Mount Hood: Cooper Spur

  • Date: May 28, 2018
  • Start: Tilly Jane Sno Park
  • Distance: 9.9 miles
  • Duration: 16 hours 5 minutes
  • Type: Point-to-point
  • References: Mt. Hood Climber’s Guide by Bill Mullee; SummitPost

“Rock!!!” The sound of my voice felt so small and helpless against the vastness of Wy’east’s intimidating northeast flank. I looked behind me to make sure Mack had actually heard my warning. Here we were, practically crawling up the mountain’s “deadliest” route, hoping to not be crushed or thrown off it’s side by the watermelon-sized boulders that were tumbling down in sporadic intervals. Despite the fact that we were together, I’d never felt a greater sense of solitude on a mountain. It was both beautiful and terrifying.

Long before I dreamed of climbing other mountains and even the standard south side route of this mountain, I dreamed of climbing the Cooper Spur route. When we first began hiking more regularly in 2014, the trek to Cooper Spur was my favorite day hike and was the highest I’d ever been on Wy’east at the time. I hoped that the next time I was back up in the same spot that it would be to complete the final 2,000+ feet to the summit. Just under four years later, I was back to fulfill that promise to myself.

After a failed attempt two days earlier due to an accidental long nap at the Cooper Spur shelter on the approach, we decided to take advantage of the three-day holiday weekend and return for another go. We set off from Tilly Jane Sno Park shortly before midnight, moving through an eerie landscape of skeleton trees (remnants of a wildfire that swept through several years earlier), passing the Tilly Jane A-Frame, and finally breaking treeline at the Cooper Spur shelter a couple hours later. It thankfully wasn’t nearly as windy as it had been two days earlier so we didn’t feel the need to take shelter like we had then. We decided this was still a good time to stop for a snack and make any adjustments to clothing before pushing the rest of the way to the base of the snowfield, which still required another 2,000 feet or so of climbing.

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Mack pounding Yerba Mate drinks in order to stay awake

We navigated with surprising ease and swiftness through the steep, boulder field leading up to the spur. I remembered how slow, difficult, and never-ending this section had felt under the hot afternoon sun back in 2014. Definitely a stark contrast to how we were faring now. It made me smile to realize yet again how far we’ve come since our out-of-shape, cotton-wearing, lack-of-ten-essentials-carrying days outside. Upon reaching Cooper Spur, we took another snack break and traded a trekking pole for an ice axe in order to traverse the narrow ridge before us safely. The sun was just starting to rise now and we had a front row seat (well…whenever we turned around at least) as we made our way to the base of the snowfield.

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Lonely but magical ridge walk to the base of the snow field
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Mack on the ridge
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Eliot Glacier and a view of Helens, Rainier, and Adams
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Just another showstopping Wy’east sunrise

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The entire northeast face was engulfed in the warm and radiant light of the now risen sun once we reached the end of the ridge. The salmon pink glow of the steep snow climb before us seemed inviting at first, but the longer I stared at it, allowing my gaze to move upward to the summit, the more that facade began to crumble, forcing me to face the reality of what we were about to attempt and the consequences if we made a mistake. I take every climb I do very seriously, but this was the first time I was filled with more fear than exhilaration. I turned to Mack as I stood there paralyzed and put on a brave face. “You still want to do this?” I asked. Part of me hoped he’d be so scared and nervous that he’d want to turn around, then I wouldn’t feel so bad about backing out. Instead, we took our first steps up the 2,000+ foot climb.

For a short while we were able to walk upright, but it quickly turned into a comparable grade to that of the Hogsback on the south side. We were still a long ways from the summit. Rock crumbled from the bands high above us. The sound stopped us dead in our tracks each time and I could only hope we weren’t directly in the fall line. It was difficult to see the rock cascading down until it was a couple hundred feet away from us. Although we brought along pickets and rope in order to set up a running belay as the slope steepened, we decided against using it when we saw how frequent the rockfall was. Better to move separately and quickly in order to get out of the bowling alley we were stuck in.

