Backpacking Trip Report: Timberline Trail, Mt. Hood

Area: Northwestern Oregon

State: Oregon

Mileage: 41

Days: 1

Type: Loop

Month: August

As I stumbled through the darkness that rapidly descended on us, my knee joints ached and lighting bolt pain radiated through my feet with every step. Was I a rehab patient recovering from a debilitating car wreck? Was I an 85 year-old living in a nursing home? No, I was 28 miles into a voluntary hike.
The blisters on my feet were huge, the ibuprofen I popped like M&Ms no longer had any effect on the excruciating pain, and there was no way to quit even if I wanted to. To my dismay, I still had 13 miles to cover. I realized that would take me over six hours and that all of it would be in the dark. As I stopped by a small stream to rest and bandage up my feet, reality started to set in. That is when I reached my low point.
We were hiking the Timberline Trail which circumnavigates Mt. Hood in Northwestern Oregon. At 41 miles long and with 12,000 feet of elevation gain and loss, it is rated America’s Hardest Dayhike by Backpacker Magazine. As if that wasn’t challenging enough, a section of the trail was officially closed because a severe winter storm had decimated it. The Mt. Hood National Forest web site said that “the trail is impassible over the Eliot Crossing.” It further stated that the route was “impassible” because the “drainage is very unstable and hazardous with long vertical drops.”
Our journey began at 4:45 a.m. on August 8th at the Timberline Lodge. My hiking companion was my future brother-in-law, Gabe Garcia. Gabe is a towering 6’5″ member of the U.S. Coast Guard and is an animal when it comes to hiking. He typically hikes alone because no one can keep up with him. Despite being considered a strong hiker by most of my friends, I was no exception. Gabe’s backside, off in the distance, became a familiar sight for me.
In the weeks leading up to our hike, I managed to contact a pastor from Oregon who was planning a group hike of the Timberline Trail a few days before us. Pastor Tom Farley of Portland, gave us advice, marked the tricky spots with bright orange tape, built log bridges over some of the river crossings, and even left ropes in place for us to use during our trek. Without his help, our chances of success would’ve been substantially diminished.
The trail itself was amazing. We were above the clouds the entire day. Stunning views of Mt. Hood and other surrounding mountains greeted us around every corner. The trees, which grew on steep slopes, bent at an unusual angle to grow vertically, and were often covered in a hair-like fungus that gave the place a Lord of the Rings vibe. Beams of sunlight pierced through the trees illuminating the path at our feet and wild flowers blanketed the hillsides around us.
The river crossings were an adventure. Many required us to descend with a rope which was tied to a large boulder at the top. The crossing at Eliot Glacier was the crux. It was official closed and off-limits. When we arrived there the place was so fogged in, we couldn’t see more than 50 yards. As the fog began to lift we saw the challenge before us. The entire drainage had been obliterated by a winter storm. Where the trail used to be, there was only a near vertical drop-off perhaps 100 feet high dropping down to the river and a taller wall up the other side. The slopes were covered in sand with rock and boulders, some the size of small cars, loosely stuck in them. While just standing there, we could hear rocks falling off the slope tumbling all the way down to the river. To get struck by one of these projectiles while at the bottom would mean certain death.
After much deliberation, we lowered ourselves down the steep wall with a rope. We then scrambled across the river and used the other rope to scale the other side. Unfortunately, the rope ended about 3/4 of the way up. So for the last 35 feet, we had to carefully pick our way up the slope without protection as rocks we stood on slid out from under our feet and disappeared into the abyss below us. I breathed a sigh of relief when we both safely reached the top.
As the hours ticked by, the pain in my feet steadily increased to the point where it was hard to tolerate. When I reached my low point, I was searching the map for an escape route to shorten my misery. However, there was no easy way out. So Gabe taped up my feet, gave me some words of encouragement, and we pushed on. At some point in these monster hikes, the challenge evolves from one that is mostly physical to a primarily mental one. At that point I’m exhausted, I’m in agony, and sometimes I’m hallucinating. To succeed, one must ignore the pain and will oneself to finish.
The last 6 hours of our hike was miserable. I was exhausted and stumbled along in what felt like slow motion. I couldn’t see more that 20 feet in front of me. I was walking in a small bubble of light illuminated by my headlamp. In several places, a narrow trail cut across a steep slope. One false move and I would have plunged down to unknown depths and injuries.
When Gabe and I completed our hike 22 ½ hours after we started, I had mixed emotions. Part of me never wanted to do something like that again. However, an interesting phenomenon occurs when these monster hike are over. The pain fades, the blisters heal, and I start dreaming about doing another one.

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