Leaving the Gospodor Monuments behind, our little car trundled south on I-5 and in no time at all, we had reached Castle Rock and took the turnoff for Mount St Helens. There are three sides of the volcano to explore – we were starting with the west side and heading to the south side the following day. It was too early in the season to explore the east side which was still snowed under. Five miles along the road we stopped to check out Seaquest State Park camp site where we planned to stay the night. It was a lovely little site surrounded by dense coniferous forest and there seemed to be plenty of spots open so we made the decision to explore first and set up camp at the end of the day. Right across the road from the camp site is a visitor centre for Mount St Helens, so we popped in for a quick look at the exhibits. There’s a boardwalk trail around Silver Lake that would probably be lovely on a clear day, but the fog was pretty thick and drizzle was starting to come down so we decided against it.
As we were leaving we passed a ranger sitting at an information desk with a big white screen beside him. I asked what the screen was and he told me it was a webcam of the volcano. As I took a closer look at the big screen of white nothing, the ranger commiserated “Yhup, that’s the view of the summit right now” and to allay my disappointment he shared the fact that the volcano remains shrouded by cloud cover over 300 days a year. “Sometimes it will clear for a few minutes,” he added helpfully, “but if you see the clouds lift on the webcam here, it’ll be too late to make it to the volcano to see it in person. Your best bet is to go up to Johnston Ridge Observatory and maybe, if you’re lucky, there’ll be a gap in the clouds while you’re there.” I waved goodbye and Jo and I set out along Spirit Lake Highway towards the volcano.
About 20 miles later we pulled in at the teutonically-named Hoffstadt Bluffs for a view of the Toutle river valley.
The low-lying clouds made the dark valley and smokey mountains glower ominously. Behind a misty veil, the volcano remained shyly out of sight as the Toutle traced a silvery ribbon through the debris and sediment left over from the 1980 eruption. “It looks like hobbit country” whispered Jo. “The nasty Bagginses has my precious” I did my best Gollum impression.
It was another 20 miles to the Johnston Ridge Observatory, named in honour of volcanologist David A. Johnston. David had the great misfortune of being scheduled to man an observation post on the very ridge occupied by the observatory today, on the fateful morning of May 18th 1980, when Mount St Helens blew. At 8.32am that morning a 5.1 earthquake rocked the area, triggering a colossal landslide. 0.6 cubic miles of rock slid off the summit and north face of the volcano and once the weight of the rock was gone, the caldera started to release massive amounts of gas and steam. A few seconds later, a lateral eruption obliterated the north face of the volcano, hurtling pyroclastic flows travelling at near supersonic speed directly towards the ridge. David managed a short radio message to his colleagues before the flows reached him. His last words were “This is it.”
Great dollops of rain blotted the windshield like a Rorschach test as we wound our way into the blast zone. Somewhere along the way I spotted the snow-covered flanks of the volcano showing beneath the clouds. Like a Victorian lady slyly revealing an ankle, Mount St Helens was proving to be a dreadful tease.
Luckily, the rain subsided just as we pulled into the parking lot and made our way through a coach load of Japanese school children towards the viewing area. The finest of mists dusted our faces with a thin layer of moisture as we traipsed up the path, still hopeful that the volcano would suddenly reveal itself. The observatory is a mere 5 miles from the summit and provides one of the most dramatic of views on a clear day. Our eager eyes traced a path across vast pumice plains, up snow-streaked slopes and stopped at the woolly splodge of cloud hovering neatly over the summit like a giant UFO.
It wasn’t meant to be; the volcano did not want to come out to play. We shrugged it off and decided to go for a bit of a ramble instead. There’s a short interpretive trail of boardwalks and educational signs called the Eruption Trail just by the observatory but we were looking for something a bit more off-road so we ambled along the boardwalk discussing which trail we might take and got so wrapped up in our conversation that when we looked around we had left the boardwalk far behind and were now trekking along the Boundary Trail. “I guess our decision is made” grinned Jo and we set off along the narrow pathway lined with raindrop-bejewelled wildflowers.
The trail bobbed gently up and down over grassy hummocks; each time we crested a hill the volcano burst into view on our right…
..and great lunar landscapes of devastated trees and new growth spread out for miles to our left.
We only met one couple along the way; they were heading in the other direction and we swapped greetings as we passed. They told us they had turned around when the trail turned into a rather alarming cliff face. That rang a bell; I remembered when I had been reading about this part of the Boundary Trail there was mention of a stretch of pathway lovingly referred to as Devil’s Elbow, and we were headed straight for it. A frog watched with interest as I told Jo what I had read about Devil’s Elbow.
Jo is not a fan of heights and I had no idea what was up ahead, so we agreed that if things got too treacherous we would turn back. If we made it around the elbow there was supposed to be a tantalizing view of Spirit Lake on the other side and that was enough to spur us onward, despite the foreboding warning sign we had just happened across.
The first part of Devil’s Elbow really didn’t look too bad; the terrain was nice and level and the path was generously wide. I checked in with Jo to make sure she was ok and she reassured me she was fine so we set off; me in front and Jo following close behind.
