The Timberline Trail
If this wind doesn’t stop blowing, I’m gonna huck myself off the next bloody cliff. Ears are ringing, hands are numb and I’m behind schedule. The wind, I forgot about the damn wind…
Mt Hood is my backyard. It offers me work and play while commanding my deepest respect for the beauty and terror it unleashes. Hiking the Timberline Trail is an iconic outdoor experience in the Northwest. It has all the pain of an abscessed tooth and all the pleasure of unlimited trips to the dessert bar. I recently spent time out on the trail thinking about both. My October circumnavigation takes place at the end of the hiking season, just before snow falls. This is a challenge. I plan on completing 42-miles in three short days, solo. It’s either a folly from inexperience or self-importance, something I’ll surely discover. This is a chance to get unplugged or unhinged and I’ll take my lonely escape into the thin air to find out.
With the sun hanging lower in the southern sky, no clouds in the forecast and a full moon on the wane, I prepare to take off. I didn’t do a lot of research on the trip. The Internet is full of hiking accounts on the trail with maps, logs, photos and descriptions of some of the more challenging features. I want my own adventure. I did print a trail mileage log with campsites and water access in case I got in a pinch. I have a map from the 70’s, a compass and the know-how to use both. There are plenty of places to get lost, but heading in any downward direction would lead me to civilization, if the hike didn’t kill me. Food is simple: energy bars, ramen noodles, gorp, hot drinks and chocolate. I plow through the pantry and take the lightest stuff; no special freeze-dried anything. Overnight freezing temperatures encourage a down coat and vest along with an assortment of fleece. Rain gear is a debate, but ends up in the pack; experience rules. No tent, but a light tarp to provide some protection. To manage weight, I plan to use every clothing article to keep warm in the three-season bag.
The wind scours all the forest fire smoke from the atmosphere before my early morning arrival. The brilliant blue backdrop at the summit brings everything into focus. This is going to be something special. Most hikers take 4–5 days to complete the trail using a clockwise direction. Three days in the opposite direction works for me. I make last minute adjustments, cringe as I pulled the full pack on my back, and head east to start my inspirational journey.
Two things hikers like to talk about are the stream crossings and elevation gain/loss. A dozen significant stream crossings and only one real bridge in 42 grueling miles. Ten thousand feet of rising and falling around the mountain makes it feel like a hike to the summit and back, from Portland! And it all starts right out of the Timberline Lodge parking lot.
The White River canyon is a huge gash, and fall water levels are lowest of the year. The White still looks like a river. These crossing tend to be subjective. Boot prints suggest several opportunities, but I quickly learn to use the rock cairns for guidance with varied success. The up and down rhythm of the trail is quickly established in the first two miles and the pack weight becomes more evident. I am hauling 40 pounds with full water. Being alone, I worry about lots of things, but water is my nemesis. I struggle with having too much and not enough. It’s too early in the trip to judge. Staying hydrated in the wind at altitude is critical. Being above the tree line leaves no relief from the blowing dust rising from the canyon sidewalls. I drink, therefore I am.
With weather cooperating, staying on an aggressive schedule of 14-miles a day is the first test. With more crossings, the first eight miles are hard fought. The trail starts a two thousand foot elevation gain along inhospitable terrain. Fall daylight fades as I reach the top of Gnarly Ridge. Dust clouds blowing off the summit intensify and now wind is whipping up debris from the canyon below sending chills down my sweaty spine. My mileage goal is unraveling; physically I feel pretty good after twelve testy miles. Being close to the trail’s 7300-foot high point forces camp in a clump of scrub pines clinging to the barren landscape. Snowfields flank me and conditions quickly go from comfortable to cold. Hot food is close to ready, but finding an appetite at altitude is challenging. I force myself to eat the tuna-noodle affair I quickly concocted. The dust creates a fog-like billowing over the ridge and the grit is getting into everything. My only escape is the warmth and rest of the sleeping bag.
