Writings

Thoughts, ideas, comments, diatribes, and rambles. A subjective take.

Climbing Mt Hood By Bike

There is no end to the adventure available within a single day. It’s a fact so easy to forget, when my day can so easily glide by in a mindless stream of must-do’s and have-to’s, interrupted by entertaining media and gustatory distraction. But as I lifted my bike into my car yesterday morning, arms empty of effort, body drained of gusto, yet full of what I knew would be satisfaction once I could only sleep, I felt this thought poignantly and clearly. A man walked past with a tiny dog and a newspaper under his arm.  His day was just beginning, maybe to glide by as mine often do. He couldn’t know the depth and infinite length of my day, which had begun the calendar day before, leaving this house at 3:30 in the afternoon to climb Mt Hood by bike. Had I looked at me then, I might not have seen it either. I might have smelled it though.

The Author and his steed, moments before the bike to Mt Hood

The Author and his steed, moments before the bike to Mt Hood

It was after some consideration that I decided to climb Mt Hood via bicycle power from my home base in Portland, OR. The more that I explore human-powered sports, the more that they surprise me with their seemingly endless revelation of human potential. I had just run 31 miles the week before, in a hair over five hours. That was previously inconceivable to me, but now I know what that means, the toll it takes, and how quickly the power returns. It made a bigger dream seem possible.

Taking a break at Zig-Zag ranger station.  Full kit visible.

Taking a break at Zig-Zag ranger station. Full kit visible.

So, I looked at the numbers. From my proposed starting point in SE Portland, chosen because I had forgotten my bike tools there and needed to retrieve them, it was 55 miles one-way to Timberline Lodge, where most Mt Hood climbs begin. The road is predominantly one- or two-lane highway through Doug-Fir forest, and it climbs a mere 5,000-6,000 vertical feet to the parking lot, 2000′ of which are concentrated in the last 5 miles. From there, I would climb the easiest route on Mt Hood, the South Side, which I have climbed, and skied, and know well. Returning the way that I came resulted, ultimately, in 110 miles by bicycle, and 12,743′ of climbing, roughly split between riding and mountaineering.

I pared down my gear as much as I could, spoiledly bemoaning that I don’t own race skis, or a bike that weighs less than 1/4 ton. I carried a minimum of layers, borrowed aluminum crampons, and a light axe. The skis I carried for the principal of ‘skiing-it’, and because I hate (HATE) walking down something which can be skied. I justified that the weight of carrying them up would be offset by the added speed on the descent. I planned to leave at 4 pm, to arrive at Timberline a bit before midnight, and to summit and descend by 7 am. That way, I figured, I could maybe sneak in under 24 hrs.

Bike to mt hood, highway shoulder

The beast grows closer.

The day-of, all went according to plan. I managed to sleep in until 11 am, which is impossible for me, and by 3:00 pm, I was packed at my starting point. I got the itch. I tried to wait. I failed, and I left early at 3:30 pm.

To describe the bicycling is challenging, as I haven’t been on a road bike for more than 30 minutes in years. It started out pleasantly enough, weaving through urban green spaces before coughing me out onto Highway 26. Even with 30 miles down, I felt amazing, or at least unaffected, when I stopped for a break at the Zig-Zag ranger station. I was ahead of schedule.

When I hopped back on the bike I was reintroduced to the hurt room. From Zig-Zag, Highway 26 climbs at an incessant and unforgiving grade without rest for 12 miles. It took all that I had to maintain a single-digit speed up the sometimes narrow shoulder. Through these 12 miles the few people who honked or yelled support from their cars did me inestimable good.

bike to mt hood

The author, sweatin’ it on the way up to Government Camp

In Government Camp, I stopped at the lone gas station hoping to be able to buy a cold drink, but found the teenage manager inside to be halfway through closing, so instead I sat alone at the gas pump, eating a Safeway Sandwich and trying not to cramp. I knew that the last 2000′ were ahead of me, and I dreaded it. It’s not an adventure until you think seriously about quitting, I thought, wondering if my sandwich had enough salt to make my legs feel better.

Mt Hood from Government Camp, in the fading light.

Mt Hood from Government Camp, in the fading light.

Then, in a spur of magnificent universal genius, a car full of friends happened to stop by on their way to a warm weekend of climbing Smith Rocks. This was a sign, if ever there was one, that it was time to milk the gears and get moving. I rode their inspiration to the base of the hill, where I quickly shifted into my smallest and most senile gear.

biking to mt hood

The light fades over mt Jefferson.

I won’t bore you with a description of the climb. There was a lot of sweating, it seemed to go on forever, the sun went down beautifully, and any time that I tried to stop, my legs would cramp, so I just didn’t. I was too tired even to appreciate my own perseverance. It is at times like this that I fall back on my stubbornness.

