Friday, October 14, 2011

'Twas a Rough Night....

Ron poses with Mount Adams in the background.
And look at those storm clouds enveloping us!
Sorry about leaving you all hanging for so long. Got a bit distracted with that whole "moving" process. It's not done yet, but I'm taking the day off of that work and working on finishing this story today. =)

In case you needed reminding, I left you hanging with Ron and myself trying to outrace an incoming storm. Gotta leave you on a cliffhanger, right? =)

The campsite listed on our map was near a trail junction near Ape Canyon, and when we arrived, we found a distinct lack of water. Which was a problem, because we really needed water. Which is kind of ironic considering that it looked like it could rain at any moment. We'd pushed, we figured, an exhausting 16 or 17 miles to reach this point, and we were beat. But we also needed water.

The map we had with campsites listed wasn't especially detailed, however, and I suspected that it might still be a bit up ahead. When I talked with Jesus and Disciple, they told me they had camped at a small creek their first night out, just before the restricted zone, a little past this junction. If they hadn't told me that, however, I'd have been considerably more worried when we reached this junction and found no water.

Looking up the ridge, I thought I might be hallucinating.

"Hey, Ron," I said, pointing ahead along a ridge, "Pull out that fancy camera of yours with the super zoom lens and tell me, is that a fellow with a bicycle I see up there?"

He seemed skeptical of the claim, but was already pulling out his camera to take photos of Mount Adams, and aimed it where I pointed. "Yes, that is a bicycle!" he exclaimed.

I certainly didn't expect to see one of those out here. A few minutes later, two bicyclists heading back down the mountain passed us, and oddly, they seemed as surprised to see us as we were to see them.

"But where are you going to camp? What are you going to do for water?"

The first question didn't worry me very much, but the second one did a little.

"There supposed to be water just ahead--you mean to say there isn't?" I asked.

"There's a little creek ahead, but the water is dirty and gross."

Oh joy.

"Well, that's our drinking water," I told him. =)
A large cairn along the trail.

Ron and I shouldered our packs and headed out again while the bicyclists headed down the mountain. We found the creek about ten minutes later, and it was beautiful water. I'll admit, it wasn't the clearest water I'd ever seen, but it was a far cry from being bad. I've had bad water, and this was was perfectly acceptable in my book.

But we were also completely exposed on this part of the mountain. In fact, we'd been completely exposed and well above tree-cover for miles, and we were starting back into the blast zone. I had a tarp that needed setting up, and to do so, I needed a good, solid tree to hold up one end of it (I'd use my trekking pole for the other end) and soft enough ground to drive in stakes but hard enough ground to hold it all in place. And the terrain we were in was not ideal for this sort of setup.

Immediately alongside the creek, there were a few small trees struggling to survive. The tallest of them was about my own height--hardly as big or strong as I would have preferred--but it would have to do. And the ground appeared to be just above where the creek would flood, if it floods, and it had soil to hold stakes in place. Most of the terrain had no soil--just small rocks with no real grip to them.

First thing's first--set up the tarp. I started setting up while Ron selected a site on the other side of the tree. While setting up, the first sprinkling started. In the nick of time! Whew!

I drove the last stake in, tightened up the ridgeline, and dove under the tarp, safe from the sprinkles. "Looks like I'm in for the night!" I called to Ron.

It sprinkled for another five or ten minutes, and I set about arranging camp. I spread out the ground sheet under the trap, then changed out of my dirty hiking clothes and put on my warm camp clothes. Then I just laid there for a few minutes, resting. I was tired. But I could still see Mount Adams peaking out in the setting sun in the distance. I love a campsite with a view. This campsite would have been fantastic for camping under the stars. No tree cover, fantastic views--it's exactly the kind of campsite I wished I had the night before. In fact, the campsite we had the night before was exactly the kind I would have preferred tonight. In the trees, partially protected from the elements by the trees. I found myself wishing we had gone around the mountain in the other direction. Oh, well.... too late to do anything about that now.

The sprinkles stopped, and I decided to push my luck by cooking along the edge of the cliff. The small creek came to an abrupt stop about 40 feet away, falling over a cliff who knows how many hundreds of feet high. The view was incredible, even as the storm came barreling in. I wanted to enjoy the views while I could. If it started raining again, I could move back under my tarp as necessary.

Wind gusts had started increasing, so I found a few small boulders to cook behind to use as wind breaks. It didn't help much--the gusts seemed to blow in from all sorts of directions. Sometimes from in front, sometimes up my back, sometimes from my left, and sometimes from my right. Sometimes, it felt like I was in the middle of a vortex with the wind swirling all around me but oddly quiet where I cooked. The unpredictable nature of the wind was difficult to handle, though, and the strength of the wind started blowing sand into my mac 'n' cheese. Argh!

Besides using the small boulders as a feeble attempt at a wind break, I also used my bear canister, the lid of my bear canister, and my entire body to further the wind break. And none of it seemed to help. Sand started blowing into my eyes as well. I was starting to wish I stayed under my tarp after all. These were not easy conditions to cook it. Ron didn't seem to be fairing much better behind his little group of boulders either.
Our campsite overlooked this very high cliff!
With Mount Adams again in the background.

Eventually, though, dinner was ready--with a healthy bit of sand for texture--which I finished off quickly and cleaned up. That rain could still start at any moment!

Looking out on the horizon, I saw a flash of light. It seemed to be centered about halfway between Mount Adams and Mount Hood, near where we saw smoke from the forest fire earlier in the day. Lightning.

