Spencer Kirk - Breaking Trail On Mount Hood

Hello! Who are you and where are your hiking roots?

Hi my name is Spencer and I’m a student, climber, photographer, documentarian, steward, and friend. 

Having been born and raised in Washington State, I don’t have any specific memories of when I started going outside. As long as I can remember, I have been in the outdoors in various capacities. However, I think my first regular contact with the outdoors, and wilderness in particular, was through the Boy Scouts.

So if I were asked “what do you love most about being outdoors? Health, quiet, solitude, friends, pushing your limits?” I’d say- yes, all the above.

I remember being fairly apathetic towards the concept of merit badges, ranks, and troop rivalries; however, something about being outside so frequently, all year round, kept me coming back. 

By my late adolescents/early teens, I had an inarguable gravitation towards being outside. It wasn’t so conscious that it could be articulated as passion, rather it was almost second natured to me- spending as much time outside, especially in the summer, as I could.

That being said, the first time I felt an overwhelming and developed sense of awe in the outdoors must have been when I was 13 or 14 years old on a backpacking trip through the eastern portion of the Olympic National Park.

I’ll spare the itinerary, but over the course of 3 days myself and my friend, who had to have been barely two years older than I, traveled somewhere shy of 20 miles after starting near sea-level, and wound our way around 3 alpine lakes, camped on a little island jetting out into the final one, and hiked back to a car we were barely old enough to drive.

To the seasoned backpacker, hiker, mountaineer, or alpinist a trip of less than 20 miles in 3 days could easily be argued to be non-challenge. However, this was my first unsupported backpacking trip, in that there was no adult or leader to fall back on, no back-up plans, and no easy way out.

The first time I felt an overwhelming and developed sense of awe in the outdoors must have been when I was 13 or 14 years old on a backpacking trip through the eastern portion of the Olympic National Park.

This self-reliance struck me as alluringly as the flowers, meadows, glacier water, mountains, and alpenglow combined. I think I’ve been hooked from then on. 

Funny enough, I don’t think I knew to be inspired when I was truly starting out in the outdoors. My parents kind of threw me outside and I just happened to take to it in my own way, and the rest kind of just evolved on its own.

It really, truly hasn’t been until I began climbing more technical routes on rock and in the alpine in the last 3 years that I've felt compelled to look around in earnest and see what others were doing, and draw from them ideas and philosophies on how and where to approach venturing outside.

It seems that the answer to the question “what do I love most about being outdoors?” is always fluid for me. There have been seasons of life where its been escapism, and others where its been the physical challenge and rigor of carrying what feels like all your worldly possessions on your back up some forgotten trail and forgetting entirely that this is supposed to be “fun.”

So if I were asked “what do you love most about being outdoors? Health, quiet, solitude, friends, pushing your limits?” I’d say- yes, all the above.

If I were asked what season of life I'm currently in and how that relates to the draw I have to the outdoors, I’d say it’s the opportunity to travel, live momentarily with, and document the people that come and go along the way.

I suppose the outdoors are a hobby for me- in that I gain no monetary or social capital from my activities outdoors. I have no ambition to chase a career in my fields of recreation, either; I’m a senior in college and have plans for my life that facilitate the lifestyle I wish to live without compromising on the freedom that comes from doing it out of love and not because I make a company or companies look good while I'm doing it.

I’m definitely in a season of life where when I’m home I’m very solitary, if not reclusive. But when I’m outside, nothing brings me more joy than a solid group of friends, new and old, who have a couple of days to suffer together while traveling up and down rocks, glaciers, and trails. Even so, I do hit a critical mass of social stimuli and will need to hit reset at some point.  

Those who know me would probably say Mount Rainier National Park [to associate most with] due to the sheer amount of cumulative time I’ve spent there just in the last few years, whether that be in the capacity of running, hiking, climbing, camping, teaching, or backpacking.

