Thursday, May 22, 2014

Dog Mountain

Yesterday afternoon I sat in a field of yellow balsamroot flowers with a large crow/raven/blackbird creature surfing the thermals less than 6 feet overhead. In front of me the primarily yellow field of wildflowers with bits of red Indian Paintbrush and unknown purples mixed in sloped gradually then steeply to the trail I just huffed myself up from. Beyond was a view of the Columbia River Gorge with the river flexing like a bicep, the slender forearm bent slightly under 90 degrees. I looked straight down at an unknown peak rising on my side of the river near the Columbia's elbow. My heavy leather hiking boots were kicked off to the side as I munched on snacks and my 2-year old mutt alternated between chasing the bird overhead and insistently barking at me to throw him a stick. Pausing only briefly to snarf up his mid-hike snack before returning to his antics, to the amusement of the other 3-4 mid-point hikers taking a break on the meadow nearby. 

I massaged my numb and tingling feet and inhaled long, relaxed breaths as my heart rate settled. I added a second long-sleeve shirt to guard against the wind and smiled. I smiled deep satisfaction into my heart, my lungs, my head, my soul. I made it to the top. A 2,800 foot elevation gain in about 3.5 miles. It took me three hours but I made it thanks to an interesting audiobook broadcast via headphones from my phone and a mantra of "slow and steady" each time I found myself charging forward too fast. I allowed myself brief rests when my breathing was too shallow and my heart rate too fast. Every hour I sat for a few minutes, snacked and released my feet from my boots for a brief reprieve. My dog Jethro ran up and down the trail, snuffled through leaves and moss and brambles and got better and better at heeding my "off trail" commands when descending hikers approached. For most of the hike I played leap frog with two other small groups but somewhere not too far from the summit I lost them and despite my 20-minute rest at the top I never saw them again since I took the looped path back to the parking lot where I saw  both of their cars were still in the parking lot when I returned. My competitive pride beamed. Maybe I will be ready for Mt. Hood.

A week ago I participated in a conference call with the Climb to Fight Breast Cancer organizers to get information on preparation, training, gear, etc. for the fast approaching Mt. Hood climb. I was overwhelmed. I hadn't hiked or really managed to exercise much in the two previous weeks since I was in New York City and then had friends in town. I feared I was running out of time. Hell, I shouldn't use past tense, I still fear I am running out of time. The list of gear, the challenge of raising the rest of my donation dollars, the cost of a room . . . I could go on but I don't want to succumb to another panic. 

My plan was to hike Dog Mountain on Tuesday. I couldn't do it. Here on Thursday, I can't tell you why. On the call Dog Mountain was named as the best training hike for Hood climbers in the Portland area. It was steep, good elevation gain and close. Monday I just didn't prepare so Tuesday I slept late and procrastinated another day to give me a chance to prep. 

The trailhead is about a 45 minute drive along I-84 east of Portland and into the Gorge, a scenic drive across the Columbia River on the Bridge of the Gods into Washington with a hunt for a trailhead parking lot. I was still afraid Wednesday standing in the parking lot unloading my dog, me, my pack and wrangling my trekking poles. I hadn't used my trekking poles in a few years so it took some fiddling for me to remember how to adjust the two periscoping extensions to the right height and to get them even. So grateful I broke them out for this trek, they helped me drag my weary self to the top and saved my wobbly knees on the descent.

Near the top of Dog Mountain I wasn't the only one admiring the field of wild flowers, Jethro was pouncing through the fields with his ears flapping in the brisk wind. At one point while I was standing to the side of the trail to make way for some descending trekkers, Jethro decided to take a joyous roll on his back among the flowers. On his back, head pointed in my direction,  gravity kicked in and dragged him back to the dusty, rocky trail at my feet while he frantically wiggled and squirmed in a failed attempt to right himself. Across the Gorge to the south Mt. Hood slowly rose as a tiny white triangle that grew the closer I got to the top of Dog Mountain. To the north, Mt Saint Helens, with its cratered summit, loomed under a clear blue sky marked with a few wispy clouds. 

There were two trails to the summit, one marked as "more difficult", the other "less difficult". My pre-hike googling revealed it was best to tackle the often straight-up more difficult trail and come down on the less difficult, more meandering but still rough trail. It was a good plan. My body was definitely tired and weary on the descent and longer switchbacks were preferable to long steeps that could easily turn into a long slide down. But the alternate trail was practically empty and there were a few times I feared I'd made some terrible mistake and taken the wrong trail. There were more rock fields to pick my over and around on the descent and I think it was a significant accomplishment that I only fell once when my trekking poles and Jethro nearly got entangled. I arrived back at the parking lot with little ceremony and after emptying the last of my water bottle into a bowl Jethro lapped up, I stripped off my boots and socks in favor of Birkenstocks and drove home. 

I'm sure my nerves will flair up again between now and June 14th but I still have three more weeks of training to go and I'm feeling like I might just be able to pull this off.

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