Friday, September 19, 2014

High on the mountain top ..... Three days on the Timberline Trail

The first part of this post is a letter to me.  I know I will feel some regret for the decision I made so I want to remember my reasons.

Dear Self:  When you chose to go home after day three, two days and twelve miles short of completing the 40 mile backpacking circuit around Mt. Hood, this is how you felt -----

You just completed three of the most challenging days of your nearly 60 years of life.  You hiked 28 miles, much of it going up, up, UP!!!..... carrying a 35-pound pack the size of Kansas.   The climbing was endless and many times you had to stop every few yards and heave in air. You saw the best that the Timberline Trail had to offer, and it defies description.  There were many moments when you couldn't believe where you were and what you were seeing.  But you pushed your body and mind to the limit and when the opportunity came to stop, it was too much.  You were exhausted, filthy, and sore to your bones.  Each day had been harder than the previous day.  And the climactic end of that third day, crossing through the ominous Eliot glacier canyon and across that raging river, well..... you'll just have to remember what it was like because words fall short.  You were afraid of an emotional collapse if you watched the car that could take you home, drive away.

But also remember that you were among the first into camp at the end of each day.  Remember that the physical help you received from others was essential but rare.  You could have stayed and you could have finished, but remember, REMEMBER what you DID do, and not what you didn't do.

Because what you did was awesome.


I do a lot of driving for our business, running our manufactured parts around, doing deliveries.  One of my frequent routes takes me out towards Troutdale on I-84, where I pass by Exit 13.   When the day is clear, and the afternoon sun is behind me, it's at this spot where I am suddenly greeted by the panorama of Mt. Hood towering on the horizon.  Especially in the spring when it's still heavy with snow, sparkling white against the vivid blue sky...... the scene is so stunning that I nearly gasp each time it bursts into view.  I grew up loving the sight of that mountain.

Enter the annual Manly Man Hike.  (Last year's hike is documented here, here, and here.)  Completing the Timberline Trail was entrenched on the bucket lists of several of the "Manly Men", and there have been previous failed attempts.  So it became the goal for this year.  Last year's hike was hard.  This would be harder.  I was scared, but couldn't bear not to go.  

Like last year, I prepared for weeks with my usual obsessive intensity, studying blogs and reports from others who had done it.  The more recent the report the better, because this mountain is ever changing.  I shopped, packed, weighed, and scrutinized every item that went into my pack that I would have to haul on my back.  We trained by stuffing bags of flour or liter pop bottles into our packs and trudging up and down local hills.  I haunted the weather forecasts which seemed to bounce around almost every hour.   I did all I could do.  

Although the title of the Manly Man Hike is forever carved in stone, this year it included three women -- New Delightful Friend Heather, Favorite Daughter Lindsay, and me.   Lindsay is truly her father's daughter, gleefully jumping head first into whatever adventure presents itself and flinging joy wherever she lands.   I just make sure she remembers to pack her socks and enough food.

Filtering water.
Topping off the list of fellow hero-hikers are:

Fearless Leader/Organizer Steve, whose truth-embellishments can seldom be trusted.
Coolest Guy Garth, who makes everything fun.

Intrepid (don't-forget-your-hat-next-time) Allen.
Always Smiling Josh.  (Heather's husband and they are the perfect pair!)

 ..... and of course, Dear Husband Bryce, who is the rock to which I cling.

Favorite comment of the trip:  (paraphrasing)  "The Manly Man hike is where we send the women ahead to scout out the route and help us across the streams."  ~ Garth

Day One.  No turning back.

Bryce, Lindsay, and I hit the road at 4 a.m. in two cars.  Lindsay, mom of three show-stopping young kidlets, couldn't be gone five days, so we dropped off her car at the campsite called Cloud Cap that we would hike into three days later, so that she could drive home early.  It was the only spot along the trail accessible by car .... although that nine-mile bumpy, rutted, dirt path barely qualifies as a road.   The sunrise was spectacular.

Then we headed back to Timberline Lodge to meet the rest of our group.   Here we left our cars, climbed into our packs, and began walking.

This was a ten-mile day, much of it a knee/thigh-killing descent, ending at Ramona Falls.... a beautiful spot which sadly went unappreciated because by the time we got there, we were spent.

There is no time to stand and gawk at the waterfall that cascades beautifully over the rocks, because there are tents to pitch, air mattresses to inflate, things to wash, food to cook, sore feet to bemoan, etc.  It's a crowded camp area bordered by a mountain wall on one side and a drop off on the other, with campers all around.  Trying to find a private spot to take care of "business" was challenging, and finding a spot to set up a shower was futile.  I gave up on the shower.   T'was also the night we were welcomed by spiders and shirt-eating squirrels.

