Words by Graham Averill
Photography by Tyler Roemer
THE TROUBLE WITH SLEEPING IN A FOREST Service outhouse is there's no place to put your head. We're talking about one of those composting toilets that you find at trailheads, where semi-solids of indeterminate origin are often smeared on the walls. In a place like this, do you lay your head next to the toilet, where God knows what has splattered, or do you opt for the corner where you just swept away a mound of trash that included a crusty pair of underwear? Really, the whole floor is compromised from a sanitation point of view. Add three other mountain bikers to the mix, all cold and hungry, and you've got spatial challenges to overcome as well. The outhouse is small, maybe 5-feet by 5-feet. We're going to have to snuggle. And someone's going to have to hug the toilet.
Still, we couldn't be more psyched to be in this bathroom, out of the pouring rain and 38-degree temperatures. Crusty underwear and mystery stains be damned, this joint is a four-star hotel compared to the stick shelter where I thought we'd be sleeping.
The original plan was to spend the night in a cozy backcountry hut, stocked with a pro- pane heater and a cabinet full of food, but we never made it. I blame the snow. And too many chicken-salad sandwich breaks. And poor navigation skills. Scratch that. I blame Mount Hood, the imposing beast we're trying to pedal our bikes around. As we shiver and discuss the merits of setting a hobo fire in the trash can, I can't help but think about all the ways our trip went south.
Mount Hood is a lopsided triangle of snow and rock towering above the green mountains surrounding it. It's a monster of a thing–the tallest mountain in Oregon–completely out of place with more than a dozen permanent glaciers, all hiding an inner core of bubbling lava. Oregon has other volcanoes, but this 11,249-foot mountain has been voted the state's 'most likely to explode' by scientists, who give it a one in 10 chance of erupting within the next 30 years. Hood last blew its top 220 years ago, just before Lewis and Clark headed west. On a clear day, locals say you can see steam rising from the edge of the mountain, like smoke from a chimney.
We can't see anything as we pedal through downtown Hood River. It was supposed to be sunny and 75 degrees, but the weather shifted overnight and now all but the lower corner of Hood is shrouded in gray, swirling rain clouds. "Hood is a moody bitch," says photographer Tyler Roemer as we pedal past one of the town's breweries, telling us that the mountain seems to create its own, erratic weather patterns. "People get caught on Hood and have to get rescued all the time."
It's an ominous declaration, considering our plan to ride around the entire hunk of lava and snow via a loop of forest roads and singletrack. We're using the Cascade Hut system, a series of well-placed huts scattered around Mount Hood National Forest's backcountry, to keep our loads light on the four-day trip. Total estimated mileage: about 160. Total estimated climbing: We don't want to talk about it (probably 20,000 feet). The suggested route calls for a crapload of forest roads and the occasional paved highway, but there's also plenty of singletrack to be had if you have the legs to go after it.
Tyler grew up in Hood River and had jumped at the opportunity to ride his bike around the mountain and take photographs. Downhill legend Kirt Voreis was stoked to join the trip, and I brought Jeff Keener, my riding partner from Pisgah National Forest, to make it an even foursome. Shortly after leaving downtown, we're on the rim of the Columbia River Gorge pedaling through wooden tunnels above the river. Cliffs rise directly from the edge of the river, and occasionally there's a green island stuck in the middle of the channel below.
This is the first multi-day expedition for both Tyler and Kirt. I think we were all attracted to this trip for the same reason. It's the sort of long-form adventure that's so hard to find these days. Maybe it's human nature, but most of us have the tendency to simply fast forward to just the good stuff in life. Mountain bikers can be the biggest offenders. Flow trails, shuttling, lift-served downhill–our industry is practically designed to skip the boring stuff. For a true adventure, the kind of situation where you pedal into the great unknown for days at a time, you have to change your mindset. You have to embrace the boring, the difficult. Circumnavigating Mount Hood gives us a chance to revel in the grind.
