The older you get, the more you notice the obituaries, and the longer you’ve lived around here, the more attention you pay to news items like the one that appeared Monday (Oct. 3). Ever since a friend narrowly survived a ghastly fall climbing in the Cascades, and a friendly acquaintance failed to survive another fall, I’ve been unable to pass over reports like this, or to read them without trepidation:
The search for an overdue Aurora, Oregon, woman who was climbing on Mt. St. Helens Sunday will continue
I'd awaited that morning's news with particular dread.
Our hike up Mount St. Helens last Sunday was a big reunion for me and my brothers, the first such expedition we’ve all attempted together. For John, the baby of the family (11 years my junior), huffing up the volcano's steep backside has become a habit; this is the fourth odd-numbered year in a row that he’s done it. He’s not sure why he does it; it’s close, just an hour and a half north of his home, and it’s about as strenuous a climb — a 4,500-foot ascent in five miles — as you can make, round-trip, in a day without technical equipment.
And then there are the views that make this what the Washington Trails Association calls “a peak that should be on every life list”: the 360-degree panorama of the sharply etched Cascades and hazy lands beyond them, with Mounts Rainier, Adams, and Hood looming so large you feel like taking a Paul Bunyan leap out to them. And the head-spinning, death-wish-tempting spectacle of crawling up to the cornice’s edge and peering 2,084 feet straight down at yellow, red, black, and white-smeared sulfur washes and cinder cones, budding lava domes, smoke and fog, a new eruption in the making.
I joined John on his second trip up, in 2007, on a brilliant June morning. The glaciers alongside the lahar the trail snakes up were so fat we could glissade on ice-numbed posteriors most of the way back down. Sure, we veered far west and had to traverse several rocky miles to get back to the trailhead. But it was all good fun. Brother Brian, two years younger than me, and his son Anthony, a strapping 30-year-old, craved to join us this time.
And so we converged Saturday night, from three corners of the Northwest, to meet the mountain together on Sunday. No question of glissading down glaciers or worrying about sunburn this time; this was the shank of the season, but you take what you can get. The volcanic monument administration allows just 100 people per day on the volcano’s upper slope, for a non-refundable fee that would buy a good dinner. Summer weekends get booked in early spring; this was the earliest we could get.
But the official weather forecast was encouraging: “cloudy, chance of showers, mainly before 11 am.” This time of year, that’s almost a sunny day, and you grab your weather windows when you can. When the sun shines, make tracks to the mountains.
For the first two miles and 1,000 feet of elevation, the route is deceptively gentle and green, a winding stroll through thick youngish hemlock and cedar. The only ominous sign is a surprising number of thin, white snags, all tilting southward into the wind and away from the summit. I have no idea why; they’re surely too fresh to have been knocked back by the 1980 blast, which blew in the opposite direction anyway.
A different vista finally peeks through the trees: a looming wall of boulders, like an enormous jetty but tilting sharply upward. It was one of the congealed lahars that run down the volcano’s cone like chocolate on a sundae. For the next two miles and 2,500 vertical feet what is euphemistically called the trail picks its way up through these boulders and the ribbons of pumice sand that provide occasional relief from them; it soon dribbles out into a lacework of bootpaths, left by succeeding hikers seeking whatever path entailed scrambling over and hopping between the fewest boulders. Peeled wooden poles stood every few hundred yards, marking an approximate route.
Luckily, in contrast to my first time, we all knew to bring work gloves for grabbing the 20-grit boulders, which could otherwise shred skin like a cheese grater. We're ready if Atlas Gloves ever wants to advertise in Outside.
Light rain and mist sprinkled us, as predicted. I stretched my rain jacket over my head and pack and told the crew not to worry: “It always clears up on afternoons like this.” And for three glorious minutes, about three hours in, the sun even shined. Then the clouds closed, the spray returned, and the wind picked up.
We passed a few other small parties and, preening like seasoned veterans, shared some encouraging words. They passed us while we ate our sandwiches, then we passed them again, exchanging more greetings. We chatted most with one woman of a certain age (i.e., around my age) with good gear, a red parka, and a ready smile
Her name was Lori, and she was making this climb to qualify for the Mazamas, Portland’s answer to Seattle’s Mountaineers. Membership required summiting one glaciated peak, she explained, and Mount St. Helens seemed like the easiest. I admired her pragmatism, and had no such sensible explanation to offer myself. A couple of her companions — one man of similar age, a tall young woman, and one or two younger guys — seemed to be having a harder time than she, and she fell back with them while we slogged on.
One trim young woman, wearing a tight jacket and what looked liked running shoes and Spandex clamdiggers, trotted past us, smiling, and I felt duly humbled. There’s one on every mountain.
Slog it was now. At the top of the last lahar a small concrete bunker — an automated seismic monitoring station — provides the last wind shield. Then, the final, steepest 1,000-odd vertical feet, straight up through loose pebbly ash. In one way the weather now helped; the wet ash slipped less, so instead of sliding back one step for every three forward, you might make five for each step back. If you dug in hard with your poles.
I had trained, belatedly, for just this moment: a couple moderate hikes, then Granite Mountain a couple weeks before, and a charge up Mount Si just four days earlier. I was determined to keep up with John all the way to the summit this time. But youth (and the fact that he’d probably trained even more) still trumped sibling rivalry, and he disappeared to the summit once again. Brian hung back with his son, who was feeling the weather. Mlle. Spandex dashed back down: "This is no time to hang around here," she said.
By now the weather had turned indisputably, irredeemably nasty. Rain, sleet, and snowflakes pelted us in turn. One hiker who seemed to know what he was talking about gauged the wind at “30 to 40 miles an hour”; Brian guessed 45. Later, back home, I would doublecheck the forecast and find a “special weather alert” issued at 2:30 pm, just as we neared the summit. “Cloudy” had given way to “a strong autumn weather system” with “very hazardous conditions on mountain peaks.”
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