I laid on my stomach, arms spread widely, grasping desperately for anything to stop my slide toward the cliff edge. Rocks fell behind me, making ghostly sounds as they struck trees far below. I thrust my fingers into the root ball of a shrub, slowing myself, but not stopping my progress toward oblivion. I was falling, out of answers and options. As I slid, I looked back over my shoulder, I thought, ‘I’m going to die. Who will tell my Mom’?
That’s me up next to Rigby, five minutes before I fell, April 30, 2017
Still on my stomach, looking left and a little upslope, I spotted a small oak tree, and I gave up my grip on the shrub that was slowly pulling out of the ground, and I leapt for it, making a last-gasp effort for the little oak. I got several fingers around the base of the trunk, and rolled to my left, rocks now falling in a steady stream a hundred feet or more, down into the forest below. I hung in place with one hand gripping the tree, having arrested my fall for the moment. After several minutes, I swung my body so I could get both hands on it, and pulled myself out of the slide path. I’d survived, if I could get off the rock pile and thirty meters back up to the ridge.
Telling my friends to stay back and not trigger another slide, I inched my way so slowly back up to the ridge top where I’d fallen from. Moments before, as I’d turned a corner near the top, all the rock I was scrambling on had slid out from underneath me, sending me toward an unsurvivable fall over a hundred foot cliff. When I neared the top again, strong arms pulled me over, where I collapsed, sobbing uncontrollably in the aftermath. I’d almost died, and my psyche was utterly traumatized by the experience.
Eagle Creek Trail with High Bridge in the center distance, April 2017
We were in Eagle Creek, before the fire, nearly two years ago this week. We’d left the trail above High Bridge, turning to the West up a long ridge off-trail toward the Tanner watershed and Dublin Lake. It was an eleven-hour odyssey, worthy of its own telling. We finished before dark, twenty-plus miles and over five thousand feet of elevation gain that day. That night, the nightmares started. In my dreams, I’d not stop falling, and I’d see my body lying at the bottom of the cliff, third-person view. I died over and over again, every night for a month. I’d wake up shaking, covered in sweat, every night, until I didn’t want to sleep anymore.
Six weeks after my fall, I’d been experiencing intermittent pain in my lower right abdomen, near my beltline area. I finally woke up one night in June in excruciating pain. Another Emergency Room visit, where I passed out repeatedly from the pain despite the strongest IV pain killers available. I’d had undetected internal injuries, and now a serious infection. Finally I had relief with a nerve-blocking agent injected directly into the nerve bundle. I was so sick. I had to cancel out of my Mt. Saint Helens Climb, my week-long backpacking trip to the Enchantments, all gone as I went on a month of forced rest.
Later that year in September, the Eagle Creek fire burned almost fifty thousand acres on the Oregon side of the Gorge, including Dublin Lake and Tanner Butte. We will likely never do this route again, the fires having destabilized all the steep slopes in that area. Because of the fires, I’d never been back to Eagle Creek since that day, the trail remains closed to the public, with arrest and steep fines awaiting those who would test the closure.
Aerial view of Dublin Lake after the Eagle Creek Fire. It’s really sad up there now.
Now, I was back. Since 2017, I’ve been a volunteer with the Pacific Crest Trail Association (PCTA), working in the burn area of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area. We had crews working in Eagle Creek, down from Wahtum Lake to Seven Mile Camp last Fall, but a trail running fall and injuries had kept me away, until last week.
I’d signed up with a PCTA work party to work clearing trail between Fern Creek Bridge and High Bridge, about four miles in from the Gorge trailhead. Other volunteers had carried temporary planks in prior weeks, so we could cross the compromised Fern Creek bridge somewhat safely, one at a time.
Fire-damaged Fern Creek Bridge with temporary planking screwed down tightly
Our goal was to remove all the logs and clear a path to High Bridge, so it could be safely evaluated by engineers from a contractor engaged to replace both bridges.
