Archives for category: Trail Review

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The focus of my fifth grade science class was natural disasters and like many kids I thought earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes and tsunamis were the coolest things EVER!  What was not cool, however, was living in boring western Pennsylvania where none of these crazy catastrophic events occurred.  All we had was the stupid Johnstown Flood and that was almost a hundred years ago.

But then right before the end of the school year, Mount St. Helens erupted.  It may have been on the other side of the country, but still, it was an American volcano–the biggest eruption this country has ever seen.  Then and there I promised myself that as soon as I was old enough to get a driver’s license, I would go and see this ash-spewing American icon.  And since I’d be in the neighborhood, maybe discover Bigfoot as well.

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It took a bit longer than expected, but eventually I did move to the Pacific Northwest and have since climbed, hiked and snowboarded the slopes of Mount St. Helens many times (though I never did find Bigfoot).

Despite its flattened top, St. Helens is still a beautiful mountain, like a Cascadian Kilimanjaro.  On a clear day it’s visible from many parts of Portland and it always makes me smile when it catches my eye.

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Recently my soul has been craving some form of adventure.  Too many 40 hour weeks in an office behind a computer will do that to you.  On a run-commute home from work last week, I got a glimpse of St. Helens and thought it might be fun to spend a day running around that bad boy.

A few days later I got up at 2am, had quick breakfast and was at the trailhead by 4:30.  The excursion started with a short run up to June Lake before connecting to the round-the-mountain Loowit Trail.  I touched the trail sign for good luck and paused for a few minutes to decide if I should go right or left.  Thinking that it might be best to get through dry and exposed sections before it got too hot, I opted to go counter clockwise.  Not realizing at that point that the whole day would be hot, dry and exposed.

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I got over the first ridge just as the sun was starting to rise.  It lit up a beautiful meadow that stretched down to treeline and roused a herd of elk warming up to a new day.  Above me a few mountain goats scrambled along crumbling cliffs.  It was like being in some type of fairy tale land.

The first section of trail goes through an area called the Plains of Abraham.  This flat moon-like landscape extends for miles along the eastern side of the mountain.  The trail then crosses over Windy Pass, which is in the blast zone, an area still being actively studied by volcanologists.  For hours I ran across this vast empty plain.  Without any trees or other identifying features you can’t help but feel small and insignificant.

The raging Toutle River brought me back to reality.  The trail descended more than a thousand feet and then deadended with a steep dropoff down to the river.  A tattered old climbing rope tied around a tree was the only indication that this was the right way to go.  I rappelled down to the river, filled up my hydration pack and ate my last energy bar.  I’d been running for 8 hours and still had more than 10 miles to go.

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The miles now seemed to drag on forever as the trail meandered through boulder-strewn lava fields.  Everytime I looked at my watch another hour or two had passed despite little forward progress being made.  I had gone the whole day without seeing a single person and then when I finally did, it was as if I had forgotten all the rules of society.  Like I had reverted to some primitive animalistic state.

Without thinking I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head, “Do you have any food?”  He was a bit taken back by my directness, but then asked me if I liked Fig Newtons.  I could have eaten a whole supermarket aisle of Fig Newtons at that point.  After scarfing down the cookies, I remembered my manners and learned that he was from Atlanta and was spending a few days hiking around the mountain.  He was happy to lighten his load and offered me some more snacks before heading on his way.

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The Fig Newtons powered me through the rest of the run.  Once again I touched the Loowit Trail sign, this time in appreciation of a safe passage.  It had taken me more than 13 hours to complete the loop around the mountain.  My soul had been craving an adventure and it most definitely got one.

Would I do this St. Helens run again?  Probably not.  Would I recommend it?  Without a doubt.  To paraphrase an old Japanese expression regarding Mt. Fuji:  It is foolish not to climb Fuji-San, but only a fool climbs it more than once.

