By Erin Rain Gautier
With micro-spikes strapped to our hiking boots and loaded bags topped off with instant coffee, we hit the trail on June 25. It was the perfect time of year to make an easy mistake: to think that summer in the valleys meant summer up high. Mt. Hood proved our error as soon as we pulled into the parking lot of the Timberline Lodge. I peered out the window at the snowflakes piling up, suddenly doubting that this 40-mile trek was such a great idea.
My husband Ty and I were living out of our car and tent, making our way through the Pacific Northwest on an adventurous honeymoon. Circumnavigating Mt. Hood was one of the most anticipated parts of our trip. Just driving up from the Hood River Valley was exciting and intimidating as the massive, lonely mountain loomed larger and more rugged with every mile.
Typically hiked from late summer to early fall, the Timberline Trail crosses raging streams, glaciers and a variety of terrain as it loops around the base of Oregon’s tallest peak. In June, we faced snow and ice as well as extreme, fickle temperature changes. But because of that, we enjoyed days of solitude with the mountain, sometimes passing no one for over 10 miles – the crowds that trip reports railed against were nowhere to be seen.
From the Timberline Trailhead, we set off on exposed ridges and through slopes shaded by thick trees for a clockwise circumnavigation. Views of Mt. Hood were incredible, changing with every twist of the trail.
We paused a moment for water in the afternoon, and each noticed a different moving blob in the darkening canyon beneath us. As our eyes adjusted, we watched with wide eyes as two bears lumbered over rocks and disappeared into the trees.
My thighs, tired from hiking, felt like frail quaking aspens. But a bear-fueled adrenalin
rush pushed me on toward dinner at camp.
Our first campsite lay on the far side of the Sandy River, a complicated network of icy streams. After rock hopping, laughing and one slip off a log that soaked me from the waist down, we reached camp. The uncertainty I had experienced earlier was wearing off. Wet socks pressed to my legs as we fell asleep, seeing bears in the stars.
I rolled out of our tent in two pairs of pants, my heaviest jacket and a beanie. We planned our course for the day, setting out with coffee in hand and a waterfall on our minds. Ramona Falls came early in the day, and soon after we began to meander up and down through shaded sections of mountainside. Occasional glimpses of the peak almost shocked me. It seemed that the mountain had a thousand faces and could turn quickly from beautiful and forgiving to dangerous and temperamental.
We crossed small glaciers and deep snow that made the trail difficult to follow. A few other backpackers turned around at a thin, slippery ledge of snow that crossed a creek. With trekking poles and spikes, we made a path above the trail and crossed confidently. In the late afternoon, we had a strange run-in with two guys. One was shirtless with shorts and tennis shoes, and the other wore a cotton t-shirt and shorts. They had little gear, but told us that they had summited the mountain that morning and then got lost. Thinking back to my layers from the morning, I stared at their tiny daypacks. We gave them directions and hiked on.
We set up camp at Elk Cove, a soggy site riddled with mosquitos. A friendly deer watched from the trees as we filtered water and pitched our tent. Even the stench of my still-soaked socks and the sound of mosquitoes didn’t take away from watching the sun set in warm colors behind the summit.
Our third day on the trail was littered with surprises and obstacles, beginning with a huge section of downed trees. We clumsily toppled over some and slid under others, picking our way through a thick floor of branches.
Messy and breathless, we hobbled up on a canyon where a mudslide had washed away the trail. In its place we found steep walls of loose rock sandwiching a racing river. We made our way down through loose rock to the river and carefully made our way through powerful current. Just above the second wall of rock lay Cloud Cap, the halfway point for hikers beginning at Timberline Lodge.
The area around Cloud Cap was easily the most trafficked segment of trail. After a morning of unanticipated twists and turns, we slammed our packs down at a picnic table and paused for water and lunch. Past Cloud Cap, we wound through trees and over snow patches, barely taking our spikes off before putting them back on, over and over.
I was stunned more than once by changes in the landscape, and the sudden switch from climbing out of the trees below Timberline High Point was one of the most dramatic. We had reached the highest point on the trail, at 7,350 feet. The peak rose at our side, looking more beautiful and terrifying than ever, with shimmering glaciers glazed over like fields of glass.
I realized that somewhere along the way, I had decided to embrace it all.
Jagged openings in the glaciers emitted menacing cracks and groans as the ice shifted. We passed through in a spell from the power above us. Then, just as we had entered a world of rock and ice, we slipped back into the trees.
Our campsite at Newton Creek had a beautiful view of the peak and a stream flowed beside us all night. I smiled at the difference in myself between the first night and the third.
Sure, circumnavigating Mt. Hood is not the most challenging thing in the world, but it had so far been a difficult and powerful experience. I fell in cold water, in slick mud, and on a wide glacier. I was in pain every hour of the trek, but I kept walking. My husband talked me through and came back out on the ice to help me across.
This night – smelly, muddy, freezing and laughing – I realized that somewhere along the way, I had decided to embrace it all. Our dinner conversation turned to a definitive ranking of the best dehydrated cuisine on the market, and we bundled up for an early night. Something about the sheer might of the mountain was working on me and bringing us closer together.
Everything from my neck to my toes ached. A few crackling stretches, operatic yawns and the familiar pfoosh of our deflating sleeping pads announced our last morning on the trail. Listening to the creaking of my pack, the rhythm of our steps and the sounds of the mountain had become a game. At first, I could only tune in to our human sounds, or to the natural sounds of water, wind and birdsong – not both.
Our last day on the trail, I looked up at the summit fondly. It was a warm, windy day and finally our sounds and the music around us harmonized. I felt less like an intruder and more like a part of the fabric of the mountain. We walked beneath the ski lifts that ferry skiers and snowboarders up in winter, now surrounded by green and wildflowers.
Back at Timberline Lodge, I eagerly made my way towards running water and a mirror. Buses full of kids attending snowboard camp lined the hall and a few mountaineers looked over their permits. I hope all of them got the chance to experience and fall in love with Mt. Hood in all of its crashing, rushing grandeur just like we did.
Erin Rain Gautier is a freelancer who loves sharing about nature and exploration, and generally has a blast doing almost anything outside. She writes on outdoor adventure, travel, craft coffee and faith at conspirewriting.com.