It’s not very often that we have to kick steps on the routes we climb because they’re usually so well worn that we’re almost always following in someone else’s tracks. This was not the case on Cooper Spur. I expended nearly all of my energy kicking steps for us until we reached the first rock band a few hundred feet or less below the summit. By this time, we were mostly out of the danger zone (in regards to rockfall), but now we were on the steepest part of the climb and the snow quality was less than ideal since the sun had been warming it for a couple of hours. One slip could easily send either one of us rocketing down into the Eliot Glacier a couple thousand feet below. One slip could easily mean death.

I pushed past my physical and mental exhaustion to stay as focused and cognizant as possible, acutely aware of the quality of each kick step and ice axe purchase. I could only hope that Mack, who was now in front of me kicking our steps through the Chimneys, was doing the same. Above the Chimneys, the end was now in sight. Despite being far easier than what we’d just come through, we were both moving pretty slowly up the final part of the slope. After nearly ten hours, we meekly pulled ourselves up and over the rim at the feet of some skiers eyeing the line we’d just ascended. Damn were we looking forward to descending the south side.

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Bracing myself
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Before it got really steep
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Mack starting to weave his way through the rock bands
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Just a few more steps until the summit!

After a few words with the skiers, we realized our south side decent was not going to be the cakewalk we were hoping for. Maybe an hour or so before we summited, three roped climbers had fallen on the Hogsback and a rescue was underway. (Side note: all party members survived) We stayed on the summit longer than planned while deciding which way to descend (and so Mack could take care of some altitude-induced bowel movement). In the end, we opted for Pearly Gates. Neither of us was in the mood to traverse the knife edge leading to the Old Chute.

Unfortunately, the gates were not in the excellent shape they’d been in two weeks prior. The consolidated snow and kick steps were almost completely worn away, leaving crumbling ice instead of firm platforms. Once past the gates, we could see the rescue taking place below us. I decided to climb down facing into the slope so I wouldn’t be able to see what was happening. The last thing I wanted was to get freaked out, make a mistake, and cause another accident for PMR to deal with. We made our way down extra slow now that the snow was complete mush and we had a gaping bergschrund to contend with. On the way down, we passed off our handwarmers to the group of rescuers who were seeking out resources to warm one of the patients as they waited for a helicopter. I felt bad there wasn’t more we could offer.

Just below Devil’s Kitchen, we finally took a more relaxing break and were able to breathe again (a little ironic if you’ve been to Devil’s Kitchen). We removed our crampons, but I kept my axe out since the rest of the way down looked unpleasantly icy and not at all ideal for plunge stepping. We hiked the rest of the way down at a far slower pace than we’d hoped due to the conditions. Numerous, well-equipped rescuers were now making their way up to the Hogsback as we descended and once we were within a half mile or less of Timberline, we heard the whirring blades of a helicopter overhead. We stumbled into the parking lot dazed and dehydrated but extremely happy to have made it through our climb unscathed. Cooper Spur was maybe a little more than we’d bargained for (mainly due to the rockfall that intensified the exposure), but I was absolutely ecstatic that we’d pushed and supported each other through it, and that we’d completed the most “out-of-our-comfort-zone” climbing route so far. I’m not sure we’ll be back to do this one again for awhile, but I have to say I’m pretty excited for us to try many more routes on this incredible backyard mountain of ours.

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Finally back at the car (although we still needed to pick up my car at Tilly Jane)

 

A few photos from our first attempt:

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Mount Thielsen

  • Date: May 13, 2018
  • Start: Mount Thielsen Trailhead
  • Distance: 9-10 miles
  • Duration: 10 hours 4 minutes (breaks included)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  •  References: Best Climbs: Cascade Volcanoes by Jeff Smoot; Outdoor Project

I laced up my climbing shoes and took a deep breath. Hischokwolas’ summit spire loomed high above us, its basaltic andesite rock glinting in the sunlight. Three years ago, Mack and I had stood in this exact spot, fearful of the class 3-4 scramble before us. We’d only been seriously hiking for about a year and had never done rock climbing or mountaineering of any sort. Three years ago, we turned around, and the memory of that incomplete adventure both haunted and motivated me. I studied the base for a few more minutes. Eighty feet. Just eighty feet. I took one more deep breath and made my first move.