That first day, we saw sights that are the reason for it all.   We stood at the edge of canyons, with the magnificent rocky summit of Hood above us and sprawling vistas below us.  Even pictures fail to express .... but that's the best I can do here…..

We met up with the Sandy River, among the first of many river crossings.  It's at places like this where one learns to appreciate cairns (properly pronounced "kerns", although everyone says carns, or ca-erns,  because that's how it's spelled, darn it.)

 These are little stacks of rocks left by previous hikers to show the best direction to go, or the best place to cross, or at least the best way when THEY were there.   Fortunately there were logs laid together on which we gingerly crossed, remembering at every step that if your pack falls in and gets soaked, you are toast.  Bodies and clothes dry.  Down-filled sleeping bags, tents, and your change of clothes also dry.... eventually.... but not before that night when you will sorely need them.

Day Two.  "Oh, 'bout a mile/mile-and-a-half."

Note to self:  Bring more Ambien.  It's not good to have to ration at times like this.

The weather held and it was beautiful.  But this was the day we had to pay for all those descents of the day before.  We had approximately nine to ten miles to do that day, and those miles went on and on, seemingly into the Millennium.

Great picture by Josh.
We climbed and we climbed and I panted, gasped, sweated, and groaned.  My affection for this mountain wore thin.  After each long ascent, the trail would level off mercifully for all of about 30 seconds before handing us another long climb.  We trudged up a long tree-covered ridge that dropped downward on both sides.  Now and then the trees would open up and offer haunting views of the looming summit, through the smokey haze of a forest fire happening somewhere off in the valley.  Again, there are no words to describe it.

Wait.  Do you see it?

I had a copy of a trail summary I had printed off before coming and with our map, we kept thinking we were farther than we actually were.

 Conversation typically went like ..... "Now according to what it says, we should hit a trail junction any minute now, which means we are at mile 18, which then means all we've got are a few switchbacks and we're there!"  ("There" meaning our next campsite.)  But the junction wouldn't come when expected and then we'd realize we weren't nearly as far along as we thought and "there" was still miles and several river crossings away.   We averaged about a mile an hour.

We planned to take a shortcut path that Garth and Steve had taken some years previous, which they found in the foggy mist via a GPS.  We came to what Garth thought might be it, and Bryce hiked up to check it out.  Garth, Lindsay, and I sat and waited and Garth scoured his memory trying to recall if this was the correct path.   After Bryce had disappeared into the trees, Garth mentioned he remembered there were big rocks and Lindsay said, pointing back a short distance from where we were sitting, ..... "There are some big rocks over there".  Then we saw the cairn and the right path.  If we hadn't stopped and waited at the wrong path, we would have missed the right path entirely. 

Note to other hikers:  When the sign says "Cairn Basin - 3 miles", don't believe it.   Plan on at least four, which will feel more like six.

Cairn Basin is still recovering from a 2011 forest fire and is where we planned to camp that night.  It's a wide area with multiple tent sites, allowing us to spread out away from the several other campers.... or rather they away from us since we were the bigger, noisier group.  We met up with a 20-something-year-old girl doing a solo hike, who insisted, according to her map, that Cairn Basin was still ahead.  My printout said there was an old stone shelter at Cairn Basin which, said (creepy) shelter, was right there within sight during our discussion.

Fortunately another couple of hikers happened along who concurred that we were indeed where I knew we were.  We encountered this young solo hiker once again the next day, and she was doing well.  We all hope she made it, but I highly question the wisdom in her plan of doing this by herself.

Day Three.  In the shadow of glaciers.

The weather was getting cooler, but was still good.  According to the map, we only had about a thousand feet to climb that day, but it felt like we repeated that thousand feet multiple times.  It was another hard day, but during breaks we were almost dumb-struck as we filled our water bottles beneath snow-covered glacier-bridges stretched across waterfalls with the top of Hood hovering overhead.... we could not get over where we were and what we were seeing!

It was too easy to forget to pull our eyes up off the path ahead as we trudged up those trails, and yet each time we did pause to look around, we almost had to grab hold of someone or something because the view was powerful enough to jolt a grown man off balance.  (I need more WORDS! ….. Majestic?  Unbelievable?  Incredible?  …. Wow???…… Nothing describes it.)

This was to be a seven or eight mile day, which meant to plan on about eight hours.  It actually took over nine hours, because this was the day we faced Eliot.  

