Part 1: Ascent of Mt. St. Helens 2550m, August 16 RATED G
After work and my youngest girl's soccer practice on a Thursday evening, I drove my Villager to San Francisco. Eddie Sudol piled in and we began another odyssey. Driving north on Highway 5 until we were near Mount Shasta, I introduced Eddie to Art Bell's ridiculous radio program called "Dreamland" or some such nonsense. That evening's edition featured a hilarious discussion of "fidgets," allegedly magical devices that Art's guest would later use to fleece his customers of five bucks apiece. Driving west and getting lost at least once, we somehow found our way to Weaverville, a jewel of a town in the foothills of the Trinity Alps. Eddie and I stumbled into Dennis Hiipakka's place and slept a couple hours.
Fortunately, Dennis hadn't waited up for us, so Friday morning he was fresh. He drove well into Oregon. I enjoyed the wonderful day while Dennis and Eddie did most of the work. Eventually I took the wheel. Shortly after crossing the great Columbia River I drove east. We reached a little town called Cougar after 5 p.m. and stopped at a fabled little market called Jack's. That's where they sell the permits to Mt. St. Helens for fifteen bucks a head. We got in line minutes before the raffle. Fortunately it was called off that evening because they had enough permits to go around. Merrily we climbed into the van and bolted. Winning a permit for Helens was a bonus I had not banked on. The general public cannot legally hike above the tree line without one and I was happy to abide by the law.
With plenty of light remaining, we zoomed past the turnoff to our trailhead. Not content to sleep without scoping out our new environment, we made a long loop into the national park. It was a wondrous drive with many memorable stops. Tens of thousands of tree stumps dotted a landscape that could have been used in the Planet of the Apes movies, had they been filmed post-blast. In contrast to the martian desert were patches of intact fauna that had been shielded. Some of these oases were surprisingly close to the source of the fireworks. We stopped briefly for a nature hike at a subalpine lake, where just a few steps from the van we witnessed many marvels of nature in repair. We enjoyed good views of the cone, magnificent as its surroundings. The most unexpected sight was Spirit Lake. Tens of thousands of closely packed logs floated over an enormous area. It is said that you can walk over them without getting your feet wet.
After a sunset that came too soon, I reluctantly drove to camp. We were surrounded by many dozens of other Helens hopefuls. Dennis quickly crashed after refusing our invitation to visit the local lava tube, a.k.a. Ape Cave. He had kindly driven the first leg as Eddie and I slept that morning, so I didn't push him. First we looked for water as we drove. We had neglected to carry enough with us and there was none near camp. Failing to find the local spring, we drove all the way back to Cougar. A nice little bar on the main road had already closed. It was the hottest looking spot in town and the only one in which we could see anybody. We failed to get the attention of the lingering locals by knocking on the door and banging on the glass. So we went around the back and walked in, begging for a little H20. The bartender recovered from the abruptness of our intrusion in a split second and graciously pointed to the sink.
On the way back we turned off to Ape Cave. During the day a small fee is required for guided tours, but the local gatekeepers don't use their locks. Eddie and I were the only souls there on that moonlit evening. Taking advantage that we were no longer in California, we clambered down the metal steps to the lava tube, said to be the longest in North America. One segment is a little less than a mile in length and easy to walk. The other is longer than a mile and more difficult. We intended to do both and started with the easier.
I don't recall ever being in a lava tube before. It was remarkably regular in shape. It felt eerie inside and I would have been frightened to enter it alone. Of course we had to use our flashlights. The ground was irregular and we had to be careful not to trip onto treacherous, cutting rocks. Occasionally we walked by dripping water. The tube was littered with fallen rock and it was easy to imagine that more would tumble down at any moment. Spooked by the unusual surroundings and surprised by the length of the tube, I frequently imagined that we were a few steps from the end. But it was an illusion caused by the subtle curvature of the tube and the dimness of our lights. Finally the tunnel narrowed. Eventually we reached a collapsed jumble of rock forming an upper and lower cave. After some unenthusiastic probing we retreated. Who knows what we would have discovered given more time.
Saturday morning we slowly broke camp. We bounced into lush woods, virtually pristine except for the path on which we walked. It was as nice as a Sierra trail without a trace of horse droppings. Through the trees we snatched occasional glimpses of the other giants, Mts. Hood and Adams rising as majestically as clouds on the horizon. Not far from the trailhead the foliage came to an abrupt thinning. The main trail continued for a short stretch on rockier ground. Just before it petered out, a prominent sign warned us that only mountaineers should proceed.
