The Book. The Mountain. Everything in between.


Stubborn writers on the Timberline Trail and Mount Hood

It is a spell that comes once you’ve finished walking all the way around Mount Hood. I’ve experienced it twice now, and I’m pretty sure that’s the right word for it. A spell.

When you are done, or maybe just before, as you’re swinging one foot in front of the other for the last quarter mile or so before you get close enough to Timberline Lodge to start crossing paths with folks out for a leisurely stroll, you are in a mental and, really, a physical place that belongs only to you and those who are there with you. This is your mountain. This has been your four-day, 41-mile trek. The rest were not part of this experience. As much as you may want a cold beer and a hot meal, you don’t want to hear the cars, see the iPhone-locked gazes, think about the work and the responsibility and the real world that awaits.

You want, instead, to drop your pack in the parking lot and crumple to the asphalt. You want to listen, all of you together, to the ice that is somehow still slushing around in the cooler and taste the cold Tecate. You want to prolong the sensation that you’re still on the Timberline Trail, under that spell, and so, even though it is bound to break at some point, you do.


By the time I set my foot on the Timberline Trail just behind Timberline Lodge again in August 2013, it had been eight years since Amy and I set out on the very same trip back in 2005. Not the exact same trip, though. One thing I realized after the second time around: you’ll never have the same experience on the Timberline Trail, no matter how many times you do it.


No kids, no job. Camping near Cooper Spur during a five-day trip on the Timberline Trail in 2005.

This one came about thanks to Portland writer Mark Pomeroy, a lifelong Mount Hood fan who’d connected with me after reading On Mount Hood when it first came out in 2011. At work on a novel set largely on the mountain himself, Mark invited me early to accompany him on a circuit of the mountain along with a few other writers: poet John Morrison and novelist and writing teacher Joanna Rose, someone I’d gotten to know through Brave on the Page.

When Amy and I finished the Timberline Trail in 2005, it felt like something I’d crossed off my list, that I’d never need to do again. But in Mark’s invite, there was a pull to revisit that I couldn’t resist.

We set out on August 24, an incredible summer day on Mount Hood — but not as a team. I’d been invited to a book signing event at Timberline the same day, so my plan was to catch up with the crew at the first night’s campsite along the Sandy River. Morrison’s 21-year-old son, Jackson, who joined in as well, had accidentally grabbed the wrong boots that morning. I picked up the right ones for him before I left Portland, and after the book event, he and I set out.

We got a late start, not hitting the trail even until 3 p.m., so we hoofed it but still took in so much: incredible scenery, stories from friendly PCT and Timberline hikers, unreal moments of natural beauty. A few of the latter, before we met up with the crew on the other side of the Sandy River:


                                                      Fading bear grass near Zigzag Canyon.

Mount Hood from just beyond Paradise Park.

                                        Mount Hood from just beyond Paradise Park.


             Crossing the Sandy River with a PCT hiker who’d been on the trail since April.

The beginning of  day two dawned cloudy and heavy, not like a normal August morning in Oregon. But on the mountain, you never know. Breakfast and breakdown got us on the trail a little later than we’d idealized, but at that point, we had the whole day in front of us: Ramona Falls, the Muddy Fork, McNeil Point, Cairn Basin.

I’d not been back to Ramona Falls in years. It was every bit as majestic as I remembered. We stopped to fill our water bottles and soak it in. Morrison chose just the right word to describe the falls: luminescent.

Ramona Falls

The first 7 or so miles that we initially set out to hike that second day were quiet and enjoyable. We clambered across the Muddy Fork on a huge double-tree bridge and broke for the first of many canned meats just after the first sprinkles had started then stopped.


Our lone glimpse of the mountain for the day came just before we hit McNeil Point. By then, the rain had stopped altogether, and it felt good to take a load off and gaze up, even though it wasn’t the most comforting of mountain views.

Mount Hood from just below McNeil Point


Now, I have been in the rain before. Light drizzles, sudden downpours, one 24-hour deluge in the Gorge that sent Amy and me running for the car. I have been in whiteouts, too, wandering around Mount Adams for hours in search of camp,  knowing that I was on the summit of Mount McGloughlin only because I had a GPS in hand. But the elements that blasted us on the Timberline Trail over the next 12 hours were among the most trying I’ve been through outside.

