Shuffling up a sandy slope inside one of the many canyons on Mount St. Helens' southeast side, my running partner and I question a certain park ranger's motives.
"When you hit Windy Pass, it's pretty easy from there," the ranger had said. "The last 9 miles are mostly downhill."
We'd run through Windy Pass more than an hour ago on this 28-mile circumnavigation of Mount St. Helens via the Loowit Trail (link to sidebar). The only thing we'd found to be "mostly downhill" since the Pass was our spirits. By 5:30 p.m. on this late July afternoon, when we found ourselves yo-yo-ing up and down gorge after gorge, we had been running, speed hiking and scrambling for over 9 hours.
To get an idea of what this stretch of the Loowit is like, spread your fingers on one hand, press it into some wet sand, and then remove it. These canyons and ridges are a super-size version of the handprint you just made. They're the results of mudflows that blasted through the earth during the 1980 eruption.
In front of me, Don Kardong, my partner in this trail running adventure, wonders if I instigated the ranger's fibbery.
"You didn't happen to question his ability to distinguish flora from fauna, did you?" asks Don, a noted writer and former Olympic marathoner.
No I didn't, but I do question his ability to distinguish downhill from uphill.
At least by now the fog has lifted. At 8:00 a.m. this morning, we left the June Lake trailhead in a fog soup that chilled our bones and cut visibility to about 200 yards. No roads cross the Loowit so to get there you take one of the many feeder trails that lead to it. We chose the June Lake Trail on the southeast side of the mountain, because at 1.6 miles, it's the shortest and climbs only about 700 feet. Also, a dip at the end of the day in chilly June Lake would be heavenly on what we figured to be a sweltering day running in the hot July sun.
we're running clockwise around the mountain so this morning when we hop on the Loowit, we head west. After passing through moss-draped hemlocks and firs that have somehow survived centuries of Mount St. Helens' rumblings and eruptions, we climb through rock piles of huge black, blocky boulders. They're lava flows from eruptions about 500 years ago and before we know it, the trail has disappeared and been replaced by these boulders, which look like SUV-size hunks of fudge. Soon, we're down on all fours trying to make our way. Running is a memory.
The fog, which by now has been joined by wind and rain, makes it impossible to tell how much lava is ahead of us. Luckily, wood posts spaced about every 150 yards mark the route. When we make it to one post, we spend a few panicky moments scanning the whiteout for the next one, until one of us yells "There it is!" and off we go at half a snail's pace.
After a half-mile or so the lava stops, and we have a couple hundred-yard snow crossing. It's soft so we don't slide and over the next 5 miles, lava flows-as well as the wind and the rain-come and go. Some flows are a mile wide and such slow going we question whether or not we'll finish this route today. In three hours, we?ve gone just 7 miles and have more than 20 to go.
"At least we know the last 9 miles are downhill," I offer.
Don brightens and so do I.
Once the snow and lava are behind us, we establish a running rhythm as we climb steadily through a more familiar Northwest mountain environment. Familiar except for the grayish volcanic ash and rock that's everywhere and the stands of trees that look like they?ve been dynamited, of course. We run through cathedral forests and meadows splashed with wildflower rainbows, across creeks and canyons and past plunging waterfalls. we're having fun. We'd been cursing the fog for the views it's stolen, but now realize that it's a blessing for it's kept us cool.
Through the first 10 miles, we gain 2,000 feet, but lose all of that on two-mile descent into the Toutle River valley. There's a short bushwhack, then some boulder hopping to cross the braided river. At noon, with soaked shoes, socks, and legs, we sit down on some riverside rocks for lunch.
Don eats a chicken sandwich and some chocolate while I scarf down Power Bars, dried apricots and Fritos.
"It's funny, but I've discovered that the most satisfying ultra food is Fritos," Don e-mailed a couple days before the run.
He's right. There on the banks of the Toutle, they tasted amazing.
I fill my water bottles from the silty river and drop in a couple iodine tablets followed by some Gatorade powder to mask the iodine, but it still tastes lousy. The ranger had told me about a bubbling spring 8 miles ahead where the water is so good you don't have to pill it. (On this one, he's right on.) I'll drink sparingly until then.
We scan the chowder sky wondering aloud if it's ever going to clear, then get to work regaining all the elevation we'd just lost. Up sandy hills?like giant dunes?we run and shuffle when it's too steep. Often, we slip back a step for every two we take forward.
At about 16 miles, we enter the Pumice Plain in the volcano's Blast Zone on Mount St. Helens? north side. If it were clear, we'd see hummocks, huge mounds of volcanic debris scattered for miles across the plain. We'd see millions of downed trees floating in Spirit Lake and covering the surrounding hills like spilled toothpicks. We'd even see Mount Rainier looming high above its Cascade siblings.
Instead, we have what we called the Bocci Ball Desert. Millions of black, gray and salmon-colored pumice rocks about the size and shape of bocci balls. Like the lava flow boulders from before, they extend as far as the fog lets us see. The trail disappears once again, and we inch along with route finding our only priority. Cairns, placed by backpackers who?ve gone before, mark the way but it's hard to tell which are cairns and which are just random piles of rocks.
We cross the Bocci Ball Desert in about an hour, and not long after, there's a break in the fog. At 4:00 p.m., after running, hiking and shuffling for 8 hours, we get our first views of Mount St. Helens. From this close, it's truly breathtaking. we're only two miles from the crater and at such an angle that the growing and often steaming lava dome in the center appears almost as high as the mountain's fractured sidewalls. I've seen pictures of the 1980 eruption many times, but they don't prepare you for seeing the real thing from here. To witness the effects of, and imagine the sheer power and destruction of a force that could rip the top off a mountain and leave a mile-wide crater in its wake is to be truly humbled.
Then, as suddenly as it's revealed to us, it's gone. The clouds drop their curtain on the mountain once again.
The steepest climb to the trail's highest point?4,885 foot-high Windy Pass?is next and though so far we're past 20 miles at this point, it doesn't seem so bad. we're buoyed by what's been revealed to us and our steps are lightened by what the ranger told me about the last 9 miles. Down the other side of the Pass and across the flat Plains of Abraham, the ranger seems to have it pegged.
With about 6 miles to go, however, just past Ape Canyon, we round a bend and there it is, the first of the interminable canyon crossings, this one across the Muddy River. An hour later, after maybe the fourth crossing, Don captures our mood perfectly.
"I feel like I've been doing this my whole life," he says wearily.
But 45 minutes after that, at the June Lake Trail sign that means we?ve completed the Loowit circle, we're elated and marvel at what we?ve done and what we?ve seen. Over almost 30 miles that included 6,600 feet of elevation gain, we?ve experienced every Northwest landscape there is? rain forest, desert, alpine meadow, snow, and river?along with a bunch unique to a recently erupted volcano. It's a Cliffs Notes version of the Northwest with a special section on volcanology.
Don and I shake hands and prepare for the truly downhill June Lake Trail and the car. But before we leave the Loowit, I stop.
"Do you want to go around again?" I ask Don.
"Maybe tomorrow," he answers.
Hiking Loowit Trail around Mount St. Helen's can be just as rewarding.