Hunchback Mountain #793
Posted 20 Aug 2020
9.0 miles total
3,270 feet elevation gain in 4.5 miles
Misha and I finally decided to go on another of own adventures while Kirk worked. It had been awhile. We loaded up in the car and drove an hour or so, to the parking area just past the ranger station in Zigzag. On the way there, I did my best to get a smile from Misha, but he just doesn't "get" the selfie.
I also pulled my Northwest Forest Pass out of the glove box and noticed for the first time this year that it had expired in 2019. Personally, I think dropping $30 for an entire year of parking at any forest service operated site in Oregon or Washington is a bargain. So, this wasn't intentional. And here I was about to park in the back of the ranger station. It was closed due to COVID, but I knew rangers still patrolled...What could I do? (I bought a new one as soon as I got home.)
We parked and saddled up with our packs. I like to read all the signs at the trailhead, but once Misha is wearing his backpack, he wants to hit the trail. He always wins because if I don't get going fast enough, Misha will let the world know it with his ear-splitting bays and barks. I took note of several laminated printed pages warning of cougar and black bear living in the area.
In 2018, hiker Diana Bober, had died 200 feet off this trail, down a ravine. There were signs of an animal attack. Although the report wasn't conclusive, it was widely thought that she had died from a cougar attack. We will probably never know for sure if she was attacked or if she had an accident that rendered her unconscious first. Attacks are infrequent. If she died this way, it makes 2 deaths by cougar attack over the last 100 years in Washington/Oregon and the first ever fatal attack in Oregon as far as records go back.
The forest service hunted and killed the cougar they thought might be responsible, although they were unable to make a positive DNA identification. Another guy claimed to have killed a cougar in the Mount Hood area a month later. According to oregonwild.com, cougars need 100-300 square miles to roam; there isn’t one around every corner.
As Misha and I climbed the long, sloping switchbacks, I began to think about cougars which made me glance behind to ensure that no one was stalking us on silent, padded feet. Then we saw tall mossy walls rise up in front of us, a natural bulwark reaching to the sky. We walked under, Misha sniffing into a shallow cave in the base. I gazed up and up, small in this giant's castle. In short order, Misha began to pull and whine, done exploring and wanting to get back to it. I took out my phone to snap some pictures while he tugged on the leash. I wondered what I would do if I saw a round head with bright greenish eyes staring down at me.
As a child, I used to trek around the woods with my grandfather. One gloomy, low-lit afternoon when I was six or seven, we drove Newt's 1971 Ford Ranger up above our property toward a logged clear cut looking for good place to get wood for the winter. We hopped out of the pickup, and I followed Newt as he zigzagged up and over felled trees, around brush and between stumps. At the far end of the clearing, the trees thickened, and the road continued. We kept walking west along the road.
Suddenly, my grandpa stepped in front of me and whipped his arm out and almost clotheslined me.
"Don't run. Don't turn around," he said, an exaggerated calm in his voice. "Don't say anything. Just back away, slowly."
He stood straight and still in front of me. He was not a big man, but he seemed like a wall to me; I couldn't see around him. I started to back up and then my rubber boot caught on a fallen branch or a rock. I wind-milled a tiny bit before I regained my balance. Then I saw her, just above us where the ground swelled, and the trees thickened.
She had thick, tawny fur, white under the pink Y of her nose and around the black slits of her mouth. She had frozen in place when she saw us, her front, left leg extended as if to step, her hindquarters higher than her heavy, muscled shoulders, her entire body taut and ready. She stared straight at us and we stared at her. She slowly laid her rounded ears back along the sides of her head. I wasn't afraid, I just wanted to gaze at her, to watch the slight movement of her chest as she breathed in and out.
"Enough!" said Newt clapping his hands together. I leaped at the sound, each clap a shotgun blast in the stillness. "I said enough."
I had never heard him speak like that before. Every word struck the silence like a whip. He took a step forward still clapping. The cat's neck muscles twitched, and she flicked her fat tail. But there was no arguing with this Newt who had grown up in the woods and didn't seem to fear anything in the whole world. Of course, she turned slowly and walked away as if that had been the plan from the start.
Newt grabbed my arm, hurried me back the way we had come, glancing behind us a few times before he tucked me into the safety of the truck.
As I remembered that story, I thought of turning back, but I didn't.
The grade increased and increased until my heart pounded, and I gasped for breath. I didn't forget about cougars, but I gave in to the adrenaline rush of my body and I didn't care as much, even as the rocky outcroppings over our heads increased and I could almost feel a stalking presence up there.
In the beginning of a hike, I often feel sluggish and if, like most hikes in Northwest Oregon, it starts with intense elevation gain, it hurts and blows and if anyone is around to hear it, I complain and whine.
