Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Loowit Trail around Mt. St. Helens

Mt. St. Helens was the first of our training hikes for the PCT. Two weeks after returning from the Timberline Trail, The Barracuda and I hit the road for Mt. St. Helens. With school about to start and dogs not allowed on over 10 miles of the trail, Jules stayed home with the puppies and planned curriculum.

The Loowit Trail is unique for a couple of reasons. The first one, and most obvious, is that it surrounds an active volcano. So active, in fact, that steam vents from the crater even as I write this. It is estimated that within the next 100 years the lava dome will have completely rebuilt itself.

The second reason is the restricted area. Ten point eight of the 29 mile hike is referred to as "The Breach." It is the section which blew out in 1980 and is still being studied. Absolutely no camping is allowed. No dogs, No picnicking, no restroom use. Yep, that's right, you aren't even supposed to stop and pee. it is one straight shot of solid movement. Believe it or not, it is heavily enforced with a minimum fine of $100. The area is being studied so heavily by scientists that not only were helicopters flying over, but we ran into three scientists. That is 3 more than the other 30 miles of the Loowit (counting the out and back to get to the trail) and the 50 miles of Mt. Hood combined! They are trying desperately to keep the area as "freely natural" as possible. Apparently urine doesn't count as natural.

The third, and potentially lease unique aspect of the trail is the water conservation. Due to having blown up, there is very little water on the mountain. Keep in mind that we were traveling during the late summer, and thus the driest part of the year, but even during the wetter months the water level isn't as high as it would be other places. The ash and pumice which blew out don't hold moisture, so it all runs off quite quickly. Though water could be found every 8 to 10 miles on the south (reasonably intact) side the north side was much more sparse. Only one small trickle of murky, ashen water existed. Since most all of the trail is above treeline, it means 100 percent exposure and no water sources. All that adds up to a lot of water carrying and conservation. All in all it made for both a great training hike and a pretty amazing learning opportunity.

There are many entry points to enter the Loowit, but no roads actually cross the trail. We chose to enter at Windy Pass and walk from the edge of The Breach (the blast zone) though the intact South Side and back around through the desolate, northern volcanic expanse. In my mind, this would give The Barracuda upclose contact with full magnitude of the volcanoes power. Somehow I thought he might miss the impact. Sometimes, I'm a duphus. If The Barracuda somehow missed the magnitude, I'd have to check him for a pulse. There is no way to not stand in complete, humbled speechlessness as you look to your left and see Old Growth trees and then turn to look to your right and see what looks like a desert. Then you add in that it has been over 30 years and you are just leveled in your tracks. It was pretty cool.

Day 1: Windy Pass to East Dome/Shoestring Glacier - 10 miles

The Plains of Abraham dump ash into your feet, climb relentlessly in a few places, and leave you feeling as small as an ant. They were INCREDIBLE!

The 5 mile hike in is first on an access road and then cairn hopping through what appear to be sand dunes from a distance. Only when you get closer do you realize that they ware really giant mounds of gravel-sized pumice. Pumice was quickly added to The Barracuda's list of "Things I Dislike Hiking On."

Once on the Loowit you head through the Plains of Abraham. These cliff faces and long stark landscapes of devastation were incredibly exiting for the science geek in me. Out here almost nothing can grow. Even after 30 years there isn't enough soil and water to support life. A few seeds have been brought in on the mountain bikes that frequent the area, but mainly it is a lot of tan and grey. The cliff faces that weren't shattered were blasted by sand, pumice, and hot gas to create scenes so different from the normal water/erosion look. They are slab rocks where any crags have been polished smooth.

Up until this point I's never really thought about how much trails aren't graded for small legs. My leg span is small (only 28 inches), but The Barracuda is so much tinier yet. Multiple times his rock climbing experience came into play as he slab climbed sections of extreme exposure. Trail maintenance crews were doing their best, but with erosion and not much to work with they had their hands full. What was a long leg stretch and balancing act for me, became total free soloing for The Barracuda.

