A few weeks ago, on July 9th, I turned 32. The day before my birthday, I drove up to Mount Hood. I got to McGee Creek Trailhead—a tiny little one I’d never been to before—at around 1:30. There was only other car parked there on a beautiful sunny summer Saturday. There was some kind of bike event going on nearby and cars everywhere around Top Spur Trailhead, so I counted myself lucky and headed up McGee Creek Trail. The trail was nothing to write home about, really, but neither is Top Spur—and both spit you out on Timberline Trail after a bit of elevation gain. There were a few fallen trees to climb over or around on the way, including one that I had to sort of bellyflop across, and lots of rhododendrons and whatever those big thorny plants with the huge leaves are—to myself I call them “dinosaur plants.”
I didn’t see a soul until I reached a junction with a few sticks on the ground making arrows pointing left. The trail seemed to continue straight ahead. I asked the guy standing there (after the requisite greetings), “what’s that way?” and he told me it was the way to McNeil Point. “Oh, like a shortcut?” I asked. It didn’t occur to me for a minute or two that this might be Timberline, I guess because I was expecting a clearer junction. The guy I was talking to couldn’t confirm that it was the Timberline, so I pulled out my map to look for a potential shortcut trail. He turned out to be part of a small trail crew that was out for the day with a ranger, though, and when the rest of them showed up, the ranger set me straight—I was at the junction—and we chatted for a few minutes.
“You headed to McNeil Point? There’s a whole lot of people up there,” he warned me. I told him I was hoping to go a bit further than that, actually, and he wished me well, told me that there were some snow patches but I should be in good shape. “Looks like you’re well-outfitted,” he told me, and commented on my Dirty Girl gaiters. (Want some instant hiker cred? For realz, a pair of Dirty Girls will provide it so fast. It makes me laugh every time.) I headed up the trail feeling so cheerful and energetic that one of the next hikers I encountered commented, “Well you’ve got some pep in your step!” I laughed and waved and kept moving, though I surely slowed down a bit as the ascent continued.
Soon Mount Hood started to peak through the trees here and there, and then came the beautiful broad expansive views I remembered from this part of the trail from when I hiked it a couple times last fall. I stopped for some food on a big rock underneath a tree, and insects snacked on me while I snacked. Not long after that, I passed the first water source and stopped to filter water… and then passed five more great sources in the next ten minutes. So it goes.
I passed the ponds and the sign for the McNeil Point. I was starting to get a bit tired, but I figured I’d keep going, maybe find a nice spot at Cairn Basin or a bit further to set myself up to explore Barrett Spur in the morning—my hopeful objective of the trip. I’d crossed a few patches of snow already, most of it quite soft in the afternoon heat, all of it with clear boot tracks from other hikers. Soon after the McNeil Point junction, I came across another snowfield, which sloped down to my left above a stream, and started across. I stepped across a tree branch that was partly buried, and as I put my right foot down on the other side, I must have dislodged some snow, because the branch abruptly sprang up out of the snow, taking my left foot up into the air with it. Thankfully, it stopped moving before the limits of my hip flexibility were reached, and my trekking poles and right foot were well-planted. I squeaked like a pika and took a moment, balanced there, to catch my breath, before carefully disentangling my left foot from the branch and continuing across the snowfield. Phew! If I had fallen, I would have tumbled down the slope and been stopped by either a tree or the rocky stream below—neither possibility was much fun to contemplate.
Shortly after that patch of snow ended and I regained the trail proper, it came to a creek crossing. The water was still mostly covered in snow, and I couldn’t tell exactly where the banks were, but there were large holes where the snow had broken or melted through and water was visible. I didn’t see any footprints in the snow across the water, and though I spent some time picking my way along the bank in both directions, I couldn’t find a spot where I was willing to risk a crossing as a solo hiker. I was still a little bit adrenaline-y from the snow patch, and this amazing story (of a PCT thru-hiker who lost his gear and nearly his life crossing a river in the Sierra 15 miles from the nearest trailhead) was fairly fresh in my mind… so this was my turnaround point. I decided to head up to McNeil Point, crowds of hikers be damned. On my way back across the snowfield, I went under the tree branch I’d stepped over before.
