One day, 6 miles, 1800 feet of elevation gain and two mini-mountains.

As soon as I knew I was going to go pick up my daughter Zoe today, I had this plan. Having been repeatedly frustrated in my recent attempts to get outdoors, I decided to take advantage of the day and make up for lost time, if only a little. Mt. Pisgah and Spencer’s Butte are the two most prominent hills in the Eugene area, and as a consequence, they are also two of the most popular hikes in the area. When I lived in Eugene I hiked both regularly, and while I still find time to hike Spencer’s occasionally, I haven’t hiked Pisgah in something like seven years. Only two or three times before had I hiked both in the same day.

I left my house at about 9:45 in the morning, noticing that there was a line of white on the hills surrounding our home, but not feeling overly worried about it. I was clad in synthetic layers and had my excellent hiking shoes on, so there wasn’t much worry about the weather. I love that about modern outdoor clothing, you can be in an absolute downpour and still remain dry, warm and cozy.

I drove to where our ‘family compound’ is, and picked up the money my brother was loaning me to pick up Zoe. Then I was on Interstate five heading north a little after ten. I arrived in Eugene an hour later, and headed straight for Mt. Pisgah.

With the volume of coffee I had already consumed (32 oz.), I really, really had to go by the time I got there, so I hurried out of the car and found the bathrooms. Then I was ready.

I had already decided that I would not be taking the ‘normal’ route, since it passes under some high voltage power lines and I really don’t enjoy hiking near those things, so I headed up the Summit trail, and within a quarter-mile or so, I was in the forest. Mt. Pisgah is mostly populated with stands of oaks, and is quite bare for a lot of it, but running down the west side of the mountain is a nice band of Douglas firs, big-leaf and vine maples, and the trail I was on (somehow I got diverted off the summit trail) veered off to the south. I took some footage of a really pretty old-growth Big-Leaf maple:

Quickly I left the trees and continued on a very muddy track heading south, now out in the Oak-savannah that is so prevalent in the park. I was certainly all alone on this trail, I did hear some voices down below me at some point, but I never caught sight of the speakers. As I sloshed along the trail, making a very gradual ascent uphill, I noticed that ahead of me were more power lines. Great. I had come this way purposely to avoid them and I was going to end up under them all the same!

The weather, which had been fairly threatening-looking, but hadn’t done more than cough up a few flakes, now started to look much more ominous. I wasn’t worried at all, since I had on lots of layers of synthetic clothes. In that setting, I am pretty fearless, and I love to experience weather at its most extreme, so I was hoping it would snow. I would definitely get my wish.

As the path ran under the high-voltage wires, I increased my pace. I really, truly despise being under them with their crackling and menacing nature. Seriously, I think they are really unhealthy. In any case, the path, shortly after passing under the wires, switched back towards the the north, and I had to pass under them a second time. Ugh. I love Mt. Pisgah but the number of huge lines definitely detracts from the overall experience.

So now I was heading back north, after nearly coming all the way to the southern end of the hill, and I really wasn’t sure which trail I was actually on. I had a suspicion that the trail would veer towards the summit as it went back north, and in a short time I reached the intersection with the actual Summit trail, the one I had intended to hike in the first place. At the junction, the trail went up at a rather steep angle, as I remembered from years before, and I knew the summit was within half a mile now.

The weather was now starting to spit out a few little balls of corn snow, but the wall of gray that I had watched as I hiked was now nearly on top of me. As I started up the steeper grade, it began to let loose

It was actually quite fun, and made what is ordinarily a run-of-the-mill hill hike into a much more interesting experience. It was all corn snow too, so it quickly turned everything white. I really was happy to have my GoPro Hero 2 along for this trip, obviously an ordinary video camera wouldn’t have lasted ten minutes in those conditions, so it was nice to have it filming the weather.

I continued on, not feeling particularly strong that day, but I pushed through it and reached the summit just as the storm was passing. There was no one else around. I had arrived at just the perfect time, clearing skies and solitude. I filmed a little bit of the summit, where there is a sighting pedestal showing what the different peaks one would normally see on a clear day. On the sides of the pedestal are relief style carvings of different fossils that have been discovered in Oregon. The bronze pedestal (which was once destroyed by a psychotic man but subsequently repaired), is dedicated to Jed Kesey, son of author Ken Kesey, and Lorenzo West. Jed & Lorenzo tragically died in a vehicular accident when traveling as part of the University of Oregon wrestling team.

As soon as I started heading down, the crowds finally began to arrive. I passed twenty to thirty people on the way down, but I felt kind of smug knowing I had enjoyed that spectacular summit all alone. Nevertheless, there were smiles on most people’s faces as I passed and I returned their happiness. I felt great. No pain, and in the midst of a storm, too.

