July 10, 2012

Mt. Hood loop hike proves more of a challenge than promised

I have to pull one out from the past, a hike taken several years ago that felt like it swiped a few years from my life. If you do a lot of hiking, it is inevitable you will someday get into a pickle. This hike, the loop around Mt. Hood in Oregon, was one of those times.

Timberline Lodge in Oregon, USA. South face of...
Timberline Lodge in Oregon
My bride dropped me off at Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood’s southern slope on a Saturday morning then continued on to Lake Simtustus, located just south of the town of Warm Springs in Central Oregon. There, she met family and friends for a weekend of waterskiing and camping. The plan was for her to return to pick me up Monday evening at Timberline Lodge after  I had completed the nearly 40 mile loop.

After wading through the throngs of foreign speaking visitors packing skis through the parking lot of Timberline Lodge (they were still able to ski the Palmer Glacier), I headed west from the lodge and onto the PCT. Within a short time I was snapping pictures of the broad cleft on Mt. Hood's southwest slope known as Zig Zag Canyon.

Zig Zag Canyon with Mt. Hood rising from the clouds
One of the most outstanding views on the Mt. Hood Loop Trail is from Bald Mountain's flank. To the northwest is the Bull Run watershed, made up of canyons that collect rain water and snowmelt for Portland's drinking water. To the east stands Mt. Hood. It was here I began looking for a place to declare camp for the evening.

Several hours of sunlight were left in the day, but over one-third of the loop was already hiked, and I wanted to leave roughly the same distances for the next two days. Setting my pack on the ground, I searched its compartments for aspirin, hoping it might fend off a nagging toothache accompanying me since standing near Ramona Falls. Reaching up to feel where the pain was coming from, I was surprised to find some swelling along my jaw line. I recalled the same kind of swelling years before. Then, the swelling was caused by an abscessed tooth.

Realizing I needed to get to a dentist, I pondered my options, fully aware only one of them was the smart thing to do.  I would simply have to backtrack to Timberline Lodge and find a way to get home or to Lake Simtustus..Then I thought about how likely it was that a dentist would be available on a Sunday. It wasn't likely at all.

I decided to head toward Timberline Lodge, but backtracking, although the sensible thing to do, was out of the question. Planning for this trip had gone on for too long to cut it short because of a bad tooth. I had hiked 20 miles before in a single day and figured I was in good enough shape to do it again. The difference was I had not hiked those previous 20 miles with a backpack, furthermore, one packed rather liberally. If I could hike that many miles in two consecutive days, I would be back at the lodge the next evening.

At the intersection of Timberline Trail and the PCT I stopped to clean my socks. I was beginning to feel an itch between my toes that I learned some years earlier was the onset of one or more blisters. I sat on a log and prepared my feet for the 1100 foot elevation gain between where I sat and Cairn Basin. Sore legs and an aching mouth were enough to deal with. Blisters would only make my predicament worse.

Although Cairn Basin would have been a reasonable spot to set up camp for the night, my legs felt like they had a little more mileage left in them, so I staggered along, finally arriving at Elk Cove on the mountain’s North side. Hobbled from the incessant climbs in and out of canyons with 40 pounds on my back, I had little control over my legs when I plopped down next to a small creek flowing through the cove.

 After setting up a small, hidden camp beneath a stunted tree, I stretched out across my sleeping bag. It felt good to finally get off of my feet. My toothache had subsided but the swelling along my jaw line had ballooned. The evening rapidly descended on the cove and painted an alpenglow on Mt. Hood. I pulled out my camera and shot an entire roll of the pink mountain. Later, I cooked up some fettuccini and, after dinner, read myself to sleep.

I woke up to a cold, crisp morning that had shed dew on the cove's grasses. I needed coffee for warmth and food for fuel - it was going to be a long day. After unzipping my sleeping bag, I tried to crawl from it. I couldn't. My legs felt as though someone had hit them with a sledge hammer in the middle of the night. The pounding they had taken the day before had turned them into rendezvous points for lactic acid. They ached like nothing I had ever experienced before.

Knowing I would need to ease into the simple act of moving, I started stretching by first wiggling my aching toes. Even that was painful. After limbering them up a bit, I worked my way up my legs, working my ankles first, then my calves, and on up to my thighs. Ten minutes later I finally eased out of my sleeping bag. Getting to my knees, I was able to use the nearby tree to pull myself up to my feet.

Standing there for a few minutes, I began rotating my hips, trying to swivel the stiffness from them. Finally, still in agony, I made breakfast and coffee. After eating and making sure I had drank plenty of liquids, my legs began to finally feel a little better. It is amazing how a little less pain can lift the spirits. I actually started to believe it was possible for me to finish the loop that day. I broke camp and shouldered a backpack that, although lighter, seemed 20 pounds heavier than the previous day.

From Left to Right: Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams from the Northeast slope of Mt. Hood
Cloud Cap and the intersection with the trail leading to Cooper Spur were my immediate goals. I passed the campground at Cloud Cap and began another upward trudge toward the Cooper Spur Trail.  Although it seemed to take forever to hike from one rock cairn to the next, my legs had by now loosened up to a point where they were functioning with little pain. I actually began enjoying this part of the trail, with its unobstructed views toward Mt. St. Helens and Mt. Adams.

 Suddenly I heard a distant rumble coming from the mountain.  It sounded like a burst of thunder, but not a cloud could be seen. I can only guess the sound was either an avalanche on the east side of the peak or the movement of Eliot Glacier.

I continued past rugged and aptly named Gnarl Ridge and into Mt. Hood Meadows. Having skied at Meadows in the past, I had only seen the area in the winter, never without snow. There's nothing like a meadow dotted with lovely bunches of blooming colors with a big, black, steel ski lift.

At 5:00pm Sunday evening I completed the loop, plopped down on the front steps of Timberline Lodge and watched tourists walk in and out of the building. I found a bathroom and looked in the mirror. The swelling on the side of my face did not look or feel any worse than it was a few hours earlier. I decided then not to call Dvenna, but instead spend the night somewhere on the mountain's lower slopes and hitchhike to Lake Simtustus the next morning. From there I could drive myself to the dentist.

 I began walking down the road toward Government Camp without too much delay, not wanting my legs to stiffen up again.  Just past the parking lot a man in a jeep pulled up alongside me.

            "Need a ride," he asked.

            "Yea, I need to get to at least Government Camp. Which direction are you headed from there?" I asked, hoping he would reply, "East."

            He said, "West," but I was thankful for the ride and soon found myself standing alongside Highway 26 at Government Camp.

With about an hour of daylight left, I figured I might as well get as far down the mountain as possible before nightfall, so I continued walking down the highway, my arm out to my side with my thumb sticking out. Within about 5 minutes, a small car stopped. Inside was a young couple heading to Prineville.

            "I've hitchhiked. I know what its like trying to get a ride," the young man said. I thanked them and settled into the back seat.

At the turnoff to Lake Simtustus from Highway 26 they let me out of their car. I was now only a couple of miles away from where Dvenna was staying.

I hadn't walked ten more minutes when down the road came a pickup. After driving by me, some 50 yards down the road, the pickup’s brake lights lit up, followed by backup lights. The driver was a friend who was coming from Portland to stay at the lake with the others in our party. What luck!  I only had to spend an extra 25 minutes or so on my aching feet all the way from Timberline lodge to Warm Springs.

Dvenna , of course was quite surprised to see me, and I was glad to see her. I drove to Portland the next morning and went to a dentist.
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