Space Hands: A Flashback to Dog Mountain

A hiker I met at the trailhead told me that the point of climbing Dog Mountain is to prove to yourself that you can. I can certainly defend that case.  

Dog is a relentlessly steep hike, with a nearly 3000-foot elevation gain, and wildly unpredictable weather. It’s classically beautiful, particularly once you gain the alpine ridges and their sweeping Columbia River Gorge views. It’s popular, too, which leads me to the conclusion that Pacific Northwesterners are both impressively fit (albeit in a casual, let’s-go-have-a-donut-now kind of way), and gluttons for punishment. 

Middle Earth never looked so magical

Perhaps it’s just that we take pride in our willingness to go the extra mile for natural beauty – even if that mile is an uphill slog in the freezing rain. In which case, we’re not pushing our sweaty selves up mountains like Dog to prove a point, but to chase an experience. Although in my own experience, the two lie may unsettlingly close.

I’ve climbed Dog Mountain several times since my first ascent in the mid-2000s, in both seasons, many weathers, alone and with companions. I did it once with my climbing partner, moving at a steady, fast pace, training my lungs for Mt. Hood. This was in the unusually cold May of 2009, and we didn’t make the summit. At the last section of the hike, you have a choice: tightrope your way along a narrow traverse of very steep, unprotected slope, or circle around the forested back way. On that occasion, the wind was literally screaming across the face of the mountain. But the back way turned out to be so deeply snowed under that we were punching through the drifts into thigh-deep holes. Only a few hundred feet from the top, we found our common sense and reluctantly turned back.

I hiked it once in late summer with a runner friend, who thought it would be amusing to race me to the top. I have never been a runner, it was hot, we had no first aid supplies, and I had no idea of how to trail-run safely – but I was young enough to think this was a good idea. Today I think the fact of remaining upright and uninjured means we both won.

Many seasons later, I had reason to be grateful again for exactly that, though for very different reasons. For one thing, I was prepared this time – so I thought. I had more experience, and I knew the mountain much better. Maybe it’s the false familiarity of memory that makes us so vulnerable to the surprises our favorite wild places can unleash. On a new adventure, you expect the unexpected, and in that sense, you’re ready for it. On a known trail, it takes you aback. It sneaks up on you, when you should have seen it coming.

worth it

I’ve heard for years about the incredible early summer flower displays on this hike. The best in the Gorge, many hikers have told me. And I already knew the intoxicating power of the views – forested mountains falling away on all sides, the peak of Hood crisply outlined to the south on a clear day, the wide majesty of the Columbia silvering along far below. But I had never actually seen the yellow balsamroot in bloom on those precipitous slopes. So I packed my bag one day in the prescribed season – a much warmer May, this – and convinced my husband to accompany me on his first ascent of Dog Mountain.

This was not a clear day, and our views were limited. In the same way that artificial constraints can free personal creativity, this day’s veils of moving mist highlighted the awe of each brief portal over shining river and evergreen ridge. Several times one of these stunning visions literally stopped us in our tracks. We leant back against the mountain, planting all four limbs to fight the conviction of falling over the edge of such sublimity.

And indeed, we had timed our ascent to perfectly match the blooming arrowleaf balsamroot. Balsamorhiza sagittata is common across the drier areas of the western US and Canada, but there is nothing common about the massed display it spreads over the steep shoulders of Dog Mountain. If you haven’t seen it – well, let’s just say that for me, the sight of thousands of lamp-bright flowers glowing through the freezing, buffeting fog was very nearly worth what happened next.

Which was that I got chilled, and couldn’t get warm. It wasn’t a truly cold day, and you make a lot of heat toiling up those slopes, so I was hiking in a tee-shirt, with gloves against the wind. I had appropriate layers in my pack, but I kept recognizing landmarks as we climbed the cloud-whipped trail, and thinking I’m almost there. I’ll stop to put more clothes on at the top. My memory, as memories are, was flawed.

