Timberline (Day 3: Eliot Creek)

eliot_creekMy second morning on the trail began much like the first. I woke to the sound of water, this time Ladd Creek just over the rise. We broke camp and ate by the water for the convenience of a quick refill. I also used the cold water and a bandanna to wipe the trail dirt off my legs and feet, arms and hands, and face and hair. It was a lovely start to what would become a brutal day.

After fording Ladd Creek, we entered one of the most beautiful sections of Mt. Hood that I have ever seen. Even though the trees were scarred from fire, the high meadows were lush and filled with wild flowers. At every turn there were swaths of color that paused me in my tracks. I took lots and lots of photos.

The flies were around, but never to the degree of the previous days. The trail had its ups and downs, some of the many water crossings were a bit difficult, but it was a beautiful day of hiking. As we often do, we misread the map and thought that we had hiked further than we had. This came as a rude awakening when we reached the washout at Eliot Creek.

From what I understand, Eliot Creek washed out about seven years ago and the trail has been officially closed there ever since. According to guide books and other sources, there is a workable alternate route. I even know a guy who made it through the area while running the timberline in a day. All of this painted a different picture of what to expect than I should have been prepared for.

When we reached the sights telling us to turn back, I decided to head down to the edge of the washout and see how bad it was. This was my first mistake, considering how overgrown the trail had become. I lost a water bottle as it was snagged and disappeared into the thicket. When I did make it to the edge, it didn’t take long before I realized how dangerous it really was.

I paced there for a while, trying to find a way down that didn’t look terribly dangerous, but I’ll be damned if I could see one. There was another hiker there who was determined to take this route, but I didn’t have his confidence, so I went back to find my buddy. We were demoralized at having wasted an hour, so I ran back to the last water and refilled all of our bottles as an apology. Then we ate lunch and decided to try the detour.

The unofficial trail just climbed hard onto the ridge and started heading up. We followed it for a long while, dropping off the spine when we had to, but continuing up toward the mountain. We kept looking for a way down into the ravine, but nothing presented itself. We did find a rope that someone had tied around a boulder, but without knowing how far it went, it presented more fear than safety to a pair of hikers like us.

In the end, the trail faded and we were left without a certain course. On top of that, my hiking partner was starting to get nose bleeds from the altitude. We were fairly certain that we were above 7500 feet. So we turned back. We followed a rocky stream bed back to the main trail, avoiding the ridgeline and its scary drops. Then we had to start back and form some kind of plan b.

This was definitely the ‘death march’ phase of our trip. We kept pushing on, well past our normal limits till we could find a place to camp. The water crossings were scarier now and the climbs were amplified by our fatigue. We met other hikers and told them what we knew, surprised that they decided to push on in spite of the late hour.

When we finally made it to the camp sites in Elk Cove, they were nearly all full. A generous man and his grandson suggested that we camp on the meadow edge just outside their campsite and we agreed. As we set up camp, I told the man about our day and that we weren’t sure what we were going to do next. In one of those lovely moments of charity, he suggested that if we wanted to hike out with them the next day, he could drive us up to the lodge to retrieve our vehicle. The trailhead that they were using was out at the end of Vista Ridge about 4 miles from where we were. We couldn’t quite believe our luck.

We both ate and slept better knowing that we had a way home the next day. I really didn’t want to go a day without food, and the prospect of begging people for rides at a trailhead was disheartening. I’d hiked 16 miles that day, but I was happy to have a way home the next day. I watched the setting sun cast a rosy glow on Mt. Hood and remembered that the suffering of the trail is the price I pay for the beauty of these wild places.

I slept well that night, even while fierce winds buffeted my little tent, firm in the belief that even in failure there is still beauty. No one got hurt that day and we had a way out, that made it a kind of success in my book. The next day would be an easy hike and a couple of long drives. I’d be home soon.

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