Mt. St. Helens: The Cataclysm and Beyond

A trek through the blast zone of a restless volcano raises questions about a father's legacy and a child's future.
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A trek through the blast zone of a restless volcano raises questions about a father's legacy and a child's future.

Some lives are sedimentary, a gradual layering of days filtered through tranquil seas. Others are volcanic, building from hot releases of molten magma. Dad was a volcano. He made the earth shake. And when he fell off his mountain, he altered the landscape, including my 10-year-old life. Myself, I'm built of less volatile stuff. But as I hike the trail around Mt. St. Helens on a warm October day, I'm thinking of Siena, my baby daughter, and I'm grappling with the tremors of my father's legacy.

When Dad died, my family moved from our home in Switzerland to my mother's home state of Washington, and I soon came to love Northwestern mountains as I had the Alps. In that era, Mt. St. Helens was a gentle structure, so symmetrically sculpted that in Native American legends she played a fair maiden, the lovely Loowit. But Loowit smoldered beneath her snowy cloak. In 1980, no longer able to control the forces within, she blew her top 55,000 feet into the air, destroying much that had come to depend on her stability.

In some ways I feel like I know St. Helens. I skied from her summit when I was 12, back when she was still a peaceful beauty who kept her soul suppressed. And I skied her, too, in recent years, launching joyously from the exploded crater's rim to carve downward until snow gave way to green. But a mountain is a complex being. Know it from one face, and you may not recognize it from another.

My hiking compadre, Scott Sloan, and I live in nearby Hood River, Oregon, at the base of another Cascades volcano, Mt. Hood. We are each familiar with Loowit's southern exposure, but from this aspect she masks her torment, revealing it only by the flat shoulder of a ridgeline where once stood a glacier-crowned summit. We long have wanted to see more of her than this, and our boots step lightly up the forest path toward June Lake as we begin our journey around the mountain.

For 4,500 years, St. Helens has been the most restless peak in the Cascades, the most unsettled range in the Lower 48. Perched at the edge of the Pacific Ring of Fire, the Cascadian volcanoes are the visible result of below-ground forces, massive beyond comprehension. Ocean-size plates of the earth's crust are being ground-subducted, to be technical-beneath the floating mass of North America. As the plates scrape across each other, titanic frictional forces heat rock until it melts, sending gushing jets of magma upward to our world.

Local Indians knew of volcanic violence. Even early white settlers witnessed the Earth's troubled soul. From the 1790s to the 1860s, at least eight vents sputtered and spewed in what are now three states, sometimes simultaneously. Then came a century of relative quiet, interrupted only by the awakening of Mt. Lassen, at the southern end of the Cascades in California, which in 1915 sent a plume of steam and ash 7 miles into the sky.

In 1980 St. Helens reasserted her temper with dramatic flair. Her eruption, carrying the force of some 27,000 Hiroshima-size bombs, blew off the upper 1,300 feet of the mountain, a full cubic mile of Mother Earth. Volcanologists now wonder if St. Helens may be the harbinger of a mood swing in her siblings, a role she seems to have played in the past.

Scott rounds a ridgeline ahead of me and stops to stare. When Loowit's summit blasted northward, a gap opened to the southeast, and through it flooded rock and melted glacier, scouring all in its path and leaving multimile-long, 100-foot-tall piles of rubble. The trail follows a contorted path through the freshly deposited landscape, crosses gullies of sliding scree, then reemerges on smoother grassy meadows. It is our first tangible glimpse that the mountain had stirred.

When we reach the Plains of Abraham, on Loowit's eastern flank, we find a barren landscape, harsh and chilling rapidly in the gathering darkness. Though not in the "blast zone"-the direct path of the hurtling mix of volcanic gas and debris-this region was swept by a great tide of heat, ash, and burning detritus that took out everything that once clung preciously to life.

A spangled banner stretches across the blackening sky by the time we reach Windy Pass, the edge of the restricted zone and of legal camping. We perch our tent on charred earth now cold, and my thoughts are drawn to Dad.

Passion, it would be fair to say, took my father's life. He was reputed to have said that death is life's greatest adventure, something to be savored. High on Switzerland's Eiger in 1962, a storm rolled in. Lightning crashed all around and Dad's partner huddled inside their shared bivouac sack. But Dad would have none of that. He stared back at the angry sky. If a bolt were to reach out for him, he would meet it as a worthy adversary. None did. But four years later his rope broke at this same altitude on the same peak but on a different route, sending him on a 4,000-foot plummet. Dad was carrying a movie camera, and we naturally checked the film, knowing that if he could have had his way, he'd have filmed the whole descent.

Scott and I awake to the insistent beeping of our wrist alarms. It's 5 a.m., pitch dark in a Northwest October. Twenty-two miles to walk before nightfall. This day we intend to cross the entire blast zone on the north side of the mountain, then wrap around its western flank and cross the familiar south slope before reaching June Lake again and the gentle trail back to the car. Nothing requires us to make the loop hike in only two days, but in my daughter's short life I've already spent too much time away.

We locate the trail's switchbacks by headlamp, faint indentations in steep scree. Our lights reveal no tree-forms, no shrubs, or even grasses to mark the trail's edge. We are low by mountain standards-4,800 feet-but in the lifeless abyss I'm reminded of high alpine climbs, of my fondness for the realm where nothing grows, where the earth stands sharp and sculpted, raw in the face of time. As we walk downward on the switchbacks, we carefully watch our steps that our feet don't take us into the void.