I moved to Portland in October of 2000.  For my first six months here the city was socked in with a near perpetual grey funk.  On the rare occasions when the gloom curtain lifted, I can remember being mesmerized by the shimmering appearance of Mt. Hood on the eastern horizon.  Unlike Rainier or Shasta, Hood comes to sharp point at the top and is almost perfectly symmetrical.  If you ask a little kid to draw a picture of a mountain, I bet it’ll look like Mt. Hood.

For most of the last decade I was obsessed with mountain climbing and for me Hood was my classroom, my training gym and my playground.  I’ve probably spent several weeks camping and climbing its many routes.  During that time I discovered that the best way to view the mountain is not by climbing up it, but by hiking around it.

The Timberline Trail was built in the 1930’s by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  The 41 mile trail circumnavigates Mt. Hood, passing by the historic Timberline Lodge, Cloud Cap Inn and Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort.  It is one of the most beautiful trails in the Pacific Northwest and people come from all over the country to hike it.  Most backpackers take 3-5 days to do the loop.  The challenge is not just with the distance and altitude, but in the 10,000 feet of elevation that must be gained and lost.

I hiked the trail a few years ago and got passed on day three by a couple of guys who were running the whole trail in a single day.  All they were wearing were shorts and a T-shirt and carrying handheld waterbottles.  It seemed incredible to me at the time that these guys could travel so light, so far and so fast.  This chance encounter forced me to readjust my perceived limits.

Last month one of Yoshimi’s co-workers at New Seasons asked me if I was interested in joining him on a one day run of the Timberline Trail.  I’ve known Jon for about a year now.  He’s the only one I know personally who runs and races more than I do.  Occasionally we’ll get together for a few beers to talk about this goofy sport of ultra running.  Unfortunately, we have opposite work schedules, so we’ve never been able to train together.  A trip around Mt. Hood seemed like a good place to start.

Almost immediately after agreeing to join Jon, I began to have my doubts.  Circling the mountain in a single day would be a serious endeavor.  There would be snow fields to cross, route finding challenges, difficult stream crossings and a full day of exposure to the elements.  Jon would be fine.  He’s a veteran of several 100 mile races.  It was me I was worried about.

To ease my nervousness, I started doing some research.  There’s a cool website called Volcano Running that provides information about running around several of the major volcanoes in the Pacific Northwest.  Until Mt. Hood become a national scenic area, I learned that there used to be an annual race around the mountain.  In 1982, John Coffey set the couse record in a blistering 6 hrs 24 min.  I also happened across the blog of local ultra running stud, Yassine Diboun.  Last summer Yassine along with several other trail running hotshots ran the Timberline Trail in ten and a half hours.  He said it was a casual pace, but my feeling is that “casual” for these guys would be way fast for me and Jon.  The rest of the photos in this article were taken by Joe Grant on that trip:

My estimate was that it would take us about twelve hours, nearly the full allotment of daylight.  So I picked up Jon at 4am and we arrived at Timberline Lodge just as the sun was starting to rise.  We walked behind the lodge to the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) sign which marked the start of our route.  I love the PCT.  You can go south 2108 miles to Mexico or north 550 miles to Canada.  Three countries and three states connected by a single trail.  Not easy, but simple, clean and pure.

We both touched the sign for good luck and then started off at a slow jog.  There was no need to hurry.  It would be a long time before we’d be seeing this sign again.  For the first eleven miles the Timberline Trail and the PCT share the same route.  It’s mostly all downhill until Ramona Falls.  We chatted about past and future races and talked about our favorite elite ultra runners like a couple of little boys discussing their baseball heroes.  Before I knew it we were at the 10 mile point.  It took us just over two hours.  I can remember thinking, “we’ll easily finish this thing in under 10 hours.”  I laugh now at my naivety.

After the split with the PCT the trail became more technical and involved more uphill sections.  There were also some difficult stream crossings.  We tried to avoid getting our feet wet, but sometimes there was just no avoiding it.  Jon carried two handheld waterbottles.  I had a small hydration pack and one handheld.  We filled up the waterbottles at each stream crossing.  We didn’t filter the water since it was mostly high altitude glacier melt–almost too cold to drink at first.  We didn’t bring much in the way of food, just a couple of energy bars each and a bunch energy gels.  We hit the half way point at five and a half hours.  Maybe that sub-ten hour finish was a bit ambitious.