A few steps later we began grunting up the steep, loose slope to Monitor Ridge. After many long minutes of two-steps-up-one-step-down, we were on the crest. Distinctive marker poles would have made the path impossible to miss even on a winter day. The first markers stood below the crest. They continued on the ridge past a saddle to the upper slopes. We moved faster on the ridge. Nevertheless it was steep, sandy and full of crumbling pumice. Frequently our boots slid backward, creating the illusion that the hike was more difficult than the class 1+ jaunt it actually is. On the other side of the ridge was a gully covered with hard snow. It provided an alternative to the minority of hikers who preferred it to the sand.
The route to the crater rim was direct. A random collection of souls crawled up it like insects. I lagged behind my partners, drinking sunshine and taking photographs. Half way to the rim I sat with Eddie. I tried to snooze while he meditated. Meanwhile Dennis forged his way uphill, maintaining his steady pace. Eddie and I rested for a half an hour. Reluctantly we arose and continued the tiring struggle upward on steep sand.
The overwhelming panorama from the crater rim demanded a long stay. Green forests, blue lakes, giant volcanoes and the desolate blast area competed for our attention. With conscious effort, I blocked out the crater interior and slowly appreciated the views, moving my sight inward from the horizon. Then I focussed on the unstable rim. As I looked back and forth, I noticed that we were not standing on the highest point! The true "summit" was a short distance to our left as we faced the crater. But the highest spot was far enough away and so nondescript that I didn't care to reach it. A short down-and-up stroll near the crater's edge would have gotten us there, but it would have required a half-hour better spent driving to Adams. As far as I could tell, the many hikers around us didn't notice, care or do anything about our tiny lack of elevation, which couldn't have been more than 50 feet.
Eventually I turned to the piece de resistance; the crater and plug emerging from its center. Surrounding the plug, hundreds of feet below our boots was a dirty, glacier-like snowfield. We spotted a few people walking on it like astronauts exploring a strange new planet. I counted sixteen very active fumaroles. After gazing for several minutes, I spotted some vulcanists ON THE PLUG! They seemed oblivious to the hot rising steam and thin crust beneath them. I intend to visit Mt. St. Helens National Park several more times and if my wish comes true, I'll hike up the strange snowfield onto the plug.
With reluctance Eddie and I turned back, making quick progress now that we were assisted by gravity. Dennis had already left. Eddie led the way as usual and we opted to tread the slippery snow gully. My rear end hit the ice a few times. I almost caught my partner as we climbed off the ridge. But Eddie spotted a solo female hiker. Rushing forward to join her, he left me in the dust. Sometimes speed is important for more than safety, I guess.
Early to mid-afternoon, we threw everything into the van and followed verbal directions to a spring on the side of the highway. Blocking traffic, I parked the van and we filled up our bottles. While we were doing this, a couple of rangers drove up behind us. I braced for the hassle I would have received by California NPS, but these officials were not from my neck of the woods. They chatted with us in a friendly manner and gave useful advice. I helped one fill his water container. This trip had been fun from the outset, but we were especially joyful that afternoon. We continued our good-natured banter, frequently hurling hilarious insults at each other. Eddie and I were forced to team up against Dennis. We only partly succeeded in deflecting his vicious comments. To my chagrin, our verbal counter-punches did not visibly upset him. At times we suffered from apparently drug-induced euphoria. But besides coffee, the only drugs we consumed were the Alaskan brown beers I bought for Eddie and myself in Cougar that happy afternoon. We toasted the day's success and anticipated our next victory, which we planned to realize in just a few hours.
Part 2: Ascent of Mt. Adams 3742m, August 18 RATED PG13
Finding the next mountain proved to be the most difficult part of our adventure; that and finding my way back to the van after summiting. Even consulting a fine guidebook,* our maps and people on the road, we turned around at least once. We drove long stretches on marginally maintained roads, not sure of where we were. Pavement turned to dirt and dirt back to pavement. The sun went down and the few tantalizing glimpses of Mt. Adams reassured me that we were on the right track.
Arriving at the Ranger station at Trout Lake late Saturday night, we obtained self-issued permits. From there we took a rutted Forest Service road to Cold Springs, which is at roughly 7,000 feet elevation. The campground was crowded that night and I had to search for a good site. Even with all the cars and tents around us, I felt we were in a remote location.
