I wasn’t allowed to return to Mount St. Helens. That was the rule. My rule. I wouldn’t go back without Kristin.
She’d never been there.
I’ve gone multiple times over the years, always with my mountain bike, always with friends. I’d ride the Ape Canyon, Windy Ridge, and Smith Creek trails while Kristin stayed home. It was too hot to bring our dogs, too dry, the pumice would wreak havoc on their paws.
I was determined to finally visit the infamous volcano together this year. And when a hike around the entirety of the mountain via the Loowit Trail was included as one of this year’s routes in the Ultra Pedestrian Wilderness Challenge, I knew how. We picked a date, the last weekend in June, and when reports surfaced of the wicked winter snowfall refusing to melt out, we gave it a go anyway.
Adventure was had.
Choose Your Loowit Trail Adventure
The Loowit Trail encircles the volcano, sticking to the flanks halfway up the mountain, but never going above the 4,800′ restricted access elevation where only permitted climbers and volcanologists are allowed to venture. The Loowit Trail ducks and dives in and out of evergreen forests on the south side to rocky slopes rising and falling across gullies hundreds of feet deep, around boulder-strewn ridges left behind by pyroclastic flows, and then ultimately onto the moonscape that is the northern and eastern sides of the volcano. Pumice crunches underfoot as ash stirs in the air. Waterfalls tumble from the breach, where the lateral explosion of the 1980 eruption removed nearly two thousand feet of mountain material in a northward blast. And then there’s the Plains of Abraham, the moon.
We’d see all of this. If things went well.
The original plan was to hike in from Climber’s Bivouac trailhead, at the mountain’s six o’clock position, and travel counter-clockwise, making our overnight camp at Windy Pass. Day two would take us across the ten-mile restricted access area on the north side where camping, bikes, and dogs are prohibited, and back around the southwestern flanks to the approach trail. The distance would have been about 31 miles in total (50 kilometers).
Updates of the summer climbing route still being closed, forced us to start from the Marble Mountain Sno-Park, further east of Climber’s Bivouac. I realized if we went CCW around the volcano, we risked hitting impassable conditions late on Sunday, potentially forcing us to backtrack some twenty-odd miles back the way we came.
We went clockwise. And saved ourselves a massive struggle.
Anybody See the Trail?
The first two miles up the winter climbing approach trail were snow-free and easy. As was our crossing of Swift Creek, the first gully to the west. And then things got progressively more difficult.
It’s not that we really needed a trail to follow. The beauty of a snow-covered landscape is that you can tread wherever you want, without risk to damaging the flora. But when the snow-covered landscape is a twisted, steeply sloping forest you’ve never visited, a trail is nice.
I had the GPS track for the Loowit Trail on my watch and at a rate of about 45 minutes per mile, we clambered through the forest, kick-stepping into the snow, holding onto tree branches to keep from sliding, and eventually exiting above treeline.
Of all the the things we took into account, applying sunscreen to our nostrils was one that escaped our attention. Lesson learned.
We continued our journey west, making slow but steady progress. At one point I was convinced I had seen fresh boot tracks. Two pairs. And then, later, up high on the snow near the intersection with the Ptarmigan Ridge trail we would have ascended from Climber’s Bivouac, we encountered a fresh set of tracks.
And for ten glorious minutes, we were skirting Monitor Ridge, making great time, and enjoying the comfort provided by the evidence of other humans. It’s not that we’ve never traveled in the snow before. We have. We just never teetered on the edge of our comfort zone for so long before.
The tracks disappeared into a gully and we were once again making our own line across the mountainside. Each step involved kicking in with the toes of our shoes to create a small step. Bracing with our trekking poles for balance, putting all of your weight onto the lower pole to force yourself upright on the slope. I ascended past snow, onto moondust, and climbed what seemed a fifty-degree slope.
Emerging from behind the trees was the man whose tracks we had lost.
And he was coming back our way.