I was a little worried about finding a campsite, so I told myself I’d take the first one I found, and then broke that promise to myself when the first one I found was tiny and right by the trail with no view to speak of. I investigated side trails on my way up the ridge towards McNeil Point, and found a well-trod snow bridge across the creek (the same creek I’d chosen not to attempt crossing—just much higher up!) that I could see led to an idyllic-looking camping spot on the other side—already occupied, of course. A spot further up the ridge was taken, too, but I knew there were a bunch of spots up at the point itself, near the shelter. When I started across the little boulder field, I heard a pika squeak nearby, but it was gone when I turned to look for it. The view to the north was incredible, with St. Helens, Rainier, and Adams all lined up on the horizon. And then—”oh!” I said when I saw it, and then “oh.” The fire burning at Eagle Creek… I could see the plume of smoke rising up from the Gorge.
When the trail broke into the web of trails that laces all over the McNeil Point area, I followed the lowest one to the shelter and headed upward from there to look for a campsite. Three women had taken the lowest one, on the edge of the ridge, and there was an empty one available nearby, but I wanted to give them (and myself) a bit more space, ideally. Further up, a couple was doing their camp chores and waved as I walked past. “Are you looking for a campsite?” they asked. I told them yep and that there was an empty one back behind me, and they said, “Oh, no, we found this other great one.” One of them led me up the trail and pointed down a side trail to a campsite a little lower down, with a small rock wall to protect it from the wind. I thanked him and trotted down, smiling. The spot was out of sight and sound of any of the other campsites, and though my view of Hood was slightly compromised by the hump of land above me, I could still see the summit—and that incredible view north of St. Helens, Rainier, and Adams.
I started to pull my things out of my pack, thinking about how I’d get my tent stakes into the hard ground—and then I realized there was no reason at all to set up my tent. I grinned to myself and laid out my tyvek groundsheet, weighing it down with the rocks I’d thought I’d be tying my guylines to or nailing my stakes in with. I blew up my pad, fluffed my sleeping bag, and wrapped a rock with my fleece and put it on top of everything in case the wind picked up. It was actually remarkably quiet and calm, and I felt great. I left my campsite and climbed up the hump of land above it, towards the mountain, to see what I could see.
What I saw was a beautiful mountain, an occupied campsite or two, and one on the edge of the ridge that was unoccupied. I considered, for a minute, running down for my gear, dragging it up there, and sleeping on the edge of the mountain. But ultimately I opted for the more protected, quieter spot, out of the wind.
I made dinner and ate it on a little rock that someone had clearly set up as a chair, facing northwest and waiting for the sunset. I wrote in my journal and listened to a podcast as the sky slowly darkened.
Just before I went to sleep, I got up to pee and startled a buck, who stood fifty feet away staring at me with his retroreflective eyes before turning away from me and walking away. Finally I curled up in my sleeping bag and waited for the last of the light to fade.
I woke up on the morning of my birthday at first light, rolled over and stared at the mountains. I could get into this cowboy camping thing.
My sleeping bag was a little moist from condensation, so I was very, very lazy about getting up, waiting for the sun to come up and my bag to dry before I packed up. I made myself oatmeal and chai tea in “bed” and grinned a lot about how nice it had been to sleep out. A few very up-and-at-’em trail runners carrying only tiny running vests ran through, chasing each other over the patches of snow.
Eventually I headed out, not long after the three woman who’d been camping down by the shelter also headed out. I hiked very leisurely, stopping to take photos of flowers in the morning light. I tracked the buck I’d seen the night before across the snowfields, spotting his tracks among and between the human boot tracks. And then I saw another track — mammalian, and bigger than my palm. I’m not much of a tracker, but I couldn’t find any claw marks in it, just sayin’. Cougar? I mean, I’d be surprised, but I was surprised to see the buck up there where there was so much human traffic, too.
I passed the women at the top of the ridge walk back down to the Timberline, and didn’t see anyone else for several miles. I asked the first hiker I saw to take this photo of me in front of the mountain:
…and then continued on out to my car.
