Pack Even Lighter
Posted on October 5, 2023
As I readjust my running vest at the base of Oregon’s Mount Hood, I’m surrounded by the beauty that follows such devastation from forest fires in a stark reminder of nature’s resilience. Multiple hours into a fastpacking objective along the Timberline and Pacific Crest Trails, we’re at mile 18 of our Mount Hood circumnavigation. We have ten more miles to run today—or more realistically, ten more miles to fast-walk up various sections of the 10,000 feet of elevation gain. Standing in the midst of nature’s epic rejuvenation, I hope to everything good and holy that I’ll be just as revived after a few nighttime hours lying horizontal in an emergency bivy at our upcoming camp spot.
Before this late summer trip, I had only ever run 13 miles in a row. Our goal today is to travel 28 miles from Timberline Lodge to Cloud Cap campground.
In the car on our four-hour drive south to Mt. Hood National Forest, my friend Brooke and I joke that fastpacking’s motto just might be “intentionally underprepared.” Not only is the marathon-plus length new to us, but we’ve never tried our hand at the trail-running-backpacking mashup. Some nerves linger in the air.
The night prior, I popped the tags off a new 20-liter fastpacking running vest and laid out everything I hoped to bring. It was instantly clear I’d need to make some cuts. Goodbye, down sleeping bag. Any hopes of a stove-warmed meal were dashed. Somehow, my three-and-a-half pound camera would make the journey. A tinge of nervousness creeped in with each mainstay I left behind.
But for all the quips about feeling underprepared, I know we’re not. Proof comes in the form of satellite SOS devices, wilderness medical training, premeditated bail points, and well-researched smoke forecasts. Maybe more importantly, we’re armed with countless days in the backcountry together, building rapport and decision-making skills under pressure. We marvel at how nice it is to do something outside without the nagging, very real fear of death around every corner. This isn’t mountaineering over icy crevasses or skiing in avalanche terrain. We’re just running. Far.
Spoiler alert: we make it to that camp. Never have I been more stoked to see a pit toilet and toilet paper. Mingling with others sharing the primitive camp, we’re jealous of their tents; they’re curiously concerned about our open-air sleeping pads.
Sometime after dark, I awaken in a damp bivy sack aching with cold. I’m not sure I was ever asleep; the “intentionally underprepared” philosophy feels intimately real, and regrettable, right about now. I pull the crinkling, reflective fabric around me and wait for a respectable time to wake up my fellow orange burrito lying in the dirt.
That sweet, golden light finally filters through the trees. Sunrise hits the mountain’s remaining glaciers with an especially flaming orange hue thanks to not-so-distant fires to the south, just another way something so devastating doubles as awe-inspiring beauty.
Getting up, I feel every one of those 28 miles. We have a handful more to cover today to complete our 41.5-mile loop. As we shake out stiff glutes and screaming ankles with some sandy uphill steps, I make a map in my head of the landscapes we’ve covered, and the conversation topics that have filled the hours. Mental landmarks are formed from contagious laughs, meticulous river crossings, and sections I spent trudging uphill while Brooke kept the pace up and energy high—and vice versa.
Running oh-so-slowly through volcanic sand reminiscent of a desert, I feel lucky: lucky to have friends who will join me in trying something bold and new; lucky to have smoke-free Pacific Northwest skies in late August; lucky to filter ice-cold water from glaciers so evidently in peril.
“Ready to run a bit?” I ask as we crest the high point of a glacier-carved canyon and see miles of downhill trail snaking through the sand below. From this eastern side of the mountain above the treeline, Mount Hood’s volcanic identity is evident in gray deposits along its rivers and the jagged, complex summit block formed by layered lava flows. The mountain is part of the larger Cascade Range, home to a string of other volcanoes like Mount Rainier and Shasta. While Hood’s last major eruption was recorded in 1781, hot springs and steam vents remain active. If the wind is just right, you can get a whiff of sulfur.
As I settle into a downhill flow, I’m almost surprised our plan is working. I took on this new way of experiencing the outdoors as somewhat of a test: Can my body do it? Can we complete the loop as planned? Will I enjoy it? The answer, I realize with a bit of celebration, is a resounding yes. With the end in sight, I breathe a sigh of relief I don’t know I am holding in. I haven’t realized I’ve been doubting my abilities and plans until I’m taken aback that everything is working out. Why is that a surprise?
For anyone—but especially women—in the outdoors, there is a consistent barrage of voices whispering, screaming, and posting to be careful, to be scared. I didn’t know that I internalized those voices until I was the one I had to prove wrong.
With a renewed sense of awe at this adventure somehow going to plan, I shift my focus to the sand beneath my feet. Each step feels like a trudge as we slip back a bit for every forward motion. Hour five above the treeline means uninterrupted summit views—but also five hours in the unrelenting sun. Between the sand, the sun, and the summit, I try to find the beauty in the ache of these last few miles. After all, the adventure is found in the journey, not the mountainside lodge and its famed buffet I can see across the final valley.
But sometimes, at mile 41, it is all about the destination.
Taylor is a writer and photographer in the outdoor editorial and commercial spaces based in Seattle, Washington. Learn more at taylormckenziephotography.com or follow Taylor on Instagram (@taylormckenzie_photo).