Friday, May 29, 2015

Smith Rock State Park, Oregon

I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body, at least not in the conventional sense. The pleasure of hard-nosed science smacks me with something called “reality”. But this doesn’t dull my sense of awe and wonder at natural beauty such as Smith Rock.  I felt as though drawn to this wonderful place…an unexpressed destiny…somehow maintaining its pristine appearance through the millennia. My newfound friends – the reason for my visit – exhorted me to “Go to Smith Rock”, and I did, and they were right. Truly spectacular.
Southern point of Picnic Lunch Wall
A local runner was gearing up when I arrived. We discussed route options and I picked his brain. I wanted a decent amount of mileage, a lot of climbing and a full tour of the park – the route was obvious. He was heading the same initial direction but to a different location. It was warm and due to become very warm
Passing impressive pinnacles on the Wolf Tree trail
I passed the local runner shortly after the initial descent alongside the Crooked River. I wasn’t going particularly fast and he was about 20 years younger. That competitive spirit never dulls.

After 1.25 miles the serious climbing started – a consistently steep trail for 1.5 miles with no shade in full sun. It was brutal but I pressed on. The single ascending switchback enabled me to gain height quickly and as I turned to complete the last section to the crest of the trail I could see the local runner a long way below. At the top of the crest I had taken almost 12 minutes out of him in a single mile.
Was it really that steep to the summit?
The choice at the top seemed obvious – the main trail I would eventually take along the valley rim was ahead, but an outrageously steep, loose trail took on the mountain summit to my right. It had to be done. It was lung-busting and insecure. Each step had tentative traction and often I would stride up and find myself back in my starting position – so much loose rock it was like climbing on marbles.

It was thankfully short, but the effort was excessive and I was blowing hard as the angle eased. I was able to jog and then run as the final summit block approached. The view was incredible – 1500’ of vertical ascent in 1.5 miles. It’s been a long winter and I haven’t enjoyed myself so much for a long time. I just can’t wait for the high altitude mountains to thaw out!!

The descent was a wicked combination of foot sliding and braking in an attempt to not completely lose control, but it was a short affair and soon I was pounding along to valley rim trail skirting beautiful magma pinnacles and rock faces. I stopped many times for photographs and although this slowed me up a lot, I could not resist.
View from the summit
Outside of Colorado, and my home trip around the Wasdale peaks in Cumbria, UK, this is, without doubt, my favorite running place. It also edges out the ascent of Table Mountain from Hellenbosch near Cape Town, South Africa, which has long held a special place in my memory. It’s that good.
Beautiful descent below the Monkey Face pinnacle

The final section of the descent to the base of Monkey Face is beautiful – verdant green pastures, crystal blue river, and golden magma towers. It is captivating and makes the running exhilarating. The volcanic push that formed this environment  10’s of millions of years ago achieved the appearance of design – indeed, there are nutcases out there who believe the whole deal was the result of a global flood 6000 years ago, but they are the ones watching the Flintstones thinking it is a documentary. No time for such nonsense today. I took the harder detour to the true base of the Monkey Face and chatted briefly with some climbers who were launching up the popular 5.8 route. I wish I could have joined them!!

They were the first people I had met all day, but I soon started picking up hikers as I rounded the final turn next to the river and headed north back towards the start. I could hear the echoing voices of climbers at different places but couldn’t pick them out through the glare of the sun. Arriving back at the bridge I had the final ascent back to the car and this involved picking my way through bunches of hikers descending to the valley.
Not quite a spring chicken, but feeling great towards the end of a wonderful run
I felt tired yet fulfilled. I pondered the many different running options in this magnificent park and vowed to return for more…particularly for the climbing. I didn’t waste my time and had checked out every rock face approach and descent as I ran and I had a mental image to return to for future visits.

Arriving back at the car with the temperature hitting 80 degrees, a hiker wearing a full pack, heavy twill trousers and a waterproof jacket asked me what conditions were like at the bottom of the valley. I briefly considered whether he was serious before quickly realizing that he was. I imperiously glanced in the direction of the valley from which I came, shirtless and sweating and, with due sincerity, said “Button up, it’s wild and windy down there.” There’s one born every minute – Forrest Gump minus the intellect.