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Monday, July 12, 2010

A Return To Mt St Helen's

I last visited Mt St Helen's three years ago with a group from work. In May, on the anniversary date of the eruption, I posted some pictures from that trip. I returned this weekend along with some friends from work

Conditions were far different from my last visit. Due to our protracted Spring with its late snows, there is a large amount of snow remaining on Monitor Ridge, the trail up to the crater rim and on the rim itself. This caused me a fair amount of concern but communications with others who had recently climbed made me feel I could do this again.

I drove down early on Saturday as I wanted to visit Ape Caves. This lava tube is part of the Volcano Monument and was discovered in 1948. It is not named for Bigfoot, but rather a name for a Scout troop that frequented the area. This tube formed when lava flowed and cooled creating a tube which liquid lava could continue to flow through. After the activity ended, the tube remained hollow. A cave-in led to its discovery many centuries later.

A hole in the ceiling allows light in and moss and ferns take advantage.

The tube is a chilly 48 degrees year round. On a hot day it is welcome, but you have to take long sleeves with you. There is an easy tube and a more difficult one which requires some rock climbing and one wall to be gained with toe and hand holds.

Our group camped at Climbers Bivouac, 2 miles from Monitor Ridge. This area is open to permit climbers only and limit is 100 climbers per day. We made our reservations in late winter. All around the camp Avalanche Lily were in bloom. It was so nice to sit around the fire and watch stars, satellites and shooting starts dance in the sky. We could hear Great Horned Owls hooting. You could see the summer Milky Way.

Monitor Ridge marks the way, the little peak at the left (look between the tree boughs) needs to be gained after a two mile hike up through the woods. The first two miles in about 1hour, the next 2.5 in about three. It is faster coming down.

The rocky line is what you follow to the top. You can see that the snow is a main feature. Large posts mark the way. Many people opted for walking the snow on the other side of the ridge all the way up. I decided to stick to the rocks until the last mile.

I cannot imagine who worked on getting these posts up to the area and erected. They are huge. Prayer flags are found on most mountain summits but this pole on the way up had some as well.

The last 500 yards are tough. When clear, this is ash and pumice pebbles and is like walking in a sand dune. Now you use the snow steps. You follow in the footsteps of those who went in front of you. I found this very challenging both physically and mentally. If I strode in a comfortable hiking pace, my feet would often slip. I had to place my foot and pause, place the other and pause. Mental and physical exhaustion. I found myself staring at the ground and I knew that I would have a stiff neck today. My arms are also a bit achy from the use of the poles.

But oh the view from the top. There are few words for the view on such a clear day.

Mt Rainier, Spirit Lake and the east rim of the crater.

The dome. I can see the difference from three years ago. You can see steam , too.

The blast zone, lahar floodplain and Johnston Ridge.

Mt Adams to the east. See the small red flag to the left of the ski poles? You don't want to cross that point. Where we are standing is the true rim, everything else is subject to change. The man in the cap is our trip leader and if you look to the left of his feet you can see a crack in the shelf.

A dangerous snow cornice shows its layers. Notice how it is breaking apart and drooping? It will drop into the crater soon. The rim is marked with flags and in some places there was easily 20 more feet of snow before open sky. This is simply a snow shelf. In some places you could see cracks developing where it was going to break away.

I did some glissade on the trip down. This techniques can be risky but if you follow in the "buttpath" of those before you, it is simply wet and fun.

I am tired from the shoulders up. The tension in my neck and shoulders from staring at the ground and working walking poles remains. Happily my legs, and more importantly my feet, are in fine shape.


  1. Holy Smokes! That picture of the Ape Caves is amazing. What an adventurous woman you are. Bet it was worth the few aches and pains you took home with you.

  2. Gorgeous!! I love the changes you've made to your blog, too. And I sent it to my dad, I think he'll love reading your stories and seeing your pictures. :) We lived in WA for a few years growing up.

  3. There's a lava tube on the Big Island of Hawaii at the Volcano National Park as well, very chilly to go through so I can imagine that one is even worse, brrr.
    I love seeing those mountains from the same vantage point (mainly from an airplane for me) it gives you an awesome feeling to know you're surrounding by these giants.
    Great pictures, you're a brave soul!

  4. Another great post,Marti. We are finally back home, after a great few weeks in BC and AB. We were at St. Helen's last summer and went around to Windy Ridge. Had hoped to do some hiking but it was very hot and no water anywhere. Great views but we did no hiking.

  5. Thanks everyone. I was pleased that I only had pain from the armpits up. My arms were sore from ski pole use and my shoulders and neck from staring at the ground/footing on the climb.

    I carried 4 L of water for this hike. A 2.5 gallon cube of water is currently residing in my car. Since I got my water bladder backpack, I have not had issues with water. Last year I definitely ran into trouble on some hikes in not having enough.

    CFO I hope your Dad enjoys the stories. It is nice being able to share them.