It took me about twenty minutes to get back to my car, and then it was on to my friend Kathleen’s house, where my eleven year old daughter Zoe was having a sleepover. At this point another big front had moved in and was fitfully spitting out corn snow, even on the valley floor, so I wasn’t sure if we would make it up to the Butte. When I picked up Zoe, however, she said she wanted to go, and when we stopped off at the biofuel station so I could get some coffee, I asked her again, just to be sure, and she said she did. Normally I would have never let her go hiking in that much cotton, but we were going to go up the steep & short side of the Butte, which is just over half a mile long. We could be up and down before you could say ‘hypothermia’.

We drove to the south of Eugene, following Willamette street as it heads straight towards the Butte. At just over 2000 feet in height, it is the undisputed monarch of the immediate Eugene area. I have hiked the butte hundreds of times, and probably hiked with Zoe in the baby backpack (many years ago of course) fifty times or more, but she and I hadn’t gone up it together in several years, at least.

Zoe is a very able hiker, she did the seven-mile loop at Silver Falls State Park when she was five, she climbed Mt. Bailey when she was seven, and would have summited Union Peak if it hadn’t been for a pair of ill-fitting shoes. As it is, she still reached to within a couple hundred feet from the top. She is now a darned good rock climber and we have plans to do multiple easier mountain climbs together as well.

When we arrived at the butte, the trees were flocked with snow (real snow too, not the corn snow stuff), and we quickly got to hiking in order to keep warm. A woman and her dog startled us and she apologized as she went by, obviously in very good shape and soon getting out of sight. We followed in her wake, enjoying the stately forest beauty of the butte, such a different experience from that of Pisgah just a few miles away. In just a few minutes we reached the first rocky stairs that make this hike a more spectacular one than that of Mt. Pisgah.

We continued up the rocky path, admiring all the snowy beauty we were seeing on a late winter day. We stopped at a spot that breaks out of the trees for a moment and leads to a rocky outcrop with views off to the west. We took in the views and then continued up. The trail heads right back into the trees, then bends back to the left, contouring across the west side of the little mountain. Then the trail switched back again and we ascended towards the break in the small cliffs that guard this side. I followed Zoe with the camera as she scrambled up the rocks.

Within a few minutes we were standing on top. Not alone this time, there were five or six people on the summit, which it pretty typical. But it was nice to be up there with my eldest child.

We didn’t linger long on the summit, since we still had to drive over eighty miles to get back home to our cozy little place on the Umpqua. We scrambled off the east side of the butte and began hiking back on the ‘normal route’, which is a little longer than the route we had come up, and it snowed on us some more and by the time we got back to the car, poor Zoe was pretty frigid. We set out and soon were on Interstate Five heading south, happy to have enjoyed some time in nature, and some father-daughter time as well!


So now what?

It has been close to two weeks with almost no pain. It seems so unbelievable that I can write these words so shortly after going through months and months of really intense pain, bad enough that I recently discovered that I had lost something like 25 pounds during that period. I now fit into a pair of jeans I could barely fit into when I purchased them six or seven years ago. Luckily my appetite has slowly been returning in the last couple of weeks.

I do not want to make the mistake of assuming that this will just continue, but I am very hopeful. I have been hopeful before, and seemed to have some success with other supplements and therapies, only to find after a few months that the original effectiveness has worn off. None of those other treatments could compare with the effectiveness I am experiencing with Tramadol, however, so that alone gives me greater reason for optimism.

I have been getting a lot done around the house in the last week, including cleaning nearly the entire house and doing every single dirty dish and almost all the laundry too. I seem to be so much more focused than I was before, so that seems to be an added benefit, although whether it is simply a side-effect of the drug or just the removal of pain that is allowing this I am not certain. I know my partner Brook is really happy to see such a clean home!

We have been having really bad car problems over the last week, so I have had to miss a bunch of school and also haven’t had the opportunity to take what feels like a brand new body out for a test drive. The weather has been pretty Oregon-esque lately — lots of rain, so there has been no opportunity for climbing at all, but I could be out there hiking and I would, but Brook has been needing me to watch the kids while she is in town. We should be getting our car back today, which will bring everything back to some semblance of normal.

When the car is fixed and we can start going into town on a daily basis, I am really ready to get to the gym and start taking advantage of this pain-free opportunity, getting myself into top shape during a time when normally I have historically been more sedentary due to pain. But, hey, I have no more excuses now, and by getting into great shape my pain will actually reduce further, so it is a win-win situation all the way around. I feel like some huge shackles have been taken off of me and I am free for the first time in many, many years – Free. I almost don’t know what to do with it.

But no, I do. Work hard, get in shape, start climbing and keep climbing, remember the opportunity I now have and don’t forget all that I have gone through and all that I have been held back from doing. Use this. I am forty one years old so I don’t have all the time in the world to get to the mountains I want to get to, I have to climb with an urgency and focus to get to where I want to be.

And where is that? Where do I want to be? What are my overall goals? What is the ultimate goal?

