Sunday, September 18, 2011

Mount St. Helens Crater: The Ascent (Part 1)

Mike, Sarah, Bridget, and Julia were correct: some more volcano adventure came my way on Friday and Saturday!

Though a lucky set of circumstances, I was given the opportunity to join a guided hike into the crater of Mount St. Helens on Saturday. WOW!! Of course I said yes and began pulling my gear together.

The hike was sponsored by the Mount St. Helens Institute. I was one of 16 participants on the hike. We were led by a USGS geologist, a biologist and the volunteer coordinator from MSHI, and two MSHI volunteers. We met at the MSHI Science Camp, near the Cascade Peaks lookout point, on Friday evening at 6:00.

Here's a photo I snapped on the way to Science Camp. Will the weather clear up? Will it rain? Only tomorrow morning would tell...
 Science Camp has two large tents, a generous and sturdy camp kitchen in between, and an outhouse-tent. As you can tell from the stove pipe, the tents are heated with cozy! The tour hosts fed us a delicious gourmet dinner inside this tent, and then we had a couple of talks by the geologist and the biologist to prepare us for what we would see on the mountain Saturday.

Most of the participants slept in the big heated tents, but I knew I would sleep better on my own. That's my sturdy red tent in the background. It's been on many backpacking hikes with me over the last twenty years or so, and best of all, it has a really good rainfly. I just didn't trust those clouds. The other tents in the foreground belong to other scientists who were based at Science Camp and out doing field work on the mountain all day every day.

Saturday morning we woke up at 5:00 am for breakfast and getting gear stowed before a 6:00 am departure for our hike. Oh, was I glad I had a good rainfly the night before...those aren't just clouds you see in the photo...those are Cascade Mountains rain clouds. I slept toasty warm and cozy, and ready to go hiking!

 Here I am at the trailhead, ready to set out. My pack included a rain jacket (I'm already wearing rain pants), extra hats, lunch, 3 liters of water, the ten outdoor essentials, and extra socks. We can see part of the mountain, but the visibility won't be good for long. This is the last photo of me for the day without my rain jacket...

 Here's our group headed west. We will be hiking between the pumice plain and Spirit Lake. Our route will be about 6 miles to get to the crater, and about 4 miles back. So far I'm feeling pretty good about this hike--good trail, level. It's in the low 40s and sprinkling, but I'm cozy inside my rain gear.

 Across the pumice plain, the trail is marked by these rock cairns. It's nice to know we won't get lost!

 Just a little further along, our guide turned left--south--toward the volcano, and off the path. For almost the whole day, we were hiking cross-country across the volcano debris. And as you can see in the photo, we were done with "level." For the next 2 1/2 miles we gained 2,000 feet on rocky, gritty, sandy terrain.

 Looking back down...agghh! Did I really just climb up that?? There's not much view in the distance because we have climbed higher and/or the clouds have come lower, and we are now in the cloud.

 Still dealing with poor visibility. Where's the view? Our hike leaders cautioned all of us to make sure we could always see the person behind us, so that no one would be left behind. He compared us to a long slinky, spread out along the trail, sometimes stretched out more, sometimes clumped together. Of course one of the MSHI volunteers always hiked the "sweep" position at the end of the group, to make sure we were all accounted for.

 Still climbing toward the crater. I love the way the landscape is so dramatic (when the clouds part and you can see it--hahaha). The canyon in the center of the photo was carved out by a small creek in just 30 years, and it's a couple hundred feet deep already! The geologist explained that the water carves the landscape so quickly here because the soil is so soft and easily moved.

 Did I mention that it was raining out? This photo was taken just after a particularly wet, nasty part. We had been hiking across a long, sloping plain, with the wind blowing a steady 40 mph (temperature in the low 40s), and rain driving right into our faces. It felt like needles. It was one of those keep-your-head-down-and-keep-hiking kinds of times. It wasn't fun, was! After a while we dropped down into a little side canyon where the wind let up, and I gave a whoop - I did it! I felt strong and exhilarated to have made it through that in-your-face bluster from the weather.

Speaking of a wet hiker...and speaking of dramatic landscapes...still wet, but loving this amazing place. We are almost to the crater! We cross a small stream near this spot, and in crossing, I am just about to plant my boot on a...frog??!!

There it is, small and green in the middle of all the gray ash and red-brown rocks.
He (she?) was moving slowly in the cold weather, so the biologist scooped him up to show the other hikers. How could he live in this environment? That will be a perfect place to begin tomorrow's blog post. Come back then to read about what it was actually like inside the crater of a volcano.


JuliaKoponick said...

It is amazing how life survives and thrives in places and circumstances that seem unlikely at best. I love that the frog was right there in the middle of the volcano. Can't wait to see the rest of the pictures and hear the stories that go with them!!

Mike Koponick said...

Looks like you had a wonderful time. Glad you had the opportunity.

Dorothy said...

Determination alone can get us through almost anythng...looks like it worked for you, too. And you have a great story to tell from the "hardship". Oh, poor you, having to go on this adventure.... :) Looking forward to the rest of the story!