Running in Oregon

Mount Defiance Trail offers a unique vertical challenge

By Mark Morical / The Bulletin / @MarkMorical

The Mount Defiance Trail offers a steep, challenging ascent over loose shale to the highest point in the Columbia River Gorge.

While the sheer verticality of the route might turn off many runners and even hikers, Dan Howitt believes the unique nature of the trail should lure more endurance athletes to the Gorge.

Howitt, who lives part time in Bend and part time in Portland, holds what he believes is the fastest ascent time of Mount Defiance (1 hour, 38 minutes) and the fastest round-trip time up and down the mountain (2:55).

But he says those times could easily be broken by others.

“It seemed to be a very unique challenge that not many people are doing, and that kind of surprised me,” says Howitt, 43, who made his round-trip record run on Nov. 16. “I was confused why more people aren't running this trail. Even the steepest races in the country, it's pretty much twice the elevation grade compared to those.”

Located near Starvation Creek State Park just west of Hood River in the Columbia River Gorge, about a three-hour drive north from Bend, Mount Defiance is the Gorge's tallest point at 4,960 feet in elevation. Some claim that climbing the nearly vertical trail to the Defiance summit is more difficult than scaling Mount Hood — Oregon's highest peak at 11,239 feet — according to www .allmounthood.com.

Because Mount Defiance stays snow-free in the summer months, some mountaineers climb it to train for climbing Mount Hood.

The Defiance Trail gains nearly 5,000 feet of elevation over its 5-mile length, with an average elevation grade of about 20 percent. By comparison, the trail to the summit of South Sister in the Cascade Range just west of Bend gains about 5,600 feet in elevation over 6.25 miles.

Max King and Ryan Bak, elite distance runners from Bend, claim they own the fastest known time to the top of South Sister (1:26:18), which they achieved in October 2011. They needed 2:41 for the round trip.

“That was the first time I ever tried to ascend something as fast as I could,” Bak says of the South Sister experience. “It was fun and new to me. There's definitely a whole crew of people who are very into that. It's very different than just going out for a run in the mountains. The way it fatigues your muscle groups is different when you're using the same muscle groups for two to three hours during an ascent.”

Howitt says he believes Bak could easily break his Defiance Trail record. But Howitt is not so much interested in keeping his record as he is in getting the word out about Mount Defiance to the trail-running community around the Northwest.

“There's so many incredible trail runners in Bend,” Howitt says. “Seems like it would be a great personal challenge to see what they could do. It's such a rare thing to have this amount of elevation gain on a trail that's not technical.

“(Bak) would be much faster than me. It would be embarrassing if he was shockingly faster, but I think that might be the case.”

Bak, 31, says he had never even heard of Mount Defiance until he spoke with Howitt about it this year. He hopes to make a trip there this spring.

“I'm definitely intrigued by it,” Bak says, adding that he believes the Defiance Trail can be run and not just hiked. “Coming from a running background, that's the stuff I look for in a challenge like that. I think it's kind of (Howitt's) secret spot that he wants everybody to know about, and that's a great thing.”

Howitt, who works for Autism Research and Resources of Oregon, has a background in speed climbing, and he has climbed Mount Hood, as well as Washington's Mount Rainier and Mount Adams.

Howitt says he has spent lots of time networking with trail runners and clubs but has found it difficult to find trail enthusiasts who are interested in Mount Defiance.

“People do tons of running routes in the Gorge, but they just really avoid this particular one,” Howitt says. “It's such a beautiful trail. It cuts through this incredible forest. You just have such a remote feel when you're way up there. It overlooks the (Columbia) river.”

Howitt says he trains for his Mount Defiance climbs on Bend's Pilot Butte, making several ascents and descents in one outing. But it is hard to duplicate the ruggedness of the Defiance Trail. The narrow, precipitous trail includes vast sections of loose rock.

“You really have to look at every foot placement when you run, especially running down,” Howitt says.

Descending the Defiance Trail can be more arduous than ascending it.

“It's just so steep, and so hard to run down,” Howitt says. “It's pretty much just controlling the gravity of your weight.”

Howitt squeezed in his record run just before the heavy snowfall of winter that makes the trail largely impassable until spring. But snowshoeing opportunities in the area currently abound.

Come spring, Howitt will be found once again on the steep terrain of Mount Defiance, with, he hopes, a number of other trail runners along for the experience.

Says Howitt: “I really don't think there's any trail run in the country that really matches it.”