Friday, October 16, 2009

Mt. St. Helens 2009 - Part 2

(Click here for Part 1)

The Fab Five hit the trail just after 8:00am under blue skies, below freezing temperatures and a notable arctic wind.  Except for the wind and temperature, we couldn't have asked for better conditions.

I was the only one of the group that had been on this trail or even in this area before. Rob S. & I made the summit on a day a lot like this day (but much warmer) back in 2004.

The trail starts out innocently enough with a two mile warm up through evergreens at a light to moderate grade. This section gains about 1,000 feet in elevation over the two mile stretch which is pretty tame compared to a lot of Cascade trails. It's also pretty tame compared to the final three miles of trail which gains 3,500 feet of elevation.

For the most part, this is a pretty innocent trail although there are a couple of very interesting things that came to our attention.

Unfortunately I didn't take pictures of any of them.

Did I mention how cold it was?

Why is there scarring on the bottom 48 inches of many trees?

Why is the hanging moss only on branches higher than about 20 feet?

The answers to these questions, and more, may be found in Part 3 of this trip report. Well, it's more likely they are only theories, not answers per se, but there are more important things to discuss at this point.

After the first 1.5 miles of forested hiking, the base of Monitor Ridge becomes a prominent sight.

Steve stopped to remove a layer of clothing.
Erik stopped for some pictures (of the ridge, not Steve removing layers).
Ray stopped for a rest, and some pictures.
I stopped for some pictures.

Tim stopped. Then disappeared.
For the next 4 hours.

It wasn't until fifteen minutes later that we came to grips with his disappearance.

During this fifteen minute period we continued our forested walk for a half mile, crossing a steep meadow and finally crossing the Loowit Trail (a 27 mile loop around the base of the mountain) before taking a break at treeline, elevation 4,800 feet.

Here is a picture of Ray crossing a meadow (or, more likely an avalanche path) just before reaching the Loowit Trail intersection.

We knew Tim was in the front of our group when we first stopped at the base of Monitor Ridge and we assumed he would wait for us at either the Loowit Trail intersection or at treeline.

Alas, Tim was nowhere in sight.

We assumed and hoped that since Tim has significant WA hiking experience and is a former member of the Mountaineers, he would wait for the group to catch up at this point. Our plan was to then break up into a 'fast group' and a 'slow group' and also pass out walkie talkies so the groups could keep in contact throughout the journey.

We should have had this discussion at the trail head... and we should have passed out the radios at the trail head.

Lesson learned... but learned too late to be useful today.

Now we could only hope that 1) Tim didn't get lost off route, 2) didn't get diverted onto the 27 mile Loowit Loop, 3) he didn't get injured or sick on the mountain and that 4) we find him on the mountain or back at the RV at the end of the day.

We weren't too worried, but we were concerned since none of us had ever hiked with him before. Had we given him a radio at the trail head, this wouldn't have been a concern at all.

The larger dilemma we now faced was whether we would still split into two groups or not. At least now we could all have our own radio since we brought 4.

The four of us began our ascent.

The trail quickly shifted from trees and dirt to lava rock and ash. Steepness ensued.

The general route is marked by large wooden posts along the ridge. Simply proceed from one post to the next, taking the path of least resistance, and taking care not to kick up ash clouds or topple lava rocks onto hikers below you.

The trees quickly fade away as you ascend closer to the summit.
Are we there yet? Nope... 3000 more feet... up, but you can see the crater beckoning you onward.

Erik and Steve led the way up the ridge. Quickly taking a one or two post lead.
Ray and I took a much more leisurely pace.

Never having hiked with Ray before and knowing very little about him it was very difficult to tell if his pace was a physical/conditioning necessity or if that was just his hiking style: slow and steady wins the race.

I felt compelled to periodically inquire with him about his condition to make sure he wasn't over exerting himself or exceeding his physical limitations. He was a man of few words (to me, anyway).
He never complained.
He also never said he wasn't going to make it.
Nor did he ever say he was going to make it.

Ultimately, he did disclose that his thighs were burning which was helpful to know.
I offered him a variety of (legal) drugs. He respectfully declined. He seemed very comfortable.

We continued upward.

Mount Adams came into view.

While taking a standing break, Ray offered to let me go ahead of him.

This put me into a personal dilemma. I wasn't sure if leaving Ray in the rear, alone, was a wise choice or not.

