The South Side route on Mt. Hood is best described as an entry-level technical climb. However, it is a technical climb. Every year people attempt the summit without being adequately prepared or experienced, leading to dangerous conditions for both themselves and every other climber near them. Climbing Mt. Hood will require the use of mountaineering boots, crampons, and an ice axe. Snow conditions will often require those traveling in a group to use harnesses, rope, and some manner of ice or snow anchor. When conditions are challenging, a second ice axe or ice tool may be required to safely descent from the summit.
While I love this mountain and have climbed it numerous times both with a group and solo, I never forget that I am climbing a mountain and that I should give it respect. There are real hazards and dangers on Mt. Hood. Mistakes could cost you and others their lives. Even experienced climbers have gotten lost in bad weather or fallen from snow faces on Hood. Knowledge and experience will help keep you safe, so ensure you have them.
All that being said, Mt. Hood is one of my favorite mountains to climb and accessible to those in good physical shape with a willingness to learn the requisite skills. You can check the forecast and leave Portland at 10:30pm, reach Timberline around midnight, climb, and be back home in time for lunch. For your efforts, you will reach the highest point in Oregon and can take in views of the surrounding wilderness including the nearby Cascade peaks of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mount St. Helens, Mt. Jefferson, and even the Three Sisters. It is simply breathtaking. And, if you are a ski mountaineer, you can skin up to the top of Palmer (or even higher), finish your climb on crampons, and ski all the way down to Timberline Lodge.
With 10,000 people climbing Mt. Hood a year, you will almost never be climbing alone and even if you summit first, you may only have a few minutes until you are joined by others. This has a tendency to make the South Side climbing route a bit of a circus on weekends in May, June, and July. If you can, I highly suggest you climb on a weekday and try to reach the summit by sunrise so you can quickly descend before the route becomes choked with climbers.
- Climbing Mount Hood & Summiting — National Forest Service
- Mt. Hood: A Climber's Guide — Sharp End Publishing
- Map of Upper Mt. Hood — CalTopo.com
- 462S Mt Hood/Timberline Trail — Green Trail Maps
- The Mountain Shop's guide to Climbing Hood
As Mt. Hood is an entry-level technical climb, it is highly recommended that you first climb it with a trained and experienced guide who can show you the route and train you in the skills required to summit and descend safely. Here are a couple suggestions:
A self-issued climbing permit is required year-round and is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week at the Climbers' Register just inside the lower entrance to the Wy'East Day Lodge (map) at Timberline. While at the Climbers' Register grab a blue bag and/or use the toilet located inside the Climbers' Register to help keep the mountain clean.
If climbing between November 1 and April 30, a Sno-Park Permit is also required to park at Timberline.
Late April until Early July. Technically, one can climb Mt. Hood year-round, but the snow and weather are best during this period.
Drive to Timberline Lodge (map) and park in the overnight parking area. Timberline Lodge can receive snow year round, so check the weather beforehand and in the shoulder season ensure you have traction tires or chains for your vehicle.
For weather information please look at the following resources:
The Mountain Shop's South Side Routes guide has a nice photo of the approach with major landmarks, which I recommend you consult while reading the below. Their description of the route is pretty solid too.
From the overnight parking area, head up the mountain and into the ski area. Timberline Lodge is very protective of its groom, so you will find on the far right of the ski area a Snowcat path that takes you all the way up to Silcox Hut (map). The path is wide and easily followed. Keep an ear out for snowcats coming from behind and pull off to the side to let them pass.
Near Silcox Hut you should find a sign saying "Climber's Trail". This sign usually appears once Timberline Lodge starts grooming the Palmer Snowfield and wishes to keep climbers off their nice groomed runs. If the sign and snowcat track cannot be found, you have two options depending on conditions and visibility. You can head over to the Palmer Ski Lift and climb under it until you reach the top of the lift or simply head straight up the snowfield.
NOTE: You can reach the top of Palmer in relative safety, even when visibility is poor. Above this point, the hazards and dangers of this climb increase significantly.