At risk of sounding pretentious, I’m of the belief that if ever I knew who I was, in all of my totality, life would have stagnated and dulled to almost irreparable degrees.

Rather, the person I am, and the traits I identify in myself, are (hopefully) always subject to change and evolution. I know that I value the growth that comes from doing difficult things, whether they were planned or forced upon me, and I know that I believe I’ve benefited from facing varying trials in my own life.

How did I become me? I’ll let you know when I find out.  

What’s your Story From The Mountain?

My story from the mountain is from an experience I had last January on Mount Hood in Oregon.

The funny thing about Mount Hood, as is the case with many of the Cascade Volcanoes in the Pacfic Northwest, is that it's really boring until it isn’t.

When I say that I mean that, as climbers, we all reach various points wherein we’re tired of the approach- the seemingly endless slog uphill to get to where the climbing is good, where the rock is steep, where the snow is hard, and where the ice is blue.

In this regard, many become cynical towards even the steeper routes on the volcanoes- I’m not always above this cynicism myself.

Myself and my partners Jonathan and Kim (@jonathan.foster, @kimberbelle) set out just before midnight on a cold, clear night early in January; making what is typically a night-long slog as is customary when traveling from Timberline Lodge 5,960 feet, to what is commonly considered one of two jumping off points for climbing on the south face of Hood, that being The Hogsback which sits around 10,600 feet- the other being Devil’s Kitchen just a few hundred feet lower.

Our goal initially was to drop off the southwest side just below the Devil’s Kitchen and climb a steeper, less traveled route up Leuthold Couloir. Around 3:00 or 4:00am, we found that a layer of ice a few inches thick had plastered the entire western and southwestern face of Hood and would make travel on steeper, more exposed terrain more difficult than we were looking for that weekend.

So, being as we were already ⅔ the way to the two other main routes on the south face, we continued on to the Hogsback and waited for the first inklings of sunrise. Myself and my two partners are competitive enough, and aware enough of the risks of climbing steep terrain beneath large parties, that when we pushed up the Hogsback so that we were one of the highest elevated teams on the mountain at that point in the morning to give ourselves an advantage when we decided to push come the first dim blues of sunrise.

Judging by the growing number of headlamps and the hushed chatter of climbers and clients not only on the Hogsback and Devil’s Kitchen, but now streaming up from Timberline as well, we knew it was going to be a busy day on the routes above us.

At this point we had the option of two routes in front of us- left up the default route known as the Old Chute, or right up another popular but steeper route called Pearly Gates- both of which lead to the same summit. We recognized the existing bootpack on Old Chute and lack thereof on Pearly, and figured that the majority of those behind us, and the few ahead, would be headed for the clearly defined, lower angle path up the Old Chute.

Knowing we didn’t want the stress of being fodder for perpetual ice fall caused by those above, and not wanting to contribute to the stress of those beneath, we opted to break trail and traverse a 60o slope to the right and move up the Devil’s Kitchen Headwall to the not-recently-climbed Pearly Gates, this did not give us pause because between the 3 of us we had probably around 6 ascents of Hood, though none via this route in particular.

It's worth mentioning that no matter which discipline of climbing you’re enjoying, one thing that strikes you, or at least it has been my experience, is just how quickly the ground falls behind you once you begin your respective ascent; and Hood is certainly no exception. 

From the 100 or so foot traverse to the base of Pearly Gates, we then fell in line, one behind another with me being last, and began making our way up the 60o - 65o couloir. From where we were near the top of the Hogsback to where we ended up at the proper base of our route we had created about 600ft of vertical exposure, topping out at around 1,000ft once through the Gates themselves.

Our ascent was moving as smoothly as one could expect when breaking trial through steep and crusty snow. I took a few moments to shoot some photos of my partners, and my partners of me, as sunrise was now in full-swing with all the pastel brilliance one can expect of a clear morning in the alpine.