We filtered and filled up water at what would prove to be our only river crossing which wasn't dry, and continued on through multiple gullies and ridgelines. As evening approached, vegetation began to come back. First Lupin, then Indian Paintbrush, and finally hill after hill of wild huckleberries. We camped in a flat-ish, open meadow and ate huckleberries till our hands were stained. they were huge and lush and couldn't be passed up.

That night the open exposure and katabatic winds beat on the tent mercilessly. The rocks piled over and around the stakes kept the guylines up, but it was the first time I can ever remember being scared of a wind storm.

Day 2: Huckleberry Hill to Sheep Canyon - 10 miles

Many of the hillsides were covered in the purple lupin flowers and dotted with red Indian Paintbrush. Though chilly and foggy, when the sun came out to shine down on them the area smelled divine.

The plan was to do a 10 mile day and two 15's. Due to some extraneous circumstances that didn't exactly happen. What did happen was a most incredible sunrise, a frigid morning, and quite an enjoyable afternoon of boulder hopping.

There literally was no trail. Cairns were held in place by boulders for mile after mile all along the rubble which and been blown out of the mountain. Every so often a bit of moss, but mainly a stark moonscape of jagged pumice. By late afternoon we were back to ridgelines and even steeper gullies. The fog burned off, the sun came down full blast, and we could see for miles. Rainer could be picked out, Adams, Hood, and faintly the Three Sisters were all visible as well. As we began to circle around the mountain the views of each would come and go, but they were all a welcome sight as we are getting so familiar with them now.

When we went to bed at the edge of Sheep Canyon a sinking feeling was building in my stomach. The actual Loowit Trail is only 29 miles, but with the added 5 miles in and out that made 40. With only 20 miles covered and the restricted area ahead of us, we had a 20 mile day we would be forced to cover. There wasn't any way out of it. The Barracuda had only done 15 mile days at that point, and with only the two of us his pack weighed 10 lbs. I honestly didn't know if he could do it. Before the trip, Jules and I had discussed points of entry and one would have required a 17 mile day. Both of us felt that was asking far too much and dooming The Barracuda to fail. Here we were faced with a 20....

Day 3: Sheep Canyon through The Breach - 20 Miles

This was the most well marked trail I have ever hiked. You were never worried you had missed something. Every where you looked were cairns. They were coming out of the pumice, out of the boulders, flagged in the gullies, everywhere.

We were up early and moving by 7 am. The Barracuda had been briefed on our status and though you could tell he was a bit scared, his stoic nature quickly took over. As long as we kept moving it would be fine. It was decided that it didn't matter how much he slowed down on the uphills of the gullies, as long as he moved as fast as he safely could on the downhills and straight-aways. One foot in front of the other.

Miles were flying for the first part of the day. We had to hike downward (our only sustained downward of the entire hike) about 2 miles to get to the Touttle River. We had heard from other hikers that this might be a doozy of a climb up the riverbank on the otherside. Manned with parachord to rope The Barracuda up I felt confident. That was, until we began to get close to the river. The Toutle River produced the largest debris landslide in recorded history when the mountain erupted. The entire riverbed is gouged out from the mud and debris flow which tore down the mountain. The view was intense. Luckily, we had just finished hiking Elliot Glacier on the Timberline. The Barracuda was highly confident.

It is time to confess that I hate getting my feet wet. I really dislike hiking in squishing shoes. More than a couple times I have completely taken my shoes and socks off, rolled up my tights, and then crossed the river. I will walk up and down a bit to see where the best place is as well. Once we found where we thought we could cross, I hopped over and then stretched dramatically to help The Barracuda. I then promptly dropped him and myself into the water. No one was hurt and it is now joked about, but it has gotten me over wet feet. They are much better than completely wet self.

I filtered our last water of the day while our clothes dried and we ate a snack. Twenty minutes late we were climbing hand over hand up the vertical slope of the Toutle Riverbank. Again, The Barracuda's previous climbing history shone through and we passed the sketchiest section. The only thing holding us back now, were the miles.