The further along we got, the narrower the pathway became and solid ground gave way to scree that moved and scattered when you planted your foot on the ground. Clusters of tiny pebbles tumbled down the now startlingly steep slope and disappeared out of sight far below. My right foot landed on a patch of rubble that promptly gave way and I lurched to the left to regain my balance. The path was so narrow now it was difficult to turn around so I leaned my back against the cliff face and slowly edged my way round to look at Jo and check in. “How are you doing?” I asked. Jo grinned bravely and said “I’m fine, just as long as I don’t look down.” Then she looked down. “Jo, you looked down!” I shrieked. She looked up. “I won’t do it again” she promised. “OK” I said, “but tell me the minute you want to turn back, I won’t mind, I swear.” “I really want to see the lake” she said, so we continued, ever slower, along the trail.
I had been videoing some of the trail as I went along, but now it was getting decidedly precarious so I pocketed my video camera and gave the trail the respect it demanded. Unable to look back at Jo, I instead listened intently to the sound of her footsteps behind me. I started pointing out the flowers and lichens that were growing on the slopes above us, hoping that Jo would look up at them rather than down at the precipice below. Every time Jo responded, her voice seemed to raise another octave until all that was left was a breathy whisper. The quieter Jo got the more I babbled to take her mind off the height. I checked twice more to see if she was freaked out and wanted to turn back but she was adamant she wanted to continue so we pushed on past one truly scary part where you had to shimmy your way around a rock that jutted out right across the trail but once that was behind us, finally, blissfully, the trail grew broader and the scree gave way to solid ground once more. I breathed a deep sigh of relief and scurried up the incline to the top where Spirit Lake was waiting to greet us.
Jo promptly plonked down on a rock and sat there, regaining her composure and sipping water. I joined her and we sat in silence, gazing at the lake. “Ailsa,” Jo said after a great while, her eyes still fixed upon the lake, “I was freaked out.” “I know” I said, not turning to look at her, the glacial blue of Spirit Lake transfixing my gaze. We ate some trail mix, congratulated ourselves on an adventure well negotiated and then explored a little further along the trail.
Not far past Devil’s Elbow there’s a junction where you can clamber up to Harry’s Ridge, named after Harry Truman, a long time resident who refused to be evacuated when warnings were issued prior to the 1980 eruption. Harry and his cats were still in their home overlooking Spirit Lake when the volcano sprang to life. They are still there now, somewhere, an intrinsic part of the landscape they once called home. We didn’t do the scramble up to Harry’s Ridge because we had started too late in the day and didn’t want to risk coming back around Devil’s Elbow in failing light, so we turned around. When we did, Mount St Helens was there waiting for us, her clouds peeled back revealing the crater and its glaciers. It was breathtaking.
The closer we walked, the more it cleared until we could stare deep into the crater, see fissures in the glaciers and marvel at the bulging lava dome that looked capable of blowing again at any second.
It was the most magical and thrilling of moments and the wonder of our glimpse into the volcano made the return journey much easier. Jo didn’t look down once and in next to no time we were following the flower-strewn trail back towards the visitor center.
Cresting a hill along the way, we glanced over and saw that the volcano had once again retreated behind her misty cloak, showing no trace of the crater we had gazed into just minutes before.
That was more than enough adventure for one day. Exhausted and exhilarated, we made our way back to the car which was waiting patiently, all alone in the parking lot by a solitary tree swathed in fog.
Apparently we were the last ones on the mountain that evening and nobody else had been around to see the momentary clearing of the summit, which made the experience just a little more special. We climbed in the car and just as we closed the doors, a torrential downpour commenced. “What timing” Jo commented, “we didn’t have a single drop of rain along the entire trail.” “It’s as if the mountain willed it so, just for us” I said, feigning mysticism. Gleaming with satisfaction, we giggled all the way back down Spirit Lake Highway to our campsite.
We pulled in and drove straight to the camp site host to pick up some firewood with just 5 minutes to spare before the host retired for the night. He took a shine to us and insisted we take one of his handmade mobiles; a strange concoction of Pabst Blue Ribbon cans and string that sounded tinny and looked, well, exactly like a jumble of beer cans on a string. We politely thanked him for his gift, grabbed our firewood and made for our site to set up. Jo wrangled the tent into shape while I attempted to get a fire started. Then Jo whipped out her camp stove so we could warm up some dinner. I stared at the rusty object on the picnic table; it didn’t look like any camp stove I’d seen before. Jo filled a little globe with propane, placed it somewhere deep within the rusty box and then started to pump a handle furiously. Nothing happened. Over and over we tried to get it started but to no avail. Our curry and rice languished in a saucepan nearby, cold and miserable, so I figured we could heat it over the camp fire instead. Lofty trees spewed huge goblets of rain onto the fire and it sizzled and went out. I tried to get it started again but every time flames licked around the logs and I put the grate down and positioned the pan of food, the flames sputtered and went out. Without even realising it, an hour went by and the food was barely lukewarm. Defeated and reeking of smoke, I grabbed a few forkfuls of tepid curry and called it a night. Jo munched on trail mix instead, which in hindsight proved to be a far wiser choice.
Then we scrambled into the tent and into our sleeping bags. I rolled off my mat and my sleeping bag instantly started wicking moisture from the ground below. “I forgot to bring the groundsheet” Jo confessed with great remorse. “Never mind, it looks like the rain has stopped for the night” I countered gamely and lay back down, just as the heavens opened and unleashed a deluge of epic proportions. We giggled in the dark of the tent, wished each other goodnight, anchored ourselves to our mats and drifted uneasily off to sleep, to dream about tumbling down mountain sides.
If you fancy a short trip around Devil’s Elbow, check out the footage I took before things got a little too tricky!