"Hey, Ron!" I yelled. "Something else for you to worry about tonight--being above tree line in a lightning storm!" =)

I wasn't actually too worried about being struck by lightning. While we were above treeline, we were also surrounded by mountains and hills much higher than our location.

Back under the tarp, I read a bit, admired the views of Mount Adams, and relaxed to the occasional gust of wind racing over my tarp and a lightning strike in the distance. Life was good.... =)

I fell asleep at some point, and woke again to views of stars overhead. The clouds must have blown through already, but the wind seemed to increase a notch. I thought about going out to see the stars better, but the wind was cold and I dived deeper into my sleeping bag and went back to sleep again.

Or rather, I tried too. The wind had increased in intensity and was making quite the racket now, whipping over my tarp and gusting under the open ends.

I tried for an hour to get to sleep, but it wasn't working. The wind was deafening, jerking my tarp, but it went from bad to worse when the clouds came back again and it started to rain. Not a sprinkle, but a real rain.

I pulled my feet up from the far end of the tarp and my head down from the entrance, curled into a fetal position, to avoid the wind-born rain. "What a gloriously wretched campsite for a rain and wind storm," I thought. "I couldn't have hand-selected a worse place had I tried." I'd been expecting rain, but the wind was not something I had heard about, and that makes a big difference!

When I first set up my tarp, I was a bit lazy about anchoring down the edges of my tarp. I usually don't--it's not necessary. I'll set up the ridgeline, anchor down the corners, and I'm done. At this point, though, it was time to batten down the hatches. I pulled out my headlamp, found a couple of extra stakes I used to hold down my ground sheet and transferred them to hold down the edges of my tarp. I also tightened the ridgeline again--it had grown slack with the wind-born rain ripping at the tarp.

And unbelievably, it continued to grow worse. Twice during the night, the wind ripped a stake right out of the ground, and I frantically tried to stab it back into place as the rain pounded on me. The tarp whipped loudly in the wind, and I worried that the wind might actually blow it away completely.

The view from under my tarp. You can see my trekking
pole on the left and the ridgeline holding it up left of center.
"No," I told myself. "Impossible. I had tied the one end with a solid knot to the small tree. That tree would break before the knot did--and it might not have been a very big tree, but this storm wasn't going to knock it out. But I could imagine all of the stakes holding the rest of the tarp in place blowing out. It would start at a corner, then rip through the rest of them like popping buttons off a shirt, and the tarp would start flapping uselessly in the wind. I could also imagine that the tarp might rip in half, flapping around in the wind, completely useless. If either of those scenarios happened, I could be in serious trouble from hypothermia.

I wondered how Ron was doing in his little tent. I knew he had to be awake--nobody could sleep through this storm--but his tent had to be taking a beating as hard as my tarp was. At least he had some walls to help keep him dry, though.

I started formulating plans for what I'd do if my tarp blew loose or shredded itself in the wind. I'd have to get moving. Immediately. Throw everything into my pack and start hiking through the storm. It would be the only way I could stay warm without any protection from the elements. I'd have to hike to stay warm. Keep moving. I'd either have to hike until the storm passed, hike until I reached a natural form of protection from the elements (a cave, or below tree level, I figured), or hike until I reached Ron's truck and got inside.

The tarp, fortunately, did manage to survive the night.
I've already packed up everything (except the tarp itself), but
notice two things in this photo. First, that red spot on my pack--
that's Wassa Jr. =) He didn't blow away! Second, even in this
photo, you can see a gust of a wind pushing in the left side of
tarp and blowing "up" the right side of the tarp. Damn wind!
This could get really bad, I though, and prayed the tarp would hold up through the night. Some of the stronger gusts were so powerful, they pushed the walls of the tarp directly onto me, not even leaving a cushion of air between me and the walls of the tarp. The tarp was acting more like a blanket--at least until another gust of wind pulled it off of me suddenly and tried to yank it into the sky.

It didn't help that condensation was forming on the underside of the tarp, so every time the wind pushed it down onto me like a blanket, my sleeping bag would mop up the water from it. My sleeping bag was made of down--which has absolutely no insulation value once it gets wet. It was growing increasingly difficult to stay warm. As long as I felt cold, though, I figured I wouldn't be dieing of hypothermia. Nope, cold is good. I flexed my muscles a bit to generate a little warmth.

It was a long night, but the tarp held, and eventually the sky started to brighten. The clouds were still out there, but the wind gusts died down a bit (only a tiny bit!) and the rain finally stopped.

"Ron," I called out, "are you still alive over there?"

I heard some knocking around, then he called back, confirming he was still alive, but what a wretched night that was. Yeah, tell me about it. =)

It was still pretty early in the morning, but the rain had stopped. For now. "Let's get out of here before the rain picks up again," I suggested, and he offered no argument.

We quickly ate breakfast, telling each other of our night's woes. While packing up, I found my tie. I had forgotten about that tie. I knew Ron was coming with a wedding dress, and it occurred to me and I should at least have a tie. Look the part, you know? At least a tie was small and light, but I had forgotten about it the whole trip. Seems a shame to let it go to waste. I decided not to change back into my hiking clothes. My warm camp clothes could get wet now--we were going back to civilization. But I put on the tie, then we headed out. Yes, I wore the tie all the way back to the trailhead. =)

"I wonder how the Wheat Thin Boys did," Ron said. I'm a little curious myself--they seemed gloriously inexperienced. A storm like that wouldn't have been easy for them, but then they were probably camped well below tree level where things weren't as bad either.

Proving that even after one of my worst nights
in the backcountry that I can still look good....
We'd only been hiking for a few minutes with the rain started coming down again. The wind was still strong along unprotected stretches of the trail, but then we'd drop down the other side of a ridge and it would be deathly quiet. We figured it was about ten miles back to the trailhead, and we couldn't get there soon enough.