Kirt put his wife's saddle on his bike in anticipation of long hours on top of it.
The first day is billed as a gravel grinder–30-some miles and 6,000 feet of climbing to the hut, almost all of which is on poorly marked for est roads. On the first legitimate climb of the day, we pass a group of guys with matte-black rifles shooting at stumps from their truck beds. They wave as we pass and a few minutes later, we hear the rapid thud of a hundred bullets sinking into wood and dirt.
The grind is numbing. For entertainment, I count the lizards that scurry away from our tires. They look like those baby alligators you could buy in Florida in the '80s.
Cascade Huts supplies turn-by-turn directions for each day, which are rendered useless by the fact that there are only six road signs in the entire Mount Hood National Forest. And those signs are all shot to hell (see previous gun enthusiasts), so you can't read them. We spend a chunk of the day second-guessing ourselves and re-pedaling climbs until we find the hut at the end of a dead-end gravel road. It's a simple green building with a little porch on the front and a separate outhouse. I'd describe the interior décor as survivalist chic. Picture bunks, a makeshift kitchen, a folding table and lots of propane accessories.
There's a cabinet stacked with food that looks like my college apartment pantry–towers of instant Ramen noodles, Cheez-Its, Twinkies and Oreos. I whip up some spicy Ramen and canned salmon cooked in coconut milk that looks suspiciously like cat food. If you douse it with tiny packets of Tapatío and eat it really fast, it's not that bad.
Once you hit the hut, there's nothing to do but eat and tell stories, so we go on a tangent dishing tales about the stupid shit each of us did as kids. Kirt tells the kinds of stories that only a famous pro downhiller can tell. Stories about shooting guns out of the sunroof of a limousine at big-mountain skier Glen Plake's house.
It feels like summer camp–riding bikes, sleeping in bunk beds, eating junk food. We immediately revert to 12-year-old versions of our- selves, feasting on pudding cups and listening to Pearl Jam.
FROM THE NIPPLES DOWN
"The pounds per square inch on my taint is gruesome," Jeff says as he saddles up for day two.
Kirt, Tyler and I are using seatpost bags that get most of the weight off our backs, but Jeff is stuck putting all of his gear in his backpack.," he says. "There's 25 pounds on my back, 75 pounds of upper-body weight–that's 100 pounds. The taint is maybe 2 inches by 1 inch. That's like 50 pounds of pressure per square inch."
It's a lot to ask of his nethers.
The beauty of the hut-to-hut trip is that it alleviates most of your pack weight. The food and shelter are waiting for you. You just have to carry enough food and water for the day, extra clothes, and in Jeff's case, speakers and an iPod.
What Jeff and I don't have in our packs are warm clothes–an omission that's painfully obvious as we pedal away from the hut in the 30-degree temps.
The weather forecast had temps rising into the 80s, so we packed shorts and sleeveless jerseys. Shit you take on a Caribbean cruise. The weather shifted, and now we're looking at highs in the 50s with a likelihood of rain.
This is what Mount Hood does. It lures you into a false sense of security, then hits you with a dose of reality.
The singletrack starts immediately on day two as we ride a thin trail through a pine for- est thick with droopy, parasitic moss hanging from the evergreens. A techy climb through a small boulder field leads to the edge of a cliff with our first real view of Mount Hood. We can see the lower half of the behemoth, all snowy and jagged, but encircled by a mass of dark gray rain clouds that are moving our way. We're gonna get wet. "At least it's not cold," I say. I'm lying. It's balls cold. The climb to the first viewpoint winds Tyler, who's a little sore from the previous day. He's got 40 pounds of photo equipment to lug around. "I'm okay," he says as we ogle Hood in the distance. "It only hurts from the nipples down."
Kirt keeps trying to stretch his IT band by doing this dainty looking curtsy. My IT band also hurts, so I curtsy too.
