Auto-Biography: A 22 Mile Hiking Lesson On Aging

North and Middle Sister from Four-In-One Cone

(disclaimer: very low automotive content)    Yesterday’s outing started out as a typical 8 mile round-trip hike up to a high Cascades view point. By the time the day was over, I’d logged 22 miles—more than I’ve actually ever hiked in one day—with over 3,000′ feet of elevation gain, crossing numerous snow fields, scrambling up loose scree, almost getting lost twice, and arriving home quite a bit later than expected.

It turned out to be a lesson on aging and not underestimating oneself.

Stephanie had an appointment, and the dog is getting to old for more challenging hikes, so I picked a hike out of my trusty guidebook that I’d never done before (Four-In -One Cone) because it involved a fair bit of scree, which Stephanie doesn’t care much for. It’s one of many little volcanic cones in this region of the Central Oregon Cascades, close to North and Middle Sisters.

Yes, there’s a bit of automotive content in this story, as the drive there fabulous. The first hour is along Hwy. 26, at the edge of the McKenzie River, a classic whitewater and fly-fishing mecca. After an hour of great river views, sadly enhanced by the massive fire that swept though the valley a couple of years ago, one turns off at Hwy 242, the famous McKenzie Scenic Highway, open only in the summer time.

I left the house at eight, and on a weekday, the Scenic Highway was deserted. That means I drove up it with very considerable…enthusiasm. One of these days, I need to do a dashcam video of one of my all-time favorite drives; a genuine world-class mountain driving route. The video above is ok, but it feels very sedate…quite unlike how I take it. Maybe speed the video up in playback? And imagine the sound of the xB’s little 1.5 engine working its heart out, lots of rapid shifts and the squeal of its winter tires barely hanging on in the many tight curves.

I parked at the Scott Trail head and headed up at 9:40 am. Soon I came to a lush meadow and crossed a lively brook thanks to the improvised bridge. I was now in the Three Sisters Wilderness Area.

The trail heads uphill through a forest of mountain hemlock.

Part way up, I started encountering snow. That’s unusual for this late in the summer, but our spring, with seemingly endless rain and snow at higher elevations, only ended about a month ago.

At one point I had difficulty finding the trail at the other end of the snow. I almost pulled out my Gaia GPS app, but eventually I got back on track.

After about 3.5 ,miles the woods opened up, and I had my first view of my destination, Four-In-One Cone, so called because it has four summits. Yes, it’s just a big pile of volcanic scree.

As I crossed the cinder field as its base, I got my first good views of what would come to dominate my day: North (left) and Middle Sister, two of the Three Sisters, the prominent volcanoes in this part of Oregon.

I trudged up the big pile of semi-loose scree to the summit. Four-In-One Cone is really more like a ridge, with four high spots. The south one comes first, and affords the best views of the Sisters. There’s a spectacular skeleton of a tree right at the summit.

Turning to the Southwest, Broken Top is on the left, and then the multiple ridges of the Old Cascades, which are a remnants of ancient volcanic activity before the faults that emit magma and form volcanoes moved abruptly to the east many millions of years ago.

Straight to the west on the left is the McKenzie Valley that I drove up, and Eugene is still ensconced in that morning overcast that came in overnight from the ocean.

I sat on this other skeleton, had my lunch and savored being back up in the high mountain air and above the treeline. I’ve been climbing mountains since I was old enough to accompany my father and older brother in the Alps. My first “real” summit—at age six—was a highly memorable experience, and imprinted the deep satisfaction of hiking up through the woods to break out into rocky ground and crest a summit. This is why I had to leave the Midwest and East and get back to where there are real mountains.

My father had to cajole me on that first mountain hike; it was a real struggle on the way up. It just seemed to go on forever through the tedious woods, but once we broke out of them and scrambled up the modest little peak that he had deemed doable for me, I suddenly had a surge of energy, as if a supercharger had just kicked in. And getting to the top was a huge thrill.

That experience has never changed; I love hiking through the woods now, no matter how long, but when I hit the open steep rocky sections, I still feel the surge of the supercharger kicking in, and tend to leave the others in the party behind. It feels like there are parts of my lungs that just don’t open up until I get up into thin air. Yes, I know that’s the inverse of what most people experience, but what can I say.

Looking down, I could see the Scott Trail, just barely visible in the right side of that field of scree below the peak.

