Circumnavigating Mt Hood

Ann's story (the planning)

Ever since I did my first multi-day backpacking trip 10 years ago, I have wanted to circumnavigate Mt. Hood. We actually planned a backpacking trip to do in 2007, but after doing some research realized part of the trail had been washed out and was closed. So the Mt. Hood circumnavigation was put on the back burner until I started running long distances.

I mentioned to Susan last summer that we should do it, but it wasn’t until early this year when we were trying to find a race during the summer that was 40 – 50 miles and fit both of our schedules that I mentioned we should just do Mt. Hood. It worked out great, since we could do it during the week when there is less traffic on the trail and we wouldn’t have to give up a weekend day with our families.

I really love planning hiking, backpacking, and running routes / trips. I loved being able to pull out all my maps and books, and comb through them for training runs and the circumnavigation, but single most useful piece of information for planning this run was the write up on Volcano Running. I cannot count how many times I went back to this site; I am sure I have it memorize by now.

The author suggested doing the route counter-clockwise, while every other guide suggest clockwise; the reasoning behind this is that you cross the Eliot Glacier washout first while you are still fresh. After doing the route, I am not 100% sure I agree with this, but more about that later. I also found the following blogs very helpful: necessarymovement, montrail blogbrian donnellyyassine diboun

Gear for before, during and after

Having the proper gear is also key when doing a long, unsupported run. Through trial and error of several years of trail running, we have a pretty good idea of what to bring on longer, unsupported runs. On this run we would need to resupply water and cross quite a few deep, fast-moving streams, so we added lightweight hiking poles and a water filter. We did a training run with all the equipment prior to this run, because you never want to use new gear on race day. We could've gotten away with using a SteriPEN or tablets, but I like having filtered water. Next year I want to check out an inlinewater filter. We also brought headlamps, just in case something happened or we ended up running longer than expected-- and we nearly needed them.



Susan's story (the run)

Dawn view of the mountain from Timberline parking lot
We decided on Monday August 12th for our epic adventure: it was early enough that we still had plenty of daylight, but late enough that most of the snow should have melted. It also gave us a weekend to recover before Hood to Coast, where "recover" means running 20 miles in Forest Park.

Dawn at Timberline Lodge
Ann did all the planning and gathered all of the important equipment, so the trip was hardly real to me even as I finished up my regular Sunday evening, packed my running gear, and rode up to Rhododendron to spend the night at her mom’s house, closer to our start.

A fresh Performance Enhancing Kokopelli
As we settled in for the night, it felt like only cold, thin, night air lay between us and the unknown adventure we had discussed for months. Even before the sun was up we would be on our way, so it was difficult to relax and go to bed. I had started reading “Wild” the night before, wherein the author hikes the Pacific Crest Trail—part of which we’d be on, ourselves—and the book really drew me in.
Dawn view to the south, from the trailhead above Timberline Lodge
Ann at the official trailhead

When our alarms went off at 5 we got up, drank coffee, ate some bagel with peanut butter. We loaded the car and left a little later than we had originally anticipated. We drove in the blue predawn to Timberline Lodge, parked, and busied ourselves stuffing the last bits of food and gear into our packs and adjusting our clothing against the surprising cold of dawn at 4700 ft.

Susan and Ann at the start
We went into the public part of the lodge and Ann filled out our wilderness permit while I looked around, feeling euphoric from the strong coffee and anticipation. Then we surveyed the pink lines of dawn edging the horizion, climbed up to the trailhead, and took a bunch of photos.

Ann flaunts her PEK at the first waterfall we cross
It was time. We were off.

Trail views
The start wasn’t difficult. I could feel the altitude a bit, but the trail was mostly flat. We came upon a guy loaded down with a massive pack, gear tucked in and tied on to every possible spot. He told us that he and his friends were in a hurry to finish this, their third day on the trip around Mt Hood.

An early creek/river crossing
Ann crosses carefully

We asked about the Eliot crossing, our weak point where the trail has been closed since 2006 and we’d have to decide whether to try to climb the washout or hike up to the glacier. He told us that it was incredibly difficult, and it took them an hour and a half.

Ann running on a clear section of trail near Lamberson Spur, the highest point

Here’s our first mistake: because he was so over-loaded and –packed, we discounted his caution. We crossed a small stream and waterfall, and helped the other two guys take a picture. Off again.
Mountain views
Near Lamberson Spur

Most of the people we ran into were couples, and we made sure to ask everyone about Eliot. Most didn’t give much detail, just telling us that it was tough. One couple had crossed up at the glacier and told us that was so hard that they would just hike down the washout next time.

