Timberline Lodge Bike Proposal

Post Canyon free ride circuit near Hood River (The Oregonian)

The Timberline Resort is proposing to build 15 miles of downhill-only bicycle play trails along their lower ski slopes, below the main lodge parking area. The trails will require clearing mountain vegetation, including alpine trees up to half-a-foot in diameter, and building a series of jumps and ramps for bikes. The “downhill only” design relies on chairlifts to carry bikers back up the mountain, and is presumably aimed at younger cyclists.

You don’t have to be against mountain bikes to be skeptical about the Timberline Ski Resort proposal to build 15 miles of bike trails on the slopes below Timberline Lodge. You simply have to wonder why here? Why now?

Comments on the scoping phase of this proposal are due soon (July 30), so now is the time to weigh in. This article covers some of the questions the Forest Service should be addressing in their review of this proposal.

A solution looking for a problem?

This clip shows a portion of the maze of proposed bike play trails

The Forest Service scoping letter states “Oregon is considered the mountain biking capital of the Northwest and more people per capita have bicycles in Portland than any other city in the country. However, there are few Oregon ski areas that offer full-service, lift-assisted mountain biking for all ability levels.”

This is one of those leading-the-witness statements that you might expect to hear from the Timberline Resort, as the profit-seeking concessionaire, not from the Forest Service — who we might expect to be the cautious guardian of our mountain.

Oregon may be the mountain biking capital, and there are surely a lot of Portlanders with mountain bikes, but it’s a leap to assume that Portland’s cyclist are lacking for ski-lift-assisted bike playground. So, the first scoping question for the Forest Service:

1. What is the national demand for ski-lift-assisted bike trails? What is the demand in Oregon? What is the demand at Mount Hood?

If the Forest Service cannot demonstrate unmet demand for ski-lift-assisted bike trails, then this proposal should be denied.

It’s really about lift tickets, not bikes

The proposal includes another “skills park” on Mount Hood, duplicating Ski Bowl

So, why the sudden interest in building more bike play trails on Mount Hood?

The answer is fairly simple: the Timberline Resort is looking to sell more summer lift tickets, bike rentals, concessions and hotel reservations. That’s pretty much it. Right now, the Timberline operators can look down from the hotel balcony in summer, and see the lifts at Mount Hood Ski Bowl carrying bikers up the slopes of Multorpor and Tom Dick and Harry Mountain. Who can blame them for wanting to steal some of that business?

But this raises another series of questions for the scoping:

2. Would the Timberline proposal cannibalize the Mount Hood Ski Bowl bike operations? Would this, in turn, jeopardize the viability of the Ski Bowl resort, which has no Palmer Lift and summer skiing to round out its winter profits?

Given that Timberline has a summer skiing program, Mount Hood Ski Bowl should be given priority in meeting whatever demand exists for ski-life-assisted bike trails. If excess demand doesn’t exist, the Timberline proposal should be denied.

Mount Hood Ski Bowl already provides lift-assisted bike trails and a skills park

Authorized vs. Unauthorized Damage?

The Forest Service scoping letter states “because of limited managed mountain biking areas on public land the Forest Service is seeing an increase in unauthorized free-ride mountain biking areas. These illegally constructed trails are creating resource damage as they appear throughout Oregon’s public lands.”

This raises another question for the project scoping:

3. Where is “resource damage” resulting from mountain biking? What sort of damage is being done? How have mountain bikes been identified as the source of the damage?

The scope letter also states “a managed, well designed, downhill-only, mountain bike trail system and skills park in Northwestern Oregon would provide an opportunity for safe, managed mountain biking and reduce unauthorized mountain biking and thereby could reduce associated resource damage on public lands.”

Another case of leading the witness — in this instance, a leap from rogue mountain bikers building illegal trails to those seeking “well designed, downhill only” trails with a “skills park”, which just happens to be what the Timberline resort wants to build on our public land. This statement fits the old adage “when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

Ironically, on mountain bike trails elsewhere in the Mount Hood National Forest, downhill riding is prohibited in order to “prevent erosion”, according to the Forest Service trail signage. Does this suggest that the “downhill-only” trails proposed by Timberline will be inherently erosion-prone?

This issue raises still more scoping questions:

4. How is “downhill-only” bike demand measured, as opposed to the demand for bicycle trails, in general? How would the “authorized” construction of 15 miles of downhill-only bicycle trails at the Timberline resort compare with the “unauthorized” areas in terms of tree removal and trail construction?

If the Forest Service analysis shows that forest ecosystems in the fragile alpine areas around Timberline are more vulnerable to erosion than other areas, or that “downhill-only” bicycle travel increases erosion risk, the Timberline proposal should be denied.

Ski Bowl just added a free ride park in 2009 -- are we witnessing an arms race between the resorts?

You’re on my land!

