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Monday, June 1, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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An ascent of Mount St. Helens decades after its eruption offers a lesson about the risks of inattention

Hikers and skiers rest near the top of Mount St. Helens on May 3, 2019. ELI FRANCOVICH/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)
Hikers and skiers rest near the top of Mount St. Helens on May 3, 2019. ELI FRANCOVICH/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Eli Francovich / The Spokesman-Review)

We summited under a cobalt blue sky and a fierce spring sun. The steep snow-covered terrain eased, and we stood on a flat(ish) spot, about the size of a basketball court.

Mount St. Helens is 8,366 feet tall, and on a clear day, as this one was, you can see up and down the Cascade Range, volcanic sentinels dotting the West Coast.

After five hours of effort, the view was a welcome reward. My climbing partner and I rested.

We weren’t alone in our admiration. The top of the mountain was crowded with about 30 other climbers. Many were in their T-shirts, as I was, basking in the sunlight. I saw a few cracked beers and lots of smiles.

It felt like a summer party, aside from the thousands of feet of air on all sides.

We’d ascended a route known as the Worm Flow route; it’s the most direct (and easiest) line up the mountain in the winter and spring. It’s a five-mile path that gains about 5,700 feet. The route’s name comes from its shape: raised tubes, remnants of the rivers of lava that coursed down the mountain’s southern flank during an eruption. The lava left sharp ridges of volcanic rock that look as if gigantic worms (“Dune,” anyone?) burrowed down the mountain.

The violent force necessary to create these flows is unimaginable. But signs of that eruption were all around. To our north, lay the crescent shaped rim of the volcano’s caldera. The lava contained beneath that dome still regularly sends steam and sulfur into the air.

But, on a warm May day last year, violence and change were far from my mind.

We ate. We chatted with some of the other sunbathing climbers and then we prepared for the truly fun part.

Skiing down.

Many, perhaps most, people hike up Mount St. Helens. It’s considered one of easiest Cascade volcanoes to summit and requires little technical knowledge.

However, there is a better way. Skiing up using specially designed “skins” on the bottoms of your skis to grip the snow.

Once on top you can ski down, avoiding a long slow slog downhill.

This was our plan and the driving force behind our climb. Views are enjoyable. Good spring skiing is sublime.

I’d borrowed a friend’s pair of skis. An ultralight design meant for long days of uphill travel. This trip was my first time on them. They were like many other pairs of skis I’ve used, except for in one key difference: They did not have brakes. Ski brakes are twin spring-loaded pieces of metal that dig into the snow. As the name implies, they keep your skis from rocketing down the hill.

These skis I’d borrowed had tethers, that is a cord that clipped to my ski boot. They were a bit awkward to put on, especially when wearing gloves. And so, slightly tired from lunch and overly relaxed, I didn’t clip my ski to my boot, instead setting it down on the nearly flat surface of snow and ice.

Nearly flat doesn’t cut it.

It started slow, but within a second or less my ski had gone beyond recovery and was rocketing down the steep slope.

Four people were hiking up this hill. I screamed down at them, aware of the damage an out-of-control ski can do. The other 30 or so on the summit yelled, too.

The ski picked up speed, skipping over undulations in the snow, headed toward the distant group.

Ever-changing world

Geologic time. Deep time.

Both terms reference, broadly, the unimaginable scope of Earth’s history. Dinosaurs ruled the earth for a “functionally eternal 180 million years,” which as the journalist Peter Brannen points out in an essay in the Atlantic, is 36,000 times longer than recorded human history.

Rocks and mountains move at this pace. Our static seeming landscape is anything but that. Geologic time is now, Edward Abbey wrote, in reference to the slow shifting of rock and settling of mountains, even if we don’t notice.

Consider the rocks you find at the base of any cliff. They were not placed there by humans, and they did not grow from the dirt. They fell from the slopes above, trundling denouncements of our belief in immutable things.

When I climb mountains, I become hyperaware of our ever-shifting reality.

Trusting your life to a piece of stone requires a confusing blend of sobriety and abandon. Perched on the side of a mountain, you start to feel how this seemingly permanent object is anything but. The sound of distant (hopefully) falling rock and ice may be the first sign.

Then, as you move up its flank, you start considering each hand hold. Testing each foothold. Wondering if the moment you decide to trust your future upon it, is the moment it succumbs to gravity.

It’s not how I spend most of my life. I barrel forward, blithely assuming that things will continue more or less how I expect. I trust my life to cars and buildings and food bought from restaurants.

This is part of the appeal of climbing, for me and others. The intentional focus and attention. The realization that we are mortal, and the world is ever-changing.

But, shifting into this mindset doesn’t just happen. It takes an effort of will. It’s hard work to pay attention to your surroundings.

And I wasn’t doing that last year on the side of Mount St. Helens.

An avoidable mistake

About halfway down the steepest section the ski, through a miracle of physics, hit a particularly large bump at an angle, flew into the air, rotated 180 degrees and landed upside down.

This accomplished two things: Most importantly, it sent the ski away from the four folks hiking uphill.

And second, the binding bit into the snow, and the ski slowed and eventually stopped about 400 feet downhill from me.

I’d been incredibly lucky, twice.

Past the immediate fear of hurting or killing someone, I felt shame. A stupid and 100% avoidable mistake.

I hiked down, retrieved my wayward ski and skied back to the car without incident. I apologized to the four people hiking up. They gave me frosty glares, as I deserved.

The entire incident still haunts me. I was rattled and shocked by my lapse in attention. My arrogant disregard for gravity. I still shudder thinking about how it all could have happened with just a little less luck.

I’d like to think I’m more careful and attentive. And I’ve thought a lot about how the combination of things (good weather, lots of people) made it easier for me to lower my guard and forget the power of gravity.

But, the full meaning of the experience didn’t come into focus until I started reading about the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens.

This mountain, this massive chunk of rock and dirt, changed overnight. How disorienting! What an affront to our presumed control of the natural world.

And I saw echoes of my own arrogance in the press reports. In the spring of 1980, most people couldn’t imagine the scale of the upcoming Mount St. Helens eruption, seeing it instead as “an entertaining sideshow,” as Jim Kershner, a historian and Spokesman-Review contributor wrote recently.

All of which, in my mind, comes back to geologic time.

Because things move slowly, we believe they aren’t moving at all. Because we move quickly, we fail to see the signs of change: whether it’s shifting snow and ice or a warming climate or an untethered ski on not quite flat terrain.

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