Mount St. Helens
Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Washington
On the morning of August 22, 1994, Pick, Lulu, and I readied our gear in an attempt to summit Mount St. Helens—we had obtained our permit (required for hiking above 4800ft) and signed the register at Jack's Restaurant, the only thing left to do was climb. We chose to hike the Ptarmigan Trail #216A, because it has the highest starting elevation (3,740 ft), we arrived at the trailhead at about 6:00am, when the morning air was crisp and cold. As we were getting our packs ready in the parking lot at the end of Forest Road 830, also known as climber's bivouac, we looked up at the massive volcano which was shrouded in cloud cover, just then the clouds opened up and we got our first view of the summit! Inspired we hit the trail.
The first portion of the trail meanders through a beautiful pine forest, where the fresh scent of the trees is like incense, an aroma that puts a spring in your step—we were feeling great and making good time. The trail continued through the woods for about 2 miles and gained approximately 1000 feet in elevation. The total hike to the summit is 4.5 miles one-way and gains 4625 feet, it takes most hikers 8 to 10 hours for the roundtrip—we would fall closer to the 10 hour mark. When we emerged from the cover of the forest, the sun was starting to warm the air, a welcome feeling that lifted the chill from our bones. After leaving the forest, the trail follows Monitor Ridge, where it then snakes its way through a field of pumice boulders and lava flows. As mentioned earlier, a permit is required to hike above 4800 feet from May 15 to October 31—a sign marks the beginning of the permit zone, and it was here that we stopped to take a rest and drink some water. At this point we were thinking that the hike seemed much easier than what we had expected—we thought we could see the summit from where we were sitting, we were wrong.
Climbing through the Monitor Ridge boulder field is very strenuous, and the exertion required at this altitude really makes it difficult to breathe. In addition, the path through the volcanic landscape is very narrow in spots and can make for unsure footing—there are wooden posts placed every so often, which act as cairns meant to lead the hiker in the right direction. As we climbed further up the ridge, the clouds started rolling in below us, it was such a beautiful sight—one that none of us will forget.
As expected, the hike was starting to get more difficult as we went on, but Lulu was having an extra difficult time due to the fact that she had undergone maxillofacial surgery earlier in the year (Don’t worry, it wasn't from a hiking accident!) Needless to say, the altitude was causing her face to swell slightly, even though the doctors had said that it should not affect her. The swelling, combined with the fact that she had cramps was inhibiting her enjoyment of the hike, but like the true Natural Born Hiker that she is, she kept going.
Our climb continued through the boulder field, with Pick leading the way, guiding us from post to post, but that task soon became more difficult—why you might ask, well, remember those clouds that were down below us? They had decided to climb on up the volcano and drop down for a visit—now I don’t have anything against getting up close and personal with clouds, but they did make visibility rather poor—my estimate is that we could see approximately 5 feet in front of us, and that was the extent of visibility! There were many times when I lost sight of Pick and Lulu, not to mention the wooden posts that were guiding our steps, but we just kept going hoping that we weren't wandering off the "trail" or worse yet, coming up on a drop-off. All we could do was continue to climb, with hopes that the visibility would improve and not cause us to have to turn back!
The last 2.5 miles of this trail gains massive elevation, 3500 feet to be exact, and climbing this section fogged in was not an appealing option, but soon the clouds bored of our company and evaporated away, leaving us bathed in sunshine—just in time for the final 1000 feet to the summit. The final push for the summit is the most difficult and strenuous portion of the climb, as this last part of the trail consists of light and fluffy volcanic ash, a substance similar to sand. If you ever tried to climb a sand dune, you are familiar with the hardships associated with hiking such terrain—you take five steps up and slide back down three. I swear this last 1000 feet took us an hour to climb, but wow was it worth it!
As chance has it, Pick and I made it to the summit first, and upon arrival, we inched our way on hands and knees to the cornice and peered down into the heart of the volcano—the view was spectacular! The lava dome in the center was still steaming, and as we lay there quietly, we could hear the crumbling of the walls of the volcano—this crumbling is why it is dangerous to venture near the edge of the cornice, since it is a very unstable structure and could give way at anytime. I guess that's why you list your next of kin on the register at Jack's, not to mention that this volcano is in no way dormant!
The view from the summit of Mount St Helens is spectacular, especially when you can see the surrounding peaks of the Cascade Range—in particular, Mount Adams looms on the horizon. After about 15 minutes, Lulu joined us on the summit (for a five hour ascent), and as she wearily hiked up to where we were sitting she exclaimed, "I thought you guys said there was a restaurant up here!" It was one of her best lines yet, and it was so funny that we all had a good laugh and more than that, it illustrates perfectly her great sense of humor, despite her uncomfortable condition—Lulu rocks! Unfortunately, by the time Lulu made it to the summit the clouds had started to set in again and were now slightly obstructing the view. Even with the clouds surrounding us, we sat at the summit and celebrated our accomplishment, and if I remember correctly, it was about noon. We stayed at the top for about an hour, then we headed back down the trail—going down in the ash was much easier!
The hike down from the summit took us about 3 hours (total hiking time 8 hours), and caused all of us pain in one way or another—Lulu was of course already suffering, and Pick managed to get the biggest blister I have ever seen, her whole heel on one foot was a complete blister! How she managed to hike all the way down with that on the bottom of her foot is beyond me! [As a funny side note, I have to mention what later happened with the blister—Pick, of course, picked the blister leaving a giant hole on the side of her heel. This hole was created with a pair of toenail clippers that she used to cut the tough skin of her heel. Later we went to a beach where, you guessed it, Pick went barefoot only to have the hole fill up with sand—her whole heel filled with sand under the skin! We had to cut all the skin off to get the sand out—Oh the humanity!] We ended our hike at about 4:00 PM and congratulated each other on reaching our goal! We had climbed to the 8,365 foot summit of Mount St. Helens—one more awesome hike to add to our list of accomplishments!