Normally, I start off July in the most epic way possible. By watching Independence Day and yelling “Welcome to Earf” a million times before enjoying the middle of the summer. But this year is going to be the year of Mega July, a.k.a. the July I Decided to Conquer Everything. Starting exactly at midnight, we set off to summit Mt. St. Helens via the Monitor Ridge trail.
I knew that this hike was going to be difficult, and we had been training for this hike for some time, but nothing can really prepare you for things out of your control. With the current heat wave and dry spout happening here in Washington it lead to two things: no snow pack and extreme heat. Reading several trip reports, it was advised to start well before sunrise to avoid mid-day heat. Even starting at midnight and arriving at the summit just after sunrise we barely made it back down the trail in the early morning heat that quickly reached the high 80s. It was well into the mid-90s by the time we made it back to the trailhead.
Hiking a volcano is what you would imagine. The higher we climbed the more we felt like we were facing Mt. Doom, except there was no Samwise Gamgee to push us forward or make us second breakfast. The hike starts out pleasant enough, through a moonlit forest which was probably supposed to feel magical, but only being able to see as far as the headlight could shine, it was more unsettling than comforting. When we made it out of the forest, then began the climb. We started to ascend the steep field of rock and pumice. At one point we thought we spotting the reflective trail markers in the distance, only to realize they were a pair of eyes. I kept telling myself it was just an owl, and then 2 more pairs became visible. Owls hanging out it groups, right?
After about an hour into the steep terrain, we realized that maybe we weren’t going the right way. We decided to start moving laterally to see what was on the other side of the ridge to our left, only to find that we were completely off trail and finding the actual trail markers. Our steep and messy shortcut cut out a huge chunk of the trail. Back on the right path, we reached the first of 5 boulder fields. As we reached the top of each one, we thought the summit was in reach, only to find there was another staring back at us. The only thing that kept us going at that point was a little bit of Journey and The Boss himself.
At the end of the boulder field, I started to feel like my body was failing. It was just around 5am and I should of been asleep, so everything was in a state of confusion. We had to take a long break so I could nap for a few minutes and let the feeling pass.
Now was time for the final push. The final mile in nothing but sliding ash and pumice. It was literally a “two steps forward one step back” scenario. It went on forever. The sun was starting to rise over Mt. Adams to the east of us. And then, after an hour of exhausting climbing, we made it to the summit.
The view was pretty amazing. To see the direction of the explosion to the North and all that it took out—including what was left of Spirit Lake—was breathtaking. Looking back towards the south, it was very clear where the mud flow from the eruption ended and forest began. Standing on top of a volcano that erupted not too long ago was a certainly a privilege not to be taken for granted.
The descent down was twice as grueling. With no snow pack, there was no chance of glissading down. The sun was now up and scorching despite the early morning hours. Water breaks and hiding behind boulders for some shade came more often and left us silent from exhaustion. It nearly broke our spirits at one point thinking we were never going to make it down. When we finally reached the forest line, we thought the last two miles would be easier. But it wasn’t. It felt like the longest two miles of our lives. When we finally made it back to the trailhead, I dropped my pack and wanted to yell Andy Samberg style and walk away.
Looking back, it was a humbling experience. Whatever assumptions I had about my physical and mental abilities were tested to the max. I had been there before, but in a more controlled setting. Adding the beast that is nature was a whole new challenge. But I can thankfully cross this volcano off my list and look back, shake my fist at it, and say, “I walked on your face!”
This also marks just 7 days until STP. By the end of July I am pretty sure the reply I'll have to how I'm feeling will be this.