We put out our bedrolls around 11 p.m. and I listened to Eddie and Dennis argue about our departure time. I pretended to be neutral. Eddie planned to start a class in the Bay Area on Monday night, so he wanted to return home as soon as possible. He argued for a short nap and a very early Sunday morning start. This had originally been my desire as well, but only if we had camped earlier. Having pulled an all-nighter on Hood last spring, I thought a proper night's sleep would make the climb more enjoyable. Dennis was adamant about getting proper rest and fortunately Eddie caved after much haggling.
We enjoyed a full night's sleep and took hours to get ready on Sunday morning. There was no hurry since we no longer planned to day-hike the peak. We needed to cover a mere five miles and gain 2,000 feet to arrive at the "lunch counter" any time before dark. Our route was "South Spur"--the easiest on the mountain. We walked along another beautiful, horseshitless Cascade trail, graced with flowers and butterflies. Soon the size of Mt. Adams made an impression on us. It is by far the most massive volcano in Washington. We met several people hiking down in good spirits. Most admirable was a young woman who descended in tennis shoes, a pair of completely inadequate boots strung on her backpack. It was her first ascent of Mt. Adams. She had done it solo and without crampons. She didn't look especially athletic and she had only a walking stick, no ice ax. I suspect it was her first ascent of a big mountain. After passing her we ate and took water at a picturesque rocky stream below the Crescent Glacier.
After crossing the stream we hiked over a rocky outcrop to the edge of the glacier. For the first time we had occasion to lean on our axes and do some proper mountaineering. For a few hundred feet the going was enjoyably steep but not dangerous. A fall would have caused an embarrassing slide into a bowl fit for skiing or glissading, but no real harm would have come of it. Above the bowl we traversed easy snowfields to the "lunch counter." The snow got harder the further we progressed, but it was enjoyable all the way. We had our pick of many rock shelters, sturdy as castles.
Lazily we set up camp. I put out a roll and my fancy Marmot sleeping bag while Dennis put up a tent, which I think he shared with Eddie; or maybe Eddie slept under the stars. We had plenty of time to study the broad Suksdorf Ridge rising 2,600 feet above our camp to the false summit. It looked more difficult than I expected but very doable. My only concern was the growing cloud cover and attendant rain and thunderstorms, which though distant were approaching. On that day we were fortunate to be on a Cascade volcano relatively far from the coast compared to its neighbors. In any case, the storm activity lessened as the afternoon faded. Clouds gave way to clearer skies.
We snacked and finished setting camp, continuing to jab each other with friendly insults. We discussed how nice it would be to have women with us. A few minutes later, we were astonished when three attractive female climbers hiked by us and claimed an adjacent rock shelter. We said a quick hello and continued our crude conversations after they left, focussing mostly on our immediate sexual fantasies. I am sorry to say that the wind might have carried part of our blabber into the ladies' shelter. It surprised me that my partners, both of whom are single, did not visit the ladies that evening to chat. By the way neither did I! They were only several meters away.
We had plenty of time to explore and relax. Eddie amused himself by running over to the local spring to fetch water. He encountered a father with young twin girls who had just come down from the mountain. Either that evening or late the next morning, Eddie performed a psychic healing on the girls, who had a mild case of acute mountain sickness. I continued to study the impressive Suksdorf Ridge rising thousands of feet above us, its long steep segments separated by narrow benches. This arrangement seemed unnaturally regular to me, like the side of a ziggurat or a giant water slide.
About 3 a.m. Monday morning we crawled out and walked to the ridge and up. The moon was so bright that I didn't use my flashlight. We cramponed slowly and saw no one else for hours. Dennis and I took turns passing each other as Eddie pushed far ahead. Later he told me about his vision of the sunrise and other wonders of the climb. If I had known then, I would have pushed myself much harder in order to experience them myself. This climb was similar but slightly steeper than the normal route on Mt. Hood. Fortunately I indulged in only two virtual standing naps, because even the "benches" were too steep for comfort. When Dennis and I were high on the ridge we noticed other climbers below us. A few passed me before I reached the false summit. The three ladies gained on me. It was about 7 a.m.