I wish I didn’t feel the getting-older angst, but I kinda do. Sometimes the fact that my life is so different from what I thought it would be when I was younger — and the markers of adulthood that I imagined I would have by now feel so out of reach — feels like a gaping wound. I mean, not to put too fine a point on it. I feel ridiculous even saying that, of course. I have a lot of good things in my life, and a lot of awesome memories and experiences from my wandering twenties, and, I mean, I made a lot of the decisions that led me here, but now I’m 32, all of a sudden, and living the life of a much younger person — going to college, living above my parents’ garage, working part-time for pennies and (admittedly valuable) experience.
Back in June I went to the info session for the Mazamas’ Intermediate Climbing School, which I’d figured for probably the past couple years I’d try to take this coming year. It’s a nine-month program, fall through spring, most weekends and most Tuesday evenings. I was surprised to find I just wasn’t excited about applying. Like, all I want in life right now is some free time. Summer term at school means I leave the house at 7am and don’t get home until 8 or 9 in the evening (and then I have homework!). I feel a fair bit of anxiety about my neglected friendships, and I guess I’m also feeling a little bit antsy. I keep hoping to just, like, feel comfortable, but maybe that’s like hoping to never be hungry or thirsty again. Would there be joy in life, without hunger or thirst?
In which I did not climb Eldorado Peak in the North Cascades (but I did get some nice views and learned a few important lessons).
I wore a walking cast on my left foot for all of May, and then followed up with my doc. He said, “well, how’s it doing?” and I said, “I don’t know!” I was eager to get out of the boot, though, and I changed into sneakers in his office, walking out nervously with the heavy boot in my arms. My feet felt very light and my gait felt odd. But I didn’t have any pain.
I did have some minor pain, off and on, over the next few weeks. All told, though, things felt a lot better than they had in April, and I started riding my bike and going to the gym again. I went for a short hike on Mount Tabor, felt okay, and last weekend went on a longer hike, a loop up and down Hamilton Mountain. That went great, so on Monday and Tuesday (I’ve been on vacation this week!) I did a little overnight on Eagle Creek Trail past Tunnel Falls. The uneven terrain of that trail — I’d forgotten how rocky it gets! — gave me a little trouble; I even kinda half-rolled my ankle once, leading to a brief moment of despair and panic. Everything felt fine, though, after minimal rest.
So on Thursday I packed my backpack again for Rico’s three-day Mazama climb of Eldorado Peak, a spot on which I’d been lucky enough to get, and carpooled up to the North Cascades with a few friendly dudes I’d never met before.
When the chitchat wore down I stared out the window at the late-setting sun and thought about possible futures. Grad school applications open next week. Last week I put together a list of programs I’m thinking of applying to — thirteen so far, though I might cut it down, in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, and Arizona. If I can get into Pacific University, the health sciences campus of which is in nearby Hillsboro, I will absolutely attend. The program is great (my boss and another of the PTs at my clinic both went there) and I would save a large chunk of change in student loans if I could continue to live in my folks’ in-law unit through school. Besides, I love Portland; it’s home and it’s where I ultimately want to be, 100%. But that doesn’t stop me thinking about what it might be like to leave again for a few years, this time on my own terms, for my own reasons, with my own goals and ambitions. I guess we’ll see.
We got settled by 11pm into a hotel about an hour from the ranger station where we’d be meeting the rest of our team in the morning, and hit the hay.
We woke, ate breakfast, slathered our faces in sunscreen, laced up our boots, and drove an hour to the Marblemount ranger station, where we met Rico and the remaining members of our climb team. “Conditions look great!” he told us while passing out blue bags. The forecast was for warm weather and the ranger told us we wouldn’t need to camp on snow. We loaded back into cars and headed off. The trailhead was a little ways away, five miles up a bumpy single-lane dirt road. We all did last minute pack checks (harnesses? ice axes? crampons? helmets?) and weighed our packs with Rico’s hanging scale — mine was around 45 pounds. Yikes! I hefted it and we started up the trail.
I felt pretty good, though as soon as we started heading uphill, I felt every step in my hamstrings. Gotta do more deadlifts, I thought to myself. We walked in a ten-person line up the trail, hopping across abundant snow-melt creeks and working our way up through nice-smelling woods. Eventually the trail spit us out onto a snowfield, which we continued up, kicking steps in the soft snow.