There used to be what was probably a LOVELY bridge built crossing the Eliot river, but in 2006 it was washed out in a storm.  Eliot is a huge glacier high up on the mountain that melts into a small, yet fast-moving river that rages over boulders, creating rapids and waterfalls.  This river lies at the bottom of a mammoth canyon.  With the loss of the bridge, the Forest Service officially closed the trail, with threat of fines to trespassers which has not stopped the hundreds of hikers passing through every year.  This was our biggest concern so a few weeks ago we drove up to check it out, via the east side.  That morning we found a semi-easy trail down into the canyon on that side where there was even a rope at one spot.  The river was low and we found a crossable section.  Easy peasy.  Other hikers told us there was also a rope on the west side but they hardly needed it.  We wondered what the big deal was.  Piece of cake.  

Fast forward to our third day on the trail.  The new detour trail that was created after the bridge washed out, on the west side from which we approached the canyon, was this ridiculous squirrel path etched in the side of a nearly straight-up hill.  At the base of this path sat a rough little sign saying, "Don't do it".   (As IF we had a choice?)  We crawled our way up to the top and then stood gasping and sweating as we gazed into the gaping mouth of the Beast.

Stole this pic off the web.
This canyon was the biggest yet, lined with gritty scree and rocks that threatened to let loose and tumble down taking us along for the ride.  Lindsay's fear of heights kicked in as we had to crawl, scrape, skid, and claw our way (still hauling the weight of Kansas on our backs) down the steep walls into the abyss.  We met up with the "hardly needed" first rope, which we clutched like a lifeline.  After the first harrowing descent to the bottom of the rope, we were able to sit for a moment and I dumped the pound of scree out of my boots.  At that point we realized the river was still far below so we then had to hike and scramble over boulders to make our way up stream in the canyon, gradually bringing the river up to our level.  It was at this point we THOUGHT the worst was behind us.  Not so.

A frightened Lindsay took her turn on the rope while Josh and I waited above.

That speck on the hill in the upper left is me, working my way down the rope.
Heather and Josh heading down
We soon realized the river was higher, due to the lateness of the day, compared to what it was on our reconnaissance hike of a few weeks previous.  The spot where we had crossed before was still doable but treacherous, and upstream held no possibilities.  Bryce got his pack across and came back to take other packs, which meant his feet, if not the rest of him, would be soaked before we all got to the other side.  There was no option to crossing this torrent.  It had to be done.  So we said a prayer.  Then we decided to check further downstream, (which I credit to inspiration) which was tricky to access because the shore became very steep and more unstable.  More clawing, scraping, and scree in the boots as we worked our way down along the river's edge until we found a couple of crossable spots.  Bryce took my pack across and then I, with the help of poles and his outstretched hand, got across by leaping from rock to rock while the river roared below me.  Rock-leaping across a raging river is definitely unnerving, to say the least.  Over-leap and you fall forward, under-leap and you fall backward, and either way you're going in the water.  There are no second chances, you have to get it right the first time.

(Unfortunately we have no pictures here.  Being in survival-mode, all cameras were packed away.)

The roar of the rushing water was so loud that we had to shout to be heard.   I went back part of the way to help Heather across, and the others plus their packs, crossed over one by one at another spot close by.   I appreciated all the previous river and stream crossings we'd weathered before this, which had bolstered my courage..... otherwise, I would have frozen into a useless mess of tears.   All in all, our prayers were heard and answered.  

More ropes and a doable path took us up the east side and out of the canyon and Lindsay and I made our way ahead of the others, down the half mile or so to Cloud Cap campground and her car.  Here were actual picnic tables and an actual faucet with actual running water that needed no filtering and an actual toilet with actual toilet paper...... and an escape.  

With the use of Lindsay's car, Bryce planned a surprise and had a cooler ready with steaks and pie, and a small BBQ.   While we ate this delicious treat, I debated.  Should I go, or stay?  As I said above, I was physically and emotionally spent.  I worried about Lindsay driving on that long remote cow path without cell service, alone in the dark.  And rain was forecasted for the next day.  I just didn't have it in me to go on.  It was never on my bucket list to complete the Timberline Trail.  Heck, I don't even HAVE a bucket list.  

My gut said go home.  So I did.

At this point, my only regret is leaving Bryce to finish it without me, although I know he would have done the trip if I hadn't gone at all.

But the shower when I got home, and my bed were as wonderful as I anticipated.  It was a tremendous experience that I will NEVER do again .... and one I will never forget.

Lindsay, me, and Hood.  Fabulous shot, Bryce!

Again, thank you Steve, Garth, Allen, and Josh, for allowing us "manettes" to tag along.  You guys are wonderful and you saved me more than once on many a stream crossing.  I admire your patient natures as you helped one another over the rough spots.   Thank you Heather, for your gentle, cheerful presence and complete lack of complaints.  You did it, Girl!  Thank you Lins, for talking me up those brutal climbs and showing us how fears are faced and conquered.  And thank you Bryce, for being my rock. 

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