Saturday, May 18, 2013

Mysteries of Mount St. Helens

Panorama from the south rim of Mount St. Helens looking north to east. The volcano left of center is Mount Rainier to the north, and Mount Adams is to the right (east).

On May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens erupted with a fury, destroying over 200 square miles of dense forest land in just a few minutes, killing 57 people and causing over $1 billion in damage.

I was less than a year out of high school and working in the sports department of a small newspaper in San Diego County. I saved newspaper clippings from that day, being an afternoon paper we had the news of the event from that morning.

Ridiculous headline (right) that I hate to this day. I took this news seriously, having had a rock collection as a kid and always finding geology the most fascinating of all the sciences.

Hiking was a far-off thought for me at the time, being an 18-year-old I was more interested in having a daily job and putting myself through college. It wasn't until the year 2001 that I put on serious hiking shoes, and that year I successfully day hiked Mount Whitney. I also had explored the many volcanic areas along Owens Valley in Eastern California, including Mono Lake, Mammoth Mountain and Devil's Postpile. I still lived in San Diego and really hadn't thought of making the drive to Washington to hike Mount St. Helens until I moved to Reno, Nevada in 2006.

Finally, in March 2008, I reserved the permit to hike the volcano in September. I picked that month because I felt the weather would be nice and the trails would be snow free. I also wisely chose the weekend nearest to full moon. The Saturday hiking date turned out to be my sister's birthday.

With the permit I also received a T-shirt saying "I climbed the volcano." Well, as of March I hadn't yet, the T-shirt sat draped over a chair for six months, I refused to put it on until I actually stood on what was left of the mountain. It sat there on the chair a daily reminder, I counted the days, every day.

Finally, the day arrived. I took off Friday from work and drove 11 hours to Cougar, Washington, where the permit was waiting. I took back roads to Mount Shasta along the way and enjoyed the beautiful forests of northern California and Oregon.

Then I arrived in Portland during afternoon rush hour and very nearly quit. Saw Mount St. Helens off in the distance, it looked much, much bigger than I had thought it would be and way, way steeper. Yuck, this is not going to be good, I'm over my head.

After such a long drive and leaving Cougar at 8 p.m., I decided to skip pitching a tent and instead reserved a room in Longview, about 90 minutes away. It was a decision I didn't regret.

I dilly-dallied the morning of the hike and didn't start off from Climber's Bivouac until 10:15 a.m. A couple from Vancouver, Wash. started behind me but passed me on the mountain later in the day. I'm a slooooow hiker.

There is a campground at the Bivouac trailhead, which was full. Looking through the forest up at Mount St. Helens, it looked so very far away, but the hike is only around four miles, with two through forest and two on the steep slope.

The forest section is a nicely shaded hike, relatively flat, and a good area to let your mind wander to subjects such as Sasquatch. Ape Canyon and Ape Cave are nearby and named for the elusive biped.

Even in September, the trail is quite lush, and wildflowers are in bloom.

Hikers make a gradual climb to treeline over about two miles. Along the way there are breaks in the forest, where views to the south begin to take your breath away before you even begin to climb. Even on this hazy day, I had good views of Mount Adams to the east and Mount Hood (barely visible, right) to the south in Oregon, not far away across the Columbia River. From here I thought often of the Sasquatch reports all around this area on the BFRO web site.

Finally, the business of climbing the steep flank of a volcano strikes, and strikes hard. There is no trail up the side of Mount St. Helens!

At treeline, you're greeted with a lava flow consisting of large and small boulders. Here and there are sticks suggesting a route. For the next mile and a half  up you pick your way through this jumble of rocks and slog your way up a difficult 45-degree slope.

In places there is something of a dirt trail, but not much. Mainly you weave your way in and out of these boulders. In many places you're Class 2, using your hands to pull yourself up or balance. It's not difficult route-finding.

This particular route is known as "Monitor Ridge" for obvious reasons. Mount St. Helens, being one of the most active volcanoes in the world, is heavily studied. Here you can find one of the instrument platforms.

Finally the lava flow gives way to the steepest part of the mountain, covered in very loose, fine ash. The view here is spectacular. That's Mount Hood off in the distance, 60 miles away. Directly below center, where you can see the forest has been logged, is the trailhead and Climber's Bivouac area.