A blue patch of sky came out and teased us. We could see it, always a little out of reach, always moving away from us. A sparkling rainbow delighted us for much of the way, but we didn't stop and rest. It was too wet, too cold, and too windy to do much of anything but keep trudging on.

And finally, we reached the parking lot and were done. We'd made it. I wanted to go into the Johnson Ridge Observatory since it was closed when we had arrived and I'd never been in it before, so I left Ron in the car trying to warm himself up. =)

The observatory had all sorts of interesting exhibits, and I wondered around admiring it all, still with the tie on--a classy touch that nobody else had. People walking in complained about the rain and cold, and I couldn't help but shake my head. Wimps. You guys only had to walk in from the parking lot. The storm had turned me into a bitter old man.

But we were done. We headed back to Seattle. Ron stopped to call his family and let them know he survived. We stopped for lunch at Burgerville and high-fived ourselves. Ron asked what I thought his chances were of being able to thru-hike the PCT.

Most excellent. That last night on Mount St. Helens rivaled anything I had to deal with on the PCT. That large gully at the end of the first day was as sketchy as anything he'd find on the PCT. The lava flows were as challenging as anything he could find on the PCT.

"If you can survive that," I told him, "you can certainly survive anything that the PCT throws at you."

For him, I think that made the whole trip worth it. =)

Ron pushes through the rain and wind. Needless to say,
views on our last day weren't very good.

My camera is suffering from the elements at this point. The fuzziness in the center and
on the left is due to rain that got on the lens and condensation that formed in the lens.

That blue patch of sky teased us most of the morning. So close, but always out of reach....

The rainbow that led us out most of the morning was nice, though. =) It was
remarkably bright at times, and at times, there was even a double rainbow
(but I never got any good pictures of that.)

Monday, October 10, 2011

Stalking Alton Brown

Amanda paints the guest bedroom.
I know, I know.... there's still one more post in me about that Mount St. Helens hike. I've been a little distracted because Amanda bought a new condo and I've been busy painting, cleaning, fixing up and she's been keeping me quite busy. Hopefully I'll get that last post done soon!

But in the meantime, there's another distraction to post about: My stalking of Alton Brown. Alton and I have a history of sorts. I try to stalk him, and do it very badly. He ducks me, and does it very well. =)

Amanda is related to him. Her cousin is married to the guy. Quite the inside track she's got, right? I actually never even heard of the man before I met Amanda. A Food Network celebrity? Who watches the Food Network? I'm more of a History Channel guy myself. =)

So anyhow, my first brush with celebrity-ism was to be a family funeral. Perhaps not the best of circumstances, but Amanda's granny died, and Alton would be in attendance. I was instructed by Amanda that we'd be riding with Alton. Cool! My flight would arrive about an hour before Alton's flight, and then Amanda's flight would arrive shortly later. I was to meet Alton at his gate when his plane arrived in Charlotte.

But, alas, I got bumped from the flight. The next flight out, the next morning, was still possible, but I'd miss the funeral. So it never happened. I was stuck in Seattle, and Alton was "enjoying" the funeral without me. =)

But he's one of the family--surely our paths will cross again, right?

Fast forward another year or two, and you'll find me in Key West, walking to Springer Mountain. The nearly major airport at the end of that little hike was in Atlanta--Alton's little part of the world. Amanda called up her cousin, DeAnna, and nabbed us a free place to stay at their place.

But, once again, I missed Alton, who was off filming in the Caribbean or something. I don't know what he was really doing, but I'm sure ducking me was high on the list. ;o) However, I did get to meet  his wife (DeAnna), his daughter (Zoey), and his mom (who's name I don't remember.... Hmm.....) And I got to spend the night in their guest room. =)

I asked Amanda what she thought we could get if we "borrowed" some cinnamon from their cupboard and put it up on eBay. "This cinnamon comes from Alton Brown's cupboard...." Or maybe not.... Anyhow, who would believe that the cinnamon really came from Alton Brown's cupboard?

Fast forward another year or two, and then there was another death in the family--Amanda's mom died. Maybe I'd see him at that funeral? But once again, he ducked me. Allegedly, he was getting ready for some big anniversary show back in Atlanta and couldn't take the time for this funeral. I did see DeAnna again, however, but she left Zoey behind. Which is a shame because Zoey is absolutely adorable. Or at least she was--I'd imagine she's quite a bit older now. Kids have a bad habit of growing out of "adorable." =)

Alton does a little Q&A.
As for that show, we did see it on TV a couple of nights later, and could even spot both Zoey and DeAnna in the background as the credits started to roll....

Well, there'll be another time to meet Alton.....

And fast forward to today. I had just finished painting a couple of doors in the new condo and was on my way out when Amanda arrived and asked if I'd like to meet Alton.

Which normally would be a strange question, because I know he lives in the Atlanta area, and we were in Seattle. I was pretty certain she didn't intend for us to jump in a plane and fly out to Atlanta overnight, and I wasn't aware of anymore deaths in the family. A book-signing, perhaps?

Yes, as it turned out, he was having a book signing here in Seattle. Tonight. Amanda was talking with her cousin and her cousin happened to mention that Alton was in Seattle, so about 4:30 this afternoon, she told me that he was having a book signing at 7:00. Sure, why not? The only plans I had for tonight was writing up the rest of my Mount St. Helens hike. (Sorry about that, again....)

