I’ve been up into the snowy wilderness around Mt. Hood a couple times lately, out in the woods with friends, breathing the cold air and looking around and enjoying the blanketed landscape. I remember being told when I first moved to Portland that the way to beat the rainy winter-time blues was to adopt a snow sport; you still might be forced to deal with precipitation but it’s a different kind at least and you get to switch things up in general–putting yourself in a new environment–which is always good for the spirits. This year I’ve made a point to get after it and start exploring more of the winter lands of Mt. Hood and beyond. I saved up for a ski touring set up, bought second hand snow shoes (just to cover all my bases) and got a map of the established winter trails … the adventures have just begun.
The first of the recent two trips started on a Friday evening after dark. We left the Barlow Pass Sno-Park and, of course, immediately went the wrong way as we headed to our rented back country cabin for the night. My good friend–Great Blue we call him–had been given as a gift by his wonderful and generous wife–Greater Blue we call her–two nights at the Cascade Hut system in the Mt. Hood National Forest. Our first night was spent at the White River Hut (elevation 3,280′) and the second night at the Barlow Butte Hut (elevation 4,030′.) Three of us were on skis and one on snowshoes and us skiers were all relative novices to ski touring and so were awkward in getting used to the rhythms of the work. We went maybe a mile down the snow covered logging road before realizing our mistake and turning around. It was a beautiful night though and the stars shone brightly.
Route finding was an issue and there was an element of anxiety in the crisp air because of it; none of us had been in that area before and the maps and trail markings were confusing. A couple of us were very experienced in the outdoors and so we knew what we were getting into; we weren’t being naive. We joked, as we fumbled around in the snowy woods with our big backpacks, trying to navigate our way to the cabin, that this was the way epic disasters begin and tragedies develop … it all starts innocently enough. It did turn into an all-out, head down, death march but we finally managed to find our way at long last to our little island oasis in the snowy mountain sea … by midnight. It was good mental toughness training, essential for endurance activities and life in general. Lounging around a table, eating a delicious pasta dinner and sipping whisky with legs already in sleeping bags after a hard night of effort was simply glorious–a good reward for tenacious deeds. The youngest member of our 4-person crew–an Eastern-European, 20 year old contractor extraordinaire with hands like thick-cut sirloin steaks that we call “Meat Paw”–was out like a light even before dinner was served.
The weekend was great; we got to know the area, toured from one hut to the next along the wide and snowy swath of the White River Valley itself, challenged our bodies and minds, learned, ate good food, laughed, talked about many silly, pointless, and stupid things, as well as some that were deep and important too. It was Sunday morning though that delivered the real goods so to speak: we were presented with an eye-popping sunrise, the early rays illuminating the beautiful and iconic form of Mt. Hood that had been hidden in the clouds from us for the past two days. There wasn’t a single cloud that morning and the grandeur was simply surreal. We quickly made coffee but were soon out there, taking the first ski runs of the trip down the open slopes below the hut (the snowshoer carried a snowboard along.) It was perfect, the kind of carefree bliss you dream of while sitting at work: bright sun, blue skies, powder, the terrain not too steep, not too mellow, nicely spaces trees, with friends, nothing to do but have fun and play in the mountains. We carved down with thrill and elation then attached climbing skins to our skis and headed back up to do it all over again. We got in a handful of runs before going back to the hut for breakfast. After that, of course, we packed up and went straight out for more. The death march of Friday night finally was paying off in spades.
When we got back to the car on Sunday afternoon the parking lot was fun of all sorts of folks–young and old, skiers to snowshoers to snowmobilers to rubber tubers to infants kicking around in the white stuff–and it was nice to see so many people out enjoying themselves. The sun shone through the trees and sent beautiful rainbow toned shafts of the light through the spaces in between the trunks. It was a good weekend and I knew I had to make the snowy pilgrimage a more frequent event.
Only two weeks later another snowy jaunt came to fruition. This time it was a snowshoe journey–a 6-mile point to point route from Timberline Road & Highway 26 to the White River Sno-Park–on a trail called Yellowjacket. I was lucky enough to be accompanied by a great woman named Mary and a dapper middle aged puppy with a Swedish name (or rather I had the privilege of accompanying them.) We set off eastbound at a very reasonable, not-too-early hour and made our way into the woods, following blue diamonds made of medal nailed to the trees to mark our path. Yellowjacket was said to be one of the more challenging routes in the area and indeed it had consistently rolling terrain to test the legs and lungs and many stream crossing to keep things interesting. Slender snow bridges, the narrow tight-ropes of fallen trees, and occasionally full-on leaping provided passage over the cascading waterways that regularly bisected our path. We saw a few other people but mostly had the forest to ourselves; just us and the dog, the snow, the trees, the birds and clouds and bits of blue above, peeking out here and there, providing us with electric blue jolts of excitement to our white-washed consciousness. We traversed around the upper end of the little valley of the headwaters of the Salmon River and at last got some good views of the majestic peak overhead. It’s always delightfully and jaw-droppingly shocking to see something as dramatic and ethereal as Mt. Hood (or any other mountain for that matter) reveals itself from behind a shroud of grey sky even when you knew at every step in your logical mind that it was there all along.
We ran some through the snow, getting our heart rates up and sending out hot breath into the cold air. The miles ticked by as we enjoyed ourselves and were present with our steps while the Swedish dog romped alongside. We could tell we were nearing the end. More and more people could be seen and heard, more kids with sleds could be spotted through the trees, neon colors visible from far away like confetti on a white canvas. The crowds grew thicker, people everywhere, kids shrieking, people flying along the ground at various speeds on their different modes of transport. Even with the crowds though it was a good sight; better to have people out enjoying the fresh air and being active than sitting around; better for them, better for everyone. We walked through the massive, filled parking lot to the edge of Highway 26 and stuck our thumbs out. Soon enough Mary and I were piled in the backseat of a car headed west with the middle-aged Swedish puppy asleep between us, already dreaming.
Snowshoeing or skiing, sledding or just stumbling around in a puffy jacket in the cold white stuff will do you good. The next time the rain is getting you down consider heeding the advice of that sagely Portlander who told me to head to the snow for solace and maybe even some sunshine. There is a playground at your fingertips and it’s stunning, soul enlivening and pretty much free. It’s right there, so close to our great city, just waiting to lift your spirits.
Willie McBride is a native of Chicago, IL but has been living in and exploring the American West since 2000. He attended the Colorado College, majoring in English with a focus on Creative Writing, solidifying his love of writing and his need for mountains. An avid hiker, climber, and trail/ultramarathon runner he now resides in NW Portland, close by the trails of Forest Park. He started a personal/group training and coaching business called Animal Athletics (AnimalAthleticsPDX.com) with fellow ultra runner Yassine Diboun in spring of 2012 and the two provide top-notch services to aspiring outdoor athletes of all abilities.