MOUNT WASHINGTON WILDERNESS — The act of rappelling down a mountain begins with one simple, unavoidable fact: At some point, you have to lean backward and step off the edge.
The problem is when you’re standing on the wind-swept peak of Mount Washington, looking over a vertical cliff into a boulder-strewn gully a few thousand feet below, this once-simple concept begins to feel ... a bit more complex.
To put it another way: gulp.
But among the ironclad rules of mountain climbing is that anyone willing to go up, and I had been, to the 7,794-foot summit, must be prepared for the inevitable trip back down.
And so I took a deep breath and eased over the edge, my body suspended in the sky by a rope attached to the mountain, slowly dropping down the spire of a peak that pierces the Oregon sky like a gigantic spike.
Mount Washington is among the most recognized mountains in Oregon’s northern Cascade Range.
Each time you drive Highway 20 over Santiam Pass on a clear day, the shield volcano rises above the rolling hills and burned-over forest like a natural skyscraper calling out to the inner King Kong in everyone who loves high-altitude adventure.
The willingness to climb this challenging, technical mountain is not enough, however. Unlike Cascade peaks such as Mount St. Helens and South Sister — where you can hike and scramble to the summit during summer — Washington requires a rope, harness and technical skill to safely ascend its dizzying summit.
All routes up Mount Washington are rated Class 5 or higher on the Yosemite Decimal System — meaning a fall easily might be fatal — which is one reason it’s important to climb with somebody experienced in technical mountaineering and familiar with the route.
That’s why I was thrilled to join a trip led by Dave Hayden, a Salem resident who’s been climbing Mount Washington for 15 years. The 52-year-old specializes in guiding people up mountains — he’s known as the “climbing guy” at his church, Salem Alliance — and has climbed Washington about 40 times.
Beginning at 4:15 a.m. on a Saturday last month, I joined Hayden and Eli Peacock for a trip up Oregon’s narrow, spiked peak.
The headlights pierced the morning darkness as we left Salem and headed east on Highway 22/20, the sky turned from black to purple to blue during the drive.
After less than two hours we turned right toward Hoodoo Ski Area and continued to Big Lake and the PatJens Trailhead, the beginning of a trip that would total about 9.5 miles of hiking and 3,128 feet of climbing.
We checked the gear and strapped on packs, and then followed the trail along the western edge of Big Lake to the first view of Mount Washington, a hulking pyramid shadowed in the morning sunlight.
“There it is,” Hayden said. “Can you believe we’re going to be up there soon?”
The uphill pace of the next four miles — hiking segments of PatJens Trail, Big Lake Loop, Pacific Crest Trail and an unsigned climbers trail — would make me a believer.
By the time we reached a saddle at 6,266-feet and stopped for lunch — one of the oddities of starting so early is eating a turkey sandwich at 9:30 a.m. — we’d left the forest behind and were entering the zone of barren rock and scree that would mark the rest of the journey.
The hiking grew steeper, and the views more spectacular, as we climbed toward the rounded summit block of Mount Washington. To the west, Mount Jefferson, Three Fingered Jack and Hayrack Butte sliced through the undulating carpet of trees.
Finally, sweaty and hot, we reached the base of dark, steep rock at 7,351 feet and put on our helmets and harnesses. The hike was over, and the climb was beginning.
Fear and the ascent
One of the things I’ve learned during a career writing about and climbing mountains is that some people are naturally better at handling heights, altitude and the physical strain.
Take Hayden. On the mountain, he’s in his element — joyful and bouncing around, explaining each point on the route, each knot tied and piece of equipment, each rock that makes a good hand-hold — with no apparent fear of standing on the edge of a sheer cliff. His confidence, experience and attention to detail make him a perfect guide.
I don’t have that same ability. For me, the line between comfort and fear is thinner. When our feet left the ground on the steep, exposed summit block of Mount Washington, I gripped the rock tighter, took deeper breaths and tested each step.
The first pitch is the chimney, a 60-foot wall of dark rock. Hayden climbed ahead and set the rope, allowing Eli and I to attach ourselves for extra safety (and peace of mind) as we followed behind, hands gripping solid cracks of rock to pull us upward.
After the first pitch came a long stretch of scramble climbing — squeezing around boulders and navigating through cracks — until we reached the second pitch just below the summit ...
... And ran into a traffic jam.
For almost an hour, perched on an outcrop, we waited for two earlier groups to finish descending the wall. It was painful. The adrenaline of climbing slowly cools, leaving you with the empty feeling of flat soda.
Once the route opened up Hayden scampered up, set the rope and we were off. The second pitch went quickly and soon we were atop the pinnacle I’d been admiring from Highway 20 for so long.
The summit of Mount Washington is a flat and relaxing little perch, like a table top at 7,794-feet, and I could have taken a nap in the sunshine and warm breeze high above the world.
“For me, being up here is a spiritual time,” Hayden said. “I’m this teeny dot in this vast creation that God made. And the creator of this vastness loves me. I really love that feeling.”
One of the activities I remember best from summer camps growing up was something the counselors called a “trust exercise.”
The campers would get into pairs, usually on a mat or soft surface, and take turns falling backward while the other caught them in midair.
The idea, I suppose, was to experience being at the mercy of another person, of becoming helpless against gravity with the trust that it wouldn’t end with a “splat” on the ground.
Whether this exercise actually increases faith in our fellow man is hard to say, but it does make an impact. And I couldn’t help thinking about the lessons as we prepared to rappel down the pitch just below the summit.
The process of leaning backward off the edge of a mountain — when all you can see are cliffs dropping into a gully below — requires a very real amount of that summer camp trust, in the rope, the knot and the person who tied the anchor. The landing spot is actually just 60 feet below, but in that moment it feels as though you’re stepping off the edge of the world.
“On rappel,” I said.
“On rappel,” replied Hayden.
Legs against the rock, body suspended in the sky, I moved downward. And the funny thing is — and it happens every time — that once you’re mentally satisfied the rope won’t snap, rappelling is the most exhilarating part of climbing.
Hayden, of course, rappelled with the speed of an anchor dropped off a boat. We moved down the mountain, enjoying one more rappel before reaching solid earth and leaving the summit block behind.
The final act of coming down involved putting on gaiters and “scree-skiing” — putting your heels back and sliding down a hillside of loose rock and dust into a meadow below.
We hiked through the meadow, fringed by fir trees and wildflowers, with the mountain’s spiked point rising overhead.
“You’ll never look at this mountain the same,” Hayden said. “Once you’ve been to the top, you can never see it the same way.”