In between the many lava flows spilling over the sides of the volcano are glaciers with crevasses deep enough to hurt yourself in if you were unfortunate enough to fall into. But, I heard from another climber that Mount St. Helens is easier to climb in the winter.

Here you can see why that might be the case. What you see below is solid ash, fine particles of volcanic glass. Those two dots lower left of center are other hikers. Every two steps forward and you're sliding back one step. Trekking poles are a big help. Your shoes will fill with ash. You will be covered in ash. It gets into everything, and you're sweating your way up. It's a mess. But then you reach the rim and all that is forgotten.

The devastation really hits you. The entire top and north flank of this formerly Fuji-like mountain has completely vanished! Hundreds of square miles of nothing where forest used to be. Spirit Lake (upper right) suffered a tsunami in the supersonic blast, spilling water over its far ridge and dragging back thousands of denuded trees which still float in the lake.

The trees shift position with the wind. You can see them hugging the far shore with Mount Rainier in the distance about 50 miles away. Imagine the hills beyond the lake were once covered in forest.

Inside the crater is a pair of steaming domes plugging the earth's interior, and around them is the crater glacier. It's hard to see because it's covered with ash. The rim of Mount St. Helens continues to erode, with large pieces falling into the crater every few minutes. So far the interior of the mountain has grown back over 1,500 feet.


Above headline is for Kerri Honeysett, a Facebook friend who found me in a search because I happened to mention Mount St. Helens one day. She studies stratigraphy because of this mountain, which displays its layers like nowhere else, you can clearly see them built upon each other as it grew and erupted over the last several thousand years. Below is Spirit Lake and off in the distance is Mount Rainier.

And you can see my shoes. On the way back down, the soles of BOTH shoes blew out. I had to stop several times to empty them of ash.

Even on the devastated slopes of the mountain, here and there life has found a way. The lava flows are dotted with small clusters of wildflowers.

It was getting late so I stuffed my pockets full of ash and pumice souvenirs and made my way back down. It wasn't too easy, and finally darkness made its way over me. Two hikers even came back up the slope to offer me a headlamp, but I said thanks, I have two. I hadn't checked the batteries in either one, and when I finally reached the last boulder field before treeline I was navigating mostly by light of the full moon. Once back in the forest, my headlamp was barely on but I could see well enough thanks to that moon.

About 45 minutes from the trailhead I found something curious. About 30 feet off the trail, two hikers with headlamps were off trail, walking around each other apparently in circles, as if they were looking for something or getting ready to find a spot to (fill in blank). Neither said anything, and they hadn't seen me because of my waning headlamp. Finally they did see me, and both came to a dead standstill and stared at me going by. I wasn't going to ask any questions. Two people in the forest in the dark off trail in the liberal northwest...figure it out.


I don't have a picture of Bigfoot so here's a picture of treeline from the initial field of boulders. Somewhere in these trees, about 15 minutes after I encountered those two weirdos, I was about 30 minutes from the trailhead. Out of headlamp light but also coming out of the forest I heard a very shrill, louder-than-a-peacock whistle, two whistles, one low and one high. Extremely loud. I'm sure those extracurricular people hadn't made their way through the forest to do this. And a few seconds later far, far off to the west, I hear what sounded like a man's voice repeating the whistle tones, just in a voice, uuu-uuuh, UUUU-UUUUH? Like that, ending higher pitched with a question mark. You judge. Maybe sasquatch, maybe campers from the bivouac. I did read one report on BFRO describing shrill whistles like that. I dunno. I haven't found anything on the internet about native birds making such a whistle. It was extremely loud and not human, I would know a human whistle.

Finally, back at the trailhead at 10:15 p.m., 12 hours after I started. Even being dog tired, I didn't have much of a problem driving back to Longview. Shortly before midnight I kicked back in bed and popped open a beer. Next thing I knew it was Sunday morning. The beer was sitting there with one sip out of it.

Drove home to Reno on Sunday, taking the long way around through The Dalles and around Goose Lake, the Lava Beds in Modoc County, Alturas and finally home late Monday morning around 1 a.m., and back at work a few hours after that. And here, five years later in 2013, memories solidly intact. What an excellent trip.