Saturday, June 20, 2009

Now Devil, Formerly Saint Helens

  • Name: Loowit Trail.
  • Location: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument in southwest Washington State.
  • Length: About 33 miles, but longer with detours.
  • Attractions: One active volcano, old and young forests, deserts, waterfalls, big views.
  • Best seasons: Mid July through mid October.
  • Permits: Fee required for trailhead parking but wide open otherwise.
  • Info: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument and Mount St. Helens VolcanoCams

I just finished a more or less annual pilgrimage to Mt. St. Helens, barely.

I like to hike around it. The distance is short but there is a lot to see, and the terrain is varied. There are places where you can go from cool forest to desert in 50 feet. My kind of desert. Shade and water on demand.

After getting inspired in 2000 by seeing two guys running around the mountain in one day I came back the following June and hiked it in one day, with a repeat in October. It was tough as a day hike. You can't do that any more.

Early morning, approaching the mountain.

As a backpacking trip, the 33-mile journey was short in miles, but interesting, and tough in parts. It was a good three day stomp. You can't do that any more.

This trail got beat up. First came the winter of 2006-2007, when severe November and December rains nearly ripped away whole counties. Mt. Rainier got something like 18 inches of rain in 12 hours, or vice versa. (A lot, anyway.) St. Helens got its share. Roads died, trails vanished, mountainsides headed for the sea.

Then came the following winter. Slightly less rain, but only slightly. More flooding, more washing out, more washing away.

Blast zone from Windy Pass.

The Loowit Trail around St. Helens hasn't seen maintenance for at least two years now. There are canyons that used to be ravines, ravines that used to be shallow gullies, gullies where there used to be flat ground. Hiking around St. Helens today is a death trip. For a competent, experienced, strong, and resourceful backpacker, I'd recommend allowing a week for the trip. If you live, and if you also finish in less time, OK, but give yourself time. The big problem is the staying alive part.

This trip is no longer an adventure. It is an ordeal.

But some things haven't changed.

There is dust. Lots of dust. Everywhere. Soon after rain, or early in the year, the soil has moisture. This cuts some of the dust, but is more like a safety margin. A bit of damp in the soil holds it together. Once dry this stuff becomes like talc. Talc with boulders.

If there is soil moisture you can ease up or down the side wall of a ravine or canyon, but not when things go dry. Just look at one of these places and things let go, dumping hundreds of pounds of powder and rock.

A step up from dust is sand. There is sand everywhere. Nice to walk on when damp, but it gets into everything. Dust and sand coat your whole body and everything you carry. It's in the water, in your socks, in your food, under your eyelids. Everywhere.

Cinder cone from the blast zone.

Except for short pieces of trail, mostly in the forested sections, the ground is rough, and much worse where there is no trail. You'll be walking over cobbles or through boulders for long stretches. In some places the earth is like lumpy concrete, unyielding and hard, with cutting edges. In other places it's sand lumpy with stones.

There is little shade, little protection from either sun or wind. It is a windy place. At times it can knock you down. It chokes you with dust.

Water is rare. Strangely, the best watered piece of the mountain is the north, the place that got blasted the hardest, where everything got wiped away. There is nothing there, even after 29 years, other than sand, dust, rocks, the odd shrub, and a few stems of grass. But several springs feed willow thickets, and Loowit Creek, tumbling out of the crater over Loowit Falls, is a permanent stream. The rest of the mountain dries as the season advances, except for an almost hidden spring on the southeast side, and the South Fork of the Toutle River on the northwest side. Both of them are dependable but hard to reach.

At the right time, especially if you are quiet and unobtrusive, you can see elk, sometimes hundreds. Other large critters are scarce. You might see a coyotes out in the open, but probably not. They never stay to talk.

The wind brushes away most bugs, and the land is barren and open and mostly shut of them anyway.

Heather? Dunno, but it's purdy.

On a clear day you can see the massive Mt. Rainier hulking to the north, the blunt Mt. Adams squatting to the east, and the poking, vertical needle of Mt. Hood to the southeast.