Sleeping without acclimating is fitful. The moon is as bright as a reading light, but I have no interest in my book. I make a few notes on the day, cinch the bag hood tight, and search for sleep amidst the plummeting temps and relentless wind.
Morning sun filters through the pines and I need to move. I light the stove for hot coffee and nothing. The fuel canister is frozen. Everything’s frozen. Grab some breakfast bread and pack up for a make-up day on the miles. Did I mention the wind.
The trail has fantastic stone cairn markers with huge timbers reaching out to guide hikers over the snowfields normally blanketing the moraine. Today it’s a beach walk between the pylons, an occasional snow patch keeping things interesting. I stay high on the trail to the Eliot glacier.
The shelters around Mt Hood are classics. I passed a collapsed stone hut at the base of Gnarly Ridge and pondered the force necessary to topple such an enduring edifice. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Depression, many like Cooper Spur shelter are still intact and functional. This is where I planned to spend the night, and I push on as Eliot crossing waits in the valley below.
I turn the music on for the first time to help calm the bee’s nest of thoughts buzzing in my head. Being solo, music presents a whole new level of emotional exposure in this environment. Feelings escape uncontrollably as sound and words produce thoughts as deep as these glacial ravines. I reach for a one-dimensional focus on my endurance and end up with a handful of raw emotions, reducing me to tears. There is joy and comfort in the vast loneliness, but sorrow and self-doubt never rest. I embrace the ragged edges of my thoughts and dreams. They alone guide me around this mountainside.
The #600 trail is officially closed at Eliot canyon due to a huge washout in 2006. The original trail hits the rim and disappears into the abyss. There are ropes that drop hikers into the ravine at the lower detour crossing. The creek flow is also significant even this late in the season. I chose the upper detour route across the glacier for a couple reasons. An experienced mountaineer, I know my way around the ice. I see the route and it looks relatively safe. I climbed icefalls here in the 70’s; it’s now reduced to a skating rink. The reality of climate change is starkly evident on the Eliot. While still a powerful piece of wilderness real estate, it is a shadow of its former self.
The dirt-covered ice provides stable footing while the crevasses remain obvious. I cross and decide to start a long traverse on the sidewall scree field. A simple error with no help in sight creates major concern. I reach the ridge and head down to the established route. The stress of the crossing are evident during my descent. Pushing to make up time, I wade into the small trees and get lost. I lost my pack earlier, while setting it down to find a good creek crossing, but this is ridiculous.
Physical demands of this hike remind me of its constant complexity. The emotional trial is just as unrelenting. Self-doubt creeps in again and I need a bearing, forcing me to climb back up to the ridge. My initial view north fails to deliver, but as I scan south I see #600 heading my way. I’m crashing downhill using the trees as friction to control my speed when I suddenly hit a clearing. Slowly falling out of control, I can only hope for and injury-free landing. I spin ever so slightly and end up on my pack, but wrack my lower legs on the rocks. Gingerly righting myself, I shuffle carefully to the trail. Must keep enthusiasm in check.
With Eliot in the rearview, I pick up the pace. I need 16 miles to get back on schedule. I drop a thousand feet in three miles, reaching the Coe where my heart sinks. The creek is swollen and the spray is freezing on the rocks. Fear returns with the additional danger of a downstream waterfall. I chip away at the ice with my hiking pole. After unloading a couple of heavy stuff sacks I’m ready. The light pack makes the crossing comfortable and I repeat it for the other gear. With everything strewn about, I decide to take a break, filter some water, and revive my legs for the climb out.
The trail cuts through an old burn littered with downed trees and stark devastation. I feel the fatigue of the earlier effort and start a lonely debate on the reality of completing the trail in three days. Just thinking about the 20-degree nighttime lows is exhausting. Maybe I underestimated terrain intensity, or overrated my own. A friend advised, “go clockwise, it’s easier.” Really? Two days of going the wrong way? I think about places coming up where roads provide an escape. I knew willing one foot in front of the other might get tough, but never thought giving up would enter the equation.
