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.