After a rather tough 50K race and a mostly sleepless and uncomfortable night in the front seats of the car, we hit the trail just before sunrise with our friends, Alyssa and Ryan. First light was already upon us, so headlamps were packed away shortly after we started. The first couple of miles passed quickly with good conversation to wake us all up. Chilly morning temps kept the snow firm for us as we wove through a forest of mountain hemlock and fir before gaining the ridge. Our objective was now in full view, a dark silhouette with the sun still tucked behind it’s northern flank.

We donned our crampons and pulled out ice axes to move more efficiently and safely, especially with the increasingly sketchy run out on either side of the ridge. They quickly became obsolete though once we reached the steep talus slopes. We packed away our steep snow equipment, put on our helmets, then slowly picked our way up the crumbling rock, moving in pairs, careful to stay out of each other’s fall lines in case any rock came loose beneath us. As we neared the final chimney chute leading to the chicken ledge, we were forced to pull out our axes one last time to traverse a short, but rather steep, early season snow field. After that, it was an easy scramble to the base of the summit block.

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One of the first views of Thielsen after emerging from the forest
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Alyssa with Diamond Lake and Mount Bailey in the background
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Alyssa and Mack
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Carefully picking my way up the talus slopes

Mack and I traded our mountaineering boots for climbing shoes at this point. We paced back and forth along the base, seeking out the path of least resistance. Three years ago, every path up looked terrifying and impossible. Now, this final tower was just a fun little puzzle with multiple possibilities! Mack made his first moves and I followed, opting for an alternate starting point that seemed more feasible for me.

I was amazed at how easy each move felt! Although I climbed slowly, it wasn’t out of nerves or fear. I was savoring each moment, each move, relishing in this seemingly newfound confidence (all while staying focused of course). There were plenty of platforms to step onto and the rock was incredibly solid the entire way up. Ironically, the hike up the talus slope down lower was far more nerve-racking! The final eighty feet honestly felt like the easiest part of the entire adventure. It was by far the most rewarding and fun part as well. We stayed on the summit for a short while, scanning for fulgurites on the rocks and enjoying the views of Diamond Lake, Mount Bailey, and the waters of Crater Lake. Mack was anxious to get moving though, feeling nervous about the down climb, so we snapped a few photos and carefully began the descent.

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Mack on the summit
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Me on the summit
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Survey marker
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Summit selfie

The scramble down felt just as easy and straightforward as the climb up. We knew the various holds and platforms well enough that we were actually able to take a few pictures this time around! I was beaming with excitement when we made it back down to the ledge where Alyssa and Ryan were hanging out. If we didn’t have such a tedious descent on talus slopes and slushy snow, as well as a long drive home, I would’ve scrambled up again!

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Scrambling back down the summit block

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As predicted, the descent from the chicken ledge until we were off the west ridge was slow and laborious, especially beneath the hot afternoon sun. Getting off the loose rock and back onto the snow was such a relief, even though it meant post-holing in knee deep snow at times. Once we were back on dirt, away from both snow and talus, we stopped for one last snack (or, in my case, power nap) break before making the final push back to the car. My mind and body were drained and suffering from the heat of the day (and the day before) by this point, and my final push felt more like sleepwalking. Despite being completely spent by the time we reached our cars in the mid-afternoon, we all finished with smiles on our faces. I’m sure it was partly a result of relief for being able to remove our heavy and hot mountaineering boots, but I think it was mostly because we’d had another memorable mountain adventure with the best company.