The cold rain started just beyond McNeil Point. It came down easy at first but soon soaked and chilled. There was a distant clap of thunder that we tried to ignore. We passed a big group crossing Ladd Creek who looked like they’d had enough already. On the other side of the creek, we topped our waters and pressed on, yet to be stifled by this tightening storm. The whipping wind, the chill, the water, it always has a way of invigorating me. Such conditions engage the senses so acutely that you can’t help but feel completely alive. Throw in the eerie scenery created by the fog and the remnants of the Dollar Lake fire, and the entire experience became nearly surreal.

No worries, however, as we were close to the stone shelter at Cairn Basin where, if we were lucky, we’d be able to step out of the rain, fire up the stoves, and regroup. It should have showed up any minute there as we marched on and on.

It never did.

When we stopped at the next trail junction and finally lifted our heads up, we realized we’d plowed right past Cairn Basin without ever seeing the shelter. By then, we were a mile beyond it.

Gigantic thunder clap.

Cold, soaked, and nervous, there was nothing to do but power on to Elk Cove and hope for the best.

We knocked off the mile-and-a-half or so to Elk Cove in relative silence — I think Morrison and Joanna maybe were chatting about the meter of some line in some poem —  and in no time came to the sign I remembered directing us left to the campsites off in the woods on the edge of the meadow. Ideal thoughts of a couple empty sites sheltered by fir bows deflated as we strolled up to find two other campers already buttoned up in what should have been our spots. We chatted briefly, scoured the surrounding area for a plan B, then came back and, in so many words, crashed the party.

Thankfully our hosts, Angela and Heather, were incredibly inviting and accommodating, sharing not only stories but hot chocolate and hand warmers as we rushed to set up our tents in the pouring rain and swelling puddles. There would be no dinner that night, no cocktail hour, no star gazing. I know my main goal was to get out of the rain and get dry. It was not an easy thing to do. My pack was soaked, as was just about everything in it: sleeping bag, long underwear, fleece. I for some reason have always scoffed at the pack cover, but there in my soggy tent, with a damp and heavy sleeping bag and a fleece that felt like it’d just come out of a washing machine, I saw the light. My night — all of our nights — would have been a lot different if we’d had them.

We didn’t, though, and so we spent 12 wet, cold hours wishing for a little relief from the morning and catching soggy fits of sleep. I have spent many a night outside, and I can say with full certainty that this was one of the very worst I have ever endured. I am usually one to accept and endure, to find something positive to see me through. On this night, I just about surrendered and accepted the despair. Just about.

They may not know it, but Heather and Angela helped save the day for us. Their willingness to let us crash their space, their eagerness to share advice and hot drinks and friendly voices — I never even saw the friendly face that matched Angela’s sweet voice  until she unzipped her tent the next morning — added the best possible end to the afternoon that we could have hoped for. Sometimes, a little unexpected optimism and some stripped down, genuine human interaction is all it takes to persevere.


Thankfully, day three dawned dry and, though not normal Oregon August, blue enough here and there to allow a regroup.




Dried out as best as we could be, we hit the trail that morning an hour or so behind Heather and Angela, glad for the sun breaks and scenery. From Elk Cove east, the Timberline Trail winds endlessly  in toward the mountain, over streams, back out over a ridge, and back in again, over and over. It’s repetitive, but it’s a kind of sameness that’s not hard to appreciate.


Though the weather was much more promising than it had been the day before, something else weighed on my mind, adding a touch of dread and uncertainty to the day: the Eliot Creek crossing. Back in 2005, the bridge over the creek had long been washed out, but getting across the creek was still manageable. But in 2006, a massive washout rearranged the terrain up there so much that the Forest Service rendered it off limits, thus eliminating any legal way of completing the entire Timberline Trail without setting up some lame car shuttle and bypassing the off-limits section.

But as the years passed, reports sprouted up that the crossing was again doable. Some said to go up high onto the Eliot Glacier itself to cross; others shared pictures of ropes down into and up out of the gully. Some hikers made it sound like it was no big deal; some turned back because they couldn’t make it across. Had we encountered something that turned us around, we had no plan B other than to stop and hoof it back to Timberline.

What we found when we finally made it to the edge of the crossing was not very encouraging.


