1001 Words – Tom, Dick, & Harry Mountain, OR
This shot is the result of one of the scariest days of my life to date when Terence, Lance and I decided to head out to visit Mount Hood for sunrise on New Years Eve. Super short story: We got lost and didn’t know if we were going to make it out that night. This image was taken at the peak of Tom, Dick, & Harry Mountain under some crazy conditions. I was pretty much taking this image blind…. with 80 mph winds, snow whipping around and pelting me in the face and eyes, and extreme cold conditions that froze everything instantly. I couldn’t use my tri-pod at all in these conditions and the mountain kept disappearing in waves of fog and atmosphere. I kept trying to compose the image and then would fire a series of shots with my eyes closed and ended up with this one clean image of the mountain. You can see the snow whipping around in the lower part of the image. Definitely the most intense conditions I’ve ever experienced. Little did I know that capturing this image would just be the start of our adventure. A day I won’t forget. I’ve included cliff notes and long versions below.
The backstory: Cliff Notes Version
We started hiking up TDH mountain early in the morning to catch sunrise at the top of the 5,000 foot peak. Once we arrived at the top, treacherous conditions of wind and snow completely white out the scene and erased any signs of our steps and tracks. Our water was frozen, we had limited snacks, and our phones wouldn’t work because of the cold and intermittent service. We made numerous attempts to find our way down, climbing up and down the mountain until we realized we were lost. We encountered cliffs, snow up to our thighs, and the abominable snowman (okay maybe not him). After search and rescue was alerted, we decided to wait it out in the only open clearing we could find on the side of the mountain. We dug snow holes and waited until we started to freeze and knew we couldn’t sit around any longer. After realizing no one was coming, we decided to take our destiny into our own hands and find our own way out. After hours of trudging through waist deep snow we finally ran into some people on the original trail and made our way out safely.
The backstory: Long Version
This was my 3rd visit in the snow to TDH Mountain (a peak across from Mount Hood with a high point of 5.000 feet). It is a trail and mountain I am familiar with and didn’t anticipate what was to come. On this morning the forecast called for partly cloudy conditions and a good chance at being able to see the mountain. I woke that morning at 3a.m. to begin the trek down to Hood with Terence and Lance. We started our hike around 4:45a.m. from West Ski Bowl. The hike from here is usually around 5 miles to the top of the peak so we gave ourselves plenty of time to make it for sunrise. As we drove into the Mt. Hood Wilderness we could see the mountain looking beautiful under the moonlight and nice partly cloudy conditions as predicted. We hit the trail at a brisk pace and felt great as we noticed the path to the trailhead was packed down pretty well, meaning we could wait on putting on our snowshoes. A little over 2.5 miles into the hike you reach the well traveled Mirror Lake loop and veer off to the right to continue up to the top of TDH.
A little way down this path we noticed that snow was getting deep and the previous footprints from previously hikers had disappeared. The path I had taken two times prior was nowhere to be found. No worries… we heard you could take a shorter/steeper path straight up the side of the mountain. This is where everything changed very quickly. The grade of the climb changed dramatically. The snow got much deeper. And the weather started to turn. Clouds began forming overhead and huge wind gusts started to make their way in. A few hundred yards up and we decided we better put on our snowshoes. After shoeing up, we made the slow and brutal climb up the side of the mountain trying not to get stuck in the deep tree wells along the way while we fought the wind.
At about 6:45a.m. we made it to the top of the mountain, ahead of schedule. Things were not looking good. Everything was completely shrouded in clouds and the wind was picking up at an even greater pace. At the very top you couldn’t even stand without it blowing you completely off your feet. The snow pelted you in the face with what felt like tiny needles. We quickly decided to go down a bit and hang out in some trees to see if the conditions would improve. “Sunrise” came and went at 7:45a.m. without a sighting of the mountain. We decided to cut our losses and begin making our way down. We had a decision to make… go down the path we came or go down the path we have taken previous trips here. We decided the path we took would be our best bet since we could follow our snowshoe tracks. The snow was waist deep and we were making pretty big holes… we thought the tracks would be there for sure. We got maybe 100 yards down when we saw the mountain starting to clear. Terence and I raced back to the top while Lance stayed down below and captured his awesome shot “Lost”. In these conditions our water was frozen blocks of ice and our cell phones were instantly turning off when we took them out of our pocket. My zippers on my down and shell jackets had also frozen and after I had added my fleece layer, I could no longer zip my jackets. That would become problematic later.