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Ryan and Alyssa enjoying the views at the base of the summit block
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Mack, Ryan, and Alyssa traversing one of the few remaining snow-covered slopes
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Almost there!
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Couldn’t ask for a better crew!
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Getting in a quick power nap and resting my poor legs and feet

 

Wilson River Trail E2E2E

  • Date: January 27, 2018
  • Location: Tillamook State Forest
  • Start: Elk Creek Trailhead
  • Distance: 42 miles (only completed 39-ish)
  • Duration: 10 hours 15 minutes (breaks not included)
  • Elevation gain: 3950 feet (one way)
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • References: Oregon Hikers

Stupid. Stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid, stupid. That was the only word (minus a certain descriptive expletive preceding the word “stupid”) racing through my head as we stumbled through the Tillamook State Forest in the pitch black. Our inadequate sources of light barely lit up the trail a few feet in front of us. I became more and more paranoid with each step, terrified that I would take a fall and injure myself, or that we’d have a surprise encounter with any of the nocturnal predators that lurk in the forest. The rain was coming down hard at this point, but it was fear that saturated me, seeped into my skin, resonating deep within my bones. Why had I thought this would be a good idea?

We started late in the morning just before 7 am. It seems silly to call that “late” since the sun had yet to rise, but 42 miles was a very new distance for us. We weren’t entirely sure what to expect but I anticipated needing the entire day. It was already raining when we started up the first hill leading out of the campground parking area. Once we were in the trees we were somewhat protected. Mack had me lead so he wouldn’t end up running too far in front of me. My legs were still getting reacquainted with this sport. Mack had been doing a fantastic job of keeping up his big mileage weeks over the past couple of months since our previous race in November. I, on the other hand, stopped running entirely for 20+ days in December and early January. I could blame that hiatus on my busy schedule but, at the heart of it, was lack of motivation and feelings of defeat. My hope was that Wilson River would light a fire under my ass and reignite the spark that had been missing from my most recent attempts to get back into it.

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A cloudy dawn in the forest

We weren’t greeted with sunshine, just cloudy skies and fog, but daylight allowed us to put away our headlamps and pick up the pace. Silhouettes and shadows were replaced with a sea of green. Sword ferns, salal, and Oregon grape blanketed the slopes while moss coated the trees and rocks. Despite being the dead of winter, the forest was already exhibiting signs of spring. Even from a few of the viewpoints from up high along the route, snow was nowhere to be seen as we looked out over the forested mountains of the coast range. At least it was one less obstacle to deal with. Although the trail itself offers some of the best (if not the best) tread for running, its constant undulating elevation profile makes it deceptively challenging. The first 9-10 miles alone (from Elk Creek to Diamond Mill) gain 3500+ feet!

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Lots of mini-falls and creek crossings

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One of the Lester Creek Pinnacles

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The Diamond Mill suspension bridge over the North Fork Wilson River brought an ironic sense of relief. We weren’t quite halfway through our end-to-end (and barely a quarter of the way done with the entire run!). I think the relief I was feeling stemmed from my memory of running the Elk-Kings 25K back in 2015. At this point in the route, there were less than 3 miles left to run. If only the same could be said about our current situation. We took a short snack break after crossing the deceptively slick bridge then continued on more mellow terrain past Lester Creek Falls (which we’d never noticed until this run), Jones Creek Day Use Area, and the beautiful Tillamook Forest Center. Another false sense of relief swept over me when the Wilson River Suspension Bridge came into view. If this were the Go Beyond Racing event, we’d be running across that bridge to a victorious finish, nourishing food and refreshments, and warm and dry clothes back in the car. On the contrary, all was silent. There was nobody and nothing waiting for us across that bridge. We were alone, and the comforts I was fantasizing about were miles away at Elk Creek Trailhead.

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Suspension bridge at Diamond Mill
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North Fork Wilson River (looking south from the bridge)
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North Fork Wilson River (looking north from the bridge)
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Just my luck…
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Lester Creek Falls
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Wilson River Suspension Bridge and Tillamook Forest Center

We enjoyed a few more miles of minimal climbing, taking in the views of Wilson River now that the trail was practically hugging it. The rain continued off and on, and the seemingly endless creek crossings left our socks perpetually soaked. Continuous movement was the only way to stay warm. There were some upsides though. I absolutely hate running in the heat (basically any temp above 70-75 degrees), so the cool 40-50 degree weather kept me from burning out too fast. In addition, the cold and wet kept potential crowds–well, Wilson River Trail never gets that crowded per se–at bay. I’m pretty sure I could count the number of people we saw all day on one hand.