Beyond that sign, however, was a very prominent trail, and it led (at least it did in August of 2013) very steeply to the way across the Eliot. We trudged up and up till a small clearing to the left revealed one of the rumored ropes illuminating the way down. Picking our way down one at a time took a while — the rock and scree are so loose that to descend in a group would invite unnecessary danger — and finding the right place to actually  cross the creek added some time. In the end, however, crossing the Eliot was possibly more time-consuming than some of the other crossings, but it seemed no more perilous than anything else we did on the entire trail. That said, I crossed the actual creek three times to help shuttle packs, and I can safely say that no mountain stream has ever chilled my feet to the point of numbing pain the way the water of the Eliot did.


Instead of sticking to the Timberline Trail up out of the Eliot, we trudged up the incredible ridge on the creek’s east side, an exposed, amazing spine that puts the glacier and the mountain in full perspective. Up high, you can cross-country it over to the stone shelter below Cooper Spur, merge back in with the Timberline Trail, and head on around the northeast side of the mountain on your way to Gnarl Ridge.


Breaking out onto the ridge gave us a taste of some burly, frigid winds. When, not a few minutes earlier, we had been stepping along in still air, now the winds whipped and gusted like freight trains,  knocking us off balance and drowning us in the sounds of ocean surf.


We ticked off 10 miles this day, ending up in a campsite just across Newton Creek at dusk. Heather and Angela were just off in the woods nearby. Despite the long and late day, Morrison immediately whipped up one of the best and most memorable backcountry meals I’ve ever had: pasta with wild mushrooms and a red sauce with red wine. Talk about comfort.

The final day’s hike was a warm and sunny one; mild initially in terrain, marked by some musical conversations, a joke about the Pope driving a cab, and a couple startled grouses scaring the bejeezus out of Mark — and giving the rest of us a nice, big laugh.

Lunch as we passed through Meadows. We’d carried the SPAM the entire way, so I insisted on opening it.


From there, it was on to White River, the last major river crossing, which was little more than a step or two across, but amazing nonetheless.

I’ve always related how the hike up from White River to Timberline, even though it’s just a couple miles, is the longest of the Timberline Trail because you can see Timberline Lodge, the cars in the parking lot, the people milling about, almost the entire way. But the elevation and the sandy terrain and the fact that you’re knocking off the last 2 miles of a 41-mile trail somehow make all that distance last and last. By that point, there wasn’t a whole lot of chitchat. More of a determined march to get those last steps behind us, take the packs off, and savor the accomplishment. I remember passing the first tourists out for a little stroll east of Timberline and catching their curious glances as we clopped buy, smelly and set on nothing more than being done hiking for the day.

And then, as we stepped and stepped our way up to Timberline Lodge, we were done with hiking for the day. A few people milled about, heads drooped to their phones, and someone in our group asked if that’s all we’d been missing. Maybe we should just turn around and do it again.

We didn’t though. We posed for a picture. We closed in as a group on our walk back to the cars, not wanting to invite anyone else in to break the spell and to just prolong that sense that we all were sensing. We’d been gone just four days, but being back felt different just then; odd, and as if we’d been overseas, somewhere foreign, and were just getting back.


Morrison had iced Tecates in the car, but on our way back to them,  we heard voices from across the parking lot. Angela and Heather. We’d just caught up with them.

Then it was to the car, the asphalt in  the parking lot, then the bar in Timberline. Inside, it all seemed so loud, so unnecessary, so threatening to the spell. Because that’s what comes once you’ve finished walking all the way around Mount Hood. 

Endnote: I publish this now, nearly two years later, as the stubborn writers and I head back up to Mount Hood this week for another escape, this one more measured, possibly less epic and, hopefully, much drier.  

On Mount Hood in McMinnville — with Beer!

That’s right, with beer.

Last time I did an On Mount Hood book event in the cool little town of McMinnville, it was a quiet night in the bookstore there, Third Street Books.

This week as part of the McMinnville Public Library’s “Escape the Ordinary” summer reading series, I’ll be taking the book and some photos and stories to the Grain Station, a brew pub at 755 N.E. Alpine St. in McMinnville. I’ve not been to the joint yet, but it looks like a fine place for a pint of beer, maybe a pizza, and some Mount Hood on the side. It’ll be at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, July 16. See you there.

