A Hike up Mt. St. Helens

Since moving to the Pacific Northwest, I have known that one of the things I had to do was visit Mt. St. Helens.  There are not many opportunities in geologic time to see the destructive forces of nature so obvious as the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. St. Helens, and I knew I was fortunate to be living in one of those times.  Each year that passed in the last three, I have castigated myself for not getting up there.  Of course, there is so much to see in this part of the U.S., and I do have to work, so I haven't been able to get there nearly as quickly as I had hoped.  This year however, July 4th fell on a Friday, so by working some ten hour days earlier in the week, I would be able to have almost a four day weekend to explore the area.  I am also taking a month long camping vacation in August, so this would be a good opportunity to pack my gear and see what was needed and what was not needed for my vacation. 

I headed up by 9:00 AM on July 3rd, and by 12:30 I was in the village of Cougar, on the southern side of the mountain.  There are two approaches to the mountain, an eastern approach via the southern route, and a northern approach.  Access is very limited, for obvious reasons.  This is a great area for scientist to document what actually occurs after a cataclysmic event.  In order to hike to the summit of the mountain however, one is required to take the eastern approach, hence my stay in Cougar.  Even though I was a day early, I could not find any camping spaces in the camping spots in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, and I did not want to camp too far from the starting off point of the hike, Climbers Bivouac.  I also needed a climbing permit, which could be gotten at a little country store called Jack's, five miles to the west of Cougar.  Only fifty were issued per day at five thirty in the evening for the next day.  If there were more than fifty people wanting a permit, there was a lottery for the permits.  With all the camping areas filled up, I was worried about even securing a permit.  I finally found a spot in a private campground, an although I am always wary of them, I got lucky and had a rather secluded spot, bordered in the front only by an RV with a real nice couple that used to own the site.  By three o'clock I had my camp set up, and I was ready to do a little exploring, before being at Jack's by 5:30.

I headed over to Lava Canyon.  Even though this section of the mountain had not been directly impacted by the blast, the heat and snow pack had combined to form a massive mudslide that had scoured the valley revealing a deep lave gorge that had been hidden just a few minutes earlier.  It was on my way here that I got my first view of St. Helens. I must say that when I first saw her, I was quite intimidated by her and that I wondered if I wasn't being a bit foolish to think that I could hike to the top of her at the age of fifty.  Perhaps this was something I should have tackled fifteen years earlier.  It was at this point that I decided that I would still attempt to get a climbing permit at Jack's, but I wouldn't be overly disappointed if I didn't get one.  I hiked a little bit into the gorge, and my legs felt good.  It is nine miles to my work place, and I've been riding my bicycle there four days a week, so I began to think that maybe I'll be OK.

I got to Jack's at 5:15, and signed up for a permit.  At 6:00 o'clock they announced that there were less than 51 people seeking permits, so there would not have to be a lottery.  I received my permit a few minutes later.  I drove back to camp, made supper, and went to be early, feeling both excited and pretty apprehensive at the same time.

The next morning I awoke at 5:00 AM and made myself a big breakfast so that I would have some fuel for the day's activities.  After washing the dishes, I headed off for Climbers Bivouac.  Cougar is in a valley formed by the Lewis River, which is dammed off at three sites in pretty close order, forming Lake Merwin, Yale Lake, and Swift Reservoir, all of which are stocked with Kokanee Salmon by the way.  In between Swift Reservoir and Yale Lake on this morning, I saw a large herd of Elk walking slowly along the riverside.   As I climbed out of the valley, I rose above the fog clinging to the reservoirs, and couldn't help but marvel at the sight of the bright blue sky looking down on white ribbons winding through a carpet of green, especially when Mt. Hood stood majestically in the background.  If you look carefully, on the right hand side of the full page picture on the right, you can see Mt. Jefferson way off in the distance. 

By 7:15, I had my hiking boots on, and began hiking Ptarmigan Trail #216-A.  In 2.1 miles, it would ascend 1,100 ft. in altitude and lead to Monitor Ridge Trail, the trail that would take me to the summit of Mt. St. Helens at an altitude of 8,365 ft.  Climbers Bivouac was at an altitude of 3,700 ft. so that would mean I would be climbing 4,665 ft in altitude.  Once again, a combination of excitement and apprehension.

Ptarmigan Trail runs right into Monitor Ridge trail more or less at the tree line which is at about 4,800 ft. in altitude, and I was greeted by this sight. According to a topographic map, the top of this knob is 6,000 ft. The trail winds through the igneous rock on the left of the picture. if it could be called a trail.  In actuality, there were poles interspersed at fairly regular intervals that marked the trail, but the higher I climbed, the less obvious the trail became because one had to just begin climbing through the rock, and there was no one fixed route through it. The landscape became more and more desolate and moonlight, except for the snowfields on either side of Monitor Ridge.  It was becoming more and more difficult to climb through the rock as the hike went on.  I should have worn gloves, the rock was like the lava rock you put in a gas grill, rough with holes from gas pockets, only they were extremely large. Doubt was beginning to creep into my mind. Furthering my dismay were the comments of a few hikers who had already made the climb before, that the last 1300 feet through the pumice to the summit was the worst part of the climb.  I was however finally able to look down upon the knob that had greeted me when I first stepped onto Monitor Ridge trail, so at least I was above 6000 feet in altitude, that meant that I was probably over halfway in the hike.  It wasn't too late in the day, about 9:30 AM, so I had a renewed vigor about accomplishing my goal.

