Battle Ground, Washington

Erin and I headed up late last night for a stay at the marvelous five-star Hotel Kann in Battle Ground. Today, well, today Joe, Carol, and I climbed a mountain. (Erin wisely opted to hang out at Joe and Carol’s, grade papers, sleep, and visit our friend Jen in Vancouver.)

The climb started with a 4 AM wake-up. That’s pretty darn early in my book, but in hindsight it was a move which kept us from having to climb during the hottest part of the day and which allowed us to hike without bumping into a lot of other folks. The climb itself comes roughly in three sections: a two and a quarter mile forest trail, a two miles of rocks and boulders, and approximately three-quarters mile “rugged, off-trail scramble” through blowing loose pumice, ash, and scree. Mount St. Helens elevation is 8,365 feet, though the climb from the trail head is “only” 4,500 feet.

We pulled into Climbers Bivouac at 6 AM. Navigating by the light of a full moon and layered in clothes to protect us from the pre-dawn chill, we hit Ptarmigan Trail #216A at about 6:15. The relatively easy two and a quarter mile opener through the forest grew even more so as the dawn began to break and as our physical exertion raised the body temperature.

In the more difficult Monitor Ridge climb that followed we ascended 2,200 feet over rocks, boulders, and blocky lava flows. The general trail was marked by long poles, a guide without which it would be hard to know what direction to head other than “up.” I love climbing rocks and boulders, and I enjoyed this part immensely.

We stopped several times during the climb to eat food, drink water, and make clothing changes. I believe it was on the last of these stops prior to the final section that we encountered a very friendly little chipmunk begging for food. Joe, who’s had food swiped by animals in the past, wasn’t inclined to give the little beasty anything, but Carol talked him into giving up an almond, and all parties seemed satisfied by the compromise. Good thing. I would’ve hated for that to turn ugly. Hehe.

The final part of the ascent was a lengthy and exhausting trudge through sand, ash, and loose pumice. The wind whipped through the area, stinging exposed skin and making it occasionally difficult to see. Even with glasses or sunglasses (don’t even think about wearing contacts), it was easy to get a little grit in the eye. This wind-sand combo was also waiting for us at the summit, except there it blew up from the inside of the crater. I remember thinking that there sure was a lot of wind for a place without much oxygen.

The summit itself is a roughly 10 foot wide ledge that runs along the rim of the crater. On the other side is a somewhat sheer 2,000 foot drop, so going right to the edge isn’t recommended. The view of the crater, the lava dome, what’s left of Spirit Lake, the surrounding mountains and wilderness—it’s all simply fantastic. From the top you can see the destruction caused by the May 1980 eruption since most of the force of the blast blew out the other direction. It is an amazing sight.

It took us five hours to reach the top of the mountain, and we had initially calculated a relatively quick return. It can’t be nearly as time-consuming coming down a mountain as going up, right? Initially, that seemed an accurate assumption. As hard as it was to hike up the sandy section of the mountain, it was a simple descent. What took an hour to climb was maybe five minutes walking down. The rock and boulder area, however, was a monster. If anything, it might be have been slower in descent because, well, hey we just climbed a mountain. We were a little tired. The knees in particular took a beating as we gradually dropped in altitude, and by the time we’d returned to the forest trail, there wasn’t a person among us who didn’t have aches and pains aplenty. So our round trip time (including a 30 minute lunch break) was nine hours. In other words, five hours up, and four hours down—not bad if you ask me.

Despite the physical pain involved, there’s something transcendent about facing a challenge like this with friends. I wouldn’t say that success or failure were unimportant since I would’ve been disappointed had we not reached the summit, but it was a secondary concern. Spending a Saturday afternoon—in this case the last weekend of summer since Autumn officially starts on Monday—on top of a mountain with Joe and Carol, well, a lifetime should be made of memories such as these.

After returning to Battle Ground, we caught up with Erin and headed out to Papa Pete’s Pizza for dinner. Yummy stuff, that Papa Pete’s, and a very nice family-friendly atmosphere too. (Though what’s up with the cafeteria-style fluorescent lighting? That was weird.) We returned to Joe and Carol’s house just in time for Erin to catch the last part of Big Brother 3, a dopey reality TV series on which she’s been hooked for a month or two. The only reality TV I’ve been able to stomach is the Amazing Race. Anyway, we watched Jason get the boot from the house, leaving only the pretty and naive Lisa to battle the scheming and manipulative Danielle in the finale. I turned in for the night, aching and happy from the events of the day.