Sunday, July 23, 2006

Saint Helens Opening Weekend!

On the very first weekend that Mount Saint Helens re-opened for climbing since volcanic activity started in September 2004, my wife and I were fortunate enough to secure a couple of the limited permits available to climb the mountain through an acquaintance of an online climbing forum.

It was a beautiful (though very warm) evening when we arrived at the 4,800 foot Climber’s Bivouac on Saturday. We met up with our climbing party and set up camp to catch a few hours of sleep before starting the climb. Since temperatures were expected to climb well into the 90’s, we intended to leave around 2:00 AM in order to climb in the cooler early morning hours before the sun started cooking the mountain.

We left camp at 2:00 and hiked for two miles through an evergreen forest. The air in the thick trees was hanging onto the heat from the previous day. At one point, we saw a pair of large eyes reflecting the light from our headlamps in the dark, moonless night. (Sasquatch???) The breeze was refreshing once we left the cover of the forest and started our scramble on large volcanic boulders. Our climb followed Monitor Ridge, where scientific equipment placed along the ridge constantly monitors seismic and volcanic activity. The path consisted at times of loose, abrasive ash material in which we often found ourselves sliding back a step for every step we took; and at other times of large pumice boulders that we had to climb over and around. Occasionally, there were patches of snowfield or glacier that allowed for easier walking.

As we were nearing the top, we saw the silhouette of Mount Adams in front of the faint pink-orange of the rising sun. As we continued to climb, we saw the shadow of Saint Helens herself in the sky to the west. The sky was alive with color above the ridges upon ridges of forested hills below. We could make out a faint outline of Mount Hood to the south through the clouds. We were looking down into the amazing crater of the 8,363 foot Mount Saint Helens just over four hours after we started.

Sunrise silhouetting Adams from St Helens.The views were amazing as the sun had begun to burn off most of the clouds. A constant breeze kept us cool, even as the sun was heating things up. We could clearly see Rainier to the Northeast, Adams to the East, and Hood to the South. The crater itself was a site unlike any other I’ve seen. The sheer magnitude of the 1980 eruption is difficult to imagine when you are looking down nearly 2,000 feet to the bottom of the crater floor, and realize that the mountain was 1,500 feet taller than where we were standing. Steam and sulfur was rising from the newly formed cone in the middle of the crater. Boulders tumbled down the side of the cone with a crash and a rumble more than once a minute as the cone continued to form new rock at a rate of 1 cubic meter per second!

We started our descent shortly after 7:00 AM and were surprised at the number of hikers who had waited until daybreak to start their climb. We were already baking on the rocks, yet there were some parties climbing up with a limited water supply in shorts and a tank top. The latest group we saw was starting around the time we returned to our campsite around 10:30. As I took my daypack off in the sweltering heat, I was glad I wasn’t among those still looking forward to the top of the steamy volcano!