Mt. Hood Shadow Monster


I got started really late on this one, about lunch-thirty. I have a cogent list of excuses but stupidity and a really, really warm bed in a really, really cold room this morning pretty much summed it up. 

It’s always nice to start the journey off with a little hair-pulling frustration. Insert Cloud Cap Trail, the Sullivan Edition. Now, I know the Sullivan hiking books are like the Dead Sea Scrolls 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 souls. Happily, this route climbed rapidly above the tree line, rendering the illusion that I came much further, much faster. It was a beautiful day (which explained the approximately 1.2 million hikers around me) and I was grateful to have remembered sunscreen because the mercury rose far faster than I did on the mountain that day.

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 oldies rock music blaring inside, you suddenly become an introvert. I traded snacks with a couple who was also hiding from the “party” and none of us ventured back for photos. Instead, I snapped a quick shot of the trail junction marker and leaned into the task of another three miles of dusty switchbacking incline just crawling with hikers.

Adams, Rainer, and St. Helens (right to left) were being awfully majestic on the clearest Oregon day I’d ever seen. At the spur’s rim, the wind got naughty. Each time you veered to the edge and got an eyeful of Eliot Glacier you also got a face full 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. 

Feeling the clock tick (and having no head lamp on me)(like a moron), 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, transforming crevasses deep enough to swallow a Hummer from beautiful to menacing.

The shadow of Mt. Hood became a light-sucking monster that was rapidly 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 headed for it. (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 mere dormant status and ongoing volcanic activity showed up in bright relief on the trail. Large yellow clods of sulfur justified the 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. Think lava bombs and deadly pyroclastic clouds and running and screaming.

Above me, the mountain appeared handsome and serene.

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.

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. 

Might’ve been monster breath.

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

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

The Cascade Mountain Ash was resplendent in Technicolor hues. It flowed over the trail 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 a 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.

I barely made it out of the woods at the end of civil twilight, I might have done the last hundred yards by feel. That head lamp is LIVING in my pack from now on. From the parking lot I watched the dark line of the earth’s shadow curve gently below the pinkish Belt of Venus after sunset. Very cool. The final thrill came during the slow drive down 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 pitch black 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 I need 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


10 thoughts on “Mt. Hood Shadow Monster

  1. Great pictures and it was nice talking with you about the mountain shadow! I did a little digging and I think the phenomena you are seeing is called a mountain shadow spike. Have a look at this wonderful book, “Color and Light in Nature”, it’s a bit pricy but you can skim it online using Google books. Chapter 1 talks about shadows including mountain shadows. As to the bright part at the edge of the shadow, I’m thinking it is some sort of optical illusion caused by the contrast jump between the shadow and the brighter background sky.

  2. Regarding optical illusions have a look online for something called “Mach Bands” I think that’s what your seeing in this picture.

      • Only two donkey skids found this year – I must be losing my touch! (Lots of other neat stuff, though.)

        I’m way behind in trip reports – got to take some time and post. Hope all is well with you.


  3. Your blog is freaking awesome man!! I’m starting one myself (similar to yours) but I can safely say out of all the outdoor blogs I’ve seen in the Portland area you’re is the best. You’ve set a very very high benchmark. I admire your work, buddy.

    • Wowza! I’d bow but I’m too busy blushing. Thanks for the kudos, man. I just checked out your site as well and I love your photography addiction. Whenever I’m pondering a hike, I’m gonna knock on your door first and check out your pics. I love a good visual tour, helps psyche me up. Hope to bump into you on the trails!

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