I appreciate the beautiful meadows in Elk Cove as a blur from van Gogh’s brush and push on. I pass all kinds of water coming off the mountain and beat myself up for carrying so much. I move without determination and see my goals littering the trailside. There is some relief as Cairn Basin stretches before me. I reach the stone shelter and it looks cold and uninviting. I check my trail log and realize I’m 19 miles from the car. The path is smooth and level, so I opt to keep moving.
Darkness plies the sky. I push and produce disappointment. I gingerly cross McGee Creek and pass the McNeil Point trail, realizing it took me thirty minutes to peel off a flat mile. I find some wind protection and I’m done. There is a nice fire ring with a serious pile of tinder dry wood. It hasn’t rained around here since June, so fires have been banned for months. I get some hot food and that’s all the heat I generate before crawling into the cocoon. The solitude is deafening. Even the wind is taking a break. With 18 rigorous miles looming, it’s lights out.
The rotation of the Earth accelerates over night and catches me sleeping in. I’m now behind on my worst-case scenario schedule. From here, the Timberline Trail descends to the lowest point on the altitude chart. I lose two thousand feet on the cruise down to the junction with the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Sandy River gorge. There is a smooth crossing at Muddy Creek and I think about how easy it would be to head north on the PCT to the road at Lolo Pass and look for a ride.
A sock switch based on the high mileage day has me in a pair with more padding at the heel and toe. After eight miles to reach the Sandy, it feels like sand in my boots. I ignore my discomfort, as it evolves into pain.
The hike up river to the Sandy crossing is like walking on a bad beach. Ankle rolling rocks and fine glacial sediment combine to create slow going. There is a log bridge with a flimsy rope railing, making the river passage pretty easy. I need water and decide to fill just the bladder to conserve weight. Everything now seems to be getting heavier. The water filter, the trail mix, the crackers, the fuel; all slowing me down; all to blame. It is a long three-mile slog up to the crest. I plan to take three hours, which gets me out before dark. An hour in, my hips need a break and dig into my food bag for an energy bar. As I look over my nutritional assets, something has to go. I decide on the least impact and shortest half-life in the oncoming winter. Out go the crackers. Goodbye gorp. That felt good.
Every step is a major effort. This western exposure produces thick, cool forest. Switchbacks end with a spectacular view of the Sandy canyon and Mt Hood. At Lost Creek a huge double log traverses the stream. These trees are wide as sidewalks with one slightly offset on top of the other. I check the creek bed for alternate routes. A fall from the log could be devastating. I see a way to walk the lower log while draping my body over the upper, blindly shuffling my feet.
Paradise Park is my third night, backup stop. I pass the spur trail that loops into one of the busiest backpacker camps on the mountain. It has stunning mountain views, water and lots of flat spots. I pass a young woman hiking solo and exchange a glance and hello. She looks pretty fresh and is heading for Paradise. I am sticking with my game plan and heading out.
The Zig Zag River canyon is gorgeous in every sense of the word. The river flies off the mountain in a huge, cascading waterfall. Paradise Park covers the western flank. Remarkably, I’m ahead of schedule reaching the overlook at the top with its daunting view of Mississippi Head, the canyon’s sentinel. I take in this sweeping landscape on feet pushed over the blister limit. Approaching Timberline ski area, movement continues uphill, which seems unfair knowing the Lodge is down below. The light retreats as chairlift cables and towers transect the evening sky. My hands and ears are tingling from the descending cold. The Lodge is aglow and inviting. It was easily in the 30s with the wind chill. I pick my way through the manicured paths and head for the car.
It’s 6 p.m. and I reach the goal I set three days and 42-miles earlier. I turn on the car heater, full blast, point downhill and head for home. I am a euphoric, emotional train wreck, and curiously unprepared for this to be over. Should have done five days clockwise, right? I believe the longer you spend in solitude at altitude; the more committed you become to remaining there. As driving eases me back to reality, my soul is trapped at higher elevations. Probably where it belongs. I’m thankful to have completed this adventure with grace and vigor, and begin plotting a circumnavigation around Mt Rainier for my encore. Happy trails!