Ski season is upon us!
Editor’s Note: Like a lot of Mt. Hood aficionados, I consider Asit Rathod a mentor. So I was more than slightly surprised to receive a Twitter message from KGW News Friday, March 11, asking me to verify that the climber being rescued on Mt. Hood was Asit Rathod. I had just posted a news flash about an unidentified climber stuck on the mountain without proper gear. It never occurred to me that this climber might be a friend, much less Asit.
I checked in with our mutual friend Jarod Cogswell and got the confirmation. Yes, it was Asit. He’d gotten lost in a whiteout and ended up above Mississippi Headwall with no visibility, dug in for a long day of waiting for search and rescue. Lost in the Mt. Hood Triangle, like so many before him.
How exactly could this happen to the guy writing the book about backcountry skiing on Mt. Hood?
I had to hear Asit’s side of the story, and eventually I did, in great detail. I will print his recorded account in full here, because not only does it make for a lively story, it also raises large questions as population grows and more people hike up into the high country for fresh snow and adventure. As you’ll see, Asit is straight-up honest as always about the mistakes he made, where he went wrong, and lessons learned. Here’s his story:
It was a Thursday night, and I was in at the office really late, until 9:30 or so. The weather forecast showed a weather window Friday into Friday night with the big system moving in Saturday night, so I was going to try to nail the small window. And in the wintertime I know what a small window means. It can be fast, it can last longer, it can be early or it can be late. I knew what I was getting into.
I got into my car, drove up to the mountain and slept in the car in the Timberline lot for about an hour and a half. I woke up about 2 or 2:15, and it was clear as a bell out. A little bit of wind, but you could see all the way to the top of the mountain. So I throw my stuff on and start trudging up.
Mistake number one happened right in the parking lot. I was tired, I was groggy, and I was lazy and I didn’t fill out the climber’s permit. That permit has what equipment you’re carrying, how long you are equipped to stay out, an emergency contact number, what type of rescue devices you are carrying, all of the imperative stuff so that, in the event that you are lost, that they can go and see what you have.
So I get to the top of Palmer and there’s a few wispy clouds coming in from east to west. Now the front that was coming in was supposed to be coming down from the northwest to southeast, so east to west, I’m not thinking that means anything, except maybe some wispies. The sun’s coming up in a couple of hours and the temperature is starting to change. So I don’t think much of it, I keep my head down and I’ve got my headphones in, I’m listening to music. And as I’m climbing I start noticing ice and rime starting to form on my right side. So there’s definitely moisture to this stuff. Before I know it there’s about a half an inch of ice on my entire right side. And I look up and I am in an absolute white-out. But it’s still dark out. At this point it’s about 5:30 am. And I’m somewhere between Palmer and Crater Rock. I don’t know exactly where I am, but I know if I keep climbing I’m going to reach Crater Rock.
Sunrise comes and I can’t see anything beyond the tips of my skis. I thought for a little bit and I looked at the time and it was like 6:30, 7. I don’t have to be to work until noon, so I don’t really need to be down until 10. I’m doing the math in my head, and I’m thinking I’m definitely not going to summit today, but I should be able to get a nice ski in. Because this has to blow off.
The snow was beautiful. About six inches of that perfect powder that you pick up and it just blows out of your hands. So I keep going and I realize that I have come to the top of White River Headwall. White River Headwall has a nice plateau before you start heading up toward Crater Rock and onto the Hogsback. By that point it’s about 7:30, maybe 8, and I start taking my stuff off. I take my skins off and I’m getting ready to ski. If I get a weather window it’s time to get out of here. And sure enough, as I’m taking my stuff off, it’s like, Boom, it’s just gorgeous. I got a small window and I could see East and I knew exactly where I was. I was on top of White River Headwall where I thought I was. I’m taking my stuff off as fast as I can, I click in, and it socks in again. I’m like, All right, I’ll just wait until it opens up again. It does open up again a little bit more, and I can see Illumination Saddle. I can see all the way back into Zig Zag, and it’s like one big blanket. Absolutely perfectly carpeted powder. There wasn’t any ice, any rime, any big chunks like there normally are out there.
