Sunrise at Mt. Hood’s Illumination Rock

Kate Woodman, Guest Author
April 14, 2016 (Updated April 6, 2017)

I wake up to an obnoxious, persistent beep.

My alarm, going off.

It’s two o’clock in the morning on a Saturday.

While the party-goers are just settling into bed, I’m awaking to go climb a mountain.

Mt. Hood


Having packed up our things the night before, we — myself, my husband and my brother-in-law — grab an early morning snack (nothing too heavy, my stomach doesn’t enjoy being up early either), and hop in the car to make the hour and a half drive from Lake Oswego out to Timberline Lodge. The roads are, not surprisingly, empty and peaceful, with only the occasional gust of wind to keep us company.

We arrive at the lodge parking lot around 3:30 a.m., a handful of other early morning adventurers already parked and on their way up the mountain. We grab another quick snack — there’s little time for stopping if we’re to arrive at our destination before the sun breaks the horizon — and start gearing up for the climb. The first half on the groomed (albeit steep) ski trail should be pretty straight forward, but the crampons and ice axes are packed for the more treacherous traverse to our destination — Illumination Rock.

I try to open my car door, but it slams shut in the blustering wind. Timberline Lodge looks as if it’s reprising its role as the menacing hotel from The Shining, buried in snow and ominously dark. On the second try, my door opens and the air is bitter and cold against my face. I slide on my pack and grab my poles and we head to the check-in area to fill out the paperwork required in order to keep tabs on all climbers in case of emergencies.

With that, we’re ready to start climbing.

Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood

The wind mercifully seems to subside as we begin our long and relentless ascent up the groomed ski slope, and I warm up quickly. An hour goes by, then two, then three. My pace is tortuously slow for my fellow adventurers who are in much better shape than I am (though we do pass a handful of other climbers which makes me feel slightly better about my untrained condition), but we manage to press on without surcease with only our headlamps and the starry skies to guide us.

We reach the top of the second ski lift around 6 a.m. or so, the stars giving way to dawn. We step off the trail and head west, traversing across the fresh snow. The conditions are perfect — we are able to maneuver without crampons or snow shoes, though I can feel the effects of the elevation and the work is tiresome. My brother-in-law and I receive a lesson in mountain safety, as my husband makes us both self-arrest on our ice axes — just in case.

Our timing is perfect as we approach a great vantage point right as the clouds begin to turn pink and the aptly named Illumination Rock begins to glow the color of the sky. The color does not last long, but we are able to enjoy it as we take a quick snack break.


It is one of the most spectacular sunrises I’ve ever seen, made even more so by the effort required to witness it.

Mt. Hood



We continue on after witnessing the sunrise to the saddle and climb part way up the ridge of Illumination Rock.


 My husband — far more adventurous than I — shows of his acrobatic skills as he walks along the ridge, and then spends the better part of an hour exploring an ice route just north of the saddle.

My brother-in-law and I are content to ponder the magnitude of our surreal surroundings as we enjoy views of Mount Saint Helens, Mount Jefferson and The Sisters, and watch the shadow of the mountain stretch nearly to Portland.


Mt. Hood

The descent back down the mountain is tedious and though our pace is faster, the lodge never seems to appear any closer. I regret my decision to never bother learning how to ski and watch with jealousy as the skiers glide back down the mountain with ease.

The route feels steeper than the ascent —

perhaps because of the lack of anticipation for our destination.

Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood

Mt. Hood

But eventually we do make it down to the parking lot abuzz with activity — a very different sight from when we first arrived that morning. We sign out, acknowledging that we made it back down safely and head back to our car.

We don’t talk much, but when we arrive at the car to unload, we all take one more look back up at the mountain and smile at one another — a silent acknowledgement of all we had accomplished that day.