Ann runs past snowfields
The climb up to Lamberson, the highest point at 7300ft, was a moonscape: rocky and spare, with winds whipping every which way and the thin air making the climbs especially tough. We celebrated the clear views of many surrounding mountains—Jefferson, St Helen’s, Rainier, Adams—and took pictures with the sturdy cairns.

Snow ahead!
Soon we came to Cloud Cap, the ridge above the Eliot washout, and sat down for a quick break. Ann hiked along the ridge, up towards the glacier, trying to find a path or good place to start climbing down. We tried to pick out the trail on the other side, at the top of the east ridge. The horizontal distance was somewhere between a quarter and half mile, but we knew it would take us at least an hour to get there. What we could see was a rope tied to a triangular rock most of the way up the slope, so we had a destination.
Susan throws a snowball
Someone left a convenient, makeshift bridge

Looking down the west slope from the top, we couldn’t see much because of the steepness, so after walking a way along the ridge, we decided that any place was as good as the next. Ann started down.

Ann and I during a food break. That's Eliot Creek in the background. Things are about to get nuts.
The slope wasn’t what I had thought from above. It was like kitty litter mixed with a dusty sandbox, poured at the steepest angle before the tipping point, and sprinkled with rocks and boulders. As we took sideways steps and our feet sunk into the gravelly sand, bits of it showered down the slope below us.

Up the west ridge of Eliot hellbasin
We had to traverse tightly against the side of the hill, bracing our feet and hands on the larger rocks which would sometimes come away and slide down, away from us. Then we’d wait for the slide to stop before taking another step.

Washed-out non-trail in Eliot hellbasin, looking east
We hadn’t gotten very far down from the top when I realized that this was far more dangerous than either of us had anticipated. Ann moved faster than me, being more experienced and sure of herself. So I was a ways above her and behind her as we moved towards the right, trying to follow in her well-chosen footsteps, when the rock I stood on slipped softly out of its sandy bed and took off towards the bottom of the basin.
Ann starts traversing down Eliot washout
View of the glacier from Eliot Creek

As I slid down past Ann, I saw her eyes wide open in shock and I said out loud “Oh, Ann,” in apology for what she would witness. I had been on my back, and as I slid my body instinctively flipped towards my right, around to my side. My fingers frantically dug into the gravelly slope, trying to gain purchase or slow my descent. I could feel the skin scraping away from my clawing fingertips.

Ann uses the rope to climb up the east side of Eliot hellbasin
Eliot hellbasin, looking west
Over my shoulder I saw a large rock in my downward path. I thought it would give my feet something to brace and slow against, but instead my lower body bounced off of it and I caught some air. My phone flew out of its pouch in the shoulder strap of my hydration pack, and joined the slide below me, camouflaged in dust. Below the rock, the slope was slightly less steep and I finally slowed to a stop.

View up Eliot hellbasin from the east side
I had slid about 40 feet. Ann was far above me now, and called down to me. I lay there, a sudden calm bloomed over my limbs as I realized that I was fine. Still alive, nothing broken. And when I scrutinized the scree about 20 feet below and to my right, I saw my phone.

Celebrating our survival of the Eliot crossing
Susan's Eliot scrapes

Since I could see it, I thought I might as well retrieve it. Easier said than done when you've just had a mountainside slide out from underneath you. Despite all of the ground between the phone and me being loose, sandy scree, I was able to swing myself around, traverse-slide down to underneath my phone, and grab it triumphantly. It was fully covered in dust and appeared to be a bit scratched up, but as I later found when I was all cleaned up, the Lifeproof case completely protected it. Not even a speck of dust on the phone itself!
Should've heeded this warning!
Trail warning. Oops, too late.

After a breather, we made it the rest of the way down to the creek. It sure felt easy to cross after what we had just gone through. We picked our way over large boulders at the base of the east slope, headed towards the rope we had seen from up on the ridge. Getting to the bottom of that rope was a scramble, but once we had the rope it felt easy. Well, as easy as you can let yourself believe when you're using what amounts to a laundry line to climb an incredibly unstable mountainside.

