Tuesday, September 21, 2021
Sept. 21, 2021

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‘I never imagined … a cold night on the mountain’: Mount St. Helens summit attempt humbles writer

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During Mount St. Helens' last major eruption on May 18, 1980, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake triggered a landslide and volcanic eruption that decimated 230 square miles and killed 57.
During Mount St. Helens' last major eruption on May 18, 1980, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake triggered a landslide and volcanic eruption that decimated 230 square miles and killed 57. (Melissa Hellmann/Seattle Times/TNS) Photo Gallery

SEATTLE — On a recent Thursday morning, I packed a bag with the 10 essentials and set out for a bucket-list hike: the summit of Mount St. Helens. The week before I had snagged one of the last June permits for the Worm Flows winter route — a 12-mile trek, with the majority of the 5,563-foot elevation gain coming in the final 2 miles to the summit. A strong hiker, I expected that I would complete the route in eight hours. I never imagined I’d have to spend a cold night on the mountain.

My drive from Seattle to the trailhead at Marble Mountain Sno-Park took five hours, which pushed my start time back much later than planned. It was early afternoon by the time I signed in to the trailhead guest book and followed the route on my downloaded AllTrails map.

I soon entered a lush forest where the moist ground squished beneath my boots. Light raindrops jingled as they bounced off tree leaves and splashed on the forest floor. A sweet scent permeated the air.

I reminisced on past treks, such as the 18 miles of the Enchantments that I traversed in one day, and solo hikes around Mount Rainier National Park during the summer I worked there over a decade ago.

While I often hike and backpack with friends, nothing compares to the expansiveness of a solo adventure. Left alone with my thoughts, I imagine the places I want to visit, and how I want to grow as a person. My anxiety lifts as I remember how small I am in the entire scheme of things. It is a spiritual experience.

On the trail, the route weaved through a pasture of lava rock and young trees. Below, chutes of smooth rock cradled snow patches. I imagined molten lava that tumbled down the mountain hardening into its current form, similar to a time-lapse video of a seed transforming into a blooming flower.

During the volcano’s last major eruption on May 18, 1980, a 5.1-magnitude earthquake triggered a landslide and volcanic eruption that decimated 230 square miles and killed 57. Volcanologists have since improved monitoring systems and can now better forecast eruptions.

While scientists know that Mount St. Helens will erupt again, they are uncertain when. “Now we have a much, much greater understanding for this volcano, and it’s one of the most monitored mountains in the world. So we will have plenty of notice this time around,” said Taylor Feldman, lead guide for the nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute. Feldman takes people to the summit and into the crater, on foraging trips in the fall and snowshoeing trips in the winter.

As I approached the base of the steep ascent shortly before 3 p.m., the temperature drastically dropped. Following a lunch break, I put on my thermal-reflective coat and gaiters, reapplied sunblock and stretched as I geared up for the climb.

Gloves protected my hands from the rough pumice as I scrambled up a boulder ridge that brought me to the antenna of a seismic station. Already tired from the long drive and ascent, I warily peered at the vertical snowfield ahead.

A skier stopped to warn me that I was the last person on that point of the mountain. Driven by the desire to return before sundown, I strapped on my microspikes and hustled up the steep slope. “Come on girl, you got this!” I cheered myself on aloud.

As I reached the top, an ominous cloud obscured the remaining route to the crater rim. With a stunning view of Mount Adams in the distance, I felt satisfied with the beauty I had seen and was ready to turn around. It felt too risky to approach the rim alone with only a few hours of remaining sunlight.

Then I faced what I had dreaded all along: the descent along the vertical drop of packed snow. A spinning sensation accompanied my acrophobia. As I contemplated how to avoid glissading down the mountain, my phone powered down due to the cold and I lost my GPS tracker.

To my right, a long land mass devoid of snow led to a monitoring station. I took my chances on the unknown route — I later learned it was the Monitor Ridge summer route — hoping it would intersect with the winter trail. As I hiked toward the station and gained a clearer view, I realized that the two trails only grew farther apart.

If I had taken that route, which Feldman later told me is a common way that people get lost, it would have landed me 2 miles from my car. The summer-route opening date depends on snow level and when the road that leads to it melts. This year, it opened June 18.

Dejected about losing nearly an hour of sunlight, I hurriedly retraced my steps. Donning rain pants to protect my base layer, I attempted to climb down the snowfield, but was forced to slide down on my back after slipping a few times. I lay on the glissading chute and pushed off with my trekking pole.

As I gained speed down the mountain, I panicked when I could not flip my body around and kick my feet into the ground to stop, as I had seen in a demonstration video featuring Feldman. Once I used my trekking poles to control my speed, I enjoyed the freedom of flight and let go of the fear of flying into boulders or off the mountain.

A common glissading injury occurs when people do not remove their crampons or microspikes beforehand, and their feet get stuck in the snow. It can cause their legs to twist behind them in a split that results in femur or groin injuries, Feldman later told me. Glissading chutes can take people down the wrong route and lead to them getting lost, she added. Chutes also can direct people to unseen cliffs or water. To avoid injuries, she recommends that visitors scout out their glissading routes, and never slide down a slope where they cannot see the bottom.

Darkness fell as I reached the end of the chute and scrambled down boulders that required careful footing in daylight. I didn’t feel comfortable traversing the pumice ridge covered in sand with the light from my headlamp.

To avoid injury, I decided to continue the hike in the morning. I dropped my stuff behind large boulders that blocked the wind, and gathered a few large rocks to pin down my emergency blanket for a makeshift tent. To deter unwanted wildlife guests, I placed my scented items in a plastic bag that I hid behind a rock.

Inside the shelter, I sat on a foam pad to insulate myself from the ground, removed my wet clothes and put on a spare wool sweater. Concerned about hypothermia, I placed one foot on top of the other and squeezed them into two layers of wool socks along with my only hand warmer.

“This could be fun,” I thought, as I hunkered down for a long night ahead.

After a few adjustments, the emergency shelter stopped flapping in the strong wind, and I remained dry during the intermittent rain. When I was not shivering from the cold, I briefly drifted off to sleep a couple of times. At dawn, I packed up my stuff and safely descended the mountain.

How can people avoid what I did? “Don’t go alone if it’s your first time, or go with someone who has experience there,” Feldman said.

It was a hike full of hard lessons. If I could do it over, I would have taken off from work the day before, camped at the trailhead and started the hike by 5 a.m.

After two decades of hiking and backpacking, I still have more to learn. It inspired me to complete a wilderness first-aid certification course and to enroll in a navigation class.

Mount St. Helens humbled me, and I am grateful for it.

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