After a few minutes of internal deliberation, I decided to go catch up with Erik and Steve to discuss the current group dynamic. Ray and I stopped so I could give him the radio, give him instructions on how to use it and then we tested it. I also gave him an extra set of batteries... just in case.
That's how I roll.
I proposed we check in with each other every 15 or 30 minutes, but it turned out that Ray's "watch" was his cell phone. Being out of a service area meant it wasn't useful to tell time. So, I agreed to leave my radio on and if Ray needed me, he would power his on as necessary.
The problem with radios is that sometimes they emit static or other people are using the same channel... not quite the 'wilderness' feel that some people desire.
Then again, when you are on the only trail for miles around with 100 other people you can't be expecting solitude or silence.

So... I left Ray.

Erik & Steve were still in visual contact and they slowed their pace while I gained elevation.

Here is Steve on a crest of the ridge:

While this hike to the crater is often described as a 'walk up', it really isn't. It's much more of a scramble, followed by a really steep walk on the beach.

This section of the route is over lava rock (boulders). The good news is that they are 'sticky' rocks in that your boots really lock down on them, making for solid steps without worrying your foot will slide.

Here is a pic of some busted up lava rock:

It is important to watch for ash on the rocks because your foot can slip on the ash.

The last 1000 feet of vertical elevation gain up to the crater rim is all ash. It's almost exactly like walking on the beach with your feet sinking in the sand with every step. 12 inches forward, 2 inches back. It's amazingly tiring.

Finally I catch up to Erik & Steve.

Here is Steve staring at the summit, still a long ways off.

We discuss the group strategy and conclude that Ray is likely fine in the rear and we'll try to keep visual contact with him. If he keeps progressing upwards, so will we.

Looking back down the mountain, you can see that visibility wasn't a problem on most of the ridge. How many hikers can you count?

We discussed the potential to summit this point as a consolation summit sometime in the future:

Eventually, Steve decided to hold back as he reached a flat spot on the ridge where it was hard to monitor Rays progress. We gave him a radio, tested it and then Erik & I continued upward.

We passed a geologic monitoring station, a few snow banks, an injured hiker who took a tumble on a lava rock and a monsterous cairn (with Mt. Adams in the background):

We finally reached the transition from the volcanic rock ridge to the super-steep beach.

Only 1,000 more feet of elevation gain.

Tim was still missing.

It was 11:45am.

My post-op toe was throbbing. I was worried that descending might be painful.

I was worried that Ray might descend slower than he was ascending.

We contacted Steve on the Radio. He had met up with Ray and they were still ascending... Ray was doing fine.

Erik was willing to continue up toward the crater on his own, with a radio. We agreed that he would start his descent at 1:00pm. We hoped he would locate Tim on the crater, bag the summit, and get some awesome pics.

My plan was to continue upward for a few more minutes and turn around at noon. This would allow me some extra descent time to accomodate my toe and also be able to get an early status on Steve and Ray to prep them for the descent.

Here is a zoom shot of hikers on the crater rim:

My descent turned out to be a piece of cake. No toe trouble.

It's a long hike down.

Here is a hiker contemplating the beauty of western Washington:

Here is a short video of the scenery, from east to south to west to north:

A short while later I met up with Steve and Ray, lounging in the balmy 41 degree sunshine. We hung out for a bit and then received a radio message from Erik that he had reached the summit and located Tim... safe and sound. They began their descent at 12:45pm.

Steve, Ray and I began our descent.

Ray descending Monitor ridge:

Before we knew it, Erik and Tim caught up with us.
We took a short break to regroup and discuss how we originally became separated.

Tim explained that when we stopped to take photos at the base of Monitor Ridge a solo hiker passed through our group and continued on up the trail. Fast.

Tim mistakenly thought that hiker was me. So he followed. Pursuing me all the way up the mountain. Finding it very odd that I would do such a thing. Once at the summit he continued to follow the rim until the footpath became too faint and felt too exposed. He turned around and eventually met Erik at the summit.

We were all relieved that he was back with the group... safe and sound.
We were about this happy:

Tim, Steve and Ray made a quick descent while Erik and I took our time and enjoyed the scenery. There was a little touch of color announcing the arrival of fall once we approached the base of the ridge.

Finally... after 7 1/2 hours, we were all back at the trail head. Ready for some hot RV coffee, a change of fresh clothes and an opportunity to rest our feet.

The drive/ride home was uneventful. Mostly, we were contemplating the events of the day and probably thinking about when and where our next outing will take us.

This trip involved about 500 miles of driving and cost approx. $60 per person. That's about $10 for dinner, $22 climbing permit and $28 of RV gas per person.

All that mind-numbing reading and not a single picture from the summit?

Sorry... you'll have to come back to read Part 3 to see the summit shots (provided by Erik H.).
Plus, I'm not done rambling yet.

UPDATE: Part 3 now available (click here)

Happy Trails!


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