I stand up and I start making big GS turns, all the way down the apron, heading towards Illumination Saddle. And I’m almost to the saddle, and it completely socks in on me again. And I’m like, Shit. But the snow was so good I couldn’t stop. It was some of the coolest skiing I’ve ever done. It was completely blind, and normally I have a different gear when it’s sunny versus when I can’t see. I usually have to slow way down when I can’t see. But I knew how clear and clean the snow was so I just kept going, thinking, Oh, this is just awesome. I could have closed my eyes and skied. And in my head I’m doing the math, or thinking I’m doing the math correctly, calculating elevation loss. Finally after another 35 or 45 seconds of turning I think I’m at the point where I should turn left or east, back to Timberline. And I started doing that but I kept hitting berms. I’d bounce into one and have to back off, and then hit another. And in my head I thought I had gone far enough east, where it might be the edge of White River Headwall, and the edge of White River Headwall has big cornices that form and big cracks, so I didn’t want to be on top of that stuff either.
I was still completely blind. I couldn’t see past my ski tips. And I started getting a little bit of vertigo. So I stopped for a bit and did the old horse blinders trick. I’m not sure exactly why this works but you just hold your hands up in front of your eyes to create tunnel vision, and it allows you to see forward and not around you. It centers your focus. It worked perfectly on the vertigo. It’s worked for me many times in the past.
So I just kept dropping elevation, dropping elevation, punching, punching, and then I started seeing these massive cliffs, right in front of me and all around me. It looked like something out of Mordor in Lord of the Rings. I knew exactly where I was. I was on top of Mississippi Headwall and I couldn’t do anything about it. And I know inside of Mississippi Headwall, there’s one big couloir or kind of a chute that you can exit through, and I thought I was on top of it but I couldn’t see through the roll-over, and I didn’t want to roll out too far over it, because I knew there would be overhanging cornices. So finally I stop moving. Because I can see the cliffs in front of me, and I start seeing cliffs above me as well. And then I get a sucker hole for like 3 seconds, and I knew exactly where I was. Right below me I could see all the moraine, and I knew I had gone too low.
I knew exactly where I was because back in 2008 Matthias and I came and did a ski BASE jump, and I came in as a spotter. We had gone right to the edge of Mississippi Headwall. And I had been there with Miles before too, scoping it out. Mathias did his first ski BASE there in 2008 and we went right up to the edge of it. And then the year before Shane passed away, Shane and Miles came back to this same place. [Ed. Note: Matthias "Super Frenchie" Giraud was the first person to BASE-jump off Mount Hood. Miles Daisher has landed more BASE jumps than anyone in history. The legendary freeskier Shane McConkey died in a BASE-jumping accident in Italy in 2009.]
I was on top of Mississippi Headwall, right at the biggest part, 250-300 feet. The cliffs go from 250-300 feet at the pinnacle all the way down to like 50, 60 feet. And we have aired the cliffs on the small angle but the big angle is a totally different gig.
My thought process was, I should move west to where I can climb back up about 600 or 700 feet and then make the traverse back to Timberline. But if you go too far west you start running into the Reed Moraine, where the Reid Glacier dumps out, and there’s a whole bunch of hazards on that side as well. So I just stopped and gathered my thoughts. I was in a very safe place where I was standing. There was just nowhere to go. And when you’re in a whiteout like that it’s hard to know even which way you’re going.
After an hour or so I knew I needed to call for help. So that’s when I decided to make the call. My battery was dying as well. So I called 9-1-1 and explained my situation, explained exactly where I was, and she asked me if I was warm and safe and I said yes. She said call back in 45 minutes. We’re gong to put the SARS team on it. Someone will talk to you then. So I power my phone down and call back in 45 minutes and talk to Officer Bishop, who’s in charge of the rescue. He explained that they had done a safety analysis and decided to come in and get me, and I should just stay put. Because I did have my avalanche beacon but they pinged my cell phone to know exactly within a 20-feet radius where I was. With an avy beacon you’re only good for 200 meters or so. If a team is coming in and I move from where they pinged me we could completely miss each other. So I needed to stay where I was.
Then it became a wait. It was about 8 to 10 hours before they got to me. They have to mobilize guys in Portland, there’s a lot of things that need to come together. Fortunately I had a lot more power than I thought, I had about 30 percent. So I would put my cell phone inside my pit pocket and heat it up, and I could make a couple of phone calls to check in about every hour. I rarely carry food, but I did have a couple of sandwiches. I had plenty of water. I had a few advil and potassium tablets as well. And I was really warm. I’ve got incredible gear and about every hour I would bust out 20 or 30 pushups, just to keep the blood flowing. I was thinking of building a snow cave but I knew these guys were on the way so I didn’t think it would be worth it. I just kept myself busy, because the head is the biggest thing. I can understand why people want to move because staying put is hard. As simple of a thing as it is, it is mentally very straining just sitting there waiting.
