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Into thick sleet: Mount St. Helens turns sinister

Three brothers savor a long-awaited volcano climb - until the weather turns, disaster looms, and a fellow hiker disappears.

Anthony, John, and Brian Scigliano start up the lahar, waiting for the weather to clear.

Anthony, John, and Brian Scigliano start up the lahar, waiting for the weather to clear. Eric Scigliano

Los tres hermanos, at the summit, as the wind and sleet pick up.

Los tres hermanos, at the summit, as the wind and sleet pick up. Anthony Scigliano

Anthony Scigliano descends through the fog.

Anthony Scigliano descends through the fog. Eric Scigliano

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
Monday. …      

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.”

When we reached the top we were the only people in sight. The crater’s bottom and most of its inner walls were lost in fog, making it seem innocuously shallow. We didn’t stop for a high five; in that wind, the cornice was no place to jump around. I tugged out my camera  and we snapped until sleet coated it too thickly to snap more. We headed back down, into the wind.

We soon passed a few pairs of people heading up. Two young guys looked particularly ill-prepared. They had no poles, and I don’t recall if they had headgear; one pressed a gallon water jug against his chest. I asked if they were all right and offered him a smaller bottle so he could warm his hands in his pockets. “No, thanks, I’m OK,” he said weakly, and headed on.

The sideways wind made our loose raingear useless; we were soaked through. The slush covered my glasses before I could put them back on after wiping them, and they steamed up as soon as they neared my face. I finally packed them away and, for the first time since I was eight, found my way with natural 20-300 vision. No great loss; the fog was so thick you couldn’t see much anyway.

When we reached the boulders, no trails were visible; the rain had muddied any footprints. We veered gradually down the lahar’s left side and debated whether to cut down to a tempting sandy wash. We opted (wisely, as that wash would have vanished into a glacier) to cut back up the ridge. Anthony, who was the least dressed for the weather, was getting pale and sluggish — the first stages of hypothermia. The rest of us may not have been far behind. But somehow, soaked and beat and chilled, slipping down and between the wet boulders in what was now mid-afternoon half-light, none us fell, twisted an ankle, or did any other serious damage. Our feet seemed to have cat whiskers that found a way when we could see none.

We saw no sign of Lori or her friends. I looked back up and wondered about the people who’d headed up after us while the weather worsened — especially those two naïve dudes. Back at the bivouac camp, and even on the road, we had no cellphone reception. Around 6:30, after too much time drying and warming in the car’s heat, we reached the last outpost before the mountain, the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar, which dispenses mountaineering permits. I told the woman at the desk how the weather had turned and said I was concerned about the people heading up behind us. “I’ll call the sheriff,” she replied, “and George [evidently the designated deputy] will drive up to the parking lot and see if any of the cars are still there.”

Do you have trouble on the mountain often? I asked. “Every day,” she said wearily. Any fatalities? “None this year.”

On the way home, I wondered if I’d made the situation sound urgent enough, if I should call the sheriff myself, how long it would take George to get to the trailhead.

Perhaps he met Lori’s party there. The next morning’s news report, credited to AP and posted everywhere but soon effaced or updated, continued:

According to the Skamania Sheriff's Department, 55-year-old Lori Williams was last seen Sunday afternoon at about 3:30 p.m. about 500 feet below the summit.

Her climbing party had turned around because of bad weather and a sick climber, but Williams chose to continue.

The sheriff's office received a call just before 8 p.m. Sunday reporting that she was overdue.

A search began at about 10 p.m.

But weather hampered their ability to search overnight.

The county has requested additional searchers to aid them Monday.

We felt awful. But another report soon followed: she'd been found. Details came later: three teams, some 15 searchers in all, headed back up at 6:40 am Monday. At 8:30 they made voice contact. They found her an hour later, at the 6,500-foot level — in the boulder maze –“uninjured and in good spirits.” Perhaps she huddled under a rock overhang, and that, plus good gear and sense, saved her.

If humans actually learned from experience, escapades like this would teach us to stay safe and warm in the lowlands. Instead they make us more confident. I haven’t been able to reach Lori Williams and ask if she still plans to join the Mazamas. Anthony went to the doctor yesterday, worried about frostbite. But John, Brian, and I felt great. We started talking about our next hike, which won’t be on Mount St. Helens. Maybe something a little more challenging.

Monday night I took out the trash. I realized I'd neglected to turn on the porch light, but headed down the dark steps anyway. I didn’t hold the railing. Hey, I just made it down Mount St. Helens half-blind in gale-force sleet. I can find my way.

I missed the last step, twisted my ankle, and crumpled on the pavement. I’m writing this with an icepack on my foot. Can’t wait till it mends so I can get back to the mountains.

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget Sound; Love, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics. Scigliano also works as a science writer at Washington Sea Grant, a marine science and environmental program based at the University of Washington. He can be reached at eric.scigliano@crosscut.com.


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Comments:

Posted Wed, Oct 5, 1:20 p.m. Inappropriate

You write good stories! thanks.

kieth

Posted Wed, Oct 5, 1:23 p.m. Inappropriate

Experienced trash-movers know to wait for a dry, sunny day. I had some close calls myself before I learned this basic lesson.

Posted Wed, Oct 5, 3:34 p.m. Inappropriate

People forget that the success of a climb is being back at home safe, not the summit. You have to set a "turn around time" that which after which you will no longer take one step up, and you will start back no matter how close you appear to the summit. Tough as that decision is, you have to have make it otherwise you'll inevitably run into trouble.

As for trash I use local Sherpas, otherwise known as teenagers. They work for cheap and seem immune to the effects of attitude and distance.

GaryP

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