Fern Creek bridge from the trail, pre-fire 2017
Fern Creek same viewpoint, 2019 post-fire. Amazingly, the tree to the left, right on the trail, didn’t burn completely.
I was working with a chainsaw crew of three, our mission to remove as many logs as we safely could. It’s significantly dangerous working cutting blowdown in Eagle Creek, there are unsurvivable drop-offs right off the trail in so many places. We worked on a four-log pile near High Bridge with no room for error. If you tripped, fell, or got snagged on something going over the edge, it would be your last series of mistakes. It takes a lot of focus to ensure every step you make is a safe one.
Eagle Creek, April 2019
Walking in, past Punchbowl Falls, over Sorenson Creek, I felt a wave of familiar memories. Hiking in a rainstorm here, three years ago, possibly the wettest hike I’ve ever done with water cascading off the cliffs down onto the trail. My first trip to Tunnel Falls and the ‘Vertigo Mile’, where the trail is blasted out of the cliff wall, as are many sections of Eagle Creek Trail. Hand cables line multiple sections, giving you a little more security. Much of the trail was blasted out of the Basalt cliffs back in 1915-1919, and was immediately popular, with 150,000 visitors in 1919 alone. The views are spectacular, no less so now after the fires are out.
Eagle Creek between Fern Creek Bridge and High Bridge, April 2019
Not yet into the Wilderness with its crosscut-only saw restrictions, we used chainsaws to remove log after log. Most were a bit complex, having slid down the steep banks usually end-first into the trail. Sometimes, you have to cut them multiple times just to clear the trail, as the log just keeps sliding down as you remove one section after another.
Logs that just keep giving. We left the largest for another day this week, to return with a longer and more powerful chainsaw.
Many of the burned logs fill with water, their ends opened by fire having burned off the root ball. They literally spit water as you cut into them, and the pieces weigh so much more than normal, being utterly waterlogged. We sent many torpedo logs over cliffs, down into the creek below.
Well, that’s inconvenient. Yep, that’s the trail under all that debris
Rockslides are all along this section, and pieces of the trail have fallen or been knocked off. Our little saw crew did a fabulous amount of work, the three of us removed twenty-three logs last Thursday. The rest of the work party and two seasonal Forest Service employees worked on the tread, making safe passage over the slides. The amount of work done by a dozen or less PCTA volunteers in a day is always so impressive.
Lots of work left to do before this trail opens again
For me, the day was very special. There was no avoiding the memories of my fall, I had to accept some really hard lessons about avoiding exposure and scrambling. I stood on the trail near High Bridge, looking up at the ridge we climbed two years ago. It seems impossibly steep to look at it now, the understory, moss, and brush all gone.
All smiles just above High Bridge in April 2017, you can see the trail below. It’s a 3-4 hour climb to get over to Dublin Lake from here.
Much of the ridge itself can be seen now, an ancient rockpile with its moss burned away. In its current condition, I cannot imagine how it would be more uninviting. Criss-crossed with burned fallen trees, dotted with rock slides, I think I’ll not take that route again in my lifetime.
I will come back, likely again and again, to work on this lovely trail so it may again be enjoyed by thousands of people every year. I’ll come out for day work, then move to overnight weekend work parties when the snow melts out on the higher section. I spent most of 2018 working in the woods, in the burn, helping to open the PCT and Herman Creek Trails. The Forest Service is saying August for new bridges at Fern Creek and High Bridge, so it’s quite possible some portion of Eagle Creek trail will also reopen later in the Fall. It will need more ongoing work as trees and rock keep coming off the steep slopes, but it will be a grand day when the temporary gates and signs come down, and everyone again can enjoy its incomparable beauty.
Akhtar, Rigby and I walking back from the Tanner system to the Eagle Creek TH, April 2017. Thanks to Craig G. for many of the 2017 photos. 🙂
Eagle Creek Hike:
PCTA Volunteer Opportunities:
PCTA Mount Hood Chapter Eventbrite page for work parties: