Written by Barry Wicks
My alarm clock jolts me awake at 4:13 a.m. Not 4:15, but 4:13. I always rationalize that those extra two minutes will put me slightly ahead of schedule rather than rushing to catch up.
For this alpine start, the 120-second buffer is for a good cause. It’s self-care. I’m less anxious with each glance at the clock as coffee brews, and I juggle last-minute jacket options and snacks.
In these predawn hours, time passes in inconsistent spurts. The rough 4×4 track up to the mountain is driven a bit quicker than is comfortable. My time-worn Toyota pickup wallowing through deep water bars and bouncing over embedded rocks as the anticipation of the day urges us forward. But with careful pause, my companions and I watch a golden arrow of light rocket across the skyline as the sun breaks free from its hiding spot below the horizon. We glimpse a chipmunk navigate its way across the trailhead sign that advises us to take care, carry a whistle and let others know where we are going.
The day’s objective is to circumnavigate Broken Top, a local mountain teeming with backcountry skiers much of the winter but a bit more lonely on this unexpectedly cold late summer morning. To circumnavigate a peak in North America may be a uniquely Cascade mountain experience. Much of our mountain range consists of stand-alone volcanic peaks. These peaks live close together but apart enough that the terrain dictates the obvious choice to go all the way around them, exploring the hidden curves and crevices found at each subsequent ridge line or gully.
Joining me are two old friends. Timmy Evens, a physical therapist in Bend who I spent my college years racing with bikes throughout Oregon, and Kenyon Neuman, a Bend local who spent 13 years in Boulder running with the Buffaloes at CU and chasing the professional runner’s dream. Kenyon is most famous for declining a ride in Frank Ocean’s Porsche and stacking serious human-powered vert on his skis.
I have traveled our planned route many times on skis, but this will be my first “dry” circumnavigation.
As we jog into familiar meadows and stream beds that are minor features in winter, they grow and stretch into lively new places without an insulating blanket of snow to hide their juicy curves. Spots, where we hop off mini-features on our skis, reveal themselves as rocks and wind-twisted trees. The whole mountain feels alive and new in unexpected ways. Like an old lover in a new disguise, the anticipation around each bend makes my heart race just a little bit as the mountain shows us what she is hiding under her usual baggy sweatshirt of snow.
Passing the frigid No Name Lake and its perfect cannonball jumping rock, we gain Broken Hand Col. The South, Middle and North Sister, Mt. Washington, Three Fingered Jack, Mt. Jefferson, and Mt. Hood reveal themselves. The morning light is staggeringly beautiful. It refracts through a low forest fire haze; the sky appears as an Instagram filtered soft orange explosion. We take in the view, my mind tracing ski lines on the distant peaks, then scramble down an exposed series of cliff bands onto the Bend Glacier.
The glacier is in rough shape. The region suffers from a historic drought. The crevasses appear evident at first glance, but what we think is stable rock beneath our feet is, in fact, ice. We’re afforded solid traction as a veneer of pebbles peppers the ice. Hollow creaking and a faint trickle of water give us pause as we try to float across the icy-snow bridges as light on our feet as possible. It’s our version of high consequence mountain running ballet, danced to perfection.
Clearing the western flank of the glacier, we begin a delicate series of traverses through typical chossy Cascade scree fields. These are managed with some extra momentum by barreling across safe-zone to safe-zone on our toes, ankle-deep in scree, and sliding six inches downward with each forward step. Gradually we ascend to more solid ground and the stability of the west ridge. We pause to eat our snacks, empty our pebble-filled shoes, and try to practice a few moments of stillness.
Our silence is broken by an incoming text message. Life off the mountain begins its intrusion. We take a half-hearted look at the long ridge scramble to the summit pinnacle, but time, work, and quotidian life cannot be held at bay. We decide to back off and trend downward towards obligations and responsibilities, glancing at the summit as it recedes above us — a tease and reminder for a return jaunt.
Our final five miles elapse at a steady clip. We move across ridges and meadows, familiar from ski tours, feeling agile in our lightweight trail running gear. The whoosh of Kestrels dive-bombing invisible prey startles us. We dodge tiny hoof prints stamped into the dusty trail by deer and elk. The life around us is in stark contrast to the barren, windswept snow and the occasional solo ravens that often shadow us in winter.
We crest the final ridge and follow our outgoing footsteps to the truck, happily light on the combo of low blood sugar, mountain air, and a rush of endorphins. Back at the trailhead, lawn chairs are deployed, we gulp down water and refuel, bask in the bright morning sun. Earthy aromas rise with the heat. We cling hard to the momentary presence before it inexorably slides away, and our attention is drawn to our digitized experience; the STRAVA stats and photos.
Here’s the paradox: we move our bodies to still our minds. The circumnavigation is something greater than training log filler and a social media post. Time immersed in the mountains is medicine, an escape from busy mind chatter. In this liminal state, the world blooms a whole lot less anxious than it did before.
Barry Wicks’ career in riding mountain bikes wicked fast all over the world set him up well to expand his abilities to include activities on skis or two feet. He can often be found running Bend’s best under-the-table-over-the-fence pizza restaurant and organizing under-the-radar events for Hella Sweet Productions. If you are lucky enough to run into him, quiz him on his 60% lifestyle philosophy and be prepared to drop everything, and hop on board. You can chase him on Instagram @wicknasty.