Mt. Hood Mountain Bike Adventure EVEN with Arthritic Knees

Aug 25, 2016

Life is much better on a bike (when you have arthritic knees, that is).

I learned that lesson again AFTER a 4 day mountain bike adventure at Mt. Hood, Oregon.   But I'll get to the DON'T after I tell you about all of the DOs.

You probably know by now that cycling has helped save my knees.  Short back story - I was diagnosed with severe arthritis in one of my knees at age 24 and was advised to stop all impact sports or face the harsh reality of not being able to walk without great pain.  I took that advice and turned to riding my bicycle - and my many bikes over the 30 years since then have taken me on many wonderful adventures.  Sure, I still have some knee pain (especially when I do things in my "DON'T" Category) and I have found that if I stick to the activities that I know will HELP my knees, not hurt them, then I am much happier and more pain free.

You can learn all about my DO's and DONT's in my book Healthy Knees Cycling.

But I want to share with you my adventure cycling trip around Mt. Hood, Oregon.  This was an industrial adventure - not for the unprepared as you will read.  I will preface this story with the caveat that I am an avid cyclist.  I ride at least 4 times per week (including indoor training when it gets nasty and dark outside) to maintain my healthy knees, my fitness, and manage my weight.  Yes...I have to think about that too, just like you.  I recommend a minimum of 2X cycling per week to improve your knees - and you can start small as recommended in Healthy Knees Cycling and grow your strength and stamina.

My husband (Doug) and I joined an old friend, Pete, and one of his buddies, Harry, for this 4 day, hut to hut ride around the mountain.  The huts were stocked with "food" (more on THAT later), a cooler full of beverages, sleeping bags, propane lights and cook burners, and water.  We carried our clothes, sleeping bag liner, daytime food, and about 120 ounces of water (every drop was needed each day!)And we begin!

This trip was out there.  Off grid, in the forests and we were psyched.  We got maps and GPS coordinates from Cascade Huts which warned us about being prepared (thankfully we never needed the snake bite kit that we brought along).

DAY 1 Hood River to Surveyors Ridge Hut - 27 miles and 6,100 feet elevation gain

This pretty much was an all day climb in 90 degree + heat with clear skies and only a breath of wind.  A true test of training  and it soon became clear that we all could have been far better prepared.  We started with a climb and descent with beautiful views out over the Columbia River and turned toward the mountain to navigate about 20 miles up along many unmarked forest service roads.  At about mile 19 and 6 HOURS of riding, our friend Pete said he had enough.

IMG_5408   IMG_5411   IMG_5413

His hamstrings were toast.  We were faced with a tough decision:  keep going and risk exhaustion, or turn around and ride down when we were already very tired and risk crashing.  We ultimately decided to take it slow and continue to the hut and see how we all felt in the morning.  One or all of us would walk with Pete up the steepest parts of the continuing climb, punctuated with many rest breaks.  We finally reached the hut in 4 more hours.IMG_5425IMG_5457

The hut was a simple cabin with 8 bunks, a food locker stocked with non-perishables that would make any 18-year old college dorm kid happy - think Cheez-Its, cracker packs, popcorn, loads of energy bars, Snickers bars, along with Spam, canned fruit cocktail, Krusteaz pancake mix, dried pasta, and even dried egg powder.IMG_5426

We gorged on Gatorade and potato chips, then chef Harry settled in to making us a fine meal of canned spaghetti sauce with fresh onion and olives, pasta, and optional sauteed canned chicken.  Just beyond our hut, down a short trail (on which we saw very large footprints of a cougar!), was an outstanding view of Mt. Hood.  Fed, rested, and feeling alone in this vast wilderness enjoying this spectacular view made us all think that this first very hard day was worth it.

DAY 2 Surveyors Ridge Hut to Barlow Road Hut - 36 miles and 4,400 feet elevation gain

After a sound sleep and hearty pancake breakfast (thanks again to Harry!), we packed up with the hopes that we'd all continue to the next hut.  Not a mile or two later, Pete made the wise decision that he should not continue.  We had another big day of climbs and he felt his legs were not up to the task.  This was very disappointing to us all, but the smartest thing to do.  Pete and Harry returned to Hood River and Doug and I continued on.  We made a tentative plan to meet up at Government Camp on Day 3.

Yesterday was riding all roads, today we got our tires onto 10 miles of single track along IMG_5491   Surveyors Ridge Trail.  We were treated to spectacular views of Mt. Hood interspersed with forest riding in the shade of the tall fir and pine trees.  Then came the relentless 1,700 foot 5-mile climb on road to the high point of the trip at 6,000 feet. Doug began to recognize the immediate meaning of my call for "FOOT IMG_5490DOWN" so that I/we could take a little break.  It was so steep that it was hard to get pedaling again without spinning out.

Feeling quite proud of ourselves, we ate our PB&J sandwiches while lounging on rocks at 6,000 feet and, from the direction we were about to go, up pedaled two guys that, frankly, looked like they were out for a day ride.  One of them had a basket on the front of their bike and looked like he could have been son of Weird Al Yankovich - skinny guy, long black hair, 1970's-ish bike shorts and a sparkly tight tank top.  What the?  They were joined by the 3rd in their group, a young woman on a cruiser bike.  They were free camping and riding on to find the creek for water.  Wow - they made me feel over prepared and unhip.  Whatever.  I like my full-suspension very much and boy was I glad I had it for the next section of the ride.  This is when I wished I looked at the ride profile a bit closer.

