Unbeknownst to us, we have been able to see our destination from the moment we set off at the trailhead. We are hiking toward a spur perched high on the side of the mountain right before the landscape slopes down and then shoots upward to the peak. My relief at the thought that we have less than a mile to hike is unwarranted given the increasingly steep grade that we will be hiking up. But leaving the shelter, Eric and I are both ready for more climbing, despite the fatigue slowly growing in our muscles.
Leaving the shelter, we begin to climb upward, crossing into the tundra of Mt. Hood. The trail soon starts to crisscross the mountain in switchbacks, leading us to the edge of the spur where we see what remains of Eliot Glacier. Standing there, we are privy to picture-perfect views of the North face of Mt. Hood. The puffs of morning clouds have burned off in the afternoon sun, and the sky is a deep shade of clear blue. We breathe deeply, and I am grateful for where I am, where I live, who I am with.
Continuing on, the trail turns into a sandy path of switchbacks among a garden of black volcanic rocks of varying sizes. I have to stop every twenty minutes or so to empty my shoes of sand. We see other paths that have been forged on the way up, ones that go straight up into the distance rather than the winding switchbacks we have been following. Eric is tempted to follow some of these steeper, more direct routes, but I know that my shoes will not allow me to gain elevation faster than what I am already doing.
At this point, I am relying heavily on my hiking poles, which I stab into the ground with every step and lean my full body weight onto as I pull myself up the mountain, slowly, one steep step at a time. I realize that we have left behind the relaxed, meditative part of the hike and have entered the part that I eventually always encounter during strenuous hikes—when I begin to feel broken down and tested. My heart rate is steadily high, and I am sweating, although the cool mountain air keeps me from feeling overheated. I am no longer lost in thought, my body and mind consumed with the strain of continuing onward and upward. I try not to look too far down the path but instead focus my gaze on the present step, hoping that if I just keep moving eventually I will reach our destination.
We hike like this, steadily, for over an hour, and I am amazed that we still have farther to go. How far have we come since we left the shelter? How much farther do we have until the top? Why is it taking so long to go such a short distance? The answer, of course, is because it is really steep and rocky and slow going. Hiking less than a mile on flat ground is easy, but in these conditions it is a whole different animal. I look up and spot a tiny human far in the distance, making his way down the spur. My heart sinks. I know now where we are headed, and I know that the person heading toward us is much farther away than I originally thought. We have at least another 45 minutes of strenuous, glute-busting climbing ahead of us. Eric knows that we have reached the edge of my tolerance level and gives me some encouraging words.
“You can do it, babe,” he tells me. “You are strong! Look around you. Isn’t this beautiful?”
My mood has soured, and I give him an exasperated look but continue to climb. The trail curves back toward another glacier, Newton Clark, and we see a hiker in snow boots and ski poles making his way down through the snow. He looks like he is jogging down the steep slope, and the sight of him gives me slight vertigo. I don’t understand how he is not falling off the mountain. It seems that his hiking partner agrees with me; he is making his way down at a much slower pace many yards behind his adventure-seeking companion, steadying himself with each step.
The path disappears, and we are faced with an enormous slope covered in rocks. We have brought snow shoes, unsure of whether the path would be covered in snow, and Eric suggests that I strap them on and start up the glacier running alongside the slope as opposed to climbing the rocks and boulders to the top, but I decline. I am afraid that my sneakers will become soaked with snow, freezing my feet and making me miserable, although I know that choosing to climb the rocks also carries with it risks of twisted ankles and stubbed toes.
We climb up the last part of the slope like crabs, using all four limbs to pull us closer to the top. I fix my gaze almost exclusively on my feet, trying hard to protect my toes and ankles from injury. I am a warrior, I think to myself. A hero, a caveman, a creature of the earth. I am unstoppable. I can do anything.
And with that, we are at the top, perched on the rocky, desolate spine of Mt. Hood. Someone has built a shelter into the side of the mountain where we strip off our backpacks and lay down our poles. We sit, leaning against the rocky walls, protected from the biting wind and finish off the last of our snacks, our bodies growling with hunger. I am sweaty and hot when we arrive, but after sitting and eating, I am very cold. Within ten minutes of being on top of the spur, I have put on all of my layers again, wrapping my arms around myself to hold in my body heat.
It is beautiful from the top. I can see everything. Of course, Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Rainier are visible, but now, turning in the other direction, I can also see Mt. Jefferson. The valleys are laid out before us, with clouds hanging misty in between the hills we are so far above. The landscape ripples far into the distance, all greens and blues and dusty browns.
I have never been so close to the top of Mt. Hood, and it feels as though I can almost reach out and touch it. I think about the formation of mountains and volcanic explosions. I think about what it would be like to be a Native American living in these lands, sustainably with the earth, for thousands of years. I think about getting older and how maybe I don’t want to live in a city forever. Maybe I want my own plot of land with a tiny house somewhere I can wake up and see mountains, grow my own food, line my window sills with plants.
The mountain is a lonely place when you get so high up on it, its presence huge and looming. Nothing much grows, and the wind cuts through you so strong you think you might fly off. It is an alien landscape, like the surface of the moon. It is deathly quiet except for the wind, the sky enormous above you. It is magnificent and awesome but also harsh and uninhabitable. I can’t stay for long, knowing that this is not where I belong, not where any living being belongs, and after only about half an hour spent at this place that took us all day to reach, I tell Eric I am ready to head back.
He agrees, and we begin the long journey back toward the Cloud Cap Inn, to our car waiting for us in the parking lot and the winding road that will lead us back to a warm cabin home with a soft bed and all of our belongings. We won’t arrive there until almost midnight, far past the 7:30 estimation Eric made before we left, and we will be sore for several days afterward, but we will not be able to put the incredible experience out of minds for months, vowing to return, with better shoes and a better camera.