A Trek Into the Crater

St Helens

I must admit, I’m rather intimidated by Mount Saint Helens. Certainly, she is beautiful and, yes, I am almost always in the company of many other people when I visit her, but still she awes and humbles me. I suppose it’s for this reason that I keep returning to her, seeking new adventures within the dynamic landscapes along her flanks. I’m trying to understand this mountain, not to lessen the awe that I feel (in fact, the opposite is happening), but so that I can find some comfort while hiking in her shadow. This is a mountain that I can see from my home, so I feel like I should be at home around her.

Honestly, you’d have to be daft not to be humbled by this young Cascade volcano. The evidence of its power is laid (literally) bare before you from the ridges along its north side as the denuded landscape reveals the story of explosive movement of rock and ash. It has been 31 years since the famous eruption, and still the landscape is feeling the geologically immediate effects of the blast. This is among the most dynamic landscapes in the world.

On July 23rd I had an opportunity afforded very few people. I hiked into the crater of Mount St. Helens with members of the Mount Saint Helens Institute and a geologist from the USGS. Our destination was the snout of Crater Glacier, the doughnut-shaped glacier that encircles the new central dome of the volcano. Crater glacier is one of the only glaciers in the Cascade range that is growing, due in part to the shading it receives from the south crater rim.

The following are some pictures from that hike:

We began at dawn, hiking from Johnston Ridge Observatory. This was only the second time I’d been up early enough to see the mountain at sunrise. It was worth the 4:30 am wakeup call.

A couple of miles along the ridgeline north of the pumice plain we approached some of the more prominent hummocks deposited during the 1980 blast. Note the little craters in the hummocks to the bottom left of this image. These conical depressions may have formed when chunks of glacial ice -which had been buried in the initial landslide and blast- melted and the overlying deposits subsided.

From the pumice plain we got a few brief glimpses of Loowit Falls before hiking along to the west side of the blast zone to climb into the crater. To get a sense of the scale of the erosion happening here, view the larger version of this image and remember that this stream channel has all been carved out in the last 31 years.

Look to the right of the image at the more “gentle” slope of the Goat Rocks Fan. This was our entry point to the crater. The fan itself is part of the restricted zone and is not accessible to the average hiker. There are no trails here and conditions can be very dangerous. If you wish to do this hike, become a member of the Mount Saint Helens Institute. They occasionally offer opportunities to go in with professional guides.

A fairly arduous climb up the fan earned us the view below. From this vantage point we could clearly see our point of origin, Johnston Ridge (out of frame to the left), Spirit Lake (center), Windy Ridge (middle right), and Mount Adams (far right). The depression to the right of the fan is Step Creek Canyon. Step Creek is not a particularly large stream, so it’s amazing that it has managed to incise so deeply into the landscape in so short a time.

After 9-1/4 miles, we reached the foot of the glacier. Rocks were tumbling from the edge rapidly, announcing themselves with loud crashes several times a minute. The ice itself if flowing about three feet per day, so this is pushing vast quantities of rock and debris northward into the blast zone.

Foot of Crader Glacier

The view behind us was glorious as well. Our ascent had revealed Mount Rainier which was hiding behind the ridges near Spirit Lake.

On the far right of this image you can see the logs floating on the north end of Spirit Lake. These have been floating there since the blast, but have slowly been rotting and sinking.  They move around the lake with the winds. Often I’ve returned from a hike and noticed that they’ve moved entirely to the opposite side of the lake during the few hours I was away.

From this vantage point we also were able to investigate the interior walls of the crater. This is a view of the east wall. View the larger image and note the gently sloping deposits of much earlier eruptive phases that built the mountain. Also, at top center, check out the dike swarm that formed part of the mountain’s plumbing system in earlier stages of development.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little photo tour. If you want to see even larger versions of the photos shown here, head over to my Google+ page and view the album.


2 thoughts on “A Trek Into the Crater

  1. Nice job, Mike (IMHO). I was with you on this hike. It was indeed spectacular. I have been (pick your favorite) lucky, blessed, fortunate to visit some amazing places, do and see some astonishing things. This hike might not displace my #1 so far, but it can be no lower than #2. Just fantastic. Best wishes to you.

    • Hi Tom!

      This was definitely in my top 5 hikes of all time, too. It was an absolute priviledge and even worth the extra mileage we had to tack on due to the snow.
      I’m still hoping others will share their pictures.
      It was a pleasure to meet you!

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