I still felt fine when I ducked beneath a sheltering fir and piled on the shirts, then peeled off the gloves for a brief summit snack of tangerines and chocolate. Within a few minutes, I knew I’d made a bad mistake. I was hopping up and down to stay warm while we ate, and it was working, kind of, but my fingers – jammed back into my gloves after only a brief exposure – had caught fire. They felt the way it feels to put your hand into an ice-full cooler to pull out a summertime beer – and not take it out again. Beyond aching, beyond cold, they refused to work, and my hiking poles were suddenly useless. I shouldered my pack and clamped my hands beneath my armpits, and we started moving down, headed for the relative shelter of the forested lower slopes.

Without my poles, I slid on the loose trail. It was easy to catch myself, but I did it at the expense of my left knee, which hasn’t been quite as strong since matching itself against another, slipperier slope in a different country. Soon I was limping, and the poles were back out, with my frozen fingers fighting to hold them steady. I had stopped thinking through my options, because there was only one goal: get off the mountain. Lucky for me, one person in the party was still thinking clearly: Jeremiah reminded me that I carried a space blanket and a knife.

We made strips out of the shiny mylar and wrapped it like mummy bandages around my hands. Almost immediately I felt relief. Soon my fingers were merely cold, and we picked our way carefully downtrail, joking about space hands (do the motion for “jazz hands”) and favoring our abused extremities.

It's the future

When we weren’t talking, I was thinking about wilderness, and human fragility, and what to learn from my present mistakes.

I was also thinking of my next ascent, which seemed, in a certain light, ridiculous. Wasn’t I currently in pain, and still in danger of serious injury? What is the point of choosing an activity with a good chance of causing  pain and suffering?

Most outdoor junkies I talk to like the difficulty. It’s that idea of taking a route to prove that you can, pushing yourself so later you can say with earned pride “I climbed Dog Mountain today. That trail is a beast!” We positively enjoy just a little suffering. It flavors the experience. An achievement is more real if you’ve bled for it. But crabbing gingerly down a mountainside with my fingers wrapped in mylar and my knee shouting threats that I’d never walk comfortably again, I thought perhaps this was not a reality I needed. I’ve done this climb, I’ve seen the views, I’ve proven whatever point there is to prove. I have a bum knee, and I don’t need to blow it out just to keep earning the same mental badge over and over again.

So I thought about never making this climb again. I thought about how memory fades and shifts, and places do too. If you never come back to a place, you cease to see it as living and only know the discolored photographs in your mental scrapbook. If you do come back after long absence, it’s not always recognizable.

Maybe those things are okay. Certainly I feel no regret at the preserved contents of my own memory book. Dog Mountain looks good there, and it will still look good if I let it fade to sepia.

Those balsamroot flowers in the fog, though. Those calf-burning ascents through gorgeous open forest; that first surprise view, long before the top; that little treed shelter near the summit.

I’m writing this months later, with many easier hikes in my immediate past. The understanding of my physical limitations keeps growing, though, and the question of return to Dog Mountain remains undecided. Just in case, I’m back in physical therapy for my knee.

***

The Dog Mountain trailhead is located on Washington State Highway 14, about 12 miles west of the Bridge of the Gods. There’s a largish parking area, but this is a popular trail, so get here early or come on a weekday if you can. Bring your Northwest Forest Pass, or pay $5 (cash only) at the trailhead. The full hike is about 7 miles long, with an elevation gain of 2900 feet. The Augsperger Mountain trail down heads off to the west a little below the summit; this is a slightly less steep (and very beautiful) option to return to your car. There is plenty of poison oak on the lower slopes, though it’s generally kept back from the trail.

 

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3 thoughts on “Space Hands: A Flashback to Dog Mountain

    1. Hi; thanks for reading! I agree; it’s a special hike, and a tough one to stay away from. I hope you get back on the trail this summer!

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