The North Bank Habitat: The East Ridge Loop

NBHMA II

I have written often about the North Bank Habitat Management Area before, but considering the limited time I have left in Oregon, I would like to write at least one more post about this under-appreciated jewel of a park. I have had a love affair with this place since I first came here, although it took a couple of hikes before I really came to realize how amazing a spot it is.

A brief history: Several decades ago, the Columbia White Tailed Deer was nearly extinct. As far as anyone knew (in the 1970’s), there was only a tiny isolated population found on an island in the Columbia river. But then it was discovered that there was also still a small population living in Douglas County near Roseburg. This habitat (the NBHMA) was at that time privately owned, and in 1994 the Bureau of Land Management acquired the area in a land exchange. The deer have since rebounded and were taken off the Douglas County endangered list in 2013. The park itself is over six thousand acres in size, or approximately ten square miles.

Personally I have hiked all over this place, but what I enjoy most are the really long ridge hikes that can easily exceed ten miles in length. The views on these particular hikes are superlative, with Mt. Scott looming to the northeast and the North Umpqua river winding its way to the south. It is also quite incredible how few people come here to hike. I don’t think I have ever seen more than five people in a single hike. Most times it seems as though it is completely empty.

My favorite of all the hikes I have completed so far is the East Ridge Loop (my name for it.) It is a combination of the Thistle Ridge-Middle Ridge to the Northgate junction, then east along the North Boundary Road/Ridge trail to the East Boundary Ridge trail in a massive, 13.5 mile loop (according to my GPS.) You gain about 1500 feet of elevation along the way and completely circumambulate a large valley. Along the way there are massive madrones, a nice rocky crag that is supposed to be a den for rattlesnakes, a weather station, endless hills and a Purple Martin sanctuary.

Recently I put together a video of the hike for a school project, and I am pleased to present it to you now. Rather than wax rhapsodic about the hike, I will just stop and let you watch the video. Enjoy!

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A new era of training

With my failure on Hood still eating at my soul, I have become very resolved to get my physical and mental condition in better shape than I ever have. In a sense, I was both blessed and cursed when I was a little younger, since I could basically go months without doing any kind of exercise, then get off the couch (metaphorically speaking) and go climb a mountain. At 42, I am discovering that I can no longer do that, and it certainly isn’t going to get any easier as I age.

I had been doing these five-mile walks from my house to Whistler’s Bend park and back, and I felt like I was in decent shape from doing them, but after Hood I realized that I needed to make them tougher, so I have walking with my backpack on, starting with about twenty pounds and gradually adding more weight. I am now carrying around 30 pounds. But even my walks are not nearly grueling enough to get myself in the shape I need to be in, so last Monday I went to the North Bank Habitat Management Area, a nearly 7000-acre park that is only ten miles from my house.

(The map below shows the area of the NBHMA)

I did a loop that is about 9.5 miles long, with cumulative elevation gains and losses that are probably over 2000 feet. Basically, it is a mini mountain-climb. I love going there. On Monday I saw more raptors (around 20) than people (zero). I am quite fortunate that this amazing park is so close to my house. I am going to go there again today. My goal is to do that loop at least once a week, but preferably two times each week. Combining that with my five-mile power walk three times a week, plus a new series of core exercises I am doing, and I will be in great shape. I am already getting there.

In a couple of weeks I plan on doing an even bigger loop at the North Bank Ranch (as it is known locally). By connecting trails, I ought to be able to do a fifteen-mile loop that will have cumulative elevation gains of closer to 3000′. Once I am in good enough shape to do that, then I will make it a weekly hike.

This is going to be great year in the mountains.

Failure and Success on Mt. Hood

The upper mountain from my high point at 10,700'

The upper mountain from my high point at 10,700′

Sunday the 20th was an amazing day on the mountain. Mild, mid-spring conditions (while the lower valleys were stuck in a frozen inversion pattern), brilliant sunshine, no wind and near-perfect snow for climbing. We left the parking lot at Timberline Lodge at approximately 3:10 a.m., and almost immediately my lungs were burning. Within half an hour I was already questioning whether or not I could climb the mountain. It was very frustrating. I had been training throughout most of the winter, and while I had been sick a few weeks earlier, I really thought I was essentially free from illness and fully expected to climb well that morning. So to struggle so quickly was really discouraging.