Partway up, though, Rico and the assistant leader, Chaitanya, stopped to review their GPS tracks. Something didn’t look right. “Guys, we’re going the wrong way,” Rico told us, and we all turned around and headed back down, a little bummed to lose the elevation we’d already gained. One climber, Guy (who’d driven the car I rode up in), pulled out his map and brought it over to Rico. “Wait, Rico, are you sure? I think we’re going the right way,” he said, and showed Rico where we were on the map. Rico and Chaitanya looked at their GPS again — it looked like they’d downloaded a GPS track for a different route, though there was only one track on the Mazama website and everything was labeled the same way. The map attached to the prospectus, too, was the other route, but the route description in the prospectus matched the route we were on, and Guy’s map showed the route we were on as well. So we turned around again and continued up.
The views were starting to get pretty fantastic, with Mount Baker on the horizon behind us, and pretty peaks above us. It was a beautiful day, with nary a cloud in the sky, and I was climbing in a t-shirt. We took a lunch break during a brief respite from the snow on trail, and then continued up again towards the snowy saddle above us. There was some lingering doubt about the route, but the saddle didn’t look too far away and we hoped we’d get a good vantage point from up there. We kicked steps up the snow and I tucked in near the end of the line, stopping to take photos.
The North Cascades spread out before us at the top. I dropped my pack and opened up the PeakFinder app, pointing out Johannesburg Mountain, Forbidden Peak, Sahale Mountain and a few others to my fellow climbers. Rico and Chaitanya traversed over to the right, trying to get a better view and figure out exactly where we were and where we were going. The rest of us pulled out maps and looked at the topo — it looked like the route we’d committed to wanted us to traverse around to the left, behind one of the two small peaks at the saddle of which we were standing. To put it plainly, that traverse looked sketchy as fuck to me. It was all steep snow, some of it with apparent slide tracks, with run-outs that led over rocky cliffs. The snow was getting softer and softer in the heat of the afternoon.
Rico came back down from his lookout, and we all oriented ourselves. Eldorado Peak was somewhere hidden behind Forbidden Peak and the Triad off to our left. “All right, guys,” Rico said. “I don’t feel good about traversing over on this route. The snow’s really soft and the conditions aren’t right. We just don’t know what’s over there. Sunk cost. We have three options. First, we can just bag it, and go home.” Nobody much liked that option. “Two, we can get out of here, get to the right trailhead, camp there, and do the climb in one push tomorrow with light packs. Three, we can push the climb back a day, get to high camp tomorrow, summit on Sunday and descend the same day.” There was a fair amount of muttering and opinion sharing, with the general consensus being that we’d try again at the right trailhead, on the right route. “All right, well, the snow’s getting softer and we have to get down soon. Let’s go.”
We shouldered our packs and started down.
Suddenly there was a loud noise, and we all turned to watch a bunch of snow and debris slide down the mountain — thankfully not actually into the path we were about to descend, but it was still not exactly confidence-inducing. “Get it on video!” someone shouted, and I managed a quick photo.
We plunge stepped down. It was so warm and the snow was so soft that I followed the example of most everybody else and just lengthened my trekking poles slightly and set off, rather than pulling out my ice axe and putting on gloves. Yep, this is foreshadowing.
I watched as the climbers below me plunge stepped down. A few fell and slid a ways, and some decided to just glissade at least partway, as the run out below us was fairly safe. I watched one climber fall and slide into another climber, who also fell, but both stopped quickly and got back up, laughing. Then I fell, and it did not seem funny to me. I slid quickly towards a climber below me, yelling “heads up! Heads up!” I took him down and we slid together, our trekking poles entangled. I was clawing at the snow with my bare hands, unsure how to stop us, until finally some combination of friction and our efforts with our hands and trekking poles brought us to a stop. One of his poles was under my legs, and we disentangled ourselves as Rico descended to us to make sure we were okay.