So off we drove to the University Bookstore. We got there about a half hour early and the place was PACKED with people, but Amanda assured me that there was another author scheduled to talk from 6:30 to 7:00. They were probably there for that.

Except they weren't. The other author Amanda had read online wasn't there. He was at a library a few miles away. Nope, all of these people--every last one of them--was here to see Alton. I've been to a few book signings before, but this one was like nothing I had ever seen before. And we were a half hour early!

"He's not even an author!" I whispered to Amanda. "Not really...."

The mob--at least the part that fits within
my camera's viewfinder!
The place was claustrophobic, and Amanda and I decided to leave for a half hour and get some dinner. =) We ate at Qdoba nearby, then returned at 7:00 just as Alton was beginning a little Q&A session. And the size of the crowd had more than doubled since before. OMG. Aren't there fire safety limits that need to be enforced?

Alton took questions from the audience for about an hour, which was quite entertaining, and he was very funny. I wonder how much of it are canned answers he's answered hundreds of times before. I can't imagine this was really the first time anyone asked him what his favorite plate was ("round--oh, you mean food?!)

Amanda and I chuckled when someone asked about what food he prepares better than his mother. "I've met his mother, you know," I told Amanda. Of course she knew that already--she'd met his mother before too. Zoey and DeAnna got mentions along the way as well.

It was entertaining watching the customers who walked into the bookstore who didn't know what was going on as well. Amanda and I were solidly in the back of the pack. Amanda had trouble seeing over everyone's head. I didn't have as much trouble in that regard, but I am taller than her. =) But it put us directly next to the entrance of the bookstore where people were coming and going the whole time. Invariably, someone would walk in and be surprised at the crowd and ask, "What's going on?"

Alton Brown. That's what's going on.

This would be the closest I'd get
to Alton... this time.....
One girl who walked in turned to her companion without having to ask the question. "That's Alton Brown!" She clearly didn't expect him there, but seemed excited to stumble upon the book signing.

Eventually, though, he brought the Q&A to a close and the signing began. There wasn't really a line--more of a packed mob. Surely, though, we had "connections" and could cut to the front, right? Well, okay, perhaps it would be morally wrong to do so. But good grief--if we waited in line, we could be there until midnight. In fact, we'd probably still be there RIGHT NOW instead of my typing this up.

I wanted to get a photo of the mob and went up to the second floor and got photos of the mob on the first floor. Turn out, Alton was quite accessible by sneaking around to the second floor. But still, it didn't feel right to try to cut in front of that long line. We watched Alton signing books and taking photos with fans, so I finally got a couple of closer-up photos of him. Amanda hung back further than I did, which is a shame--I kind of hoped he'd look up, see her, and wave us in. But he didn't notice her, and we eventually slunk away.

I may not have "officially" met Alton today, but I'm getting better. This time, I actually did see him in the flesh. =) Those photos of light that bounced off his skin entered my eye sockets! Next time, though.... there's always next time.... In a way, it would be kind of disappointing if I actually got to meet the man face-to-face at this point. =)

Saturday, October 1, 2011

By Gully, We'll Beat the Storm!

Ron takes my pack to the bottom of the cliff.
You can see the rope still attached to it.
We left last time with a cliff-hanger--our struggling heroes, Ron and I, looking over a small cliff hanging over the South Fork of the Toutle River, wondering how safe it would be getting down.

I suggested that we could lower our packs with rope, then we could navigate the treacherous scramble unencumbered. Ron pulled out some rope and went down, making it look easy. I threw our trekking poles down to him first, then lowered my pack which he grabbed onto and moved it to a safe spot. I had to be careful lowering my pack--I didn't want to lose control of it winding up with rope burns on my hands or knocking Ron out with it. =) I put on my gloves to help alleviate the rope burn problem, and wound the rope around a tree and my arm a few times to spread out the frictional forces slowing the backpack's descent, and it went well. I repeated the process with Ron's pack--which felt quite a bit heavier than my own pack, but then it was encumbered by the weight of a wedding dress that my pack didn't have. =)

When all of the gear had been lowered, I released the rope and lowered myself down into the ravine. We'd made it. Well, we made it down, at least. We still had to get back up the other side, but it wasn't nearly as vertical as the way down. Yep, we'd be fine.... =)

The river looked just wide enough that jumping across would be difficult and I decided to plow right through getting my feet wet. Ron, on the other hand, saw a small rock in the middle of the river and figured he could use that to get halfway across, then hop on to the far side. I wished him luck, but secretly, I wanted him to fail. I took out my camera and prepared myself in case of failure. I was going to make sure him falling into the river was going to be well-documented.

Ron thinks he can cross the South Fork of the Toutle River without getting his feet wet....
He made one large step to the rock, then stopped--straddling half the river. I wasn't sure if he'd have enough momentum to get the other foot onto the rock or not, and backing up would not be an option anymore. He floundered around, but eventually pulled himself up onto the rock. "Very good, Ron," I thought, "but that was the shorter step." And he barely made it.

Okay, you got one foot halfway across. Now what? =)
Ron tested the depth of the water ahead of him with his trekking pole. It appeared to be about knee deep. Not dangerous, but deeper than where I crossed the river. Once again, he took another large step to the other side of the river, and once again stopped--straddled halfway across the river. And once again, he floundered around for awhile, clearly trying to get a grip on the situation.
Woo-who! You made it halfway! And didn't even overshoot and
land face first in the river. Good job!

Click! Click! Click! I was working my camera hard.

"Come on, Ron! You're gonna go in! Just do it and get it over with," I shouted, encouraging him. If I was not around to encourage him, who would? =)

Yeah, deep right there, isn't it? Well, what are you going to do?
He continued floundering around, for nearly two minutes, before he finally pushed himself off the rock....

