The Timberline Trail

In about 42 miles the Timberline Trail encircles Mt Hood, following the contours of each of its major drainage’s. It is an exercise in gaining elevation and then loosing it again to cross the next river, over and over again. It is soft, needle covered forest trail, sandy, rocky, ash covered trail. It is yawning drainage’s and open endless expanses above tree line. It is trail side waterfalls, crystal clear glacier fed streams, meadows full of lupines, paint-brush and bear grass. It is the crispy matchstick smell of forest burned a decade prior, galvanized by an afternoons sun. It is chattering, grumpy squirrels and Juncos bursting forth from blueberry bushes ahead of your foot falls. It is glaciers, crags, and timelessness. It is constant, immediate and future changes. It is a view of summit, translated by 360 degrees. It is a start and an end with nothing but a mountain in between.

For me this year, it was a rejoicing and a reaffirmation. It was journey, and pain, and perseverance. It was securing, to myself, that I would be able to do things that had once been able, and even do them better, even with disease. Since the first time I had set out and circuited the mountain in single day, I had encountered the withering disease in my head and body and mind encouraged by a prolactinoma that, while likely growing for many years, had blossomed fall of last year.

A prolactinoma is type of tumor that grows on your pituitary gland at the base of your brain. I first started having eye pain and visual disturbances in April, eventually jaw pain and numbness. I was further losing the ability to handle stress.  After a lot of unproductive urgent care visits that treated me for sinus infections I went for an eye exam, which found a bilateral defect in my field of vision (I missed many of the little wavy lines that dance around the viewfinder in that test). I was losing bits of my sight though gradually enough I didn’t notice. This set into motion a series of visits which cumulated with an MRI which found the 3 cm tumor growing all up in there, pressing its way out toward my sinus cavity and starting to cinch in on my optic nerve. Blood levels of my hormones were all out of whack, and definitively, prolactin levels were over 100 times what they should be.

As far as tumors in your face go, I hit the jackpot- a pituitary tumor that is only significantly producing prolactin can have its cells slowly destroyed by a medication that looks onto receptors on the cells and interferes with its out of whack feedback cycle.

By the time I got the diagnosis, and for the next few months before things slowly started to clear up, I had been physically demolished. A half mile walk in the park was exhausting and someday only a triple shot of espresso after work could break the restraints that seem to bind me melting into the couch.

In those months I spent a lot of time planning hikes, scouring maps and books and websites for journeys that I would undertake, hoping that I could undertake. So much of my life had been wrapped up in being outside, and feeling comfortable in myself and in nature, from working Alaska or adventuring in the southwest, and now living outdoor enthusiast paradise of Oregon. I didn’t feel comfortable in my body, my body hurt me, and my head didn’t feel like my own. Getting back outdoors and hiking was restorative, and over the coming months helped rebuild my confidence in myself and in my health.

By April I was able to get out and hike a bit, and in May finally started to feel like I had legs attached to my feet. My medicine could make me feel woozy and out of sync, like on a delay, but exercise seemed to help after a dose, and help to quell the extra anxiety it incurred. I got out on five hikes in June. Then in July, ten hikes, building strength and pushing my mileage while immersing myself in the terrain around Mt. Hood. I was becoming surer footed and more confident in my skills. I was darting up fire downed logs and scrambling scree with a finesse I hadn’t felt even before, channeling squirrel and dipper.

Mid-August I completed a 20-mile route taking me all over the back country of Mt Hood, visiting Mooney Tarn and spending lot of time off trail.  Maybe irrationally, I felt like I was ready. I wanted to be ready. So I pulled the trigger, and after a giant sushi dinner with Cara the night before, set out for the Timberline Trail.

A pre-dawn start

I had decided to head the opposite direction than my first trip, two years prior. That go around I had journeyed clockwise from Timberline Lodge, descending Zigzag canyon right away and then coming around the mountain to bake on the completely exposed eastern slopes in the afternoon sun. The sandy slog up from the White River in the dark felt like climbing a dune and stuck with me as a grueling endeavor after a long day that I wanted to avoid this time. I had seen the lights of the lodge for so long that it seemed to stretch out the trail, and I made it back far later than I had hoped. Cara had met me with a Tupperware of the most delicious tasting cake imaginable, but I missed the open hours of the bar at the lodge.