Finally the rocks on the ridge became interspersed with some ground and pumice, and it became a little easier, and then finally, there it was, the pumice field and the final 1200 foot scramble through the loose pumice. The snow fields were replaced by permanent glaciers, and the world existed on a steep angle.  I had to walk paddle footed in order to get any kind of grip in the pumice, and even with that, I was sliding down with every step and it was hard to push off for the next step.  Additionally, my legs were by now exhausted, and the lack of oxygen was beginning to make my legs cramp up.  I could see tiny figures on the summit, but I really began to doubt that I would be able to get to it, it seemed so distant.  I was disgusted with myself.  I thought that I was in halfway decent shape, but this was proving to me that I was far from that.  I met a group of eight young hikers coming back down from the top.  I could hear what sounded like a Russian accent, so I asked them from where they originated.  It turned out they had emigrated to this country from Kyrgyzstan, a small province that used to be part of the Soviet Union south of Kazakhstan, with China to it's east.  They all spoke English very well, albeit with an accent, and they said they had emigrated from their home country because this country was so safe, that one could live without fear in the U.S.  All of them spoke at least two languages, some of them three.  They told me that English was a much easier language to learn than Russian, that it had far fewer words, although many of the words in English had several meanings.  After shooting the breeze with them for about fifteen minutes, I got up and decided to try once again for the summit.

I rested more often for the duration of the climb. I watched my calves cramp up, and walked through the cramps.  I would take about fifteen steps and rest.  Finally the summit was within reach, and I knew there was no turning back.  I plodded on and on and finally reached my goal.  The picture to the left was my first upon reaching the top.  It was quite a sight.  The year before I had been to Crater Lake in Oregon, which is also a volcanic caldera, and I had looked into it to see Crater Lake from the top.  While that caldera is many times larger than Mt. St. Helens, it is also basically symmetrical.  Mt. St. Helens is not.  It is nothing short of disturbing to look down into the caldera, expect to find symmetry, and instead find one side of the mountain completely blown away.  I was able to look straight through the north side and down into Spirit Lake and the dead valley below.  In the distance, Mt. Rainier reared it's mighty crown.

Although I could make out the dome that is still building in the bottom of the caldera, it was difficult to see.  Some people told me it was easier to see if I hiked around further to the east, which I did.  Unfortunately the dome was not steaming the day I visited, but you can see some of the pictures of it below, along with the bare east and west sides of the caldera.

It was time to start my descent.  Before I did, I zoomed in on Mt. Rainier on the left and Mt. Adams on the right and took a picture of each of them.  The summit of Mt. Rainier is 14,410 ft., the highest in the Cascades, so I had to take a picture of it, but I was most impressed with Mt. Adams. I was used to the diamond pointed peaks of Oregon, and Mt. Adams is just plain massive as you can see.  Not just a peak, Adams is quintessential mountain.

Downhill through the loose pumice was not too bad, but once I hit the igneous rock trail, I was slowed considerably.  Many hikers gladed through the ice fields on either side of Monitor Ridge, but having gotten lost in the Ochoco Mountains in a snowfield just a couple of weeks previously, I was reluctant to follow their lead.  I was also by myself, so I am always hesitant of getting off the path when I am hiking without a partner.   In hindsight, it was a mistake not to glade through the snowfields.  Climbing down through the rocks was tremendously hard on my quadriceps, another mistake I made was in not have a walking stick so I could use my upper body to help break the downhill force instead of just my thighs.  By the time I reached the bottom of Monitor Ridge, my legs were fatigued beyond belief.  All in all it took me just as long to descend the mountains as it did to ascend it.  Camp never looked so good when I finally got back to it that evening.

The next day I was too sore to do any hiking, so I decided to head on over to Windy Ridge in the heart of the blast zone.  My first inclination that I was getting near was when I crossed over this creek.  You can see that the creek bed has been scoured clean, and dead logs have been deposited along the length of it's bed.  It's even easier to see the flow of the destruction from an overlook on the way to Windy Ridge.

When the blast occurred, the first trees in the path literally became part of the gas cloud that descended down the mountainside.  As it lost force. it blew all the standing trees down like match sticks, and beyond that, the trees were left standing but incinerated on sight in the intense heat.  These standing dead tree forests are known as ghost forests.  Below are some pictures I took on my visit to Windy Ridge.  Enjoy them and if you are ever in the Pacific Northwest, make Mt. St. Helens one of your destinations.  You won't be disappointed. For the official Mt. St. Helens website Click Here.