...and his one leg went into the river. Yep, no avoiding it. His other leg made it to the shore, however, and he seemed pleased that he only had to get one foot wet crossing the river.

Are you going to stand there all day like that? Oh, go on, just put your
foot in the water and get it over with. =)
We quickly scrambled back up the other bank--which was a heck of a lot easier than going down--and found a side trail to Sheep Canyon. Our guidebook suggested a good campsite could be found in that direction, so we followed it to a beautiful site along a creek. When we arrived, two day hikers were there--where they came from, we weren't sure. They suggested that they were going around Mount St. Helens clockwise, but clearly they didn't have enough gear to go completely around the mountain.

Ron makes a valiant attempt at crossing the river, but alas, he's going in....
Unfortunately, my camera can only take about one photo every three seconds and
he was already out of the water before my camera was ready for another photo.
So this photo of the toes of one foot in the water is the last one I got before
the afternoon's entertainment was over.
They didn't stick around long, though, and Ron and I set up camp. I laid down and rested. I was tired. Woke up early, hiked long and hard, and the crossing of the South Fork of the Toutle River wore me out. I was exhausted. Ron went off to take more pictures of himself in his wedding dress as I napped.

Ron climbs out from the gully, which was
considerably easier than getting into it!
The campsite was nice, but I complained to Ron about there being too many trees. I wanted to sleep under the stars--I love sleeping under the stars--and we had finally cleared the blast zone and were now surrounded by giant trees everywhere. I would have been thrilled to stop and camp before leaving the blast zone--that Toutle River crossing pretty much marks the boundary of the blast zone--but all camping is strictly prohibited in the blast zone. Nope, if we had stopped earlier, we'd have been camping illegally, and I do try to follow the rules when I can. But still, I would have preferred a campsite out of the trees. Ron seemed to love the trees, however.

We woke bright and early the next morning planning another long day that would cover about 16 miles--slightly more than halfway around the mountain. Our goal for day two was to loop as far around the mountain as possible and set up camp as close to the restricted camping zone on the other side of the mountain.

Immediately, the trail climbed up the South Fork of the Toutle River, gaining all of the elevation we lost the day before and then some. On the climb, I saw a pack resting by the side of the trail, alone and abandoned. Hmm... Yep, there it was--a bare butt, about 30 feet off the trail, facing in my direction. The morning constitutional. I decided to push on without saying hi. It probably wouldn't have made anyone very comfortable to be surprised by me walking up behind him. =)

Climbing back up above tree line, looking across
the canyon with the Toutle River.
Another couple of hundred feet up the trail, I found another hiker sitting on the side of the trail. Obviously, the hiking companion of the fellow doing his business in the woods. I sat down on a nearby log and introduced myself. They were going in the same direction as us, around the mountain, but they started at June Lake and intended to finish their hike this afternoon. They camped right next to the river crossing which is why we never saw them at the site we camped at, but they must have been behind us on the trail or we would have seen them after crossing the river. Hiking in the same direction, I expected we'd be crossing paths with each other most of the afternoon.

Several minutes later, the companion joined us, and I swear to God--he looked just like an image of Jesus. Long, brownish-blonde hair with a full beard and mustache. But the thing that really got me was the staff. He didn't carry a hiking pole or a stick improvising as a hiking pole--he carried a staff! Except for the technical clothes, he looked exactly like the images of Jesus you see just about everywhere.

"Holy cow! I just caught Jesus taking a dump!"

I kind of felt sorry for these poor,
lonely flowers in the morning sunlight.
I kept my thoughts to myself, however. Well, these thoughts, at least. =)

And if this was Jesus, then I must have been talking to one of his disciples this whole time. I wonder which one.... They all kind of look the same to me.

Ron walked up mere seconds after Jesus. I left camp before him and had a several minute head-start on him. Now that he was caught up and Jesus was done taking care of business, all four of us continued the relentless climb up the mountain with Ron and I pulling ahead of Jesus and Disciple.

The trail finally reached treeline at which point it stopped climbing elevation and started following the contours around the mountain again. The next mile or so was wonderfully flat with great views above treeline. I expected this terrain to last several miles, but much sooner than I expected, we were once again crashing back into the woods and down the mountain along a big canyon. Clearly, the trail was headed to a better place to cross safely, but I was annoyed. My map didn't show this detour down the mountain again. I think there was a reroute--a trail clearly used to go straight at one point but had been rerouted down the mountain. When did the reroute happen? How long was the reroute? We didn't know. We already had a long day of hiking planned, and this reroute was not making things any better for us.

Another gully to traverse. These gullies were really starting to annoy me....
Ultimately, the reroute probably took us a good one or two miles out of our way, and once again we had to scramble through the gully at the bottom of the canyon. Nothing near as challenging as the South Fork of the Toutle River, but an annoying detour no matter how you looked at it. Once we crossed, we headed back up the other side and returned to the treeline. ARGH!

We didn't see any cairns marking this route across the gully, so Wassa Jr
starts to build one himself!
The next couple of miles were absolutely wonderful. Green grasses, and the first hazy sighting of Mount Hood to the south. The walking was fast and easy, and the trail crossed by a few patches of snow. SNOW! *shaking head* Snow.....