Three and a half months ago, when Siena was half her current age, my wife Adele and I brought her on her first backpacking trip. We hiked to treeline on nearby Mt. Adams and spent the night snowcamping at 6,000 feet. Siena rode in a harness on my chest and chattered at the passing trees. The next day she and Adele stayed at camp while friends and I climbed the mountain's northwest ridge, another 6,000 vertical feet. On the summit I affixed my skis and pushed off, gliding and carving and cavorting in my usual fashion. My companions, however, carried their own skis most of the way down the mountain. We all knew that the slope was steep enough that a skier might not be able to stop sliding if he made a serious slip. But I've been doing this sort of thing all my life. In my judgment, I wasn't going to take a tumble.

But I wonder about my judgment. On Mt. Hood a few years earlier I had skied eastward off the summit. I glided easily to a set of plunging couloirs, then stopped to stare downward for several minutes. My partner took off his skis, jabbed his axe into the snow, and climbed carefully down the slope. I didn't want to do that. I felt I could turn without falling. But the slope was so steep that I would never recover if I slipped. And a few hundred feet down I could see that the snow spilled off a cliff of fatal proportions. My heart raced as I slid my skis over the edge, carefully slicing my edges into the couloir. As I calculated my confidence for the upcoming turn, my mind bounced back and forth between "this is stupid, the consequences are absurd" and "you can do it, prove it." When finally I reached safer ground, my pride in accomplishment was swallowed by disgust. I had risked too much.

It's still dark on St. Helens when the switchbacks end. In a few minutes ridgelines stand outlined against the glow of morning sky. We watch the world gradually take shape. We're in a desert unrecognizable in the context of western Washington state, or anywhere else. Every desert I've walked in has been punctuated by a big cactus, a shrub or contorted tree, something that reveals life's will to be. But not here. Here is only sterile rock.

In the morning dusk it's almost impossible to pick out the lightly disturbed stones that define the trail. Small cairns provide occasional reassurances, then a larger series of stone men rise to guide us across slopes and through ravines. Always to our left is the great gray source of our great gray landscape, the hulking carcass of fair Loowit.

The mountain is a wound not yet scabbed over. At our feet, crumbled bits of earth-flesh comprise the field through which we navigate. It's strange to imagine geologic time in this way. We are used to seeing the earth as a child sees his world, essentially as a static place, where parents age and mountains rise in a timescale separate from our own. Volcanoes are a teenager's awakening to an insecure world.

Dad was too young when I came into his life. Twenty and full of ambition, his immediate plans did not include children. Though I was twice that age when Siena was born, I was still frustrated by not having climbed what I felt I could, what my self-esteem told me I should. But I knew that my body was on its own degenerative agenda. A child, if I were to have one, couldn't wait for me to get around to taking care of unfinished business.

It's a wary tango, the dance of family and ambition. Thirty-three years ago Dad was hoping to secure funding for some of his climbing ventures. He met with a wealthy businessman in a hotel in Switzerland. After the two had spoken for a couple of hours Dad's host said to him, "Of course you'll be giving all this up when you have a family." Dad led him out to the car in the street where my mother, sister, and I were waiting.

Life magazine eulogized Dad with a photo-portrait of him squinting into the sun at the mountain that would claim his life. They headlined their story with a quote from one of his climbing partners: "I'd have thought the Eiger would break before John did." The Eiger didn't break, but many lives did, to one degree or another. Dad's parents lost their only child, a heartbreak beyond measure. My mother would have to raise her two young children on her own while reconstructing her life. His children would grow up with a void where there should have been a buttress. He lived his ultimate adventure, leaving others to pick up the pieces.

The only rest Scott and I take today is in the South Fork Toutle River valley. We'd been told the trail should take three days for the fit, which we aren't, but it is noon and we have only 12 miles to go. We'll make it home tonight.

We've just finished hiking the 9-mile-wide blast zone, where the earth seemingly turned itself inside out. At its edge we walked past tree trunks laid out like parallel toothpicks pointing away from the mountain. The valley wall we've just switchbacked down is bare earth. The one we're about to climb up is lush with ancient forest. Above us on the mountain is the vestigial Toutle Glacier, which had been so thick that a small piece of it still clings to icy life despite Loowit's immolation.

Scott and I put our shoes back on and hike up onto the mountain's southern flank. Here the only disturbance by Loowit's eruption were shaking earth and a coating of ash. We expect to make fast time but instead find ourselves on funky snow. Sometimes we float on the crusty surface, but often we sink to ankles, knees, even hips between talus blocks. At times our pace slows to a crawl.

Soon we begin to see familiar sights. To the south, Mt. Hood lifts its spiky head, and I think eagerly of my home and family waiting in that mountain's shadow. Then we watch the bosom of Mt. Adams swell eastward. These are the same views we'd started with yesterday, and we can gauge our progress by watching the peaks migrate back into position. This morning we'd observed Mt. Rainier orbiting eastward until it vanished around St. Helens' flank. We can imagine ourselves walking in place as a scenic diorama cycles by.

It's dark by the time we descend to June Lake, and we welcome the wide thoroughfare leading the final mile to the car. We fairly race to the vehicle, then speed through dark woods toward the interstate. Finally we reach a roadside pay phone and I place my call.

"Adele!"

"It's so late I thought you hadn't been able to finish."

"No, no, it was great. So tell me, how's my girl? How's the most darling baby on the planet? I've been thinking about you two."