OMH Paperback cover

Hiking Ramona Falls with the kids

I may have fibbed just a little, telling them the hike to my favorite waterfall on Mount Hood was two easy miles.

But I figured the scenery along the way — the mountain views, the river, a stream or two — and the promise of just how majestic Ramona Falls truly is, would be enough to mask the real effort enough that my kids wouldn’t notice. The hike is actually closer to 3.5 miles one-way. In my defense, however, it’s been long enough since I’ve done it that I didn’t really remember. What I did recall was that the effort was more than worth it.


So we set out up the trail on a Sunday morning, before 11 a.m. because we’d camped at the McNeil Campground the night before. I worried a little about the Sandy River crossing, as not only had the Forest Service not yet installed the bridge for the season, but someone actually got swept away there last summer during a flash flood of sorts. Not one to risk too much, I knew we would turn around if it was at all unsafe.

But when we got to the crossing, a natural bridge, complete with a handrail, greeted us, and so we crossed.


Some mixed messaging on the signage led us to take the somewhat longer leg of the loop, though in retrospect I don’t think it’s all that much longer. It’s about 7 miles roundtrip one way, 6.8 the other. When you’re low on water and trying to convince a 9-year-old and a 5-year-old that the most amazing waterfall is not that much farther, though, it seems like much more.

Even so, when we at last rolled up on the falls, they got it.


The first time I ever hiked to Ramona Falls, my first Mount Hood backpacking trip back in 1998, I remember how incredible the water from the falls tasted. Like the newest snow. Back then, we had a filter with us; this time around, we didn’t. It was a gamble, but we had played up the water to Madeline too much not to indulge; we filled our water bottles straight from the falls. It tasted just as I remembered.

The hike down was longer than the kids would have liked, but I enticed them with ice cream and a return to Trillium Lake to catch newts.

That sealed the deal for them, so the belly aching on the way back down was minimal. And yes, we went back to Trillium to catch even more newts than we’d caught the day before, so to them, it was worth it.


I, personally, was just glad that they got to take in Ramona Falls. It truly is an incredible sight to see. Two years ago, when I passed it on the Timberline Trail with a few writer friends, one of them, John Morrison, had described it as luminescent. Exactly.

And when, a few days later, Madeline took a drink from her water bottle on the way to her horse riding lesson and said she could still taste Ramona Falls, I knew our hike had made its mark.

A Mother’s Day adventure on Mount Hood

We got a late start on Mother’s Day this year. Not for brunch or lunch or a walk through the gardens, but for the mountain. I’m lucky, and so are the kids, that Amy is an adventurous mother, one who I think would rather be out skiing, climbing a mountain or creating some other kind of memorable experience on Mother’s Day — or any day.

This year’s plan was to chuck the canoe on the car, load up the fishing gear and head for Timothy Lake, a sprawling expanse of mountain lake that sits in the far off southeastern shadow of Hood. We didn’t hit the road until after 11 on Sunday morning, and with a stop at Joe’s Donuts, we weren’t looking to hit the water until well into the afternoon.

But our agenda was open, the day was clear enough and the hours of sunlight this time of year mean you can linger plenty long. With that in mind, we decided not to head straight for Timothy Lake, but to instead scout out a lake we’ve cruised passed countless times over the years but never stopped to see. Called Frog Lake, it’s just off Highway 26 past the Highway 35 junction. Though it’s a little more subtle than some of the other lakes around, Frog Lake has its own unique beauty, and a view of Mount Hood that’s all its own.


We didn’t stay long, but now we know Frog Lake.

Off we headed toward Timothy Lake, first veering a few miles off the route to grab a look at a fascinating little Oregon wonder: Little Crater Lake. This picture does it no justice — I’m not sure a smartphone will ever really be able to capture the true, natural turquoise and blue hues of this incredible spring-fed lake — but I grabbed a shot just for the record.


It’s been years since we’ve been back to Timothy Lake. In fact, we’ve yet to take the kids there, so it seemed like a good time to refresh ourselves and introduce them to it. I wasn’t expecting any surprises, but as we were driving around the lake’s southern shores looking for an easy access for the boat, what should tumble out of the forest but an honest to goodness black bear. Now, I’ve been all over the Mount Hood National Forest in my 18 years in Oregon, but I’ve only seen one bear in that time. That one was running up the Forest Service road ahead of a tour bus I was on during an exploration of the Bull Run Watershed back when I was researching for On Mount Hood.  This one bounded right out of the trees about 50 feet in front of us, galloped across the road and plunged back into the woods. He was in view just long enough for all of us to see him and for me to drop a reactionary profanity underscoring my amazement. Crazy how exhilarating that 10-second snapshot was.

