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A Mount Hood Q&A: Ric Conrad, author of ‘Mount Hood: Adventures of the Wy’east Climbers, 1930-1942″

Early in this new year, I exchanged Mount Hood books with Portland-area freelance writer Ric Conrad, who’d just announced the launch of his book, Mount Hood: Adventures of the Wy’east Climbers 1930-1942. His handsome book is a thorough journey through the adventures of some of the pioneering climbers who left their mark on Oregon’s tallest mountain during the era of the Great Depression.

Ric Conrad

Ric Conrad

Conrad’s book is much more detailed and longer than On Mount Hood,  so while I am still working my way through Adventures of the Wy’east Climbers, Conrad has finished my book and is no doubt onto some other reading. But before he got too far ahead, he paused to send me these kind words about On Mount Hood:

“Jon Bell’s personal narrative style is the perfect voice to introduce readers to Oregon’s most iconic mountain. Not only does Bell discuss Wy’east’s volcanic past, the present challenges it faces with population encroachment, but its potential future as well. On Mount Hood is essential reading for anyone with a love for the state’s highest mountain or a fascination with its natural history.”

Kind words, indeed.

Looking to find out a little bit more about Conrad’s book and the motivation behind it, I traded emails with the former member of the U.S. Navy. He sent me some of the super cool charcoal illustrations that he commissioned Lon Haverly to create for the book as well as a nice Q&A that shines a little more light on Adventures of the Wy’east Climbers. 

Enjoy, and find out more about Conrad and his book at Kahunabooks.com. 

Who were the Wy’east Climbers?

A group of young men in 1930, several of whom were members of the Mazamas and the Portland Trail’s Club, desired a smaller, more elite group of mountain climbing colleagues. They were particularly drawn to virgin terrain on Mount Hood and avidly set out to explore it.

What terrain on Mount Hood did they explore?

They made the first ascents of the Leuthold Couloir Route, the Sandy Glacier Headwall, and the Eliot Glacier Headwall. They also reopened some climbing routes and established some difficult variations.

1 Joe Leuthold

Joe Leuthold

What’s the difference between a first ascent of a route and reopening one?

A first ascent is attributed to the alpinist or climbers who made the first recorded ascent of a particular climbing route on a mountain. In addition to their pioneering first ascents, the Wy’easters ascended three routes that hadn’t been used in years: the Wy’east Trail, Cathedral Ridge and the Newton-Clark Headwall route. In addition, club members wrote articles about these nearly forgotten routes in order to help popularize them. They even took guests with them on subsequent ascents of these old routes in order for word of mouth advertising to spread through Oregon’s mountaineering community.

Your book references something called the New Year Laurels. What is that?

To be the first alpinist on the summit of Mount Hood in the New Year; this is the goal of individuals or climbing parties seeking the New Year Laurels. There are no trophies, no bronze plaques, no cash payments or commercial endorsements — no real recognition to speak of, but the goal has been sought after since at least 1916. The Wy’east Climbers, as well as some of the outlaws, helped popularize this annual winter race to the summit.

Who were the outlaws?

An outlaw was simply a description given to alpinists who weren’t officially members of any organized climbing organization like the Mazamas, the Crag Rats or the Wy’east Climbers. Gary Leech, Bill “Smoke” Blanchard, and Hubert North were three such examples. These were men who made first ascents, speed ascents, and shared a rope with the Wy’east Climbers on multiple occasions.

2 Russ McJury

Russ McJury

Why did the Wy’east Climbers form the Mt. Hood Ski Patrol?

With the construction of Timberline Lodge, and the subsequent surge in tourism, a marked increase in injuries caused great concern amongst regional climbers. The need for an organized and well-equipped first aid corps became apparent. As the Wy’east Climbers had helped assist injured alpinists in the early to mid-1930s, they were in a position to have their voices heard. Joining forces with influential leaders of the Nile River Yacht Club, they approached the U.S. Forest Service and, in time, formed the ski patrol that thrives to this day.