The north side of the mountain was incredibly beautiful:  crystal clear alpine lakes surrounded by meadows filled with multi-colored wildflowers. We ran with big smiles on our faces and sometimes had to stop just to take it all in.  We only saw a few other people, mostly backpackers weighed down with giant packs.  Just a few years ago I was in their boots, but now I was liberated–free to move fast and light.

The first major challenge was the Elliot Creek crossing at mile 27.  The trail was washed out here in 2007 by a huge landslide.  I’ve heard talk of a suspension bridge being built, but that has been delayed by the inevitable bureaucracy.  There are two options for getting through this section: climb up along a ridge above Elliot Creek, cross the Elliot glacier, then hike back down the other side.  Or downclimb the washout, cross Elliot Creek, and then scramble up the other side.  The second option seemed quicker and easier.  It was neither.

At the point where the trail washed out someone had put in a rope, not a real climbing rope, but a tattered laundry line.  This thing wouldn’t have supported the weight of a wet sock, let alone a falling body.  We wasted more than an hour and a lot of energy getting down, over and up the other side.  We were relieved to have gotten safely across, but were pretty wiped out in the process.  Unfortunately, the next 3 miles were all uphill, gaining 2000 ft to the highpoint of the trail at Lamberson Spur(7500 ft).  It was the hottest part of the day and we were completely exposed to the sun.  The trail was either too rocky to run or completely snow covered.  We power-hiked this section, barely talking at all.  I stopped looking at my watch.

At Lamberson Spur, we took a break, fueled up and emptied the grit out of our shoes.  We both caught a second wind and cruised through the next several miles on the smooth fast downhill trail.  It felt good to be under tree cover again.  There were more difficult stream crossings, not as bad as the Elliot, but still raging at this time of day.  At this point we were both too tired to rock hop across and instead would just plow on through, soaking our shoes in the freezing water.

All the snow was gone at Mt. Hood Meadows ski resort and you could actually see the namesake meadows.  We ran under the abandoned ski lifts.  It felt weird to see something man-made and mechanical after a long day of experiencing only the natural.  After crossing the many branches of the White River, we had just a two mile uphill slog to the finish.  At first glance Timberline Lodge looked like castle backlit by the setting sun.  The last mile was a tedious push through sand-like silt and that lodge never seemed to be getting any closer.  Eventually we saw some tourists snapping pictures of the mountain and then the PCT sign.  We both touched the sign, thanking the trail for a safe journey.

In the 13 hours and 10 minutes it took us to circle the mountain, it felt like we had experienced several weeks worth of stimuli.  We started just as the sun was rising and finished right before sunset.  On August 15th, we were able to squeeze all the energy out of our bodies and every last bit of light out of the day.

If you’ve never been to Silver Falls State Park, you really should go.  Oregon’s largest state park has miles and miles of single track trail that passes by (and even behind) ten waterfalls–several more than a 100 feet high.  Even though it’s close to both Portland and Salem, Silver Falls is not really on the way to anywhere.  Nevertheless, you should make a point to check out this magnificent park, you won’t regret it.  Last week I was one of 500 runners to take part in the Silver Falls Trail Half Marathon organized by the fine folks at Run Wild Adventures.  Run Wild has just been around for a few years, but already they’ve put together a cool series of shorter trail races that all take place in those dark winter months when there’s not much else going on.  At their races, you can expect rain, you can expect mud, but you can also expect to have a real good time.