My climbing partner, Bill, who has climbed the mountain somewhere around 120 times, kept pushing me to continue, and I kept grinding it out, despite the burning in my lungs and the shaking of my legs. After a few hours, my lungs did actually start to feel better and I began to regain hope that I might make the summit.

When we reached the top of the Palmer Ski lift, around 8500′, we stopped to eat and rest for just a few short moments and Bill, who is also a nurse, got out his oxygen saturation/heart-rate monitor and we discovered that my heart rate, even after I had been resting for a few minutes, was in the mid-130’s, while his was about half of that. He expressed his concern about it, but also said that I was not showing any symptoms of anything else, and he believed we could continue safely.

The eastern rim of the crater of Mt. Hood

The eastern rim of the crater of Mt. Hood

So on we went. Shortly after heading past the top of the Palmer, the snow conditions were getting icier, so we decided to stop again and get on our crampons. Then we continued.

I also continued to struggle. Sometimes my lungs would be burning, and would also wheeze a little, but with Bill’s gentle prodding and my determination, I kept pushing, and inevitably  would feel better again.

When the sun began to rise around 7, we were greeted by a mountain that was otherworldly and fantastic, fluted ice pinnacles up high and snow slopes colored salmon by the rays of the morning sun. These are moments we mountaineers live for, and I was so glad to be there to witness it.

By this point I felt like there was a good chance I would make it to the summit. My wheezing had stopped and I was starting to feel better. Yet every time we stopped and took my pulse, it was still between mid-130’s and 140, and would not go down with rest. Bill was obviously very puzzled by it. I was able to talk while we walked, I wasn’t showing symptoms other than being really tired.

When we reached the base of Crater Rock, I really started to hit a wall. Obviously, elevation had a lot to do with how I was feeling, since we were now around 10,000 feet. But I was also starting to wheeze again and I just had no gas left in the tank. I fell further and further behind Bill at this point, and I was really beginning to doubt whether I would reach the summit or not.

When we reached the Hogsback, the traditional roping-up point for the final, steeper pitches above, I was spent, and wasn’t breathing too well. Bill took my pulse once more and it was around 140, and didn’t go down with rest. I decided that was enough. Since the sun was fully risen and its warmth was releasing a barrage of ice chunks every few minutes, I knew that I would be putting both of us in danger if I continued on. Speed would be required to get across the firing line, and that was something I was lacking. So I told Bill I would wait while he continued on.

I hated having to make that decision, yet at the same time I felt like in this case, it was the right one. I have stood on Hood’s summit before, and I am certain I will again, but I am not so summit-obsessed that I need to push myself too far. As it turned out, I am really glad I made that decision.

Bill headed up, and I retreated to a flat spot closer to Crater Rock where I could rest and relax and warm up in the sun. I took off my crampons, since my feet were getting cold and shot film while Bill zipped up the mountain. He actually had to dodge a mini-avalanche of ice chunks as he ascended — if I had been following him, I sincerely doubt that I would have had the energy to run out of their path like he did.

It probably took Bill forty-five minutes to make the trip to the summit and return, and when he did, we took my pulse again, only to discover that my HR had only dropped a few points despite a long time to rest. Obviously my body was feeling pretty tweaked.

I didn’t make the summit. Again, another winter failure, yet this one felt different. I had not been in pain, I had pushed myself (with some gentle prodding from Bill) and I had reached a point higher than any other mountain in Oregon. It was an ass-kicking training run, and it motivated me to train even harder before attempting it again, something I have been doing since I have returned.

In the end we figured that several factors had been effecting me on the mountain: 1) I was having a slight case of exercise induced asthma (I had asthma as a teenager but I rarely have been effected by it as an adult — in fact, I don’t even have inhalers of any kind) 2) Having been ill for almost a month and only getting better a few weeks before the climb and 3) Coming from near-sea level and driving up to 6000′ in only a few hours, then going even higher after that was also a mitigating factor in my performance. Looking at the climb knowing this has made it easier to digest my failure. In fact, it has made me pretty proud of my accomplishment in reaching the elevation that I did.

