Hikers Return to Climbing Mount St. Helens
JOHN YDSTIE, host:
Washington State's Mount St. Helens today reopens to climbers. It's been closed for nearly two years because of renewed volcanic activity. Austin Jenkins of the Northwest News Network takes us along for a preview hike.
AUSTIN JENKINS reporting:
The Mount St. Helens ascent begins in sub-alpine forest, mostly Pacific silver fir and mountain hemlock. You wouldn't know it from looking, but you're walking on a 17,000-year-old lava flow. Just underfoot there's also evidence of the 1980 eruption.
As he hikes the steep trail, Peter Frendsen(ph), a forest service scientist, points to the ground.
Mr. PETER FRENDSEN (Forest Service Scientist): If you look beneath the fallen needles and leaves of the forest here, the forest floor, you can see a gray color and that's the 1980 ash fall.
JENKINS: We're now at the tree line. This is about 4,700 feet. To get up to the crater rim is another 3,000 feet in elevation gain. And this is where the climb gets a bit tricky.
Mr. TOM PEARSON(ph) (Government Geologist): You're basically hopping from one big boulder to another as you go.
JENKINS: Government geologist Tom Pearson:
Mr. PEARSON: And then once you get up above 6,000 feet or a little higher than that it gets much smoother, but it's also - you get deeper ash and pumice.
JENKINS: Some of that deep ash and pumice comes from the massive 1980 eruption, which literally blew the top off the mountain and killed 57 people.
The volcano reawakened in the fall of 2004, a swarm of shallow earthquakes followed by towering steam and ash plumes. That's when the mountain was closed to climbers.
Today, Mount St. Helens continues to erupt cooled lava onto the crater floor, a pickup truck-load a second, four to five feet of rock piling up a day. All this activity is creating a new dome. But geologist Tom Pearson says this type of constant eruption is not explosive.
Mr. PEARSON: Much like a can of soda pop that's been sitting on a warm table for a long time it's lost its fizz and that gas is what makes volcanoes explosive, so we are quite confident that the magma coming out now just doesn't have enough oomph(ph) to cause the kinds of explosions that would make climbing dangerous.
JENKINS: That could change, but Pearson expects there would be plenty of warning, days if not weeks. The biggest danger to climbers, besides slipping and falling, is if the crater kicks up ash or rock. That's why rangers recommend climbers bring a mask, goggles and helmet.
(Soundbite of footsteps)
JENKINS: Climbing Mount St. Helens takes an entire day. It's not a technical climb but it is strenuous.
Gayla Miller(ph), the head of interpretive education at the volcano, says the reward begins even before you reach the top.
Ms. GAYLA MILLER (Head of Interpretive Education, Mount St. Helens): As you approach the crater rim, one begins to hear what sounds a bit like breaking plates and that is a result of new lava extruding from the crater causing avalanching of materials.
JENKINS: Once at the rim, you have two spectacular views: one, looking deep into Mount St. Helen's crater and the new lava dome; the other, of surrounding volcanoes, Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams and Oregon's Mt. Hood.
For NPR News, I'm Austin Jenkins reporting.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.