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Mount Hood – Timberline Trail – 08/25 – 08/26/2011

2011 September 15
Timberline Trail

“There is a lot of snow in Paradise Park and you need snowshones or crampons for the east side of the trail.”

“Seriously?” I ask the ranger on the phone.  I was planning to leave the next morning on a 3-4 day solo trip around Mt Hood on the Timberline Trail.  I was being responsible and double checking the conditions before heading out.

“Yes.  Using regular backpacking boots would be very risky.  That was just updated by someone today so it’s current,” she replied.  “Also, route finding is very difficult on the east side of the mountain right now.  And the Eliot Creek crossing is still closed.”

I hung up the phone.  I knew all about the Eliot crossing and knew that the “official” statement was that it was closed.  Many people report that it is sketchy but, especially going clockwise around the mountain and with a little planning, it is very doable.

I’m sure not going to lug a pair of snowshoes around the mountain.  Besides, whatever snow there is would be extremely hard packed at this time of the year so snowshoes would be worthless.  Crampons are much lighter, but I fear that I would be putting them on and taking them off so often that they would be impractical with my very comfy backpacking boots.  “Seriously?” I thought to myself again.  I decided that the best compromise was to wear my crampon-compatible lightweight mountaineering boots and bring the crampons.  This would be my undoing…

The view of the summer ski area (Palmer Snowfield) from the parking lot at Timberline Lodge.

I parked at Timberline Lodge and saw people setting up for Hood to Coast – the relay race from Mt Hood to the Oregon Coast that would be starting the next the morning.  I headed to the climber’s registration to get a backcountry permit.  There is a whole stack there, but there is also a huge sign instructing backpackers NOT to sign in here as this is to track climbers.  I should pick up my permit along the trail at the backcountry entry point.

Just getting onto the actual trail and looking back at Timberline Lodge. Rain in the distance on the left...

I hit the trail heading clockwise.  The wildflowers throughout the lower ski resort are stunning.  Where there is snow higher on the mountain there are snowboarders working the terrain park (yes, you can ski/ride on Mt Hood in August every year).

The backcountry registration area.

After a short while I hit the registration box for backcountry permits.  It’s empty.  What the hell?  I take a picture of the empty box figuring that I can show it to any disgruntled ranger that I may come across before I hit the next permit box at Bald Mountain.

The registration box was all out of permits.

A couple miles in and I’m moving at a good clip, but I notice something unsettling – I’m getting a hotspot on both heels.  I momentarily panic – I forgot to bring duck tape!  Wait, I’ve got some band-aids and besides, I’ve got good socks and liners.  I’m overreacting…

I stop and put on the band-aids then continue on along.  Much better.  When I get to Zigzag Canyon I can feel them bothering me again.  I’m still not worried.  I’ve passed several people already and I’m sure that I can get some duck tape from somebody.  Just then, a guy who I passed early comes strolling up behind me.  I make a little small talk then ask if he had some duck tape that he can give me.  “I think so.  If I have any, it’s not much and it’s pretty old, but it should work.  Do you want it now?’

Looking into Zigzag Canyon. You can see the river all the way at the bottom.

The hotspots have not been bothering me on the downhill sections and we were about to descend into Zigzag Canyon.  “I don’t want to hold you up – Why don’t we head down together and see what you have when we get to the river crossing at the bottom?”  Larry (his name) and I made the long decent to the bottom of the canyon.

At the bottom he hands me a lighter wrapped in old yellow duck tape.  “Take it all.  It’s old anyway. I need to replace it.”  I take the extra tape and wrap it around a trekking pole.  He also gives me some moleskin which I graciously accept.

There is a group of people crossing the river making it look much harder than it needs to be.  The river is not wide and there are plenty of rocks to walk across.  A pair of hikers moving fast and light quickly cross the river over a couple rocks without even hesitating.  Larry tries to do the same but gets his trekking pole stuck between two rocks making him stomp in the shallow water on the other side.  He heads on up into the woods on the other side.

Thanks Larry!

