April 29, 2015 / Comments (1,348)

A Solo Climb up Devil’s Kitchen Headwall


I’ve been wanting to climb the Devil’s Kitchen Headwall ever since I saw some dude high up on Mount Hood disappear into a small couloir as nonchalantly as he might have waltzed into his neighborhood coffee shop.

It was mid-March and I was wallowing around on Hogsback when I watched this climber cruise up solo from Crater Rock as though following a straight line to the summit, shunning the usual leftward traverse toward Old Chute and the Pearly Gates. Thus the seed was planted for me, and I have had an eye out for good conditions ever since.

Devil’s Kitchen Headwall (pictured above) is the wall of rime and rock directly north of you when you round the side of Crater Rock on the South Side of Mount Hood. The Pearly Gates basically mark the far west side of the headwall, which runs east from there creating the northern rim of the crater.

I’d heard one is wise to wait until the route up Devil’s Kitchen is “in”, which according to my relatively novice understanding of climbing jargon means there is enough ice in there to hold crampon points and ice tools. Having bowed out twice this season after looking up at bare rock in the route, I finally found it to have decent looking ice near the crux. It was cold, there was little wind, and no noticeable ice fall, so I dropped my pack and skis and headed up.

I swam through waist deep snow. As the slope angle picked up I was sufficiently concerned about the whole thing cutting out beneath me that I climbed against the rime on the right hand side of the couloir, trying to keep at least one ice tool anchored in something relatively solid. It was exhausting and painfully slow, but I finally attained firmer ground as the pitch neared vertical beneath the first step.

Looking at previous trip reports and photos, I had concluded that so long as there was decent ice through the first step that the route wouldn’t present any serious technical challenges. It looked fine from below, but as the line curves slightly left, the chimney through the first step that makes for the crux of the route was obscured. It wasn’t until I was just beneath it and quite committed that I saw a large bulge of ice formed at the very top of the chimney. After a quick survey of my options I decided climbing out onto the vertical ice to the right of the chimney itself seemed preferable to down climbing.

The mountain was not going to let me off quite that easy. As I whacked away for a decent placement with my ice tools, large sheets of the thin ice started spider-cracking and coming off. It felt a bit like trying to climb a wall of porcelain dishes. The “rock” underneath wasn’t much better, so I moved back left into the chimney.

Luckily I found a hollow below the overhanging ice large enough for me to snake my left hand and the head of my ice tool underneath it. After cutting a couple very precarious footholds I jammed my left hand and tool under the protruding ice bulge, twisting to create some tension. This under-cling allowed me to step up and try to get a decent placement above the overhang with my right axe. Apparently I was not yet done paying for my presumptuous overconfidence. My clumsy and cold right hand managed to surgically remove a two square foot sheet of ice, laying bare the area within my reach above the overhang.

High on lactic acid and low on options, I quickly discovered that extra 15% of endurance and cunning that apparently only shows up when one has been foolish enough to place oneself in such a situation. I remembered for a moment an article I had read a few days before about Portland Mountain Rescue’s new fumarole rescue procedure… Just as I thought I was going to take the fast way back down to Crater Rock and give PMR an opportunity to test out the new protocol, I managed to back step with my right foot and stem against the rock on the left side of the chimney. This let me stand up into my under-cling another few inches and sink a decent tool placement above the overhang. A few more shaky front points and I was through!

Through the rest of the route I was treated to the full array of Mt. Hood cuisine including deep unconsolidated snow that clung to the improbably steep couloir, popcorn rime ice that seemed to disassemble itself if I breathed on it, and chossy mixed climbing that ended up being the least bad option. After a few stops to warm my hands and a fair amount of cursing, I clumsily flopped onto the summit ridge in a manner that must have brought to mind an exhausted walrus.

That was FUN! Or something like it. After limping my way back down to my skis and transitioning, I made it over just in time to see my buddies rip a beautiful line down West Crater. For my troubles I have one tingly blue finger, a pulled muscle in my back, and a whole new appreciation for technical ice! A solid weekend it was indeed.

A Note to Climbers: I took a bit over five hours car to summit and spent about an hour and a half on route. There was no real chance to place good protection that I could see. Maybe some sort of deadman anchor could be built above the first step, but it would have been more of a psychological belay than one which might actually prevent a fall. The overhang that gave me such attitude was hard to see from below. I suspect though that a few more melt-freeze cycles will even it out and render the route in fine condition. I did not do the climber’s right finish around the gendarme due to the very loose snow and my desire to purposefully descend the south side, not accidentally descend the east side.

Mike Getlin grew up skiing and hiking in the Cascades before a series of questionable life decisions landed him in Los Angeles for far too long. Having recently come to his senses and moved back to Portland with his wife and kids, he splits his time between marketing consulting (as little as possible) and climbing (as much as possible).

Last modified: April 29, 2015

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