We passed a few more day hikers along the trail, all of them warning us about a storm that was headed our way. Which wasn't a surprise--the last time I checked the weather before leaving Seattle, there was a 60% chance of rain Sunday. Today was Saturday--the first day of fall and last day we could expect nice weather. But it seemed like every day hiker described the impending storm as growing larger and worse with each passing hour. The first day hiker described, "Rain tomorrow." The next day hiker described a "storm" headed our day. Then they were describing a "big" storm. And then a "huge storm." Yeah, thanks for trying to cheer us up, folks! =)

Wow--what a view! This is what I live for!
Ron asked me if I thought it was just scare-mongering. Probably some of it, but there was definitely a change coming. That's what the weather forecast I saw said the day before. Probably lots of rain, but I didn't otherwise think much of it. Rain isn't fun, but it wasn't going to kill us either.

At the next trail junction, I saw two hikers sprawled out, resting. These two, clearly, were not mere day hikers. They had packs the size of Texas. I saw three large boxes of Wheat Thins resting outside of one of the packs, and the one fellow had a ZipLock bag of what appeared to be Jelly Bellies. If I had to guess, there must have been at least five pounds of Jelly Bellies in that bag. It was enormous!

Snow, for Pete's sake! Snow!
I stopped and introduced myself, learning that they had just started their round-the-mountain hike that morning from the Climbers Bivouac, heading clockwise. I probably wouldn't see them again, unless it was on the opposite side of the mountain.

Ron caught up quickly and we chatted for a bit before they moved on. Ron and I rested a little longer--we intended to take a break here even before we knew about the other hikers. After they left, Ron turned to me: "Did you see the size of their packs?!"

And I couldn't help but laugh. Yes, I noticed that before I had even said hi. "Did you see the three--THREE!--large boxes of Wheat Thins the one fellow had? And the entire box?! They didn't even repack it!"

I wondered if they had ever been on a backpacking trip before. They had some of the largest packs I've ever seen--and I've seen a lot of people with over-weighted packs before. Ron started referring to them as the Wheat Thin Boys, and that became their nickname--unbeknownst to them--for the rest of the trip. =)

The ancient lava flows I found rather easy to walk on, but the going was slow.
The trail quickly cut into some old lava flows--large, broken rocks where we often lost the trail. The trail was marked by large plastic poles and wooden posts along these sections, and we'd scramble over the rocks from one pole or post to the next. It was beautiful, and while hiking along it was slow going, but it was easy going too. The rocks were solid and generally didn't jiggle or move, and my shoes stuck to the rough surfaces like glue. No slipping on these rocks! But the going was slow, and I was growing increasingly frustrated at our time. We left camp later than I expected. The detour on the trail slowed down the next segment. And now this. At the rate we were going, I was growing increasingly concerned that we wouldn't make our campsite until after sunset.

Wooden posts marked the trail through the lava flows, and
Mount Adams rises in the background.
Not much to do about that except push onward.

I started growing increasingly concerned about the lack of water. My topo map showed half a dozen streams crossing the trail, but they were all dry when we passed. I wasn't terribly worried--while I had originally planned to fill up with water at any creeks we passed along the way, I knew with absolute certainty we could get water at June Lake--slightly more than halfway through our hike for the day. But it was a quarter mile off the trail, and I didn't want to walk a quarter mile off the trail for water.

Somewhere, a forest is burning.....
We looped around the south side of the mountain, passing Jesus and Disciple multiple times along the way, then they'd pass us again. In the distance, Mount Adams rose above the horizon--majestic and towering above everything around it. Between Mount Hood and Mount Adams we could see a wildfire burning out of control. Exactly where it was we didn't know, nor did any of the hikers we passed. I wondered if it was burning on the PCT--perhaps somewhere near Indian Heaven, but I never did learn the source of the fire. The wind blew the smoke from the fire in front of Mount Adams, creating a hazy and less-than-perfect photo op. Drats.

You'd be surprised at the number of snakes we found along the trail. I saw four of them!
This is the only one I got a photo of, however.
Finally, at Swift Creek, we reached a drinkable water source. We would not have to make the extra side-trip to June Lake for water. *whew* We stopped to eat lunch here, then continued on.

Near the junction for June Lake, I noticed the clouds coming in. A thick layer of them, blotting out the entire blue sky to the west. The storm was a coming. And it was coming in faster than I expected.

Swift Creek, going over a cliff.
Onward we pushed, trying to reach camp before dark. The clouds raced over us, pushing to the east, and I noticed some of the clouds in the distance were actually dropping rain. Occasionally, I felt a drop of water hit me. It wasn't raining, not yet at least, but for the first time that day, I wondered if it would rain on us before we even reached camp. According to the weather forecast I last checked, the chance of rain today was zero percent. ZERO! My pack was not prepped for rain. My camera and wallet weren't in ZipLocks. My clothes bag wasn't in a trash bag. My book and magazines weren't waterproofed. I wasn't prepared for rain, and this sudden turn in the weather was a problem.

Beyond the June Lake junction, though, the trail was relatively easy to hike. No jagged lava flows to step carefully over. No steep climbs to slow us down. No more unexpected detours. Which was good... because we were now in a race. We were in a race against the storm, and it was starting to look like the storm was going to win....
The clouds were moving in fast, and we started racing the storm to camp.


Friday, September 30, 2011

We'll Be Going 'Round the Mountain....

Wassa checks out the Hoffstadt Bridge along the
blast zone for Mount St. Helens. The forest on the other
side had been completely wiped out by the Mount St.
Helens eruption, but it's growing back here!
I got an e-mail a few months ago from a fellow on Atlas Quest named NW Adventurer, asking about my experiences on the PCT. He was particularly interested because he intended to thru-hike the PCT himself next year. We swapped a few e-mails, and eventually made tentative plans to do a short backpacking trip late in the summer.