You have a chapter devoted to illuminations. What is that all about?

The Wy’east Climbers were regular supporters of the Winter Sports Carnival in Portland. Climbers used to put on flare trips high on Mount Hood. They employed these million-candle power magnesium flares. They didn’t last very long, but these pyrotechnic devices burned magnesium ribbon, which produced a brilliant flame up to a foot above the burning metal. Depending upon the specific type of flares, the magnesium would burn for a minute or up to six minutes. It was quite a show.

How did you reconstruct the fatal accidents that happened on Mount Hood during the Great Depression?

That came about by studying the Mazama Annuals, the Wy’east Bulletins, articles in The Oregonian and the Oregon Journal, the alpinists’ entries in the summit register, documentation in the Mazama archives and through interviewing surviving participants. Hank Lewis was instrumental in bringing to light little-known details concerning rescue and recovery operations.

Everett Darr

Everett Darr

How many climbers from the period did you interview for this book?

I had the privilege of interviewing Wy’easters Hank Lewis, Lu Norene, Russ McJury and Randall Kester. I also interviewed alpinists who climbed beside club members: John Carter, Charles Loveland, Robert Labby and Darrel Tarter. Their recollections and humorous anecdotes helped bring these stories of alpine exploration to life.

What do you hope people will get out of your book?

They’ll obviously learn a lot about the historic first ascents and memorable tragedies, but I think readers will simply enjoy the little-known tales of adventure that can be found in this volume. There’s the friendly rivalry between the Wy’easters and the Nile River Yacht Club, speed ascents, and vying to be the first atop Oregon’s monarch in the New Year. Avalanches, crevasse falls, brutal storms, and high-altitude, volcanic, subterranean adventures are all told by the people who were there — in the Golden Age of climbing on Mount Hood.

Mount Hood and the Wy’east Climbers

A cool new book is out this week: Mount Hood: Adventures of the Wy’east Climbers 1930-1942 from Portland-area writer Ric Conrad. It recounts the glory days of an elite group of climbers who pioneered some of the classic routes on the mountain.

I’m going to write some more about the book and the author this coming week, but I just got a copy of it in the mail today — Conrad and I are trading copies of our books — and it’s such a nice-looking and well-done book that I just had to share it today. You can find out more about it at Conrad’s Kahuna Books website.

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On Mount Hood: The best of 2014

On we go into 2015, but not before a quick look back at some of my favorite Mount Hood times of the past year. Here’s to all of them — and to all those that lay ahead in the new year.

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Mount Hood Gifts 2014

A quick and last-minute list of some Mount Hood gifts for that alpine aficionado in your life:

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A former Portland Tribune colleague of mine, Ben Jacklet, co-founded Shred Hood in 2013 as a community news and information site to cover the skiing, snowboarding and backcountry on Mount Hood.

Subscriptions come in a couple different options, including one-time and ongoing. Each has its privileges, including a sweet T-shirt and bottle opener depending on your subscription.

Find out more at Shred Hood.  

bark_logoFeeling a little more philanthropic this holiday season? Consider making a donation to some of the environmental groups that have worked — and are always working — to protect the region’s wild places, including, of course, Mount Hood. (Bark’s mission is more Mount Hood-centric, while Oregon Wild covers the entire state; both have played major roles in protecting Mount Hood and the Mount Hood National Forest.)

And as a bonus: both organizations are all about getting out and exploring the places they protect, so each offers regular outings as well.

Oregon_Wild_LogoOn tap on Mount Hood from Oregon Wild at the moment: snowshoeing to Twin Lakes and White River, all in January. And from Bark, its monthly hike in the Mount Hood National Forest in January.

For more information about either of these groups, visit www.bark-out.org or www.oregonwild.org.