Timberline Lodge was a welcome sight, and as quickly as I could (45 minutes maybe?) I changed my clothes and packed for climbing. Sliding on my ski boots and then clicking into my Dynafits was sweet refuge. As I began to skin up the icy climbers’ track, my legs told be that this they knew how to do. The confidence of experience was like a blanket that warmed me as I climbed through the familiar ground of Timberline ski area to the top of the much hated “Magic Mile”.

The last of the day's sun.

The last of the day’s sun.

I left the lodge at 10 pm, earlier than I ever have, but anticipating a crash-and-burn. By midnight I topped out the Magic Mile, and by 1:30 am I was stashing my skis near a fumarole, unneeded for the final pitches. Throughout the climb, the wind roared as I have not encountered on Hood. I’ve always had the luxury of waiting for good weather, and this wasn’t in the forecast that I had checked the day before.  I’m told that winds in excess of 85 mph were measured on Mt Rainier that night. The stress of persistent wind is indescribable, especially when it blows crosswise so strongly that it seems to tak effort to breathe. Simple tasks, like changing layers, become multi-step extravaganzas to keep from losing something essential. I didn’t have much gas in the tank to begin with, and the wind slowly wore down on me.

When I reached the upper crater, it shielded me from the wind, a silent and warm refuge. The climbing was beautiful snice that climbed securely and quickly. I paused high on the route to admire the rimed towers which slowly emerged from the dark when I extinguished my headlamp, and to admire the stars, which under a new moon were countless. I sang a little bit to myself, and though of elegant things once said by Gaston Rebuffat which I couldn’t quite remember, but which no doubt had something to do with mountains at night.

When I reached the summit ridge, a quick walk took me to the top. I rejoiced. More or less done, I thought.

It came on so suddenly that I almost felt my reaction to it before I felt the thing itself– the jarring blunt of a wind unlike any I have ever known. Though it had been windy on the summit ridge, what struck me was like wind-through-wind, another beast entirely. I hit the deck like a sailor in an air raid and immediately understood how it is that people have been blown from this mountain.

Primal fear is not something that I have had the pleasure to feel often, but as I crawled, on hands and knees, back along the summit ridge, I felt this wind sliding in below my chest and trying to lift me from the ground, and I knew that fear. In a moment, Gaston’s beautiful mountain stars were gone and forgotten in a blind struggle to not foolishly expire. When I had fought my way down and off the ridge, into lesser winds, the wave of relief brought with it a powerful nausea that I stifled with sheer disdain. I hate vomiting, and damn if I was going to do it there, leaning into my axe at 11,000′ at 3 o’clock in the dark night.

The only photo that I snapped while hanging on for dear life on the Mt Hood summit rim.

The only photo that I snapped while hanging on for dear life on the Mt Hood summit rim.

The descent back to my skis seemed to take an eternity, but only because I resisted the experience, the pain, the nausea, and the fear. The first of the rest of the world to come up the route, blissfully, was my friend and local-überguide Rodney Sofich, whose mere presence and smile were a calming inspiration. Plus, you can’t tell near-death stories in front of a guide’s clients.

Again clicking into my skis for the descent, I could feel a growing certainty that my mission would be successful. Through the magic of skiing, within 20 minutes I was back at Timberline, packing for the descent.

Leaving the lodge, one pedal-stroke started a downhill coast of over 20 miles, soured only by the deep chill of a marine-fog that engulfed me as I descended. Never has a small cup of terrible gas-station hazelnut coffee tasted so good as that 6 am cup in Rhododendron, at Mt Hood Foods, the only establishment foolish enough to be open. I enjoyed the coffee at a leisurely pace before hitting the road, impatient for home.

Riding over such distances in the close proximity of cars, it would be too easy to slip into a conceited sense of superiority. At bicycle speed it’s easy to see arms casually tossing cigarette butts from car windows, and to tally the amazing numbers of waterbottles-full-of-piss that litter the shoulder. But somehow, perhaps because I knew that what I was doing was inherently stupid, equally meaningless, and certainly not superior, as the miles ticked on I came only to appreciate the infinite variety of human experiences that are happening at this * instant, and how each is ultimately unfathomable. Instead of disliking them, I came to like people a little bit more. Mysterious folk, you are.

Before I knew it, in a haze of fatigue and relief, I was pedaling back into Portland. I parked my bike and sat alone in my friend’s garage, feeling empty and full, and most of all grateful.  When we take big risks, not of physical danger, but simply exposing ourselves to uncertainty and accepting the possibility of failure, we open ourselves up to a depth and variety of experience unavailable within controlled and predictable activities.  We can feel it as we commit to the crux sequence of a rock route, accepting that we might fall but pushing into the unknowns of our ability nevertheless, or we can dive into a bigger journey to dwell and simmer in that uncertainty for hours.  There is a certain richness of experience that ripens with that longer cooking; a surprising self-confidence, a supple determination, and a well-earned sleep. Don’t discount the possibility that the adventure you dream about is right outside your back door.  What makes that adventure is more about what you try to do and how, not where or in what remote range you think you must be to find it.

