Friday, March 9, 2012

Mount Defiance winter night hike

(sunrise from Mount Defiance summit)

This week, I planned on climbing the south side of Mount Hood again, and while the weather looked great, the avalanche reports were not, so I was left looking for an alternative.  I had heard there was a recent surge in solar activity, and that the aurora borealis might be visible from Oregon, so my plans remained to get somewhere high up and away from city lights at night.  My go-to training hike for when mountain conditions keep me off Hood has become Mt. Defiance.  The vertical gain is comparable to the Mt. Hood south side approach, and the lower elevation makes it more accessible when conditions aren't ideal.

(Mount Hood in the morning)

 Even though I had slept poorly the night before and put in a full day at work complaining of feeling a little out-of-it and worn out, I was motivated by the opportunity to see the aurora borealis, so I rushed home, grabbed gear and supplies, and was on the road by 8:00 pm.  Shortly after 9:00 pm, I was at the trailhead and making my way into the forest.  Mount Defiance is often considered the hardest day-hike in the region during the good season, and unhikable until late spring.  This is partially due to the snow, but also because the trail is unmaintained in the winter.  Not more than a few hundred yards into the approach, I encountered my first blow-down, and would spend the next 4 hours scrambling off trail with my hands on the ground because of hundreds of downed trees, sections of trail wiped away by mudslides, and other sections that were too hard to detect in low light under a blanket of downed limbs.  Without any discernible trail, I navigated by gps and compass; deciding to point in the general direction of the summit, and hoping to intersect the trail at some future point.  The wall of the gorge that I was climbing was very steep, and is usually ascended by using a long set of steep switchbacks.  Without the switch backs, the angle is too extreme to walk up, so I climbed with my hands on the ground, using exposed roots and branches from downed trees to pull myself up.  I didn't see any poison oak, but a thought back to a nasty case from a scramble in this area from the previous summer had me a little concerned to be grabbing at whatever foliage I could to progress up slope. This continued for 2000 vertical feet of gain and brought me to 1:30 am, when I was finally reunited with the trail to Mount Defiance.

(my tracks and Mount Adams)
The relative ease of navigating on the terrain above 2000' freed my mind to think about other things, and my imagination began to turn the shadows cast from my headlamp into bears or cougars - thoughts planted by seeing plenty of tracks from both on previous excursions in the area.  These invading thoughts caused me some alarm when I clearly heard something large moving in the forest below me.  When I turned to look in the direction of the sound, my headlamp faded between the trees into complete darkness briefly, and then the reflection of two large eyes appeared as an animal faced my beam of light.  Then two more sets of eyes appeared, and I was certain they were just deer, which was confirmed as they began to move, and the way the reflections bobbed in the darkness demonstrated their gait.

(Mount Adams and the Columbia River)

In a short distance, the branch-littered ground gave way to snow, and at about 2500' it was thick but well consolidated.  I wasn't post-holing, but the grade was causing me to lose traction, so I donned my snowshoes, which have aggressive crampons and heel lifts which significantly reduced the strain on my calves.  The trail was easier to follow in these conditions than I had expected, and I continued on like this for another 2000' of gain.  It was in this section that I quietly and briefly heard the sound of two people's voices in the distance.  It sounded like there was a man and a woman, and they were talking, but it didn't make sense on this trail in the winter, especially at this hour.  I hiked on.

(Mount Adams)

At around 4500' of gain, the trees opened up to large open snowfield. It was as this time that I was first Mount Adams and Mount Saint Helens in the distance.  Illuminated only by the light of the moon, they were crisp and white on the horizon.  I stared north for some time, hoping to see the aurora, but nothing appeared, so I pushed on across the crusty snow.

(Mount Saint Helens and Mount Rainier)

At 4:30 am, I reached the summit.  For the uninitiated, all three north approaches to Mount Defiance are challenging climbs from the Columbia river through beautiful and natural terrain, but the south side of the mountain has an access road leading to the summit, which is marred by an ugly radio tower facility.  In the predawn darkness, I explored the facility.  The road to the summit hdn't been plowed all winter nd ws under many feet of snow, and I noted that my tracks were the only ones present here, indicating the summit hadn't been visited in some time.  The snow depth was as high as the chain-link fences that surrounded the radio equipment. 

(Making tracks)

At this point, the exhaustion carrying over from the night before, compounded by nearly 24 hours without sleep and 5000' feet of demanding vertical climbing set in fully, and my body went on autopilot, thinking only of sleep.  The summit was exposed, well below freezing, and very windy, so I retreated back down into the protection of the trees to find a place to lie down.  I found a large tree which had blocked enough windswept snow to create a hole as wide as the trunk and 3' in depth behind it.  I removed one of my snowshoes and used it to dig the hole to a length long enough to accommodate my body.  I lined the trench with a mylar emergency blanket I had carried, unrolled my sleeping bag onto it, removed my boots, and climbed in.  I ate a peanut butter sandwich from my pack, set my alarm for sunrise, which I guessed was only 45 minutes later, and settled in to sleep.  There in the darkness, from my hole in the snow, I heard the voices again.  They were similar to the ones I had heard before.  Faint, unfamiliar, but... there.  It couldn't be though; it just couldn't.  Who would be up here in these conditions at this time?  I had covered a lot of ground and saw no tracks.  I had to be alone.  My mind thought of outlandish explanations to rationalize away what I was experiencing: "maybe it's the radio towers... am I somehow detecting a broadcast?"  Then I heard a new voice.  A familiar one.  A family member.  She wasn't talking to me, or anyone in particular, but I recognized her voice, and she said clearly and loudly "I'm sick of it!".

(this is where I slept)

I awoke 45 minutes later to my phone alarm.  I was quite warm, and when I poked my head out of my bag it was quite cold.  Sunrise hadn't yet come, so I hit snooze and retreated back into my bag.  15 minutes later the alarm sounded again, and I told myself "if I don't get these sunrise photos, then this was all for nothing."  I hastily packed up the mylar and my bag, put on my boots and snowshoes, and ran to the summit with my camera.  I was just in time, and took many photos before heading back down to retrieve my gear.

(Mount Saint Helens)

The trek back to the trailhead was much easier and less eventful than the nighttime ascent.  Before I knew it, I was taking my snowshoes off and entering the blow-down section.  I thought back to the night before, astonished I had decided to take on such a trip.  My memory of the night seemed less like a first-hand experience, and more like something I had watched someone else do.

When I reached my car, I drove back to Portland and collapsed in bed for the afternoon. When I awoke, I thought again about the voices.  A quick search on google turned up hypnagogia - the state between wakefulness and sleep, and hypnagogic hallucinations - auditory or visual hallucinations brought on by extreme exhaustion.  Articles on hypnagogic hallucinations describe the voices that I heard as the most common manifestation of the condition.  While still alarming, this explanation soothed my fears that I was finally losing it.