Out on the lake, we were among just a handful of like-minded folks who decided that Mother’s Day was a great day for Timothy Lake. And it was.

IMG_3127 IMG_3133

The kids didn’t catch anything — no one did — but we didn’t need to. Being out on the lake, with the mountain in the background and the sun breaking through just enough to warm was plenty. We paddled back on the edge of a thunderstorm, loaded up and pointed homeward. But we had one more new experience to add to the day still: dinner at the Skyway Bar and Grill, a funky roadside attraction that, like Frog Lake, we’ve been passing for years but have never explored. We were told that It’s named after the famed Mount Hood Skiway, an old city bus converted into a cable tram that ran from Government Camp to Timberline for a few years in the 1950s.

After some incredible barbecue, fries and macaroni and cheese in front of a crackling fire, we’ve found a new mountain favorite.

And that was Mother’s Day 2015 — an adventure all around.

The Mount Hood pint glass is coming

By now, most people with an affinity for Mount Hood, beer and cool craftsmanship have heard about North Drinkware and its wildly popular and successful Oregon Pint.

The small Portland startup launched a modest Kickstarter campaign on Feb. 1, seeking $15,000 to kick off production of its handcrafted Oregon Pint glass, which features a topographically correct imprint of Mount Hood in its base.


Courtesy North Drinkware

Five hours into its campaign, the goal had been met. A month later, when the campaign closed, backers had pledged more than a half-million dollars — $532,581 to be exact — and launched North Drinkware on a path to producing more than 13,000 glasses.

I’m a huge fan of Mount Hood, beer and cool craftsmanship, but I hesitated at the $35 price tag. Until, that is, I went and checked out one of the glasses for myself at MadeHerePDX, a Portland shop that features nothing but P-Town-made goods.


With just a few days left in the campaign, I gave in, willingly, and picked up two Oregon Pints, one for me and one for my dad, who lives in Ohio but who’s spent some time on Hood, too. (He’s in On Mount Hood, as a matter of fact.)

The latest word from North is that the first round of pint glasses will likely start shipping at the end of this month, with another round scheduled for September. On their Facebook page, North notes in a short video that they’re currently in production and making headway.

A cool project — and a great story — for sure. And, even better for folks who maybe don’t have that affinity for Mount Hood but still appreciate fine craft beers, artistic skill and high places all over the country: North has plans to create glasses for other states and mountains in the not-too-distant future.

Cheers to that.

Courtesy North Drinkware

Courtesy North Drinkware

A Mount Hood Q&A: Ric Conrad, author of ‘Mount Hood: Adventures of the Wy’east Climbers, 1930-1942″

Early in this new year, I exchanged Mount Hood books with Portland-area freelance writer Ric Conrad, who’d just announced the launch of his book, Mount Hood: Adventures of the Wy’east Climbers 1930-1942. His handsome book is a thorough journey through the adventures of some of the pioneering climbers who left their mark on Oregon’s tallest mountain during the era of the Great Depression.

Ric Conrad

Ric Conrad

Conrad’s book is much more detailed and longer than On Mount Hood,  so while I am still working my way through Adventures of the Wy’east Climbers, Conrad has finished my book and is no doubt onto some other reading. But before he got too far ahead, he paused to send me these kind words about On Mount Hood:

“Jon Bell’s personal narrative style is the perfect voice to introduce readers to Oregon’s most iconic mountain. Not only does Bell discuss Wy’east’s volcanic past, the present challenges it faces with population encroachment, but its potential future as well. On Mount Hood is essential reading for anyone with a love for the state’s highest mountain or a fascination with its natural history.”

Kind words, indeed.

Looking to find out a little bit more about Conrad’s book and the motivation behind it, I traded emails with the former member of the U.S. Navy. He sent me some of the super cool charcoal illustrations that he commissioned Lon Haverly to create for the book as well as a nice Q&A that shines a little more light on Adventures of the Wy’east Climbers. 

