Last year, I rode the 82-mile "Tour de Blast" to the visitor center overlooking the crater at Mt. St. Helens and had a great time. This highway is the main way motorists drive up to the blast area of Mt. St. Helens, and they (and bicyclists who make the climb), get this view from the top. The upper third of the mountain "disappeared" in the 1980 eruption, and the view is breathtaking:
(This thread was my ride report: www.bikeforums.net/showthread.php?t=432326)
So last September, I rode the even longer, 113-mile "High Pass Challenge," which takes a remote back road through the blast zone (and posted this trip report: Personal best bike ride today: 112 miles, 7400 feet of climbing). That ride approaches from the east side of the crater to a spot called Windy Ridge, and gives you a look at the crater from the east.
Both rides went fine. Challenging, but not killers. In fact, I was riding in a paceline at 20+ mph at the end of the High Pass Challenge. Not a piece of cake, but not too hard...
So this spring, when my 19-year-old son called from college, and asked if I wanted to actually climb up to the top of the crater on foot, I did a little research first. The National Park Service just started climbing permits up to the rim a few years ago, and only 100 hikers a day are allowed above treeline. They provide this helpful warning on their website: "... Climbers may be exposing themselves to other volcanic hazards which cannot be forecast or can occur without warning. If larger explosive eruptions occur, larger material could be carried over the crater rim and in rare instances, result in injury or death. Be prepared to rapidly descend below the crater rim and seek cover. Carry and use recommended personal protective equipment...Climbers should be prepared for a long arduous day, scrambling on steep terrain, and potential weather extremes."
So of course I figured, why not? Having "conquered" Mt. St. Helens twice on a bike, what can be so hard about a hike to the top?
Even though this is not a cycling report, thought you might be interested in the "climb" for sake of comparison. Is a hike harder than a long, mountainous century on a bike? To spare you the suspense, here's the punchline: even though it was "only" 10 miles on foot, and "only" 4,800 feet of climbing, the 9-hour round trip hike was *much* harder than a hillly century (and left me sore for several days afterward).
The climb starts with an overnight camp at a spot at 4,000 feet called the Climbers Bivouac. We planned to wake up at 4:20 a.m. to get started at dawn, but a nearby party of climbers woke (noisily) at 2:30 a.m. to start their ascent and I didn't get back to sleep after that. In any case, we left about 5:45 a.m.
The first hour is normal uphill hiking through a forest, up to the timberline at about 4,700 feet. After that, you are climbing through a boulder field left by the eruption. None of the climbing is technical, but you're either stepping over boulders, or slogging through fairly deep sand/ash/pumice.
After emerging from the treeline, we then spent the next two hours climbing up over this:
About three hours into the hike, one approaches the final zone -- a moonscape of ash and pumice deposited from the eruption. Here's the final stretch looking toward the top:
And here's the final stretch looking down (fyi, the starting point of the hike was way down in the trees you see at the bottom...at this point we're well over 4,500 feet above the camp):
I took this shot off toward Mt. Adams (to the East) to show the slope one is climbing:
With a final reward that one is able to stand on the south rim of the crater, at about 8,800 feet elevation, and look down at the lava dome inside the crater (just for scale...that lava dome in the middle of the crater is about 1,400 feet tall).
If you go back to the very first picture in the thread above, we're standing on the rim of the crater, just about in the middle. Using Photoshop, my son assembled this panorama of the rim combining several photos:
From the rim of the crater, you can also look to the north and see Mt. Rainier. The body of water shown here is Spirit Lake, and on the surface there are still logs floating from the eruption in 1980, which felled all the trees across the mountain.
At this point, I was feeling great! I think cycling was great conditioning for the climb to the top. Seemed to stretch the same muscles, and aerobically I did fine. The first part of the descent went well, even though I slipped and fell a couple of times due to the slope and all the gravel/ash (even though I was using trekking poles). We covered the first part of the descent, through the "moonscape," in about half the time it took to climb up.
But then we hit the boulder field on the way down. We had hoped to keep descending speedily, but when we hit the boulders it seemed like we kept choosing the hardest path down, and descending through and over the boulders seemed tougher than climbing up. I fell 3 more times, in a couple of cases pretty hard.
In the end, it took as long to get down through the boulder field as it did to climb up, and I was whipped. When we finally emerged through the boulders and re-entered the forest, two miles from the end, we had been going for more than 8 hours and I was *lots* more tired than on a century - it was the descent that got me. Worse, unlike on a bike ride, when you can ease back and slowly make it back to the end of a long ride, I couldn't find a pace that was comfortable. I tried slow, slower and even slower, and still I found almost every step painful in some way.
Finally made it back to the car, and took it easy. My legs were sore for 4 more days -- I think every muscle you *don't* exercise on a bike is exactly the same muscle you need to walk down a hill. Bruises on my hands from falling. Ankle a sprained a year ago is sore again, and is still sore, a week later.
Yet - a fantastic day...great father/son adventure -- but I think my 4th climb of Mt. St. Helens will be on a bike!
Interested? Climbing permit details here:
For those of you who need more cycling content, here's my Tommasini t-shirt at the top: