Top of the World, Ma!
11.07.2007 - 18.07.2007
While on a drive to Detroit from Chicago in February of 07, my brother-in-law, Mike (who currently lives in Federal Way in the Seattle/Tacoma area) told me he was going to climb Mt. St. Helens in July with his buddy, Jason. I thought that the idea was pretty cool and asked if I could join them. “You’re more than welcome” he replied. Five months later I was on a plane from my home in Chicago to the Pacific Northwest for the excursion of a lifetime.
Mt. St. Helens came to prominence in the late spring of 1980 when I was in the 7th grade. I still remember the time-lapse black and white photographs of the whole north side of the mountain exploding into an awesome display of smoke and ash, the latter of which reached all the way to Minnesota, New Mexico and even parts of Oklahoma. A classmate of mine, who had a relative in Minnesota, brought to class a little vial of ash that was sent to him a few weeks after the eruption. I remember crowding around his desk with the rest of the curious students, looking on in wonder at a direct remnant of a national current event that somehow felt significant to our young lives.
I, for one, became interested in the power of Mother Nature at an early age, so when the opportunity arose to take on the endeavor of hiking up the side of an active volcano, I knew I had to be a part of it, and in order to be a part of it, I had to get in shape. I got a membership at the Y that March and started working on my cardio and joined the co-op of REI because I knew lightweight camping and survival gear would be essential. I also started taking 3-mile urban hikes around my neighborhood with a full pack. Unfortunately, Chicago doesn’t offer much in the way of hill climbing but I made due.
The date of our climb was set for July the 12th and in order to make the ascent we needed a permit. Hiking is allowed year round but a permit is required for hiking past the tree line and must be visible at all times. If you’re hiking in the summer, you should be aware that only 100 permits are issued per day from mid May to the end of October for the reasonable fee of $22.00. The fee also covers parking and/or camping at the climbers bivouac. For the July climb, we had our permits secured by April since summer is the busiest. If you desire to hike in the winter, make sure you take caution when approaching the top as unstable snow cornices can collapse on you without notice. Less than a year after our climb, a snowmobiler traveling along the west rim of the crater got off his sled, walked out onto a cornice overhanging the crater and fell in when it gave way, sliding all the way to the bottom. He survived but had to be airlifted out by helicopter. Anyone wanting to make the hike, whatever time of year you’re interested in, should look at: http://www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm/ for permit guidelines, camping and parking options as well as rules and regulations concerning your trip as a whole.
We arrived at the climbers bivouac on the 11th of July and after pitching our tents we set out to explore Ape Cave, an underground lava tube that formed during an eruption of Mt St. Helens some 2,000 years ago. The cave, locate a couple miles south of the bivouac, is accessible via a staircase in the main entrance, which is actually in the center of the tube. We set out to find the upper entrance, which we never found, with the intention of hiking the tube back to the main entrance. Come to find out, we just didn’t hike far enough up the trail. Once inside the cave we back tracked up towards the upper entrance but found the going a little rough due to humongous rock piles that were a little difficult to navigate, so we ended up heading down the other way, which is easier but dead ends. An LED headlamp or Maglite is a must as there are no lights down there. Now, I’m not afraid of the dark, nor am I very claustrophobic, but I had just finished reading Tolkien’s ‘The Two Towers’ and while wandering through this pitch black cavern, I couldn’t get the image of the “Path to Cirith Ungol” and the “dark terror that dwells there” out of my mind, which, I gotta admit, made me a little uneasy. Fortunately, no spiders of any size made themselves known although several bats started to materialize, preparing to head out for the night as we exited the cave, which I thought was pretty cool.
The next morning we set out on our hike, making the two-mile walk from the bivouac to the tree line via a switch back trail. From there we were off on to what felt like a 45 degree trek to the summit on a trail that’s marked only by wooden posts every so often… a trek that took 8 hours to accomplish over rocks, grit and ash.
The hike was very taxing on my soon to be 40-year-old body and the closer I got to the top, the shorter my footsteps got to where my toe was actually in line with my arch with every step I took. I can’t imagine how tough it would’ve been if I hadn’t started working out at the Y in the spring. Once at the top we took in the breathtaking view of the smoldering crater below with Spirit Lake just beyond and Mt Rainier 50 miles to the north. Mt Hood loomed 60 miles to the south and Mt Adams, the most visible of the three peaks, 45 miles off to the east. We hung about for roughly 20 minutes and then made the descent by sliding down the snowfields on our raincoats -- a trip that took us a total of three hours to get back to camp.
Of course it wasn’t without complications. By lagging behind, I got separated from Mike and Jason for what I thought was only 10 minutes when we inadvertently strayed off course. Mike remembers it as more like a half hour. What was funny about the whole case scenario was that while I was worrying about how to tell my girlfriend that I lost her brother on the side of an active volcano, Mike was yelling at Jason about how he was going to have to explain to his sister how he lost her boyfriend on the side of an active volcano. In the end, a crisis was averted and no rescue team or St. Bernards with those little barrels full of rum tied around their necks were needed as we teamed back up, found the trail and made it back to base camp; exhausted, starving and in desperate need of a shower.
If, like me, you’re new to this kind of hiking and want to experience Mt St. Helens, your best bet is to hike it in the summer but get your permit early. As for gear, I climbed with a camel back type pack with a bladder that held two liters of water with side pockets for two more 20oz. water bottles that I used. The pack was also big enough to hold a sweatshirt, a raincoat and an array of Cliff/Snickers bars and a first aid kit (gauze, band aides, Neosporin, scissors, wet-naps, etc). I also had with me a Swiss Army knife, a compass with a signal mirror and a map, three essentials I practically never leave home without when traveling.
The whole trip was a great experience. I hung around the Seattle area for a few more days before heading back to Chicago, taking in a ball game (Mariners Vs. Tigers) at Safeco Field the day after our hike. Much to our chagrin, another climbing hike was in store for our already tired leg muscles as our seats were down the right field line and way up in the grand stands (“didn’t we get enough of this yesterday?”). You can bet that the next couple of days were spent just relaxing.
I had flown out to the Pacific Northwest, but since there was no hurry to get back home, I took Amtrak back; stopping off in the Twin Cities of St. Paul/Minneapolis for the day to have a few beers with a friend before continuing on home by Megabus that night, arraignments I had made a month or so prior to setting out.
A summer rain was pelting Chicago when we arrived Union Station at about 6:30 a.m. the 18th of July. I had slept most of the way but not very comfortably and woke up with my arm asleep and a crick in my neck as the bus lumbered its way down the Kennedy expressway. I myself lumbered my tired ass to the loop, weaving and dodging through the morning rush pedestrian crowd before hopping the el back to my Ravenswood apartment. I met Amy on the street as she was just leaving for work. We exchanged pleasantries, she continued on and I went in to shower the road off of me and sack out on the couch. In spite of the great adventure I had just endured, it was good to be home.