Timberline Trail: Day Three
Timberline Trail: Day Three
Posted Mar 31
By Kirk Bartram
We got up early and noticed that the smoke had cleared some as we made our way through a skeletal forest of fires past.
We got up early and noticed that the smoke had cleared some as we made our way through a skeletal forest of fires past. We are so loud when we hike, that we rarely see animals. Just after we broke camp, we ran across a fat marmot perched on a rock near the side of the trail. We stopped just above him and snapped his picture. His beady, black eyes stared us down until he turned and lumbered off, apparently bored.
Back in 2006, an intense storm wiped out the trail and bridge at Eliot Creek. For a decade, hikers had to either cross by climbing down the steep banks and using makeshift ropes to haul themselves up the other side or climb up to the glacier and cross on the ice. Either way, seemed sketchy, so the new bypass trail was met with excitement when it opened in 2016. The new trail is steep, dusty switchbacks, full of roots, dropping about 600 feet of elevation in less than a mile. As we headed down, we met a couple groups of people heading up. They wore clean clothes and smelled like soap and shampoo. We asked about the river crossing below and they all agreed it was a piece of cake and not to worry.
At the bottom of the trail, stone steps lead to a steep bank of rocks, boulders and loose scree. Well below us, we saw a log crossing. We had to switchback along the bank with the trail directly above us. As we moved slowly, digging into the sand and scree with our trekking poles, Map Guy and his wife appeared showering us with debris, pebbles, sand and rocks the size of coconuts. I thought how much it would suck to come all this way just to be killed by a falling rock.
Finally, we reached the log. It was a big log, bare of bark, slippery from water spray. It angled up and away, so that we had to crawl and climb while holding our feet up and out of the raging water. I began to cross, my heart pounding, trying to avoid impaling myself on the spikes of broken branches that stuck out at all angles. I rolled off the log on the other side of the river and turned back.
I hadn’t taken either of the trekking poles because I couldn’t really crawl with them. Marea threw them one after another like javelins. One of the poles snapped when it hit the river bank, but we didn’t notice, because Misha was on the wet end of the log, straining against his leash. Marea crept out behind him trying not to overbalance as he lunged forward. At last she threw the leash which I caught as Misha leaped to the bank.
We had a grueling, mile-long slog up from the river to Cloud Cap Campground with its historic inn which we had spotted through the smoke haze from the other side of the canyon. The inn was built in the late 1800’s as a high-end resort, but now it is used by mountain rescue people. We planned to off-load our garbage, even if we couldn’t refill our water as we had hoped. As we approached the rim of the canyon we looked down and saw people crossing the log below us, small as mice from our eagle-eye perspective.
When we finally made it to campground we flopped down at a day-use picnic table. (Sitting at a table is an unexpected luxury after two days of cooking and eating in the dirt.) We looked around and with sinking hearts, we realized that Cloud Cap Campground did not have water OR garbage service! They wanted $21 dollars a night for a tent site, a picnic table, a firepit that would remain dead and cold, due to the fire ban that was strictly in place, and the use of the smelly pit toilet in the parking lot. We had our broken trekking pole and a couple gallon baggies filled with garbage, and three or four pounds of trail mix that we knew we would never eat. Marea asked me if we could just leave the heavy trail mix on the table for another hiker to take. An older couple at a table next to us vetoed this idea saying that animals would be in it.
Marea looked around the parking lot at all the glittering cars until she spotted two young bearded guys pulling packs from the back of a shiny, red Subaru. She rushed over and gestured desperately until they took her broken pole and put it in their car. I decided to throw myself on their mercy and off-loaded the heavy gallon bag filled with smaller bags of nuts and candy. In this case, my eyes had been bigger than my stomach; that doesn’t happen often.
As we were resting, Map Guy and wife blew us away. We saw them come up out of the Eliot Canyon, but they didn’t even stop. We figured that we would find them somewhere along the trail, but we never did.
We left Cloud Cap and began to climb toward Cooper’s Spur and beyond to the high point of the trail. We climbed out of the tall trees and flowers into barren, alien, desolate landscape. A few low-lying shrubs had managed to establish themselves in the rocks, but they were thorny and twisted from the winds that often terrorize the bare side of the mountain. We had to stop often as we climbed and when we were resting near Cooper’s Spur Shelter, we met Boy Scout Guy.