I have been working much harder at my conditioning in the week since I returned from Hood. I am now doing my five-mile power walks with close to thirty pounds in my backpack, I started doing a core-workout routine and yesterday I did a 9.5 mile, 2000+’ elevation gain hike with the same weight in the pack. A few more weeks of this type of conditioning and I will be ready to return to Hood.

Hood on the Horizon

Mt Hood from an earlier, successful climb

Mt Hood from an earlier, successful climb

Well, it looks like everything is falling into place for me to go to Mt. Hood over the next few days to make a winter attempt on this fair state’s highest peak. I wasn’t sure if things were going to work out, I wasn’t sure how I would be able to make the trip to Eugene, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to get there at all, but after contacting a few people, I was able to hitch a ride with Charles, my friend with whom I went to the Grand Canyon and South Sister. My bags are now packed, the gear is sorted, and I am really excited to meet up with Bill tomorrow.

Bill Soule is an amazing climber. He has summited Hood over 100 times, he has climbed all over the world and personally knows or has met a huge number of my climbing heroes. He has so many amazing and funny stories to tell, I am sure it will be a blast climbing with him.

Our plan is to head out of Eugene around 2 or 3 and arrive at Timberline Lodge in the evening. We are taking canopied pickup, and will crash out and try to get as much sleep as possible before waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning to head up. Probably won’t get a lot of sleep, but that is part of the Mt. Hood experience. Nevertheless, it should be fun.

I really hope I can summit this time. I am ready to make winter mountaineering a more regular part of my life, especially now that my pain issues seem to be a thing of the past. We shall see.

I will be taking both my video cameras, so I will have some spectacular footage when I return!

The ever-changing dynamics of life

A month ago I was standing on top of South Sister, the third highest mountain in Oregon. I had been ill for the previous few days and really had to push through the 5.5 miles and roughly 5000 feet of elevation gain in order to reach the summit. Unfortunately, I also made myself sick pretty bad and ended up missing a good chunk of school over the next week. I have some regrets over this. I should have just made myself go, but I wimped out and got myself way behind in my classes, and if I hadn’t done that, then I would not have had to withdraw from my classes like I did just a few days ago.

I am, at the present time, no longer in school.

A week and a half ago, I started having seizures, just little ones mind you, but nevertheless disconcerting and disturbing. I would be talking to someone and suddenly just not be able to see them anymore, they would just vanish before my eyes, I would no longer be able to see or hear them from anywhere from a second to five seconds, but when I come out of it, I am disoriented, faint and dizzy. I started having them anywhere from five to twenty of them a day. I ended up going to the hospital, spending the night and getting a whole battery of tests to make sure my heart and my circulatory system was operating properly. They could find nothing wrong with me (of course, they did not test for epilepsy or anything, just the really serious stuff like heart attacks and strokes.)

I have been finding it difficult to focus — something I have always struggled with — and reading especially seems difficult right now, and I ended up missing another week of school because I am struggling so badly to keep focused. Once that happened, I knew I was going to have to withdraw from school, which I did this last Friday. I am now on academic suspension, and I should be able to work my way back into school if I can get these damned seizures under control.

So what does this all mean for my outdoor life? Not really sure yet. There is a possibility that all of this is occurring because of the medication I have been taking for pain, and if that is the case, then I should stop having them as I slowly withdraw from the drug (this is not a medication you can just up and quit, so powerful is its physical dependence.) Yet if it is the drug, then that means that my chronic pain will also be coming back, not really something I am looking forward to.

But what if it isn’t the meds? Then what? Well, if I have somehow developed a form of epilepsy (I have a niece who was recently diagnosed with it, so there is some precedence for it) then that will definitely alter my climbing and my more extreme adventures in the future. Definitely will change my ability to do technical rock climbs and mountaineering. So I am really hoping it is the meds.

However, this also means that I will have more time to blog, at least for a little while.

There are so many unanswered questions in my life right now.

Alpinedon’s Climbing Guides: Castle Rock

The majestic Castle Rock in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness

Off the beaten path, hidden in an isolated valley, tucked away on the edge of the Rogue-Umpqua Divide Wilderness, Castle Rock is truly a forgotten crag. Located in Southern Oregon, this special place rewards the explorer with an enjoyable scramble through the heart of a virtually unknown rock.