I stayed on the top and fought the conditions for a few minutes before it was too much to handle and I went back down to escape the wind. Terence stayed at the top a little longer and kept shooting. I met back up with Lance while we waited for Ter. 10 minutes went by and he still wasn’t back. That’s when I started to notice the deep tracks we had made were being completely covered up by the blowing wind and snow. I told Lance I was going to walk down a little and make sure we still had our path down while we waited for Terence. We would walk a little and then wait, assuming Terence would be right behind. Rinse and repeat. Eventually we ran out of tracks on the side of the mountain. It was like they disappeared off the side of a cliff. “WTF! These have to be our tracks.” We decided to backtrack and hopefully run into Terence along the way. We would find a couple of side tracks and try those only to end up in the same place. It was a viscous circle of climbing and descending steep terrain in super deep snow. Exhausting.
30 minutes after leaving Terence at the top I hear him screaming my name. I call back and eventually we regroup. Turns out he had also started to head down and got turned around a few times following tracks as well. Were we following some of the new tracks he made? Who knows… we decided we had to be on the right path and started heading back down while continuing to fight the wind. We kept running into the same steep section that looked unsafe to descend. After walking in circles for a little while, around 10am, we realized we may be lost. At this moment we noticed we had enough cell reception to give our people back home a heads up. We called Chelsea and told her “We’re a little side tracked but we’re fine. Just tired from climbing. We think we’ll be able to find our way down but if you don’t hear from us by noon you might want to send for help.” She was super calm and said “No problem. Good luck and I better hear from you by noon”.
At this point, I suggested our best option would be to climb all the way back to the top so we could attempt to descend down the normal path. I knew that path was longer but safer and we’d done it before recently. I was hoping we’d eventually hit signs of a trail and then find our way back down. The thought of climbing all the way back up exhausted us but we agreed it was the best option left. At this point we needed water bad… My legs were cramping up and every step was painful. I had to pause constantly to stretch out before continuing. Eventually we made it back to the top and started to make our way down the normal direction.
With the mountain clearing up we headed toward the direction we know we needed to go. Within 10 minutes we found pay dirt! A path! Terence alerted our loved ones that we were back on the trail and we let out some guttural screams. Relief! We started making our way down and about 10-15 minutes later I think we all came to the same realization at the same time. We’re on the same path to nowhere as before! Relief turned to pure exhaustion, mentally and physically. At this point it was 11am. We knew we had an hour to find a path before help was called. None of us wanted to happen.
We decided going down some way some how was the only potential option at this point. We were too tired to go back up. We followed the path until it disappeared and searched around for signs of the path connecting elsewhere. We decided our only option was to head around the steep area and then try to swing back around to catch the trail once we could head back toward Mirror Lake. We headed west knowing we’d have to get back east eventually.
We made our way down steep terrain navigating through tree wells (falling constantly) and super deep snow. We made our way down a ways and then decided we better start heading back east. Next came a new challenge. An open and steep embankment of snow that was between our destination and us. That meant a risk for an avalanche and potential disaster. It was our only option. We crossed/slid down and across the path until we hit another set of trees. Within 50 yards of this trees as we headed east we hit our next hurdle. The trees disappeared. We were on a cliff and there was no way east from here. This was super demoralizing. We knew where we had to go but we couldn’t get there. At this point we knew we were in trouble. It was close to noon and the weather was horrible.
We decided we probably needed help at this point. We made our way back to the clearing thinking it would be the best location on the side of the mountain to be identified. We had intermittent service but every time our phones came out, they instantly turned off. Terence got a hold of Justin and alerted him of our predicament and tried to send him our current location. This began the process of alerting search and rescue. We thought given our location, a helicopter was the only safe way out. We shifted into survival mode and started digging out snow holes with our snowshoes so we could get out of the wind. We created our respective holes and began the wait for help. I don’t think 20 minutes went by and I had had enough. I was shivering uncontrollably and the fact that I couldn’t zip up my jackets was killing me. My gloves were covered in ice inside and out and I was losing feeling in my toes from all the melted snow in my boots. This was my low point and the first time I let the thought creep in that we may not make it off the mountain tonight (or ever).
