Laughing, internally, all kinds of phrases and descriptions of myself came to mind; I had forgotten to pack my hiking boots. The final phrase was an oddly peaceful “It is what it is” and I closed my eyes for another thirty minutes.
The almost four hour drive to the climbers bivouac trail-head had been made in a pair of soft, canvas converse trainers, inner soles resembling blackened, pulled pork. Expectations of climbing the mountain this evening would have been cut dead, had I worn my usual driving choice of flip-flops. Briefly considering scenarios, my brain chose ‘up’, before logic could contemplate the summit pumice field turning my feet into something even Hannibal Lecter would turn down and so, with remaining gear checked, we were swallowed by the midnight mouth of the Ptarmigan Trail trees.
Exactly one year ago was the first time I had climbed Mount St. Helens, the upper 90’s unshielded heat punishing my skin and sweat glands, as I staggered up the surface of a lunar landscape. After the descent, a small voice in my head lured me with the idea of what sounded incredibly spiritual, reckless and most importantly, cooler – traverse the same route at night. The seed was planted for this year’s climb.
Ptarmigan trail serves as a wooded two mile loosening of the muscles, much needed for the incline ahead and a 1000′ gain, that doesn’t really get noticeable until the last 3/4 mile. Low cloud and the post-midnight blackness danced with silhouettes of trees, a small headlamp serving as my only lighthouse, setting a claustrophobic yet strangely elucidative scene. About thirty minutes in, the half crescent moon starts to illuminate the widening sky. Wildlife that stays safely hidden during the daily human traffic makes itself present; a porcupine, strange and new bugs, a nonchalant deer, a mouse and even a toad. Night brings an acceptance by these creatures, that we are part of this family and trusts us to be as respectful to them.
Emerging at the timber line, the smothering darkness exchanges its guardianship with the edge of the volcanic flow. Both the stars and the moon now work magic, mirroring themselves to the wall before us and coruscating off rocks like some luminous tsunami. This enchantment fades a little with concerns of the three miles and near 4000′ still to go – it is getting pretty damn cold and the lack of grip from my footwear is troubling.
The lower mile and a half of the climb follows the ridge of long-expired lava, unforgiving archipelagos of rock amid a viscose sea of pumice. Step on the wrong island and the stone conveyor will alight its passenger back at the tree line bloodied, bruised and barely conscious. Then it finally comes to me, how my converse trainers feel…
“It’s ok for you, I’ve got my slippers on!” I yammer to Dee, feigning amusement.
And they were. Just like slippers. Warm, soft, comforting on top with a sole completely useless for anything, other than staving off the shock of bathroom floor tile in the winter.
We keep moving. The pace is much slower than my first attempt and with good reason; there was no way I’m using all my energy on the way up, only to be jelly-legged from the potentially more hazardous descent.
The shadows ahead appear to rise and widen into existence, as a fortress of Germelshausen gains focus – I’ve made it to the boulder field. The ground tightens, surrendering the need for purposeful footing and relief permits a moment of courtship; my shoes having journeyed this far and will tread well on this section. Concerns now shift to the accelerating wind, sweeping icy currents off the remaining expanses of snow, as it quickly coalesces with the hot sweat on my back and chest, forcing a shiver. Rest will need to be brief, unless I’m willing to cede ownership of body temperature to the mountain. After hiking passes in Peru at almost 14,000ft untroubled, I’m now over 6,000ft with a cursing nausea, some stomach discomfort and impromptu bathroom diversions.
As the last of the boulders sink below my legs, the alluring edge of the rim discerns itself from the sky; the black hole in the void finally has a terminating edge. Dee moves steadily on but I am less adept through this ocean of pumice quicksand. I lift a leg forward and place it down, my foot instantly breaking the surface, rolling backward as it sinks. The shoes show little resistance now, serving only to bind continually sliced feet. My heart shows desperation to escape from the cage of bone over 8000ft as the mountain plays Sisyphus with my spirit as well as my body, but I will not quit so close. Every movement forward sends a signal to my brain to stop, to go back down and forget about going to the rim. I’ve been here many times on other hikes and openly tell it to shut up, my voice carried downwind on the breeze and lost as a fading echo on the slopes.
Lifetimes pass on this final half mile until the climb abruptly terminates at the end of the world. The blackness of 4am and a cloud layer below 5000ft creates the illusion of staring off the edge of Laputa, as it floats through the sky. I want to collapse and take it all in but I must not. The wind is significantly colder and stronger up here and my body spasms from my jaw to my knees. I need to get down quickly.
Back at the boulder fields, the worst of the cold is over. Dawn illumination carries not only some heat, but also hope to a weary mind that should I continue to be troubled with the cold, it will only be for another hour or two until the energizing morning Sun powers skyward. The first ascending hikers of the day make a hasty passage through the lower boulders, just as we reach the lava flows, doubtless focused on experiencing their sunrise at the top. As the altitude reading lowers, so do my ailments and reaching the timberline, I feel like new. No tiredness, no soreness, no sickness – copious energy that was sorely missed on the ascent.
In spite of the the day hikers, the Ptarmigan trail is lacking the magical flow of energy that night releases. Gone are the wildlife of the suffocating woodland, which had now transformed to a light and airy forest. Every human contact becomes an echo of “have you been up already?!?!?” and I crave the deafness of the night before, where my eyes did all the listening and the only voices were internal.
Back at the trailhead, I take a casual look over my shoulder at the mountain behind, which had punished me so differently this time. With a wry smile I couldn’t help but think ‘Yet again you’ve given me unforgettable memories, even if they were hard lessons but, I promise that I will be back – and I will face you on better terms.’
I’ve kept that promise. I return on the 24th of September and this time, I’m packing more than my slippers.