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Particularly lush section along Wilson River
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Wilson Falls
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New favorite adventure running sustenance

The final stretch between Wolf Creek Road and Keenig Creek Trailhead saw another 1000+ feet of elevation gain over the course of six miles. It wasn’t much compared to that of the first 9-10 miles, but we were very much ready for a break (and to be halfway done). I was starting to feel a bit of pain in my right knee, which made the miles go by even slower and caused my level of stress to skyrocket. Thankfully, as soon as we hit Cedar Butte Road, the pain seemed to subside (or was just overshadowed by my immense excitement that the rest of the way was downhill). We flew down 1.5 miles of switchbacks before bursting through the trees and into the empty parking lot, exhilarated and exhausted. 21 miles down, but 21 to go…

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Wolf Creek
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Wolf Creek
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And more Wolf Creek
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Keenig Creek Trailhead = halfway done!

What goes down must come up. After a fairly brief snack break and some reluctance to begin again, we headed back up the switchbacks I’d been so ecstatic about earlier. Now I was groaning as I forced my tired legs to hike uphill. High spirits resumed once we reached Cedar Butte Road again and were able to pick up the pace. I took my final photos of our run–though I was still under the impression I’d be taking a couple more back at the car when we finished–shortly after we crossed Wolf Creek Road.

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Crossing the footbridges at Wolf Creek
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Yeah…can’t get enough of Wolf Creek apparently
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Still many miles to go

Reaching the Wilson River-Footbridge Trail junction (just over six miles in) felt like forever and definitely hampered my will to continue. It was already getting late into the afternoon, too. Sunset was about an hour away and we still had 15 tough miles remaining. I can’t speak for Mack, but my body started to shut down at this point. I shuffled along the best I could but ended up having to walk–more like crawl–at a time when we really needed to be moving fast.

The sun was already beginning to set by the time we reached the Tillamook Forest Center. At the pace we were going (because of me), I knew it would be hours before we reached Elk Creek Trailhead. Of course, we’d forgotten to bring along our Garmin inReach and had absolutely no cell service to call and let our emergency contact know that we’d be running very late. I could feel the panic start to fester in me (mainly because I didn’t want SAR called on us due to lack of communication). I even suggested to Mack that we bail at the Jones Creek Trailhead and run along Hwy 6 to Elk Creek Trailhead (which would’ve cut our remaining mileage in half) so we could return at a reasonable hour and get in touch with our contact. He thought it would be more dangerous, so we stuck to the trail.

It was completely dark when we crossed the North Fork Wilson River and headed back into the forest to work our way through the most difficult/strenuous section of the route. It was primarily uphill so I wasn’t running. Hell, I was barely able to power hike. Emotions began to pour out of me. I was angry and frustrated with my abilities, as well as the fact that we’d forgotten to bring such an important piece of equipment (that we’d specifically purchased for situations like this!). At some point it started raining again. We picked our way carefully up and down the trail, depending primarily on Mack’s handheld flashlight since my headlamp was completely inadequate. We ran whenever possible, but moving in the pitch black was slow going to say the least.

At long last,–literally, we’d been moving for over two hours since crossing the North Fork–we reached the junction with Kings Mountain Trail. Our trailhead was still nearly four miles away and it was already 8 pm. We decided to head down to Kings Mountain Trailhead (a short 0.1 mile away). Upon reaching the parking lot, every last ounce of energy that I’d sustained with adrenaline for the previous two hours suddenly left me. My entire body seemed to go limp. I could barely see straight or stand up. Mack headed down Hwy 6 in the rain to pick up his car at Elk Creek about 2.5 miles away. I was too drained to move and sat in the rain shoving Goldfish into my mouth. I finally picked myself up and spent the remainder of my time shut inside the toilet, shaking and shivering in the 30-something degree weather. This image, sitting in a trailhead toilet, beat down and unable to even complete the final 2.5 road miles to the car, felt like the epitome of failure in that moment. I sat dazed in the car on the way home, staring at the streaks of water splash across the window, dreaming of BBQ and pineapple pizza to take my mind off of my immense disappointment.