The first, unspectacular view I had of Castle Rock. Forest fires were raging at the time.

I first saw this crag when I was helping my friend Jeff (who was a biologist for Fish & Game) look for a dead cougar along Rocky Ridge, also located in the Rogue-Umpqua Divide, and from that view it was nothing special, but it was my friend Mike who pushed me to go there with him (Mike is a disabled climber), and when we saw it from the south, it revealed itself as the spectacular wedge-shaped mountain seen in the picture above.

When we first approached Castle Rock, I kept telling Mike that I was sure there was no ‘easy’ way up, it certainly appeared that it was purely vertical, but to his credit, Mike kept insisting that we get closer and explore, and so I went along with him. When we reached the base of the rock, it still seemed like there was no scramble route, but as we traversed around its northern base, a steep gully appeared, and I headed up it to check it out, and when I reached the apex of the gully, a narrow break in the rock led west, up some steep ‘steps’ ten to fifteen feet tall. I told Mike about it, and he scrambled up the gully to join me. Once he had climbed up to where I was, I led up the first couple of steps, which, while exposed and covered in scree, was no more than class 4 climbing. When I had reached the ‘garden heart’ (as I named it) of Castle Rock, Mike once again climbed up to join me. From there, two more steps led to another dirty gully and a final step before the turreted summit. On the crown of it, we could see no evidence of any other climbers, no cairns, and certainly no summit register. I am certain that others had climbed it, but my guess would be that fewer than ten people had been up there before us.

Looking down the entrance gully from the top if the first step

I have returned multiple times to climb Castle Rock, and it has become one of my favorite scrambles in Oregon. I posted a page for it on SummitPost, and I know at least one other climber has climbed it as well. I plan on placing a summit register up there this summer.

Looking down at the first step from the top of the second step

Getting there: From Roseburg, Oregon, the easiest way to get there is to drive highway 138 east approximately 62 miles until you get to Watson Falls. Turn right on Fish Creek Road 37 for about 13 miles. Then turn right on Incense Cedar Loop Road 800 for 3.5 miles then turn right again on Fish Creek Valley Road 870. Follow this badly rutted and narrow road as it snakes it’s way into the wilderness, Continue until it ends at the base of Fish mountain. Note that Google Earth shows the road as 800 instead of 870 all the way to it’s end.

Dave & Mike on the summit of Castle Rock

From roads end, head north towards the top of the ridge, where a fun little crag should be scrambled to it’s top, at approximately 6000′. From there you can see the first good glimpse of Castle Rock, and the broad, forested ridge that leads you to it. Downclimb the crag and descend the ridge, keeping in a north-northwest direction. Follow the broad ridge for about half a mile until you reach the base of the rock. Make sure not to descend into the drainages to the east and west.
Once you arrive at the rock, the easiest way to find the route is to traverse east below the rock until you see the Big Cleft, the huge split in the rock with a loose gully at it’s base. Follow this gully (one person at a time) until you reach the obvious first step, to the east. Climb the first two steps, each about ten to fifteen feet high until you reach the Garden Spot, an open hollow in the very heart of the crag. Traverse around the left, stepping around an exposed spot and climb the third step, to the north, also about ten feet high. Take time to notice the hollowed-out cave underneath the third step. Then climb the fourth step, just above you, and follow a loose, dirty gully beside a surprisingly large fir-tree until you reach the fifth step, which is the summit tower. Descend the way you came.

Shadow of the crag on the forest below

The really cool aspect of this climb is that it literally snakes through the heart of the rock, you are surrounded by sheer walls on all sides. There are also really neat little caves, windows and arches all over the crag. Another fun thing to do is to circumambulate the rock, descending down the north side, around the west and back up the south side.

The ‘turreted’ top of Castle Rock
An unclimbed tower on Castle Rock

The Tao of Kayaking

The flow. That is what draws me to kayaking. I love rock climbing and mountaineering, and even though I always manage to get into that particular state of mind known as ‘the zone’ when I am climbing, it is still very much a struggle and a grind. You are constantly fighting gravity, always waging war with the forces of nature trying to slow or even stop you. There is very little of this when you kayak.

