ClarkCountyToday.com reporter Eric Schwartz learns some painful lessons in his pursuit of the Pacific Northwest’s most famous volcano’s summit
COUGAR — The world to me seemed sideways on the snow-covered slopes of the south side of Mount St. Helens Tuesday, and indeed it was for a guy who spends much of his time working out of an office or planted in front of a computer.
My habitat is largely horizontal, the streets and hallways offering a flat and hospitable environment for my less-than strenuous journalistic tendencies and pursuits.
As I stared down the jagged ridge that forms the summit of our resident volcano, I saw a world unrecognizable — or at least temporarily forgotten — where men and women applied all of their energy, focus and determination to climbing higher in this vertical and daunting landscape.
Most of them also exercised common sense.
They wore sturdy, waterproof hiking boots, sometimes adding crampons with sharp metal spikes that allowed them to cling to the flank of the mountain like well-outfitted mountain goats. They had sunglasses to protect themselves from snow-blindness and gallons of water to sustain them through the arduous journey to the top of the volcano. They wore long-sleeved shirts and soaked themselves in sun block. Trekking poles were at the end of each of their arms, gripped in glove-covered hands.
While these preparations are all sensible and obvious to most, they sadly were not for this reporter.
Please allow my story to serve as a guide to those who would seek to conquer the mighty Mount St. Helens with not much more than a gas station sandwich, borrowed and inadequate equipment, very little experience and a stubborn refusal to let a lack of knowledge, preparation or physical aptitude stand in the way of a journey to her glorious summit.
Lesson one: When the world turns sideways, adjust your perspective
Climbing something as challenging as Mount St. Helens is as much about preparing and adjusting your mind as it is your body.
The latter preparation was all but ignored by me. I had a Whopper from Burger King the night before and haven’t been physically active in years. When I lost 60 pounds two years ago, I did it by starving myself, a practice I’m told is at best unwise and at worst really, really stupid.
Getting There Climbing permits for Mount St. Helens are in high demand each year, with requests outpacing availability. To plan your own journey and learn more about what it takes to climb Mount St. Helens, visit www.mshinstitute.org/explore/climbing-permits.
Climbing permits for Mount St. Helens are in high demand each year, with requests outpacing availability. To plan your own journey and learn more about what it takes to climb Mount St. Helens, visit www.mshinstitute.org/explore/climbing-permits.
No. 1, I would be slow and methodical.
No. 2, I wouldn’t let my speed, or lack thereof, embarrass myself in a way that prevented me from believing I was worthy of the summit.
No. 3, I would be SLOW and methodical.
My hiking partners can attest to my mastery of No. 1 and No. 3.
No. 2 was a matter for me to settle quietly and internally in my own mind as I planted one foot in front of the other, at times wincing in pain brought by the compacted snow that seeped into my laces and soles with every frosty step.
“Ten steps and stop, 10 steps and stop” I muttered at a particularly difficult stretch of the trail before taking at least that many painful steps upward, a direction I feared gazing in due to the distance that remained from my battered body and glorious completion of my quest.
This process lasted for hours, with my mantra acting to power me forward with the help of silent prayers and scattered thoughts that occasionally provided positive fuel for forward motion.
I watched as others blazed past me with startling speed and ease.
“I bet they haven’t had a Whopper in years,” I whispered to myself.
This inner dialogue and simplistic mental gymnastics was beyond important to a guy like me who lacked the ability to will himself into physical shape in the days before deciding that climbing Mount St. Helens sounded like a good idea.
My advice to others facing physical shortcomings paired with perhaps unrealistic aspirations is to be kind and patient with yourself. Just because something seems impossible due to your choices in life doesn’t mean that it is.
It just takes a fresh perspective.
Lesson 2 — Dress for the habitat you’re seeking, not the one you have
“Are those Converses?” a man shouted at me with obvious surprise and amusement, gesturing toward my snow-caked shoes and startling me out of a solid bout of introspection in the process.
“No,” I yelled back. “They’re Air Jordans. I intend to take His Airness to the summit.”
Those gathered with the fellow climber on a rocky outcropping halfway toward the summit all laughed in unison.
I got a chuckle as well, but it didn’t last long before I returned to contemplating the precarious position I had placed myself in with my choice of footwear.
I’m not a complete novice when it comes to backpacking. My father and I conquered many substantial peaks in my youth. Unfortunately, he was almost always the sole provider of common sense, outfitting me with all the gear and direction I needed to be successful.
Given my own choice, I tend to go with what’s comfortable at the point of a journey’s conception, and in this case, I chose a pair of Air Jordan basketball shoes that are enduringly snug, soft and pleasant in terms of practical and stylish footwear in my everyday life.
This, however, was not everyday life.
The Jordans, which were actually one of two pair I brought for the journey, were wholly inadequate for my mission. As I climbed higher and higher, that became all the more apparent.
First they were damp. Then they were soggy. Then they were frozen.
And they were all I had.
In my infinite wisdom, I had decided to ditch my backpack and all the socks and additional footwear it contained at a point along the trail below where I planned to return after a successful summit. My goal was to lighten my weight, taking just a Camelbak hydration pack and a small bag containing my camera and lenses.
It was helpful in a sense. I doubt I would have made it up the incredibly steep final approach with additional weight strapped to my sunburnt back. At the same time, though, there’s a moment when uncomfortable feet become pained feet after snow is consistently compacted into the ankle and sole during a reckless stomp up a mountainside.
