Monday, June 29, 2015

Mt. St. Helens Circumnavigation

View of the mountain and the Toutle River from a scree switchback

We completed the Loowit trail, 34 miles circumnavigating the volcanic lands and forests surrounding the squat, smoldering Mt St. Helens. It was amazing, but I cannot rightly recommend this route to others.


The June Lake trailhead

Not because it's not beautiful, mostly fun, diverse in ecosystems, and full of fascinating wildlife. It is all of those things. But it is also full of washouts and utterly terrifying descents, ascents, and traverses on huge dunes of kitty-litter-esque scree.

Starting on Loowit (from June Lake)

Granted, I have a particular fear of scree washouts after our Mt Hood circ attempt. But some of these washouts were incredibly precarious. Each foot placement had to be strategized and the few rocks to hold on to often came away in the sandy scree, sending an avalanche of gravel  and dust down the side of the slope, the sound of which reminds one what will happen if you should misstep.


First of many volcanic boulder fields

We started at June Lake trailhead, from which you run about 2 miles up to join Loowit trail. From there we had heard there would be lots of walking among boulder fields, and there was, but there were also runnable bits.



Susan running between boulders

It seemed to be quite well marked, with orange ribbons and flags. This lulled us into a sense of security, because we came to a washout and followed the flags down a ways before realizing we were on trail 214/244. After a bit of hunting, we found the correct trail, with no more orange flags.


Ann hopping rocks as the sun rises


It was still well marked, however, with wooden posts and cairns. When we felt unsure of where to go, we could stop, look around, and usually pick out the thread of the trail or some marker guiding the way.


Mt Adams in the distance

I started to run low on water, but we knew there'd be the Toutle River to cross around mile 15. That was also what we had read and anticipated as the most difficult part, due to the steep descent, washout and river crossing, and ascent afterwards.



Clear delineation of volcanic activity 

It turned out to be quite well-marked, the river crossing was fine, the water itself was cold and delicious, and there was a rope back up the other side. No problem! We were finished the hard part, and about halfway around the mountain.



Well-signed... in some places

We continued on, using our uphill slogs to eat, rather than stop for rest breaks. After the ascent, we had a little bit of nice running and amazing views of the mountains.


One of the first washouts

The rest of the route was lots of interspersed rocky/bouldery areas, some short runnable forested areas, and so many washouts with their dusty, scree-ful descents and climbs that we lost track.




The only injury

We definitely picked the best time of year to do this trail. The wildflowers were stunning; there miles where the trail meandered through vast fields of fragrant lupine, tall bear grass and vibrant Indian paintbrush. 


Mt. St. Helens lava flow

We also used the long daylight to our advantage; with a couple of route-finding mishaps and two water refills, the entire adventure took us about 12 1/2 hours. We started at 7:50am and finished around 8:20pm.



Ash and fissures

The main place we got confused with directions was Windy Ridge. At this point you are no longer on Loowit Trail, and have to pick one of two trails to connect back to Loowit. We saw two trail signs nearby that the trail we were on wasn't going past, and decided to go look just to check where we were. 

Dead tree forest

From there, the direction the signs seemed to point out was actually back the way we had just come, with the mountain on our left. Since we were headed clockwise, this was counter-intuitive.


A helicopter about to come in low and buzz us

Still, we pressed on, and when we came upon two hikers headed the other direction, we asked them where they were coming from. They mentioned trail signs not far ahead, so we pressed on and confirmed we were going the right way. We just had to wind around for a climb up a high pass.


Washouts, mountains, thin tree cover

The rocky ups and downs, and many washouts became too numerous to count. Until around mile 29 on my Strava when we hit the mother of all washouts. We ran up to the edge of the precipice and looked across, to size up the challenge. 


Uphill and nice track

What I saw was the very end of the trail through the washout, where we'd end up on the other side, higher up than where we now stood. The whole way down the canyon and back up, the trail was a thin ribbon zigging and zagging through the scree. 


Bear grass in bloom, framing the mountain

Except for the last short part, where I could see vertical lines that cut right through the trail-- evidence of rocks that had fallen straight through and eliminated parts of the path. That was the part that turned my brain off with one big "No."



The first mountain goat we saw, on a parallel ridge

I looked to the left, down the mountain. There was no visible path or way to tell how far we'd have to bushwhack to find a better way through (and still have to come back up the other way to find the trail). 

First view of the Toutle River washout

We only had about 5 miles to go (we thought). I was pretty sure I just couldn't do it, but Ann said "I'll go first!" and started down. She made it look possible. So I followed, very slowly and carefully, making sure to breathe when I felt panic rise in my stomach and my leg muscles clench past usefulness.

