Tag Archive | Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

2017 Ape Cave Hike

Friday, August 11, 2017

In August, I took a trip to Portland with a friend and her son for a long weekend.  We made a stop on the way on the south side of Mount St. Helens, to do the Ape Cave hike!

Shelley and I sign posing

Ape Cave was formed when about 2,000 years ago lava erupted down the south side of Mount St. Helens. As the lava flowed the outer edges of the lava cooled and formed a hardened crust which kept the lava underneath in a molten state.  As a result the hot lava flowed in a lava tube and continued flowing for months during the eruption.  The Ape Cave lava tube is 13,042 feet long, the third longest lava tube in North America, and the longest in the continental United States (for people who pay attention to these sort of statistics…).  A lava tube like this is rare at Mount St. Helens because the mountain typically has thicker lava which tends not to result in lava tubes; instead it builds up pressure which then causes explosive eruptions like the eruption in 1980.

We got to Ape Cave about 1:30 in the afternoon after a several hour drive.  It was definitely time to stretch our legs and get moving.  There are two options to hike Ape Cave, the upper cave and the lower cave.  The lower Ape Cave is about 0.75 miles long with a flat floor and is considered “easy,” appropriate for kids and people that are not up for doing the upper cave.  The upper Ape Cave is 1.5 miles long, with approximately 27 boulder piles that must be climbed over.  When the lava tube finally cooled, the molten lava drained out and the ceiling began to shrink and crack.  Boulders fell from the ceiling, in some places leaving the piles and in others leaving the entrances.  Even where there aren’t boulder piles, the hardened lava is uneven to walk on.  There are also two rock wall obstacles in the cave that need to be scaled too, only one of which was in the website literature we read…

The entrance to both the lower and upper caves

We decided to do the Upper Ape Cave, because who wants to do the easy hike?!?  Pretty quickly we were absolutely alone.  In the dark…  With just our headlamps to keep us company.  We made our way through the cave, climbing up the boulders and then back down the pile on the other side.  Over lots and lots of rock piles…  Over lots of uneven lava floor.  The walls of the cave were fascinating.  There was cave slime and interesting colors on the walls and the boulders.

I mentioned before that there are two spots in the cave that are more than just moderate.  This is where the cave gets its “difficult” rating.  The first spot we came to is about a 7 foot rock wall that you had to scale.  Lucky for us, a ranger happened along at that point and let us know where the two footholds are.  They don’t seem like they are allowed to help by giving you a boost though…  The footholds help you get high enough up the wall that you can hoist yourself over, but you still need some strength to make it happen!  I had strained my knee the weekend before, so I was a little worried about it, but managed to hoist myself up and over on the second try.

It doesn’t look like much looking down, but that wall was taller than me…

The second challenge was a bit different.  You had to use a foothold to get up on a natural step – that part wasn’t hard – but then you had to scoot between the wall and and rock and then scoot your bum up and over the rock to get up to the higher level.  The other option was to just pull yourself over the rock from the foothold, but I wasn’t strong enough for that.  In short, if you don’t have the upper body strength, you have to be slender enough to scoot between the rocks.  This obstacle was the hardest part of the cave for three short weaklings!

Toward the end of the cave you reach a little garden oasis, where the ceiling has fallen in and allowed light and soil to reach into the cave.  There are ferns and other plants growing there.  We took some photos there and continued on, since we knew we were getting close to the end!

A view of the skylight – close to being done!

Due to all the climbing over rock piles, it felt like way more distance than a 1.5 mile hike.  The elevation during the hike moves from about 1,900 feet to about 2,400 feet, but you won’t notice the elevation gain with all the climbing over boulders…  We reached the end after about 2.5 hours in the cave, which the literature says is the expected time.  Admittedly, we took a lot of breaks along the way…  We were tired at the end, but we still had to climb out of the cave using a ladder.

The ladder you climb to exit the cave

 

The exit – we made it out!

Once we were back above ground, we hiked back to the trail back through ashy soil and the remnants of the 1980 eruption all around.

The surface hike back

 

Me! With a really cool dead tree

If you go…  Dress for a 45 degree cave – there’s no sun to warm you up.  Wear pants to protect your legs and closed toed shoes, preferably hiking boots or hiking shoes – trust me on this, you will appreciate the leg protection and parts of the cave are slick.  Bring a headlamp; you will want to be hands-free as you climb over the boulders.  If you can, bring someone tall and strong!  That would have made the obstacles way easier…  And lastly – you can do it, mind over matter my friends!