At one point I got enough of a weather break where I knew I could get out of this place, but the team had already left by snowcat for the top of Palmer, and staying put was the best option. So I just stayed put, and around 4 or 4:30 I heard the first voice. It was Mark from Portland Mountain Rescue. They were to my west by about 150 yards, and they didn’t want to come close to the cliffs so they asked me to come towards them.
They had gone to the top of Palmer and then crossed straight west past the cliffs and then down. They had GPS so they could tell exactly where they were. So they were to my west, and I moved towards them and saw all three of them and gave them big high-fives. They did exactly what they were supposed to do. We skinned up and went quite far up, another 800 feet or so. By that point my skins had frozen and it was starting to get dark, so they gave me some snowshoes and I snowshoed all the way back to Palmer. It was an absolute white-out the entire time. We finally saw one of the lift towers for Palmer and put our skis on and we just skied a nice track all the way down Palmer. It was about 9:30 or 10 when we finally made it down.
It ended up being a 15-hour day. It was a good time for contemplation. I have a bit of A.D.D. and my head always moves in 1,000 directions, so maybe 15 hours alone wasn’t the worst thing for me. I reflected a lot on the day and the situation I had gotten myself into. That’s why I could articulate very well when I got down the mistakes I had made.
There’s a fine line between arrogance and confidence. I’m extremely confident in the mountains and I’m extremely experienced from my time in Chamonix and Las Lenas with the high-angle, high-consequence skiing that I love doing. But just because you have done it for years and years doesn’t mean you can ignore the basic tenets of mountaineering. Don’t climb into weather. Carry gear that every person should carry. A GPS. At minimum a compass. Sign into the climber’s registry. That’s really it. If you just focus on some of the basics I ignored, it was certainly a swift kick in the ass for me.
I’ve written about the Mt. Hood Triangle, I’ve read about the Mt. Hood Triangle, and now I’ve fallen victim to the Mt. Hood Triangle. The fall line really quickly goes hard south and west. You almost have to be at a 45-degree angle against the slope to get back to Timberline. That’s what I forgot. And I didn’t just jeopardize myself. All these guys who rescue people on Mt. Hood put their lives on hold to come out on their own dime. Avalanche conditions weren’t bad that day, but there are so many ways you can get injured in the mountains. On top of that you’ve got the whole Clackamas County Search and Rescue Team out there as well. All that money, all that manpower, it’s a massive cost to come rescue one person who makes a stupid mistake.
People will always armchair-quarterback decisions, but in this case they’re right to a certain degree. Because these are tax dollars that have to be spent, these are people’s lives that are being put on the line. All of these people came out to help me, and outside of a thank you card what can I give to them? I have always donated to Portland Mountain Rescue, never thinking that I would have to take advantage of them.
For me this was just a stiff reminder. Because I want to do this sport until the day I die. I need to remember to make smart decisions. Especially in the winter time. In the spring time we know what to expect on Mount Hood. The weather is not the issue, it’s just your own ability. But in the winter time it is a different game, and as the sport progresses and more people head out into the backcountry, we’ll be seeing more and more of these situations. So it needs to be talked about. If these types of rescues are happening more and more frequently, we’re going to have to do something.
The population is going to increase. And the popularity of outdoor adventure is going to increase. Mountain bikers can ride stuff they’ve never been able to ride before, backcountry ski equipment is there for everyone to use, resorts are getting more and more busy, so more people want to get out into the backcountry. We have speed wings, we have BASE parachutes, more people are going to start doing these things. And when something goes wrong and people need to get rescued, they can’t just call their friends. It needs to be a professional. So what is the tipping point? I don’t know if the answer is a user’s permit, maybe an annual charge or a permanent charge. But it would be a charge that I would definitely welcome, and I use that mountain probably as much as anyone out there. Whatever dollar figure I could contribute, I would know that it’s gong to something that I love and care about, and it’s making that place a little bit safer for the next generation. I think it’s a debate that should be opened up, and I would prefer that the debate be started by us, the climbing and skiing community, versus politicians or arm-chair quarterbacks who would impose something that they have no idea about. If you really want to take care of your sport, you also have to accept where the sport’s going and help shape it and guide it.
Asit Rathod started cross country skiing at the age of five on Mount Hood and spent five winters ski mountaineering in Chamonix, France and four summers in Las Lenas, Argentina. He is currently working on a book titled Faces of Hood and has climbed up and skied down from the summit of Mount Hood more than 200 times.
Ben Jacklet is the editor of Shred Hood.