I walked across the ridge, passing the middle two cones to head to the far north one. This is looking back from that.

From there, the line of the Cascade peaks lined up, starting with Mt. Washington, Three-Finger Jack, Jefferson, and Mt. Hood just poking out behind and to the right of it.

I got out my battered old William Sullivan hiking book, and he suggested taking the Scott trail another mile or so east, to a lovely meadow where it crosses the famous Pacific Crest Trail (“PCT”). It’s still early (noon), so why not? Ten miles? I can handle that; we used to do that regularly, although in recent years the average has dropped down to more typically in the six to eight mile range. Our longest hike on record had been 16 miles in Glacier National Park back in 2011; most of that was level, except for a small lookout peak at the end. We were a bit tired afterwards.

The trail climbed up over a ridge and then dropped down into a most lovely meadow indeed. It wasn’t yet in full bloom due to the snow melt this year. I sat here on the bank of this creek for half an hour, savoring the alpine views and perfect weather; the temperature was slowly heading up to a peak of some 70 degrees.

At the very bottom of this page of the guidebook, there was also this line: To extend this hike to a challenging 15-mile loop, return via the PCT and the Obsidian Trail (Hike #43).  Sounds appealing…but that might be a bit much for today…I hadn’t planned on it…I told Stephanie I’d be back mid-afternoon…it’s been years since I hiked that 16 miles in Glacier, and we were a bit tired afterwards…I’m almost 70…etc…etc…

So I got up and headed back the way I came. After about a half a mile, I stood on the ridge and took a last glance back at the meadow, and at the little ribbon of the PCT, where I now saw some through-hikers with packs heading north.

The legendary Pacific Crest Trail, which starts at the Mexican border and ends at the Canadian one, is 2,653 miles long, and attracts a steady horde of hikers that start at the south end early in the spring and try to get to Canada before the first serious snows in October. That means they’re coming through Oregon in mid-summer, having to average some 30-33 miles per day in order to make it. Others just decide to do certain portions of the trail.

You have to be fairly young to keep up that incredible tempo, and travel very lightly. The drop out rate goes up in direct proportion to age; we oldsters just can’t keep up that kind of punishing routine for months, with rare exception.

As I stood there, I suddenly realized that I was making a mistake, one I make all-t00 often: saying no, when I should be saying yes. I have a curious blend of two opposing personality qualities: I’m both a big, impulsive risk taker, but I’m also cautious. That second quality kicks in most typically out in nature, where I have a very healthy respect for the dangers and have seen first hand the fatal consequences of even a minor slip up while hiking in the remote woods and wilderness. That’s not going to be me; especially when I’m alone and there’s no cell coverage. but that also tends to make me a bit overly cautious at times. I may do myself in dropping the xB into a mountain road ravine or fall from a ladder, but I’m not going to not come back from a hike. At least that’s the plan.

15, 16, 17 miles? How hard can it be? We walk 4-6 miles every day; my legs are in good shape. It’s still early (1pm) So what if I don’t get back until a bit late? The days are very long right now…

So I turned around and retraced my steps back down to the meadow (adding a mile in the process), crossed it, and got on the well-worn PCT, heading south. And a little wave of exhilaration coursed through my body. It sounds silly, but this is my drug of choice.

Curiously, the flowers on the south end of the meadow were quite a bit further along…

The trail headed up and crossed another ridge and into another meadow-to-be, as the snow was still largely on the ground. It’ll be green and full of flowers in a matter of a few weeks.

Then the track headed up steeper, towards Collier Cone. Crossing this steep snow field was a bit tricky, as I did not have hiking poles. We don’t use them, but they would have come in handy on the snow; it would have been a quick schuss down to the rocks at the bottom. I noticed that all the through-hikers were using poles, or had a set strapped to their packs. I see why now.

The PCT peaks in this section here, on a rocky ridge below Collier Cone, off to the left. The Sisters now are very close. But…the trail guide says: “take a steep .5 mile side trail up to a high ridge to a breathtaking view of Collier Glacier”. Sounds awesome…Paul, are you sure you want to extend this hike further? Yes, I do!

So Off I went, right up there, to that red “X” I put in the photo.

The snow still covered the bare thread of a trail, so I just skirted it and headed for what seemed like the obvious place to hit the ridge. That dark smear across the snow field on the left is the remnant of an avalanche.