One of the more troubling aspects of any proposal coming from the Mount Hood area ski resorts is their attitude of entitlement toward use of public land. Not surprisingly, few among the public are aware that the resorts exist wholly on public land, leased from the U.S. Forest Service.

As such, every expansion proposal should be viewed with skepticism, since they generally represent another slice of natural ecosystem being carved away — as the Timberline proposal does.

Putting the relationship in urban terms, consider how the public would react if a private, for-profit enterprise proposed a fee-based play area within a city park, maybe starting with small corner, then coming back every few years, asking to fence off a bit more of the lawn in order to stay profitable. At what point is it the obligation of the public to ensure profitability?

Unfortunately, the U.S. Forest Service has a developed a bias toward the “viability” argument, and has a history of ceding more public land to the resorts under the rationale of keeping them in business. This is a very slippery slope, and only leads to more development on the mountain. In this case, it raises another question for the scoping phase of the proposal:

5. What is the financial argument for this proposal from the Timberline resort? Is the resort suffering financial losses during the summer (or winter) months that this proposal is intended to stem?

If the Forest Service finds that the proposal is primarily driven primarily by private financial interests, not measurable public demand, the proposal should be denied.

Another Way

The Mount Hood National Park Campaign proposes hundreds of miles of new mountain biking trails, many from converted logging road that provide an exceptional opportunity to expand the bike network (click here to view the maps).

Instead of relying on chairlifts and lift tickets, the Campaign proposals focus networks of overlapping loops, with lots of possibilities for varied terrain to create an exciting, healthy cycling experience. The proposals are designed to meet different skill levels and be easily accessed from nearby communities. Most importantly, they are designed to place mountain biking within financial reach of a broad range of income levels — something the ski resorts don’t pretend to do.

The proposed Blue Ridge Highlands bicycle network

(click here to view a larger map)

Note that there are no “skill parks” in the Mount Hood National Park proposals, as they don’t really belong in a national forest, much less a national park. But there are plenty of state and private land opportunities for developing skill parks in the area, and of course, we already have a fee-based concession at the Mount Hood Ski Bowl resort.

Besides, if the economic model for Timberline involves charging cyclists to pay for access to a skill park, why not let the free market provide this on private land under a similar fee system, in closer proximity to Portland, and away from sensitive alpine terrain?

A better alternative in the near term for addressing the “unauthorized” trails issue is to work with an advocacy group, like the Columbia Area Mountain Bike Associates (CAMBA), to develop a low-or-no-fee extreme biking/play park area on less sensitive land closer to Portland.

One such site already exists by permission on private, state and county-owned land in the Post Canyon area, near Hood River, and another known as Black Rock, near Falls City. These sites were developed largely with private donations of time, labor and materials, and there’s no reason why other similar areas couldn’t be developed outside the national forest to meet whatever demand might exist.

The Forest Service scoping letter states “further development of this area is supported by existing infrastructures such as parking lots, restrooms and signage.” If these are the principal arguments for further commercialization of the fragile mountain ecosystem, then it’s obvious that signs, a parking area and restroom at some other site could be built, perhaps entirely with private funds.

Teacup Lake Nordic Club developed their groomed trail network in cooperation with the U.S. Forest Service

A perfect model for this alternative approach already exists: the non-profit Teacup Lake Nordic Club cabin and ski trail complex, near Bennett Pass. This fine destination provides an affordable alternative to the nearby Mount Hood Meadows commercial venue, with club members asked to make a modest donation in order to use the extensive ski trail complex.

A similar approach could be used to provide more services at sites like Post Canyon or Black Rock, and this leads to the final question that the Forest Service should address during this scoping phase:

6. What opportunities exist for the Forest Service to work with non-profit and community organizations to provide free-ride bike parks on less sensitive lands than the alpine areas below Timberline Lodge?

If there are community partners out there with an interest in pursuing a more affordable, sustainable alternative to a lift-based bike park (including private, state and county land owners) then the the Timberline proposal should be denied.

You can find more on how to comment at the Mount Hood National Forest site: Timberline Mountain Bike Proposal. If you don’t make the requested July 30 deadline, don’t be afraid to submit your comments late. The Forest Service will continue to accept them because, after all, YOU own the land.

Addendum: Read Dennis Chaney’s Op-Ed on the proposal (PDF)

Hiroshima Rock Centennial (1910-2010)

Hiroshima Rock and Mount Hood

Today marks the centennial of a Japanese climbing expedition to the summit of Mount Hood on July 17, 1910. The achievement would probably be forgotten by now, except for the visitors carving a record of their ascent into a glacier-polished andesite boulder at the crest of Cooper Spur.

The boulder is now informally known as “Hiroshima Rock”, and a familiar feature to generations of hikers and climbers who have since passed this spot.

