October 12, 2012

Want a workout? Try Mt. Defiance on for size

Near the summit of Mt. Defiance, looking down into the Columbia Gorge
Some mountain trails can be a true test of a person's stamina and ability to overcome physical distress. Forcing legs to scream and lungs to work like salmon swimming upstream, these trails can provide a yardstick to gauge one's physical condition. Usually these trails consist of a severe uphill grade that lasts a significant distance, providing a much different experience than a level hike of the same length. While some folks probably enjoy the challenge of these trails fairly regularly, I prefer to mix them into the schedule much, much less frequently.

Mt. Defiance, located in the Columbia Gorge, was named for its tendency to hang onto winter snows longer than other mountains in the gorge. The trail to the top of this mountain is a physical test and appropriate for a mountain with the name Defiance. It's long, continually steep grade is interrupted only once by a short, relatively level stretch before it again defies hikers to achieve its summit.

It was along this level stretch of trail that my hiking partner, Felix (name changed to protect the innocent), and I stopped to take a break. Not in top hiking form, I thought I was doing rather well until we watched two men actually run past us, their legs propelling them like pistons up the hellish slope. To these cardiovascular mutants the trail was a workout. I have labeled it something much less affectionate.

Ignoring the trail's vital statistics - a nearly 5,000 foot elevation gain in less than 5 miles (about 1.5 of the trail's nearly 6 miles is relatively flat) - I had stayed out late the night before. For the novice, I would suggest being physically prepared when attempting any trail that climbs 1,000' per mile. A mild case of dehydration remained with me the entire hike. And to make matters worse, the temperature was forecasted to rise into the high 80's by early afternoon.

I have climbed several mountains, but never before had I so eagerly anticipated a summit. The climb is often compared to the trudge up Mt. Hood, but I came away from that day giving a higher difficulty rating than the bigger mountain.

When we finally arrived at the top, we plopped down on some large boulders to rest but fell asleep. About an hour later we awoke, sat up and studied the views of Mt. Hood, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Jefferson and a surplus of other smaller mountains. Looking down, the view includes the Columbia River and its gorge. 
Mt. Hood from summit of Mt. Defiance
What goes up must come down. Although the descent gave our lungs some respite, our legs toiled under the strain of trying to stop our momentum from propelling our bodies down the steep mountain side. During the last couple miles of the descent I felt my legs begin to quiver uncontrollably from the constant strain. With each step, my legs went into sewing machine needle-like convulsions.

A little later, Felix and I switched places on the trail. Now following Felix, I began to notice his legs start quivering. It was comical. We laughed as we took turns hiking in front of each other, watching the involuntary reaction our legs had to the trail. I had experienced "sewing machine leg" while rock climbing but never before while hiking. 
Bear Lake from Mt. Defiance
I have never returned to Mt. Defiance. If spectacular peripherals dominated this hike, I'd consider it again, but they don’t. Furthermore, as I found out on near the top, you could, at least at that time, get to the summit a much easier way – by driving.
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