What a fun hike!

A Quick Trip to a Volcano

Have you ever hiked on an active volcano?  Would you be worried that it would erupt beneath your feet?  Back in June, Jon and I decided to take an impromptu weekend getaway and we made a stop at Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.  Mount St. Helens is best known for its May 18, 1980 eruption that was the most deadly and economically devastating volcanic eruption in U.S. history.   You can read my post about it here.

Welcome to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

Welcome to Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument

On our drive up the mountain, there was quite a bit of fog, which gradually melted away to reveal a gorgeous blue sky and big, white, puffy clouds.  And a huge, puffy cloud hanging directly in front of the signature crater of the mountain that stuck around for our entire visit.  How’s that for ruining a photo op?  I have heard that this cloud is a common occurrence at Mount St. Helens, although I’m not sure why.

 

The partially recovered valley below the volcano.

The partially recovered valley below the volcano.

We visited the Johnston Ridge Observatory, which was named for David Johnston, a volcanologist who was monitoring the mountain on the morning of the 1980 eruption and was killed that day.   The observatory has several exhibits on volcanoes and what happens in an eruption, and a great (albeit a bit cheesy) movie about the eruption and the subsequent changes to the landscape that have occurred.  The movie also details the return of life to the area in the years after the eruption.  At the end of the movie, the curtains at the front of the theater open and you are greeted with a spectacular view of the mountain through the floor to ceiling windows.  Amazing.

Jon and I went outside and began a hike from the observatory towards Spirit Lake.  Spirit Lake was one of the lakes that became superheated and flashed to steam during the eruption.  It was filled with trees and debris that were blown down from the eruption, and the trees still cover much of the surface of the lake today.

A view of Spirit Lake, off in the distance. In the lower right corner, you can see trees that were buried by the ash.

A view of Spirit Lake, off in the distance.
In the lower right corner, you can see trees that were buried by the ash.

We didn’t hike as far as the lake because we hadn’t come prepared with our hiking shoes, but we enjoyed what we did do.  The number of people on the trail dropped considerably once we got even a few hundred yards away from the observatory, and we were able to get great views of the mountain and the devastation that is still visible in the valley below.  Grasses and shrubs grow there now, and even a few conifers, but you can still clearly see the evidence of the huge landslide that tore through the area.  It just looks like a blanket of mud on the ground even now.

Piddles the Owl reflects on the many owl lives lost in the eruption.

Piddles the Owl reflects on the many owl lives lost in the eruption.

There was a volunteer docent with a telescope trained on some elk that were grazing down in the valley, but I couldn’t see them when I looked into it.  I’ll just have to trust that they were there.  We did see lots of prairie lupine, Indian Paintbrush and wild strawberry plants.  And bees – they liked the lupine.

One of my favorite wildlife pics ever!

One of my favorite wildlife pics ever!

When you look on the ridge opposite Mount St. Helens, you can see thousands of trees that were laid flat by the force of the blast in 1980.  Their weathered and gray skeletal remains almost make you believe that the trees just died naturally and fell, until you consider that there are none left standing.  A barren wasteland of dry, gray logs.

Trees flattened by the blast in 1980

Trees flattened by the blast in 1980

This NASA website provides an intriguing series of satellite photos documenting the devastation from before the eruption to the modern day.  It shows how barren the mountain was after the blast and how time has gradually healed the landscape.  I find it fascinating that you can see the carpet of logs moving to different areas in Spirit Lake during the photo series.

On our way back down the mountain, we stopped at Coldwater Lake, a lake that was created by the eruption when the landslide dammed Coldwater Creek.  The Army Corps of Engineers created an outlet channel to drain water from Coldwater Lake to prevent the possibility of the lake overflowing and creating a catastrophic flood, but other than that, the lake has been left to develop naturally.  It is now a scenic day-use area with an interpretive trail and fishing opportunities  (the lake was stocked with rainbow and cutthroat trout).  Boats with electric motors are permitted on the lake.  I thought it was a very peaceful place.

Coldwater Lake – a lake created by the 1980 volcanic eruption.

Coldwater Lake – a lake created by the 1980 volcanic eruption.