This has always been a tough place to hike, but now I'm afraid I'm going to stop going there. No hiking around the mountain any more. The Loowit Trail needs two seasons of serious trail work to bring it back. It's too dangerous to bother any more.

Today I'm glad for two things. First, that I decided to hike clockwise this year. I usually go the other way, but wouldn't have made it through the toughest parts. Second, I'm glad to be alive. I should have slid off the mountain at Toutle River, and died. I left skin and blood there but kept my life. More than fair.

Johnston Ridge Observatory on the north side was my start and finish. On the map I've included, point 1 is the Muddy River canyon. It isn't a hazard yet, but might be one some day. You can walk upslope of the waterfall and get around it.

Point 2 though, nearby, is the canyon of Shoestring Creek.

Shoestring always was large, and hard, and dirty, but now it's all but impassable. It is roughly 100 feet deep and 300 across. There was a trail once, difficult and dirty, but it vanished long ago. I must have needed at least an hour to get through, and felt lucky. The only way in was a slump in the canyon wall where loose soil and stones reclined at a less than vertical pitch. I fell only once, got a couple bruises. On the far side snow and shallow tributary gullies made an exit easier. This canyon runs from the top of the mountain to nearly its bottom like a blockade, and there is no detour route.

You see another ravine or two after that, and then go into large rocks, and then into forest. The forest is nice. Quiet, sheltered, secluded.

Canyon crossing, sans trail.

Too soon you see a large basalt boulder field (point 3). This comes sweeping down the mountain and there is no way to go but over it. It can be fun, or tedious. The rocks are stable, but they all have edges, and walking is a matter of keeping your balance while stepping through.

There are three major boulder fields, but right in the middle you get a break. Swift Creek spills down the mountain and there are trees, and it's a good place to camp.

The south side of the mountain is dry open forest on the east, thinning to grass on the west. There are several small ravines, where there never used to be much in the way of obstacles, but it isn't bad going. Early in the season there is snow wherever there are trees, and in the bottom of every gully, ravine, and canyon. A good thing. I don't know how a person could negotiate some of these later in the season, not any more, when their bottoms aren't filled in and smoothed out by snow.

For some reason the Monument's web site warns of the ravine near Butte Camp trail (point 4), but it isn't bad. Nuisance level. Point 5 is worse, but not by much, at least with snow in it.

Point 6 (all these areas, even if they contain streams, seem to lack names) is a real booger. See the photo. See the trail. See the trail shooting off into empty space. In 2001 when I first day hiked this trail the ravine had been freshly deepened by winter rain, and the bottom 20 or so feet was nearly vertical (OK, only about a 60 degree slope), but I was able to kick steps into the soil both going in and coming out. Now this has eroded into a huge canyon a couple hundred feet deep and requires a long detour down slope, at least a half mile each way, maybe more, off trail. But the forest down there is nice, and good for camping, if you bring water. Overall, a time-eating but almost pleasant detour.

Plain below crater.

Point 7 is a wide but shallow canyon. By the time you get here you are sick of dust and climbing through holes, let alone wondering if you can finish. But it's too late to turn around, so you slog.

Right into the killer. Point 8 is the South Fork of the Toutle River. Once upon a time this was a refuge, a little paradise. You looked forward to it. The river is pleasant, eight to 10 feet across, and clean. Its south side is forested, cool, and clean. The north side used to be a long switchback trail, ankle deep with fine dust, that wound its way up several hundred feet to a wide plain.

Not now.

Coming from the south you leave canyon 7 and see rich grass dotted with white snags, still standing since they died in 1980. Then comes forest, but below, toward the bottom, the trail is overgrown with alder, vine maple, and thorn shrubs. The trail used to end with a dusty ramp trail leading to Toutle River. You tiptoed across and continued on the far side. Simple, easy, clean. Lovely.

Now it's different.

Those heavy winter rains scoured out the river bed by about 50 feet. Straight down. Like a professional trenching job with straight, precise, vertical walls. No way down except by gravity. No way out. You come to the end of the trail, go down that old ramp, and where the river bed used to be is air and a ribbon of foam at the bottom of the drop.

