Mt. Defiance

12 miles? / about 5000′ of elevation gain / almost 7 hours!

I was overdue for a difficult hike so I set off this morning to reach the nearly 5,000 foot summit of Mt. Defiance, the largest peak in the Columbia River Gorge. The trail begins on a flat, paved path that follows route 84. I thought, great, yet another “tough” hike that turns out to be so easy as almost to be a waste of time… But that thought was quickly banished from memory as I turned up the Starvation Ridge Trail, which immediately began to gain altitude by means of very brief, steep switchbacks. The elevation gain for the day was close to 5,000 feet as the trailhead is close to sea level.

I huffed and puffed up the trail, taking quick stops every now and again to gawk down at the Gorge and to gulp down water. This was my fatal mistake of the day: anticipating a normal, run-of-the-mill hike, I brought my usual 1-L Nalgene, which usually has twice as much water as I’d need. Upon reaching the summit, I had less than a third of my water supply left. And that’s because I started rationing water! I could have had three times as much today, and this is why I think this hike was so tough on me.

Finally I reached the top of the near-vertical wall that the trail ascends before gaining the ridge. It was a nice place to enjoy the breeze, take in the spectacular view, and pause before returning to the push upwards. At least now I’d be heading away from the road and eventually the sounds of traffic rushing by would disappear.

I passed a couple of groups on my way to the lake. I got very confused in this area, perhaps due to being overheated and dehydrated, or just being stupid, and ended up retracing my steps several times. There were multiple campsites right on the lake and herd paths leading everywhere. It was not clear where the main trail continued. Eventually, I spied a runner coming down the trail and ambled over in that general direction until I found the way. This led to more and more climbing, on tired legs and a thirsty body.

On the map, the trail does not cross the road to the top but I ended up coming to junctions with the twisty road on two occasions. Here, I lost all faith in the map and instead followed the road a few hundred feet to the summit.

It was about 2pm, over 4 hours since I’d left the parking lot. I couldn’t believe it. Note to self: bring LOTS of water next time! I took a short break on a rock near the summit, which was defiled by power lines and electrical maintenance buildings. Yuck. It was so hazy that I didn’t get a view of Mt. Hood, either. Oh well. Today was more about endurance than anything else. The wimpy hikes I’ve done as of late have obviously reduced my endurance.

I moved down the trail as quickly as I could go without overheating. Instead of following the Starvation Ridge, I made this a loop hike and headed down the Mt. Defiance trail. This was still very steep, so the way down involved a great deal of shuffling, jogging, and speed walking. It was just easier to jog than to try and walk down. I saw few people here, which allowed me to zone out and relax. Hiking is the best way for me to clear my head. It’s like pressing the “reset” button, and I’m good for about a week before I need to go again 🙂

Along the way, I made good time but my mind was preoccupied with finding water (of course, none was available until the very bottom). I stopped to check out these frosty blue berries growing in profusion along the trail. I took out my guidebook but couldn’t find anything that looked close to them so I walked on by. Later, I found what I identified as elderberries, which the book listed as edible. I grabbed a handful and enjoyed their juicy tang as the hike came to an end.

Near the bottom I came to a lovely waterfall, at which point I took off my shoes and socks, walked across the thick moss clinging to the stones and dunked my head under the flowing water. WONDERFUL! I didn’t want to risk Giardasis or some other gastrointestinal distress so I passed on filling up my water bottle and hoped the parking lot wasn’t too far off. After one more navigational mishap I found myself on the paved path leading back to my car. Today, I was almost defeated by a puny 4,000 foot mountain. Time to pick up the training!

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