Hiking In The Dark

At the end of last July I fulfilled a lifelong goal by climbing to the top of Mt. St. Helens.  Ok, this wasn’t a “goal” until last year, but I had always thought it would be cool to stand on the rim of the crater and look down inside, never imagining that I would actually do it.  The climb to the top was both challenging and exhausting, full of giant rocks and ash but getting to the top was worth every agonizing step.  So, when the on sale datef for 2017 permits was announced I decided I needed to go back and somehow managed to talk Cristina and my friend Shanelle into joining me.

When the permits went on sale at the beginning of February we (I) decided on June 12th for our climb.  I figured that would allow for more than enough time for a majority of snow to melt off.  However, in my excitement there were two things I didn’t account for.  The first being that last year as really dry and it didn’t snow much, so I didn’t have to deal with any snow on my last climb.  The second thing I didn’t account for is that we just had a harsh winter with a lot of snow in the mountains.  As the date of our climb drew closer it became clear that we would be dealing with snow, something neither Cristina or Shanelle signed up for.  I reassured them that the snow would actually make things easier since it would cover all the giant rocks that made things difficult for me last year and promised to teach them how to use an ice axe.  I did, however, downplay the fact that we would have to take the winter route which adds an additional 2 miles and 1,200 feet of elevation gain.

After months of waiting the day came and we headed to our campsite at Beaver Bay campground in Cougar, Washington (I may have let my inner child choose the campground just for the jokes).  Once we arrived and set up camp I began to float a fantastic idea I had..  to hike at night!  This idea was mainly due to the fact that I was slightly concerned about a couple things. One was that it was starting to warm up during the day which meant that the snow would turn to slush and make things really slippery. The other concern was that the forecast called for rain in the afternoon, which would block any views we would have from the top. I tried to sell my idea by mentioning that we could make it to the rim in time for the sunrise, which would be an awesome sight.  Somehow I was able to convince both of them that hiking at night was a good idea and we decided to head to the trailhead around 11:30 PM. Yeah, they probably didn’t think it was “a good idea” but they were on board.

The next thing I knew it was time to head out and we started to make our way to the trailhead. This presented the first obstacle to hiking at night, finding the trailhead in the dark.  I somehow missed a turn and we ended up going much further east than we needed to.  However, we did get to see a huge elk as it darted across the road in front of us; we were all suddenly wide awake after that. After our hour long detour we finally found the trailhead, which was surprisingly full of cars and tents, they must have known how easy it is miss the turn in the dark. While there were plenty people camping out to get an early start, we were the only ones that were gearing up to head out at 1 AM.  We found the trail and headed out.. to climb a volcano.. covered in snow… at night.
The trail cut through the trees, starting out gently and snow free as everyone acclimated to hiking by headlamp.  Shortly down the trail I somehow spotted a spotted owl, who i’m going to say was named Spot, perched in a tree next to the trail. I’m sure Spot wasn’t too happy about all three of us blasting it with our headlamps as we stared at it for a minute or two but it was a nice way to start the hike. As we continued on we started to encounter patches of snow with a nice worn trail, as planned the snow was frozen and easy to cross.  Once the snow became more prevalent we threw on our microspikes, which made hiking in the snow drastically easier, and continued on.  As we emerged from the trees we heard water flowing over Chocolate Falls, we stopped to take a look but couldn’t see much in the dark.  Not only was it dark but it had gotten a bit foggy as well, which caused the light from our headlamps to only illuminate the area 3 feet in front of us. We continued up the trail which eventually began to get hard to follow.  I checked the GPS and discovered another challenge of hiking in the dark, we had started to follow a different trail than planned.  Not knowing if it would eventually re-join with the main trail we backtracked and rejoined our intended trail, this is when things started to get a bit steep.

Since we were starting to really climb upwards in the snow we broke out the ice axes before continuing up the snow field, luckily none of us ended up slipping and having to use it.  Up until this point we hadn’t seen another person on the trail at all, which was really nice, but were quickly passed by two girls that we watched fly up the trail, they must have had super powers. After a bit of traveling in the snow we hit the rocky spine of the trail which was surprisingly snow free.  While it had gotten a bit lighter out at this point navigating through the rocks was a bit tricky, I don’t think I adequately explained the volume and size of rocks and boulders to either Cristina or Shanelle ahead of time.  As we continued on we heard a loud noise, which I can only describe as a cross between a roar and a screech, it seemed to be coming from multiple directions. I swear it was above us but was unable to see anything because of the clouds,  Cristina and Shanelle thought it might be elk or some other animals. We were all pretty tired at this point so who knows what we actually heard.  I still say it was a pterodactyl circling above us.

Next thing we knew the sun began to rise and the clouds appeared to erupt out of the mountainside. We took a break to take in the view, have a snack and asses our progress.  We were just short of the weather station which meant while there wasn’t much distance to cover there was still a lot of elevation gain left.  It’s at this point we decided to turn back, while everyone could have made it coming back down wouldn’t be easy, despite being able to glissade for part of it. Not to mention we were all thinking about crawling into warm sleeping bags and getting some sleep.  We threw our packs back on, and started to head back down.

On our way back down we started to pass people as they were heading up. Some of them were friendly but a lot of them weren’t, which was suprising.  We did however have fun responding to people when they asked “You already summited?!”. I think my favorite was “Yep, second time today”. The question got old really fast though.  I was surprised by the number of people hiking up with snowboards, had to be a fun way to get down. Sure enough, on our way down the snow had already started to turn to slush, it would not have been fun to try to hike through slush with rubber legs had we continued.

Once we made it back to the campsite we got some much needed rest, only to be awoken by an obnoxiously loud garbage truck emptying the abundance of trash cans scattered through the campsite.  We then decided that since we already went up it was time to go down, so we headed to the Ape Caves.  The Ape Caves, otherwise know as lava tubes, were formed by the flow of, you guessed it, lava. Apparently they are called the “Ape Caves” because some miners claimed they were attacked by apes when they were down there.  I was a bit nervous as there are plenty of bats in the ape caves and i’m not a fan of bats,  luckily there were no bats in the section we explored.

As you might expect it was a bit chilly inside, and just like during our hike up Mt. St. Helens we made good use of our headlamps. Our final destination was what is known as “The Meatball”, I have no idea why they call it that.

After exploring the Ape Caves we returned to the campsite at Beaver Bay, in Cougar, (heh) and enjoyed relaxing around the campfire with plenty of s’mores making their way into my tummy. While we didn’t summit Mt. St. Helens we still got to hike at night, which was an awesome idea. We had the trail to ourselves, avoided slipping and falling in slushy snow, met an owl named Spot, heard a pterodactyl, and got to watch the sunrise.