Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Year Of No Summer

2011 St. Helens, Part 1
Well, I had to go somewhere, sometime.

First we have a wet winter. Fair amount of cold, lots of rain, a few snow days here in the lowlands, but low snow levels overall.

Along Johnston Ridge, early afternoon. No one hiking.

Then around March the convoy arrived. The weather got marginally warmer here, but not drier, and in the mountains the snow hit with fury. We ended with snow levels two to three times normal.

I stopped to talk to a tree, but it was too depressed.

Gradually the weather warmed, but too gradually. Ultimately it took until the third week of June before there were any warm and dry stretches of sunny weather. I couldn't get out anywhere else, so decided to go and take a look at a place I'd checked out last spring, also a bad year.

A lonely trail marker was happy to see someone, even me.

This is in an area on the far western side of the St Helens National Volcanic Monument, out where no one ever goes. And with good reason, now. The trails are all shot.

Two ridges over, there's another one, all alone, very faint.

In 15 years of exploring this area I've never seen a trail crew. Back in 1996 the trails were great. About 2002 I even hiked around the mountain in one day (twice). Roughly 33 miles (53 km). Not easy. Not hard. Mostly long. Somewhat lumpy but not too hard, other than being a long day.

Snow all over, patchy here, heavier elsewhere.

Then there was a wet winter. One that took out six highway bridges in the general area. Things got worse.

Mt Rainier got hit during another wet winter
A steady rain began falling around 1 p.m. on Sunday, November 5 and continued through mid-afternoon on Tuesday, November 7, 2006. Varying amounts of precipitation reached the ground throughout the park from Carbon River to Ohanapecosh. Nearly 18 of rain inches was recorded at Paradise. As the ground was already saturated from a week of drizzle, rain and snow, most of the water flowed over roadways and across the landscape into the rivers.

The trail down to the plains below the volcano.

St Helens got hit just as hard but no one lives there, and hardly anyone hikes there, comparatively speaking. I've backpacked around the mountain a couple of times since, but ultimately decided that it isn't worth it any more.

Mid-June and the trees were just starting to leaf out.

Many sections of several trails were wiped away. Near June Lake, on the southeast side, where a small trickle of a stream goes under a road, the flood simply punched through the road and left a rubble-filled trench behind.

Many of the ravines that the Loowit Trail crosses (this is the trail that goes around the mountain) suddenly got much deeper, much steeper, and in at least two locations, impassable.

Makes for interesting photos though.

And it's gotten worse since. Part of the problem isn't just the erosion but the quality of the land. Literally.

The soil is a mix of boulders, cobbles, pebbles, gravel, sand, and powder. When damp it's fine. As in "so fine". It makes a good tread, is clean, and never gummy.

Down lower, after 3 p.m., things began to clear some.

But later in the season it dries. Flat portions of trail don't change much, other than becoming dusty.

Inclined portions of trail don't change much either.

Where the trail switches back and forth into and out of ravines (now become canyons), everything changes.

Spirit Lake at far left, clouds ahead.

There, the whole landscape becomes a thought experiment. Parts of it are always letting go and sliding, dropping, falling away, shooting up huge clouds of dust.

Put your foot down and you never know how much of the mountainside might suddenly decide to change its address.

Across the shore of Spirit Lake, toward Windy Ridge.

Things become hypothetical wherever the trail has to be redefined each year by the feet of hikers. Like going across ravines. The soil is so dry and there is so little holding it in place that it's easy to get trapped in a place that only slides away when you step on it.

This used to clear by mid-May. April 30 some years.

Or if someone else is there with you, triggering a slide becomes a communal experience.

And now the whole mountain is so chewed up that a person can't really go much of anywhere. You can hike out and back to some spots but anyone trying to go around the mountain on what used to be the trail needs to have scrambling skills.

And not the learn-as-you-go kind that I have.

Heading toward the mountain, the falls reveal themselves.

Which is OK in its own way.

Because if you are a loony galoot like me you enjoy being all alone in quiet places.

You see more elk this way, or coyotes, or big cat prints.

Loowit Falls, the older but smaller one.

And fewer people, though generally people you meet a few miles from the nearest trailhead are pretty nice.

Surprise! A happy little frog sat for a portrait.

So anyway, this was worth a shot. I'd been out to the eastern side of the mountain last spring, trying out my home-made hammock, and there was enough snow to be a little problem, but mainly then it was wind.

So I got to the ridge overlooking Castle Lake then and heard a waterfall off to the south, and thought this year I'd go back prepared to sleep on the ground and see where that waterfall was and explore the basin around the lake for a couple of days, and generally take it easy.

Loowit Falls and its nameless sibling.

The weather didn't help a bunch. The fog at first was fun. It didn't clear. It was supposed to. The weather was supposed to be clear for at least four days, but the first day stayed dark gray trending toward lighter gray later on, and then dark gray again in the evening.

Overnight, though there was still no rain, the fog came back, wet this time.

Closer view of the right hand falls.

Inside my little plastic experimental tent it wasn't so bad. Condensation everywhere. On the inside of the tent. On the outside of the tent. On the ground inside the tent. On the ground outside the tent.

All over. But I put out enough heat to stay dry. Getting up during the night I almost got knocked over by the weight of the damp fog drifting along, and picked up a layer of wetness, but overall it wasn't bad.

The westward end of the Pumice Plain.

The second day things were a little brighter but not much. I hiked over to what used to be a fun part of the trail, where it goes switching back and forth down a long, long way to the north fork of the Toutle River.

There it used to be about a 10-foot (3 m) drop to the river bed, then a step down, and across.

Looking back east. Mine were the only footprints.

When the 2006 rains came through they scoured out this place. The 10-foot drop became at least 50 feet (15 m), and it was spooky.

The sides were vertical. It looked like someone had worked over the winter to cut a precise trench through the area. You came to the edge and then it was all air. A straight drop to the bottom.

Literally straight, not kind-of, not almost, not sort-of, not really steep. Vertical. Like it was cut.

Evening begins arriving.

So that's still there. You can get around it but you have to spend several hours detouring through brush, vines, thorns, midget trees, and all sorts of other fun.

But it's interesting to look at, especially if you know what it used to be like, and you're not going into it.

Nearly sunset. Time to find a camp.

And then, that second day, I went up to the lake, which we'll get to later.

Mt Rainier November 2006 Flooding

Previously: "Not Sleeping In The Air "

Olympic Snowpack is 39,100 Percent of Normal!