I get my blisters covered in moleskin and duck tape then look at the river.  I had brought some sandals to wear for the river crossings but I have just dressed my heels and don’t want to ruin that moleskin by getting it wet.  I decided to put my boots back on for the crossing.  Besides, they are waterproof so as long as I don’t get deeper than my ankle, I’m fine.

The right way to cross a river. Read my description below for the wrong way to cross a river.

River crossings on Mt Hood can be dangerous for a backpacker.  Even in small rivers such as this one, a fall may find you being dragged underwater by your heavy pack.  As a rule, you should unbuckle your waist and chest straps to allow for a quick release of the pack.  I do this then start crossing over the rocks.  A couple steps across the river and my loose backpack shifts suddenly.  I over correct and instinctively put a foot into the deeper water.  That foot slips and I go sideways into the river, banging my thigh into the rock I was standing on.  I quickly jump out of the river but can already feel that my boots are full of water.

I’m pissed.  I take the boots off and wring out my socks.  I have a spare pair of socks but they would just become soaked as well by the wet lining of the boots.  I’m hoping that the old duck tape has kept the moleskin dry.  I put the wet socks and boots back on hoping that they will dry as I walk.  It was only noon and I had quite a lot of sun and heat ahead of me that should help my situation.

I climb out of Zigzag Canyon and head into Paradise Park.  It is quite a beautiful setting.  I run into Larry who is setting up his campsite and thank him again for his help.  A little farther and I stop for lunch.  I notice something: There is no snow up here!  A couple patches but nothing like the ranger was describing.

Paradise Park above Zigzag Canyon. "A lot of snow" my ass.

I break open some beef jerky and start eating a couple pieces.  I look down at the last piece in my hand. It has a white film on it as do several more pieces in the bag.  I quickly check the expiration date on the bag – not expired.  The package was still sealed when I had sat down so it had to be good.  Besides, I rarely eat beef jerky.  This might be normal.  I put the piece in my mouth and immediately taste bleu cheese.  I quickly spit it out and close up the bag.  Well there goes a large component of my lunches for the next four days…

I continue on across Paradise Park and come to the amazing Reid Glacier/Yocum Ridge area.  There is a huge canyon where the Sandy River cuts through along the south side of Yocum.  I pop in my headphones and begin my decent into the thick forest (might I recommend the Nerdist Podcast?).  After about 30 minutes, I just can’t stand the pain in my heels anymore.  My boots are not any drier than they were a couple hours ago – turns out that boots that do a good job keeping water out also do a good job of keeping water in.  I decide that I have to take them off and resolve this situation.

I take everything off.  The duck tape is no longer sticking to my heels and the moleskin is soaked.  My heels are literally torn apart.  I have got to dry these out.  I tie the boots and socks to the outside of my pack with the hopes that they will have a better chance to dry.  I put on my dry socks and my sandals and feel much better.  I put my pack on and – holy crap!  Those boots weigh a ton!  I continue on.

Still listening to my headphones I get to the bottom of the ridge and the Sandy River.  There are flags showing the way across the wide, confusing crossing.  The one spot where you cross actual water has a log bridge with a rope making the crossing pretty simple.

Breaking out of the woods at the Sandy River.

The markers for crossing the Sandy River floodplain. There is a river somewhere in there.

The actual crossing of the Sandy River. Simple but very safe and effective.

I trudge on up the other side and turn off towards Ramona Falls.  I get to the falls and the sun is getting lower.  I figure that I have 4 more hours of daylight left and would like to push towards Bald Mountain.

There are plenty of pictures of the entire Ramona Falls online. I zoomed in for a close-up.

Before I head out I need to make a decision: Continue on the Timberline Trail where there is a reportedly difficult crossing (“barely passable”) of the Muddy Fork or take the PCT where there exists a make-shift bridge to cross the same river.  They both meet up again at Bald Mountain.  The PCT way is a little shorter but is buried in the woods and has a steeper climb out.  Just then a guy comes down from the Timberline Trail.  I asked, “Are you coming from around the mountain?”

“Yeah, we left Timberline Lodge a couple days ago and have been going counter-clockwise.”

