Slogging through the snow on the way to the top of Mount St. Helens, we passed a dog and a yodeler with a long beard who were swapping exclamations. At the summit, near the corniced edge of a 2,000-foot drop to the smoldering lava dome inside the crater, a woman in a red chiffon dress and a pillbox hat was performing a cancan with two friends. So much for mountain solitude.
Seven years after the pyroclastic eruption of Mount St. Helens—a blast that blew away the top 1,300 feet of the mountain, killed 57 people and caused more than a billion dollars in property damage—this once-perfect peak is again open to climbers. And it's drawing quite a crowd. Now granted national monument status and run by the U.S. Forest Service, Mount St. Helens can be legally scaled only from the south and only by permit. On a climb-and-ski trip, we found the people who sought the permits to be as entertaining as the hot-earth show inside the crater. Maybe the combination of risk and challenge, the chance to be so close to the center of something that had been so violent, attracts the flamboyant fringes of the outdoor crowd.
I'd last seen Mount St. Helens up close shortly after it erupted on May 18, 1980, and my first glimpse on this climb surprised me. As I approached the volcano on logging roads that ran from just outside the small village of Cougar, the mountain looked unfinished, a half-completed thought of nature. The massive base, from timberline down, retains a hint of the graceful symmetry that earned the original 9,677-foot mountain the nickname America's Fujiyama. But now, with its sawed-off summit and long fingers of snow, the 8,365-foot present mountain resembles a smaller version of Mt. Kilimanjaro, which I'd climbed a few years earlier.
On this warm day, with winds blowing from the south, elk prancing around old stumps and new saplings, the sun dancing off the glaciers of 11,235-foot Mt. Hood to the southeast and 12,307-foot Mt. Adams to the northeast, Mount St. Helens seemed at peace with its neighbors and the world. I remembered another late spring day, just after the mountain blew, when I was flying in the glass bubble of an Army helicopter, looking for survivors of a blast so powerful that it flattened 150 square miles of forest. On that day we flew low over the overwhelmed Toutle River, where mud-flows had washed away most of a logging camp. The air was so thick with ash that visibility was limited to about 50 feet. We found nothing. Most of the victims, including Harry Truman, the 84-year-old owner of Spirit Lake Lodge, which had been at 3,206 feet, apparently died within microseconds of being overtaken by superheated gas and rock moving at 200 miles per hour.
The destruction was most severe on the mountain's north side, where Spirit Lake is located. The south side survived relatively unscathed. Since the blast, Mount St. Helens has drawn numerous "outlaw" climbers seeking a look inside America's best-known volcano. With increasing frequency, go-for-broke skiers and daredevils have played cat and mouse with the authorities, sneaking up the mountain under the cover of darkness and then dashing down just after sunrise.
Faced with the growing number of such intruders, the Forest Service decided it might gain some measure of control by opening the mountain to permit climbing, which it did this past May. In the first two weekends more than 1,000 climbers scrambled up the peak. Since then, the rangers have limited the climb to 100 people per day, all but 30 by reservation.
Anyone in decent physical shape can ascend and return to base in a single day (although most of the upper 4,000 feet are snow-covered, Mount St. Helens has no remaining glaciers). Thus the volcano attracts a wide range of adventurers, from beer-hall braggarts to serious summiteers. During the two-mile approach hike through the forest, we met a number of people who said they had never scaled a mountain but felt inexplicably drawn to the peak that the Indians call Tah-one-lat-clah (Fire Mountain).
As for volcanic dangers, geologists warn that Mount St. Helens remains unpredictable. They point to eruptions in 1982 and in '86 that threw boulders weighing as much as 100 pounds over the south rim, right where climbers gather to stare into the crater. However, they say chances of an eruption similar to the 1980 blast are remote.
Up to the timberline (about 5,000 feet), wildflowers and dwarfed fir thrive in the muddy ash soil. As we approached the snowy upper slopes, bits of pumice, light as air and resembling freeze-dried sponges, crumbled beneath our boots. Crunch, crunch; then the snow. Up ahead, we could see a steady trail of climbers snaking to the top. The parties we met on the way up were friendly, even festive. They evinced none of the grim, plodding sense of purpose I'd encountered on much tougher climbs of other Northwestern volcanoes. All the climbers felt they were going to make it—and on this day, they all did.
At the top, 14,410-foot Mt. Rainier dominated the view to the north. In contrast to the freshly scarred terrain of St. Helens, Rainier is an example of volcanic middle age, relatively unchanged for the past few centuries. I'd flown over Mount St. Helens several times in airliners, but the view from such a remote altitude gives no sense of the power of a landscape re-forming itself every day.
With gingerly half steps, we edged to the summit rim, an extremely fragile cornice of wind-shaped snow. Below, in a crater more than two miles wide and 2,200 feet deep, was a chunk of mother earth that looked as if it belonged to another geologic age. The crater was dominated by its 920-foot-high lava dome, created by the pressures of the magma still churning and pushing upward inside the volcano. The unevenly cooling but continually growing dome should eventually fill the crater and, say scientists at the U.S. Geological Survey, rebuild St. Helens's peak. The rebuilding could be completed over the course of a century, an eye blink in geologic time.
Looking down the north slope, beyond the dome, Spirit Lake appears alive but not well. Once it was surrounded by ferns and thick trees, a jewel for fishermen and picnickers. Now, however, the shores around the lake are barren, littered with brown blowdown—the skeletal remains of that lush forest. After flying over this area in 1980, President Carter said it "makes the moon look like a golf course."
Still, today St. Helens is a place of hope. The blast destroyed one billion board feet of timber on about 36,000 acres of land, but since then 18 million trees have been planted. Elk and grasshoppers compete for new alder and lupine. Hawks fly overhead. Algae and pollywogs have shown up in some ponds.
On this day, the most visible signs of life were on the summit, where I found the cancan dancers, the yodeler, skiers and a pair of wine drinkers. It was a party atmosphere in the heart of an area that once was officially called the Red Zone, a geologic no-man's-(or beast's-, or plant's-) land. The yodeler's dog snooped perilously close to the cornice, while his 74-year-old master told stories of the beautiful peak that now exists only in memories and in photographs taken before May 18, 1980.
On the descent we glided over snow that still had a light covering of ash. The ash kept the snow from softening. We took easy turns in the broad bowls, savoring each moment of this slide down the front of a maimed geological beast, which, for the time being, has gone back to sleep.
Timothy Egan wrote "Seattle" (Graphic Arts Center Publishing Co.) about his native city.