Jon's Early Climbs at Mount Hood

Old photo of Mount Hood in Oregon

Jon Letko’s first alpine climb came way back in his college days. Encouraged by a few ambitious members of the University of Oregon outdoors club, Jon agreed to join a group set on summiting Mount Hood. Sitting at 11, 250 feet, it’s the tallest mountain in the state. Although Jon had been on plenty of hiking trips in the Oregon wilderness up until that point, none had taken him anywhere near such an altitude. This lack of experience meant he wasn’t used to climbing on snow and ice. However, Jon trusted his abilities and was eager to put his endurance to the test on a real alpine climb. He knew that with the proper equipment – along with some companions to take pointers from – he’d be just fine.

The group set out one Saturday morning in late spring of 1971. Carrying packs laden with all the essential gear for an alpine expedition, they hiked one by one up the small dirt trail leading away from the parking lot. The weight of the gear added up, especially back in those days. Over the past few decades, modern technologies have revolutionized mountaineering – gear today is streamlined, lightweight, and highly efficient. However, in the 1970s nothing was lightweight. Between tents, sleeping bags, warm clothes, crampons, ice axes, and rope, packs could easily reach 60-70 for a fairly basic climb.

Old Climbing Gear

Burdened by this incredible weight, Jon Letko and his group made slow progress at first. As he recalls it, the beginning section was entirely unspectacular – just a long trudge through the acres of trees which cover Mount Hood’s lower slopes. Eventually, though, the trees began to thin out. After another 20 minutes of climbing they suddenly broke out above the tree line. From that point on, it was only snow. Far above was the summit. Sharp and pointed, Mount Hood is Matterhorn-esque from certain angles.

The first step was getting to base camp, where they would catch a few hours of sleep before making the push to the summit. It was situated several thousand feet above the tree line, at the top of a major snowfield. By then it was midday, and immediately the group realized they should have started sooner. As Jon describes it, trudging up a long snowfield in the sun is a bit like trying to walk up the “down” escalator. Once the snow warms even slightly, each step slides backward upon contact. This phenomenon, coupled with the weight of a heavy backpack, can make snowfields very demoralizing endeavors. When hiking in the trees, one at least can see visual progress. There are clear landmarks. On a long snowfield, no such landmarks exist. It’s just a massive, amorphous blob of white that seems to sprawl out for eternity.

It was not an easy task, but Jon Letko and his crew of college adventurists tackled the challenge with enthusiasm and determination. The sun was getting low in the sky as they finally reached the top of the major snowfield, so the group quickly set up camp. Since there is rarely running water to be found at this altitude, they brought a small stove and a pot to melt snow for drinking water. For food, they relied on a bag of peanut butter sandwiches and a stash of assorted nuts. However, Jon was surprised to find that neither he, nor the other members of his group were particularly hungry. Altitude is a notorious appetite-killer, a strange sensation that Jon discovered for the first time on Mount Hood. Climbing is interesting that way – one expends so much energy ascending thousands of feet into the sky, yet may not feel the slightest trace of hunger upon arriving there.

After forcing down a few bites of food, they all hunkered down in tents and sleeping bags. The final push to the summit would begin around 2 AM, with only moonlight and small flashlights as guides. This early start is essential for good climbing conditions. In the overnight hours the snow stays frozen – allowing a climber’s crampons to dig in and provide firm footing while ascending. Compared to the slushy mess encountered during daylight hours, this hard and compact surface makes for much more efficient climbing.

There is also the issue of climber safety. Mount Hood, like many peaks in the Cascade Range, is infamous for its loose rock. Covered by ice and snow, this rock stays relatively secure in the cold temperatures overnight. However, after the sun comes up and temperatures begin to rise, these rock formations loosen up. The ice and snow act as a brace for the rock, holding any vulnerable sections together. However, as it begins to melt, even the slightest disturbance or vibration can cause the rock to fall – showering deadly projectiles onto climbers below.

In an effort to avoid such hazards, Jon Letko and his companions set out for the summit in the middle of the night. The trip from base camp to the summit is a relative straight-shot, requiring very little navigation until the final section. Here, the pitch becomes quite steep and requires exceptional focus. One misstep can send a climber sliding back down the mountain. Fortunately, Jon and his crew had enough collective experience to be aware of this danger. They took extreme care on the steep section, and reached the summit just as the sun was cresting the horizon. Jon Letko had summited his first Cascade volcano! The group celebrated by passing around a can of Rainier beer that had been stored in the bottom of someone’s pack.

Mount Hood Summit

Triumphant, the climbers snapped several photos before carefully descending back to base camp. After packing up their remaining gear, they group continued down the lower slopes of the mountain just as the heat of the day began. This time, their timing was perfect; the same slushy snow which had been a cruel enemy on the way up was now a welcomed friend. They’d discovered the flip side of the “down” escalator – each step of the descent was soft and cushioned, like walking on a cloud. As they reached the tree line, Jon Letko turned around to admire the peak they had just conquered. Feeling satisfied, he was already looking forward to his next climb.