Trail closed signs, after we've crossed the closed part
The rope ended about 30 feet from the top, at which point we had what felt like larger, more stable rocks to climb up to the top of the ridge. Ann walked up the ridge a ways to scout for the trail, while I sat and used her first aid kit to clean up the worst of my scrapes. Both of my arms and legs, and my torso on the right side were scratched up, but my fingers weren't as badly cut as I thought from trying to dig my hands in to stop myself. One of my knees had a deeper cut from the hem of my capris digging in, but overall I was extremely lucky, and the fine dust staunched most of the bleeding.
This photo is straight-- the trees are not
Where the burn begins-- looks like the sudden end of summer and start of winter

We found the trail and continued, stopping for lunch as planned at the stone house at Cooper Spur, about halfway. We continued on the trail through some desolate, burned areas, when I got the feeling we were headed the wrong way. We also noticed that the mountaintop was on our right, when it should always been on the left if you're circumnavigating counter-clockwise. We kept going, though... and then we came to the Vista Ridge trail sign that had basically been our halfway marker, again.

Rest stop at Cairn Basin stone shelter
Hanging our hats up for a rest at the halfway trail sign

Sudden panic. We had just run for nearly an hour and should've covered about 5 miles. We checked our map and found a plausible place where we had probably taken a wrong turn. We ran back to the intersection, but it didn't make sense. There was no other way to interpret the direction. So we ran even further back the way we had come. Still nothing.

Burned forest remnants
After a number of these back-and-forths and another hour, our only certain frame of reference was the halfway marker, where we luckily had cell phone service. Ann put into action our backup plan, calling her mom and husband to made sure we'd have someone come to pick us up from the Ramona Falls trail head. That way we could run down Bald Mountain and out at Ramona Falls, instead of back up to Timberline Lodge through Paradise Park, a tough climb in the last 10 miles of the route, especially with the additional mileage of running back and forth, lost hours, and limited daylight.

Sad faces as we come upon the near-halfway point for the second time, realizing that we've done an extra loop
Now we knew we wouldn't make it all the way around the mountain, but we still had to figure out how to get back on the right trail. We started again, checking every spot where flora was trampled down-- places where people had probably just gone off trail to have a pee behind a tree, or deer had turned to snack on fresh foliage.Our over-diligence paid off. We found a couple of rocks stacked under a low-bending branch, hiding a faint trail. Looking back-- the direction that most hikers would come, circumnavigating clockwise-- there was no doubt which way to take up the trail. It was only from our direction that this little stretch of trail was invisible.
Susan's shirt says "Run Happy"... It was more like "Run Frustrated"

Back on the right trail and on our way, we were in high spirits again, but also conflicted-- we knew we wouldn't complete the circle around Mt Hood today, and yet the burden of that goal was now lifted from our shoulders. It was an odd combination of relief and sadness.
Tiny, colorful wildflowers
Sunny side of the mountain

By this point, the stream crossings-- sometimes a quick hop across rocks, sometimes a slog straight through the snow-melt-cold water with trekking poles, sometimes a balancing act across fallen branches-- became second nature. We would scout up and down a bit from the trail, if the water was a bit wide, rough or deep, and pick a route. We refilled our hydration packs using the water filter twice, which took a fair amount of time. Next time I'd like to streamline that operation, but it was tough to know when the next water source would be available, and we didn't want to run out of water on such a long, adventurous route-- especially since it happened on a previous run in the area.
Burn, blow-down and renewal
Snow and alpine wildflowers

We had a few more good (read: tough!) climbs, and it seemed like forever before we came to the intersection on Bald Mountain where we had run together a couple of times before. We took a quick, last food break, and then we were on familiar ground, our final push. Plus it was mostly downhill, which energized me.

Close-up of a Dr Suess-ian seedhead
Down, down, down we ran, laughing, near delirious. Twice, we had to make decisions about which route to take-- a slightly longer trail to add distance, or the shorter, quicker way? Our mutual desire to complete the circumnavigation made us yearn for the longer trails, but with the sun slipping down past the trees and the light rapidly fading, we had to choose the most direct routes both times.
Viewpoint along the Bald Mountain trail
Forested flanks of Mt Hood, as we run down a detour near Bald Mountain

When we reached the end and our saviors were there to pick us up, we were glad we did, but it was still a difficult choice. The day was so  full of sunshine, fresh air, the beauty of nature, and the joy of running that we just did not want it to end, even after 10 hours, cuts, bruises, and getting lost. We listened to a few songs out loud on the trail, singing along and savoring the last few miles. Mary Jane and Angie picked us up and returned us to Timberline Lodge. Then we started the long drive home, excitedly planning our next running adventure.
Golden sunset light on the mountain, from near Ramona Falls 
Update: We completed the route on 9/2015.

Read more:
Here is a very descriptive account of the Eliot Crossing.
Here is Yassine Diboun's FKT of the route.



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