The hardest hike

Tim and Dusty hiked Hamilton Mountain in the Gorge last weekend, and both returned raving about the hike and the views it offered. So when Tim called me and suggested we hike it on Saturday, I was game.

We headed out around 2 p.m. and hit the trail about 45 minutes later. We wanted to be back at the car by 6 p.m., so we could beat the sunset. I was skeptical, but Tim — ever the optimist — had no doubts it could be done.

It wasn’t long before I wanted to quit. Ten to 15 minutes in, my left calf was in pain, and I was out of breath. I was under no illusion that I would climb the 2,000+ feet — in only 3.5 miles, no less. Part of that was due to the trail’s initially steep ascent, and part of it could be chalked up to my lax work-out routine lately. I’ve been writing a lot and keeping myself busy — that’s code for “obsessed with ‘Breaking Bad'” — and haven’t made it to the gym in a few weeks. That’s all going to change this week. The trail wore me out in almost no time; I can’t remember any other time on the trail when I’ve been so worn out, so early. It was a valuable wake-up call.

But we powered through the initial ascent and made it to a relatively flat section of trail, which allowed me to catch my breath. That gave way to one of the coolest features I’ve ever seen on a trail — the Pool of the Winds.

The Pool of the Winds area looks like a mildly impressive waterfall that starts above the trail and continues below it. But you have to take a side trail to where the waterfall starts for the real attraction. There, in a small opening behind two rocks, is a mighty impressive waterfall. You find it and feel like you’ve discovered a secret. It’s tucked away behind two larger rocks and is otherwise invisible to the passing hiker. It was a nice diversion.

We continued on, and the trail’s steep ascents never let up. One of my hiking books calls the seven-mile trail “difficult.” Another, “strenuous.” These signs laid it out pretty plainly. For the record, we took the “more difficult” trail. Of course we did.

It never got any easier. I stopped a fair number of times to catch my breath and slug some water. Tim, bless his heart, was always patient and in high spirits. Even in peak condition, the hike still would have taken a lot out of me.

One of Hamilton Mountain’s most underrated features is all the side trails that take hikers out to vistas, ridges and viewpoints. If we hadn’t been racing the clock, we would have jutted off onto a few more offshoots to admire the scenery. As it was, we still made it out to a few windswept vistas for the dramatic views.

Tim put it best: I went out to these views partly to catch my breath, and they took my breath away.

And he’s right. You get out onto some of these ridges, and you can seemingly see to Vancouver and beyond. You look down on Beacon Rock — way down. Bonneville Dam looks minuscule. The Columbia River looks like a spilled glass of water. And, had the sun been out, several mountain peaks would have poked out from behind the Gorge.

Three-quarters of the way through the trail, a feeling of accomplishment and “I have to be getting close to the top” set in. Then the trail sets out up yet another ridge that’s probably 200 feet tall. I said some words that aren’t appropriate for reprinting here. Or anywhere else, for that matter.

But this might be Tim’s favorite trail. Our hike was the fifth time he’s headed up Hamilton Mountain. And, as I grew too out-of-breath to really sustain conversation, he launched into a sermon about the Pacific Northwest, the beauty we’re surrounded by and how lucky we are to be able to take it all in. It was spiritual and inspiring. I had no doubt that I would finish the trail, but hearing his love letter to the outdoors and the nature that surrounded us … well, it helped make that last, arduous stretch just a little easier.

We summited at about 4:30 p.m. — 15 minutes ahead of schedule. We took a few photos, ate and drank, and reveled in the fact that we had made it. Less than two hours ago, I had been ready to call it a day and head back to town. But I stuck with it, and I’m glad. The views weren’t much — we were surrounded by clouds that broke long enough to allow one photo of Bonneville Dam — but that was secondary to the fact that two friends endured a tough hike, had fun and accomplished something great.

The, uh, “view” from the top:

After about 10 minutes at the top, we set back down the trail and made it to the car well ahead of dusk and our 6 p.m. deadline. We headed back to town on Highway 14, just in time for it to start raining. I drove the windy roads that occasionally offered dramatic views and reminded myself to head back on a future free weekend day. I haven’t driven that way much, and it would be great to drive as far as I can while stopping to admire the views along the way.

We made it back into town, and for all the difficult moments on the trail, I bounded up the stairs to my apartment with a new-found ferocity and energy. I felt accomplished, alive and lucky to have done the hike. For all its difficulties, it was one of the more fun and memorable hikes I’ve ever done.

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One response to “The hardest hike

  1. Pingback: Matt’s Month of Giving Thanks: A Memorable 2011 « I Gotta Shine·

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