The Unicorn Day Hike

“I CELEBRATE myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.

My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil,
this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and
their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.

Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never
forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.”

– Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

There’s really something quite special about undertaking adventures that you’re not quite sure you can do. Looping Mount Saint Helens on the Loowit in a day (30 miles, 6,000′ e.g.), or circumnavigating Mount Hood in a day on the Timberline Trail (38 miles, 9,000′ e.g.), they both fall into this category. They test your physical and spiritual resolve, they push you to hike and climb literally all day (and usually after dark, too).

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Then there’s the Lamberson Spur to Timberline Trail Loop hike. It’s less on paper, at just 21 miles and 5,700′ e.g. Actually, it’s not on paper, because the trail that makes it possible was envisioned and partially built, but never completed. Lamberson Spur Trail ends three miles after it starts, at the staging area from the last big forest fire that hit Vista and Gnarl ridges.

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Kate and I have done the hike or snowshoe up to trail’s end, starting at Polallie Trailhead, several times, gazing up at the high mountain while we lunched at the turnaround point. Two years ago I first broached the idea of continuing up several more miles, through the old burn, massive piles of blowdown, old growth alpine forest, and scree fields, all the way to the Timberline Trail. I studied it on Google Earth, looking for variations that would avoid the worst parts of the burn. There weren’t any.

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I thought to myself, ‘this is a Craig hike, for sure’, and so I reached out to him. Turns out, he’d already done it, with Rigby the Hiking Dog, no less, back in June! So we set a date for a repeat in late Summer/Early Fall for the long days, intending to refine the route a bit and enjoy a long day on the trail. I hadn’t yet figured out my best route back from the junction with the Timberline Trail at 8,000′, but Craig had. Look how happy we are to pummel ourselves for the next ten or eleven hours.

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We started out on a fine September morning with clouds and sun, stopping by Tamanawas Falls on the way. Craig amused me with a really funny story about how he contemplated off-trailing to above the Falls last trip, but didn’t. Pretty much looks like he would have cliffed out, so a wise end-of-the-day decision not to. 

I’ve hiked a lot with Rigby, he is still the hikingest dog I know.

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After climbing up and following Lamberson Spur Trail #644, we paused at the ‘Helipad’, the scene of firefighting ops during the Gnarl Ridge Fire. Here, the trail ends, though there are traces of where it used to go part way up. Our mission was to clear the mile-plus of blowdown, gain the ridge, and stay on it until we faded left across the scree fields and gained the white post signifying we’d reached the Timberline Trail #400, at its highest point on Mt. Hood (~8,000′ a.s.l.).

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In keeping with giving significant natural features memorable names, indicating deep meaning and unassailable character, we dubbed this unnamed trail ‘Susan Way’.

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Blowdown is always a pain in the ass, blocking passage and trying to hurt you with broken sharp bits, and this was the Mother of all blowdown fields. Trees stacked upon trees, at times the only available route was to climb onto a tree, take it until you reached another tree, and tightrope walk your way up.

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We spent a few hours getting through about two miles, until we finally were scooting along a knife ridge with a massively scary drop at times to the right, butt-scooting down a few steep ridges.

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Our reward for clearing the blowdown fields and the ridges was…more scree. ‘We scree, you scree, we all scree for more scree!’ Sideways scree!

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The clouds were spectacular on the high mountain, and gave us glimpses of the summit as we climbed up. At the end of the burn, we walked into the most beautiful, mossy old growth forest that escaped the fire. Look at the snow level on these trees, as indicated by the moss line!

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I’m a pretty happy hiker. I found a tree to climb. Rigby wasn’t impressed.

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Clearing the tree line, clouds broiled around us, we saw white posts and gave high-fives for reaching our high point goal. All downhill from here…well, sort of.

We gazed across the canyon at Meadows ski area, always impressed by its immensity.

We descended toward Lamberson Spur and hooked up with the Gnarl Ridge trail, headlights ready as we knew we would run out of daylight shortly after Elk Meadows, with a large stream crossing further down now consigned to darkness.

We just flew down the arrow straight Elk Meadows trail as we lost the daylight, still a few hours from closing our loop. I chased Rigby at a fast clip, powering over rises, drunk with the ecstasy of hours of continuous movement.  I’ve extended my endurance dramatically the last three years, and I find I get into a really pleasant zone after so many hours on trail. I had more power and felt faster after nine hours than I did at two. Then, I’m good for ten, twelve, even up to around eighteen hours on trail, so long as I keep eating and drinking. This has really pushed me toward more trail Ultras, with the confidence I can handle 50k trail runs without concern of finishing.

I hear Craig say behind me, ‘I hope that log is still there’ and my ‘hoo-boy’ detector goes off, here’s some fun!  I crawled across it, not wanting to risk my balance after ten hours on the trail on walking on a slick log.  Rigby ran across and looked at me like ‘Rut’s the big deal, Ruzan?’ Oh, and if you look close, the log is utterly compromised, splitting into pieces, and probably will be in the stream soon, if it isn’t already.  Thankfully, I didn’t notice that until we were across it.

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We returned finally to the Lamberson Spur junction, where Rigby posed for some scary night photos.

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We finally hit the trailhead after a few hours hiking in the dark, one of my favorite things to do.  As a kid, I’d run into the forest at night with my Aussie, Lucy, just to feel and hear the deep woods at night.   Our current Aussie, Luna, won’t be up for this level of hike for a few years even, but I look forward to someday showing her this part of the wonderful world in which we live. 

Miles of blowdown sure killed our moving average, but what a great day on the trail!

There’s a bat-shit-crazy option for the next time we do this hike, adding a few miles and another ~500-1000′ of climbing, some on snow, to visit the Bandit Rock/Boulder. It’s a giant rock that tumbled down from the summit block of Hood sometime in the last 20 years, visible from the top of Cooper Spur. I’ve been there once, and it seems a shame to pass just underneath it again, so it’s also on the menu for the next trip in June 2019.

Thanks to Craig for his photos, and to Rigby for being our stalwart adventure companion!

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Additional excellent resources for this hike:

Lamberson Spur Loop Hike:

https://www.oregonhikers.org/field_guide/Lamberson_Spur_Loop_Hike

Bandit Rock Trip Report – truly, named after a box of cheap wine:

https://www.oregonhikers.org/forum/viewtopic.php?t=16904

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