“A bivouac (pronounced /ˈbɪvuˌæk/, biv-oo-ak) traditionally refers to a military encampment made with tents or improvised shelters, usually without shelter or protection from enemy fire or such a site where a camp may be built.[1] It is also commonly used to describe a variety of improvised camp sites such as those used in scouting and mountain climbing. It may often refer to sleeping in the open with a bivouac sack, but it may also refer to a shelter constructed of natural materials like a structure of branches to form frame may be utilized, which is then covered with leaves, ferns and similar for waterproofing and duff (also known as leaflitter) for insulation.  As a verb, to bivouac (alternatively bivouacked, bivouacking, bivouacs also bivouacks) is to set up or camp in any such improvised camp.”

It was 3 am on Thursday morning, with still no hint of dawn over the Wy’east ridge of Mount Hood.  In the light of my headlamp I could see little more than Alex’s skis alternately receding from the light in front of me, and my mind rested on the soft nylon zip of my skins sliding across the slope.  In front of us loomed Illumination rock, bare and black, divested by sun of the rime that had coated it when I’d last seen it.  When dawn came, the sun would announce itself by first striking this towering pile of volcanic choss, but for now, the night remained dark, if a little warm.  My ears perked to a soft, sinister hiss that was quickly growing louder.  I looked uphill, shining my headlamp into the dark.  As my eyes adjusted, I froze, watching a threatening rock bouncing down from above, no more than twenty yards above.  My mind raced, it was surely a widowmaker, a complete game-ender, and it was hauling down the fall line towards our party.

Alex and I had left the parking lot at Timberline a long two hours before, heading off into soft snow, thankful for our skis to keep us afloat over the spring snow.  The register in the climbers cave showed that it was to be a busy day on the mountain, with more than twenty other parties on the way, and we were glad to be headed to less frequented route than the South side cattle haul.  We had scraped together a semblance of preparation the night before in an effort to dance up Leuthold’s Couloir before the quickly approaching summer temperatures turned it from an enjoyable couloir into a runneled shooting gallery of falling rocks and ice.  It was near to the end of the season for the route, but we’d hoped to snag one of the last nights of freezing temperatures to secure our ascent.

We made good time up through Timberline, taking turns setting skin track on the soft, recently turned cat track.  We could see far above us the tiny lines of lights of other parties winding across the mountain, making slow progress towards Crater rock.  On skis, we made better time and passed many ragtag groups on the way up the resort.  Once above the cat track, the snow had begun to harden, forming a cemented crust on top of the slush below.  The snow made for slower skinning and balance became more important, but we soon found ourselves level with our objective: the saddle above illumination rock.  Heading across the slope away from the friendly knowns of the South route and into the anticipated unknowns of a route that would lead us away from the snowfield and across the Eliot glacier, towards the “death route” of Yokum ridge, we set off into the dark.

A few minutes later, staring up at the rock that descended towards us seemingly in slow motion, I felt the cold possibility of death course through me.  It would be too soon, I thought, and cruel to those whose love rested on my skills and trusted in my survival.  The rock was as wide as a lunch tray and five inches deep.  Cartwheeling down the slope, it was bouncing to waist height and touching ground rarely.  In that instant I imagined what impact would be like; it is strange to imagine my body folded and crushed in an instant, followed by oblivion before pain is even an idea.  Luck of all things drove the rock’s path behind us, not by many feet.

“Jesus”, I exclaimed, taking some stuttering strides quickly forward.  “What?”,  asked Alex.  I realized that I had been so surprised as to forget to yell the obligatory “Rock!”.  “Let’s hustle to the saddle”, I said, and we skated quickly to shelter.  The saddle provided shelter, with a large gendarme above us and a slope to either side.  We settled in and took the opportunity to drink water and have a snack before discussing the situation.  I made the case for not continuing on our route: our plan had relied on rocks frozen in place, yet we’d seen some rockfall on a snowfield where there shouldn’t have been any.  That rock had to have wheeled all the way down from the crater 2000 ft above, explaining its tremendous velocity and surprise guest appearance.  Alex yielded to my experience, which spoke predominantly from my gut.  Experienced alpinists speak of ‘mountain sense’, and though I am inexperienced, the signs were powerful enough to stir this within me.  We decided to bivy on the ridge and wait for the sun to begin to come up so that we could see any approaching rocks as we traversed back to the safety of the snowfield to the east.

The lights of Portland glimmered in the distance as the sky slowly  grew brighter.  I worried to myself quietly as Alex soloed his way up the lower ridge of Illumination rock, drawn as he always is by marginal objectives and neglected rock of all sorts.  I fell asleep sitting up on my pack, tired more by the decompression following an adrenaline rush than by the climb, but awoke myself with a loud snore as Alex plunge stepped back towards me.  As the sun rose, it set the Eastern sky afire.  Fires in Bend had made the sky hazy and the sun echoed the fires in the clouds and up the side of Mount Jefferson to the South.

We suited up as the light became sufficient and quickly skied back across the bowling alley around 5 am.  Alex made a valiant display of heart and skill, skiing near-solid ice on an unfamiliar telemark setup.  The sunrise faded to pale pink as we skied terrible but welcome snow down to Timberline.  The wavy pattern of melting snow had formed into a bumpy ocean of ice that challenged our tired skiers’ knees.  I was surprised by the number of people still ascending the South route at that hour, and was equally surprised to see someone camping in the rock band below Crater rock.  We reached the car at 6am ready to head off to one of the longer days of work that I’ve ever experienced.

In retrospect, the appearance of that falling rock, coming so close to us, seems like a little warning from the mountain, against complacency, distraction, and plans.  The rock oughtn’t to have been unexpected; it was to materialize regardless of our plan and model of how the mountain moved beneath our feet.  Instead, in the dark and cold and effort we had developed a kind of tunnel vision, shielded falsely by the thought that rockfall couldn’t occur there.  Carelessness is the worst enemy of a mountaineer.  In the words of Reinhold Messner:

“I am not saying that a man’s will can stop rocks breaking away or hinder the passage of avalanches–only that a man who is contact with himself and his surrounding is unlikely to find himself in their path.  I would stick my neck out and suggest that the mentally well-adjusted climber won’t perish on a mountain–or, put another way, every mountain accident has its human ingredient.”

The mountain’s warning is a welcome lesson to me as a beginning alpinist, and I am thankful to be here now rather than crumpled on the snow.  I look forward to yet another encounter with Mt. Hood, though I am afraid that Leuthold’s Couloir may be an objective for a coming season, having already expired this year.  Tomorrow morning I travel to Chicago, back to flat land and an ocean without waves for a week, but upon my return, I think it will be time to head up Mt. Adams, perhaps to ski the Southwest chutes off of the summit.  Goodbye for now mountains, and thanks again.

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