He was maybe 45 or 50, dressed in olive green shorts and a khaki button up shirt. As he climbed, he held a paper map out in front of him, consulting it now and again. Most of the hikers we encountered had GPS, guide book instructions or both. But in two days, we had seen Map Guy and Boy Scout Guy squinting at their Timberline Trail Map. (We had brought a map too, but with the well-marked trail, we found it more a nuisance than helpful.) Boy Scout Guy was certain that we had only six miles left until Timberline Lodge. Marea and I glanced at each other with raised eyebrows.
“I should be done in a couple of hours,” said Boy Scout Guy.
“Are you sure?” asked Marea. “We figure we have about twelve miles.”
Boy Scout Guy said he was sure, and we watched him grow smaller and smaller as he continued ahead.
There was no shade and the sun blazed down. We worried about Misha’s feet on the sharp volcanic rock and course sand. Marea said she could feel the heat beneath the thin soles of her sandals, through her socks. We had purchased all styles of dog boots and socks, but Misha would have none of that. We had no choice but to keep going, following the cairns and the poles that stuck up out of them so that we wouldn’t lose the trail that was sometimes hard to see in the rocks. We came to a small patch of glacier and Misha flopped down and rolled on the dirty ice.
I don’t know what we were expecting from the high point. Possibly an elevation sign with some magnificent views. But each barren rise looked just like the next. Our guide mentioned a stream just after the high point so when we found one, we just assumed that we had reached and left the 7,350-foot mark. Misha waded in the water and lay down on the rocks, so we dropped our packs to give him a much-needed break. Whenever the terrain got rough, we took off Misha’s backpack to minimize the impact to his paws as far as possible.
We had taken it off at Cloud Cap anticipating the volcanic rocks. When we stopped, we took off his harness as well to give him as much freedom as possible.
We rarely let Misha off-leash because he will follow his "nose brain" and wander off. No worries at this stop. We took off his harness and he put his head down on his paws and didn’t move until we did.
Gnarl Ridge parallels a thousand-foot-deep canyon separating it from the Newton Clark Moraine, a long snaking ridge made up of loose glacial rubble and debris.
We would soon descend into the Newton Creek Canyon. The next day we would climb up and over the moraine into the Clark Creek Canyon on the other side.
Trees grow low and twisted, on Gnarl Ridge, beat down by fierce wind and deep snows, some of them skeletal. We walked along the spine of the ridge close to the vertical drop into the vast grey canyon. Newton Clark Glacier glittered behind us on the east face of Mount Hood above the barren wasteland of the moraine.
We were exposed up here in this desolate place. The air, which had cleared considerably on the East side of the mountain, was once again heavy with smoke. The three of us were tiny, little ants in a line on the top of the ridge. We felt exposed… insignificant…vulnerable…Suddenly, it seemed like the mountain didn’t want us walking on its ancient, deep scars.
Straight ahead of us, an impossibly steep path rose up a craggy outcropping that we later learned was called Lamberson Butte.
“Tell me that we don’t have to climb that!” said Marea as we drew closer.
Before we reached it, we begin to wind down through the twisted trees. The descent was bone jarring and brutal. We passed the tumbled remains of the Gnarl Ridge shelter and not an hour later we were strolling through a forest of towering pines on a smooth, wide path. We were only a couple miles from Newton Creek and now we began to worry that others might beat us there and we would be out a campsite.
We arrived at Newton Creek at about 3:30 in the afternoon. River crossings should be done early in the morning before the heat of the day melts the glaciers and fills the rivers, but it doesn’t always work out that way. This was the widest and deepest one yet. I heard Misha’s anxious whines as he tried to stay on my heels. We would cross on a log jam and jump the last few feet to shore.
I couldn’t hear anything over the roar of the water. When I was halfway, I glanced back and saw Misha with his front legs wrapped around a log as if to drag himself forward. But I missed the part where he high centered, unable to move, his right rear leg pinned between two logs. Marea had to grab the handle on Misha’s harness and pull him straight up, sure that his little leg would snap. But he just had a scrape about the size of a dime on his flank that oozed just a little blood.
Sometimes it is hard to find the trail after a river crossing, after we crossed, we saw two hikers above us, waving and pointing to the trail which was cut deep into the steep bank. (The hikers had taken pictures of our river crossing which they later emailed to me. Awesome pictures!) We climbed forty or fifty feet to a beautiful little stream and several empty campsites. The year before, we had rolled into Elk Cove after six in the evening and found that all the regular campsites were taken. We’d set up on little dirt patch with a slight slope to it, in an open corridor where the wind had beat our tent all night. This experience had spurred us to move so we didn’t miss out on a site again and we were relieved to find our pick of spots away from the trail under a thick canopy of trees.
The third day was over. We had eight miles to go.