It was late August, the witching hour of the calendar year for parents. The kids had graduated from lazily bored to stir-crazy, up for anything to fill the final weeks before school resumed. I suppose some parents would have suggested a trip to the library or community pool. I decided we'd climb our friendly neighborhood peak, Mt. McLoughlin.
Our ascent started as it always must for this hot, exposed climb: early. Mt. McLoughlin towers over 9,000 feet above the Rogue Valley and Klamath Basin. The Pacific Crest Trail flirts with its western slope, and the aptly named Mt. McLoughlin Trail shimmies up in a more direct line, climbing some 5,000 feet in five miles. The kids, a combination of my sons and their friends, ranged in age from 10-13, and they started as kids always do: at a sprint. Then a walk. Then another sprint. I kept any hiking advice to myself…life would teach them to pace themselves in due time.
The first few miles were deceptively easy. The trail wound through red fir and mountain hemlock, the ground padded with pine needles. I wore my favorite hard-core hiking boots, my Oboz Bridger Mids, and would have wondered whether they were overkill for this downright civilized path, had I not known what lay ahead.
From 2005-2008, I'd traversed this section of the Sky Lakes Wilderness more times than I could count on one hand, as a Search and Rescue wilderness EMT. The way gets dicey. People get lost. Frequently. I eyeballed the shadow of the peak above me and called to the kids to stay within sight.
At about mile three, the switchbacks began. The boys remained blithely (and annoyingly) in the lead, but had settled into a steadier pace. I could hear their breathing and footfalls as they pad, pad, puffed, pad, pad, puffed their way upward. The sun was almost overhead when we stopped for the first time, getting snacks from packs and passing around water bottles. The air buzzed with insects and sank with heat from the bright sun. We continued up the switchbacks, singing snippets of song and telling jokes when the air hadn't been snatched from our lungs.
The final ascent led to the ridgeline, then a direct, but brutally steep path to the peak. The boys whooped, happy to see their goal so tantalizingly close. I knew better. This last mile would take us into the afternoon, the trail disappearing into slabs of rock punctuated with twisted, exposed roots and dusty beds of pebbles that sank your boots ankle-deep.
The kids set out before me on their sturdy, young legs, while I bent into the task, nearly on hands and knees at points, the way was so steep. Still, I felt determined to keep within a matter of yards of the boys as I lunged into the mountain only to slide back nearly as far.
Kids will keep you young, or kill you, one or the other.
We summited at 1 pm. Ok, fine…they summited some time before that, and entertained themselves throwing pebbles down the sandy slope of the inner cinder cone of Mt. McLoughlin until I caught up. The valley breeze hit us in our sweaty faces as we took in the 360-degree views of Mt. Shasta, Klamath Lake, and Central Oregon's Sisters. The older kids even had the energy to scurry to a surviving patch of snow for an impromptu snowball fight.
Before descending, the boys spotted an 'easier' way down, along a scree of exposed rock to the tree-line. I imagined them leaping from granite slab to slab, their arms wind-milling, the sun at their backs, and for the first time that day, I played the mom card. No way.
I'd hiked this very area far too many times with my bright orange search vest on, calling in the dark for hikers who'd succumbed to this very temptation. From the peak, the way back looks obvious enough, but choose to ignore the single 'Mt. McLoughlin Trail' signpost propped against a chuck of rock, and the tree-line begins to look the same from all sides. Once inside the canopy, good luck spotting the trail. Every year, hikers descend on the entirely wrong side of the mountain, dozens of miles from their cars.
I got very little pushback from the boys. A serious climb on a hot day will gain a mom of even the most active kids a momentary advantage. We retraced our steps along the ridgeline, and rejoined the trail properly, where I permitted all the jogging and jumping their hearts and quads could handle. By the time Mt. McLoughlin was in our rear view mirror, the car rocking along the forest service road to the highway, two out of four boys had their eyes closed to the sight, dirt-smudged faces propped against the window glass. I didn't mind: we see this mountain every day from our house, from our schools, and from the fields where we play. Now, these boys would know it intimately.
Amy Whitley is a freelance writer, family travel blogger, and outdoor adventure columnist in Southern Oregon. She can be found @pitstopsforkids.