After attaining the false summit I enjoyed the broad, easy saddle leading to the upper slopes and true summit. Great pieces of cracking, falling ice came into view reminding me of Mt. Rainier and Mont Blanc. I could see Dennis plodding ahead of me on the saddle. Eddie was already past it and high on the final, broad icy couloir. To his right I saw a rocky, zigzagging trail of sorts. In the belief that this less direct approach would be faster, I decided not to follow Eddie. Instead I would use the trail and traverse high onto the couloir. Due to unexpected atmospheric conditions, this decision would lengthen my ascent by an hour.
Before I left the saddle, mist enshrouded me. It was wispy at first but it thickened, gradually transforming the universe into infinite whiteness. I had only tracks in the snow to guide me but felt in no danger of getting lost. Stupidly I stuck to my original plan and veered away from the trodden snow, in vain hope of finding my rocky trail. While I looked for it the ladies came within a few meters. Surely they must have seen me through the flowing mist or at least heard my clumsy footsteps on the rocky slope. But later I was to find out from Eddie that they had not. The ladies followed the normal route and I continued to waste time on the loose rocks. Unknown to me at the time, Eddie was enjoying the most mystical part of the climb. Later he described an apparition of strange light. I will not attempt to convey the experience, except to say Eddie's account reminded me of descriptions of luminous crucifixes seen by climbers in the Alps in the 1800's. Another Edward - the great Whymper, who made the first ascents of the Matterhorn in Switzerland and Chimborazo in Equador, documented such apparitions. Eddie's ghostly vision was similar but not quite as Christian.
Due to the lingering mist I never found my trail, but eventually I made it to the icy couloir. Eddie, who had reached the summit an hour earlier, came down to find me. We both hopped up to the top about 9 a.m., passing Dennis on his way down. We tried but failed to convince him to return to the summit with us, since we expected the mist to clear enough to let us see Rainier. Dennis' view on top had been completely obscured. Several people and a small bird joined Eddie and me on the summit. We stood above a house that had been built long ago by miners. An interesting woman, elderly for a climber, said that she had climbed Adams several times. Never before had she seen so much snow covering the structure. I took photographs, waited patiently for a clearing and was rewarded with a decent shot of Mt. Rainier as it briefly materialized.
Eddie and I carefully descended the couloir and crossed the saddle. The mist cleared. We passed the pikers peak and returned to the top of Suksdorf Ridge. Dennis opted not to glissade from this elevation. I was apprehensive, but listened to the experienced woman teach her novices how to glissade. She instructed them to sit on a garbage bag and lie back. I waited for her party and Eddie to begin. Then I sat in a glissading rut, let her rip and lay back. I was amazed at how much I could increase my moving coefficient of friction by lying back, especially with a backpack. I enjoyed the longest, most enjoyable ride I have ever had going down a mountain. Unfortunately the hard snow ripped a huge tear in the seat of my Gortex pants. Below the ridge I greeted the father and congratulated his two daughters. My partners and I approached our castle as morning ended.
Determined to show Eddie how fast I could be, I quickly packed my stuff and bolted down the mountain, descending hundreds of feet in minutes. I decided to take a "short cut" that made more glissades possible. The farther I went the fewer the footprints, but I was confident I knew where I was. Carefully I traversed a steep section, then glissaded faster than ever. I felt like I went straight down for a couple hundred feet. I couldn't see a thing for the snow spraying on my glasses. Eventually I reached the run out and stopped. Then I got lost and had to bushwhack my way down to trail.
I had hoped to casually stretch next to the stream below the glacier, snack and nap or read my book. I imagined how satisfying it would be to complain to Eddie and Dennis that they had taken so long. Instead, I worked my way north on a nice trail and made four stream crossings before I fully realized that I was getting further away from the van with every step. By then I had walked two miles the wrong way. In retrospect, I was happy for this extra bit of hiking. I discovered the most beautiful and diverse displays of mountain wildflowers I have ever seen. Looking up at one of the stream crossings, I had singular vision of a bubbling creek surrounded by bright flowers, crowned by shimmering cascades, crowned by rock, crowned by glaciers, crowned by the mountain top, crowned by heaven.
It was after 4 p.m. Monday that I got back to the van. Dennis said that he had arrived not too long before, which was a relief. Eddie was packing to come and rescue me, which was unnecessary. We tossed our stuff in the van and drove back to California in time to go to work on Tuesday.
* "Summit Guide to the Cascade Volcanoes" by Jeff Smoot