Tamanawas Falls

  • Date: December 28, 2017
  • Location: Mount Hood
  • Start: East Fork-Tamanawas Trailhead
  • Distance: 3.8 miles
  • Duration: 2 hours 34 minutes (breaks included)
  • Elevation gain: 500 feet
  • Type: Out-and-back
  • Map: Adventure Maps: Mount Hood Area
  • References: 60 Hikes Within 60 Miles: Portland by Paul Gerald; Outdoor Project

Evergreens coated in powder. Fields dotted with marshmallow boulders. Frozen crystalline features dangling from cliff faces, fallen logs, and tree limbs. Majestic waterfalls cascading down into icy blue rivers. Mount Hood National Forest is a winter lover’s dream. Despite the unfortunate low snow year, it still managed to enchant us on our brief pit stop heading back from Smith Rock State Park.

We arrived at the trailhead sometime mid-morning, still sleepy-eyed (with the exception of Cassie, who was ready to get the hell out of the car) from our early morning alarm. Being the middle of the week, there was only one other car parked. Another uber-popular hike to enjoy without the crowds! We took our time getting dressed for the snowy conditions having just come from the high desert, but a quick jaunt on the first several yards of the trail indicated that we wouldn’t need snowshoes, just our microspikes. This was both a depressing revelation (so little snow compared to the same time last year!) but also a relief (no cumbersome gear attached to my feet).

The first part of the hike on East Fork Trail #650 parallels Highway 35. Once we turned onto the Tamanawas Trail that sign of civilization fell away as we ventured deeper into the wintry forest. The foreboding, dark waters of Cold Spring Creek rushed alongside us as we walked. Snow fell from the trees with the warming temps, sometimes as gentle sprinkles, other times as heavy snowballs. Cassie loved this and bounded ahead to chase the falling snow on a few occasions. One such occasion forced us to put her back on leash though after she chased some falling snow off the trail and sprinted into the woods. I panicked as we searched and shouted for her, nearly breaking down in tears until I heard Mack yell back to me that he’d gotten ahold of her (10-15 minutes after she’d run off). We’ve been pretty flexible with Cassie over the past year, allowing her off leash in places where it’s okay (i.e. no regulations in place and generally uncrowded) because she’s always remained close to us and has exhibited good recall. This was a necessary reminder that she’s still an animal and will get distracted when we least expect it.

Licking the ice rather than drinking the water
Alongside Cold Spring Creek
So many marshmallows

I was a little on edge and working to normalize my vitals following the Cassie fiasco. Tamanawas Falls turned out to be the perfect remedy for my anxiety. When we turned the corner and the waterfall came into view I was immediately awestruck and pleasantly surprised. I had actually expected it to be smaller based on photos I’d seen! I was of course ecstatic to see how truly spectacular these falls were in person. We carefully picked our way down the icy trail to the creek for a better vantage point then proceeded to hop through the field of frosted boulders until we reached a clear boundary where the surrounding snow was tinged with a glacier blue sheen, a color made even more brilliant by the juxtaposing dark hue of the creek and the cliff from which the falls tumbled. It was difficult to tear ourselves away, but more hikers were starting to make their way to the falls. It was time to relinquish our prime spot(s) and give other visitors a chance to explore.

First view from the trail!
View from the creek

Family portrait

On the return hike, we made time to stop and explore some of the more simple delights along the trail. There were several mini-falls to be enjoyed within Cold Spring Creek, a few of which cascaded into one another through a mesmerizing series of aqua-colored pools. There was so much to see on this short hike!

Can you see the tiered formation?

Icicles

The sun came out as we turned back onto the East Fork Trail, filtering warmth and light through the trees and making the snow on their limbs melt increasingly fast. We spent a good part of the hike back keeping our eyes and ears alert for these snow bombs, doing our best to dodge them whenever they happened to fall. Nonetheless we enjoyed the peaceful forested snow stroll, as well as the small sunbursts and patches of blue sky that greeted us through the trees every so often. On the final footbridge crossing before reaching the parking area, I lingered a few extra moments. Gazing out over Hood River, now a brilliant shade of blue thanks to the sunlight, I couldn’t help but reflect briefly on the soon-to-be-over year 2017 and all of the wonderful adventures and experiences that came with it. What does 2018 hold for our little family?