Toutle River canyon

I placed my feet one at a time, in the small spots already marked with footprints, leaning in towards the slope and staying low. With shaky legs and dusty hands, I made it to the bottom. We crossed the rocky bottom of the washout near the top, and I noted that the steep slopes of screen, maybe 150-200ft high, ended in rocky cliffs at the bottom. I didn't look long enough to see how far down the very bottom was. I didn't want to know.


Susan coming down the east side of Toutle washout

Then it was time for climbing out. The thin thread of trail up the steep scree hillside started out decent enough, but soon began to narrow. I watched Ann carefully pick her way up the trail, strong and sure. I never once looked down or up, only forward.

Susan climbing up the west side of Toutle washout

Finally the trail dropped away to just disconnected foot placements, each just smaller than my shoe and marked with the footprints of those who had gone before me-- like stepping stones (but less solid) set into a steep, sandy wall-- and as I concentrated on getting every step just right, I repeated to myself the mantra "Ann made it, so can I."  A little voice in my head said "That's not why happened on Mt Hood" and I consciously shut that voice the hell up. 


Ann about to cross the Toutle

I could see the end. I was just about five steps away. There was even now some vegetation, grass growing at the top edge of the hill, to grab onto. That's when a rock displaced by my foot dropped down and began a long, noisy descent, allowing both of us to vividly imagine what would befall me should I not manage the few final steps.

Selfie in the Toutle basin

I paused and listened. I thought of nothing. I looked at the next step and placed my foot exactly. I made it up the last one and over the edge. Ann was standing there, surveying the washout, nonchalant. I bent over, amazed to be on solid ground, and had to take a few minutes to gather myself. 

The biggest single ascent, after Toutle

But I knew the worst was over. We only had a few miles to the June Lake trailhead, and having survived this with nary a scratch, I felt like I could just fly over any further obstacles ahead.

Those few miles seemed to go on forever. We had read on a blog post from 2012 that the final 8-9 miles were runnable. That joke kept us going for ages as we shuffled along, hopping rocks and climbing up and down small ridges. The rest of the trail was what I called "shuffle-able." You couldn't exactly run it, but there was a defined, sandy line of trail skirting the side of rocky outcroppings, still undulating above the starkly delineated forest line.



All the dead trees point in one direction, away from the mountain

At one point we came up to something odd on the trail-- a meaty mass of what must've been internal organs. Not far away was a small animal lying in the middle of the trail. I figured it was a fox based on its big ears and short fur. But as we got closer we realized it was the front part of a deer-- just its head and front legs. 

Bear grass and broken trees

We had to hop over it on the narrow, rocky trail, disturbing a cloud of flies and firing up my imagination with thoughts of mountain lions. The strangest part is that there was no blood. It was pretty fresh, because the eyes weren't cloudy, the tongue was sticking out, and there weren't many bugs yet, but it wasn't a big mess at all. How would that happen?

That thin ribbon in the scree is the trail

The rest of the run was largely uneventful. It was beautiful, but the stunning vistas were mostly lost to our tired minds. Crossing along yet another rocky peak, I saw the trail finally head down into the forest. I yipped aloud, because I was so ready!

More of the runnable trail

We were able to run this part, at least as much as our exhausted legs allowed. Down through the forest, the shaded dirt trail felt so good. After another eternity we hit the June Lake trail and headed the final two miles down (with a quick stop to actually see the lake and its waterfall) to the trailhead, where ours was the only car. We popped open our celebratory can of sangria, changed clothes and shoes, and settled into the car for the hour-and-a-half drive home.


Map of the park
We had a great day and a fantastic adventure, coming away with just one scratch (on Ann's arm from an early slip on scree) and a bit of sunburn. We discussed our mountain circumnavigations (Hood, Three Sisters, and St Helens) and agreed that this one was the hardest overall. One that we probably will not do again because despite the beauty and ideal conditions, much wasn't runnable and the series of washouts during the final 10 miles were frustrating and at times dangerous.

Scree ascent panorama

Wildflower field panorama

Undulating mini-ridges

Looking past the lupine fields into the blast zone

So. Many. Washouts.


Loowit Falls in the distance

Through alpine wildflower meadows

Pink lupine among the usual purple

Loowit Trail  past Spirit Lake

Spirit Lake

Mountain, trail, Indian paintbrush wildflower field

Windy Ridge

Feels like we're circling Loowit Falls

Didn't think we'd have another ascent; this one's steep and rocky

Ann coming up the final high pass

Ann pointing out something. Can't remember what.

The front quarter of a deer, pretty fresh, no blood

We made it around!

June Lake and Chocolate Falls

I had been dreaming of this sangria for hours