August 20, 2015

The Timberline Trail

This spring I applied for the lottery to hike the Wonderland Trail that circumnavigates the base of Mount Rainer. A couple months later the Park Service generously sent me a letter that my application had been denied, but thanked me for paying the fee. As an alternative Lisa and I set our sights on the Timberline Trail around Mt Hood.

I've always wanted to hike this route anyway and did not for a long time because of the monumental geologic event in November of 2006. I was in Hood River at the time seeing my parents and remember the news. As I remember there was a lot of wet heavy snow that fell in early November, followed by temps in the 50's with pouring rain way above the timberline on Hood. The pegs lined up for a disastrous mud and debris flow off the east side of Mt Hood that washed out miles of highway 35 and several sections of the historic Timberline Trail. To this day the forest service has closed the section of the TL trail that crosses Eliot Branch below the Glacier.
To call the Eliot washout a "washout" is the understatement of the decade. The flow that came off of Eliot removed about 100 vertical feet of earth, from the bottom of an already massive canyon, leaving nearly vertical walls of very loose volcanic sand and rock. Over the 9 years since, hikers have negotiated the passage of Eliot in a variety of ways, most commonly, by a route that has become known as "the ropes". The reading that I have done on this route has always sketched me out to the point of avoiding the trip all together. Alas, it was time to go have a look. We planned an extra day into the trip just to cross Eliot, planning that in a worst case scenario we'd walk miles around "the problem", to the north.
Lisa flew into Portland on Saturday where I picked her up. We drove to Government Camp and stayed at the Huckleberry Inn, where we could get our packs organized for an early start the next day.

Day 1:
The morning we started we went to the cafe for an outrageously expensive order of namesake huckleberry pancakes and were amused at a PCT through hiker, sitting at the bar, devouring several plates of food. The weather forecast called for highs in the 80's for the next several days, but smoky from wildfires burning to the east. We crossed our fingers and hoped for the ever rare sunny and clear Oregon skies to continue. We drove up to Timberline Lodge and talked to the parking lot attendant about where to leave the truck for 5 days, signed into the trail register, and filled out a backcountry permit, and still got started by 9:30am. Our first nights camp was planned for somewhere in Paradise Park, but that plan quickly got changed once we saw how many day hikers were headed there. Once we started walking we ran into a couple groups that, on finding out what our route plan was, had a reaction like "oh so your crossing the washout???". Although, I was confident with our off trail route finding abilities, I was still getting nervous about the Eliot crossing. We had lunch in Paradise Park and I started thinking about leaving more time to deal with whatever Eliot may challenge us with so we continued on. The west side of the mountain gave us the dark forest fix with miles of shady trail through mossy woods that was such a nice escape from the heat of mid-summer. At about mile 10 we found the perfect camp beside the nicely named Rushing Water creek, where we marveled at the big Oregon trees, made chicken chili, and sipped a wee nip of whiskey.

Paradise Park

Camp 1

Rushing Water Creek

Day 2:
We awoke early to the voices of a couple PCT through hikers that had camped right next to us. They were up early and on their way before I was half way through making a pot of cowboy coffee. After we got going we had the first big river crossing of the trip; the Sandy River. The Sandy is one of the big drainages off the west side of the mountain. It is mentioned at the Timberline Lodge trailhead in a stream crossing tips kiosk that is dedicated to a hiked who drowned here during a high water crossing. Knowing that the stream crossings could be the biggest hazard we planned our trip for mid August when most of the snow would be done melting. Being one of the driest years on record, we crossed the Sandy without even getting the sole of a boot wet. The amazing wasteland in view that is left from a more violent outflow event is one of the highlights of making one of these glacial crossings. We continued past the fairytale beauty of Romona Falls, and the "don't look down" exposure in the Muddy Fork. After temporarily running out of water we stopped in the Wy'east basin where we filtered water and looked down into the Hood River Valley mostly enshrouded in the smoke of wildfires that unfortunately seems requisite this time of year. About 6pm we found a campsite in Elk Cove where we had a lovely view of alpenglow in the days waning light on the prehistoric glaciers of Mt Hood.

the Sandy River

Romona Falls

come to the woods, for here is rest - John Muir

crossing Muddy Fork

Rounding Bald Mtn. - above Muddy Fk.

Above Muddy Fork

Wy'east Basin above HR valley

descending into Elk Cove

Elk Cove; camp 2
Day 3:
The big day. The day that has made my pulse rush for years turned out to be anti-climatic. We crossed the burned area from 2012, through Coe Creek, the forks of Compass Creek, and finally to the edge of a precipice that was Eliot Branch. It was lunch time, actually past lunch time, but I had no appetite. When Lisa and I are hiking we have moments that we know we need to "have a good head". Sometimes one can just put your eyes at the trail and stomp out the miles, but sometimes it takes more brains than brawn; where good judgement is critical. This was one of those times and skipping lunch meant maybe not having the brain fuel needed when it counts. Although I knew it, I really wanted to go. Lisa got out a couple power bars that we ate and continued. I had a grape flavored jolly rancher for good measure, and stepped to the edge.
The first big descent we went one at a time in case a rock came loose we be in a safe zone to let it go by. Kind of like safe avalanche terrain travel techniques when backcountry skiing. I got to the rope which I didn't think was that necessary especially with trekking poles which are great for such terrain to use to "backup" footholds incase something gives out. Once I was down I got out of the way in case Lisa dislodged a rock.
Both of us down, we went up the valley that was one of the most amazing geologic spectacles I've ever beheld. I felt like we were inside of a geologic event that was happening in fast forward all around, and we were! Up canyon was it, the heretofore avoided at all cost, Eliot Glacier shining in the sun, craggy crevasses split in a terrible looking mess, spilling off the summit of Mt Hood. Down the mountain further the glacier was covered in rocks and dirt ending in a dirty wall of ice about 100' high and a quarter mile wide with a river coming out from underneath. The river that we'd now find a place to cross. Down canyon was a fall line we couldn't see over. After searching for a while we decided we have to take off boots to cross. After all, we'd carried sturdy Chaco river sandals all this way we may as well use them. The water was about as cold as you may expect glacial melt water to be so we made quick work of it. Once across, we made as quick of work as possible of our time inside of a geologic event and skee-daddled on up the other side, past the ropes, to the edge where we had a long lunch break.
descending into Coe Creek

ropes we didn't use

the ropes - west side descent

west side ropes route

crossing part of Eliot Branch

The Lovely Bride ascends the ropes east side

Mystery Ranch Terraplane posing majestically

Eliot done - sigh of relief lunch break

Once we were east of Eliot Branch, the mountain tuned from lush forest to a barren landscape of bare rock exposed to the elements. I wouldn't want to be caught over here in bad weather.

Gnarl Ridge trail marker/wind sculpture

camp 3 - near Newton Creek

descent into Clark Creek

Clark Ck trail - no less sketch than Eliot

White river - destroyed miles of Hwy 35 in 2006

scoping out big ass country

big shit - big shit

mile 40 - almost done

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