Sunny and snowy forest walk

Hood River from the footbridge
Another view of Hood River
What a multi-sport trip (with Cassie) looks like in my car

 

 

McKenzie River Trail

  • Date: May 13, 2017
  • Location: Willamette National Forest
  • Start: Upper McKenzie River Trailhead
  • Distance: 26.4 miles
  • Duration: 5 hours 49 minutes (breaks not included)
  • Type: Point-to-point
  • Map: Adventure Maps: Sisters & Redmond High Desert Trail Map
  • References: http://www.mckenzierivertrail.com/

With Spring in full swing, Mack and I are excited to start ticking off some trails we’ve been dying to hit since we started trading hikes for adventure trail runs. We decided to be bold this past weekend and shoot for one of the longest ones on our list: the McKenzie River Trail. In retrospect (since we didn’t realize these coincidences beforehand), it was actually quite a fitting adventure to have in celebration of Mack’s 27th birthday. The trail is just under 27 miles long, and then there’s the name itself, M[a]cKenzie. It was meant to be!

If I’m being completely honest though, I was actually hoping Mack would want to back out and save this run for another day for a few different reasons: 1) it would be our third ultramarathon distance run in the last five weeks, 2) it would be Cassie’s first ultramarathon distance (with her previous longest run being 16-18 miles), and 3) the earliest shuttle pick-up through McKenzie River Mountain Resort is 9:30 am (meaning we wouldn’t be able to start our run until at least 10 am)! The “no earlier than 10 am” factor is what really made me nervous. If we were just running the trail like a race (with no plans to stop), I wouldn’t have been worried, but on our adventure runs, I like to fit in longer breaks, take pictures, and explore side trip opportunities, which tends to add on quite a bit more time. Would we really be able to do that on this run with such a late start? Mack the birthday boy decided it was what he wanted to do though, so I did my best to set aside my worries.

We set off early Saturday morning in order to make our 9:30 am shuttle (which, by the way, is $30 per person and allows dogs). We were the only people hitching a ride that morning, so the 20 minute drive to the upper trailhead was pretty quiet, with the exception of the driver sharing a few tour guide-esque tidbits about the area and checking to see if we had a map. As soon as we were dropped off and got our packs situated, we crossed the footbridge at the trailhead, headed into the forest, and began the long trek back to the car.

Less than a mile in we came to the Clear Lake Trail junction, opting to stay on the MRT rather than taking the slightly shorter Clear Lake Trail (which does hook back up with the MRT at the south end of the lake) just to say we ran the trail in its entirety. According to our shuttle driver, there are numerous preserved trees standing underwater in Clear Lake due to the cold temperature of the water. The lake was created about 3,000 years ago when lava flow created a dam at the south end, allowing water to fill the area. Of course you can’t see these trees despite the clarity of the lake, but it’s an interesting anecdote about the area. We also got a small taste of the vibrant topaz colored water (which Tamolitch Blue Pool is known for) when we passed Great Spring on the eastern side of the lake.

Clear Lake
Cassie eyeing the ducks in the water
Great Spring

The MRT is known for sections of volcanic rock, and the eastern side of Clear Lake is one of those sections. Although it wasn’t very difficult for Mack and I to run on, I was a little nervous for Cassie since the rock is sharper. We didn’t bring any sort of paw protection for her, but she seemed to do fine and never showed any indication that she was bothered by the rough terrain. It was around this time that we started getting pelted with sleet, too. Less than three miles in and we were already soaked! Re-entering the forest near the southern end of the lake provided some shelter and relief.

Lava fields along Clear Lake

There was still quite a bit of snow on the ground before and after Clear Lake. I knew it would clear up eventually based on recent trip reports, but it did result in some pretty slow miles and even a little navigating to find the trail. It was hard to believe it was actually mid-May as we sunk into these ankle deep mounds of snow! Once we reached the junction with the Waterfalls Loop Trail and crossed the footbridge to stay on the MRT, the trail was clear. Now that we were running alongside the McKenzie again, we could admire the fiercely aqua blue tint of the water as it raged and tumbled downstream.