The climbing then continued and the mood was one of excited optimism, the weather was impeccable, the quality of snow was good, and we were stoked to have so much space to ourselves- a warning sign we should have heeded. 

I could not have told you how long we were climbing, nor exactly how much ground we had covered, but at some point our progress came to a stand still. Being in the moment, climbing unroped and unprotected, we ran into an 8 or a 10 foot section of steep, crystalline, blue ice that probably topped out at around 70o.

It’s worth noting that none of us had more than one ice axe, and one ice tool per person- with only the ice tool being suited for such conditions. Additionally, I had mistakenly worn aluminum mountaineering crampons, not steel alpine/ice climbing crampons.

The principle difference being that steel front-pointing crampons are designed to be kicked into steep terrain and then sustain the full weight of a climber with not much more than the toes being engaged in the ice, whereas mountaineering crampons are lighter weight aluminum and are designed for travel on moderately steep snow and across glaciers, and are not sharp enough nor strong enough to be used on proper ice without bending and failing to dig in deep enough to be effective. 

All I knew was that I couldn’t go up, and I couldn’t go down.

Our front climber seemingly made quick work of this section and found a small, close-to-level area just above it and began constructing the jankiest of anchors to then offer an emergency belay at the request of our middle climber.

At this point,when forced to wait and think objectively about the situation we found ourselves in, a few facts became very apparent to me: we had traveled too far on too steep and icy of terrain already to safely downclimb back to the Hogsback, my ice axe was useless and simply bounced back at me when I attempted to swing the pick into the ice, and that falling would not result in sliding down into a clean runout of snow, but rather you would first bounce off the jagged and icy walls of the couloir like a pin-ball for close to 500 feet before tumbling down a slope of hard snow and ice for another 300 or so feet before coming to a stop.

With a quick, more or less placebo anchor built, our first climber dropped a rope to the middle climber who then tied in and moved her way up the same section of ice. In all honesty, at this point, I stopped paying attention to what my two partners were doing above me.

All I knew was that I couldn’t go up, and I couldn’t go down. All the while, my crampons were bending beneath my feet while fighting for any kind of bite on what was now either clear, blue ice or crumbly, yet still icy volcanic rock.

One of two tools I had to dig into snow and ice to stabilize and pull myself up with was useless, and now I was left clinging to what little surface area I was afforded, all the while the worst case scenario had began playing out in my mind.

Needless to say, we did not descend the same way we came up, and soon enough we were sat in diner, sunburnt and feasting on biscuits and black coffee.

Soon enough, the middle climber had cleared the ice step and had found much more hospitable steep now and was now on her way to the last couple hundred feet of the climb.

The rope was then dropped to me, I clipped in (only because tying in would require one hand too many in that moment), found a little section of ice and rock I could hook my foot into, took one final swing with my ice tool, and committed with everything I had to step/pull myself up and over the worst of it.

I’m sure it wasn’t pretty and my form left much to be desired, but one way or another, I was up and over the ice and standing up with more than just my toes for the first time in what felt like forever.

From there, the grade and conditions relented and the climb gave way to a much gentler berm that turned to an uphill walk to the summit of Hood- all 11,250 feet of it. 

Needless to say, we did not descend the same way we came up, and soon enough we were sat in diner, sunburnt and feasting on biscuits and black coffee.

Through hiking/climbing, have you learned anything about yourself or nature you’d like to pass on to others?

Experiences such as the above, but also so many others, have lent themselves to my belief in the fluidity of the person in regards to their growth and relationship with themselves and their perception of their own limitations and breaking points.

I will not, and do not advocate that one pick up an ice axe and crampons and make a mad dash for the nearest mountain, but there is something to be said about the pushing of boundaries and the growth that happens therein.

The trick is balancing risk and reward, and where to draw the line.

The trick is balancing risk and reward, and where to draw the line. Had any of us known that the events of that day would have transpired the way they did, I guarantee we would have done things differently. 