Finally, we agreed on a time and a place, and ultimately we decided to visit one of the most famous mountains of the Pacific Northwest: Mount St. Helens. For those of you who sleep under a rock, Mount St. Helens is the volcano that erupted so spectacularly back on May 18, 1980, wiping out hundreds of square miles of forest and reducing the top of the mountain by 1,300 feet. Prior to the eruption, the peak was the 5th highest in the state. After the eruption, it doesn't even break the top 20. This mountain is a geological wonder!

I had done some hiking on the south side of the mountain before, but you couldn't really see into the crater from that direction and was well outside of the blast zone. Considering it was only a few hour drive away, it's remarkable I haven't explored the area in more detail. I intended to change that with this trip. This trip, I decided, would take us completely around the mountain mostly following the 28-mile-or-so Loowit Trail.

Mount St. Helens, lurking in the clouds
NW Adventurer, a.k.a. Ron, picked me up in Seattle Thursday afternoon and we started driving south toward The Mountain. We'd get there in the evening, though, and camped for the night at a pullout along the windy road to the Johnson Ridge Observatory. He slept in the cab of his pickup truck. I slept in the back under the stars. Saw several shooting stars during the night, and listened to elk bugling to each other. Not a bad night, really, even if I was only camped in the back of a pickup truck . =)

We woke the next morning to a beautiful view of Mount St. Helens. We saw it a bit the evening before, mired in clouds and partly obscured, but during the night the clouds mostly left leaving an absolutely stunning view directly into the crater. Wow.

Sunset from our waywide camp.
We parked at Johnson Ridge, packed up our gear, and headed out. After about a half hour, Ron stopped to take off a layer of clothes--the day was warming up rapidly, and I pulled ahead. After about ten minutes, my spidey senses started to tingle. Something about the trail felt wrong. I was expecting a junction, which would take me south towards Mount St. Helens, but the trail seemed like it was going more north than south. Trails wind around obstacles often enough, but I started getting the feeling that I somehow missed the junction.

Sunrise over Mount St. Helens
But that was impossible, I thought. The trail was clearly marked. I couldn't possibly miss a major trail junction... but my spidey senses continued to tingle. Five more minutes, I decided. I'll go for another five minutes and see how things stand.

I'm ready to hike around the Great Mountain.
Five minutes later, I still hadn't found the junction. Looking at my watch, I had expected to come across it ten minutes earlier. I pulled out my topo map of the area, and unless I was badly misreading it, I was certain I was on the wrong trail. It was time to turn around. If I was lucky, Ron would catch up with me after a few minutes of hiking and confirm that we hadn't reached the junction and I was on the right track all along.

But I didn't see Ron. I continued backtracking, following the trail for ten minutes until I reached the junction. A giant sign marked it, pointing the direction I needed to go. And I couldn't help but think, "How the hell did I miss this junction?!" I'd hiked about 10 minutes in the wrong direction, and 10 minutes back, which I figured put me about 20 minutes behind Ron at this point. Probably close to a mile. Crap. He probably still thought I was in front and was hoofing it as fast as he could trying to catch up to me.

This is the trail junction that I somehow,
inexplicably, failed to notice.
Coming down off of Johnson Ridge, I crossed over parts of the largest landslide in recorded history--and the lumpy hummocks it left behind that slid completely up and over Johnson Ridge. Wow. Down from the ridge, the trail followed a largely flatish plain, desolate with only the smallest of trees and bushes. This area used to be a thriving old growth forest until Mount St. Helens blew.

Ron takes off a layer of clothes to
beat the heat--would this be the
last photo I ever took of him?
There was a view of Spirit Lake, filled with hundreds and hundreds of logs destroyed in the eruption. I'd heard about those logs filling Spirit Lake, and seen photos of it before, but it was still quite a sight to see in person. I once read that every month, one or two of the logs become so waterlogged that they finally sink to the bottom of the lake. I'm not sure who sits around counting how many and how often logs sink to the bottom of the lake, but I thought that was interesting. At that rate, however, the logs will clutter the lake for years more to come.

Spirit Lake fascinated me. The waters of the lake sloshed 800 feet up the hillside, and lahars and pyroclastic flows filled in the old lakebed raising the surface level of the lake by over 200 feet. Most geologic processes move so slowly, it's hard to see any changes within a lifetime.
This is a closeup of the crater's still-growing dome. You can see steam rising off of it,
which just fascinates me. =) Hiking within the crater is not allowed for safety reasons.
A few streams ran through this low area and frogs seemed to jump out from absolutely everywhere. Hundreds of little frogs. I had to be careful not to step on any of those cute little things. If they didn't move, though, they were practically invisible, blending into their backgrounds better than a chameleon.

Spirit Lake, filled with logs that once made up a thick forest around it.
The hummocks left on Johnson Ridge weren't to be seen in the lower valleys at the base of Mount St. Helens--which were largely flat and devoid of features. Later I would learn this was because of pyroclastic flows--superheated gases and rocks reaching temperatures of 1,830°F flowing over the landscape burying the hummocks from the landslide. Parts of the valley we were walking on was 600 feet higher after the eruption than before it. Six hundred feet higher! The Toutle River was already carving out new channels through the flattened terrain.

I don't know who did this,
but I really enjoyed admiring their
work. =)
As amazing as my surroundings were, however, I was still worried about Ron. Not that he was hurt or injuried--I didn't believe that for a second--but worried we'd be chasing each other around the mountain all weekend unable to find each other. I hoped and prayed he had the common sense to realize that I must have missed that junction and that I was behind him. I hoped that when he reached the Loowit Trail and didn't see me, he'd realize I wouldn't have left there without him. We hadn't even decided which way around the mountain we would go. We discussed the pros and cons of going clockwise or counter-clockwise, but I told him we didn't have to commit to a direction until we reached the junction.