I will certainly return and spend more time here; Jon and I are both interested in hiking to the summit of this now 8,365 foot volcano.  You can climb it in a day (most hikers take between 7 and 12 hours) and it doesn’t require any technical climbing.  My kind of mountain climbing…

The Day the House Trembled

I was four years old on May 18, 1980. It was a Sunday, and my brother and I were playing in our room that morning. Suddenly, my mom was yelling down the hall at us to stop kicking the walls. Only we weren’t. We had been playing quietly, not arguing or fighting and certainly not kicking walls. What was going on?

It wasn’t until later that we learned that Mount St. Helens had erupted at 8:32 that morning. It was the most significant eruption in the United States since the 1915 eruption of Lassen Peak in California. And it was only a few hours away from us. A 5.1 magnitude earthquake created by the rumblings under the mountain triggered a huge landslide that morning. Most of the north face of the mountain slid; it was the largest landslide ever recorded.

Mount St. Helens on May 17, 1980, one day before the eruption.   (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

Mount St. Helens on May 17, 1980, one day before the eruption.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The landslide filled the valley with earth, water and trees that had been flattened by the impact. It moved at speeds between 110 and 155 miles per hour. When the landslide stopped, the debris had moved 13 miles down the North Fork Toutle River; the debris reached heights of 600 feet tall covering an area of about 24 square miles.

The landslide triggered a volcanic eruption within a few seconds of the landslide; volcanic gases, pumice, and ash exploded through the landslide, and the blast knocked down all the trees nearby. Over 230 square miles of trees were simply laid flat by the heat and force of the eruption; many more trees further away were killed because of the heat but remained standing.

A second explosion occurred when the superheated eruption material turned all of the water in Spirit Lake and the North Fork Toutle River to steam. That explosion had a “quiet zone” immediately surrounding the mountain where the explosion was not heard. However, areas further away were not within the quiet zone; the second explosion was heard as far away as British Columbia, Canada, Idaho and Northern California. That was the explosion that my mother heard and felt that morning.

By the time the mountain was finished that day, the column of smoke and ash reached 80,000 feet into the air and deposited ash in 11 states. Day became night in cities along the path due to the falling ash; cities were covered with anywhere between 0.5 inches in Spokane to 5 inches of ash in Yakima, Washington.

The immediate area had been closed off for several weeks before the eruption due to increasing earthquake and eruption activity on the mountain.  But even still, 57 people lost their lives, including a volcanologist named David Johnston, who was working for the US Geological Survey. Others killed included Harry R. Truman, a lodge owner, Reid Blackburn, a photographer from National Geographic, and others who either lived or were camping or hiking in the area. Most of the people who died that day died of asphyxiation, although several died of burns. Several bodies were never found.

It wasn’t just people who died that day; researchers estimate that up to 7,000 elk, deer and bear were also killed, along with countless smaller mammals. Bird populations were devastated. Over 12 million young salmon were killed when hatcheries in the area were destroyed.  Yet remarkably, some burrowing rodents, frogs and salamanders managed to survive because they were burrowed underground when the eruption occurred.

And the trees? In all 4,000,000,000 board feet of timber was destroyed. That’s enough to build 300,000 homes.  About 25% of the flattened trees were salvaged beginning that fall, but the majority were not harvested.  Additionally, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railroad track and 185 miles of highways were wiped out.  Massive devastation.

After the blast, the area was acquired by the federal government and the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument was born. Areas not under federal control (most were owned by Weyerhauser) were replanted soon after the eruption, but the lands of the new monument were left as is; allowed to recover naturally.

The mountain in 1982, with a steam plume, and the now famous crater.   (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

The mountain in 1982, with a steam plume, and the now famous crater.
(Photo courtesy of Wikipedia)

When you visit now, 34 years later, there are signs of rebirth. Meadows and shrubs have grown, and elk and larger mammals move through the area once again. But you can still see the absolute devastation caused by the eruption. You can see thousands of trees, lying flat along the hillside, remaining where they were blown down all those years ago. And you can clearly see where the landslide raged through and covered the valley, leaving ugly scars and trails of earth and mud.

And my brother and I?  Well, my mom apologized later that day for getting mad at us when she saw the news and realized what had happened.  You really can’t blame her; after all, her conclusion seemed more likely than a mountain exploding.

We visited in June of this year, and were fascinated to see the changes that are occurring on this once beautiful, then absolutely barren landscape. I’ll post about our visit next.

Do you remember where you were when Mount St. Helens erupted?  Were you close enough to feel it?