The view was..breathtaking. Like all glaciers these days, Collier is a shadow of its former self. But given the huge moraines on either side of its valley, it’s easy to see that once upon a time filled much of this view. It’s a good thing the guide book didn’t say: “to extend this hike to a very challenging 28 miles, follow the ridge on the right to the summit of Middle Sister.

From this elevation, some 7500′ or more, the distant peaks were really lining up in a perfectly straight line, and…Mt. Adams, up in Washington, is now clearly visible past Mt. Hood.

In case it’s not so visible, I zoomed in on my iPhone. That’s Jefferson Hood and Adams. That line across the scree on the right is (fortunately) not the trail; it’s a natural feature; the way the rocks or snow slides on it.

Back on the PCT, the trail now traversed a high ledge.

Even up here, in sunny spots the flowers are rushing to do their thing.

Then it headed down a steep rocky gorge. Inside the red circle, there’s a well-camouflaged PCT through-hiker working his way up. I ran into a number of them, individuals and groups. I don’t know whether they were coming all the way from Mexico or just doing a stage, as one rather hates to break their stride and momentum. The move pretty quickly, necessary in order to maintain that pace.

The trail begins heading down again, below the tree line. This tree is sporting quite a “crown”. I’ve seen this a few times before; it’s some sort of malformation.

One more look back before heading down. I’m always a bit reluctant to leave the high country and its open vistas.

But all things must end, and it’s time to think about a good 5-6 miles ahead yet.

Next up is Sunshine, another classic high mountain meadow, but also not yet in its proper glory. Glacier Creek babbles through it.

A half mile or so, and it’s time for the turnoff down the Glacier Trail. I’m a bit reluctant to leave the PCT, as it continues to skirt the Sisters and other peaks on its way through Oregon. I will be back.

The Glacier Trail starts off in a major snow patch, and I couldn’t find the trail on its far side. I whipped out my Gaia app, and it shows I’m off to the left a couple dozen yards. I would have found it eventually on my own, but it does come in handy in a pinch. And I feel much safer mushroom hunting now, as Gaia will track your movement, so that you can always retrace your steps. To think that I never used any GPS until just a year ago…

There was a major blow-down in the valley a ways down. In the winter, powerful winds can start a chain reaction, blowing down trees that then take others with them, like dominoes. It must have been last winter a year ago, as it’s all been cleared from the trail. That year was bad, and many trails were blocked for much of last summer until crews could clear them.

There was a fresh breeze up on the high ridges, but it’s warm and calm down here. A bit soporific.

Fording this creek requires a bit of balance, to hop from one rock to the next.

Can’t resist one more look back at the receding Sisters.

The trail goes through a burn section. The Bear-grass is in bloom here. It’s not really a grass, but a member of the lily family. Native Americans have long used Bear-grass for a variety of purposes, including basket weaving, leaf fibers for clothing and the rhizomes roasted for food.

I managed to miss the connector trail between the Obsidian Trail head where I came out, and the Scott Trailhead, where I parked, so I got to trudge on the pavement of the McKenzie Scenic Highway for my last half mile.

That took my by the historic marker for the Scott Road, which the Scott trail now follows. Here’s the text of that marker:

In 1862 Felix Scott led a crew of 50 men who blazed a trail across the Cascade Mountains following an old Indian trail which skirted lava flows. Scott hoped to use the new route to take supplies to gold fields in Idaho. His trail was difficult for wagon trains, and in 1866 an easier route was found which is now the approximate location of the present state highway across McKenzie Pass. In Scott’s day this area was known as Summit Prairie. Portions of his old trail, found 1,000 ft. north of this point, are still maintained by the U.S. Forest Service and are used by hikers and horsemen.

It’s easy to forget that what is now highly protected wilderness was once just difficult terrain that had to be gotten through somehow.

I arrived back at my car at about 5:45 PM. Taking out an hour and a half or so for stops, I walked for about 6.5 hours. For 17 miles (I added two; one for doubling back at the meadow from indecisiveness, and one for the climb up to the Collier Glacier viewpoint); that comes to about 2.6 mph. Not bad, given the terrain. You’re only as old as you feel, they say, and I feel…great!

Oh; and what about the “22 mile hiking” in the title of this post? I wasn’t not going to join Stephanie and Lil’ Man on our daily evening urban hike, about a five mile loop up into the south hills and back. I’m trying harder not to say “no”.