Thursday, September 22, 2011

Not Sleeping In The Air, 2

Notes from spring at St Helens.

Morning on day two. Still foggy.

Right. Another long, bad year for backpacking. At least I got out toward the end of June when the weather looked ugly but was nice. Knowing that this area was shy of good trees, I left my hammock at home and slept on the ground.

Leaving the valley of the shadow of sleep.

Officially, I spent the first night out of bounds, or in bounds, depending on how you see it, but there was no one backpacking anywhere on my side of the mountain, so hey. Just one guy sleeping in the dirt. No one around to give me a citation.

Stream violets, if I'm not mistaken. Optimistic little cheery things.

The weather was just about the right temperature. Damp but not wet, cool but not cold, warm enough to be comfy but without the sunlight that would have made it hot.

The view after climbing out of the valley.

Overall, too much snow for good hiking, but since this mountain is mostly bare on its west side, and I brought a pair of portable crampon-like thingies, it wasn't that bad.

Somewhat later I met some shrubs calling for help.

The terrain is torn up, but not too badly on the north and northwest sides of the mountain. At least when the soil is damp. Later in the year some of the ravines would have been all but impassable.

Valley of the Toutle River, squeezed by the arms of the mountain.

I know. I've been out there early, late, and in between. At the height of summer the soil turns explosive. Just look at it hard and it crumbles, slides, sheds clouds of dust, sucks at your angles. Starts avalanches.

Panorama looking southwest. Just before the drop to the valley.

Get down in a ravine, if you can, and you won't get out. Not anymore. The trails used to be good, as trails go. Still dusty and rocky, but well graded and easily hiked.

A closer look at the reality of it all.

Years of neglect and heavy winter rains scoured out all the ravines. Some became suicide slots. Others only became dangerous. A couple merely tedious and nasty. But things have changed radically in the last 15 years.

With your back against the drop, you get this panoramic view northeast.

The roads too. When I first hiked at St Helens in 1996 the roads were like an indoor running track: clean, smooth, black, unblemished. And they stayed that way for a while. It was tasty. Close enough to drive to, noodle around for a day, and drive home again, and the roads were all perfect.

Wild strawberry?

Eventually the weather began working at things. The roads got lumpy in spots. Or began to crumble. The trails began to wash away.

Slightly distorted panorama of Toutle River valley

The Toutle River was once the most benign crossing on the mountain and is now the biggest obstacle. Or at least it was about three or four years ago, the last time I walked around the mountain. Coming from the north, you descend in a long, long switchback, puffing up clouds of dust no matter how carefully you walk, and drop 500 feet (150 m) down to the river.

Trail descending to the Toutle River.

Once at the bottom you hit a bench. The last 10 feet (3 m) down were also easy. Then you stepped across the river on stones, and that was it. After the rains a few years ago, I came to this spot and it all seemed the same (from the top). But once down to that last bench, instead of a short trail down a few feet there was a deep trench. It looked as though it was cut by machines. The sides were absolutely vertical and parallel to each other, and the drop was now at least 50 feet (15 m). Crazy. No way across anymore. You have to make a huge detour through a scrubby forest of trees growing so thickly they hardle let air through.

Looking down-valley.

The first time through after this damage, I was able to find a way down, partly by climbing back up a little, and partly by hanging from a couple of saplings, and partly fall-jumping a bit (stupid). Subsequent stormy years have made this route completely impassable.

A bit of the less-rugged part of the valley looking deceptively mild.

It's hard to believe that in 2002 I hiked around the mountain in one day, twice, once in July and once in Otober. It used to be a pleasant, slow three-day backpacking trip, but if I had a hankering to ever do it again I'd plan on at least a week.

Another panorama, up and to the west, where I was going.

And I've been around it at least six times, so I know the way. But I probably wouldn't want to try it again. It simply isn't worth it. Mt Rainier is bigger and better. Mt Adams is amazing, strange, gentle, and crazy wild too. Maybe I'll be able to post pictures of those trips before long. We'll see.

Another glimpse of Toutle Valley from higher up and farther west.

For this trip there was fog and damp and snow. Which was enough. Enough to pretty well screw up my plans. I'll have more photos in a couple of days.

Previously: "Not Sleeping In The Air."