Detail of Hiroshima Rock

Little is recorded about the expedition, even in the gold standard of Mount Hood history — Jack Grauer’s Complete History of Mount Hood — though the arrival of a Japanese climbing expedition surely must have been reported in the local press of the time. Lacking that written history, what follows is my own speculation on the climb.

The inscription contains both English and Japanese text, and supposedly the Japanese portion identifies the expedition as originating from Hiroshima. It is not surprising that a Japanese expedition would seek out Mount Hood. Mountain climbing had blossomed as a sport in Japan in the late 1800s, just as it had in Europe and the United States.

But the Japanese interest in climbing mountains had deeper roots, dating back centuries to the earliest spiritual pilgrimages to mountain peaks — most notably, Fujiyama.

“The Pilgrimage” captures the long Japanese tradition of mountain climbing for spiritual purposes

It is therefore not surprising that a group who had likely climbed Mount Fuji numerous times was drawn to Mount Hood, on the opposite side of the Pacific. Both peaks are part of the Pacific “Ring of Fire”, and share a common volcanic origin. Yet, Mount Hood would have been a more technical climb, with its steep, deeply eroded slopes and tumbling glaciers.

It is also likely that the Japanese party stayed at Cloud Cap Inn, or at least stopped there, since the inn was still operating in 1910, under the management of Horace Mecklem, and would have likely been snow free in mid-July. At the time, the Cooper Spur route was the most popular ascent, since Cloud Cap Inn provided the best access to the mountain.

Traditional Japanese spiritual quest to Fujiyama

Given the very active climbing schedule of the Mazamas in the early 1900s, it is also likely that the Mazamas were involved in the Japanese expedition, or at least aware that a group from Japan was on the mountain.

The Japanese expedition likely used similar climbing tools to what Europeans and Americans employed at the time: layered clothes, knapsacks and alpenstocks. The photos below are LIFE archival images from the late 1940s that capture the look and feel of Japanese climbs just after the war. These images probably give a fair sense of what the 1910 climbers must have looked like.

Japanese climbing expedition on Fujiyama in 1948

Japanese climber on Fujiyama with Lake Kawajuchi in background in 1948

The second image from the LIFE series is interesting in that it shows the climber wearing traditional Japanese tabi, or toe shoes (see detailed view, below). Modern tabi are still widely worn today in Japan, and as anyone who hikes knows, modern toe shoes are a popular new trend in the U.S., too.

Detail showing a Japanese climber wearing tabi, or toe shoes

So, why did the expedition carve their record into the rock on Cooper Spur? The most obvious explanation is simply posterity, since it was common in that era to carve your legacy into rocks or trees in a way that we would find unacceptable today.

But a more intriguing possibility might be that that expedition was holed up on Cooper Spur, perhaps stalled by bad weather, or simply setting up a base for the final ascent. This might explain the time it would have taken to chisel the Hiroshima Rock message into a very hard chunk of andesite — an effort that would likely take hours to complete.

For now, the details appear to be lost in time. But the legacy of the inscription is an elegant reminder that attraction of Mount Hood drawn visitors from around the world from the very beginning, and still does.


Chiyoko & friends celebrating at Cooper Spur (Photo Courtesy Guy Meacham)

Just after posting this article, I learned that Guy and Chiyoko Meacham led a group up to Hiroshima Rock on July 18, 2010 to celebrate the centennial (plus one day) and Chiyoko’s birthday (to the day). After cake and champagne, Chiyoko translated the Kanji inscriptions to read:

Left side: Mie Ken Jin – Ito (Person from Mie State, [Mr.] Ito)

Right side: Hiroshima Ken Jin (Person from Hiroshima State)

English portion:

July 17th 1910
[Mr.] S. Takahashi

You can read the entire trip report and see their beautiful photos over at the Portland Hikers site: click here

Illuminating Mount Hood

A lenticular cloud hovers over Illumination Rock on a warm August evening

Visitors to Timberline Lodge cannot help but notice the huge monolith on the southwestern shoulder of Mount Hood parting the Reid and Zigzag glaciers. This 9,543 foot spire is Illumination Rock, and a signature feature on the mountain.

What few visitors know is that the rock gained its name in the early days of mountaineering on Mount Hood, when a series of expeditions were made to illuminate the mountain so that it might be seen from Portland.

Several of the early lighting schemes focused on the steep saddle above Illumination Rock, though other spots were attempted over the years, including the crater and even the summit of the mountain.

Illumination Rock and saddle, above the Zigzag Glacier

In modern times, such a scheme would involve riding a snow-cat loaded with fireworks from Timberline Lodge to the edge of the Zigzag Glacier, then using skis or sleds to reach Illumination Rock. But in the late 1800s, this effort was much more daunting.

The trip began with a day-long wagon (or horseback) ride from Portland to Government Camp on the old Barlow Road. From there, the expeditions spent the next two days hauling their explosives up the 6,000 feet and six miles to Illumination Rock – there was no convenient road to timberline, and no lodge there, yet.

