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A Lap Around St Helens

In the spring of 1980 the Pacific Northwest was all abuzz about Mount St Helens.  Our local snowcone of a mountain:

was coming to life with small eruptions that left ash streaks that lay vivid against the late season snowpack.  It was fun and interesting and a good reminder that our volcanoes were only dormant, not dead, though having crawled up Mount Hood the prior year (it took our group something like 10 hours to summit!) and getting a big nauseated by the sulphurous fumarole near Crater Rock I had learned that there was still some cooking going on in those Cascade bowels. 

Then came May 18th.   As everyone knows, the delicate little sister to nearby Mounts Adams and Hood roared to life and blew itself practically to bits, with a force equal to something like 7.68 gazillion megatons (I like how scientists like to compare some events or statistics to other events or statistics for our reference, even though we have no idea what the relative event/statistic means).  In any case, it was big; the top 1500 feet of the mountain was gone, as was most of the core bulk.    

Word spread quickly (despite no smart phones) and like many Portlanders we went up to our own typical St Helens viewing spot and the image is burned in my brain like everyone else who saw it that day; a mushroom cloud going impossibly high from an unrecognizable sawed-off “peak.” 

To say it was a monumental event is a woeful understatement. 

The mountain continued to spurt over the summer, and being the grubby capitalist that I was, I started up a gutter cleaning business, since my dad had made me clean the ash that had rained down in Portland and collected in our gutters, and I figured other folks would need that service as well.  I ran an ad in the local paper’s classified section, did a couple of houses on an hourly basis and made almost no money, but then was asked to provide “a bid” (huh?  to a 15 year old….what’s a “bid?”) on a condo complex, and the more-business savvy older brother Paul suggested “You should bid that by the foot.”  I got the “contract”, my mom drove me to the complex the first day with “my” (dad’s) ladders and tools, I rode my bike there the rest of the days, and after a dangerous week of dangling my feet over the edge of a roof trowling ash out of gutters I made my entire summer money and TD’s Gutter Works closed down for good! 

About 6 years later St Helens was finally open to climbing, and as part of the esteemed Oregon State University Mountain Club (whose flag flew on Everest on the first American ascent of some burly route) I got a permit and did my only formal guided climb ever as one of the first non-science groups to be able to peer into the still-smoking crater with it’s hundreds-foot high dome (we didn’t ski down, which is a shame, because it’s a great ski descent). 

Since then it’s become a ski and a hike classic rite of passage for many Northwesterners. 

Since that time “they” (it’s a “National Volcanic Monument”; I don’t know who administrates that, nor how many there are of those in the US) have put in the Loowit Trail, which – like Rainier’s Wonderland Trail and Hood’s Timberline Trail that are nearby – encircles the mountain and goes up and down past the treeline (which on St Helens is quite a bit lower than the 6000 feet on Mt Hood).  I can’t remember when I heard about this trail, but it was in the context of trail running (vs hiking) and they actually run an annual race on it called the Volcanic 50k+ (since it’s a bit more than a 50k), which is unusual because the US Forest Service and the National Park Service are both pretty reluctant to give out permits for races; hence the recent rise of “bandit” races.  Since it was a loop around a mountain that I had a long history with, I hadn’t done it, I was in the ‘hood (in Yakima, which got absolutely buried in ash with the initial blast: 

circa May 1980

the dreaded forest fire smoke had finally been blown out, and there was a window of nice weather between that smoke-clearing and an impending first storm of the fall, and I had done (not nearly) enough prep for an all day run (my longest this summer was 2.5 hours) so why not give ‘er a go?  I looked at the FKT site and figured that I could probably do it in a medium-ish time with no one to chat with and a bit of sufferage. 

I was surprised to pull into the “Climbers’ Bivouac” parking lot at dawn on a weekday and see a lot of folks, but as noted earlier, it’s a popular climb, even in the summer when there’s no snow covering the loose, pumice-y route up high.  The initial trail climbed through the woods up to treeline, where it met the traversing Loowit Trail, and I took a left to go counter clockwise (why not).  Immediately it became a slow boulder hop, and I wondered if my medium-ish time might be optimistic, but I knew there’d be plenty of lopey running ahead. 

On a video of a guy’s FKT in 2019 that I had found (he beat an 8 year old record by 42 seconds; cause de celebre’!) he had some footage of elk stampeding down the hill as he startled them and thought he was gonna get trampled, and sure enough I did the same thing in what looked like the same zone, though my “herd” was only 3 elk (though to be sure, when they are in full flight, 3 elk create a bit of thunder!).  After a couple hours of traversing and then a big descent I hit the South Fork of the Toutle River at the low low point of only 3200 feet, which I was psyched had plenty of water in it; water on this route is a bit more limited than on the spigoted neighboring bigger peaks (as an FYI:  I drank it straight from the stream; a recent Trail Runner Magazine op-ed about drinking untreated water sparked a bit of controversy that I couldn’t help but weigh in on a little in the comments filled with righteous zealots). 

