Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Perspectives on reaching a volcano's rim

The view from Mount St. Helens' south rim: Beyond crater, dome and Spirit Lake is a distant Mount Rainier.

On Sunday, I joined a group of 10 guys to climb Mount St. Helens. I came away wiser, and most importantly, alive.

I write this as a 66-year-old, out-of-shape, and, as it turns out, self-deluded male.

Two thirds of the way up the south flank of the volcano I wondered what had I gotten myself into.

The “hike” is supposed to take four or five hours for the four-and-a half-mile ascent.
I toiled up in six.

It is supposed to take roughly two and a half hours to descend. Knees aching, drained of energy, I eased down in four. A little stumbling, a couple of hiker’s toes and a few scrapes and abrasions didn’t help.

I was the oldest in the group, but that’s no excuse. Paul, the next oldest at 62, climbs mountains every other week. To take the strain off my knees, he lashed my back pack to his for the final two and a half miles down to our campsite. “It’s nothing,” he assured me.

I believe they call these people “heroes.”

But to begin at the beginning.

The first two miles of the climb are literally and figuratively a walk in the woods. It’s a shaded, gentle grade. Deceptively easy.

Then, you are in the open and, wham, just like that you are staring at an unending, ascending flank of boulders. They range in size from hassocks to filing cabinets to Volkswagens. Jagged and angular, they confront you every which way. A maze of quasi trails meander in, over and between them for more than a mile.

Eventually after a short eternity, the boulders become more scattered, giving way to more than a mile of steep scree at the “angle of repose.” The term describes the steepest a slope can be without collapsing.

Trudging up the loose pumice, I found myself at my own “angle of repose," breathless, pulse-pounding, on the verge of collapse.

Two things kept me going. The first was the sight of my distant, speck-like colleagues waiting for me above on the rim of the volcano (you see some of them here, resting and peering over the rim). Three dozen steps made them visibly larger, ant-sized, and, more importantly, closer. The steps held out the promise of reunion and, yes, shared accomplishment and celebration.

The second was the quiet, reassuring presence of Paul and Stace. Among the most experienced climbers in the group, they stayed behind with me and another slow hiker, Mike, who was nursing a questionable knee, (Mike’s wife had warned him, “If you are injured on that mountain, I will kill you.” She wasn't smiling when she said it.)

Paul and Stace were there simply to be with us, to make sure we were OK. To them our experience was more important than theirs. They were, without ever saying it, our guardians.

What did I learn? The meaning of “strenuous” is relative, especially as used on various outdoor web sites to describe this hike. “Strenuous” is in the knees and lungs and pulse of the hiker.

“Grueling” or "arduous" might be a more apt term for someone like me. Then again, I saw 10-year-olds bounding up the mountain with their parents. “Must be genetic,” I thought.

On a brilliant, clear day, buffeted at times by a stiff, cooling winds, I gained a new perspective on this place I call home. I could see the distant city and its hills. On their slopes resides my house.

I witnessed a panorama of volcanoes, as far south as Mount Jefferson out beyond the cone of Mount Hood; as far east as Mount Adams, and as far north, over St. Helen’s rim and crater, to Mount Rainier. To the west was the Coast Range with its promise of the Pacific. To the northwest were the Olympics.

One member of our party conservatively estimated that we could see, north to south, a distance of 300 miles.

I learned the interplay between my limitations and my aspirations, and how to negotiate between the two. I learned another way in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Colleagues and companionship make us stronger than we are.

Two days after the expedition, most of the aches are gone. Over-the-counter drugs help. The scrapes and bruises are mending. I vowed when I came off the mountain that I would never take it on again. I’m already amending that. I’ll never take it on, or anything like it on, again in the physical condition I was — and am in.

Is it worth getting into shape to climb a mountain whose challenge is “strenuous”?

Probably not, at least not for me.

But forget volcanoes. Is it worth getting in shape?

After Sunday’s climb, I know the answer. I have work to do.

P.S. Now two days later, I feel much better, stronger, in fact, because of the challenge of Mount St. Helens.

Above, my old friend Andre and me, on the right.

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