Certainly he'd realize I wouldn't go beyond that junction, considering we hadn't even agreed on which direction we'd go. Right? I hoped so.

What rotten luck, I thought, to miss the very first trail junction of the entire hike. We hadn't even been hiking together for an hour yet. He wasn't familiar with how I think or my patterns. He might think I'm some super-human freak that hikes a million miles per hour and would leave him in the dust at a critical trail junction. I'm not and I wouldn't, but he didn't know that yet.

The hummocks the trail crosses over used to be land that was once part of the
northern slope of Mount St. Helens before the 1980 eruption. The valley
between where this photo was taken and the mountain is as much as 600 feet
higher than before the eruption!
And if he did go on, thinking I was somewhere ahead, which direction would he have taken? Which direction should I go hoping to catch up with him? If I go the wrong way, I might not see him again until we're crossing paths on the complete opposite side of the mountain! This is so not good. Please, I hoped, don't go past that junction. Stop at that junction and wait for me.

Can you see the frog in this photo?

There he is! It's a great camo job! If these things weren't moving around so actively,
I probably wouldn't have noticed them at all. I was all but chasing this frog!
I reached the next junction, and Ron wasn't there. Crap. One sign pointed to the Loowit Trail, 3/4 miles away, going right. The other direction, I also knew, connected to the Loowit Trail, further to the east, three or four miles away, but it wasn't labeled as such. I guessed that if Ron went past this junction--which he clearly must have done--he probably followed the sign pointing to the Loowit Trail, probably assuming I did the same thing. I went right.

Elk were everywhere! We'd pass several herds of them, each herd with dozens of them.
The 1980 eruption killed 1600 elk, but it created their ideal grasslands habitat afterwards
and the elk are prospering better than ever! This used to be a thick forest before the eruption.
"Please, please, please," I thought, "don't have gone past the next junction!"

I crossed over a small hill, from which I could see a herd of Elk nearby. Majestic creatures, they are, but I didn't stop to admire them. I needed to catch up with Ron.

Wassa helps build a cairn to mark the way.
I rounded another turn, and--yes!--there was Ron! He was at the trail junction! Relief. I waved at him, wanting to make sure he saw I was behind him, and he waved back. Yep, he knew where I was now.

When I got closer, he asked, "How did you get behind me?!"

And I told him I just missed that first trail junction. There was no excuse for it. I couldn't even explain how I missed such an obvious junction. We caught up a bit. He was worried that I was some super-human hiker and would be upset that I was slowing him down. Ha! I'm the one slowing us down. So far, at least....

You really have to see it to believe it....
We hiked a bit further before Ron stopped again. He wanted to put on his wedding dress. Yes, you read that correctly. Wedding dress. White. It's part of his plan to raise money for his PCT thru-hike next year. 26 weeks. 26 wedding gowns. 2600 miles. Hiking 26. Just when you think you've seen it all, a guy wearing a wedding dress on a backpacking trip comes along to prove you wrong. =)

Gotta fix that train!
Naturally, I took a lot of photos. Nobody would believe it unless I had photos. I also pointed up at the Johnson Ridge Observatory. "If anyone up there looked through a telescope at us right now, they're gonna wonder about you." If someone did happen to notice Ron, I suspected every telescope up there would soon be pointed at him. Oh, look, elk--but really, you can see elk any time. How often do you get to see a man backpacking around Mount St. Helens in a wedding dress? Now that's a sight to see!

video
He hiked in the dress for about an hour, jumping across creeks, up and down gullies, through the blast zone of Mount St. Helens. It's really a perfect place, as far as wearing a wedding dress goes. There's no brush for it to get caught up in. It might have been hot and uncomfortable, but it's a relatively easy area to walk around with a dress on. =)

The elk are captivated with the hiker in the wedding dress. Most of the elk we saw tended
to walk away from us. These elk kept getting closer and closer to the trail....
Eventually it came off, however, and we continued on, closing in on the South Fork of the Toutle River. Rumor had it that this would be a difficult little river to cross. The ranger I talked to back at Johnson Ridge described it as 'sketchy.'
Ron took this photo of the elk and captioned their conversation. =)
The steep drop itself didn't worry me as much
as the all of the loose boulders that could
rain down upon us if we knocked any of them
loose.
The trail reached the edge of a deep canyon, and we could see the trail drop quickly down into it. Most of the canyon didn't worry me--it would be a long downhill and a long slog back uphill, but it wasn't dangerously steep or worrisome. No, the size of the canyon didn't worry me. It was a narrow little crack at the bottom of it that worried me. From a distance, it looked like a sheer, vertical cliff. Not very far across--probably 50 feet at the widest--but I can't jump across 50 feet.

We crashed down the mountain, finally arriving where the trail runs right over a near vertical cliff. It looked passable. Sketchy, but passable. The drop itself didn't look particularly dangerous, but there was a large boulder embedded in the sandy soil which concerned me. If that boulder shifted when one of us were under it, it would likely be a fatal flow. I decided to scout downstream a bit to see if there might be a safer alternative, but after five or ten minutes of walking, I found nothing better. Way downstream, perhaps two miles away, it looked like the canyon flattened out and there would likely be a better place to cross, but we didn't want to walk several miles out of our way to avoid this particular challenge. Nope, we'd cross here....
Ron examines the route down to the South Fork of the Toutle River.
Would he make it? Would we survive the most treacherous part
of the entire hike? Tune in next time to find out! =)