  •  Timberline Lodge Ram’s Head Fire Poker — Fashioned after the larger fireplace tools used at the storied Timberline Lodge, this hand-forged wrought iron poker is classic Timberline through and through. I met Darryl Nelson, the blacksmith behind much of the ironwork that’s been installed at Timberline over the past 30 years or so, and he told me guests regularly try to heist these out of the rooms. Not good. Instead, find them at the Timberline gift shop for $75. (Looks like they might be sold out online, but they usually have some in the store.) The shop also has a nice array of vintage-looking posters and artwork, books, souvenirs and more. Check it out.

The Timberline Trail, Mark Pomeroy and Powell’s Books

I got an email out of the blue in the early days of 2013 from a Portland writer named Mark Pomeroy who’d grown up with Mount Hood, spending time at his grandparents’ cabin in Brightwood. He’d just finished my book and had an idea to tackle the Timberline Trail with a handful of other writers, myself included. Not one to turn down an adventure on Mount Hood, I signed on. Last summer we did indeed have a four-day adventure on Mount Hood.

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Portland author Mark Pomeroy crossing the frigid waters of Eliot Creek along the Timberline Trail in August 2013.

Since that first email, I’ve  gotten to know Mark and followed him on his way to getting his first novel published. It’s a work more than 10 years in the making. Called The Brightwood Stillness, it’s only the second novel ever published by Oregon State University Press. (The first was Brian Doyle’s Mink River)

photo copy

I was fortunate enough to be invited to the official invite-only launch of the book back in October. But tonight, Mark takes his book to Powell’s on Hawthorne for a more open introduction. He’ll be there at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Thursday, Nov. 20.For anyone who loves good stories and books in general, it’s bound to resonate.

If you can’t make it tonight, keep your eyes open in the coming weeks for other appearances or, at the very least, pick up a copy of The Brightwood Stillness.

You can find out more at mpomerory.com.

The Best Mount Hood Sledding

Though it may be a touch early still, it is getting to be that time again on Mount Hood: skiing, snowboarding and, of course, sledding.  The big hill’s got some nice sledding options, free and otherwise. Down below this picture of my own little sledder are a few of the best places to sled on Mount Hood:

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  • White River Sno-Park — About 4 miles north of US 26 on Oregon 35 just south of Mt. Hood Meadows, the White River Sno-Park is great for easy, fun and free sledding on Mount Hood with little ones. The closest hill is just a five-minute walk up the snowy road from the parking lot; bigger and better hills are just a little farther along. Because it’s also a popular skiing and snowshoeing spot, White River can be a touch crowded, but it’s expansive enough that there’s room enough for everyone. And with an incredible view of the mountain as backdrop, there’s little to complain about. (It doesn’t cost anything to sled here other than a Sno-Park permit. If you buy a permit from a DMV, they’re $3; most vendors that sell them jack them up to $5.)
  • Little John Sno-Park — At 3,700 feet just 30 miles south of Hood River on Oregon 35, this free Sno-Park (free sledding on Mount Hood except for the Sno-Park permit) is fairly low in elevation, so if it’s a low snow year the pickings can be slim. But when there is snow, the sledding looks like good fun. There’s also an old log warming hut.
  • Summit Ski Area — Mount Hood’s oldest ski area is also home to a tubing area. You can’t bring your own sled, but for $20, adults get a tube from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. M-F; kids 48″ and under are $10. Weekend and holiday prices for the kids are the same, but for adults it’s $25. Summit is just east of Government Camp. Summit also operates Snow Bunny, a little Sno-Park next door, where you can tube (not sled) for $20 all day; kids under 48″ are $10.
  • Cooper Spur Mountain Resort — A sleepy but quaint little resort on the beautiful north side of Mount Hood, Cooper Spur is home to a tubing park with a rope tow. Ten bucks for the morning or afternoon, which includes some great views of the north side of Mount Hood on the drive up from Hood River.
  • Mt. Hood Skibowl — The closest ski area to Portland is also home to a snow tubing area. Cost is $25 for adults for three hours, $20 for juniors; an all-day tube ticket is $50. The area includes a tube conveyor for heading back up the hill. In addition to regular tubing, Skibowl also offers Cosmic Tubing on weekend nights with laser lights, black lights, music and more.
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