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Sports >  Outdoors

Fire and ice: Finding joy on the volcanoes of the Cascades

Climbers ascend the rough trail up Mount St. Helens, which still shows the devastation from a 1980 eruption. (John  Nelson / The Spokesman-Review)
Climbers ascend the rough trail up Mount St. Helens, which still shows the devastation from a 1980 eruption. (John Nelson / The Spokesman-Review)

The volcanoes of the Cascades are alive. They rumble, they roar – they even breathe.

And something about their primal life force feeds my inner fires when I’m cycling, skiing and hiking on their slopes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest lately as our society grapples with the coronavirus pandemic, dreaming of when their dramatic slopes will reopen for our public use.

Looking back, it was in 2015 when I first realized my volcanic kinship.

I had just been laid off from my job at Microsoft in Seattle. I was adrift – I didn’t know what my next career move would be, but I knew I needed a reboot.

So I packed up my camping gear and hit the road with the vague notion that I wanted to “experience joy” in the outdoors of the Western United States. I called it my Spirit Quest.

About a week into my travels, I found myself on the slopes of Mount Shasta in Northern California. I had reached that day’s hiking goal of getting to the Sierra Club’s Alpine Cabin, but the surroundings were so beautiful that I wanted to keep going.

I headed up the steep trail into Avalanche Gulch, and instead of feeling tired, I felt more energized the higher I climbed. I was in a groove, when suddenly at 9,000 feet on Shasta’s shoulder, tears of happiness unexpectedly flooded out of me.

It was an eruption of pure joy.

Ring of Fire

The Cascade volcanoes stretch from California to southern British Columbia, part of what’s known as the Ring of Fire, a geologic area circling the Pacific Ocean. The vast majority of the world’s volcanoes and earthquakes occur along the Ring of Fire, sparked by movements in the Earth’s crust.

In the Pacific Northwest, huge chunks of undersea tectonic plates are being shoved under the North American landmass, creating a disturbance in the molten core of the planet. The result – from Mount Baker near the Canadian border 600 miles south to Mount Lassen in California – is a chain of 20 major volcanoes.

Two years after my joyful hike on Mount Shasta, I wanted to see the Ring of Fire’s raw power up close on Mount St. Helens in Washington, the last Cascades volcano to erupt. After getting a coveted permit, I hiked up what’s now an 8,365-foot mountain after the eruption of 1980.

It’s mind-blowing. The 5-mile climb travels through a stark landscape of sharp rock, pumice and ash leading to a rim that looks into a crater the size of downtown Portland, its steaming lava dome looking like a giant, beating heart.

Don’t tell me this mountain isn’t alive. I can feel it, hear it, see it and smell it.

Even though they are distant cousins, Crater Lake in Oregon reminds me a lot of St. Helens. Its deep blue waters come from melted snow, unable to escape the crater created by a cataclysmic eruption 7,700 years ago when prehistoric Mount Mazama blew its top.

I’ve bicycled Crater Lake’s 33-mile rim drive, rated as one of the best recreational rides in America, and I’ve also skied portions of it in winter. Mazama’s stupendous force is still evident from every scenic angle.

On the snow

When winter snows close Crater Lake’s rim road, the popular national park reverts to its wildest form. A few people take advantage by cross country skiing and snowshoeing, and some even take a multiday trek around the entire lake, camping out along the way.

Far more civilized are the ski resorts you’ll find on the volcanoes of the Pacific Northwest. The best is just to the north of Crater Lake at Mt. Bachelor, a 4,000-acre resort built on a 9,068-foot volcano.

I’ve carved the slopes of Mount Bachelor in a T-shirt in May and shredded powder in December, sharp rocks and steaming vents occasionally poking through the snow reminding skiers of the smoldering beast that lies beneath.

To the north, Mount Hood has the Portland area’s best resort skiing, and Timberline Lodge even stays open throughout the summer. I’ve had the pleasure of skiing at Timberline in June while also cycling and hiking its slopes in the same day.

In winter, I’ve also had epic powder days at nearby Mt. Hood Meadows, but for the quintessential deep-snow experience, you can’t beat Mt. Baker Ski Area near Bellingham. Situated at the far northern end of the Pacific Northwest volcano chain, Mount Baker attracts maritime storms like a magnet, pulling in 55 feet of snow every year, the most of any ski area in the world.

Hiking and backpacking

While I love skiing, by far the best way to feel the power of the Cascade volcanoes is to walk upon them. I’ve done day hikes and backpacking trips around many of these volcanic peaks, and for me, the best of them is Mount Rainier.

It’s hard to comprehend how amazing Mount Rainier is until you see it up close. The tallest of the Pacific Northwest volcanoes at 14,410 feet, it remains snow-clad year-round on the many glaciers snaking down its dramatic slopes.

More than 2.2 million people came to Mount Rainier National Park last year, the vast majority going to Paradise at 5,400 feet on the mountain’s south side.

The 5.5-mile Skyline Trail leading from the Paradise visitor center takes in some of the best views of the mountain. While it’s often crowded, nothing takes away from the amazing beauty of Rainier in summer when the wildflowers blooming.

A more intimate experience is found in the backcountry.

Last August on a backpacking trip, I climbed along the Carbon Glacier, the largest of the mountain’s icy fingers, stretching 7,000 vertical feet down Rainier’s northwest side into a rainforest. If you stand around long enough, you can actually see the glacier moving – rocks and ice tumble off its dirty slopes regularly as it slowly grinds its way downhill.

To truly feel the beating heart of Rainier, stay overnight in the backcountry along the popular 93-mile Wonderland Trail. During my last visit, I camped at a place called Mystic, the mountain roaring all night with the sound of avalanches and rock fall.

Some people might find those noises worrisome. Not me – I hear only power and glory.

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