So I as I set out, with just barely enough light bouncing around the crystal clear sky to see the trail, I flew down the sandy trail, passing PCT hikers nestled in their tents who had come up that way the day before. I felt pretty confident at this point and I was seeing miles of terrain that was new to me, even though I had hiked the trail before. I darted across the White River, which last time I had encountered and forded in the dark, loosing maybe 20 minutes to seeking out the continuation of the trail heading west.  The sun came up sometime when I was in Mt Hood Meadows, and I made good time, filling water at Heather Canyon and passing backpackers making breakfast along Newton Creek.

I certainly don’t consider myself fast, but I was trotting along at a good pace. I tend to run the down hills, and hike heavily the up-hills, working to keep myself from exerting too much energy and blowing out my legs early. I’m certainly not out to match anyone in a contest of speed, but I’m good at just keep going-ing.

Halfway through the climb up Lamberson Butte I rested on a down tree and ate my Banh Mi sandwich I had strapped to my pack for fuel, all the while berated by squirrel nearby.

Soon I crested the high point of the trail, running down through the open, rocky eastern slopes of the mountain with Mt Adams and the Columbia River Gorge ahead, the desert unfolding out to the east and length of the Cascade Range behind me. It’s my favorite length of trail on the mountain.

Timberline Trail High Point

On my way down to the Elliot crossing I encountered a pair of Forest Service trail crew workers who informed me they had just finished securing some rock steps on the far side of the canyon. This was welcome news and saved a few minutes of time as compared to my crossing a few weeks prior which had been a dusty scramble up loose rock.

My timing worked out too, and the afternoon sun and heat didn’t really pick up till after I had passed Cloud Cap. By the time the heat would have started to roast me, I was finding more tree cover. At noon I crossed through Elk Cove with its glistening stream and flower lined trail. Past Cairn Basin I started to encounter a steady stream of hikers out enjoying the way up to McNeil Point.

After looping around Bald Mountain, the long route down to the Muddy Fork really started drag time, and on the way back up I kept expecting to cross over Yocum ridge only to find I was not there yet.

I friendly white lab adopted me for a mile or so and I had buddy to converse with on the trail. After crossing the Sandy, I was really starting to feel the 12 hours and thirty some miles under my feet. I hadn’t expected or thought through at least how long and uphill the slog out of the Sandy River had would be from this direction.

My pace fell, the afternoon humidity was keeping me drenched, and piece of back had started to twist in an unforgiving pinch. I slowed and sat on a log paralleling the trail, eating some snack bars and water with electrolytes, wiping off the crusty layer salt and sweat collecting around my temples, draining into and stinging my eyes. I munched as I watched hikers carrying immense loaded packs briskly passed, making the ascent look a breeze.

My pace was idling to barely over 2 miles an hour, which I desperately wanted to increase with the miles still ahead of me. So I pushed on, knee bits also starting to hurt, the center of back berating me for my choices. This wasn’t unexpected or new to me. My experience with hiking or running distances over 30 miles in a day is that generally, at some point, it aches like your body asking you to reconsider. But it’s not a broken hurt, or an injured hurt. Eventually knee starts to forget it was aching, and back unfolds itself from its kink. Acquaintance with hurt, and learning what pain can be companion and what pain is yelling out an injury to not be ignored is as much a skill for running and hiking long distances as learning how to properly fuel yourself.

The descent down to the Zigzag river, my last, is a grace, and I am met with a horde of rusty orange butterflies dancing along the creek, sparkling in the late and low sun cutting up the canyon. These ones are familiar and known to those that spend time in high places late in the summer as they pass through in their migrations.   

The hike out of the canyon, the last great uphill from the last of so many stream crossings feels better, and I am encouraged. The familiar sight of Zigzag canyon over-look and the mountain starting to turn rosy with alpen-glow pushes me onward.  I don’t, however, expect the last miles to be so long. I’ve travelled this trail often, and usually when feeling fresh, so the extended time it takes for my depleted steps to turn into miles seems cruel at this point. It is almost crushing, but I keep on with the steps. The sky is turning pink, and slowly, through the trees, I see the sun blink out, setting beyond the coast range.

My legs are past the point of losing their certainty, and now just moving from sheer rhythm of hours and hours of the same motion. I know I cannot stop, or slow at this point as I pass by the lodge visitors out for an evening hike or coming down from watching the sun set. I don’t stop till I’m back at my car, 42 miles and 14 hours, 7 minutes after I left it. I’ve over three hours hours off my previous time from two years ago. I’ve done better. I felt more in tune with the trail, more present on the mountain and knowledgeable of where I had been.

Published by Jim Wilson

An avid hiker and outdoor enthusiast, I settled in Oregon after years of working on hiking trails in Southeast Alaska with the USFS and exploring the Pacific Northwest and rest of the country in the offseason.

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