AROUND MT.ST.HELENS IN HALF OF A DAY
There is no use fighting oneself. To quote Oscar Wilde, “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it… I can resist everything but temptation.” The temptation of testing the limits of human endurance is an irresistible force, which lures me towards overland endeavors regularly. Marathons, ultra marathons and thru-hikes are prized notches on the bedpost of what I do for fun. So, when my good buddy Clifton suggested we run around Mt.St.Helens in southwest Washington state, a resounding “yes” my natural answer.
That mountain, famous for its 1980 eruption, is encircled by the Loowit Trail, a 28-mile loop, which climbs up and down some steep and challenging terrain, including volcanic rock, pumice and scree, with some beautiful alpine meadows along the route. Most of the trail has little shade or tree cover, exposing whoever chooses to travel along it to some stiff solar bombardment. Clifton and I decided to try running the entire thing in one go, fast-and-light, ultrarunner-style.
We camped the night before starting our run at Climber’s Bivouac, the usual beginning for those attempting to summit the mountain. At half past five on the morning of the next day, we ascended two miles along the Ptarmigan trail towards a junction with the Loowit made our total attempted distance a respectable 32 miles. Both Clifton and I would like to think we are in good running shape, which gave us confidence that we can get this thing done. Our backpacks contained only energy bars, gels, a water filter, headlamps, water bottles and a rudimentary first aid kit, each person’s pack adding up to about seven pounds.
As we started running counterclockwise, we soon got acquainted with two main types travel possible on this side of the mountain: pleasant and relatively easy running on a manageable stretch of trail and slow-as-molasses walking up a scree field. Scree, small, loose rocks, abundant on Mt.St.Helens, is possibly the worst surface to walk or run on. It is dusty, small enough to infiltrate one’s shoes, and worst of all, each step taken on a scree slope results in sliding back almost back to where one started. Not pleasant at all.
However, we fought valiantly and got out of the scree right after filtering some water by a waterfall on the Muddy River, eventually making our way to the Plains of Abraham. The result of the eruption, the plains were a great place to run. The trail was not technically difficult, so we pinned our ears back and tried to make some good time, zooming past blooming wildflowers. The cloud cover around the mountain finally blew over, revealing a view of the crater, visible from the northeast and north slopes, making it easy on the eyes and adding some spring to our step.
The next couple of hours were the meat of the wonderful sandwich that was our trip – we continued crushing miles across the northern portions of the trail, stopping to eat an energy bar and gathering water as needed. In general, I find it best to eat about every two hours, when running, hiking or backpacking, providing a steady supply of energy. Another favorite is healthy doses of caffeine, which can come from energy bars, gels, drink mixes or plain old truck stop caffeine pills. In the latter case, I make certain to break a 200 mg pill in half to keep the dose somewhat tame. On that note, I must point out two pieces of gear that worked extremely well – the Zensah Recovery Capris and the ULA Fastback – both were worth their weight in gold, almost literally.
By the time we got to crossing the Toutle River, a fairly deep canyon comprised of rocks and scree, we thought we had this thing in the bag. With only about ten miles left to go, we imagined finishing in the next two hours, getting back home early. The mountain gods had other plans, apparently. The hard part of our journey started right after the Toutle, with a steep, long climb, which seemed to go on for ever. The only thing making it bearable was the shady tree cover, affording us some respite from the merciless sun. We trucked on, slowly, stopping to eat and drink as needed. The last five or so miles was mostly hopping from one volcanic rock to another, making certain not to faceplant on one or more of the many sharp edges. Running was impossible, so we walked gingerly. Finally, we made it out of the rocks, willing ourselves to run the last couple of miles to the parking lot on the double, finishing our jaunt in about 12 hours.
As one would imagine, the celebratory beers and burgers on the way back to civilization tasted like sheer ambrosia. We were triumphant – everything went well, we had enough food, were able to filter enough water, had enough training under our belts to make that distance and enough resolve to keep going once it got tough. More trail running, please!