We were treated to a 1,300 foot descent on a bumpy, rocky, washed out forest service road IMG_5498followed by what I hadn't expected, an 1,100 foot tough climb.  This saddle showed on our profile map but in none of the descriptions.  It was hot, my legs were tired, but we made it to the top and bombed down about 10 miles of a long lovely descent finishing with the Barlow Road (part of the Oregon Trail) along the White River to our hut.  We learned to love the locked gate that preceded each hut by about a mile.  Both Doug and I were tapped out and the sandy road with a final gentle climb was way more work than it ought to be.  It was a quiet night with just the two of us in the hut and a can of Dinty Moore Stew over noodles.  Goodnight.

DAY 3 Barlow Road Hut to Lolo Pass Hut - 43 miles (well, 49 miles) and 5,000 feet elevation gain

We enjoyed cowboy coffee and a pancake with peanut butter and canned peaches breakfast outside our hut and hit the road at about 8:30am.

We followed the historic Barlow Road past camping areas and through peaceful and beautiful IMG_5508    old growth forests to an early post-breakfast steep and rugged climb to Barlow Pass which was the first road over the Cascade Range established in 1845.  We got cell reception at the top and learned that Pete and Harry were waiting for us at Government Pass, about 6 miles away via a saddle on paved road and highway.

Ah, it was good to see our friends who were ready to ride!  They joined us for delicious breakfast burritos at the Summit Cafe.  We were all looking forward to the promise of the next leg in our journey:  the Pioneer Bridle Trail, a 9-mile single track IMG_5519descent toward the town of ZigZag.  To get to the start of the trail, we had a steep climb up but, before long, Pete announced he wasn't going ahead.  The hamstrings were not bouncing back.  Another smart decision considering the miles and climbs to end our day.  Pete returned to the car at Government Camp and Harry continued along with us.

The Pioneer Bridle Trail and was a HOOT!  Bumpy in places, but not very technical, means we bombed down it with great joy as a reward for all the climbing of the days before.  Before starting our last leg of the day, you guessed it, another 2,000 foot climb, we stopped for lunch of canned chicken salad (NOT recommended) and an energy bar.  We had the brilliant idea to call Pete (we still had service) and tell him to meet us at the hut for the night.  He could drive as far as the locked gate and ride in from there.  The plan was made!  We took the alternate non-highway route which was longer and a little more climbing, but hardly any cars.  By this time in the journey, we were stinky, sweaty, my legs were very tired, and my butt hurt even more.  When we saw an easy access across a bridge to the White River, it too much to pass up.  That cold water worked miracles on my legs and hiney.  A little soak went a long way to sooth my pains and invigorate my spirit.

IMG_5530    IMG_5532

Insert wrong turn.  Between the maps and the GPS we were spot on in our travels, until we came to a fork in the road and checked our location.  Ruh-roh, remember the bridge over the river?  We weren't supposed to go over it and we didn't figure that out until 3 miles uphill later.  But really, that was OK - it was a beautiful road through high mountain forest. So we turned around and got back on course.  For me, this final climb was the hardest climb of all and seemed to go on forever.  For Doug, the chicken salad in a can was making a quick exit and he looked ashen.  Harry led the charge up the climb.

IMG_5568Our final hut at Lolo pass was the most picturesque with Mt. Hood squarely behind it.  Pete and Harry surprised us with bottles of wine for our spaghetti dinner and we were all glad to be reunited for this last night on the adventure.  While we were washing dishes outside, we heard a "Woah-whoa-whoa-whoa" IMG_5564hoot out of Pete and we think he'd seen a bear or something.  But no, it was much better than that.  We watched the magic as the "blood moon" rose over Mt. Hood in a perfect capstone to our adventure.

Day 4 Lolo Pass to Hood River - 34 Miles and all downhill

We had the option to take a longer route (and more climbing) but somehow we missed the turn.  All downhill was OK with me!

And in The END...

We totaled 17,400 feet of climbing and 146 mountain bike miles.  Would I recommend this route?  If you are looking for a challenging, climbing, mountain bike adventure and don't mind mostly road riding with many miles, then yes.  The views all around Mt. Hood (along with views to Mt. Adams, Mt. St. Helens, and even Rainier) are outstanding.  Prepare for it with big rides and many miles and hours on your mountain bike.  At the end, the four of us met in Hood River, ate pizza and drank a cool beer toasting this grand adventure.

Do's and Dont's

Do train well for your adventures...

Don't go for a 5 mile all up/all down hike after a big cycling trip when you've already stressed your knees!

Do plan a challenging adventure...

Don't think you can "just do it" because you used to do that kind of stuff all of the time.

Do stick to the activities that make you feel good.

Pick up more DO and DON'T tips that will help you feel better!  Buy a copy of Healthy Knees Cycling right now!


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