Undead – Mt Saint Helens
In true Pacific Northwest fashion, it was impossibly damp, and as the morning rolled in, the fog covering the nearby peaks above Yale Lake created a scene reminiscent of some German Romantic landscape painting. Completely still and almost smothered in a heavy blanket of silence, the night had been spent under a dark cathedral of dripping-wet evergreens. The dense air bore the sort of earthy, tree-y smell that is hard to ever forget.
We warmed up the car, rented a few days before on a blistering August day at the Portland, Oregon, Rent-a-Wreck. The speedometer on the beat-up, early-90’s Plymouth Acclaim didn’t register – there was no real way of counting our speed on the lonely back roads, as we burned a crazed line through the dried brushlands of Maupin and Madras, the rainforests of Silver Falls, the stunning Columbia River Gorge, the humid cold-water coast of Cannon Beach and Astoria. The previous night, we’d pushed the old boat to her limits, careening around the close turns of the Cascade foothills, blowing past the countless espresso stands that dot this region.
Now, on this heavy-aired morning, we were chugging up a steep, steep gravel road that seemed to hang half-way off the cliff- the view plunged downward into grey obscurity. The first hour or so on the trail was a deeply forested ramble. It is said that wildlife goes quiet just before a natural cataclysm, and so the eeriness of the foggy, lonesome silence was knowingly palpable. We began to feel the volcano beneath. Not far under our very feet magma was flowing- a fact completely lost on the still pine woods.
It was much that way in this forest a little more than 30 years ago, right before the mountain blew up. Back then, the area was an idyllic retreat of cabins, lakes, and scenery. Mt. St. Helens’ perfect, snow-capped cone had been known as “the Fuji of America”. Magma had flowed underneath back then as well, but not many had paid it much mind for centuries.
Soon the trail abruptly emerged from the forest – the treeline. Now the mountain began to bare its volcano-ness. A great wall of boulders and pumice spread out before us, sloping into the clouds. Sitting on some rocks, seeing nothing but quickly moving fog (now we were truly in the sky), we lunched on a healthy assortment of Chef Boyardee, granola bars, and Red Bull. Scavenging chipmunks, the only discernable form of animal life at this desolate height, pressed against our legs hoping for a scrap of the processed American food of the world below.
When Mt. St. Helens erupted on May 18, 1980, tons and tons and tons of rock were immediately pulverized, cast into the atmosphere, or sent roaring down into the untouched forests below. Summer homes, unfortunate outdoorsmen who disregarded evacuation warnings, scientists, and an entire lake, disappeared without a trace. The ash cloud, which was just minutes before sold mountain rock, darkened the Northwest. Riding by cab at 2am, a few weeks before our climb, coming from the airport to my friend’s place in Portland, the driver told of the cloud. How everyone was told to stay inside, how the ash was possibly fatal to inhale, how it looked like a snow storm, how the falling fertilizer made everyone’s lawns spectacular that summer.
Now the trail itself became an immense field of ash – the remnants of the peak that was. An endless dune extending beyond sight. Here we forgot about the magma and the evidence of earth’s explosive power surrounding us. There is always the point during any climb when the romance falls away and the journey becomes a test of will. Here on the snow and ash, we came to that point. Everything was powder, and every step resulted in a Sisyphean slide backwards. The air was thinner now than we coastal dwellers were used to, and the pauses became more and more frequent.
Then finally the summit. Though, it could hardly be called a summit in the normal sense. It was really just the highest point along the crater rim. The true summit had been blown away years ago. There was no rewarding view – we were still in the clouds. We worked up the courage to peer over the crater rim and looked into a great foggy abyss, like the edge of the earth. Though we couldn’t see it, we knew that thousands of feet straight below, a new dome was forming- the molten stone building anew, ready to thrust another summit slowly into the clouds. To have it explode again hundreds or thousands of years from now. To see a volcano in this state is a rare privilege of place and time. Afterall, for most of its life, a volcano is just a mountain, alive surely, but not true to its nature until it convulses and discharges and rebuilds. A release it must wait centuries for, the power of the ages sent spewing out in a flicker of a moment.
(From an alternate perspective, a volcano is pretty much an earth zit, building until the pressure is just too unbearable…)
After a considerable rest, some snacks, and an ill-advised cigarette, we started back down. As we did, the sky began to break and a glorious, though short-lived, view of the green distantly below finally tempered the barren world we’d been traversing the entire day.