From the top of the Palmer, you essentially climb towards the center of Crater Rock. Be very mindful of the White River drainage that is off to your right. It is quite easy in poor visibility or darkness to get too close, especially as you approach Crater Rock itself.
Traverse around the base of Crater Rock to climber's right (eastern side). As you traverse you will start getting a strong whiff of the fumaroles releasing gases from Devil's Kitchen. Stay well up from these vents. As you circle around Crater Rock, you will see a ridge of snow above that is known as the Hogsback. Continue traversing while heading up to this ridge.
The Hogsback is your last safe break spot before climbing to the summit. From here you will get a solid look at the final approach and decide your path to the summit. You should consume food and water, put on the layers you think you will need, and prepare any climbing gear that is necessary for you to ascend safely. Above this point is the truly technical portion of the climb. If you are not feeling it, turn back and climb another day. Remember: “Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.”
From the Hogsback, there are two standard variations for a South Side climb. Which one you choose greatly depends on the snow conditions, the state of the bergschrund (crevasse at the top of Coalman Glacier), and personal preference.
For years, this was the most common and direct route to the summit. You will see numerous photos where the Hogsback leads directly up to the Pearly Gates as if an easy ramp to the summit. Early in the season, the Bergschrund may be covered with a snow bridge and easily crossable. Caution is required though, as you never quite know how stable snow bridges are, especially as summer starts and temperatures rise.
If the Bergschrund is open, navigate around it safely and angle back towards the Pearly Gates once above it. The Pearly Gates is an obvious rock formation that creates a V-shaped gap leading to the summit. The conditions in the Pearly Gates can vary between hard ice to soft, pillowy snow. It is frequently the steepest part of your climb and the one with the highest risk of rock, ice, and climbers falling so move quickly and be mindful of where other climbers are.
There is also a route that I have labeled Pearly Gates (alt) that is another route to the summit. It is an especially useful alternative for ascending and descending when the mountain is crowded. In recent years, it has actually been the most reliable route with the best snow conditions.
Once above the Pearly Gates the summit is another 150 feet or so upwards. Early season cornices exist on the north face of the summit, so keep a comfortable distance from the edge when taking photos.
The Old Chute
If the Pearly Gates are in poor condition or you simply want to try a different route, the Old Chute is an excellent choice. There are caveats though. Early in the season the slope over to the chute is more avalanche-prone. During the traverse over to the chute you are also under multiple rock formations, so ice and rock fall are more likely, especially once the sun rises. Further, the chute is steep and snow conditions may make the terrain more technical to the point you will want a second ice axe while descending so you can front-point. Finally, once you reach the top of the chute, you must first negotiate a narrow and exposed ridge before proceeding to the summit.
When the conditions are right though, the Old Chute is an excellent way to reach the summit. First, you head up the Hogsback and stop a safe distance from the Bergschrund. From here, traverse climber's left across the mountain, probing carefully to ensure you are away from the edges of the crevasse. Proceed traversing until you reach the bottom of the Old Chute and can see your route up.
Note: Later in the season, many climbers start traversing lower down on the Hogsback, even to the point of crossing on top of the Hot Rocks themselves. When doing this, beware that the snow can melt out along the edges forming cracks and hollow areas in the snow. Also, the gases being emitted from these fumaroles are toxic so do not linger long.
Ascend the Old Chute in the way you deem best. As you top out, beware that the top ridge is very narrow and that the long north face is immediately on the other side. Proceed carefully along the ridge to climber's right until you reach the more relaxing, broader slope before the summit. You will go down into a small saddle and then continue heading up to the summit. The summit will often have a cornice well into summer, so keep a healthy distance from the edge when taking photos.
Give the popularity of Mt. Hood, you may choose a different route down than the one you came up, as both the Pearly Gates and the Old Chute can quickly become choke points on busy weekends. Be careful to not sit still for too long on a chilly, windy day waiting for others to ascend. Tired, chilled muscles are a bad combination on steep descents.
If you are descending a different way than you climbed up, be sure to scout out and inquire about conditions from other climbers before starting your descent. A mildly challenging ascent on one route can be a tricky and dangerous descent on the other when snow conditions are bad or you do not have the right gear.
