The focus of my fifth grade science class was natural disasters and like many kids I thought earthquakes, volcanoes, tornadoes and tsunamis were the coolest things EVER! What was not cool, however, was living in boring western Pennsylvania where none of these crazy catastrophic events occurred. All we had was the stupid Johnstown Flood and that was almost a hundred years ago.
But then right before the end of the school year, Mount St. Helens erupted. It may have been on the other side of the country, but still, it was an American volcano–the biggest eruption this country has ever seen. Then and there I promised myself that as soon as I was old enough to get a driver’s license, I would go and see this ash-spewing American icon. And since I’d be in the neighborhood, maybe discover Bigfoot as well.
It took a bit longer than expected, but eventually I did move to the Pacific Northwest and have since climbed, hiked and snowboarded the slopes of Mount St. Helens many times (though I never did find Bigfoot).
Despite its flattened top, St. Helens is still a beautiful mountain, like a Cascadian Kilimanjaro. On a clear day it’s visible from many parts of Portland and it always makes me smile when it catches my eye.
Recently my soul has been craving some form of adventure. Too many 40 hour weeks in an office behind a computer will do that to you. On a run-commute home from work last week, I got a glimpse of St. Helens and thought it might be fun to spend a day running around that bad boy.
A few days later I got up at 2am, had quick breakfast and was at the trailhead by 4:30. The excursion started with a short run up to June Lake before connecting to the round-the-mountain Loowit Trail. I touched the trail sign for good luck and paused for a few minutes to decide if I should go right or left. Thinking that it might be best to get through dry and exposed sections before it got too hot, I opted to go counter clockwise. Not realizing at that point that the whole day would be hot, dry and exposed.
I got over the first ridge just as the sun was starting to rise. It lit up a beautiful meadow that stretched down to treeline and roused a herd of elk warming up to a new day. Above me a few mountain goats scrambled along crumbling cliffs. It was like being in some type of fairy tale land.
The first section of trail goes through an area called the Plains of Abraham. This flat moon-like landscape extends for miles along the eastern side of the mountain. The trail then crosses over Windy Pass, which is in the blast zone, an area still being actively studied by volcanologists. For hours I ran across this vast empty plain. Without any trees or other identifying features you can’t help but feel small and insignificant.
The raging Toutle River brought me back to reality. The trail descended more than a thousand feet and then deadended with a steep dropoff down to the river. A tattered old climbing rope tied around a tree was the only indication that this was the right way to go. I rappelled down to the river, filled up my hydration pack and ate my last energy bar. I’d been running for 8 hours and still had more than 10 miles to go.
The miles now seemed to drag on forever as the trail meandered through boulder-strewn lava fields. Everytime I looked at my watch another hour or two had passed despite little forward progress being made. I had gone the whole day without seeing a single person and then when I finally did, it was as if I had forgotten all the rules of society. Like I had reverted to some primitive animalistic state.
Without thinking I blurted out the first thing that popped into my head, “Do you have any food?” He was a bit taken back by my directness, but then asked me if I liked Fig Newtons. I could have eaten a whole supermarket aisle of Fig Newtons at that point. After scarfing down the cookies, I remembered my manners and learned that he was from Atlanta and was spending a few days hiking around the mountain. He was happy to lighten his load and offered me some more snacks before heading on his way.
The Fig Newtons powered me through the rest of the run. Once again I touched the Loowit Trail sign, this time in appreciation of a safe passage. It had taken me more than 13 hours to complete the loop around the mountain. My soul had been craving an adventure and it most definitely got one.
Would I do this St. Helens run again? Probably not. Would I recommend it? Without a doubt. To paraphrase an old Japanese expression regarding Mt. Fuji: It is foolish not to climb Fuji-San, but only a fool climbs it more than once.