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.
Once in awhile, one sees a bumper sticker that reads: “This Car Climbed Mt. Washington”.
Screw that, these legs climbed Mt. Washington.
It’s the highest peak in the northeastern United States, and was first recorded by the explorer, Giovanni Verrazano, who spotted it from the Atlantic in 1524.
However, at 6, 098 feet, Mt. Washington’s height is quite low.
which is deceiving….
for Mt. Washington is considered one of the most dangerous mountains in the U.S..
It’s the weather. The peak is uniquely situated along a weather system that makes for some of the most unpredictable weather around. At times, it can be moderate and calm; but at others, it is viciously cold, icy, and WINDY. In fact, the most powerful sustained surface wind ever recorded on Earth (231mph, on April 12, 1934) was at the weather observatory on the summit. On average, the top of the mountain experiences hurricane-force winds for almost a third of the year.
Luckily, we were greeted with the gentler disposition of the peak.
After a long drive through the night from New York City, we slept a bit at a hotel, and hit the trail early the next morning. Though it was late May, the trail was snow-covered – packed down by a long, long winter. It was the Tuckerman Ravine trail- the most common route to the summit. Initially, the trail was filled with skiers, many French-Canadians among them. The Tuckerman Ravine is a famous spot for free, facility-less skiing. Pretty soon, the skiers veer off onto a sidetrail, and the forest begins to thin out. The path becomes steeper, and in spots, one has to pass precariously along narrow footholds covered in snow.
Then you pass the treeline and clamor up rocks to Lion’s Head, an outcropping about halfway up the mountain. The weather was fine this day- a light, chilly wind, with a clear view of the surrounding countryside. Lunching at Lion’s Head, we spied upon the distant skiers in Tuckerman Ravine below, who were meer dots cruising down the sheer snow-fields. Next, we passed relatively level ground through the “Alpine Garden” – covered with wind- and cold-swept lichen and icy meltwater.
Beyond, is a steep snow-covered slope, and above that are large boulders, spotted with navigational cairns. Here is where you really begin to appreciate how far above the Northeastern U.S. you are. The close clouds and the sheer rim surrounding the Ravine take on an alpine feel. The wind picks up on the blank, rocky face. Then finally, in a surreal moment, you emerge onto a road – the famous vehicle route to the top. It’s only a few more meters to the true summit.
While it was springlike and mild at the trailhead, here it is freezing, and windy.
It was before tourist season, and the Road wasn’t open yet (it opens after Memorial Day) – the summit belonged to the climbers. As mentioned above, the numerical altitude here is nothing at all to write home about. However, given that the surrounding landscape is rather flat, the majesty of the scene is undeniable. Part of the weather station is chained strongly to the the rocks, evidence of the possibly extreme wind up here.
The obligatory summit picture, and then the descent.
We returned to the trailhead around sunset, and drove off to our campsite in the deep dark of the White Mountains. Along the way, a van in front of us with Quebec plates, stopped short – immediately before us was a towering moose, crossing across the road anxiously, glaring at us crazedly from the other side of the windshield.
The next morning, legs sore, we drove the long drive back to the city, with dreams of bare tundra landscapes on the surface of our minds.
– Being late May, we did not expect to encounter such a significant amount of snow. Winter dies hard here – so plan accordingly. Also – keep track of the weather reports. Our climb was unusually blessed with mild conditions. However, given the mountain’s record, this is not a landscape to take flippantly. It is truly one of the few places in the East below deep-Canada to have such harshness.
Despite their location within 300 hundreds miles of New York City, the Adirondack Mountains are a world away. Along with the the backwoods of Maine, this area is the last great wilderness of the Northeastern United States. Spanning a territory larger than that of Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Great Smoky, and the Grand Canyon National Parks combined, these mountains have the distinction of being part of the largest state-protected area in the lower 48 states. They are also unique in that the area covered by the Adirondack Park is a mixture of protected wilderness, towns, and logging. In many ways, for better and worse, it is an experiment in the balance between enterprise and nature- simultaneously a region of tiny towns and raw land, and a region that has twice hosted the Olympics.
Some areas of the mountains are so remote that the legendary source of the Nile was found by Europeans/Americans before the source of the Hudson, on the side of Mt. Marcy, the highest point in the state.
The earth here is deep-green and speckled with lakes, ponds, and streams, many of which are inaccessible by road, and many of which are interconnected. It is possible to canoe or kayak hundreds of miles, and even reach the St. Lawrence River. The Adirondacks have been catching rain for millennia.
Nestled in the heart of the mountains is Long Lake, a 14 mile long widening of the Raquette River, which has drawn summer visitors since the Gilded Age. Many areas of the lake are sparsely populated (especially towards the north end), but near the town one can do the usual summer activities – boating, waterskiing, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, camping, etc. In addition, Long Lake is the home of Helm’s Aero Service, an outfit that, with reasonable rates, provides extraordinary aerial tours and excursions by floatplane. There is great mountain climbing in the area as well, with many hikes ending atop one of the legendary (and rickety!) Adirondack fire towers, peering over a huge landscape.
For all the daytime activity, people know how to chill here- fires and fishing abound as the sun falls, and the lake stills to glass, and the lucky few catch the haunting calls of the loons.
By the way, if you’re of the mind to canoe or kayak, head to Raquette River Outfitters, in town near the bridge. Stacy and the rest of the staff there are awesome and have a deep passion for the outdoors.