Some of the expeditions used horses to pull heavy sleds, while others relied on human power to carry the fireworks to the top of the mountain. In the 1800s, the Zigzag Glacier also presented a more dangerous barrier than exists in modern times. The glacier was much larger, and the illumination teams were very much in danger of falling into crevasses.

Illustration from the 1887 expedition

The early adventurers also lacked communication that we take for granted today. A modern illumination effort would almost surely rely on cell phones for coordination and safety, while the early efforts relied on pre-arranged times to communicate with signal flares and mirrors.

The first recorded illumination occurred in 1870, when Perry Vickers climbed to the summit and set off several magnesium flares to celebrate July 4. The displays were seen from below on the mountain, but not from Portland.

Vickers campaigned for a larger display with potential financial backers in Portland, and staged a second display of flares in 1873. Attempts by other groups in 1877 failed due to the extreme conditions on top of the mountain. So far, no display had been seen from Portland.

The 1887 Expedition

On July 1, 1887, a blue ribbon expedition departed for Mount Hood with 100 lbs of flammable “red fire” powder and a plan to illuminate the mountain on the evening of July 4. The expedition was led by William Gladstone Steel, the legendary “Father of Crater Lake National Park” and irrepressible force of nature in his time.

1887 photo essay

Steel’s group reached Government Camp on July 2, and established a base camp high on the mountain the next day, after a difficult and sometimes harrowing trip up the mountain. The weather was bitterly cold on July 4 when the party made the final ascent to Illumination Rock, crossing the treacherous Zigzag Glacier.

Steel and Dr. J.M. Keene set up a high camp near the rock, where the illumination would occur. The rest of the party descended back to the base camp below timberline to watch and wait for dark to fall, and the scheduled lighting of the mountain. Steel and Keene finally lit the red fire powder at 11:30 PM, and the display on the mountain was easily seen from Portland, Salem and many other communities around the mountain.

The adventure for Steel and Keene did not end there, however. Upon their nighttime descent from the rock to the base camp, the pair slipped partway into a crevasse while crossing the Zigzag Glacier. After this narrow miss, they became disoriented, and missed the base camp by a mile, spending most of the night in an improvised camp below timberline before the searchers from the rest of the expedition found them.

New York Times account of the July 4, 1887 illumination

The story of the first successful lighting of Mount Hood on July 4, 1887 was a local sensation, and was recounted in newspapers around the country (see New York Times accounts, above and below). The success of the 1887 effort led to a repeat climb in 1888, also led by Will Steel, and several subsequent efforts over the years that followed.

New York Times account of the July 4, 1887 illumination

1969 Mazama project

The last formal illumination effort came in 1969, celebrating the 75th anniversary of the founding of the Mazamas. Compared to the earliest attempts, this lighting extravaganza was modern in every way, but the William Gladstone Steel connection persisted: Steel was a founder and elected the first president of the Mazamas when the club formed on the summit of Mount Hood in 1894.

The 1969 expedition carried boxes of flares, mortars and rockets to the 9,000 foot level of the mountain in a snow-cat, then teams of Mazamas went to work carrying the fireworks to designated spots around the crater and along the summit ridge. Dozens of rockets and hundreds of flares were positioned for the display.

William Gladstone Steel and the first Mazama board in 1895

On the evening of July 19, interviews with climb leaders were broadcast live on a Portland radio station. Later, Governor Tom McCall dedicated the lighting ceremony by telephone, paying tribute to the fact that, on that day, the Apollo 11 astronauts had just landed on the moon, which shone full on Mount Hood that night.

The Mazama lighting was the most spectacular in the history of the illumination efforts, lasting nearly ninety minutes, and lighting the mountain for miles in all directions. Consistent with the modern times and their stewardship mission, the Mazamas volunteers spent the next day carefully retrieving mortars and spent flares from the slopes of Mount Hood, removing all traces of the lighting from the mountain.

The Legacy

Given the expanded wilderness protections that now encompass much of the mountain, it is unlikely that we will ever see another illumination of Mount Hood. Instead, we are left with news accounts, sketches and photographs of a bygone era — though Mount Hood may someday emerge from dormancy, and provide some lighting of her own!

William Gladstone Steel in the late 1800s

According to Oregon Geographic Names, it was the first successful illumination of the mountain in 1887 that gave Illumination Rock its name, though many illumination efforts took place near the rock over the years.

For his part, William Gladstone Steel was honored by the naming of Steel Cliff, the wall of rock that frames the east side of the crater, and that was lit up by many of the illumination displays. Steel is also honored for his relentless 17-year effort to create a national park at Crater Lake by the naming of Steel Bay, along the north shore of the lake.

With these names on our modern-day maps, we are forever reminded of the unique spirit and imagination of the early mountain explorers.