one of her fingertips was clearly shattered and she wasn’t able to move her right leg without great pain. She was also in a state of shock and was unable to understand what was going on. Her level of consciousness did not encourage me as she repeatedly asked me “Where are we?” “Why are we climbing Mt Washington?” “Is this a dream?”
I spent the next half hour constantly talking to her attempting to fully assess her condition. Although we were climbing on a beautiful July day, we were in the shade of the East Face and it was cold. I carefully slipped my backpack and rope underneath her body to insulate her. I took off all my clothes except for my long underwear and bundled them around her. It became very obvious that she was in no condition to walk out (let alone stand or crawl) and there was no possibility of self-rescue in this scenario.
I scrambled down the ridge and was able to get a cell phone signal and dialed 911. My phone got disconnected several times but I was finally able to get my message through to the operator and they told me they had contacted the SAR folks who were already on their way.
The SAR folks were able to reach our position in about 5 hours. Their response time was nothing short of amazing. It took a while to move Joanne from our precarious position on the East Face to the North Ridge where a helicoptor might be able to make a pickup. Unfortunately, a thick cloud cover moved over the mountain just as the helicoptor was approaching and they were unable to get close enough.
The SAR team spent the night lowering Joanne down the scree slopes, the standard descent for the mountain. We finally stopped when we reached the bottom of the slope and had reached a large open area. We spent a cold night, huddled among the rocks, happy to have the company of the rescue team. Finally, around daybreak, the cloud cover began to break up and the helicoptor was able to pick Joanne up. I watched her go up and away.
On the way to the hospital I remember turning on my radio and the first song that came on was Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”. The first lyrics I heard were
Don’t worry about a thing
Cause every little things gonna be alright
Joanne ended up with a bad concussion with some internal bleeding in her brain. Her fingertip was broken and some bad bruising on her right thigh (we initially thought she had a leg fracture — fortunately there was no break!). She was walking slowly a couple of days after the accident. Just 2 and a half months after the accident we hiked the Timberline Trail and within 3 months of the accident she was leading her first sport climbs at Smith Rock!
Joanne well on her path to recovery, hiking the 40 mile Timberline Trail!
We were incredibly lucky to get away from this mis-adventure with our lives. Although it didn’t stop us from getting back into the mountains it certainly changed our perspective and attitude towards climbing. You can read all you want about a route in a guidebook or online but if you lack the ability to judge current route conditions or the judgement to turn around when necassary, then all the beta in the world won’t help you.
The folks in Oregon’s Search and Rescue services: the first-repsonder team from Camp Sherman, the military pilots and medics, Linn County Sherrifs Office, and others (sorry I can’t remember all the other organizations that were involved) were able to save Joanne’s life. I am uncertain if she would have been able to make it through the night without help. Calling in a rescue should only be used in truly life-threatening situations, when self-rescue is not an option.
For many months after the accident, I was unsure if I wanted to go back to the mountain. But Joanne said she wanted to go back and conquer her fears. And so, just a little over a year after the accident, on July 15 2006 we summited Mt Washington with the Mazamas, in a group lead by Josh Lockerby.
Summit of Mt Washington: Note Joanne’s big head blocking the view of South Sister.