But there comes a point when I am no longer separate from the hike. I give in to it, it takes me over, and the pain feeds me; the pain is transmuted into deep joy. I begin to run. Misha and I fly up and up, he glances back at me and I see that same wild abandon reflected in the toothy grin on his long snout and the sparkle in his big, brown eyes. Then I realize that we shouldn't run like prey through the forest and I dial it back.
We topped the first ridge, the only one "view" on the main trail and stopped to catch our breathe and take in the silence and the clean, open space. Misha is fearless on cliffs. Sometimes I think he would just follow his nose right off the edge, so it is always a balancing act to hold him tight and take pictures.
We walked along the short, open section and dropped back into the woods.
This hike is a roller coaster, much like the Timberline Trail around the base of Mount Hood, but steeper and less dramatic. I always think, "what goes down, must come up" when we lose elevation on a hike. On the Oregon PCT, we started each day climbing up to the crest only to lose all the gain when we had to drop back down to find water at night. Sometimes that drove us crazy, but it beat dry camping.
We would climb what seemed almost vertical walls of earth, get to the top and drop down and come face to face with an even steeper climb. I had to laugh as the terrain kept outdoing itself. And how fun the descent would be for the knees!
When I first saw this tree, it looked like a wolf, but on second glance, of course it is an aardvark. I took my comfort break behind the tree and in my most vulnerable position, I heard three staccato screams to the east, the direction we had to go. I began to discuss this with Misha, in my loudest, most authoritative voice, clapping my hands. The screams repeated, but much farther away, so far away that I realized it had to have been a bird, probably a Northern Goshawk or something similar.
Soon after, Misha found cougar scat on the side of the trail. It was filled with fur and fortunately, for my peace of mind, aged.
The coolest part of this trail, or at least a rare feature, is a narrow catwalk of andesite with steep drops on each side. (Nothing like Ruckel Ridge in the Columbia Gorge or so I have heard. Ruckel Ridge is closed now, thanks to fire damage to the area. Who knows if I will ever get to experience that?)
Not too long after, we spotted the sign for the Great Pyramid, the end of the line, a steep-sided promontory, covered with trees and brush. It is a scramble to climb out to the point. I wasn't sure that I wanted to go through all that with Misha. As I looked around, trying to peer through the trees and analyze the risk, Misha rolled this way and that. He does this in bear grass or when we stop for a break and take off his backpack. I smiled at him, so cute rolling around. It took a good three minutes or more before I realized that Misha wasn't rolling in victory or to be cute. Suddenly, I saw that the ground around him was moving! Red and black carpenter ants swarmed around his feet, climbing his legs!
"Oh Misha!" I cried and I began to run back the way we had come with Misha in tow. I had spotted a flat rock a few yards back along the trail where I imagine hundreds of butts have sat to rest and eat lunch. We went there and inspected the ground all around. No ants! Then I took off his backpack and let him have a nice long roll. This time, in victory, because it felt great and looked really cute.
He ate beef jerky, and half of my sandwich.
I calculated our time. We made it the 4.5 miles up in 2.5 hours. 1.8 miles an hour on that elevation gain? I was impressed with us.
Then on the way back down, we met up with an older couple. They put on their masks when they saw me. I hadn't brought mine, but I stepped far off the trail and pulled my shirt up over my mouth out of respect for them. I have no way of knowing just how old they were... I wish, I wish, I wish that I could have taken a picture of them. I am quite certain that they were in their late seventies or maybe, MAYBE in their 80's. They moved past me with a wave and a smile, the lady bending to pat Misha on the head. They moved slowly and I did the math, trying to calculate their mileage. They were deep into the hike, relatively speaking, only an hour behind me. I hadn't past them. Perhaps I had. They could have been hovering above me on one of the off-trail viewpoints.
As Misha and I wound and slid our way down, I was worried that I might break a hip. I marveled that those two people had climbed and would descend this same way. I want Kirk and me to have that kind of strength and courage at their age.
Misha is always careful with me on the descent, stopping and waiting for me, looking back over his shoulder to make sure that I am OK. He leverages me when I start to slip and slide. He comes back to check on me when I stumble or roll an ankle.
We made it down in two hours, trying not to run like prey, still exhilarated until the last half mile or so when both knees began to ache.
I woke up at 2 a.m. in pain. For the next couple days, I hurt so much more than I did after climbing Mt. Adams. I think it is because Misha and I flew up and down Hunchback Mountain. Not possible while suffering oxygen deprivation on Adams. The only flying on Adams is glissading on the way back down.
There is an 18 miles loop that includes the hike described above. I immediately thought, YES! We should backpack that. Then I remembered the intense vertical gain and what that would feel like with a full backpack. NO! Maybe not. I’ll just find another punishing day hike and go from there…
Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.