Adverse weather conditions can also make the descent problematic as poor visibility will prevent you from seeing familiar landmarks and help you avoid obstacles. If you see a storm approaching, head down as quickly as possible. If you become lost or disoriented, hunker down and build an emergency shelter (bivy, tent, or snow cave). Do not get yourself both lost and injured.
Every single climbing page concerning the Mt. Hood south route will say this and it is important: Timberline Lodge is not on the fall line from Crater Rock. In low visibility, you cannot simply walk downhill and expect to arrive safely. Have a compass and follow magnetic south.
Once you get down, you will find you have worked up quite an appetite and need to refuel. Thankfully, both Timberline Lodge and Government Camp are nearby. If you reach the parking lot before 10am, I highly suggest you skedaddle over to the Cascade Dining Room in Timberline Lodge for their breakfast buffet, which includes fruits, baked goods, and Belgian waffles. You can also drive down to the Huckleberry Inn in Government Camp, where you can order anything from scrambled eggs to milkshakes to gigantic pancakes. You just climbed a mountain, so eat up!
That header image is me on the summit of Mt. Hood taken by my friend Brian Searle. Pretty damn stellar photography there.
- Warm Socks – Wool or synthetic.
- Long Underwear Bottoms – Medium weight, wool or synthetic.
- Softshell Pants — Outdoor Research and Mountain Hardwear make good options.
- Waterproof Pants – Gore-Tex or similar pants that fit over other layers. Full-length side-zipper is handy for putting on over boots.
- Long Underwear Top – Medium weight, wool or synthetic.
- Softshell Jacket — insulating, breathable, windproof
- Insulating Layer — puffy, sweater, etc. A second warm top for when really cold.
- Waterproof Jacket — Requires a helmet-compatible hood. Should fit over all other top layers combined.
- Lightweight Gloves — For warmer conditions, should be windproof.
- Insulated, Waterproof Gloves — Well built ski gloves work well.
- Warm Hat – Wool or synthetic. Small and snug enough to wear under climbing helmet.
- Buff, or Balaclava – Face and neck protection from wind, cold, and sun.
- Sun Hat – Optional. A lightweight cap when descending in bright sun
- Gaiters – Optional. For soft, slushy snow conditions. Outdoor Research's are the gold standard and fit well over mountaineering boots.
- Snacks – Tasty, high energy foods. Edible when cold. 1500-2000 calories worth.
- Water Bottles – Two 1-liter bottles.
- Sunglasses or Glacier Glasses – Should be high-quality, dark, and fit snugly or have side-shields.
- Ski Goggles – Clear or light in color, in case of strong wind and blowing snow.
- Sun Block – SPF 30 or higher, zinc-oxide is best, just a small one.
- Lip Balm – SPF 15 or higher
- Toilet Paper – Blue bags or wag bag.
- Headlamp – Check batteries before you leave home!
- Small First Aid Kit – Blister pads, ibuprofen, aspirin, antacids, personal prescriptions, band-aids.
- Compass – Know your route, Timberline is Magnetic South from Crater Rock
- Phone/Camera — Keep warm, in an inside pocket.
Technical Climbing Gear
- Mountaineering boots – Insulated, waterproof mountaineering boots are a MUST. Regular hiking boots will not work.
- Crampons – 10 or 12-point crampons. Black Diamond's Sabretooth and Serac are solid. Must be fit to boots BEFORE climb.
- Ice Axe – 50 to 65cm long depending on height.
- Climbing Pack — 25 to 60 liters
- Trekking Poles with Snow Baskets – Highly recommended for saving energy and your knees.
- Climbing Helmet – Bike helmets will not work, nope.
- Climbing Harness – Alpine-style, for example, the Black Diamond Couloir or Alpine Bod
- Climbing Rope — Length depends on size of your team but I typically bring a 8.4mm dry rope.
- Belay Device — ATC Guide works great
- 1 or 2 Snow Pickets
- Carabiners – And knowledge of how to use them.
- Sling, Cord, etc. – And knowledge of how to use them.
- Second Ice Axe or Tool – Optional, but I have started making it standard on all my Hood trips.