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Thursday, August 27, 2009


Expedition: St Helens

The whole thing seemed like such a great idea back in February. "Hey, let's climb a volcano this summer." This plan first emerged as a few friends and I were working our way through a third pitcher of Henry's at the Goose Hollow Inn. Usually plans conjured up at the tavern wither and die by the time we pay the tab but this one took flight. Within a few days, the number of people on board for the "expedition" had gone from three to a dozen.

Six months and numerous day hikes later, the twelve of us met on a trailhead on the edge of Mount St. Helens. I'm not old enough to remember its epic eruption in 1980 but I was in town back in 2005 when it started rumbling again. If you had asked me back then if I would ever one day climb up to the crater and peer inside I'm sure I would have said, "uhhhh, no flippin' way."

The volcano was obscured by fog and clouds but we all knew what we were up against. Four hours of shin-busting scrambling along trails and boulders followed by a final 1,000+ foot slog up a pumice and ash covered incline leading to the crater. How much were we all paying for this lovely little nature walk? $22 a head for the climbing permits.

Within an hour, those of us who had spent the summer training for the hike had already been upstaged by those who hadn't. The four of us who were supposedly well-prepared for this adventure opted to go the "slow and steady" route, stopping to take photos, chug water, eat Scooby Doo fruit snacks and, for reasons probably too pointless to explain here, perform impromptu kabuki. Dan, if the whole law thing ever sputters out, I think you should consider a career in live theater.

Once we cleared the boulders, we caught up with a group of women in their 50s all hellbent on conquering the volcano. Regardless of age, the final, cruel ascent to St. Helens' crater has a way of equalizing hikers as they lose their footing in the ash and slide a foot for every five feet of elevation gained. It's like climbing up a giant sand dune.

I found myself marching alongside a gal from Michigan. She had spent the summer on a Stairmaster preparing for this and wasn't about to let anyone else in her group beat her to the top. We each had to stop about every 10 yards to catch our breath and cough up dust. Despite decades of hiking she had never subjected herself to anything like this. I finally decided to blast up the final few hundred feet, despite my burning knees. I never did find out if she won her race.

The rest of our group had reached the crater a good 45 minutes before my fellow stragglers and I. By this point, we had climbed above the clouds and could see over them all the way to Mt. Hood. I'd seen photos of the crater before but I was still half-expecting to find a black hole filled with lava. Instead, the interior of St. Helens is more like a gigantic canyon with a lake and a steaming dome.

The edge of the crater was also much smaller than I had predicted, maybe ten feet from the incline to the drop-off. Our group leader, who had been up there before, advised us to stay away from the edge because of the possibility that the ground could give way underneath us at any given second. The casualness of all of the other hikers up there gave us a false sense of security that inevitably led to a photo of my sister pretending to toss me into the volcano. Ahhh, cherished family memories of wanton recklessness. Right after we took the photo a loud rock slide began on an opposite wall of the crater, a not-so casual reminder of how dangerous the edge of a volcano tends to be.

The ascent had been difficult but the worst part of the hike had yet to come. Getting back down over the boulders was an endurance test that led to a substantial amount of frustration. And by "substantial amount of frustration" I mean "lots of swearing while nimble teenagers on a church field trip blasted past us at 50 million miles an hour." Lousy kids! Get off my lawn! Er, volcano! Mumble....mumble....The Price is Right hasn't been the same since Bob left....where's the clicker....mumble....mumble.....

Around the time I slipped and busted a gallon-sized jug of water in my backpack I swore that I would never, ever set foot on a hiking trail again. Of course, this vow was immediately forgotten once we reached the treeline and marched back to the car past acres of wildflowers glowing in the late August sun. There's already talk of heading up South Sister sometime next year and we still have yet to make it to the top of Mt. Thielsen.

And to my knees I apologize in advance.

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