“How is the Muddy Fork crossing?”

“Well, it was okay,” he replied.  “There are three of us so we just held on to each other as we waded across.”

Yeah, screw that!  I think to myself.  I’m going PCT.

“How was the snow crossing the east side?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“The ranger told me yesterday that you need snowshoes or crampons to cross the east side,” I said.

“Seriously?”  He looked confused.  “It’s the high point of the trail so there is always some snow crossing to do, but nothing worse than normal.  Trekking poles and you’re fine.”

“But if you had crampons you would have used them, right?” I hoped that I wore those damn boots for a reason.

He thought for a split second and said, “Nah, they wouldn’t be worth taking the time to put them on.”

I said goodbye and headed down the PCT.  I was fuming.  Other than the spoiled jerky, all of my current problems were related to the stupid boots that I was now not even wearing.  I hiked for several more miles and crossed the Muddy Fork on a safe but awkward bridge.  Another mile and it was time to set up camp.

Muddy Fork crossing. The angle kind of dumps you away from the splinter-rich railing making it a little more awkward than expected. The thick woods in this area made finding a campsite tricky.

I immediately set up a fire to dry off my gear.  I stick my hand into one wet boot and feel the heel – there is no padding at all.  What I have since figured out is that these boots are designed to ascend while keeping the ankle neutral.  This means toe-kicking in snow or using a heel-kick on a snowshoe.  If you ascend with the foot and ankle flexed – like when on snow-free trails – it puts excessive pressure on the heel.  Fine for short or mild ascents, lousy for the long and steep ascents of the Timberline Trail.

After a few hours by the fire, the socks are completely dry but the boots are still very wet inside.  My feet are just raw and angry.  I’m lonely.  I miss my wife and daughter.  I am miserable.  As I have said many times before, I don’t do these things to be miserable.  At this point I consider bailing and heading back in the morning.  I’ll see how I feel in the morning.  Maybe the boots will dry overnight and with some gauze and tape I can find a way to pad the heel and make them work.  I head to bed.

I wake up at 5am to flashes of light.  What the hell is that?  Thunder.  Oh hells no!  I quickly grab my headlamp and open the tent.  It’s not raining yet.  I take a bathroom break then make sure all of my gear is covered and jump back in the tent.  I ride out the storm in the tent.  I turn on my walkie and listen to the weather report for the Oregon Cascades – thunderstorms early then clearing by noon.  Same thing for the next two days.  That seals it.  I’m outta here!

By 6:15am, the downpour has stopped.  I check my gear – everything is dry.  Well everything but the inside of my boots which are still damp.  I dress my heels and create as much padding in the back of the boots as I can.  I figure that with two dry pairs of socks I could take a chance on the boots.  The thought of hiking 13+ miles back to my truck in sandals sounds awful.  I don’t have a cell signal and consider hiking to the Ramona Falls Trailhead in the hopes of finding a signal there.  I could call my wife and see if she could pick me up.  I decided against it.  The trailhead might be miles out of the way (it was off of the map I was carrying) and I may still find that I have no signal.

I broke camp and headed back towards the truck.  Right away I can feel my heels complaining.  Who cares?  They’re trashed anyway.  I’ll just keep the boots tight and deal with them when I get home.  That mindset changed after about a mile and I changed back into my socks and sandals setup.  I am quickly reminded again of how heavy it is to carry those boots.

It is already getting hot.  With the recent heavy rain it is getting really steamy and for the first time the mosquitoes come out.  They are fine as long as I keep moving, but are swarming whenever I stop.  The DEET spray I put on only barely helps.

I didn't take any damn pictures on Day 2...

I had last filled up with water at Ramona Falls the day before but would be bypassing them on the way back.  I figured that I would fill up again at the Sandy River but was so focused on moving fast and getting the hell out of there that I forgot.  When I remembered, I figured that I would just hit one of the small streams as I crossed Paradise Park at the top of the ridge.

