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Moon walk

At the crater rim of Mount St. Helens, an expanse of ash, lava, and smashing boulders

Email|Print| Text size + By Jackleen de La Harpe
Globe Correspondent / October 1, 2006

COUGAR, Wash. -- If you were offered a ticket to peer into the center of the earth, would you take it?

The US Forest Service announced in July that it would offer permits -- 100 a day through October -- to climb Monitor Ridge on the south face of Mount St. Helens , an active volcano in Washington State.

The trail, closed since 2004 because of seismic activity, allows hikers a rare opportunity to witness the ancient processes of a mountain rebuilding itself from the inside out.

But there's a catch. To reach the edge of this magnificent crater at 8,364 feet above sea level requires an arduous, 5 -mile climb on a trail that rises 4,500 feet. It's a trip that, on average, takes hikers seven to 12 hours. It's neither a simple hike nor a technical effort, but a steep and difficult climb with relentless elevation gain. Climbers are advised to carry a dust mask and helmet in preparation for unexpected volcanic hazards.

Is it worth it? Absolutely. But be prepared.

Mount St. Helens exploded on Sunday morning, May 18, 1980. A magnitude 5.1 earthquake caused the northern flank of the mountain to slide away in a torrent of water and rock debris.

This in turn unleashed a violent explosion, akin to shaking a bottle of soda and popping the top. Mud, rock, and hot water swept down the river valley, leveling miles of trees and killing 57 people. A plume of ash (pulverized rock) shot more than 15 miles into the sky. Streetlights were triggered at midday as communities in the path of wind-borne ash turned dark. Ash rained down, covering cars, houses , and lawns in a blanket of fine silt.

When the eruption ended nine hours later, more than 1.5 billion tons of ash had been blown out of the mountain, dramatically altering one of the most beautiful mountains in the Cascade Range .

Climbing a mountain with such a recent violent past is thrilling and a little unnerving. But having a chance to see firsthand what's happening in the crater is an opportunity of a lifetime. Even in this relatively ``quiet" period, the lava dome in the crater delivers a steady stream of new rock -- hard, gray magma that has cooled on its way up through the earth, said Tom Pierson, a geologist with the US Geological Survey.

The route to the crater over the Ptarmigan Trail and Monitor Ridge can be roughly divided into thirds -- forest, boulder fields, and scree, a mix of ash and pumice. The Ptarmigan Trail begins at Climber's Bivouac (3,700 feet) and rises 1,100 feet in 2 1/4 miles to timberline at 4,800 feet .

Here the trail begins to gain elevation in earnest as the forest disappears, replaced by a mountain of boulders, the beginning of Monitor Ridge. The route is marked by wooden posts jammed into the rocks as a rough climbing guide. More reliable, however, is the route identified by the footprints in ash and dust as ``the path."

From this point, the climb is a near-straight line to the top , where the route travels over big chunks of lava and ash, the consistency of loose and dirty sand. Even as late as August, snowfields were preserved in the gullies, giving hikers with ice axes opportunities to glissade down the mountain.

The Mount St. Helens Institute website says the climb is for people in good physical condition and emphasizes that it is a rugged off-trail scramble on steep terrain. This does not, however, exactly describe this climb -- it is arduous and requires climbers to pace themselves, focusing at times on every single step to avoid falling, sliding, or twisting an ankle, especially when climbing through boulder fields.

My climbing partner, Chuck, and I consider ourselves fairly fit and basically healthy. But was that good enough? To offset my concerns, I packed too much water, food, and clothing, what an experienced climber would not do. Instead of lightening my load, I made it heavier. Mentally, though, I was ready to go.

When we arrived in Cougar, Robert Zerfing, 22, the cashier in Jack's Restaurant and Country Store (where climbers pick up their permits and are required to register) described an earthquake the previous day as commonplace but insisted that it would be foolish to hike without masks and gaiters (we had neither).

As Brenda Price, 55, the waitress and desk clerk at the Lone Fir Resort tallied the bill for our ``last supper," she described careless hikers who had broken bones and fallen in crevasses.

A Forest Service employee told me that children as young as 8 and people on the far end of middle age, like ``my 80-year-old aunt" could make the climb, they just needed more time. This told me what I needed to know -- be careful, be prepared, and if you're having trouble, go slowly and you'll get there eventually.

On the morning of our climb, Mount Hood and Mount Adams, partially covered in snow, floated in the distance. We started at daybreak to avoid the midday heat and within the first hour, the trail approached the treeline. To the south were lovely views of dark green valleys threaded with clouds. To the west, a wall of boulders appeared, stacked to the sky.

Up ahead, hikers seemed to struggle up the first boulder field. The trail at this point required a slow, steady approach as boulders shift ed underfoot with a hollow, brittle sound.

One rock field gave way to another and another as the trail gained elevation, forcing us to focus on our breathing and every step. At 7,000 feet, the boulder field petered out, replaced by gray ash and a sky that seemed to intensify in color as we gained elevation.

Other than ash and occasional snow, the only visual diversions were Mount Adams to the southeast and specks of color along the ridge -- hikers who had made it to the top. The last 200 feet of the climb looked deceptively easy, yet the elevation and shifting terrain seemed to conspire to press us down and away from the rim.

The final dogged steps were instantly forgotten when the magnificent crater, more than a mile across, appeared.

Photographs of Mount St. Helens frequently show a monochrome crater with a great gray hump in the center. In reality, the crater walls are subtle stripes of gray, rusty red, brown, rose pink, and cream, a visual reminder of past eruptions. The crater is loud and active -- house-size boulders roll down the steep sides, smashing into other rocks, a terrific noise that reverberates around the crater. Rocks are pushed out of the lava dome, accompanied by escaping steam and incredibly loud cracks.

Other climbers stood at the top of the mountain, packs dropped in the ash, talking about what they could see, taking photo after photo, unabashedly posing at the crater's edge. Other climbers put up their hoods and sat with their backs to the northerly wind, eating a grit-infused meal. The pros rested briefly, remarked on the dramatic landscape, and turned around to sprint and slide back down the mountain through ash, then snow, then rock.

Alex Lockfeld and his son, Matthew, 16, stood at the rim and talked about what they could see -- Mount Rainier in the distance, Spirit Lake still partially covered with floating logs and pumice. Matthew recited the heights of the surrounding mountains. His father cracked open a beer, poured a few drops on the ground to honor the goddess of the mountain, and took it all in.

Contact Jackleen de La Harpe, a freelance writer in Portland, Ore., and special projects director for SoundVision Productions, an independent public radio production group in Berkeley, Calif., at jadelaha@yahoo.com.

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