Sunday, June 30, 2019

Mount Defiance

Ok, next up we're off to the Columbia Gorge again for a hike up Mt. Defiance, a few miles west of Hood River. This is the highest point in the Gorge at 4960 feet, or at least that's the most common number I've seen, though Wikipedia now says 5010 feet, based on 1988 survey data. Either way, the views near the top are incredible. This is as good a time as any to go page through the Flickr photoset above to see what I mean.

The problem is that the trailhead's basically at river level, about 130 feet above sea level, and reaches the top in under six miles, which should give some idea why the trail's widely regarded as the toughest day hike in the area. I had done this trail once before, about 25 years ago, because I was 23 and it seemed like a good idea, and I wanted to be able to say I'd done it, on the off chance I met someone who'd know or care what I was going on about. I was sore for about a week afterward. It occurred to me recently that it had been a quarter century since I'd done this, and I wanted to know whether I could still do it -- because this is the sort of thought that occurs to you a lot in your late 40s -- and I was annoyed at 23-year-old me for not bringing a camera last time (which would have been a clunky old film camera, because 25 years ago). And truth be told, I did it because I'd originally planned to do the Larch Mountain Trail but left too late, and the Multnomah Falls parking lot was full & closed off when I got there, and for some reason this seemed like a reasonable Plan B. Once again I was sore for about a week, but I pulled it off, and now I'm set for another 25 years or so, I guess.

Anyway, the trail starts at the Starvation Creek rest area off I-84. A short path takes you to Starvation Creek Falls, just steps from the parking lot. It's not really part of the trail to the top, but it seems kind of silly to skip it since it's right there. This is the first of four waterfalls you'll see during the hike, and they're all during the initial part so if you're just interested in waterfalls you can bail out early before things really get ugly. The first part of the trail follows part of the old Columbia River Highway, so it's pancake-flat and recently repaved. Along the way you'll pass Cabin Creek Falls. Eventually you'll hang a left at the "Mt. Defiance Trail #413" sign, and at first it's also flat and paved. There's even a little picnic area with benches, recent signage, and some stonework, and just beyond that is Hole-in-the-Wall Falls, which was constructed back in 1938 (long story). After that, the uphill part begins. Switchback up to the BPA powerline corridor and turn right where the Mt Defiance trail splits from the equally tough Starvation Ridge Trail (which is still on my todo list; I tried it once, a bit before I did Mt. Defiance last time, but bailed out part of the way up). Along this stretch you'll come across Lancaster Falls. It looks kind of puny from this standpoint, but apparently this is just the very bottom of a 250 foot waterfall. That's what the internet says, anyway. It seems that if you want to see the whole thing, your best bet is to pull off at the ODOT weigh station on westbound I-84 and take your photos from there. Note: I have never done this and am just taking the word of internet strangers at face value here. In any case, you will appreciate this waterfall a lot more on the way down, especially on a hot day.

After leaving the powerline corridor, it's time for steep and seemingly endless switchbacks through dense forest, typically with steep dropoffs next to the trail, and a couple of viewpoints so you can confirm that you really are making progress uphill. You're doing all of these switchbacks to get up the side of a ridge, and once you're on top of it the trail flattens out (relatively speaking) for a while, which is the little break that makes the trail tolerable, as far as I'm concerned. Then it kicks back up to Excessively Steep for Excessively Long, but this time you're going straight up along the ridge top, and there aren't any dropoffs next to the trail, so it's physically tough but mentally you can kind of do this part on autopilot. Views are few and far between, but part of the trail passes through the Eagle Creek burn zone, and there will likely be amazing views at some point once some of the dead trees fall over. The burn zone was actually a lot less depressing than it was on other recent hikes, since the forest floor was covered with flowers and other new growth. I'm sure it helped that I visited in late spring instead of midwinter. And maybe I'm slowly getting used to the Gorge's new normal, I'm not sure.

In any case, eventually the vegetation sort of peters out into a rocky area with mostly smaller, gnarled trees. This is the point where you can see forever* (*on a good day, and figuratively, not literally or mathematically) and you can start telling yourself that the last few miles were totally worth it. Looking north you can see Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Rainier in the distance. If you squint a bit, just to the right of Mt. St Helens you can just make out even more snowcapped mountains in the distance, which far as I can tell would have to be the Olympics. This really surprised me; Google says the Olympics are 176 miles away, which seems kind of far, but it's not like there are a lot of other snowy mountains in that particular direction, so who knows?

As you approach the top there's a fork in the trail. As of spring 2019, a temporary US Forest Service sign explains that going straight ahead is the easier trail, and going off to the right is the more scenic route. I hope they continue this on the sign's permanent replacement; it reminds me of the late, lamented "Difficult/More Difficult" sign at a Hamilton Mountain trail junction. I am honestly not sure why there are two trails here; it's a bit late in the process to start picking easier trails, if you ask me. The scenic route curves around the mountain, and for the first time in the whole hike you get amazing views of Mt. Hood to the south, while to the east you can see the entire Hood River Valley and behind it the beige desert country of Eastern Oregon stretches off to the horizon.

At the very top of the mountain, you're in for a little surprise: Radio towers, humming and buzzing, fenced off, with signs warning trespassers to keep out or else, and more signs warning of RF radiation hazards. And then you realize all of this is here because there's a service road to the top, and the crazy thing you just hiked up is somebody's occasional commute. One sign even lists "Top of Mt. Defiance, Cascade Locks OR" as the summit's street address. Still, this makes for some interesting photos, so you do that for a bit but soon realize that horrible little black flies are attacking you, and it's intolerable, and it quickly dawns on you that the journey was the reward, and the real summit was the friends we made along the way, and/or it was in our hearts the whole time, and it's time to head home.

So you can head back the way you came, or take a side trail over to the Starvation Ridge trail I mentioned earlier, or -- as it turns out -- you could take another side trail heading south that goes to a different trailhead, just 1.6 miles away and 1145 feet below the summit. But, I mean, doing it that way is obviously cheating, somehow, and it can't possibly be any fun anyway, plus my city-slicker midsize sedan hates rustic gravel roads, and I'm not about to buy a giant SUV no matter how outdoorsy the commercials are. Sunk cost fallacy? I have no idea what you're talking about.

Anyway, the way down is a lot faster than the way up, but not necessarily easier, since you don't want to go too fast, especially on the sketchy bits with the dropoffs. I am still kind of amazed I didn't blow out a knee or two on this part of the hike, and your mileage may vary, and hiking poles may be really helpful here no matter how goofy they look. You might meet a few people slogging their way up the hill on your way down. I just smiled and kept moving; I was actually kind of worried someone would ask how much further it was to the top, or whether the hard part was over, since there's just no way to be both truthful and encouraging on those questions. Luckily I was just greeted with thousand-yard stares, one after another. Come to think of it, I may have been doing that myself on the way up, since my recollection of the really steep parts is... somewhat less than vivid.

Anyway, I made it down the hill and back home, this time with photos, and have now started wondering whether I need a tent, sleeping bag, and so forth. I mean, I already know I don't have that kind of free time, and I haven't forgotten what the weather's like here 9 months out of the year, but it still has a certain appeal. So who knows.