Mt. Hood Shadow Monster

I got started really late on this one, about lunch-thirty. As my strength and speed improve, I have more wiggle room in the hiking day for departures and arrivals; I stayed up late the night before making snacks and I needed to sleep in to make up for lost energy; it was a Saturday and I wanted to avoid as much of the Cooper Spur Weekend Horde as possible; Cloud Cap Road was a xylophone of obnoxious run-off ditches cut right into the gravel, necessitating a snail-like crawl to the trailhead; my bed was really, really warm and my bedroom was really, really cold that morning. Pick one.

It’s always nice to start the day off with a little hair-pulling frustration. Insert Cloud Cap Trail, the Sullivan Edition. I know the Sullivan hiking books are like the Dead Sea Scrolls to the outdoorsy community around here but I’ve found enough discrepancies to cut my worship in half. Trust me: It ain’t 0.2 miles to the 600 junction and you take the trail that goes down in order to go up, not the obvious one with all the footprints on it. The footprints are merely testament to the vast numbers of other duped soles…er, souls. Luckily, the trail rises rapidly above tree line, rendering the illusion that you have come much further, much faster. It was a beautiful day (which explains why I encountered approximately 1.2 million people) and I’m glad I brought sunscreen because the layers came off. Others were smart enough to make use of the shade; the dark specs inside her web are offspring.

I made the Timberline Trail junction at 6650′ in record time and sincerely wanted to enjoy lunch in the shade of the famous rock shelter but when three middle-aged drunks in lawn chairs salute you with their Budweiser cans from the doorway and shout Alcohol-Funny-Quotes-019at you to join them over the din of the rock music they having blaring inside, you suddenly look for a picnic spot out of site and earshot. I traded Asian Pear slices for dried apricots with a couple who was also hiding from the “party” and none of us ventured back for photos. I snapped a quick shot of the trail junction marker instead and leaned into the task of another three miles of dusty switchbacks just crawling with hikers.

Adams, Rainer, and St. Helens (right to left) were being awfully majestic. It was the clearest Oregon day I’d ever seen. At the spur’s rim, it was the windiest. Every time you reached the edge and got a decent eyeful of Eliot Glacier you also got an eyeful of andesitic dust and sand. I don’t know why people pay for Lasik surgery, they could just stand on Cooper Spur Trail and let the prevailing winds grind down their corneas for free. 

I hauled ass to Tie-In Rock and a little bit beyond, thinking I had plenty of time to get up there and pet a glacier: Just look at that sun shine!

Wait a minute….


I looked around me and suddenly noticed that it was very quiet. The hordes were gone. I was all alone on the mountain, save one or two ice climbers who were camped out on the ridge. Even the Search and Rescue training team below was leaving. You can see their ant-like profiles inching their way across the bottom of Eliot Glacier right at the shadow line. (Double-click the image below.)

When the pros start pulling up their proverbial tent stakes, I take notice. I turned around. In the waning light, things became ominous and creepy. These crevasses are deep enough to swallow a Hummer.

The shadow of Mt. Hood became a light-sucking monster that was not-so-slowly devouring the trail. At first, I thought the false summit near Tie-In Rock looked pretty close and I was sure I could….


Okay, well, the switchbacks are always a lot easier to knock off on the way down, I can at least get to the rock shelter before…DOH!

…and there goes the Eliot glacial moraine. Shadow Monster sure was hungry. That valley below has no idea what’s comin’. (Insert music from “Jaws.”) 

The weird angles of light played with the packed ice on the east flank of Cooper Spur that had melted into messy cornrows of cold and grit.

Solid evidence, and I do mean solid, of Hood’s ongoing volcanic activity showed up in bright relief on the trail. Large yellow clods of sulfur backed up the nose-wrinkling smell I picked out here and there on the stiff breeze. I had the pleasure of kibitzing with a geologist earlier in the hike and he confirmed my nasal suspicions: This stratovolcano is still out-gassing, it’s no where near finished. Stratovolcanoes, by the by, are the most volcanoey volcanoes of them all. All Hollywood volcanoes are stratovolcanoes. 

Above me, the mountain looked pretty handsome. Blue was definitely his color.

I only got about halfway between Tie-In Rock and my goal of petting a glacier before the day ran out. Pretty damned frustrating, actually. You would think this taught me a lesson once and for all about always packing a headlamp, but…well….

At the bottom of the switchbacks, I watched helplessly as the Shadow Monster sunk its teeth into Bluegrass Ridge below and swallowed it whole.

Here’s a close up on the carnage. Like watchin’ Animal Planet, ain’t it?

Two eerie ribbons of pinkish-brown smoke snaked out over the Hood River Valley. 

At least I think it was smoke. Could’ve just as easily been monster breath.

The curious way they held their form for so many miles held my attention. There must have been a perfect conduit of warmth and moisture at that elevation, a sort of sooty highway in the sky. They never spread nor dissipated, just oozed along in thick ropes like a pair of sleepy boa constrictors.

The next pleasant surprise was the bright evening glow of autumn foliage at tree line.

The Cascade Mountain Ash was resplendent in Technicolor hues. It punctuated the trail like paint splatters and oozed like molten lava.

Certain patches blazed as bright as campfires and their berries glowed like coals.

I spotted Adams in the far distance, soaking up the last few thermal rays of Saturday.

Then I witnessed something completely awesome: The internal anatomy of a Shadow Monster. I saw the terminator line of Mt. Hood’s shadow in cross-section as it plunged like a javelin into the forest below.

Called a mountain shadow spike, this strange and exciting phenomenon is a direct extension of the shadow and occurs when the observer is entirely within the three dimensional shape of the shadow as it is cast upon the ground to the side of it’s object. Humidity and particulates in the air make this visually possible, you won’t see it on an extremely clear day–let’s hear it for that pink smoke!

The mystical illusion of whiter light bending around the outside edge of the shadow is most likely a Mach band. Thank you, Dr. Kerton, and whomever else you cajoled into ferreting out these fun facts at that ISU faculty meeting.

The dark line below the pinkish Belt of Venus at sunset is the Earth’s shadow, itself, being cast on the wall of our atmospher. Very cool. You can just see the curve of our planet in it.The final thrill came during the slow backtrack of lumpy Cloud Cap Road. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a large building on fire way off in the distance. I slowed down and it became the intense red lights of a major aircraft flying dangerously close to the ground. Moments later, I pulled the truck over in the dark with a reverent, “Holy Shit!”

The moon was so blood red that it defied reality. Multiple attempts at capture with an old DSLR taught me two things: I need a better camera and a tripod. I resigned myself to taking a mental picture as I passed hikers leaning awkwardly over the hoods of Audis and Subarus, doing their best to commemorate a truly dramatic event. That pink smoke knew what it was doing today.

September 25, 2010