Enjoy, and find out more about Conrad and his book at 

Who were the Wy’east Climbers?

A group of young men in 1930, several of whom were members of the Mazamas and the Portland Trail’s Club, desired a smaller, more elite group of mountain climbing colleagues. They were particularly drawn to virgin terrain on Mount Hood and avidly set out to explore it.

What terrain on Mount Hood did they explore?

They made the first ascents of the Leuthold Couloir Route, the Sandy Glacier Headwall, and the Eliot Glacier Headwall. They also reopened some climbing routes and established some difficult variations.

1 Joe Leuthold

Joe Leuthold

What’s the difference between a first ascent of a route and reopening one?

A first ascent is attributed to the alpinist or climbers who made the first recorded ascent of a particular climbing route on a mountain. In addition to their pioneering first ascents, the Wy’easters ascended three routes that hadn’t been used in years: the Wy’east Trail, Cathedral Ridge and the Newton-Clark Headwall route. In addition, club members wrote articles about these nearly forgotten routes in order to help popularize them. They even took guests with them on subsequent ascents of these old routes in order for word of mouth advertising to spread through Oregon’s mountaineering community.

Your book references something called the New Year Laurels. What is that?

To be the first alpinist on the summit of Mount Hood in the New Year; this is the goal of individuals or climbing parties seeking the New Year Laurels. There are no trophies, no bronze plaques, no cash payments or commercial endorsements — no real recognition to speak of, but the goal has been sought after since at least 1916. The Wy’east Climbers, as well as some of the outlaws, helped popularize this annual winter race to the summit.

Who were the outlaws?

An outlaw was simply a description given to alpinists who weren’t officially members of any organized climbing organization like the Mazamas, the Crag Rats or the Wy’east Climbers. Gary Leech, Bill “Smoke” Blanchard, and Hubert North were three such examples. These were men who made first ascents, speed ascents, and shared a rope with the Wy’east Climbers on multiple occasions.

2 Russ McJury

Russ McJury

Why did the Wy’east Climbers form the Mt. Hood Ski Patrol?

With the construction of Timberline Lodge, and the subsequent surge in tourism, a marked increase in injuries caused great concern amongst regional climbers. The need for an organized and well-equipped first aid corps became apparent. As the Wy’east Climbers had helped assist injured alpinists in the early to mid-1930s, they were in a position to have their voices heard. Joining forces with influential leaders of the Nile River Yacht Club, they approached the U.S. Forest Service and, in time, formed the ski patrol that thrives to this day.

You have a chapter devoted to illuminations. What is that all about?

The Wy’east Climbers were regular supporters of the Winter Sports Carnival in Portland. Climbers used to put on flare trips high on Mount Hood. They employed these million-candle power magnesium flares. They didn’t last very long, but these pyrotechnic devices burned magnesium ribbon, which produced a brilliant flame up to a foot above the burning metal. Depending upon the specific type of flares, the magnesium would burn for a minute or up to six minutes. It was quite a show.

How did you reconstruct the fatal accidents that happened on Mount Hood during the Great Depression?

That came about by studying the Mazama Annuals, the Wy’east Bulletins, articles in The Oregonian and the Oregon Journal, the alpinists’ entries in the summit register, documentation in the Mazama archives and through interviewing surviving participants. Hank Lewis was instrumental in bringing to light little-known details concerning rescue and recovery operations.

Everett Darr

Everett Darr

How many climbers from the period did you interview for this book?

I had the privilege of interviewing Wy’easters Hank Lewis, Lu Norene, Russ McJury and Randall Kester. I also interviewed alpinists who climbed beside club members: John Carter, Charles Loveland, Robert Labby and Darrel Tarter. Their recollections and humorous anecdotes helped bring these stories of alpine exploration to life.

What do you hope people will get out of your book?

They’ll obviously learn a lot about the historic first ascents and memorable tragedies, but I think readers will simply enjoy the little-known tales of adventure that can be found in this volume. There’s the friendly rivalry between the Wy’easters and the Nile River Yacht Club, speed ascents, and vying to be the first atop Oregon’s monarch in the New Year. Avalanches, crevasse falls, brutal storms, and high-altitude, volcanic, subterranean adventures are all told by the people who were there — in the Golden Age of climbing on Mount Hood.


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