Coming from the south it's easy to begin a detour. You hike down stream until the walls of rubble along the river subside enough to allow crossing. But on the north side there is no way out. There is a bench, almost flat, with easy walking, but it dead ends at a landslide chute. I decided to go over that, but it looked too spooky to try once I got to it.

And this is where I failed the intelligence test.

Loowit Falls.

Option A (the right choice) was to ease up, backtrack, hike farther down stream, and walk up the mountainside through brush and forest.

Option B (the death option) was to continue a vertical scramble up the barren earth wall of the canyon (another 200 to 300 vertical feet) and burrow into the forest up there. So I picked option B. Right. This is where I should have died.

The slope began loose, sandy and gravelly, possible to stand in. Like soft snow. I kicked steps into it. Then it turned hard -- bare mineral soil with a 45 degree slant. I used my trekking poles for balance, but could barely kick toeholds. It was exhausting. I made missteps. I should have fallen but somehow I didn't.

Up above I reached a field of small boulders stuck in the slope and tried scrambling from one to another. Until one after another gave way and rolled to their deaths. I should have too.

That was too scary so I went back to standing up and using trekking poles, making about two steps a minute, each one sure to be my last, but somehow that didn't happen. At the top a bull-sized boulder let me crawl onto its back, and stayed put. A lunge took me over the edge onto grass.

Another hour threading through conifers, shrubs, fallen trees, thorns, and willow thickets took me to the plain above the canyon. Stupid but safe, alive for now.

Points 9 through 12 on the map are all passable ravines or canyons, but not at all pleasant. Not a fun challenge by this point. Point 12 is the valley of Studebaker Creek. It's deep and broad, and is one of the largest canyons on the mountain but is relatively easy. For now. No telling about next year.

Another minor canyon appears after a while, on the east side Studebaker Ridge (point 13), and it's hard and awkward but not dangerous. Past several more small gullies and ravines, and you're out onto the rocky, sandy plain of the blast zone, under the mountain's maw. Walking here is only tedious and dirty. Any place not covered by stones (egg size, fist size, grapefruit size, soccer ball size, beach ball size) is deep sand and gravel. More slogging.

There is a flat valley with a nameless stream. It descends from a waterfall on the crater's edge. The stream is normally small but negotiating its banks takes planning. More tedium. Tedium level 14.

Next is Loowit Creek (15). It roars but doesn't bite, though you need to wade it. It's warm.

Greenery on the east side.

Its banks, though, are tougher. Both the outer and inner banks are awkward and steep. You have to hunt for a route. Sometimes the banks are too soft and crumbly, sometimes too concrete hard. Bad either way. You never know which it'll be.

Once past Loowit Creek you go east, then north, then west and end at the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The walking is not easy but not dangerous, only a test of will. Your aching, dirty, beat up body versus fatigue, tedium, and dust-caked sweat. There is a boggy stretch thick with willows and more sand and more dust, but it's only annoying in a sloppy way.

Yeah, so OK, I was stupid enough to go back this year even though last year was ugly. I should have known. And I should have died. But given that this place is a strange beast with features you're unlikely to find elsewhere, parts of it are worthwhile.

Recommended: the Smith Creek valley. I've spent a lot of time there. It's on the northeast side of the mountain, and though chewed up is still fun. Access is easy enough, you get a good view of the cinder cone and the valley as you drop into it, and there are enough streams there to keep you fascinated. No one hikes this valley though a few bicyclists ride through.

Lava Canyon, on the far eastern end of this valley, is an amazing place, like a natural Disneyland, with waterfalls, cliffs, chutes of roaring foam, forest, and a pillar of solid rock standing in the middle of it all, accessible by trail. You can hang your toes over the edge and look straight down at Muddy River (a crystalline stream). The bad news here is more trail damage.

You probably don't want to try the Loowit Trail now. Maybe 2011 or later, if the Forest Service does a bunch of work. Even Lava Canyon is impassable, unless you are very, very bold. So for now it's the north half of the mountain or the Smith Creek valley, rewarding in their own ways.