OHE November 27, 1998

Date: Fri, 27 Nov 1998 17:38:13 -1000
From: "Kirby D. Young" (kirbyd@teleport.com>
Subject: OHE Training hike in Oregon

On Saturday Nov. 21, in spite of incessantly rainy weather in Oregon, I decided to take a hike in the Columbia River Gorge with my dog Sheila. It seemed to be an opportunity to both enjoy the wild November weather we've been having in the NW and improve my conditioning, since I hope to do some Oahu hikes on an upcoming trip to visit my mother in Honolulu. As I felt I was in only so-so shape, I loaded my pack up with some extra water bottles for the additional workout. Nutty? Hmm, maybe.

The Columbia R. slices through the Cascade Mts., separating Oregon and Washington states. Its Gorge "rim" rises about 4000 ft above the river at its maximum (there is an individual summit as high as 5000 ft). A simple view of the Cascades here is that of a great uparching of volcanic strata about 60 miles wide, with the river cutting down through the arch to near sea level. Numerous tributary canyons and ridges, as well as cliffs, make up the sides of the Gorge so, as there are numerous trails along them, it is somewhat like Oahu hiking in a way.

I headed off from my home in Portland to an area of the Gorge located on the western flank of the Cascade "arch". Here the Gorge heights reach about 2500 ft.

Rain had lasted for what seemed like days, yet it "magically" stopped just as I arrived at my destination after a 50 minute drive. I parked at Wahkeena Falls, a favorite driving stop just 1/2 mile west of Oregon's famous Multnomah Falls, and a starting point for a network of paths ascending the walls of the Gorge in the Multnomah-Wahkeena area. Its the only decent trailhead in the area since a rockslide took a large bite out of a trail next to Multnomah Falls.

After lacing up my boots, we were off. The first 1/4 mile rose in one switchback to the base of 40-ft high Wahkeena Falls. Crossing the stone footbridge fronting the plunge pool, I looked away as a forceful blast of mist raked my body.

A quarter mile past Wahkeena Falls I came to a trail junction. Here I had a sudden notion to change my route plan. My decision: Attempt a "closed" trail leading off from this point, as it would provide a very direct way to the top of Multnomah Falls and had great views. I was also interested in seeing the landslide damage that had kept it closed for more than two years since very heavy rains had wreaked havoc on the NW in 1996. Its name aptly was the "Perdition Trail". Would I make it?

The overgrown trail began by contouring gently upwards along a forested slope inclined very steeply upwards on my right and dropping at an equal angle down to the left. Loose moss-covered rocks lay beneath ankle-high vegetation off the trail to either side.

Almost immediately I had to nimbly step along the toe of a small rockslide covering the trail. Sloppy walking could easily have launched large rocks (or me) towards the road about 200 ft below. This obstacle behind me, I almost immediately encountered a small landslide scar that had totally bitten off the trail. A makeshift path, however, had been constructed (by US Forest Service trail builders?) along a lower route that bypassed the small vertical headwall.

On the far side of this erosion scar the route angled steeply upwards into a very narrow 50-60 degree gully bounded by large vertical outcrops of mossy basalt. My mossy memory recalled that there had been two flights of cement stairs here. Now there were three flights of elevated concrete steps, arranged zig-zag because of the steepness of slope. The bad news was that these were oddly tilted and askew because of erosion and slides. I wondered if these steps had been recently built in an effort to reopen the trail. Whatever their vintage, they were now badly undermined by rockslides and erosion and looked distinctly like they wanted to take a quick slide to the bottom of the slope. Back to the drawing board for the U.S. Forest Service trail engineers I guess.

I used large tree roots to hoist myself up the gully beside the upper two flights, after negotiating the first set of stairs successfully. These roots ran out a bit short of the top, however, and I had to carefully consider how to best ascend the final 6 feet given the wet, crumbly conditions, and my overweighted pack (smart!).

The gully climb successfully done, I followed an easy, though overgrown path along a much gentler slope into a small valley that, in an erosional freak of nature, paralleled the Gorge (rather than running at right angles to it). The rain, which had kindly held off during my tricky ascent of the gully, came in a deluge for the next 30 minutes. During this time the trail surmounted what seemed a low ridge on the left, then followed the top of this ridge using railroad ties for steps. Dramatic views opened up through the rain as the small ridge had a 600-ft drop off to river level on the left. A short side trail led to a promontory where I could look the 600 ft down into the natural Multnomah Falls amphitheatre. Returning to the main trail, I later negotiated a small landslide scar immediately above this 600-ft dropoff (fairly safe as there was level footing), and finally followed the trail into a hanging canyon of Multnomah Creek above the Falls. Here the path ended at a stone footbridge and a junction with a legally open trail. I'd completed the 1 and 1/2 miles of the Perdition Trail!

