As a group, we lift the kid to his feet and help him walk, one person under each arm. I grab his backpack and throw it over my shoulders. After hiking about 100 feet, he collapses again. The rangers massage his legs, but the kid crumples a few yards away. At this rate, I think, we won't get him over the three-mile-wide boulder field before nightfall.
But our luck turns. The menacing storm clouds that pursued us open a view of the lush green hills of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, the sparkling deep blue Yale Reservoir and Lake Merwin. The exhausted kid regains some of his strength. He begins to walk under his own power. The group plods over the boulders and by 4:30 p.m. we reach the timberline and begin the shady path through the forest.
As darkness descends, we straggle out of the forest and onto the trail head. Our trek is over. Once strangers with a common fascination, we ignored our fear of the volcano and freezing haunches to aid someone in need. It's happened before -- with my family during the Sylmar quake and with Johnston at the observation post. It's what we do, but it's good to see anyway.
In the dark at the trail head, where we started about 12 hours earlier, we wish one another well and slip into our cars. Doors slam. Engines roar to life. Wheels roll over gravel, and the craggy volcano disappears in our rearview mirrors.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
Planning this trip
THE BEST WAY
From LAX, nonstop service to Portland (Ore.) International Airport is available on United and Alaska; direct service (stop, no change of plane) is available on Southwest; and connecting service (change of planes) is offered on United and Southwest. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $238.
From the Portland airport, take Interstate 205 north for about 12 miles to Interstate 5 and continue north 13 miles. Take Washington Highway 503 east about 35 miles, past the town of Cougar, to U.S. Forest Service Road 83. Keep left and look for signs to the Climbers' Bivouac.
GETTING A PERMIT
Climbing permits (between Nov. 1 and March 31) are available at the Lone Fir Resort (see below) in Cougar, Wash. Between April 1 and May 14, there is no limit to the permits, but a $22 fee is charged. During hiking season, May 15 to Oct. 31, there is a limit of 100 permits and a fee of $22 each. All permits are sold online in advance at www.msh institute.org. Take your online confirmation to the Lone Fir Resort to pick up your permit.
The nonprofit Mt. St. Helens Institute offers several guided hikes, known as field seminars. The $150-a-person fee includes the cost of a permit and the guided climb. For details, go to www.mshinstitute.org.
WHERE TO STAY
Lone Fir Resort, 16806 Lewis River Road, Cougar; (360) 238-5210, www .lonefirresort.com. Doubles from $55.
Monfort's Bed and Breakfast, 132 Cougar Loop Road, Cougar; (360) 238-5229. Doubles from $60.
WHERE TO EAT
The Deck (part of Lone Fir Resort, above). Comfort food, especially broasted chicken, pizzas, burgers and sandwiches. Entrees $7 to $13.
The Cougar Bar & Grill, 16849 Lewis River Road, Cougar; (360) 238-5252, Entrees $8 to $17.
TO LEARN MORE
Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument Headquarters, 42218 N.E. Yale Bridge Road, Amboy, WA 98601; (360) 449-7800, www.fs.fed.us/gpnf /mshnvm/index.shtml.
For more volcanic photos and to see video from the climb, go to latimes.com/mtsthelens.