escape from Cooper Spur
“Shit, shit, shit!” I’m looking down at my gloved right hand clutching my whippet, the ice ax blade jammed into the névé ice of the slope. I want so badly to be anywhere but here. I take a shallow breath. Look at the right edges of my skis, biting ever so slightly into the slope. I grip the whippet tighter, trying not to think of what will happen if my edges blow over 2,000 feet of iced over cliffs. “PHFuuuuck!!”
I look up at Elliot working his way down above me. We’ve badly misjudged the snow conditions on the route and are now in a bad spot. I frantically run through the options quickly in my mind. Transition to crampons? No way. Get my ax out? Won’t help. The only option we have is to continue our hesitant sideslip, stopping every so often for a terrified self-belay on our whippets. I glance down and see the marks of crampon frontpoints heading up the route. I’d give anything to have those crampons on my feet in place of these skis. I take half a breath and stand, releasing my edges just enough to start slipping.
When we started skinning from the parking lot that morning our goal was simple - a long ski tour of Hood’s North side. Head out and see how conditions on the mountain were shaping up, try out a new route. We climbed unhurriedly through the trunks of burned trees standing in the cold first light of morning, past the Tilly Jane A-frame, and out toward the Eliot Glacier.
The North side of Mount Hood has a big feel to it. Approaches to this side of the mountain are long, especially in winter, when roads are blocked by snow. Even in spring, the summit routes on this aspect see few visitors. The most prominent features on this side of the mountain are the broken Eliot Glacier and the ridge that flanks it, Cooper Spur, which rises with an exponential arc reaching its steepest just below the summit.
Today our plan was to climb and descend the Sunshine route, which crosses the Eliot Glacier before following the mountain’s Northwest ridge to the summit. As we crossed under the hanging face of Cooper Spur, my hands were sweaty thinking of standing atop the face on skis.
Compared to Cooper Spur, the Sunshine route offers an amiable tour around the mountain. We skinned the glacier and transitioned to crampons when the slope became too steep to skin efficiently. The surface of the glacier was cut with sastrugi and in general looked like terrible skiing. We kept climbing.
We worked our way up through some short alpine ice pitches and eventually gained the Northwest ridge for our final ascent to the summit. The climbing was fun, the scenery beautiful. The skiing continued to look quite bad.
We topped out the ridge and made the short traverse to the summit. We peeked our heads over the mountain’s North side and take in the upper pitch of Cooper Spur. From the summit, the slope falls away to the east for a couple hundred feet before rolling over and dropping sharply north. The rollover hides the route’s crux, a 45 degree face with big exposure.
We eyed what we could see for a minute before heading back to the summit for a quick nap, aspirations of boldness rising in the back of our minds. That skiing on the Sunshine didn’t look very good…the first pitch of Cooper Spur looks firm but chalky, not the ice we’d feared. Hmmm. After twenty minutes we rose and walked back to the top of Cooper Spur and our decision point.
Putting words to both our thoughts Elliot said “I’m still thinking through this, I’ve never skied Cooper Spur before”
“I haven’t decided for sure yet either” I replied.
We talked through it. From what we could see conditions looked firm but skiable. It’s generally a good idea to climb a route before skiing it, but with the terrible ski conditions on Sunshine fresh in mind, we decided to go for it.
Nervous but excited, I clicked into my skis. “You want to go first?” Elliot asked.
The first pitch skied well, and I looked over the North face and called up to Elliot to come on down. It wasn’t until I dropped in that I saw the glare of ice on the pitch. I skied onto it, made an insecure turn. I worked my way back to the relative security of the chalky stuff as Elliot dropped in above me. With a sudden sinking in the pit of my stomach I realized we were standing at the top of thousands of feet of ice. Feeling too exposed to link turns down the face, we adopt a jerky sideslip to work our way down. A steep gully presents itself. There are small rock outcrops and my mind raced. Is there any way to get to one of those, somehow make the transition to crampons, and boot down this thing? No fucking way.
There have been few times in my life when I’ve been so deep in the midst of something where all I want is to be somewhere else. Where my mind skips ahead to what it would feel like to just BE ON THE GROUND right now. Willing it won’t make it happen, so we keep sideslipping down a few feet at a time.
500 feet to go now, and I can see the place where the slope angle eases. I can SEE the place where I can let this tension go and thank god I’m alive. I want to be there so badly. After an eternity the slope begins to mellow and at last I’m able to link turns. Looking up at the face as Elliot descends it makes me sick to my stomach.
We embrace at the bottom, sagging with relief.
That night I sleep fitfully. The next day I eat Easter dinner with my family feeling stupid and lucky to be alive. Over the next weeks my thoughts return often to Cooper Spur. I love being in the mountains, I love challenging myself. I think that risk is part of a full life and necessary for the learning and growth that makes up one. But we pushed it too far this time.
How much risk is too much? Everyone’s calculation is different. While the assessment is never a complete one, Elliot and I made several mistakes that prevented a good assessment of what we were getting into.
We didn’t climb Cooper Spur that day, and weren’t familiar with conditions on the route
Without being on the aspect, we weren’t able to tell whether the weak early spring sun had softened the snow.
We allowed ourselves to be swayed by the fact that the slope we’d climbed didn’t look fun to ski.
We evaluated the route after skiing the first hundred feet, neglecting to consider that the bulk of the route was invisible to us.
While Elliot and I failed to act according to our values in the mountains, there’s good that can come of this. We can learn from it and make different decisions next time we’re in the mountains. We can aspire to challenge ourselves while operating in a way that improves our chances for exploring for years to come.
We returned to the mountain in June, hoping to redeem our attempt on Cooper Spur with a smarter one. We climbed to a point low on the route. Strong winds buffeted us by the skis strapped to our packs. A cloud swirled like an evil dark eye around the east side of the mountain. We had a snack, watched the sunrise, and skied back to the van. Cooper Spur will have to wait.