Nobody feels any pain as we bomb Surveyor's Ridge, a dusty, fast noodle of a trail that hugs the lip of the cliff. Your inclination is to keep an eye on the omnipresent Hood, which rises impossibly into the clouds, but there's no room for error as the ridge falls away just inches to the right of our tires, ending 100 feet below in a jumble of scree.
Surveyor's Ridge is beautiful, fast and nearly thoughtless in its lack of technical challenge. It's worth every pedal stroke and gravel-road grind we suffered through the day before. Technically, you could shuttle this trail, but would it be as sweet? Is a tomato you grow tastier than one you buy?
After finding a skeleton picked clean and left in the bushes–just the spine and hips of something larger than a fox–we pick up the newly mint- ed Super Connector, which climbs through a graveyard of downed trees left by loggers. The dead pines are white from the brutal Oregon weather and look like giant femur bones. I try my best to keep up with Kirt, keeping an eye on his back tire as it kicks up puffs of fine dust.
Every time we stop to regroup, Tyler makes a tiny chicken-salad sandwich out of canned chicken he snagged from the hut. Kirt eats greasy sardine and seaweed roll-ups. As we climb higher, we start to see patches of muddy snow. The singletrack keeps climbing steeply and everyone feels the grade under our extra weight. At 6,000 feet, Gunsight Ridge is the high point of the trip, and supposedly one of the singletrack highlights of the day, but all we find is snow. It's patchy at first, but soon it's so thick we can't find the trail. We drop back to the road, which is blanketed by a 4-feet-thick solid, half-frozen carpet of snow. Our front tires sink when we try to ride through it, sapping what energy we have left. So we push. For 6 miles, we push.
It's demoralizing, and it eats up the day. We don't talk much. At some point during the snowy hike-a-bike, the group shifts from joyride to survival mode. We're at least 15 miles from our next hut when we reach ride-able dirt. The sun is setting, and we're out of food and water. That's when the rain starts. Freezing rain mixed with a little snow.
"I just don't want to be that guy on the news getting evacuated from Hood," Tyler says as we stare at the map looking for some sort of shortcut to the hut.
There is no shortcut to the hut. I joke that we might have to pull a Luke Skywalker.
"Kill an elk, climb inside its carcass." Nobody laughs. The tendency in this situation is to blame the guy with the map.
I'm the guy with the map. There's no way we can navigate the maze of forest roads in the dark, so our only option is to fasttrack it to the highway and try to hitch a ride to civilization. We pedal silently in the rain, my fingers and toes numb from the cold. When we reach the highway, there's just enough light to make out a beautiful shack on the edge of the road: our Forest Service outhouse.
Picture four grown men hugging because we're so happy to be sheltered from the elements. Soon, we're working out the logistics of sleeping in such a tiny, filthy building, but it's all moot: Tyler has enough cell service to call in a favor, and within an hour we're in a car on the way back to Hood River. The plan is to drop back into the valley for warmer clothes and beer.
"We'll start tomorrow fresh," we say.
Day three is colder and wetter than day two. The rain falls from the sky in thick drops, and nobody wants to be on the bike as we drive back up the highway in Kirt's van toward Government Camp, a ski town on the edge of Mount Hood. Our original plan was to drive to the second hut and ride out the full day. We factor in the rain and decide to skip some highway miles and start riding from Government Camp. But Kirt's van is warm and dry. Outside is cold and wet. So we revise our plan again. We'll spend the day driving around in the van looking for only the best pieces of singletrack. Gravel roads will not do. Trails that go up will not do. We want trails that go down. We want to fast-forward to the good stuff. Call it a recovery day.
For us, 'the good stuff' is Pioneer Bridle, 8 miles of singletrack that connects Government Camp with the tiny town of Rhododendron. It's wet, but it's downhill.
Jeff, Kirt and I pedal into a lush forest while Tyler heads to the other end with the van. The ferns that blanket the for- est floor practically glow from all the rain. Pioneer Bridle has a couple of steep climbs, but mostly it's a berm-filled roller coaster. The rain is coming down heavy, and I run out of dry clothing to wipe the water from my eyes, but I don't care. I hammer the straights, slam on the brakes during tight switchbacks. The occasional chunky rock garden slows us down, but for the most part, it's wide-open, full-throttle riding. We're soaked and stoked as we pedal into Rhododendron, where Tyler is waiting with the van.
