The Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument is one of my favorite areas to explore. Wandering through the blast zone almost forty years since the north face collapsed and the volcano erupted the themes of devastation and rebirth abound. The area hosts a unique view at the wildness left in the world. A chance to ascend to the rim of the crater, over 1300 feet lower in elevation than before the 1980 eruption is a chance to look into the innards of a active volcano and feel the vastness of the displacement from what once was. You are confronted with the lava dome below, steam rising up from the growing mountain cradled in the crater, and just as you can imagine the mountain as it once was, you can forecast what it will be again as it slowly fills the crater, and eventually rises to new heights above where you stand.
Permits are required to be bought online from April 1 through October 31 with quotas, but the rest of the the year are self issue at the trail head. The period of supreme weather this early November and a clear day with winds below 20 mph in the forecast prompted me to Climbers Bivouac at 4:45 AM.
I really enjoy starting the hike in dark, and find the sections of climbing up and among the ruins of boulders intensely meditative when the world is closed in around by the darkness except for endless stars above. The wooden poles that mark the way, sticking out like sentries perched on contorted pedestals of lava rock are visible and reflect just on the edge of your headlamp, way-points to guide you step by step.
Scaling the boulders and rocky expanse on the way up as the sun slowly rises and the peaks of the Cascade Volcanoes come into view is an elemental experience. Fine particulates of ash are taken by gusts into your face as you tread up the rocky slopes along snow filled gullies of the volcano.
Eventually after breaching seemingly high point after high rocky point you come to the last, and the vast expanse of ash and gravel opens up before you. It’s a steep slog through ground that presses away underneath till you finally step up to the rim and the vast crater opens up below. Spirit Lake lies ahead in the blast zone, its surface still covered with rafts of the massive silvered logs of the forests that once covered the slopes and shores. The surface of the lake is over 200 feet higher than before the eruption.
Steam rises from the new lava dome in the crater, evidence of the life and activity of the volcano.
It’s a about 4 miles and 4400 feet from Climbers Bivouac to the Crater Rim.