I rap my hiking poles against the asphalt of the parking lot, eager to start off. “Got everything?”
Rob pauses in contemplation. “Let’s see… sandwiches… beer… human remains.”
Sounds good to me – we’re ready to climb a volcano.
A day before the climb, we drive down to explore the area around Mount St Helens. The road around the volcano is in rough shape, with sudden dips and ridges due to the shifting ash beneath it. Our first stop is Lava Canyon, a series of waterfalls tumbling through channels of hardened lava. I can’t stop saying the word “lava” – it rolls off the tongue like a bubbling river of plasma, weirdly lascivious.
We ignore the signs warning of fatalities and explore off-trail before returning to the route at the dramatic suspension bridge. To the right after the bridge is the “black diamond” section of the trail, which requires careful footing but isn’t strenuous. It passes by more waterfalls and descends a sturdy ladder, though there’s not much of interest after the ladder and we turn back at the next bridge.
At the Ape Caves, we walk a mile to the upper entrance for the top-down approach. We descend through a hole in the earth into the 2.5 mile long tunnel carved by flowing lava 2000 years ago. Someone had pooped next to the “Live Don’t Exist” graffiti at the very top of the tunnel, a bizarre start to the time-altering walk through the dark.
The rough floor is a workout for the stabilizer muscles and there are several rock piles to clamber over. The trickiest part is an eight-foot lava fall that someone had anchored a helpful rope to. The tunnel sometimes opens up to cavernous rooms, other times closes in enough to reach out and touch both sides, but never forces us to crawl. Since it’s late on a Sunday evening, we only encounter two other parties and some scurrying white mice.
A little ways into the lower cave, we flick off our headlamps. The rippling walls dissolve into infinite invisible reaches, and I play “Cosmic Love” into the stillness.
Heading back out into the night, our headlamps now illuminate a misty rain that thickens as we drive back to camp at Beaver Bay outside Cougar. We prep PB&Js and sample Idaho Spud candy out of the back of my car before climbing into our tents. The drum of rain against the tarp wakes me several times, a soothing sound since I am dry and warm, but I dread the possibility of hiking in that weather.
Climbing the Volcano
Fortunately, 5:30 am brings starry skies and a clear dawn.
Here’s some backstory: Mount St Helens issues 100 permits a day to climb above 4800 feet during the peak season. We obtained our permits back in April, weeks before Russ’s father passed away from brain cancer. He had been fascinated with the volcano in life but never got to visit it, so Russ brings along some of his ashes to spread at the top.
The ashes are a dense 10 pounds, so we spend some time divvying them in plastic bags among our packs. I’m paranoid about spilling them on the picnic table. At the trailhead, as we’re taking stock of our supplies, Russ adds to Rob’s checklist: “I’ve got water… my dead dad… all the usual stuff, really.” We sign in, attach our permits with the provided covers, and are on the trail by 8am.
The first two miles are a gentle stroll through the forest, giving way to a long climb up boulder fields. We scramble between post markers and rest often to take in the ever-improving view. Clouds fill all the dells between the hills, occasionally sweeping along to engulf us in white. As our surroundings turn desolate and unearthly, we imagine ourselves walking on the planet “Sneleh”.
The final push is a slog up a steep slope of ash and pumice. I’m at the sweet spot of exertion that feels strengthening instead of exhausting.
Stepping up to the rim is elating, but also an overwhelming reminder of the destruction the 1980 eruption wrought. The entire opposite side of the mountain is simply gone. A floating mat of shattered tree trunks chokes the back end of Spirit Lake. Steam plumes out of a bulge in the middle, the only visible sign of the turmoil continuing under our feet. From front to back, we can see four other volcanoes in the Cascade Arc: Rainier, Adams, Hood, and Jefferson. Each dominates the landscape around them.
We plop down for lunch and beers, hunching against the cold wind. This same wind carries the ashes that Russ pours over the edge, where they join the constant stream of pebbles hissing and clattering down the slope. We stand on the rim of the caldera and sing Amazing Grace in tribute to a great man none of the rest of us had met, but who in a way was our hiking partner for a day.
The hike back down is perhaps more difficult than the climb. With the day growing warmer and all the views behind us, our steps grow less precise. Kelsey manages not to spill her beer sliding down the ash, but we stumble often over the cheese-grater-like volcanic rocks.
We make it to the trailhead a comfortable 8 hours after we had begun. I’m reluctant to drive back to a life where I don’t get to use the word “lava” nearly enough, but I can look forward to climbing more volcanoes in this lifetime!
- Climbing Permits
$22 permits on sale at the beginning of February each year, weekends in particular sell out quickly. Required for climbing April through October.
- Lava Canyon Trail Guide
5 miles round trip loop if you take all three sections of varying difficulties, options for shorter hikes available.
- Ape Caves Trail Guide
From lower entrance at trailhead, can head right in the lava tunnel for an easier stroll or left to the upper entrance with a walk back along forest trail for 2.6 mile loop. We did the top-down option with the above-ground trail first.
- Mount St Helens Summit – Monitor Ridge Trail Guide
10 miles round trip departing from Climbers Bivouac trailhead, 4500 ft gain, non-technical. Plenty of water, trekking poles, and gloves are recommended.
- Beaver Bay Campground
Free primitive campsites are available first-come-first-serve at the Climbers Bivouac trailhead, but this was a more comfortable offering right on the water outside the town of Cougar.