I told Terence and Lance I had to get into the trees and out of the wind for a few minutes. I walked 50 yards away and into the forest where it was marginally better. After another 15 minutes, Terence came over. We could swear that we heard some voices above us (were we dreaming/wishing this?). We screamed back hoping someone cold hear us. Nothing back. After waiting a bit longer, I think we all knew no one was coming to help us… we were too far off path and too isolated in an unsafe area for help to arrive. The wind was too strong for a helicopter. We were in trouble. We began weighing options. We had less than four hours of light and we didn’t like our chances of making it safely through the night. Stay and we might freeze to death… but then again at least we think people had an idea of where we were and could save us. Move and we could stay warm and maybe find our way out but we’d risk injury and we don’t know if search & rescue could find us. We were getting intermittent text messages from search and rescue but they were very worrisome. “Are you lost?” (yes) “Are you on the trail?” (obviously not) Use this gps link (our phones die instantly when we use them) to get out. “Call us back in an hour.” (what?!?) We just wanted to know if they were coming or not.
Survival guides would probably recommend staying put. We decided we wanted our fate in our own hands and that we had to find a way further down and around the cliff we had encountered. We got a gps signal for a second and it gave us a sense of our bearing and the direction we had to go. It gave us the last bit of energy we needed to get back on the road. We slid our way down the steep slope of the clearing and didn’t cause any avalanches (well I guess some mini ones kept taking our legs out and throwing us to the ground but nothing too scary).
At this point we are beyond exhausted. No food and no water and all of our energy resources expended. Trudging through the snow is tiring work. We took turns leading so the other two could follow in the footprints in front of us. We had to stop for many breaks. We crossed a few creeks and kept making our way slowly through the forest as the day continued to escape us. We talked about our plan if we had to stay the night and kept attempting to contact search & rescue. “Can you hear sirens?” (no). “Follow the sirens.” (what?!?) We realized no one was coming. It was up to us to get out of there.
Around 2pm I was out in front slowly working through the forest and snow. I crossed over a creek and then made my way around the corner toward the direction we knew we had to head. That’s when I laid eyes on the greatest thing I’ve seen in a long time. People! On a trail! 100 yards above us and in the direction we were heading. I yelled up “Hey! You guys up there! We’ve been lost. Is that the trail to mirror lake? Can you wait for us?” Yes and yes.
Finally we could relax. We were safe. Mentally and physically drained, but safe. Brett was the person I spotted and now a new friend. Someone I’ll never forget. He ran down a bit to us (without snowshoes) and gave us his canister of water. The three of us took turns chugging it down before making our way back up onto the trail. Brett’s friend helped me up onto the trail and I just laid down on the snow and ice in absolute relief. We still had probably 1.5 miles back to the car but we were home free. We made our way out with Brett and his friends, ran into a police officer at the trailhead (I guess those were the sirens?), and then slowly meandered our way to Lance’s car at the parking lot. What a scary day. Thankful to be safe and was ecstatic to be back home that night in my bed with my family.
What did I learn from this?
– I’m lucky. Some things really worked out in our favor. I’m thankful we’re still here today and that we all walked out from this adventure unscathed.
– We have amazing friends and family. Chelsea, Annette, Joanne, Justin, & Tula were on a group chat keeping everyone updated and contacting search & rescue. They stayed calm and composed. Justin and Tula were going to come out that night if we weren’t found and search for us. I don’t think they’ll ever know how much that thought means to us.
– Being out there with Terence and Lance. We are all relatively fit and we all stayed calm and composed (for the most part haha). We powered through and collectively made group decision and made our way out of danger.
– Search and rescue was likely not coming out that night. From what we heard after the fact, it takes a while to assemble a team and they wouldn’t have come out at dark. We almost were stuck there all night. I don’t want to think about what that meant. Action was better than inaction in that situation. I’m glad we moved.
– Hiking GPS. I had one and returned it because I didn’t use it much. It would have saved our ass and a whole lot of trouble.
– A whole new respect for the power of mountain weather. I know it could be bad, but this was a painful lesson.
– More survival gear for the “just in case” scenarios. I was kicking myself for not having anything to start a fire.
– Survival training. I’ll be signing up for classes so I’m better prepared.