I have no formula on the right and wrong ways to push yourself, but I know for myself that I tend to learn the hard way- and the next time around I am tenfold better for it. If in no other way than little realizations such as the fact that in the above experience, I didn’t freak out- and I know that it could have been easy to.

That’s not to say I wasn’t scared, because I felt fear like I never had before in my life. But it didn’t cloud my judgement, and when push came to shove myself and my team moved as fluidly as possible, with competence and level heads.

What’s your favorite item in your pack?

No matter where I’m going or what I'm doing, there is one constant in my backpack- and that’s my camera. I can’t tell you the last time I left for the outdoors without it and I can’t tell you if or when I ever intend to. My 6D and 24-70 comes with me like their parts of me- and I guess functionally they are.

A huge part of my experience in the outdoors is hinged upon documenting the going’s-on and the people around me, and it’s possibly one of my favorite aspects to any given trip. 

Do you have any advice for other hikers who are just starting out?

Taking your first steps in anything can be daunting, especially in fields where there are people who seem to dominate it so definitely. All I can say is that for every person there is a balance between ambition and humility. And it’s up to each individual to find where their center point is.

Be eager to learn, but also move at your own pace; be inspired, but don’t compare yourself and abilities to others. Only you have an idea of where you need to start, physically and mentally, and even so- no one really knows until they push themselves.

Mentorship is important and productive. But even so, I see the journey of growth in the outdoors ultimately as a personal one.

Mentorship is important and productive. But even so, I see the journey of growth in the outdoors ultimately as a personal one.

We all make mistakes, its okay. The only thing to do is to acknowledge them and let them be platforms for growth. Social media can be a powerful tool in today’s culture, and the outdoors are not exempt.

But I would argue that such filtered views of people’s respective experiences can cloud your own expectations for yourself and your experiences, so take it with a grain of salt. 

What have been the most influential hiking books, podcasts, or people?

I’m more inspired more now than I ever have been, and all my previous experiences and interactions have lead up to this.

For me, I’ve drawn philosophical inspiration largely from literature, particularly from the likes of Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau, as cliche as that is. I love the sense of all-encompassing wonder and awe they display both explicitly and in more nuanced subtleties. Early on I also found myself drawing parallels between the relationship I had with the mountains to the cosmic nihilism of H.P Lovecraft, in that I was captivated by the frightful sense of insignificance he presented; the sheer, cosmic scale of indifference nature holds for mankind. 

Photographically and recreationally, I’ve come to be hugely inspired by photographers, activists, and documentarians such as Ben Tibbets (@Bentibbettsphotography), Renan Ozturk (@Renan_ozturk), James Barkman (@Jamesbarkman), Sterling Pierce Taylor

(@Sterlingptaylor),and Scott Kranz (@scott_kranz) just to name a few. 

Where’s your next adventure?

I’m still in college and am about to wrap up my bachelor's degree in natural resource economics, more succinctly- I’m still too poor to ski so I don’t get to do that in the winter. So my next 4 months will be spent wrapping up my last little bit of college as well as attending Fire Training Academy, which I suppose are adventures in their own right. 

But when I’m outside, nothing brings me more joy than a solid group of friends, new and old, who have a couple of days to suffer together while traveling up and down rocks, glaciers, and trails.

My big plans for the summer are returning to climb new routes on familiar mountains such as Rainier and Shuksan, followed by lots of time on alpine rock in the North Cascades trad climbing. Traditional climbing is something I’m newer to but am madly in love with. 

Where can others learn more about you?

I don’t market myself well, but if you want to see what I’m up to follow me @spencer.kirk, or reach out at spencerkirk.photo@gmail.com

Want to share your Story From The Mountain?

Hey, I'm Greg Kamradt, the founder of Terra Mano.

We interview awesome hikers/mountaineers/climbers/photographers and share the stories behind their ambition. By sharing these stories, we want to help others become inspired to reach their goals.

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