That night in the hut, we drink canned beer and pore over the maps looking for shortcuts on our final day. I'm in a bit of a shame spiral after leaning so heavily on the van during the day. But ladies and gentle- men of the jury, pushing through the snow was stupid hard. It was the kind of situation that makes you question some big life decisions. When you're staring down a hypothermic night in the woods…when you start to ration all the food in your pack…when you worry about the permanent damage of frost bite…all in search of some vague notion of adventure…you begin to wonder why you didn't become an accountant.
Jeff cranks Journey while we dry our clothes over the propane heater, and our spirits rise immediately. It's impossible to be in a bad mood when you're listening to "Don't Stop Believin'," and soon we're back in the swing of summer camp, telling stories and eating spicy noodles in a cup with baby shrimp (it's not as good as it sounds). Kirt digs into his noodles while detailing two pieces of advice that he gives to kids he mentors.
Number 1: Always shit before you go to the bar. This nugget of wisdom is followed by an elaborate story that ends with Kirt shitting his pants while getting into a bar fight.
Number 2: Never sign a lease with a crazy chick. There are no specific stories to back this advice up, but you get the sense that it's something he learned the hard way, probably more than once.
Jeff goes domestic in the morning and makes eggs and bacon in a big cast-iron skillet. It rained all night at the hut, but there's a fresh layer of snow on the trees above 5,000 feet. We listen to Sublime and watch the bacon sizzle while discussing the short-sightedness of eye-lid tattoos and watching the gray soup envelop Hood and move slowly toward us.
The final day is basically a road ride, connecting a little bit of gravel with some lightly traveled two-lane blacktops. If you're in a hurry, you can bomb back to town and be done by lunch. We decide to meander up an extra 6-mile climb to Lost Lake, a 245-acre natural lake that has postcard-worthy views of Hood on a clear day. It's not a clear day. There's a slight drizzle falling by the time we're standing on the edge of the water, and we can see heavier weather moving our way. The only thing you can do in a situation like this is buy some beer, rent a boat and go for a paddle. And that's exactly what we do. Because why the hell not?
It's relaxing in the boat, drinking beer, like an interlude in the midst of all the foul weather and aching IT bands. Boat drinks aside, our real treat for the day is a foray into Post Canyon, a huge chunk of county land above Hood River with a dense network of mountain biker-built trails. It's renowned for its freeride terrain but has plenty of flowy downhill as well. The good stuff.
To get to this good stuff, we have to knock out a monstrous 10-mile climb that starts with a mellow spin on gravel, but ends with a 2-mile, 1,300-foot hump up a paved road. Hood is in the background the whole way, looking clean with a fresh layer of snow.
"There better be cheeseburgers and strippers on this trail," Jeff says as we summit the climb. "Otherwise, I don't think the climb was worth it."
He's wrong. Post Canyon is totally worth it, even without dancing girls. We hit Dirt Surfer, which begins as a tangle of rutted-out roots but quickly transitions into miles of swooping, fast singletrack. Eventually, we find ourselves in a fre- eride area where Kirt puts on a show, then there's more fun singletrack with easy bridges over small creeks. Post is the reward for all the toil. One big hoorah to cap off the trip. You could argue that a downhill like Post Canyon is just as sweet after a shuttle, but I won't believe you.
Four days after we started, we complete the loop by pedaling back into Hood River. There's a little hill we have to climb at the very end of the ride. We're overly dramatic about it, standing up and complaining about the grade, and some chubby chick hangs out of her truck that's idling in the Taco Bell drive-thru and yells, "You can do it!"
I want to give her the finger. Actually, I want to push her down and take her burrito supreme. But I just smile and wave.