I also love whitewater rafting, but this still lacks the feeling of grace and unity with the water that you get when kayaking. My analogy for rafting compared to kayaking is this: Rafting is like driving a school bus through the rapids, it just plows through or over them, while kayaking the same current you are very much immersed in the act; it is more like driving a Ferrari. The big waves either crash over you or you flow over them. You really get an intense feel for the river.

I have a tremendous amount of respect for the river, equal to or exceeding the respect I feel for mountains or rocks, except with one major difference. For the most part, high peaks and crags change slowly, certainly mountains change from week to week and even day to day, but they are not constantly in motion like the water is, and that is a huge factor in the danger of river running compared to climbing. I explained it to some of my non-kayaking climbing buddies: Imagine if every hold you were reaching for shifted under your feet and hands.

Even though this makes kayaking in many ways more dangerous than climbing, it is also what compels me. That feeling of smooth flowing oneness with the water is such a bitchin’ rush, a powerful soul-narcotic, a liquid addiction. I have not kayaked nearly enough, and certainly I have far less experience as a boater than as a climber, but I am hoping that this year, especially since I now live on the North Umpqua, will see me gain a lot more knowledge and skill as a paddler. I have gotten out in my hardshell several times already, but since I do not have a skirt for it, I am limited to what I can do. And since I haven’t learned how to roll yet, this also limits my ability to use it in the big water.

This means that I am essentially limited to kayaking with my friends who have extra inflatable kayaks to use, not a particularly bad thing considering that my friend Brandon, whom I have kayaked with the most, lives about ten miles away and is generally available to run the river fairly regularly. My friend Scott, despite having moved to Texas several months ago, visits the area around once each month and he too, has spare boats for me to use.

There is something so magnificent about hitting a standing wave correctly, or choosing the right line for a big drop, it feels so incredibly good when you’ve done it right, and that is what I mean by the title of this blog. Taoism is about unity, but also duality, and that is the essence of kayaking. You are separate from the river, a (seemingly) solid being floating on liquid, and yet neither you nor the river is completely one or the other. You flow together as a unit, and become one. I can feel this so perfectly when I am on the water, and not just when I am crashing through whitewater either. In the flats, with the crystal clear river-bottom moving silently beneath you it is just as apparent, perhaps even more so. Fish dart past, river otters watch you cautiously before slipping below the surface, eagles and Osprey glide overhead, and you just move so easily from scene to scene, immersed in beauty and wonder.

It isn’t all flowing, of course, you have to fight very hard to stay in balance, you have to paddle like a crazy person to keep your boat from being tipped, tomb-stoned or tossed by the massive power of these huge rapids, but even this struggle is not the same struggle one finds in rock climbing. To run the gauntlets correctly, you have to find a line that will allow you to struggle/flow all at once. It is both, and it is neither, and that is another essence of Tao.

Let’s think about what the word Tao means. The most commonly known interpretation translates loosely to ‘the way’ or path or route (the Hanyu Da Zidian dictionary has 39 meanings for the word.) When kayaking (or rafting for that matter), you are taught to ‘read’ the river, to find the appropriate line through a passage of chaos, and I feel like this is where the path of river Taoism is best exemplified. When the water is calm, you can float almost anywhere on the river without worry of consequence, but when the rapids commence, picking the right way through is of absolute importance. You must find that line where you can be unified with the river, or else you will pay the price. Isn’t life the same way? Without some sense of unity and flow in our lives, we are beset by chaos and struggle, but when we find the way, things just tend to flow, and life is easier and more serene, even when times of conflict occur. We move smoothly when we are unified.

I will leave you now with a quote from 365 Tao, a daily reader of Taoist thought written by Deng Ming-Dao: “Therefore, tuning ourselves  to Tao is the basic task. We must make ourselves the perfect instrument, much in the way a beautiful harp has all its strings adjusted. If we are less than perfect, how will we harmonize with the universal music? Once we are attuned, we can become open to Tao. Where it leads, we follow without hesitation. Just as a musician expresses individual talent and understanding and yet blends with the swelling magnificence of the orchestra, so too does the follower of Tao remain human and yet in harmony with the universal.”

Namaste.