It’s been over a decade since I climbed a 14ner. The chilly alpine tundras and dramatic rocky landscapes of the Continental Divide had a magical effect on me back then, I found it nearly impossible to go more than a week or two without marching fourteen thousand feet into the sky. The purity of the view, the electric danger that (often literally) zinged through the air, and the secure knowledge that only a brave few would meet me at the top all combined into a sort of bliss I haven’t been able to find since. But I came close on Labor Day.
The route to Vista Ridge Trailhead is an obstacle course of interstate, highway, mountain pass, dirt road, dirt road with washboards as deep as a kiddie pool, and finally a very popular parking area carved out of dust. I was the second-to-last one to grab a spot; a large group was already milling about, finishing off take-out coffees and tightening the laces on their Vasques.Not wanting to get stuck in the annoying cloud of their chatter, I hung back for 15 minutes and as Robert Frost put it:, “That has made all the difference.” The trail was mine, literally mine. I saw no one (well, no human) all the way to the top. I felt almost spoiled. The air was the perfect temperature with only the tiniest hint of a breeze, birds were flitting about overhead singing multiple symphonies, and the damp forest berm was releasing an intoxicating sweetness into the air wherever the sun touched it.
And autumn had begun to paint its seasonal mural across the huckleberries.Vista Ridge Trail is relaxing for first two and a half miles. The incline is gradual, the path flat and obvious–the only obstacles are overflowing bunches of huckleberries and salal caressing your pant legs. I meditated effortlessly and reached a place of absolute satisfaction with the world, the kind of joy that most only find after half a bottle of Stoli’s.
The first big decision of the day came at 5700′ but it was a pretty easy one. I’m fairly certain the hordes ahead of me turned right for Eden Park. So, I turned left.
Man, I love this altitude. Everything is open and rugged and you have a clear visual on your goal. Even when your goal is decapitated by a cloud.Looking back down the same lovely stretch of trail, I got several fly-by’s from eagles and a Peregrine Falcon. Everyone was very friendly.At 5000′, the forest begins to open. This is always my signal to get very, very excited. “Treeline” is just about my favorite word in the English dictionary. Above it, for me, all things are good.
Subalpine fields mean Alpine Paintbrush, alias Rosy Paintbrush. The genus has other colors for other ecosystems–red, cream, yellow–but you always know you’re high on the side of a mountain when you see a field of delicious fuchsia.
In late summer, wildflowers often make alternative statements with their outfits. The gorgeous white spring blooming Western Pasque Flower goes through a bizarre wardrobe change before fall. Locals call them Hippies-on-a-Stick and Mountain Muppets. The seed heads are soft and spongy to the touch and almost impossible not to fondle and photograph. Every mini-meadow between the trees has an ocean of them. I felt like I had stumbled into a Dr. Seuss story.
On the way to Elk Cove was picturesque Wy’East Basin, a quiet lawn of wildflowers just bursting with ambiance and buzzing with bees. Little rivulets of glacier drainage crisscrossed the green and provided the most delightful timpani for the Flickers and Nutcrackers that darted from one tree to another. (The links above have their calls.)
At this point, I noticed an intriguing little path leading up. Up is good, up means rock. I checked my map: Sure enough, that nondescript route led to Barrett Spur. Barrett Spur was ALL rock. Easiest decision of the day. As you ascend and the temperature drops, you backtrack through the seasons. Late summer Paintbrush is suddenly joined by early summer Lupine, then springtime Avalanche Lily. It messes with your mind a little bit to see fall colors around spring flowers. On the other hand, it’s a rush to revisit the entire year’s floral display in one hike.
As pretty as everything was, my stomach was beginning to rumble, so I declared this spot Lunch Rock.
