Timberline Trail: Day One
Timberline Trail: Day One
By Kirk Bartram
Posted: Mar 31
Finally! After failure and defeat, we were going to do it!
We intended to hit the Timberline Trail early, but we didn’t get going until after 10 a.m. We stopped to take the obligatory selfie for Facebook. After stretching and straining, we finally got one. In the bright light, we couldn’t see the less-than-flattering picture (which Marea refuses to post here) or know that Marea tagged my friend instead of me, but we posted it anyway and took off on our second attempt to circumnavigate the mountain. I really wanted to make the miles this time, to propel us toward success instead of the failure of the year before.
I had known we weren’t going to make it when Marea began to cry. She hardly ever cries, but after hobbling along in her sandals for two days when her feet swelled too big for her boots, she broke down when she had cell service near the only road out on the East side of the mountain and could call for a ride out. I was determined to make it this time.
Mount Hood is 11,250 feet tall, its snow-covered peak rises from thick timbered foothills. I can see it from my mail route, majestic and brilliant against the aquamarine skies of a sunny day. But on this August morning, standing on the side of it, we could barely see the peak through a haze of smoke from the forest fires in California and Southern Oregon.
Six miles into our walk, we had to decide to continue on the Timberline Trail or take the junction for Paradise Park. This detour wouldn’t add much mileage, but it did mean climbing an additional five hundred feet to go through the mountain meadow famous for its summer flowers and sprawling mountain views. Everyone should visit Paradise Park, but since we had the year before, climbing over and around deadfall after deadfall from the brutal winter of 2016 to get there, we were discussing our options. We met up with a white-haired guy who was returning from the meadow. He was resting beside the trail.
“Most of the flowers are gone,” he said, leaning heavily on his trekking poles. Next to him, I was a young guy, fit and energized.
We decided to skip Paradise Park and the extra elevation gain. Not long after that, a twenty-something girl caught up to us. She had long, tightly-muscled legs. Her face and arms were streaked with dirt, her pack was unbelievably small. She was obviously busting out miles, but we couldn’t resist talking to her, making her pause for a minute.
“Are you thru hiking?” we asked. I could hear the envy and awe in my wife’s voice as she took in the girl from the top of her head to her trail runners of indeterminate color.
“I’m doing Oregon,” she said. “I wanted to start in California, but I was late and then there are all the fires…I have two days to get to the Bridge of the Gods.”
We spoke to her for a few more minutes, drilling her with questions: When had she started? How many miles a day was she hiking? Had she run into any snow? Then off she sprinted, waving back at us. Now I was the old guy leaning on his trekking poles.
We were hiking the Timberline Trail, but for the first ten miles or so, the Timberline trail and the Pacific Crest Trail, the PCT, are one. The PCT begins at the Mexican border and ends 2,650 miles later in Manning Park, Canada. Right now, we think it is the Holy Grail of hiking.
A thru-hiker is someone who completes the entire PCT in one shot, usually 5 months. Other people do the trail in chunks as time allows. These are called section hikers. If backpacking gets under your skin, you inevitably begin to think about the PCT. We were starting to think about it, but first things first; we had to make it around Mount Hood.
The flowers on this side of the mountain were fading, but as we came out along the top of the sandy ridge of Zigzag Canyon, fat huckleberries warm from the sun flourished. I had never seen so many huckleberries and we began to pluck them from the low bushes. Even Misha grazed, pulling the sweet-tart berries from their stems with his mouth.
For most of our first day we went down, losing 3,700 feet. Elevation loss may sound easier than slogging up a hill. But descending 370 feet per mile with the added pressure of heavy packs, cripples the knees while the friction burns the feet. Even so, we were in much better trail shape than the year before. We reached the wide Sandy River bed and made our way across the boulders to the river where we crossed without incident. The year before, we had camped at Ramona Falls on our first night, but when we arrived, it was too early to stop. We took a break instead near base of the falls, watching the cascades of water pour across the wide face of the cliff. It was like sitting in front of an open refrigerator door on a hot day. We consulted our map while the mist fell on our dusty skin.
We decided to leave the official Timberline Trail which climbed sharply up and away from the falls and instead follow Ramona Creek. We would stay on this path until we connected with the PCT and eventually pick up the Timberline Trail again. Doing this, we would skip two confusing and swift river crossings and a section of trail that, after many washouts, featured sheer drop-offs where we could just barely cling to the contour of the mountain.
Our detour path wound through a forest of Hemlock, Lodgepole Pine and Alder. We could see tall Andesite cliffs across the stream. The cliffs looked unstable and we joked about camping under them. The creek flowed fast, like all streams with a constant source of melting ice and snow, its low banks were padded with a thick cushion of moss. We should have stopped to water up in this “enchanted forest” as Marea kept calling it, but we had exceeded our mileage of the previous year and I didn’t want to stop yet.
We met up with the PCT and camped above the Muddy Fork River which should have been called the Silty Fork River. Marea and Misha set up camp while I tried to get water. When time had passed, and I did not reappear, they descended to the river to check on me. I explained that the filter clogged with every few pumps of the cloudy water and I had to take it apart and clean it.
As we talked, Misha discovered a pile of human waste right on the pristine river bank and broke open the skin that had formed on it releasing such noxious odor that I almost puked. (Disgusting, disrespectful, stupid!)
When I returned from getting water, Marea served me dinner, re-hydrated spaghetti and meatballs for me and mac n cheese for her and Misha. I saw that small tents had popped up all around ours. PCT thru-hikers had trickled in and established themselves. This was the last flat place for several miles.
After dinner, we stretched out in our tent to look at our maps.
Built in the 1930’s, the Timberline Trail skirts around the mountain near the tree line but spends much of its time in the forest. It boasts about 9000 feet of dramatic ups and downs. On the south, west and north sides, glimpses of the mountain are rare. On the east side the trail climbs to its high point on barren talus slopes with unhindered views of the glaciers that flow down into the rivers that are numerous and often difficult to ford.
We wanted to get to Cloud Cap Campground, the place of our demise the following year. I stretched out taking an inventory of my aches and pains. I felt about the same as I do on a heavy mail day, a little stiff, kind of sore, but so far, so good.