Today I really wanted to be able to share with you some beautiful photos from the summit of Mount St. Helens so that we could compare them to the images I captured two months ago from within the crater. Sadly, mother nature was not in a compliant mood this past weekend when I had my climbing permit. She decided to take Saturday to warn us that fall is coming, and with it the clouds and rain.
The mountain did provide a lesson for me on this trip, however; or at least a reminder. It’s been a long time since my life felt truly at risk in the mountains. Sure, there have been trailside cliffs that have delivered vertigo and fear, and I have an ever-present concern about bears and wildcats, but the former I can control, and attacks from the latter are very rare. This weekend’s lesson was about the wildness of the environment itself and how swiftly a situation can turn from tolerable (or even joyous) to deadly.
Friday night my companions and I camped at Climber’s Bivouac, only two miles from the timberline. The skies were clear and the air chilly. The moon was fairly late to rise, so we caught glimpses of the Milky Way before the lunar glow overpowered the more subtle textures of our galaxy. Weather reports had indicated a likelihood of rain in the late afternoon on Saturday, so we were all hopeful that the weather would be kind to us if we hit the trail by 7:00 and were back down by 4 or 5. I enjoyed one of the best nights of rest in a tent that I can remember… Little tossing and turning, and comfortable temperatures.
By morning, the clouds had rolled in, though they looked thin and like they might possibly break up a bit against a strong sun. That was wishful thinking, though, as the first pin-prick drops of rain touched my face a mere five minutes before we started walking. We began the hike, anyway, hoping that the rain would remain as a mist and that the rising sun might hold the storm at bay.
The first mile of the climb from the bivouac is deceptively simple. It’s forested, relatively flat, and the trail is well developed. The second mile begins to climb a bit, but it’s still only a modest incline. At mile two you pass the timberline into the boulder fields and the hike to Monitor Ridge begins in earnest. Saint Helens is a non-technical climb, meaning you don’t need ropes or other specialty climbing equipment to get to the top, you just need some sturdy boots, strong legs, and plenty of water. It’s more accurately described as a scramble, because for two to 2-1/2 miles you’re pulling yourself up large boulders of dacite and basaltic-andesite. The path is marked by posts with bright yellow tape and blue diamonds, and these posts are spaced every 50 to 100 yards or so. It’s imperative that you be able to see the next post as you leave each one behind so that you don’t veer off course.
The rain was coming and going as we scrambled up the mountain. Though it had become obvious that we weren’t going to be rewarded with any kind of view at the summit, the hike became one about accomplishing a goal, rather than enjoying the journey. We were determined to continue until the weather made us stop. …Which it did at 6,100 feet (about 2,200 feet from the top). At that elevation, the rain froze and so did my spirits. I made the call to turn around and head back to the cars. I felt poopy about it for a few minutes as we began the decent, but was soon relieved that I made the call when I did because the rain picked up dramatically and my friends and I were drenched.
I have little doubt that a hiker that chose to continue much further than we had would have been at great risk of injury or death from exposure. Saint Helens is not a mountain easily descended with frozen fingers, and a thin, slick surface of freshly frozen rain would not make matters any easier.
I felt like a drowned rat when I flopped into the driver’s seat of my car, but the heater felt great and I made tracks back home where I could enjoy some time in the hot tub. I can think of few things that have ever felt better than soaking in that warm water.
So, next year, my friends. Next year I’ll bring you some pictures and talk geeky to you about rocks from the summit of the volcano. For now, I must plan fall and winter activities.