Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Snowbound



The next time I go to Mount St. Helens, I have to climb to the top. After all, every person I told about my trip last week responded with the same question, “Are you climbing to the top?” It seems, even, that some people can’t think of any reason to go to Mt Saint Helens other than to climb to the top; which is exactly why I planned a trip to the remote northern edge of Mount St. Helens National Monument, because I knew no one would be there.

The plan for this trip, revised a dozen times, and finalized the night before we left, went like this. There were 2 groups of three backpackers. Group A, consisting of my brother Kelly, Jason, and myself, would enter at the extreme north side of the park and backpack roughly 11 miles through cascading waterfalls and rushing mountain streams, over the 5,200 foot peak of Tumwater Mountain, to a sandy-beached mountain lake called “Deadman”, where we would meet with Group B, Luke and the two Steve’s. They were coming in from the northeastern end of the park at a place called “Ryan Lake”. They would backpack up the Goat Mountain Trail, summit the mountain, and meet us at Deadmans Lake 5.5 miles in.








We made the 6 hour drive late in the afternoon on Thursday. After dodging a few elk along White Pass we arrived at our trailhead at about 1 am. Well, technically it wasn’t our trailhead. The week before, due to the higher than normal volume of rain, there was a rockslide that completely buried a section of the road in dirt and huge granite boulders. We knew about the rockslide in advance so we parked the car and hiked in the dark about a half mile to the actual trailhead and pitched our tents. We awoke in the morning blanketed in fog and as we broke camp and sipped coffee we talked about how great our day was going to be. Before we started out we were surprised to realize when the fog lifted that we had camped about 20 feet from a giant cliff that dropped perhaps 100 feet or so into a beautiful tree filled valley below. I suppose that’s why they say you shouldn’t hike in the dark.


The trail skirted the mountain side going up and down over numerous mountain streams running hard from the Spring thaw. Water was everywhere. It poured from the mountain and even seemed to leak from solid rock. Green was everywhere! The forest floor was covered in small green plants and ferns, and moss and lichen hung from rocks and trees. To me it seemed ancient and pre-historic, and reminded me of the rainforest on the Olympic Coast and of the inland rainforest of the Salmo-Priest wilderness.

We passed a cave and several small waterfalls. We saw spider webs rigged like nets on the hillside to catch falling insects, and everywhere we looked we saw slugs. What took the cake however, was the massive 150’ Leona falls. This enormous waterfall drops majestically from above onto a huge moss covered rock below creating an unforgettable scene, and just like the movie “Last of the Mohicans” our trail went around behind the falls into a huge limestone cavern. It was an amazing experience.








The trail now began to descend into a valley where we came across an ancient goliath standing near the trail. I’m no botanist and I don’t know the species, but I can tell you it definitely was not a cedar. The tree was one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. When I put my hand on it I felt like that tree had stood watch over those woods for hundreds of years… And it probably did.

Water was everywhere, and the sound of its flow filled our ears, from the gentle melody of a meandering stream to the violent cacophony of water breaking over rock. I remember standing on the trail looking down into a lush green canyon at a surging stream cascading over rocks and under deadfalls and I was overcome with the realization that I was witnessing beauty in its purest and realist form, and I felt blessed to be there and be a part of it…








After fording a couple streams we began to do some serious climbing. Straight up the trail went as we switched-backed our way to the top of Tumwater Mountain. The green gave way to gray and brown as the temperature got colder and the air became thinner as we climbed higher and higher. The pitch was steep and we just had to put our heads down and drive-on. We knew we were getting close to the top. At about 4,500’ we took a breather and in high spirits talked about how good of time we were making… It was 1 o’clock.

A hundred feet later we ran into fog, and not long after that we noticed snow on the forest floor. We were nearing Tumwater Lake, which is really just a pond that sits in the shadow of the peak near the summit. As we rounded a bend our trail disappeared into snow, and in front of us, as far as we could see, was snow. At this point I really wanted to stay on track. I wanted Jason and Kelly’s first time backpacking to be nothing short of totally amazing. So, we continued on, using map and compass, and Jason’s GPS, to keep track of our location. We came to a snow-covered clearing and I immediately realized that I was looking at Tumwater Lake, still frozen, and covered with snow. I was counting on this to be our water source. We hadn’t seen water in a couple miles and aside from a couple swallows in Jason’s bottle, we were dry.

At this point I considered turning back, but stubbornly I suggested that we should go on, and that we could pick the trail back up on the other side of the mountain. It was slow going in the snow. Although some of it was packed hard enough to walk on, some of it wasn’t, and as a result Kelly and I kept falling through the snow, sometimes up to our waist. We were skirting a hillside and the going was slow and grueling. I kept thinking that over the next ridge, the snow would be gone, so we kept inching forward. We all started to become fatigued. My mouth was parched. My lips were dry and cracking. I desperately wanted a drink of water, and although we were surrounded by snow, I did not want to stop our progress to boil any. I was exerting myself much more now than the hike up. I started feeling sick and clumsy, but stupidly I kept moving forward. I knew that If I was feeling this bad, Kelly and Jason might be too since they have never even been backpacking before and I was in better hiking shape. Jason announced it was 3 pm. We had spent nearly 3 hours trudging through snow.








I had a topographic map in my hand, and I stumbled in the snow and sunk to my groin. 5 minutes later I realized that my map was gone. Finally we stopped and huddled up. I knew we had to turn back. I kept thinking of the Donner Party snowbound in the Sierra Nevada’s eating each other to survive. I was just telling Kelly the day before that in survival situations the skinny person always dies first. I told Jason that he might be on the menu if we stay out here any longer, but I was still torn with this desire not to let Kelly and Jason down. I told them to wait while I climbed to the top of the next ridge and looked on the other side. I got about a quarter of the way and thought “what the hell am I doing?”

We turned around and followed our old footprints to the frozen lake, where we took our packs off, had a snack, and rested. I used a stick to poke a hole through the slushy ice on the lake and we all filled our water containers. After a brief respite we made our way back to the trail and a flat spot on the mountainside where we made camp on the only dry spot in a field of snow. We were all wet from being in the snow so long. Kelly and Jason both had leakage into their boots that soaked their socks and turned their toes blue. We ate dinner, but despite our best efforts, could not get a fire going. No sooner did we retire into our tents for bed did it start raining. I laid there in my sleeping bag going over the last part of the day in my mind. I should have never led us into that snow. A lesson I will never forget.

It rained all night, and it was pouring buckets while broke camp the next morning. Everything was soaked; our packs, our clothes, our tents, everything. We decided to skip breakfast and power-hike down the mountain, and power-hike we did. We came down in less than half the time it took us to go up, and by 11am we were sitting in the Mount Adams Café drinking coffee and hot cocoa.

It turns out Group B with Luke and the 2 Steve’s had a similar experience. They ran into snow and lost the trail at around 5,000 feet on Goat Ridge, and camped on the ridge next to a snow field. All in all it was a great trip. It didn’t end the way I would have liked, but I had fun and learned a lot, and everyone got home ok.