Moons ago I mentioned to Eric that I was interested in trying longer distance backpacking. As what I’m sure was an incredible practical joke, earlier this summer he invited me to join him and some of his friends backpacking the Timberline trail around Mt. Hood. 40 miles, 4 days, and 9000′ of elevation gain. In some delusion I gratefully accepted the invite, and months later found myself pulling into the Sandy Springs camp at 9:30 on a Thursday night. We were starting at 7:30 the next morning.
Four days later, dusty, smelling awful, and ready to see running water we emerged right back where we started, and I was stoked! The trip was amazing! Disconnecting from the world and being fully present in the situation for four days was true bliss. Physical exertion focuses you, and when topped by accomplishment elates. I’m already planning some extended backpacking trips for next summer.
Something strange happened on this trip: around day 2 we realized that we were hiking at about the same pace as other folks, and we started getting to know them better. There was the couple who had been smoked out of part of the PCT, another couple who had done this several times before and were excited to see the new trail reroutes, folks with kids, kids without folks, and folks doing this all by themselves. These folks had similar experiences from very different perspectives. By days 3 and 4 we talked freely, shared our experience, and the trip was enhanced. It became to me more a pilgrimage than a trip through the wilderness. In the latter I would expect solitude, peace, and natural splendor. With the former, a sense of common purpose and toil. This wasn’t at all what I expected and was welcome.
Day 1: Timberline Lodge to Sandy River
Ah, first day. Hopes, ignorance, insanely heavy packs. Taking a picture out of the gate I noticed my camera was hosed. It didn’t make sense to carry it the whole time so back to the car I went. I get to start this trip twice. Cool. The Timberline trail is on the PCT for the entirety of this leg. PCT hikers travel like the wind. We would be aware of a group approaching. Within moments they were blowing by on their way to make their 20+ mile days. These hikers are like container ships, always moving faster than you expect. Many of the folks we saw this day would ultimately be affected by the Eagle Creek fire that closed the PCT north of Mt. Hood to Cascade Locks.
Our day took us along the PCT to the Paradise Park Loop Trail. There was some confusion, as the rangers had mentioned that trail had tons of blowdown. We saw signs that indicated the opposite and spoke to hikers who had been on the trail. Deciding to take our chances we lept on it and discovered … nothing. Not a single blowdown on the trail. There was some nice big pieces on the PCT just south of there. That pleasantness discovered, we motored on up to find spectacular meadows, full of bees. BEES. Yes, really. Thousands and thousands of bees.
My hackles up we moved on and had lunch just past Lost creek. Turns out Lost creek is the last water source before Sandy River. I wish we’d known that. After lunch, and major lunch envy on my part, we made our way toward camp. In search of water, and in an attempt to avoid having all the camp sites snagged, I ran ahead and caught a camp site just before the Sandy River crossing.
Day 2: Sandy River to Wy’East Basin
Like whistling workers we departed camp after a wonderful night’s sleep. Quickly we found ourselves attempting to cross Sandy River. This was our first major crossing of the trip and some calibration was in order. Eventually we found our way and continued on toward Ramona falls. We departed the PCT shortly before reaching the falls. The falls were great and helped us gain steam to begin our climb for the day. See, day 1 was all about the downhill. Difficult on the joints, but easy on the muscles and lungs. We had descended 2000′ more feet than we ascended on day 1, which meant that we would be making that up for the rest of the trip. The Timberline trail is full of nice gradual climbs that go on for ever. You can go measure it. It’s a fact. Forever.
After traveling on trails overgrown with dense brush for much of the morning, our afternoon brought us to sections of the forest that had been burnt out a few years prior. These burnt out sections were a stark contrast, and a reminder of how quickly life can change. What was prior a lush, verdant forest was instead miles upon miles of monoliths.
The heat got to us, and by the time we passed cairn basin we were looking for a camp site. Wy’East basin had a beautiful camp site in a tree island out of the meadow. We were a couple minute walk from water and had a view facing NNW out of the mountain. What’s NNW but the Eagle Creek area, and we had a front row seat to the smoke plume coming off the Eagle Creek fire. We had heard about this from some of the folks on trail, and learned that it started that afternoon. That explains the rapid increase in smoke …
Day 3: Wy’East Basin to Gnarl Ridge
Disaster struck one of our members today. She had been dealing with pervasive foot issues all summer and today woke up with knee pain. She made a valiant effort but was done. The trooper she was, she elected to walk to cloud cap where her husband would pick her up. She was amazing. Our group ended up splitting her pack. Before cloud cap was the Elliot creek crossing. A few years ago this crossing washed out. Over the past year some wonderful folks rebuilt the crossing. The kicker is that the new crossing was 600′ in elevation lower than the old one. Down we went, switchback after switchback, and up we went, up another 13 switchbacks to climb and meet our party member’s husband.
With C on her way, we ate lunch and decided what we wanted to do for the afternoon. See, our plan was to make at least Gnarl Ridge, if not the Newton Creek camping area. We lost a lot of time getting C to cloud cap, so we had a decision to make. How much further would we go in the heat of the day? Did we want to carry enough water to camp at Gnarl ridge (we didn’t think there was any more water until Newton creek)? Or, do we take less water and book for Newton creek?
We opted to attempt Newton creek. This was a committing decision and as such took the requisite debate. Up we went to the Lamberson spur, the high point of the trail. Here the trail is soft sand, in the exposed alpine, and relentless. Here the views should be spectacular but were instead obscured by the smoke from the Eagle Creek fire.
The summit achieved, we found the most wonderful creek from snow melt. There were several decent sized snowfields above the high point of the trail, and they provided that amazing life giving thing that is water. This changed our decision. Tired, and with hurting feet, our group opted to water up and attempt a Gnarl Ridge camp.
That we did, and found a wonderful camp site on the ridge.
Day 4: Gnarl Ridge to the Timberline
Finish day. Bitter sweet. Okay, a little bitter with a lot of sweet. Our whole group made absolutely wonderful time today. Whether we finally had our legs under us or whether we were simply motivated by the thought of burgers and shakes, we booked it out. This part of the trail crosses through a ski area and we again found ourselves back in the land of day hikers. We hadn’t come across many on the northern and north-eastern flanks of the mountain. Here they were back. Eyeing us suspiciously with our large packs they kept their distance. That, or they didn’t want to be downwind of us …
We crossed the white river and were just a hop, skip and a jump away from finishing the trail. Well, turns out the last 1000ft of elevation gain is up a sandy slope. Turns out glaciers generate moraines, which are full of sand. This was a wonderful end to our journey. See, if it was too easy then the climax would have come too early.
And then that was it. End of the trail. Back at our starting sign. Back to the cars. We were among the well dressed crowd enjoying their labor day up at the Timberline lodge. Naturally, we left immediately and headed down for burgers, shakes, and fried food.
47.1mi, 9100′ elevation gain and loss
Winners: MSR Guardian water purifier, A+D anti-chafe ointment, camp shoes
Losers: Smoke, Chafing, Chafing