The Breach is basically an open desert-like space with a few tufts of grassy stuff here and there. The trail was constant cairn hopping, exposed dune walking, and dry gully after gully of run-off. There wasn't a better place to have tried to pull The Barracuda's first 20. Due to how well the trail has to be marked (since you are in complete desolation) the concept of millions of small goals is right in plain view. All you have to do is get to the next cairn. If you think about it as 20 miles, you are shot. The overwhelming nature of the task was too much for him. However, he could walk 1/4 mile, he could walk up switch-backed hill, and then he could find the next place to go from there.

The morning was foggy and frigid, by the end of the day the sun was in full strength and layers were shed. We couldn't down water like crazy, since there wasn't going to be any more, but we could talk as we hiked. The talking is the best park of hiking with The Barracuda. We will invent games, discuss how we feel about things, he will let me in on little insights he has been pondering. More often than not, I am completely impressed by the depth of his thoughts or the complexity of his vocabulary and knowledge. Our talking during the school day is different. With so many other things to focus on, we don't get to have completely uninterrupted conversation for large stretches of time. Moreover, when we hike with Jules, The Barracuda doesn't communicate in the same way. It is a special personal time for us that is quite wonderful.

And so we walked, and we walked, and we walked. A peripheral male elk wandered by quite frenzied looking for water. We passed the Johnson Observatory way up on the hill. We watched as Spirit Lake got bigger and bigger in front of us. With us both having hydration bladders, there was no reason to stop, so we just kept on moving. With there being nothing distinguishing about one place to the next, the map wasn't helpful so it stayed put away. About 2 o'clock we came across the most bizarre half mile of red, volcanic, pumice rock. It appeared completely in the middle of nowhere, and we later found out, ended just as abruptly. The Floating Island Lava Flow. For the first time we could see where we were and find ourselves on the map. Out came the map, out came The Barracuda's finger to find us, out came my fingers to measure how many miles we had left to hike. Low and behold, we were only 6 miles from the end. Six miles! We could do 6 miles; it was only 2 o'clock. With spirits lifted we hiked on.

Soon we began to see day-hikers and weekend-warriors decked out in their cotton and clean gaiters. We were far from clean at that point. The dust of The Breach had covered us and filled our shoes. We had awkward tan lines from the last couple days of sun. We merely nodded at most of their horrified looks and kept moving. We are hiker trash and we know it. At 5:13 we rounded the edge of the Loowit Trail. The sign caused jumps of glee from The Barracuda. The last few miles had been all uphill and he was getting tired at that point.

The last five miles of access road hiking just, plain sucked. To make matters worse, three science trucks drove right past us and didn't offer rides. We'd step out of the way and the truck would charge past, waving no less. Every bend in the road seemed like it just had to be the last one. By the last three miles it was getting dark and windy. They mean it when they call it Windy Pass. Sometimes you had to lean in quite dramatically to keep from being knocked over. We were getting cold in the shade and our feet were down right hurting. Up until then our pace had been quite good. Now, not so much. Just after 7 pm we hobbled into the Windy Pass parking lot. We made it! Dirty, sore, and stinky, the tourists sort of parted and stared as we moved to our car. The Barracuda made a celebratory call to his father and both our shoes and socks can off right away. We drove home excited with not only another item off of his Life List, but a major milestone packed away.

And so it was that The Barracuda pulled his first 20 - with water conservation, a 10 pound pack, and no lunch or dinner for the day. It took us just over 12 hours, but he did it. Sitting in his booster seat, munching a Pop Tart and a hunk of cheese, The Barracuda spoke up as we pulled away, "See Mom, I can do the PCT. I know I can do it. You shouldn't discount me because I'm small. It is just a million tiny goals."

Well said, Little Man, well said.

2 thoughts:

Mr. H. said...

Tell The Barracuda "Good Job", what an awesome young man you two have raised...a young "man" at such a young age, but he is and has earned that title. Beautiful pictures.

Jennifer said...

Wow. He is incredible! Thanks for sharing your adventures - your descriptions are fascinating!

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