We were fine, more or less, but I was pretty shook up. My hands were numb from the cold snow, and when they started to warm up they began to tingle painfully. “I gotta get out my gloves and ice axe,” I told Rico, and I took a few minutes to find my gloves, detach my axe from my pack, and replace it with my shortened trekking poles. “We gotta get out of here,” Rico said, and pointed out a giant snowball (snow boulder?) that had clearly slid down the slope — since we’d come up it? Hard to know. A bit further down was an actual rock boulder that had also left a path in the snow above it. I hurried down, slipping one more time but easily self-arresting with my ice axe. I could practically hear my BCEP leader Jay tut-tutting in my head. Descending on snow? Ice axe and gloves. My hands burned.
“How are you doing?” another climber asked me. At that moment, in full adrenaline comedown, I was doing pretty terribly. I just wanted to go home and cry. “I’ll feel better in a bit,” I answered, knowing it was true, and kept stepping downwards, driving my heels into the snow as best as I could. My ankle was still feeling pretty good, all things considered, though I was starting to feel a bit of mild pain.
Finally back on trail and out of the path of any potential sliding snow or debris, I stopped again to put away my ice axe and extend my trekking poles. I also took off my gloves and finally looked at my hands, surprised to see only a few tiny cuts. Even the intact skin was still burning and tingling.
We followed the trail down through the woods and finally back out to the trailhead. On one of the last stream crossings, I got just a little bit careless and slipped on a wet log, bringing my arm down hard on something as I fell. I was okay, but a bruise began to develop within minutes. It just wasn’t my day, I guess.
At the trailhead we all dropped our packs and gathered our thoughts. My hands were finally starting to feel better, and I shoved salty snacks in my mouth, working on getting my mood back to baseline too. A consensus was reached to head to the other (correct) trailhead, camp there, and head for high camp in the morning, then wake up early on Sunday, summit, descend all the way out, and drive home to Portland. Guy, though, wasn’t feeling great about this — he was up for one descent, he said, and he’d already done it. He had to ice his knee and recover for a few days.
“Anyone else not feeling sure about trying again?” Rico asked, and I raised my hand. My ankle was moderately achey by this point, and Guy had mentioned that the other route started out with 4300 feet of elevation gain in less than two miles. I was pretty sure I could get up that, but the descent would hurt a lot, and my muscles were already going to be sore after today — and of course there was my ankle to think about. Another climber, Aimee, the only other woman in our party of ten, was also on the fence.
We all walked 100 feet or so back up the trail to the last stream crossing to collect and filter water for camping or whatever came next. That accomplished, we made final decisions. Guy, Aimee, and I would head back to Portland. Everyone else would drive to Marblemount for beers, then camp at the right trailhead and get an early start towards high camp in the morning. We handed off the group gear we’d been carrying (a couple of pickets and half a tent in my case), shuffled some stuff around between cars, and then caravanned back down the dirt road to the main highway through town.
It was past midnight by the time we got back to Portland. My car was in deep NW Portland, so I had Guy drop me at my house, figuring I’d retrieve it the next day somehow. I didn’t even shower before falling into bed and sleeping hard.
I woke up on Saturday sore all over. My calves and quads, predictably, but also my arms (from clawing at the snow?), and, yep, my ankle, a little bit. I know that bailing on the climb was the right choice for me, but it still sucks. It was a lot to bite off in the first place while rehabbing an injury, but I’m so impatient.
I spent Saturday following Western States 100-miler mostly via iRunFar‘s excellent coverage. Do you know I registered for a 50k in, like, 2014? I didn’t run it, because I got injured at the Seattle Half Marathon in December 2013, where I set a personal record and finished in under two hours. That was my last race of any significant distance and the last time I ran with any kind of goal beyond getting through it without (further) injury. A few hours after the race ended, I started limping, and wasn’t able to run again until April 2014. When I first started running, and especially when I first started running on trails, I was so excited and ambitious. I was still finishing my first time through couch-to-5k when I found out about Tor des Géants (via this video which I found who-knows-where) and therefore ultrarunning and thought, “I am going to do that.” I didn’t think that over five years later I would be heavier than I was before I started running and that I’d wince while running half a block to catch the MAX. My running career, such as it is, has been defined by injury, and though I have learned from my injuries — and I have clearly found other ways to enjoy trails and wilderness — I am frustrated by my body.
