The First Ascent of The Pencil, Mt. Hood
by Alex Parker
In the winter season that just continued to give to us ice and alpine climbers, we tried to zero in on another objective. We had always heard "The Pencil" come up as the obvious unclimbed line on the north side of Mt. Hood. We had thrown around attempting it numerous times within our small little circle of climbing partners, but for one reason or another we just couldn’t make schedules and the weather line up as per usual. Our buddy Mike Getlin had put in the most effort so far. He had gone on little scouting missions and made an attempt earlier in the season but was turned back about 1/3 of the way up. When we finally saw the weekend weather forecast we had been looking for we moved it to the top of the list.
Originally we had planned to climb in two teams of two, assault style with Mike, Tim Bemrich, Jacob Oram and myself. A big group for sure, but what’s an adventure in the mountains if your friends aren’t there to share in it! Unfortunately, the day before, Mike put a nail through his hand in a carpenter’s accident and had to opt out. Major bummer as he was the driving force behind the objective. He was still psyched for us to give it a go and provided us with what beta he had from his previous attempt and showed us a few old photos of the potential exits onto the north face. So Tim, Jacob and I adjusted our plans slightly and found ourselves driving up Highway 26 sometime after midnight.
The prime weather and conditions brought Mt. Hood climbers out in full force, us among them. We arrived in the parking lot around 2:00 among an uncountable number of climbers. We suited up and skinned out from the lodge. We approached via the standard slog up the south side. We passed and chatted with a few parties on the way up and everyone was excited about the warm winter conditions. The first to hit the hogs back at about 4:45, we stashed the skis, ate some food, and tried hard to convince ourselves to take off the belay jackets.
We wanted to make the top around sunrise so we could easily find our way to the start of the route. To kick the day off we wallowed through the thigh deep snow over to the Devil's Kitchen Headwall. We had decided to each solo the route for efficiency sake. We’d all done this before and felt comfortable since the route is typically lower angle ice and snow. I was out in front and made my way up into the couloir that forms the route by headlamp. I hacked my way up the ice that was exposed and romped onto the upper snow portions of the route where I waited for Tim and Jacob, a perfect warm up for the rest of the day. I got lucky going first, the narrow nature of the route meant raining snow and ice on Tim and Jacob. Nothing too big or gnarly came down but I’m sure it was not a fun place to be at 5:00am on a cold morning. Tim was a bit of a frozen mess by the time he got up to us, but he took it in stride and we marched up to the summit, putting us on the top in perfect time to see the sunrise from the top of Oregon, a first for me.
After a few photos, some water and food we descended the Sunshine Route to Snow Dome. Well, we thought it was Snow Dome. After looking at the face again we realized it was the shoulder above Snow Dome, but still on the Sunshine Route. From there we finally donned ropes and gear and made a beeline for the bottom of the route. We were crossing the lower portions of the Elliot Headwall. There were faint cracks somewhat visible but nothing of too much concern other than the obvious bergschrund. We made our way down and I hunted for a way across the ‘schrund. I found a thin snow bridge that I was nervous about holding my weight, but it held both Tim and I. Jacob, the last to come across, punched through to his waist. Unlike Tim and me, he grew up climbing on glaciers in the PNW and was totally unfazed. We crossed it once more, easily this time, and I started up the thin alpine ice that marks the bottom of the route while Tim and Jacob were managing the ropes. We were happy to find solid sticks and moderate climbing up to an obvious slung horn a pitch up. We were pretty sure this was tat from Mike's last attempt on the line. I built and an anchor and brought up Jacob and Tim.
Looking ahead, there seemed a few options for directions to take. The left side had some overhanging rock and ice that looked fun…to top rope. I set off aiming slightly more right and figured I would come back left above the overhang. This would turn out to be the crux of the route. The climbing was mostly thin-ish ice of varying quality. Anywhere from hero and plastic to aerated and garbage, but for the most part sticky and secure. There was a solid amount of exposed rock, but not really any mandatory mixed climbing other than the odd front point on rock placement. I followed the line of least resistance that took us through a few steep vertical sections. The pitch ended up about a full 60 meters of pretty sustained WI 3/3+. I placed a small but decent looking nut (always hard to tell the rock quality but it looked pretty good actually) and 2 screws on the pitch. I was prioritizing finding a proper anchor with the gear I had left since most of the pro left a little something to be desired. I reached a natural ending point with basically no rope left where the ice pinched down into a narrow ramp. At this point, higher up on the route, basically on the flank of Cathedral Spire, the rock quality improved dramatically and I build a bomber anchor off some hand size cams and ice screws.
The narrow ramp above would be the last pitch of the route as we had imagined it. The next pitch was a very quick section of easy WI3- right off the anchor that gradually mellowed into a snowfield with good neve. This took us to the ridge in a 60 meter plus rope stretcher. Tim and Jacob actually had to start simul-climbing so I could reach good ice to build a belay, a 70 meter rope would have been perfect if using the same belays.
So we were atop the Pencil but above us was another short 30 foot section of WI3 that would take us up and onto Cathedral Spire. We peaked around to see what it looked like to head over and join the North Face Gully routes, but thanks to Mike's beta and a photo he shared with us, we suspected that the top of the spire would connect down to the north face via a small snow patch near the summit. The climbing looked too good to pass up and we were on a roll so we decided to try and finish the route in a direct line and headed up. Jacob dispatched the lead in style and brought us up on some pickets. We simul-climbed a mix of lower angle snow and alpine ice to the top of Cathedral Spire, a rarely, if ever, visited sub summit of Mt. Hood. Jacob bounced from left to right on the summit ridge, popping his head over the void to see if we could get down without rapping. Eventually he looked back and gave the thumbs up. We had only a short downclimb in loose, unconsolidated snow to the notch above The Ravine route where we joined the standard north face routes.
We ate the last of our food, drank the last of our water, packed away one of the ropes and set off. Jacob would take us to the top following the finish of the North Face Right Gully and placing a couple pickets and a ceremonious, if a bit unnecessary, baby angle along the way. We popped over the cornice onto the summit and into the sun. For the second time that day we stood on top of Mt. Hood, somewhere around 2:30 in the afternoon. We celebrated a great day, reorganized, and descended back to our skis. Great skiing conditions capped off a perfect day of Oregon alpine climbing.
Huge shout out to Mike for all the help with this one and letting us use his beta, knowledge and gear as well!