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The hike that quickly turned into a climb


Checking climbed a mountain off my bucket list and ready for more

The organizer of the trip, utilizing the hazy memories of somebody who had already survived the challenge once, downplayed the difficulty of our quest. Some website postings characterized it as “just a long walk.” Friends who had made the trek before said I had nothing to worry about, terming it “just a hike.”

Ascending Mount St. Helens is not a hike, it is a climb and a tough one at that.

On Sept. 7, I joined six other trekkers (four from Newberg) with the single vision of topping one of the Cascade Range’s most famous peaks. We weren’t alone, of course, as 93 other holders of the daily climbing permits made their way up the mountain as well.

{img:20583}I had prepared for this jaunt, and deer hunting later this month, by spending a lot of time at the gym and on training hikes of varying distances and degree of difficulty. I was on a first-name basis with the Stairmaster at my gym, donned a 60-pound backpack and climbed the hills and stairs of Hess Creek Canyon on the campus of George Fox and got to know the long trek up Kings Grade Road so well I recognized things in the road I had seen the time before.

But, really, you can only prepare yourself so much for the unknown and what I pictured as just a steep, long hike up a mountain turned into something entirely different.

Of course Dave, who organized the trip and was the lone individual to have summited before, probably downplayed the difficulty of the mission so as not to scare us off.

He characterized the journey something like this: “Well, you hike up a couple of miles on a good trail until you reach the treeline, then you make your way through some boulder fields until you hit the final pitch, which is loose pumice all the way to the top.”

Yeah, right.

When he mentioned boulder fields I pictured us winding our way through the boulders on some kind of trail. Imagine my surprise when, literally a few yards after reaching the treeline, we began climbing hand over hand up a ridgeline covered with pumice boulders, some the size of Volkswagens, for approximately the next two miles. Sturdy gloves and no small amount of determination were mandatory to making it through the boulder fields. The effort also required some navigation skills as the “trail” was marked only by pickets, tall wooden polls sunken into the boulders every 75 to 100 yards. They worked great until the clouds came in and we could only see 50 yards, then we reverted to just pointing our noses up hill and hoping for the best.

And that, at least for me, was how I coped with the journey: Keep your head down, put one foot in front of the other and just climb. Reach the top or die trying, I kept telling myself.

Peggy, an experienced hiker and backpacker who has trekked all over the West, summed up the experience well as we reached the end of the boulder fields and prepared to ascend the steep, graveled ridge to the summit: “This is harder than labor!”

Due to torrential rains for the prior few days, the pumice slopes were a little more forgiving then they normally would be. Which means when you took two steps, you only slid back a half step instead of a whole step. There was the added advantage of seeing people enjoying themselves on the top of the 8,300-foot peak, basking in the sun and the knowledge that they had accomplished something not everyone can do.

The seven of us reached the top after six hours of climbing. Cresting the ridge, addled by exhaustion and scant oxygen, I had forgotten that this mountain had, 33 years ago, been visited by the kind of force only Mother Nature can exert.

We stood on the rim looking down into a caldera, a place where millions of tons of rock had been blown far to the north by a cataclysmic eruption. It is an awesome sight and one I won’t soon forget.

We had strangers take the obligatory photos of us standing there on the summit, wolfed down some food and water and then began the arduous trek down the mountain. You know a climb is tough when you’re out of breath and sweating on the way down the hill, but it was good until we returned to the boulder fields. There we were faced with descending steep rock faces, armed only with trekking poles, stout boots and a determination to not snap an ankle.

Nobody suffered that calamity, but it was a collection of sore and tired souls that reached the trailhead just before dark. Eleven hours, 10.2 miles and 4,500 feet of elevation gain (and loss) — that’s what we had accomplished.

There was champagne at the bottom, a lot of hugs and handshakes and some broad smiles as we stood in the parking lot at the trailhead and savored our victory.

All except Dave said they would never make the climb again, but then I was on the Internet the other day and I read a story in one of our sister papers about two brothers that summited South Sister. The mountain in central Oregon is 2,000 feet higher than St. Helens, but it has a well-worn trail to the top.

I wonder if there’s six other people, with at least one Cascade Range mountain under their belt, that might like to join me.