I had read that the Loowit Trail was “dangerous” due to washouts; indeed, with not much vegetation to hold soil in place drainages clearly get kinda blasted out by thunderstorms and such. 

Thanks to Paul Ecker for this pic from a hike he did earlier in the summer; you can see how “dangerous” the washouts can be; actually just a bit of slip-sliding up and down skree

But along the lines of our Wallowa experience with the folks who declared the trail “impassable” I figured that someone had to have made it in and out of these drainages in the past, and sure enough, they were navigable, put some thoughtful (???) folks had put in some fixed lines to help people who weren’t comfortable with a bit of “skreeing”.  That said, especially on the north side halfway around with nothing but wilderness to the north, a smoking caldera to the south, and 15 miles in either direction between me and the trailhead, I was quite conscious to avoid doing something careless like tripping or tweaking an ankle to in turn avoid a fun outing turning into something less fun.   

Around the north side is the Blast Zone, which is pretty bleak; the mountain rises to 8000 feet from the south side, but north of the crater it just fades away down to Spirit Lake (where I did some of the only canoeing of my life in the Pleistocene era when I was in Boy Scouts). 

Spirit Lake in the distance. The current surface is 300 feet higher than it was pre-eruption, and its shors are now a moonscape instead of its previous deep emerald forest.

I’d say it’s super cool over there on the north flanks of the mountain, but the bittersweet aspect of having a nice, cool, cloudy day to not have an overheated run was that the mountain itself was shrouded in clouds all day. 

A shot from Paul’s hike earlier in the summer; the view that I couldn’t see.

There are a couple of creeks over coming out of the blast zone, which I didn’t anticipate, and I glugged up….just a few minutes before seeing a big herd of mountain goats a few hundred feet above me!  So much for my smugness about drinking untreated water…. 

I was surprised a while later to see a couple of parked cars ahead, then more surprised when I saw a sign with an arrow pointing up the trail I had just come down saying “Loowit Trail ¾ mi”  Huh?  How’d that happen?  I looked at the map and realized I’d missed a turn (musta been going too fast!) and as I was getting tired, I wasn’t keen to backtrack to the intersection even though it would undoubtedly invalidate my time (as if anyone cared, which they didn’t) so I cut cross country back up to the trail for a grind up to Windy Pass, one of the high points before the anticipated lopey-ness of the Plains of Abraham, which is the only mountain bikeable section of the trail (I had to leap out of the way of a coupla e-bikes!).  Though I was tiring, the end was sorta within range, and inspired by watching a few more goats leap away up and out of one of those scrabbly loose drainages I trudged on.

However, I didn’t quite anticipate two things:  the trail once again turned to a much-longer boulder-hop fest, and I hadn’t quite noticed in my research that the biggest climb of the day came right at the end.  This is when my recollection of my longest run of the year that was at a fraction of the mileage and vert of what this was became a lot more vivid, and with rubbery legs I wasn’t moving as deftly as I was earlier in the day. 

Those poles mark the “trail”. Not very fast going!

But eventually the ingress/egress trail appeared and I turned back downhill for the final time and soon enough stumbled back into the parking lot, where a nice guy sitting on his tailgate took one look at me and said “you want some orange?” to which all I could say was “yes!”

The relevant stats, if anybody cares:  I clocked 33 miles and 7400’ of vert, and did it in 7 ½ hours.  Pretty medium time.  The FKT got lowered dramatically three times this summer, from 6 hours to 5 hours; averaging >6mph over that terrain is impressive, and that guy is apparently the real deal, having also gotten the FKT’s on the Wonderland trail this summer and the Timberline Trail a coupla years ago.  I was tempted to shoot some super cool drone shots and selfie videos of me saying something along the lines of “Here I am, a nobody, not trying to get an FKT, just out for a nice run, having some snacks, taking some pics of goats, and trying not to crash”…..but I couldn’t afford to take the time to do it!  This is as close as I got to that:

A fun little adventure, with indeed a bit of sufferage. 

And lastly – but not leastly – Paul Ecker reminded me that there’s a great nonprofit that’s worthy of checking out and supporting: The Mt St Helens Institute

One Comment

  1. Dave Robbins Dave Robbins

    That sure was easy from my desk chair. Thanks for sharing the adventure….more goat pics next time! And Elk!

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