I’ve been thinking about the essay I have to sit down and write soon for my grad school applications, about why I want to be a physical therapist. I have this vague idea of what I’ll write — maybe about the grand arc of my own athleticism — I was a determinedly unathletic kid, and didn’t discover until after high school that I am more happy and whole when I am moving and using and existing in my body — and how I would like to help others learn to work with, rather than against, their bodies, which after all are them. We are the flesh that houses us. But I still antagonize myself, fight against myself, hate parts of myself. The fact that I wrote and focused (internally at least) on “heavier” in the paragraph before this one speaks to that… and the fucked-up messages teenage girls receive about their bodies that they spend the rest of their lives trying hard to shake, of course. All of this is probably the real selfish reason I want to be a physical therapist — I want to understand and fix myself, to feel less helpless against the fleshy, frustrating, sometimes broken, sometimes beautiful body that is me.
On June 12th a couple weeks ago I had this funny sense of the date being significant for some reason, but it wasn’t until the next day that I remembered that nine years ago it was on that date that I was hit by a car while riding my bike home from work. I broke my collarbone and injured my knee, and had my first personal experiences with physical therapy following that incident. Injuries heal.
I’m not totally sure what’s going on with this current one — with my accessory navicular, my posterior tibial tendon attachment, et cetera. It’s definitely better than it was pre-boot, but it’s not 100%. Will it get to 100%? Will I be able to do the things I want to do? Will I be able to run again? I guess time will tell. I have learned from this injury — my feet have this extra bone and I need arch support to take some of the pressure off my posterior tibial tendon as a result. When I first started running I read Born to Run and totally drank the kool-aid on minimalist shoes; I ran barefoot in the Mission in San Francisco, even, from time to time, and ran my first (and only) marathon in sneakers I could roll up into tiny balls. All my casual shoes are super-minimal, and now I wear Superfeet insoles in them and feel a little ridiculous. No approach is one-size-fits-all. Bodies are annoyingly individual and unique and everything is trial and error. I want to have super strong feet and a beautiful arch and instead I have what I have, extra bones and all, and that’s me, and those feet sure have done a lot for me and taken me to a lot of beautiful places. On Friday they took me to the snowy saddle between two peaks, and I looked around, and it was beautiful.
When BCEP wrapped up, I followed-up with my physical therapist about my injured foot. Unfortunately, nothing had really changed since I’d last seen him in January. It still hurt anytime I pushed too hard or walked too far on uneven ground, or for no particular reason at all that I could tell. My PT referred me to a sports medicine doc, who did about five minutes worth of ultrasound imaging and confirmed that, yep, I have an accessory navicular bone. I have one in each foot. I had suspected as much and even discussed it with my PT, so I wasn’t particularly surprised. He also imaged my posterior tibial tendon and said it looks fine—and that at least was great news, since that’s what I originally injured when I sprained and re-sprained my ankle last fall. The posterior tibial tendon attaches at the navicular, though, and the attachment point is what’s still irritated, inflamed, and upset… because of the extra bone interfering.
Somewhere in the vicinity of ten percent (ish) of the population have an accessory navicular in at least one foot, according to the internet. Some percentage of that percentage never have any problem with it (my mom, for example). Some percentage start to have issues in adolescence. Some, like me, go a long time with no problems obviously related to the accessory navicular and then aggravate the posterior tibial tendon (e.g. by rolling the ankle a couple times, hiking on it for three more days, and then running a couple of 5ks before seeking treatment, I guess) and… here we are.
The doc said that since I’d already been doing PT for months, the next step was immobilization—”just shut it down,” he said. So I’m two weeks in to four weeks of wearing this big plastic boot (and not the fun kind of big plastic boot) and hoping for the best. I listen to the PTs at work talk to their patients about chronic pain all the time, and I know my nerves have a bad habit, so to speak. Lately I get these weird flashes of pain from my right navicular, too, even though it’s my left that’s injured and booted, so yeah, I’m sure some of it is fear translated into pain signals. But it makes me feel weaker than strong. Sort of helpless. I’m sick of swimming already. I just want to hike and run and climb, and I’m really scared I won’t be able to do the things I really, really want to do.