What I didn’t expect was that there’s be so many competitive runners taking part in this second annual event.  The sloppy conditions didn’t hold anyone back and right from the gun these guys were cranking it out at a sub six minute pace.  The first mile was on road, which the gave the us a chance to spread out a bit.  By mile two, most everyone was where they needed to be and for the rest of the race there was very little passing.  We looped around to the start area and at about mile four we got on the Rim Trail which took us out to and behind 136 foot North Falls.  Even though you’re in the middle of running a race, it’s impossible NOT to stop and marvel at this massive cascade of water.

From there we hopped onto the Canyon Trail, which follows the North Fork of Silver Creek for about five miles.  This trail was just pure fun, mostly flat, but with lots of twists and turns and a few rolling hills.  A trail like this makes running on asphalt seem ridiculous.  At Lower South Falls the trail again skirted behind the falls and then climbed up a long, looooong set of stairs.  Now I was really starting to feel it and at this point my legs decided to officially lodge a protest.  I tried to ignore them as we then passed behind 177 foot South Falls, but they just wouldn’t quit their complaining.  “Come on guys,” I pleaded. “It’s only three more miles.”  No answer.  ” Wow, check out Silver Falls Lodge, built in 1940 by the Civilian Conservation Corps.  Isn’t that cool?”  My legs were not impressed.  They told me to quit sightseeing and get this thing over with.  I shut up, put my head down and churned through the last couple of miles.  Somehow I was able to convince my legs to put forth a bit of a sprint at the finish.  They reluctantly agreed, but were not happy about it.  Considering the competitive field and the fact my training has been in maintenance mode for the last month, I was happy to finish 25th overall.  Afterwards I ran into some guys I met over the summer at different races around Oregon.  Summer now seemed a long ways away as we warmed ourselves in front of the fireplace and enjoyed a few bowls of chili.  Thank you Run Wild Adventures for organizing such a fun race.  I look forward to your Shellburg Falls Trail Run next month.

A few months ago Outside Magazine ran an article on America’s Best Trails.  I was thrilled (but not totally surprised) to see the Wildwood Trail chosen as the best trail within city limits.  The Wildwood is a 30 mile trail that zigs and zags its way along the spine of the Tualatin Mountains in Portland’s Forest Park, one of North America’s largest urban parks.

I first become aware of Forest Park soon after moving to Portland in 2000 and was shocked to discover that it is much more forest than park.  In fact, it’s much too dense for a game of Frisbee, a summertime picnic or other typical park activities.  Forest Park is a full on wilderness experience and all within the city limits.

There are more than 70 miles of trails within the park, but the real showpiece is the Wildwood.  It has numerous trailheads, the closest of which is about 5 miles from my home and just two miles from my workplace.  I can access the trail on foot, by bike, bus, or light rail.  For a trail-running urban dweller without a car, it’s a dream come true.  In the last twelve years, I’ve logged hundreds of miles on its hard packed switchbacks sometimes before work, sometimes after, and occasionally even sneaking in a “quicky” on my lunch break.

The Wildwood does get a little crowded on weekends and in certain sections, but the further you get from the popular trailheads the less people (and more animals) you’ll see.  Once while in the depths of the park I came across a couple of elk.  If you’ve never seen an elk before, let me tell you, there’s no mistaking these guys for deer.  They’re HUGE.  Supposedly there are also bear and mountain lions hiding out in there somewhere.  However, if I had to nominate one animal to be the Wildwood’s official mascot, it would have to be the giant slug.  These slimy critters use the trail almost as much as runners do and can grow to about half the length of my size 12.5 Sauconys.

If you live in Portland, I highly recommend checking out this gem of a trail or taking part in one of the races that utilize it.  Next month the Oregon Road Runners Club is putting on its annual Wildwood 10K.  There is also a 50K ultra marathon in May and for the first time this year, a trail marathon in October.  Proceeds from the marathon will benefit the Forest Park Conservancy, the non-profit caretakers of this urban forest reserve.  Because of its size and density, Forest Park can be a bit intimidating at first.  Before diving in, you should pick up one of Green Trail’s waterproof Forest Park maps or a copy of the book, One City’s Wilderness, and then you’ll be all set to get wild on the Wildwood.

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