Three years ago, I climbed Table Mountain near the Columbia River Gorge in the Southwestern Cascades of Washington. On that trip, the weather was absolutely perfect and the view was astounding. Since then, I’ve tried to recreate that epic dayhike but failed miserably. The winter of 2012 whirled wet and rainy muck around the Portland area which meant buckets of snow were deposited on the summits of the Gorge mountains. I had to bail on two unsuccessful attempts thanks to snow – that white blanket that smothered the paths and lured us towards windswept cornices, forcing us to realize we were too inexperienced and ill-equipped for a summit attempt during a snowy winter:
The winter of 2013 I spent in Houston, wondering when I’d get the chance to climb Table again. Finally, with the permission from my boss to go home for Christmas, I flew back to PDX with a duffel stuffed full of winter gear (snowshoes, rope, ice axe, etc.) and eagerly made plans to climb it again with my sister. As my flight descended and the wobbly mountainous turbulence jostled my seat, I eagerly looking out the window toward where Table Mountain should have been. Clouds covered my view, and moisture gathered on the acrylic plastic that separated me from the elements. A few weeks later when we arrived at the trailhead, it was still pouring down rain, wrecking havoc with our photos. Nevertheless, we trudged up the mud-drenched forest road into the dark leafy gloom as rivulets of muddy runoff formed into streams on the trailside, polishing the pebbles that specked the cascadian floor and rushing over the forest detritus.
We stopped briefly under a canopy of dense evergreens to rearrange our gear before once more heading up that solitary path into the clouds.
After bearing right at the trail junction from the PCT and taking the Heartbreak Ridge trail towards the summit, we hiked up a strenuous 700 feet gain in the first half-mile from the junction before continuing on to the false summit. We gazed out upon the forsaken cliffs and tried to discern where the true summit was. The clouds were coming down upon us rapidly with wisps of snowflakes and sleet peppering our clothes, and it was still only about 11:00 am!
We kept moving, desperate to stay warm as the temperature began to plummet and the blood in our fingers, ears, and noses began to crystallize. We brushed through pockets of wet, slippery vine maple, decaying salmonberry, and thickets of vivid white snowberries, switchbacking up the mountain until we came to the Table Mountain Talus Climb. A rocky scramble awaited us and with careful haste, we picked our way up the slope as the snowfall increased in volume and the rocks became slippery.
After getting past the talus, we soon arrived, cold, wet, and hungry, at the summit of Table Mountain. We were enshrouded in a vast cloud, peppered by stinging snowflakes, and took temporary shelter in a small thicket of stumpy evergreens. I cautiously ventured out towards the Overlook, but after a few hundred yards, the billowing gusts of wind threatened to throw me and my pack off the mountain. I used my ice axe to stabilize myself in the gale and nearly lost my backpack’s raincover as it was torn off and plastered against several frozen shrubs. I wrestled with it, quickly winning and stuffing it into my outer pocket. I returned to the thicket where my sister was and we both hurried off the mountain.
We soon were back at the Talus Climb where the rocks were now covered with a thin sheen of verglas. Caution was of the uttermost as we slowly crept down the scramble. While not a SAD (slip and die), a slip here could definitely result in a twisted ankle or worse. And with the snow still coming down and now shooting upwards at us through this valley funnel, the situation could become vastly complicated. Slow is smooth, and smooth is fast was the motto for the descent.
After we got past the immediate danger of overexposure and gale-force winds, we explored along the base of the mountain, and soon found a massive cave surrounded by maple trees, swampy wet ferns, and prickly Oregon grape. We took a few photos and set off for the trailhead. The rain picked up, and we were thoroughly soaked by the time we reached our vehicle.
A Return to Heartbreak Ridge…