Time To Bail
He was a runner, trying to circumnavigate the mountain. He started with another who turned back long ago, uncomfortable in the conditions. Hence the two tracks fading to one.
But he too was turning back. He made it another half mile past where we encountered him, but was pulling the plug on his circumnav due to a crevasse. He was without a GPS track of the trail and saw only one way past the crevasse — a lengthy, steep climb high onto the mountain, into the restricted area.
He was traveling with just a running vest and emergency gear. He could survive the night if he was stuck, but it wouldn’t be comfortable. Not when his wife was waiting for him back at June Lake. He was going to bail down Ptarmigan Ridge and wished us luck. Perhaps we could get around it. We had camping gear with us, a GPS track to sight against, and more time.
We bid him well and headed off.
The first crevasse stopped me in my tracks. At least, that’s what we were calling them (crevasses are actually a glacial feature, but small snow canyons pose a similar threat — one such gap claimed the life of someone earlier this month on Aasgard Pass). I’d never seen one before. I didn’t want to get close. We backed up and ascended a pyroclastic flow. Corniced snow drifts made us watch our steps carefully. We stuck to the rocks as best we could.
And then we were done.
The next snowfield was flanked by another crevasse-like break at least a hundred yards long. Probably double that. Though the GPS track — and a wooden trail marker — showed the trail heading across the nose of the crack, the only way across was by way of a very lengthy climb over the next pyroclastic flow. One that looked steeper than we bargained for. And it would have taken us to at least 5,500 feet. Not that there were any rangers in the vicinity to ticket us for straying into the restricted area, it was something to consider.
Ultimately, we still had at least five miles to go before reaching the South Fork of the Toutle where we had planned to camp the night. Five miles that, based on the prior five, may have taken another four or more hours. Five mile that, based on what we were seeing, may have been far more dangerous than we were willing to risk.
We hiked to the base of the pyroclastic flow, just to test our resolve. It was steep, hundreds of feet tall, and made the decision for us.
Have Map Will Return Safely
I wanted an easy out. Repeating the outbound journey was not appealing. So we aimed for the Ptarmigan Ridge trail and began our descent. It went smoothly at first, but we soon found ourselves off trail and attempting to descend an extremely steep ravine.
Kristin slipped and slid on her pack into a tree well. Thankfully.
I slipped and twisted in a weird direction, catching myself on a small tree, but not before realizing how close I came to tearing my knee.
The close call reminded us we had YakTrax in our packs. Best put them on for the descent.
I zoomed in further on the GPS track, compared it with the topo map and saw that we were oh so close, but oh so dangerously on the wrong side of a ridge. We made it over the ridge and onto the trail. It was snow covered all the way to the trailhead, but blue blazes affixed to the trees some twenty feet off the ground made navigation easy.
We had lunch at the trailhead, in the ninety-degree heat, and started down the gated gravel road. My initial thought was that we’d hike to the gate, then hitchhike back to our car.
That wouldn’t be necessary. The map showed it was possible to connect a melted-out snowshoe trail with a snow mobile trail and hike our way all the way back to where we began.
And what a great option that was, being that we both ran out of water — 200 ounces between us — with two miles to go. The shaded walk was delightful.
We ended up camping in the town of Cougar (the promise of beer and ice cream lured us off the mountain) and visiting the Johnston Ridge Observatory in the morning. It was Kristin’s first time to St. Helens and though it didn’t go the way we had hoped, we had a great time. We’ll be back.
A New Look: The website was overdue for a fresh look and the latest WordPress updates were gradually breaking the functionality of my outmoded theme and several plugins. I still have a handful of kinks to iron and not all of the posts and pages have been updated, but my hope is that this provides a more streamlined experience.
Wish Me Luck: Those who have been following Two Far Gone since the days of our bicycle tour know that I’ve been working on a novel inspired by our trip. Well, I got good news for you! Tailwinds Past Florence was selected as a finalist in the PNWA Literary Contest. I’ll know if I’m a prize winner at the annual writer’s conference in Seattle next month.