I took a quick side trip along the paved (!) path that led downstream on the opposite bank to the Multnomah Falls overlook abutting a 540-ft precipice. Once "loved to death", recent rockslides now required a circuitous trail route to reach this aerie point. The creek was very full of rainwater runoff, and the entire channel width (15 ft?) was full of water gushing over the lip. I could see ant-like people on a footbridge facing the plunge pool far below.

Retracing my steps, I ascended back up to the stone footbridge, and had a sandwich while standing and admiring the rushing creek. The rain came to a stop, allowing me to better admire the rain-forest and foaming water. A lone descending hiker appeared with his hood still up. It was the first person I had seen on the trails at this point. He passed me with a mumbled hello, perhaps as surprised to see me as I was to see him.

My sandwich finished (including an obligatory dog feeding), I began following Multnomah Creek upstream along the trail I had seen the hiker descend. The path kept to the right side of the stream in this stretch. Winding right and left, the narrow, steep-sided canyon never allowed me to see a great distance further on. As I walked, I savored the rain-soaked forest, roarng waters, hanging moss, and mossy green boulders.

At one point a 10 foot overhang had been blasted into the basalt so that the trail could pass a vertical-sided section of the canyon. The path beyond ascended somewhat more steeply so that two significant waterfalls of about 30-50 feet height could be surmounted. I noted I had forgotten there were _two_, rather than a single "Upper" falls.

After 3/4 mile I came to a junction, where a path contoured back upslope along the side of the canyon I had already traversed. I followed it, steadily rising in elevation. Other than the Perdition Trail, it was like all the paths I would take today, being fairly wide, well-graded, with few rocks or roots. Multnomah Creek gradually faded away steeply below me on the right. Eventually it could not been seen at all through the numerous conifer tree trunks growing on the slope below me.

Above to the left, near the ridge top were bare snags left from trees killed in a widespread forest fire here about 10 or more years ago.

After about a mile the trail leveled off along the still-steep hillside, as it aimed for a notch in a descending ridge and a trail junction. As I neared it, I could see that the forest fire of years ago had blackened most of the tree trunks in the area, but it must not have been hot enough to kill the trees, for their crowns high above me looked very healthy.

At the ridge notch, I turned left and up, following seven switchbacks in an elevation gain of about 600 feet in the next 3/4 mile. At the top was a forested plateau that extended back from a very steep-sided basin facing the Gorge below. The bowl shape to this hanging basin likely was eroded by a small glacier during the Pleistocene ice ages. It now held the headwater spring for Wahkeena Creek so, from my elevation of 2200 feet, I could look down to the Columbia River and the drop of 2100 feet I would face in completing the hiking loop back to my car.

As a slice of blue opened in the sky, wisps of fog clung to the far side of the basin. I could see west along the Columbia River Gorge a considerable distance and even see the hills of Portland about 30 miles away. Blue-grey clouds capped the Washington mountain tops on the far side of the river, so only their slopes below about 2300 feet could be seen.

After a second sandwich admiring this view, I began my journey down, first descending the seven switchbacks to the trail junction, then along a trail traversing a level ridge out towards the Columbia River. I was still about 1500 feet above river level at this point. As the ridge eventually ends in a vertical dropoff of several hundred feet, the trail doubled back to the left along the side of this ridge, losing elevation at the end to meet with the dark-green forest canyon dropping steeply from the headwaters basin of Wahkeena Creek towards a climatic drop at Wahkeena Falls.

Following the creek steeply downward, I passed the small, usually feathery "Fairy Falls" on the right, identified by name on a nearby cement placard. The rainfall runoff gave this side creek a somewhat stronger than feathery appearance, however.

Descending further the trail crossed over to the left bank, and entered a vertical slot at the base of the canyon floored only by the trail and rushing creek. Moss-draped basalt cliffs rose on either side. As quickly as it narrowed, however, the canyon widened downstream.

Crossing the creek on a wooden bridge, the path angled right onto an overlook near the top of Wahkeena Falls. The Falls themselves could not be seen on the left as the canyon narrowed and deepened again, but as this overlook jutted out towards the Columbia, fairly extensive views up the river could be seen. Numerous mountains on the Washington side were bathed in the bright open light of day, strongly contrasting to the dark forested canyon behind me. Overhead the slot of blue sky narrowed as rain from the west approached.

I descended the last mile or so in a series of switchbacks built into a very steep, tree-covered, talus slope. Recent trail engineering had been done, and there were elegant rockwalls on the upslope side of the trail at numerous points. The path itself was covered with a fine, quarried, basalt gravel. I eventually passed the "closed" Perdition Trail junction I had encountered at the beginning of my hike, thus completing a loop of about 6 miles. A few minutes later I was being blasted by the strong Wahkeena Falls mists, and moments later I was at my car. The dog got a vigorous toweling before being allowed into the back seat.

Regards to all,
Kirby


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