Return to St. Helens


The Grand Canyon evoked tears. Yosemite a gasp. Mount St. Helens: Holy shit.

I ascended the south side of the 8300-foot peak, reduced by 1,300 on May 18, 1980 – a day after I had driven by, stopping at a gas station where I did not purchase one of the “I survived St. Helens” T-shirts on display. Fifty-seven people died in its volcanic eruption. I didn’t feel it, because I was on a ferry on Puget Sound that Sunday morning. But I did have a harrowing drive through the ash the following day on I-90 east of Spokane, hundreds of miles away.

The north side is where the real damage occurred, the blowout of a bulge that had been growing for weeks before the eruption, leading to the largest landslide ever recorded.

IMG_1509I’ve hiked up many kinds of hills. Granite worn smooth in the Appalachians, sandstone washing away in Utah’s Grand Staircase. Climbing over igneous rock as sharp as broken glass and tossed over the landscape was a new experience. The boulders had stopped tumbling when they reached what Wallace Stegner called the angle of repose.

Thirty-eight years isn’t much time for nature to do its recovery thing, but it’s trying. The tree line is ambiguous. (The Forest Service forbids climbing above it without a permit, and I didn’t have one.) Lone trees dot the moonscape here and there into the clouds, so I climbed as far as seemed reasonable. I’d long since lost the Worm Flows Trail, following the dusted footprints of other misguided hikers past the point of any soil, until I reached the top of a spine. Having spied what appeared to be a distant trail marker, I trekked sideways over parallel spines between valleys of snow and loose gravel, thinking of Stegner.

The wind and ice were coming at me sideways too. A bracing, beautiful hike to witness the violence of nature. Someday I’ll get a permit (sold out till October) and make it to the caldera.


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