That boulder was perfect–flat, smooth, and facing the sun while blocking the breeze. I sat on the ground and leaned back against it to make my leisurely way through some apple slices and a sandwich. But I never seem to eat alone…somebody was scaling my rock like I was scaling Barrett Spur. I think I’ll call him Harvey.It’s a good thing I fortified myself because the next segment contained actual whining. Yes, folks, it’s time for your favorite game and mine: “Where the $%@! is the trail?!” Scree is an evil thing. It saps strength and makes full-grown men cry. You take a step up and slide back down to where you started, then you curse, take another step and repeat. If during this Sisyphean test of will you happen to lose the trail twenty-seven times, well, that just makes it more fun.
I swear the rocks were laughing at me.
I knew I was getting high up there when the meadows turned into rock gardens and the trees turned into extras for a Tim Burton flick.
The top of the third rise brought an inspiring view: Mt. Hood and Barrett Spur. Mt. Hood was sporting a fashionable toupee of crazy lenticular clouds but Barrett was bald and proud of it, damnit.At the saddle, I looked back and saw Mt. Adams had one, too, albeit worn jauntily off to one side.
The sky never settled into any single narrative. There were cirrus high aloft, cumulonimbus building in the distance, and puffy dark stratocumulus scudding across the landscape closer in, all moving at different speeds in different directions, like a slow motion rave.
I kept a watchful eye on the cumulus but it only seemed interested in stalking Vista Ridge, everything to the east of there was clear. Instinct, for the win.Since the moisture was holding off, I declared Lunch Rock II. Once again, I enjoyed some delightful dinner company.With a warm sun drying my back and gossamer winds playing with my hair, I couldn’t help but linger. Everything was just so beautiful. Those hapless hordes down at Cairn Basin were probably standing around in the dank mist right now, telling their friends, “No, Mt. Hood really is right above us. Honest!”Meanwhile, the sun was bullying the snow, making it release billows of steam as the glaciers melted.It made shadow puppets with the ridge.Hood’s hairstyle was being brushed by gusts far stiffer than those playing with my own bangs. The wind dragged and braided long clouds into countless macrame projects, moving tantalizingly slow. I stared, mesmerized. Then, I remembered my digital camera had a video option and emptied half a card on this phenomenon. When I turned to survey the valleys, I could see that Mt. Hood wasn’t the only volcano receiving star treatment from the heavens. Crazy cirrus, or something a little lower than cirrus, were radiating out from Mt. Adams in a trippy-looking slow motion explosion. The other jaw-dropping wonder up there was the glacier. It was a thrill to be up close and personal with that kind of geologic muscle. The biggest reason Hood is so deliciously jagged is the constant grinding and carving of glaciers. Gravity always wins.It’s hard to grasp how gigantic this slab of compressed snow really is without a visual reference but, trust me, those bottom horizontal layers are spaced about six feet apart.I found a particularly cool looking formation and stretched my digital zoom to its limit. Then, I panned back wider and wider until I could see just where that chunk of white sits on the mountain.I spent so much time frolicking with the geology that I didn’t realize something was creeping up on me, something dangerous and unrelenting: time. Suddenly, there was a warning from somewhere deep inside that got my legs moving. I never carry a watch (I’d have to own one first) and never want to hear the hour from anybody in the wild. I rely on my instincts every trip, and in every instance they get me out just in the nick of time.
I wanted to summit Barrett Spur but I had to head down soon or I’d be driving those potholed forest roads in the dark. Plus, I didn’t want to miss the magic hour when all the beasties come out. I wanted to see a bear, so I left.
I paused and looked back on the day, quite literally. The nice thing about roads to Vista Ridge is that they don’t keep any secrets. You get an eyeful of your destination before you even pull on your pack. It gets your willpower racing.
The drive back featured a large Ruffed Grouse but no encounters of the ursine persuasion. (sniff!) With the berry growing season so short that year, I figured I’d see at least one pile of hungry black fur but maybe Vista Ridge is too much of a human highway for shy Yogi’s. Next time, I’ll check the other side of the volcano.
September 6, 2010