Perhaps surprisingly, I am not as enamored about going to Everest as I am to make am attempt on peaks like Denali (or as it less poetically known – Mt. McKinley, highest mountain in North America), Huascaran, Chimborazo, Aconcagua, Mont Blanc, The Dom or any number of mountains equally as big as Everest but without the extremes of altitude and time required. In the time it requires to climb most Himalayan peaks (months), one could climb several of these peaks, if not more. No, I do not dream of Everest as much as I dream of going to places like the Cirque of the Towers in the Wind River range of Wyoming. Two weeks there with the right partner could result in ten or more high quality summits. No oxygen masks, no struggles just to take a step, just saner altitude issues to deal with, a lot more continuous movement and a heck of a lot more fun.

Don’t get me wrong. Part of me does want to go to Everest, just to test myself more than for the overall mountaineering experience, which has largely been ruined by the hordes and the chaos that goes along with it. If I had the opportunity to go I would but it would never become the goal of my life to climb in the Himalaya more than once or twice. I couldn’t be apart from my family for that long.

There are literally thousands of peaks in the continental U.S. alone, start adding in Canada and South America, and there are more peaks than a person could ever see, much less ever climb. I would rather climb hundreds of smaller peaks in this country than climb a handful of snobby high altitude mountains.  Besides, since most mortals can only reach the summit by the easiest route, and I now tend to favor technical routes over snow-plods, so lower-elevation mountains are really the only option for me.

Logistically too, the more ‘local’ mountains are much easier to access. It takes no more than a couple of days for climbers (in the western U.S. anyway) to reach just about any other mountain or range in the lower 48. I think it takes at least a week to walk to Everest Base Camp. By comparison, Mt. Gannet, the highest mountain in Wyoming, and one of the most remote mountains in the lower states, takes 3-4 days at most to reach its base.

And while it may seem that this is a classic case of quantity being more important than quality, but I believe that the best climbs, the most enjoyable ones, are the ones well below the death zone (26,000 ft approx.). So for me I am getting both quantity and quality with this tactic.

Going back to my original topic of feeling better, now that I am, I can feel the ambition in me, long suppressed, starting to arise with every day I feel good. Winter climbs, Endurance struggle-fests, Mixed climbs, all arenas I have not been able to participate in are now starting to creak open those rusty doors. Hmm. I have always wanted to really pursue this with everything I had, yet because of my body’s limitations it wasn’t even a consideration. The possibility of really pushing myself without worrying about the agony in my shoulders sounds awesome.

Now if only the weather would clear up for a time…

A new dawn?

As the few readers of this blog know, I have some pretty serious pain issues due to my (probable) affliction with Ankylosing Spondylitis – a type of Spinal Arthritis. My pain is generally pretty constant this time of year with descents into severe pain occuring on a weekly basis, sometime for days or weeks without end. For the last three years the pain in my scapula, the shoulder blade region, has ebbed and flowed but has, over time, become more constant, The tendons in that region get so hard they feel like bone, and nothing – not double doses of Vicodin, Percocet or Oxycontin, or even the gnarly Fentanyl patch could get my right shoulder blade to stop hurting. Think about that- those are pretty serious pain killers there, and they weren’t helping. All my other pains they took care of, no problem, but even with that, the pills give you only a couple of pain free hours whereas the patch can last a couple of days or more, but then you can’t really drive and I certainly could never even consider climbing under those conditions, so that is definitely a negative. So when I turned to the final prescription in the series we have been trying, a drug called Tramadol, I really wasn’t very optimistic. How could this drug, which isn’t even an opioid, help me where the strong stuff couldn’t? Nevertheless, I gave it a try.

Within just a short while I realized that my shoulder had stopped hurting, for the first time in months. As I waited out the first eight hours of the dose, there was not much drop off, either. After three days I knew we really had something here. Now it has been well over a week without pain and I am convinced that this stuff is the ticket to help me out of the misery. As the weather gets better I hope to taper to a minimal level, but probably will up my doses when September and the really bad time of year comes. For now, however, I am thrilled to say I have been pain free for longer than I have been in ages. Awesome.

A happy ending

(sorry – meant to publish this days ago, but I kept procrastinating uploading the video I made, so I didn’t publish this. So here is the end (hopefully) of Zeus’ salmon odyssey, sans video, which I will upload and add later.)

Zeus has come home. What a pleasure it is to write those words, and indeed, my entire day has been a happy one since our Zeus came home. Still little more than a walking sack of bones, he surprised us by stealing a dog treat out of Ryan’s hand when he was offering it to Caesar, our pug. We didn’t think he would even want it, which is why we didn’t offer it to Zeus initially. Plus we wanted to make him something bland to start, as the Vet had advised us. Well, we certainly got the rice on the burner immediately after he stole the treat, and when I offered him the bowl of rice, chicken broth, a sprinkling of olive oil and a dusting of nutritional yeast, he was hesitant, but he didn’t walk away from it, either. Then, to my elation, he ate about a cup of it, but I think even that little bit of food overwhelmed his system. He has been crashed out ever since.

I want to say a little bit more about Douglas County Low Cost Veterinary Clinic. They saved my dog’s life. Flat-out, they took great care of us and him and I feel so much gratitude towards them. I will actually be writing a blog, and then an article about them. Great folks, they so obviously and plainly love animals. Thank you, thank you, thank you Julia and staff.