Crossing McKenzie River after passing the junction with the Waterfall Loops Trail

This next section between Clear Lake and Tamolitch Blue Pool encompasses the heart of the MRT. It’s also the most popular. Thankfully, due to the less-than-ideal weather and lack of sunshine, there were hardly any people on the trail (or maybe they were on the Waterfalls Trail on the opposite side of the river). Our first stop, and my absolute favorite part of the entire run, was Sahalie Falls. We scrambled down a short, steep side trail, traversing slick, rocky terrain and ducking under downed trees to reach the base of the 100-foot raging falls. We admired Sahalie for only a brief couple of minutes. The heavy mist blowing off the waterfall had us shivering almost instantly. Cassie didn’t seem to enjoy this part either.

Back on the trail, we came upon Koosah Falls soon after. We thought about finding a way to get down to the base like we had for Sahalie, but we still had many miles to run and it was already noon or so. We opted to admire the falls from a ledge above instead, then continued on to the next destination: Blue Pool.

Sahalie Falls

Koosah Falls

Now that we weren’t running on snow or volcanic rock, the next few miles passed quickly. We finally ran into some mountain bikers (just two) as well. Since the MRT is a well known MTB trail, we were worried that we’d spend most of our day dodging cyclists, but these two were the first we’d seen since we’d started! Maybe the weather kept many of them away? Whatever the reason, we were happy for the solitude. Of course, once the trail opens out above Blue Pool, that solitude immediately disappears.

Thankfully, the crowd wasn’t too ridiculous when we arrived. I imagine it’s an absolute nightmare in the summer or on any bluebird weekend. On this semi-gloomy day though, we managed to snag a rocky ledge overlooking the pool and enjoy the spot for a short time while we snacked and took pictures. The next mile or so took us over more volcanic rock. It was slow going again, and we were running into more people now because of our close proximity to the trailhead for Tamolitch Pool.

Tamolitch Blue Pool

McKenzie River

Eventually, the rock gave way to cushiony singletrack as we descended to the level of the river. Now that we had passed the main highlights of the trail (Clear Lake, Sahalie and Koosah Falls, and Tamolitch Pool), we quickened our pace and made fewer stops. For the remainder of the trail, we got to soak in the beauty of the Willamette National Forest, with its lush old growth areas and a forest floor blanketed in green.

After passing the trailhead for Tamolitch Pool and another trailhead at Trail Bridge Reservoir, we hit our longest stretch (somewhere between 7.5-8 miles I believe). I think there were even a couple of uphill sections through this stretch. Nothing that strenuous though. The sun had come out by this point, so we enjoyed being shaded by the trees while still absorbing the warmth of the sun.

Cassie about halfway through our run

About 10 miles left!

Once we made it to the Frissell Crossing Campground (with about six miles left to the car!), we took a slightly longer break (like 10-15 minutes) to eat some snacks, feed Cassie (who just wanted Goldfish as opposed to her own treats), and stretch out our legs before the final section. After that long of a pause, getting up to run again was difficult. It’s only when you stop that you start to notice the stiffness and soreness.

The snack break definitely gave us the boost we needed to push the last few miles. Crossing the river at Frissell put us on the same side as the highway, so peace and quiet weren’t as plentiful during this stretch. Our excitement grew though whenever we passed a landmark that we recognized on the map (Belknap Hot Springs first, then Paradise Campground). Once the guardrail (indicating the parking lot turnout) came into view through the trees, I knew we were done and our marathon day was complete. It had started to pour in the final half mile, so we’d made it back just in time to avoid getting completely soaked again. Cassie, needless to say, was exhausted and willingly hopped into her backseat hammock as soon as I opened the door. We quickly changed into some dry socks, shoes, and shirts and hit the road for the long drive home, stopping for some well deserved ice cream and candy at the nearest gas station. Maybe next year we’ll have to find 28 miles to run somewhere for Mack’s birthday?

Snack break at Frissell Crossing Campground

Last look at the McKenzie from the trailhead