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The Mt. Hood Picnic - A First Attempt 27 May 2019

Our idea of swimming back and forth across the Columbia, biking to Timberline Lodge, climbing Mt. Hood, and then biking back to Hood River has always required a 24 hour period when nearly everything aligned perfectly. The weather would have to be favorable both at Hood River and on the summit of Mt. Hood, a vertical distance of 11,000 feet. We would both need to be feeling strong enough to continually exercise for nearly 20 hours straight, while remaining safe and injury free. Finally, multiple pieces of gear would have to work flawlessly.

Last Thursday was not that day.

To start off, Tina had caught a cold nine days prior and still had a congested nose and cough on Thursday morning. Despite much hand washing, I finally caught her cold on Monday and was still feeling under the weather. We felt physically strong but obviously not 100%.

And then the weather. The Hood River forecast a few days beforehand had looked promising, but the closer we got to Thursday afternoon the more obvious it became that there was going to be Wind, with a capital W. The mountain forecast had also started promising, but Thursday morning NOAA reported that there was a “30% chance of thunder-snow” on Mt. Hood with possible wind gusts exceeding 30mph. Oof.

Still, all of our gear was packed up and a fantastic crew were ready & willing to support us. Besides, the forecast is frequently wrong on the mountain and though sick we still felt ready. On Thursday afternoon, we drove to Hood River from Portland and arrived at our starting point behind the Best Western hotel shortly after 3pm. After consulting with our kayaker, we suited up and moved down to the dock. Right before 4pm we got into the water, calmed our breathing from the bracing temperature, and started our swim.

The swim to Washington went reasonably well. The water near shore was mildly choppy and we felt the current almost immediately. By mid-channel, the waves were significant enough that we were timing our strokes to the swells to ensure we were able to both effectively swim and breathe. Tina and I were separated within the first ten minutes and only with considerable effort could either of use our buoys to rise above the waves and find the other person. Thankfully, Kayaker Dan kept us both in sight, which alleviated any real worry. After only 30 minutes, we arrived on the Washington side of the Columbia, safe and sound. I made landfall about 200 feet further downstream than I originally planned, but it was an easy swim up the shoreline to meet Tina. We then continued upstream a bit further and hopped onto a dock to take a breather and eye our return trip.

Washington-side Dock
On the Washington side, discussing our route back to Oregon

The route for our return swim was meant to take us towards the sandbar that is adjacent to the the primary recreation site for all of Hood River (the city). This sandbar is created where the Hood River, flowing down from the flanks of Mt. Hood, meets the Columbia River. While we modified our swim route to compensate for the Columbia River's current, we did not factor in the inflow of the Hood River. Honestly, I simply did not expect it to be strong enough to cause much difficulty. Also, the sandbar reaches out halfway into the river, so that seemed like a nice buffer between us and any trouble. This was not the case...

As we swam back towards Oregon, we both aimed at a point upstream of our final destination to make sure we compensated for the Columbia River's current. Despite this adjustment, we both discovered that we were moving downstream far faster than we were moving across the river. The water flowing in from the Hood River combined with the Columbia flowing around the sandbar was pushing us right back towards Washington. No matter how hard we swam, the combination of the current and waves was making it extremely difficult to get across.

When I realized that I was quickly approaching an area where windsurfers were zooming about, I made a judgement call and reversed course to head back to Washington. Tina had aimed herself further upstream but–as Strava showed later–she was following a similar path to mine. When Dan informed her that I had turned around, she did too.

Paul swimming in the Columbia
The Author swimming in the Columbia River

Reaching the Washington shore was fairly speedy. Unfortunately, my landing spot was down a steep rock slope with a railroad track atop and then another steep, brush-filled hill up to the highway. After a vexing climb up to the road, our support vehicle picked us up and we drove back to Hood River.

Once there, we walked out to the edge of the sandbar and compared our Strava-recorded routes to where Google Maps said we were currently standing. While not exactly close to the sandbar when we turned around, we were probably no more than 500 feet from the first bit of dry sand. Tantalizingly close.

Route of Columbia Crossing
Route of Columbia Crossing according to Strava. Notice how, as we approach the Hood River, we start heading downstream opposed to across.

Back at the car, we mulled over our options. We had already swam two miles and neither of us felt too exhausted, so we could have potentially kept on going. Heck, we even considered trying the swim again as the windsurfers were starting to clear out as dusk approached. However, the wind report for the bike ride seemed unfriendly and the large cumulonimbus cloud covering Mt. Hood seemed to suggest that our climb was unlikely to be successful.

After a bit of hemming and hawing, we slowly decided that we would rather save our energy and try the whole shebang again when conditions were more favorable. That decided, we went out to dinner with our support crew and had some exceptionally tasty beer. Ooo la la!

Early on Friday morning, we woke up and checked the weather station data up on Mt. Hood and also loaded up Timberline Lodge's webcams. The conditions looked pretty miserable. 40mph gusts had been recorded over night and the webcams showed that it was currently raining with the entire area socked in by a thick cloud. We made the right choice. Seems highly unlikely we would have climbed in those conditions and even biking to and from Hood River would have been treacherous.

While disappointed, we intend to try again. We have definitely learned more about how the Columbia River operates near Hood River and have discussed alternative swimming strategies and locations to give us a better chance at succeeding, especially if there are wind and windsurfers about.

Stay tuned.