Friday, October 19, 2012

Mount Saint Helens

Mount Saint Helens was the fifth highest peak in Washington state before it erupted in May of 1980. An earthquake triggered the eruption, which shot ash over 14 miles into the sky, collapsed the northern flank of the mountain, and created a debris avalanche that is said to the be the largest in recorded history. The Wikipedia article calls the eruption the "deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States." (Photo from Wikipedia, by Austin Post from USGS)
The massiveness of the eruption, combined with the fact that it happened two years before I was born, has always made the event somewhat mystical in my mind. I wish that I had been alive to see it. My dad tells me that he was working with my grandpa that day (my mom's dad), following his white carpenter van. They were driving down Wallingford Avenue in Seattle, around 40th, going downhill where you have a direct view toward Lake Union and Mount Rainier (on a clear day). My grandpa pulled over to the side of the road so my dad did the same. "What is it, Ed?" my dad asked, who hadn't yet seen the column of ash and smoke to the south.

I think part of what makes this natural disaster so striking is that it is still so visible today. When there are earthquakes or floods or hurricanes, they do damage, but then we clean it up and rebuild. But at Mount Saint Helens, the whole north side is still gone, it is still 1,300 feet lower, the mountain is still covered with ashy rubble scree, lahars flank both sides, forests are gone, and pumice is scattered throughout the area. 

I've always wanted to see these remnants, and peer into the smoking crater. From May through October, the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument limits climbers to 100 per day. Back in June, all the permits were already gone for every weekend until mid-September. Weekdays were full a few weeks ahead of time. The summer flew by and it made more sense to try to go after Burning Man, on a weekday in early October. Matt and I didn't want to get permits too far in advance because we didn't want to climb in the rain or if there wouldn't be a view. Luckily, the clear, dry weather was holding and we were able to get permits a couple days ahead of time. 

We had a pretty good idea what to expect from the trail description, the only advice different from other hikes being to bring gloves to protect your hands from the sharp rocks you have to climb over. We got a fairly early start, driving to the trailhead just after sunrise.
The climbing route is from the south side of the mountain, bringing you to the rim of the crater in five miles and 4,500 feet of elevation gain. The first two miles of the trail are on an easy, forested hiking trail. Then once you get above the tree line, the trail becomes wooden markers in the rubble. Sometimes it's a path, but mostly it's picking your own best route over rocks.
Other parts of the trail were gigantic boulders that you had to climb over. It was a constant puzzle figuring out the best route, and not climbing up a boulder that was going to be too steep to get down on the other side. Once that portion ended, it was an open ash-sand, which presented its own difficulties. Think about walking in sand, but on a steep slope. It was slow-going. Also, it was incredibly windy, possibly the windiest weather I've ever been out in. There were gusts at times of probably 40-50 mph. It made walking very hard, plus was painful to have the sandy particles pelted on your face. I had a face gaiter and Matt used a bandana. Luckily I had wrap sunglasses, but Matt had his prescription sunglasses so dust kept getting in his eyes. We both wished we had desert goggles, it was seriously that bad. We passed quite a few climbers who weren't prepared for such extreme weather and had turned around before the summit. Mostly they were too cold. Even those of us making it to the top would look at each other and say, "This is crazy!"

I've done longer and steeper hikes, but this was one of the hardest I've ever done. Partly due to the wind, and partly the fact that walking on volcanic scree is slow and mentally challenging. This hike would have been 10 times easier in the snow, and I would highly recommend doing it in the spring or summer before the snow has melted out. Not only is it less to navigate as you go up, but would obviously be a lot faster coming down to glissade, ski, or snowboard. Also, it turns out that hiking on ash is, well, ashy. Our clothes and backpacks were covered in the dust, and it makes you feel parched and dirty.

But all that aside, it was an incredibly beautiful early fall day to be out. There was a haze from the forest fires, but we could see Mount Hood on the way up, with Mount Jefferson just visible beyond it.
We finally made it to the top, and here you can see Mount Adams to the east poking out above the thick layer of smoke.
Here is the inside of the crater, looking directly north to Spirit Lake and Mount Rainier. In the picture you can't really see the smoke coming out of the crater or the glacier inside, but there was quite a bit going on in there. 
You could also see straight over to the Johnston Ridge Observatory which is the main interpretive center for the mountain. Since it is way on the north side we didn't have time to go there, but I definitely plan on going back to experience Mount Saint Helens from the other side.

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