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Fire-breathing beauty

At Mt. St. Helens, you can ascend to the summit of the powder keg or keep your distance. Either way, you have a view to nature's power.

February 17, 2008|Hugo Martin | Times Staff Writer

COUGAR, WASH. — In the dark, foggy shroud of an early fall morning, headlamps cast eerie lights on the faces of a dozen or so hikers lingering at a trail head that leads to the summit of the most active volcano in the continental U.S.

The shadowy silhouettes of Douglas and Pacific silver firs border the circular trail head, known as Climbers' Bivouac. Towering overhead, somewhere in the darkness, lurks the angelically named peak that in 1980 unleashed America's worst volcanic disaster.

The glowing headlamps converge on a powerfully built forest ranger who will help guide the party to the 8,365-foot summit of Mt. St. Helens.

The dark obscures the hikers' faces, but from the assorted accents and conversations I know I've joined a diverse group -- men and women, retirees and high school students from British Columbia as well as New Hampshire -- each sharing a common fascination with this infamous stratovolcano. I see gray beards, a couple of forest-ranger uniforms and the white baseball cap of the youngest member of our party, a fidgeting kid who looks eager to get on with the climb.

The voices grow silent as the lead climbing ranger issues a warning. This will be a difficult, eight-hour round-trip hike along rough terrain, with an elevation gain of about 4,600 feet, he says.

"The biggest thing is: Don't jump off the rocks. Step off of them," he says. "We've had people who have done that, twisted their ankles and had some injuries. . . ."

I don't take the warning too seriously.

From the seat of a passing airliner 25,000 feet overhead, Mt. St. Helens resembles a lanced boil -- a dirt-gray crater protruding from forest-green hills to the south and a valley of boulders, rivers and mountain lakes to the north. The volcano lines up along the Cascades, a magnificent mountain range featuring the scattered peaks of Mts. Hood, Rainier and Adams.

This landscape was forever altered on a blue-sky spring day in 1980 when the mountain erupted after weeks of temblors and steam blasts. More than 700 miles away in Northern California, I watched in amazement the next day as bits of ash floated onto my father's pickup truck.

As I plucked the ashy specks, I felt a connection with the volcano victims. Like them, I was at the mercy of the Ring of Fire, a horseshoe-shaped band of volcanoes and shifting tectonic plates that borders the Pacific Ocean. Call it Mother Nature's mean streak.

Those shifting plates slipped in 1971, triggering the 6.7-magnitude Sylmar earthquake that jolted me and my family out of our home on Griffith Street in the city of San Fernando.

The smell of leaking gas and smoke filled the air as we scrambled to a nearby park where Salvation Army volunteers gave us blankets and hot chocolate while we rode out the aftershocks.

From Mt. St. Helens to Griffith Street and beyond, the volatile Ring of Fire looms over us all.


Dew-wet earth and layers of pine needles on the forest trail muffle the sound of our boots as we march toward the summit of that same volcano that rained down ash and destruction 27 years ago. In addition to the rangers, this climb is guided by experts from the U.S. Geological Survey, who will explain the science behind the volcano's prickly temperament.

Researchers have been watching the volcano since it came to life again in 2004, venting steam, pushing out a slow-growing lava dome and setting nerves on edge throughout the Pacific Northwest.

For two years, the summit was off-limits to hikers until geologists declared the danger of imminent eruption had passed. In 2006, the Forest Service reopened the mountain, setting a 100-permits-per-day limit. But the permits routinely sell out. The volcano was awake, and everyone wanted a closer look -- including me.

On the previous afternoon, during my hourlong drive from Portland (Ore.) International Airport to the nearby town of Cougar, my view of the volcano was blocked by dark green forests and lush foothills. Now, stomping up to the summit, I can't wait for the darkness to lift and the fog to part so I can see the peak that was once as symmetrical as Japan's Mt. Fuji but is now as craggy as a rotten cavity.

As the morning sun peeks through the trees, I'm reassured that the mountain won't lash out soon. One of our leaders, Larry Mastin, a bearded, scholarly looking volcano expert for the U.S. Geological Survey, says we are safe -- at least from the volcano.


We reach the timberline at 7:30 a.m. Now the hard work begins. Up ahead, we must navigate nearly 3 miles of jagged lava rocks, most the size of Mini Coopers.

The boulders are the result of a volcanic outburst more than 500 years ago. A massive lava flow coated the mountainside, cooled and then broke into big, sharp chunks. Specks of white and green from pearly everlasting and mountain heather color the otherwise lifeless terrain.

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