Mississippi Head Run

It’s been damn smoky around these parts lately, with an explosive fire blooming in the Columbia River Gorge that has choked us all with air quality that makes Salt Lake City’s inversion smog seem like an eco-paradise. Thankfully, our usual Westerly winds returned a few days ago to blow the smoke to east and open up our skies and lungs again.

Mt Hood from ZigZag Canyon, guarded by the cliffs of Mississippi Head.

Taylor wanted to get in a long day of hiking on Mt Hood as training for an upcoming effort, and recruited friends Hayes and Reagan to join her shuttling a piece of the Timberline trail. I dropped them off in the foggy morning air at Top Spur trailhead on the mountain’s West side before driving myself up to Timberline Lodge to go for a run and check out a Mt Hood feature that I’ve never visited before – Mississippi Head.

Mississippi Head in detail.

Mississippi Head is best known for being a site of accidents. In recent times, it forms the bottom of the “mount hood triangle”, a terrain phenomenon that has claimed many unwary and even wary skiers and climbers. In short, if you descend with poor visibility from the summit of Mt Hood along the fall line, you won’t head back towards Timberline Lodge and your car but will instead veer Westwards towards the tall cliffs of Mississippi Head. This very error has waylaid Mt Hood’s most enthusiastic backcountry skiier, Asit Rathod, among many others.

The timberline trail is still one of the best. Cruising buff trails through second-growth has become second nature.
Lupines were sporting both dew and spots of ash from recent wildfire smoke.

Besides serving as the terminal error of a skier following the Mt Hood Triangle, Mississippi Head was also the site of an air wreck of a B-29 bomber in 1949, which crashed into the top of the cliff while flying on instruments in poor visibility. The story of the body recovery is documented in Jack Grauer’s Mt Hood, A Complete History, and makes for a fine and short read. That Everett Darr and Joe Leuthold climbed Mississippi Head using pitons and aid to retrieve a body during this search is perhaps one of the hairier climbs in Oregon history, based on rock quality alone.

The trail climbs out of Zigzag and towards Paradise Park.
It’s definitely a small bit of Paradise.
Fine views of the mountain from Upper Paradise Park.
The Reid Glacier, broken and melting, funneled by the craggy mass of Yokum Ridge.

The views from Paradise Park, where I left the trail to run towards Mississipi Head, were fantastic. Mt Hood’s rock ores, crumbling and dying glaciers, and fall tundra colors were mizing in fine form.

Split Rock.

To reach Mississipi Head in a logical loop with maximum enjoyment, one run’s West from Timberline lodge along the Timberline trail before climbing up the Paradise Park loop at the first opportunity (Strava track). The Paradise Park loop is followed until one spot’s the Split Rock at the far end of the meadows. This lone boulder (I hypothesize that this is a volcanic bomb) marks the setting off point for the terrain above.

Trail by consensus climbing towards Mississippi head.

After some running over varied tufted ground without a distinct trail, the various bootpaths coalesce above into an unofficial but clear path. The going was quite slow, as the infrequently traveled path is very sandy and loose, and not often suited to runnning. The high that I ran, the more stunning the terrain, and the worse the ground, until I was reduced to power-hiking up the most unstable and sandy morraine I’ve encountered on Mt Hood.

A short bit of running.
And again, along the moonscape near an unnamed canyon which must eventually flow to the Sandy River.
A fine travel surface. Fine grit.

Once finally on top of the cliffs of Mississippi head, the views into Zig-Zag canyon and over the cliffs are stunning, though I was too chicken to get truly close to the unstable edge. The lowest and Southernmost part of the cliffs houses a relic prop from the B-29 among other scattered pieces of aluminum debris.

The clifftops of Mississippi Head with Zig-Zag Canyon below.
A prop and torn piece of fuselage from the lost B-29.

The very tip of the cliff also sports Mt Hood’s least-used kicker. As far as I can tell, this jump has been used twice. First, by it’s creator Matthias Giraud in 2008, and then again by… well, Matthias Giraud in 2011. The two videos show how much POV footage changed in just a few years, but Superfrenchie’s woohoo hasn’t changed a bit.

The super-frenchie ramp to nowhere.
The mountain really is just an enormous collection of unstable glacial debris.

After visiting the tip of the cliffs, some lenticular clouds suggested that it was time to get moving. From the cliffs, you have to ‘run’ up another thousand feet or so to 8000′ altitude before crossing back to Timberline is possible. Around 8000′ I started to encounter a fair bit of snow, which was a welcome relief from the scree and made for good running back across to Timberline. For those repeating this adventure or trying to get out of the Mt Hood Triangle in a Whiteout, 8000′ was the lowest possible altitude to cross, but it worked great. Holding this altitude leads straight into the chairlift lines to the East, which would be navigable in a whiteout.

Lenticulars forming above, with a bit of propeller visible at left.
A welcome break from scree.
I’ll take it any day over loose boulder sand.
Building serpentine lenticulars.
I suspect high winds aloft.
Turns all year?

Once back to timberline, the summer snow stripe that was still sticking around made for fun and fast running back down to the lodge, much to the entertainment of a group of asian tourists. My ankles are thanking me today for the exercise of plunge-running a few thousand feet of snow, but I’m glad to have had a good day out in a new corner of Mt Hood that is well known but seldom visited.

The quick way down, back into the smoke and clouds.

Category: Running


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