Sunday, August 7, 2011

Circumnavigating Mt. St. Helens

I had thought off and on for a couple of years about running the Loowit trail around Mt. St. Helens, but had never made it a very high priority. We were planning to run the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier the first weekend of August, but the late snow this year ruined that plan. Running around Mt. St. Helens rather than Rainier seemed like a great replacement plan, but it wasn't clear that the Loowit trail had melted out enough to run it either. After a week of web searches and calls to the ranger station (reports ranged from completely snow free, to sections of the trail completely snow covered), we decided to give it a go.

I found a couple of great guides to running the Loowit trail here and here, so I won't attempt to make this blog post into a complete guide. I will say that if you are an ultrarunner living in the NW, you should really make a point of doing this run. It is truly spectacular! The varied scenery ranging from moonscape, to wildflower meadows, to deep canyons and forest combined with the incredible views, not only of Mt. St. Helens but also Mt. Hood, Mt. Adams and Mt. Rainier make this a compelling experience.

The route around the mountain. We did get lost and significantly off trail for a mile or so at the north-east end of the loop.
We decided to start our run from the Windy Ridge trailhead on the northeast corner of the mountain and to follow the Loowit trail counter-clockwise around the mountain. We started about 6:45am after getting a decent night's sleep in the truck despite the continual screaming wind for which the trailhead is aptly named. A dense fog had settled in overnight and we started out hoping we would not make it around the mountain without ever seeing it! However, within a few hours the sun started breaking through the clouds and we could see the glorious mountain we were traveling around.

The scenery on this run turned out to be so much better than I could have imagined, but the pictures below can do better justice to this than I can with words (additional photos here). I think we lucked out in running this route at pretty much the optimal time this year--the snow had melted just to the point that the trails were passable (despite the need for some snow field crossing) but there were still many streams flowing so that water availability was never a problem and the mountain was incredibly green with many wildflowers. The Loowit trail is difficult to follow as the markings (primarily cairns and posts) tend to be frequent near popular day hiking spots and pretty much nonexistent in between. We managed to get off trail and thoroughly lost for a mile or so on the Studebaker Ridge before realizing we were below the trail. After hiking directly up the ridge for what seemed like way too long, we rejoiced to find the trail again. There are many steep gullies to climb in and out of and in many places the trail is fairly sketchy in that the trail is extremely narrow on a steep slope with loose footing. However, even with my agoraphobia, I managed without any problems other than going very slowly in these sections. I think my least favorite section was traversing the field of large lava rocks on the south side of the mountain where each step seemed like a russian roulette shot at an ankle injury. We were fortunate to finish before darkness fell just under 14 hours after we started with the Garmin racking up 36 miles and about 7500 feet of climbing. Big thanks to Rich for making this adventure happen!

View of Mt. St. Helens from the parking lot at the Windy Ridge trail head the night before.

Rich as we are about to start in the fog.

The first few miles were a foggy moonscape.

Mt. St. Helens from the north as the fog begins to break up.

Some of the elk that we saw. They create many false trails which adds to the difficulty of staying on the proper route.

I'm guessing we encountered peak wildflower season.

Mt. St. Helens from the North.

The Toutle River canyon.

Plunging down the sheer walls at the bottom of the Toutle canyon.

East side of Mt. St. Helens

Twin Buttes at the south-east corner of the mountain.

Mt St. Helens from the South.

Lots of water was flowing in the gullies.

Picking our way across the fields of lava rocks.

Mt. Hood

Mt. St. Helens from the east.

Rich on Windy Pass (4885 ft).

Mt. Rainier

The sun setting on Mt. Adams

Mt St. Helens from the north as we finish the loop.