As I am climbing up the ridge it is getting unbearable.  I can see the steam rising off of the forest floor.  Sweat is pouring off of me as I’m pushing hard to get this thing over with.  At that point, my reservoir goes dry.  No problem, I’ve got about 200mL in the water bottle on my hip and I’m sure that I’m almost at the top where I can get water.

When I had descended the day before I was listening to headphones and problem solving my boot situation.  I had kind of lost track of time and distance.  What I didn’t realize is that I still had about 4 more miles to go up this steamy, mosquito infested ridge.  I became so thirsty that I start sipping my reserve.  Finally, I’m out.  I am completely exhausted and try to stop in a shady spot but the mosquitoes are insane.  I keep plodding along hoping to finish this ridge.

Finally I hit the top and a small snow field.  I find clean snow and pack it into my water bottle hoping that it will melt quickly in the heat.  I eat a couple mouthfuls just to get some water in me.  I take a moment to rest as there is a slight breeze here holding the mosquitoes back.  A little farther and I am at a tiny stream.  I quickly fill my water bottle and break out the steri-pen.  I force myself to drink 500mL then sterilize another bottle full.  I feel nauseous so I don’t drink anymore and continue down the trail.

I bypass Paradise Park staying on the PCT below.  A few miles later and the heat is really starting to get to me but I still don’t feel very thirsty.  After traversing around another canyon in the sun I drop to the ground in the shade.  I have got to take a break.  I force myself to gulp some water.  After about 10 minutes of sitting there I get up for a bathroom break.  At this point, the dehydration is obvious.  I go back to my pack and force more water into me.  I put my pack back on and get really dizzy.  I drop the pack and lean against a tree.  That is when I started throwing up.

At this point I’m concerned.  This is now heat exhaustion.  In this situation, your system is out of sorts because it is having difficulty controlling your body temperature.  The resulting nausea makes drinking water difficult which greatly ups the danger factor.  That said, I’m not in real danger since I come across another hiker once every hour on this busy trail.  Besides, I have enough medical knowledge to know what I’m dealing with…assuming I stay lucid.

I sit back down in the shade slowly sipping water and letting the breeze cool me off.  I feel better since throwing up.  After about 30 minutes, I feel like I can continue.  I figure that if I can get to the Zigzag River which can’t be too much farther, I’ll be able to cool down more effectively.

It is another two miles or so before I hit the river.  I rip off my socks and wade across the river in my sandals – way easier than rock hopping with a heavy pack.  I dump my pack on the other side, take off my shirt and go lay down in the river.  Ahhhh, that’s better.  I climb out onto a rock and dry in the sun.  At this point it occurs to me that this was the same location where, yesterday, my trip had begun going horribly wrong setting off a cascade of events that damn near could have killed me.  The same river that I had cursed for starting all of my problems yesterday was the same river that had solved all of my problems today.

Several more groups of hikers come through and I happily take the role of “weird filthy grizzled shirtless keeper of the river” giving advice on the crossing and helping to carry other people’s gear across.  After hanging around for about 45 minutes I get suited back up and hike the remaining few miles back to the truck, weirdly delerious with joy.  I literally started laughing out loud when I got to the chairlifts at the ski resort.

And there were still no permits in the permit box…

Lessons learned

  1. Timberline is a backpacking trail.  Although I never confirmed this myself, the report is that you don’t need snowshoes or crampons at any point.  I don’t know what the person at the ranger station was talking about.  If you want to be extra prepared, bring strap-on crampons that you can use with regular hiking boots in a worst case scenario.  If you are really worried, head counter-clockwise out of Timberline Lodge or clockwise out of Cloud Cap so that you hit the east side first.  Bad snow?  Turn around.
  2. If you are doing an overnight trip and/or plan on crossing many rivers, carry sandals for the crossings.  It is SO MUCH EASIER to wade across in sandals with an unbuckled (ie loose) pack than trying to balance on rocks.  A wet pair of boots should be avoided at all costs.
  3. I would plan for no more than 10 miles a day on this trail.  The elevation changes can wear on you after a day or two.  I could also see putting together chunks of the trail as several awesome 15+ mile day hikes.
  4. Beef jerky should not have white stuff on it.

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