Stats

Distance On Bike: 110 miles     —     Vertical on Bike: 7,303 (includes interim hills)

Distance on Foot/Skis: 7 miles     —     Vertical on Foot/Skis: 5,440′

Total Time: 18 hrs, 25 min, 15 sec.

Gear

Bicycle: 2005? Gary Fischer Tassajara
Surly Rigid Fork
Stock parts
Brooks Saddle
Schwalbe Marathon Mondiale Tires (crucial! buy good tires.)
Crosso Panniers
Tools (Tire Levers, 1 tube, 2 patches, small pump, 1-dollar bill)
Single-LED front light
Two Extra-bright, flashing rear lights.

North Face Mountain Bike Shorts (thumbs down)
Nike DryFit T-Shirt from the Trail Factor
Mid-Calf Length Polypro Socks

Petzl Meteor III+ Helmet
Skis: Black Diamond Stigma 176 cm
Dynafit TLT Speed Light bindings
Black Diamond Nylon Skins
BD Traverse Pole
BD Whippet (the new carbon one looks much better.)
B&D Ski Crampons
Dynafit TLT5P Boots
Black Diamond Neve Pro Aluminum Crampons w/Antibot plates
CAMP Corsa Nanotech 60 cm axe

Alpine Guide Pants
R1 Hoody
Houdini Wind Shirt
Nano Pullover
MontBell Ultralight Thermawrap Vest
Glove liners
BD Punisher Gloves

10 Gu/Cliffshot Gels w/Caffeine
2 Snickers Bars
2 Twix
1 Hershey’s Cookies n’ Cream
1 Safeway Chicken Sandwich ($1.99)
1 5-hour energy (cause of the nausea?)

Purchased:
1 12 oz coffee
1 Jimmy-Dean Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Sandwich ($0.99, 500 calories!)

Thanks are due to the American Alpine Club for supporting human-powered projected with the Live Your Dream grant. Though the funds were not directly used on this adventure, the AAC’s support is inspiring and helps to make these kinds of trips happen.

If you’re a fan of Mountain Lessons, then please consider making your next gear purchase through one of the links on this site or through the banner below.  Your business helps to support the costs of operating this website.  Thanks!

9 Comments

  • WI-mike on Jul 30, 2013 Reply

    Oh man that was great!! Standing at Pikes market in Seattle in 2000 I promised I would take on a similar challenge biking to and climbing up Rainier. I did the climb up Rainer in 2011 a decade later and had to cut out the bike due to life getting in the way. I loved your story and have plans of my own down the road when the kids are a bit older! Hoping to get up Hood in October of this year though I’m reading it is poor month for climbing and I don’t have a climbing partner, maybe just a scouting opportunity since I will be in Portland anyway. All the best!

    Mike

    • Patrick Fink on Jul 31, 2013 Reply

      Thanks for reading!

      October is indeed a poor month to climb Mt Hood, rivaling only November for the worst month of the year. Unfortunately, there’s not nearly the mass of snow or ice on Hood that there is on Ranier, so the climb in October will be largely a walk up talus with a finish on hard ice/loose rock with significant objective hazard. It would be best left until next Spring. (Though I will say, February is the least appreciated climbing month, and with good weather can be a good way to experience the mountain with very few people, provided that your avalanche knowledge is up to par).

      Best of luck!

  • Ethan on Jun 12, 2013 Reply

    Awesome effort. I laughed at the Gaston Rebuffat line.

    • Patrick Fink on Jun 12, 2013 Reply

      “The man who climbs only in good weather, starting from huts and never bivouacking, appreciates the splendor of the mountains but not their mystery, the dark of their night, the depth of their sky above… How much he has missed!”

  • blase on Jun 12, 2013 Reply

    Congrats!

    Bonatti or Harrer – or both? – had some great stories about biking to climbs in post-war Europe, as much out of necessity as anything. You’re following a rich tradition.

    Way to use your imagination, and then follow through. Well presented. Inspiring. Thanks for sharing.

    br

    • Patrick Fink on Jun 12, 2013 Reply

      Blase,
      Thanks for taking the time to read! Follow-through was certainly the big challenge. It’s easy to talk about human powered stuff, but to actually park the car and accept a different form of transport is something else entirely.
      Cheers
      P

  • Peter I on Jun 11, 2013 Reply

    Super inspiring! I’d like to do this someday. In the mean time I’ll be planning some “longer cooking” adventures of my own. Thanks for the words, and way to go!

    • Patrick Fink on Jun 12, 2013 Reply

      “By endurance we conquer” -Shackleton Family Motto

Leave Reply