They’re here, they’re queer, they’re climbing Mt. Hood. The 2020 film “Who’s on Top?” (directed by Devin Fei-Fan Tau and narrated by George Takei) follows a trio of novice climbers — Stacey Rice, Shanita King and Ryan Stee — as they attempt to summit Oregon’s highest peak. The film is an ode to perseverance in both mountaineering and each climber’s experience as an LGBTQ+ person.
As congenial as the cast is, the star of the film is Mt. Hood itself, a mountain that boasts year-round thrills including skiing, snowboarding, hiking, camping and climbing. Reportedly over 10,000 mountaineers attempt to summit the peak each year. The southern route, which is the most popular, can be conveniently accessed from the parking lot of Timberline Lodge (elevation 6,000 feet).
Led by the fourth cast member, Portland climbing guide Taylor Feldman, the athletes prepared for the snowy climb by participating in several on-mountain training sessions. Physical skills like rappelling, using ice axes and traveling safely over snowpack were taught in tandem with mental preparation like managing emotional fatigue and the realities of an “alpine start” (that’s beginning a climb between midnight and 2 a.m., for the uninitiated).
Training for the 11,250-foot glacial peak also included at least three days a week in the gym on the treadmill and StairMaster, cycling, lifting weights, and working on flexibility. Some chose to run, participate in CrossFit or practice yoga. To mimic the rise in elevation, cast members spent several sessions exercising in the Altitude Training Room at Evolution Healthcare & Fitness (a special gym for climbers in Portland) and did a timed hike at a popular trail in the Columbia River Gorge, aiming for a gain of 2,800 feet in under 3.5 hours.
For all visitors to Oregon’s mountains, Feldman specifically recommends training for the elevation. “If you live near hills and mountains, take hikes to build stamina while gradually increasing elevation gain, mileage and pack weight. If you live on flatter terrain, try running stadium stairs.”
“No matter how you train,” Feldman advises, “the earlier, the better. Giving yourself a longer amount of time to get in shape will reduce your risk of injury.”
An Uphill Climb
More than once, the four cast members likened the arduous process of climbing Mt. Hood to coming out. Their message? Whether climbing a literal mountain or trying to figure out who you are, anyone might feel as though they were staring up the highest peak in the world.
In the film, Feldman puts it another way: “The first half of the climb, you’re in the dark, it’s kind of scary, you don’t know what you’re doing, are you queer, are you not? Once you get up higher…maybe you’re starting to come out, or maybe you’re starting to admit to yourself or to your loved ones. And then the sun starts to rise, and you see everything that is available in front of you and you see that the summit is so close, and that this process has all been worth it.”
Rice is quick to praise the rejuvenating forces of Oregon’s natural splendor. “It’s a spiritual place to be, as a trans person, as a queer person, with all that healing energy.” Recalling her first visit to Portland, Rice saw the state as a kind of fantasyland: lush forests, rugged coastline, high desert and a world-class peak all so close to a major U.S. city. “I could not believe that within an hour and a half of Portland there were all these incredible things to do.”
Must-visits on Rice’s list include winter hikes in The Dalles and Bend, trails near Ecola State Park, and the stunning forests of Cape Perpetua (only a few miles south of Yachats, a quirky and queer-friendly spot in its own right). “If my soul needs a recharge, I go there,” she says.
How to Prepare
Climbing can be a very dangerous activity, so beginners should take alpine safety classes and go with an experienced guide like Timberline Mountain Guides or the Mazamas, or book an inclusive group experience like the Mt. Hood Summit Program. Oregon’s climbing season runs from April through June, but it’s important to plan far in advance. While training and planning your climb, it’s essential to take weather and mountain conditions into account and be willing to cancel your plans at a moment’s notice if conditions look poor.
To physically and mentally prepare for a climb like Mt. Hood (which requires technical skills), Feldman recommends hikers look for trails that correspond with the mountain’s rise in elevation, roughly 1,000 feet gained per mile. Angel’s Rest Trail is a short and steep beginner’s dream, while trails like Larch Mountain (4,200 feet of elevation gained over 14.1 miles) and South Sister (4,898 feet of elevation gained over 12.2 miles) are excellent routes for more advanced hikers. (Note that South Sister requires a Cascades Wilderness Permit for trips between late May and late September.)
Rice and Feldman recommend these resources for BIPOC/queer folks looking to get outside in Oregon.
- Wild Diversity, a network of BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities seeking safe spaces in the outdoors
- Unlikely Hikers, a group of outdoorspersons for BIPOC, queer, trans and non-binary, and adventurers of all abilities
- Melanated Mazamas, an affinity group for BIPOC climbers
- The Aspen Inn, a queer-owned inn near Crater Lake