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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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