| Mt. St. Helens
"Why would anyone want to climb that thing?!" my mom texted me, after learning that we had just climbed Mount Saint Helens. "It could go any minute."
Technically, she's right, as the mountain has had many small eruptions over the years. And the lava dome in the crater continues to belch its way to new heights. But there are so many scientists and sensors monitoring that mountain's every move, it's relatively safe to climb. Or at least that's what I told myself.
Thirty years ago, when I was just a lad, I vividly remember watching news reports of the Mount Saint Helens eruption. It was the most destructive volcanic explosion in North American history.
The eruption blasted away approximately 3.7 billion cubic yards of earth, and plumes of ash reached 80,000 feet in less than 15 minutes. The mountain's elevation was reduced from 9,677 feet to 8,363 feet, and a crater more than 2,000 feet deep was left behind. Countless animals and 57 people were killed.
Some of these things went through my mind as I stood on the eroding crater rim of the most active volcano in the Cascade Range. But I was distracted by the mountain's unbelievable beauty, so fear took a back seat while the views took my breath away more than the thin air.
I took these photos of Mount Saint Helens the previous day (from the southeast side), which, luckily for us, was nice and sunny:
And here's a photo of some waterfall (also taken the previous day):
Earlier that morning, Jen, our friend Pavel and I set off to climb the world-famous stratovolcano – or at least what was left of it – from Climbers' Bivouac via the Monitor Ridge route.
The first couple miles of the easy-to-follow trail meander through a dark forest blanketed in tree moss. Elevation gain is pleasantly gradual.
The air temperature was in the 30s but the humidity coupled with exertion made it seem warm. Unfortunately, it was foggy and cloudy, so we didn't know if we'd get any views on top.
We kept saying to ourselves, "Wouldn't it be cool if we broke above the clouds?!"
And right about 4,800 feet in elevation, we could tell that our wish would come true.
Above 4,800, near timberline (and where climbing permits are required), the terrain transforms into a lunar-like landscape. Fog only added to the mysterious nature of the mountain.
Wooden poles mark the route among large lava boulders.
Higher up, some talus hopping is necessary, but the difficulty never exceeds Class 2 scampering and scrambling.
This is why it's called Monitor Ridge:
Beyond that, a calf-burning slog up loose scree and sinking ash is all that's required to gain the top.
We had some awesome views of nearby volcanoes. Here's Mt. Adams:
Then more slogging up the ash and scree. You know: one step up, half a step back down.
After hiking four-and-a-half miles and gaining 4,600 feet of elevation over three-and-a-half hours, we reached the summit ridge.
Some shots looking toward Mt. Rainier:
The 360-degree views were much better than I anticipated, and the weather could not have been better.
As I gazed upon the horizon, it seemed like we were on a desolate island in the middle of a sea of clouds, with the majestic "islands" of Mount Rainier, Mount Adams and Mount Hood all rising toward the sky in the distance.
The highest point on Mount Saint Helens' ridge is about a quarter-mile to the west of where most people turn around, but it's only slightly higher and it essentially offers the same views. For most people, walking along the loose and unstable ridge is not worth the effort or risk. And finding that exact high point may be a moot exercise anyway, as 1,300 feet of the mountain's true summit was blown away 30 years ago. Not to mention, the ridge is prone to avalanching, which will undoubtedly change the highest point again one day. In 2008, a USGS time-lapse camera was destroyed after a 50-foot-wide by 20-foot-deep section of the crater rim collapsed.
Regardless of where you stand on the crater rim, gazing into the belly of the beast is the real prize when climbing this mountain.
When you peer over the edge and into that massive, horseshoe-shape crater, which is more than a mile wide, you can see steaming vents and crevasse-choked glaciers covered in pumice. And when you consider the enormous void of where the mountain top used to be, you get an overwhelming sense of how powerful and violent that 1980 eruption must have been.
There's also a growing lava dome in the crater. Scientists believe that this is evidence that the mountain is rebuilding itself (similar to the Russian volcano, Bezymianny). One estimate I read says that it will only take 100 years until the summit crater is filled in and 200 years until the mountain is back to its pre-1980 size.
As we hiked back down into the refreshing mist below the cloud deck, I felt privileged to have seen such raw and rugged beauty created by one of earth's most destructive forces.
For more information, visit the U.S. Forest Service's Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Web site at www.fs.fed.us/gpnf/mshnvm. Climbing permits (during the warmer months) are sold online through the Mount Saint Helens Institute at www.mshinstitute.org.
Thumbnails for uploaded photos (click to open slideshow):