Monday, September 30, 2013

Climbing Up a Legendary U.S.Volcano. St. Helen's

  Why not climb the most recent volcano to explode in the continental U.S.?
It offers a historic thrill and a rare, close-up look at nature's power (and recovery).
And, Mount St. Helens is still rumbling. Not from volcanic activity but from periodic landslides. As the centerpiece of what you could call "volcano alley," a line of volcanic peaks that stretches from Mount Baker northwest of Seattle to Mount Hood in Oregon, St. Helens offers a grueling, yet unforgettable hiking experience to the crater rim.
St. Helens is the smallest of the volcanoes and was perhaps the least known until it erupted in a spectacular but deadly display of volcanic activity more than 30 years ago.
At its present elevation of 8,365 feet above sea level, St. Helens lost 1,300 feet of upper mountain after its May 18, 1980, eruption. The aftermath has created what the National Park Service says is "like no other place on earth."
A hike up Mount St. Helens proves that to be true — a unique experience that's well worth the effort, 
The approximately six-mile (one-way) hike up the south side of St. Helens passes through a lush forest, crosses glaciers, lava rock and loose pumice soil. It gains 4,500 feet in elevation to the summit.
There, you're looking over the rim into the crater of the nation's most active volcano outside Hawaii.
Frequent landslides rumble like thunder inside the crater rim and alert hikers that Mother Nature isn't finished remodeling the mountain.
There's a special high-energy found in this hike, one where you see first-hand nature's power and resiliency and feel like you're almost traversing hallowed ground. Man can only be a visitor, not a resident. Only the frequent cloud cover that's almost a standard fixture in the Cascade Mountains — even in summertime — can diminish the thrill for visitors here.
The 20th anniversary year proved to be a perfect time to hike St. Helens. About 16,000 hikers a year climb the mountain, but numbers are restricted by special permit to 100 a day.
Be warned, though, that this is a taxing climb because of the steep and rugged terrain. It may end up being the hardest 10- to 12-mile round-trip hike you'll ever take.

Here's a brief synopsis of a St. Helen's hike:
  • The permit: There are only 100 permits available each day. Obtain a permit early.
  • The trailhead: It had taken about a 90 minutes to drive from Portland to Climber's Bivouac, the trailhead, located northeast of the town of Cougar. It includes a three-mile drive on a good dirt road, suitable for cars.
  • The necessities: Outhouses, but no water was available at the 3,800-foot elevation trailhead, which had plenty of parking.
  • The hike: Not 200 yards into the hike, I was surprised by all the snowcover in an early July — 2 to 3 feet deep — along the trail's first several miles. The snow was hardpacked and had been worn down by numerous hikers already. It made the hike a little more difficult and created plenty of mud.

This southern section of forest around the mountain was saved from the eruption's devastation that killed 57 people and wiped out 40,000 acres of nearby trees.
After two miles (though it felt more like three miles), you lose the trees and reach the edge of a barren hillside. The trail from here is marked by wooden posts that stick above the lava rock every few hundred yards or so. There are lots of snowfields along the way, and sometimes it was easier to walk on snow rather than go over boulders or loose lava gravel.
I found a ski pole useful on the snow and even the rocky areas. Some people had two poles. Ski goggles would also be helpful if the lava dust was blowing around.
The hike was pretty hot because the dark lava rocks absorbed the sun's heat. You have to be prepared for all kinds of weather when you're hiking here. It can change quickly.
One man I met on the trail said he started his hike at 4:30 a.m. with crampons. He estimated that he would be back to the trailhead by just after noon. He said the snow was very hard in the early morning, allowing him to make great time. He also had a better view unimpeded by afternoon clouds. He said he even saw northern California's Mount Shasta in the distance.

The trail offered great views of Mount Hood, Mount Adams and the surrounding area. Most of the rocky portion of the hike was devoid of wildlife. I spotted a few bugs, but a lone squirrel a mile up the slope was the only animal I saw.
I had to race the last half mile to try to beat incoming afternoon clouds. The last 800 yards are loose lava gravel. I felt like I was walking uphill on a sandy beach.
It took me 5 hours and 15 minutes to reach the top. Coming down required only 3 hours and 45 minutes.
Persistent afternoon clouds hindered the view to the north toward Mount Rainier.
Twice the clouds cleared enough for me to see the new lava dome inside the Mount St. Helens crater, though.
Descending was easier, sliding down a few snowfields. In retrospect, I'd take more of those. You have to be careful on the snowfields to maintain control and avoid sliding over cliffs or into rocky areas.

(-Written by Lynn Arave and originally published in the Deseret News.)

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