There was no way in God’s great Earth that I was going down the treacherous incline to get fresh shoes and socks. I had gone too far, and the only option now was to put one foot in front of the other, upward and onward.
“Ten steps and stop. Ten steps and stop.”
The crux of the lesson here is incredibly simple — don’t be like me.
Prepare for what, in total, is 5,699 feet of elevation gain in just about 6 miles of trail that is at first a scramble over boulders and then an almost straight-up slog to the summit.
In addition to footwear, bring a pair of sunglasses so you don’t have to humbly borrow them from a virtual stranger.
The same goes for sunblock, which was also supplied to me through the kindness of a fellow climber. Without that provision, I’d likely be fried like an egg on the slopes of Mount St. Helens at this very moment. Even with it, I write this a day later while nursing a sunburn so severe I’ve considered filling a bathtub with aloe vera and wallowing in it until such a time I no longer feel as though I am on fire.
Trekking poles are also incredibly valuable, especially in the snow when traction becomes an ever-present matter of concern. I nearly cried with joy when I spotted a beautiful and eventually beloved walking stick ditched along the trail after hours of watching better-suited climbers, poles in hand, using the instruments as additional legs while moving up the mountain.
I loved that stick, but when it collapsed during a precarious scramble over a field of boulders, it sent my left hand on a violent collision course with volcanic rock that split my knuckles and spilled blood all over my Jordans.
If you’re not at your physical peak, you’ll help make up the difference with good and reasonable preparation when it comes to clothing, gear and footwear.
Follow this humble advice, and no one will be laughing at your shoes if you find yourself drowning in self-pity and snow at 7,000 feet above sea level.
Lesson 3 — Find your reason for willful suffering in pursuit of hard-earned exhilaration
Any difficult pursuit requires a strongly-held purpose.
I’ve found that to be the case for many of my most successful journalistic projects. If you don’t know why you’re doing something — from government accountability reporting to run-of-the mill meeting coverage — the journey is made much more difficult.
It’s the difference between setting an important goal and floating through life without direction.
When it came to summiting Mount St. Helens, my reasons were numerous.
Like many, I’ve always felt an almost magnetic attraction to the mountain.
As a young boy living in North Carolina, my parents set aside time each summer for a family road trip. When we came to the Pacific Northwest, our itinerary would have been hopelessly incomplete without a stop at the region’s celebrity volcano.
The sight of the open crater of Mount St. Helens gave me chills as a child. Watching videos of the 1980 eruption at the nearby visitor centers blew me away and took me to another world, providing insight on a volcanic event I had only read about in books.
My father and I hiked the trails at Windy Ridge on the north side of the mountain, wondering aloud what it would take to reach the summit and stare down into crater.
Years later, in 2004, fate and fortune had moved my family across the country, and I chose Centralia College as the first stop on my pursuit of a career in journalism.
When the volcano sprang to life in 2004, sending billowing towers of smoke into the air and recapturing the attention of the country, my reaction, and that of my closest friends, was to hop in a car and drive to the national monument. We hopped barricades and illegally, and stupidly, walked all the way to Windy Ridge, which was evacuated and abandoned as experts worked to determine if Mount St. Helens was set to roar once more.
A couple years before that, friends and I had used the freedom that comes with a driver’s license and trusting parents to take annual summer camping trips near Cougar on the south side of the mountain. We always said the adventures were aimed at spotting Sasquatch, but it was more about bringing ourselves closer to Mount St. Helens and experiencing all the outdoor offerings it provides, from Lava Canyon and the Ape Caves to the lakes and trails that course through the region.
Put simply, I’ve found adventure and fulfillment on and around Mount St. Helens for decades.
The thought of climbing to its summit never traveled too far from my mind. I’ve twice bought permits to climb the summer route. The first time, in early autumn, a typhoon hit the Pacific Northwest and my climbing partner and I were forced to turn back. The second time, my wife became pregnant after I had purchased our permits. We still went had a grand time on the trail, and we covered a lot of ground, but we didn’t quite make it to glory.
This time, I determined, would be different. Nothing short of a direct view of the smoking crater from above would be enough to qualify as a successful outing.
The fact that the kind leadership at ClarkCountyToday.com was willing to pay me money to spend a day on a mountain I love in pursuit of a story, photographs and video added to the core of my mission.
I’d not just be failing myself by falling short, I thought, but I’d also be turning in something other than what my employer deserved, which in my mind was a practical guide to reaching the summit of Mount St. Helens.
Along with my personal and professional reasons, there were also philosophical considerations.
I’ve long thought that a mountain can be a great measure of a man, at least in terms of will, determination and stamina. In selecting a mountainous goal and stepping out in pursuit of it, I felt in many ways as though I could assess whether I possessed such admirable attributes and, if so, in what amounts.
Through my difficult and at times painful journey to the summit, I learned I have more of those qualities than I thought, though they can be blunted by more ignorant inclinations like, say, wearing basketball shoes to a mountain climb and thinking a sandwich I bought at a gas station and some crackers I pilfered from the pantry would be enough to sustain the effort.
Those I spoke with on the trail all had their own reasons for being there, whether it was a physical fitness goal, a routine method of exercise, a spiritual journey or a vacation highlight.
The stronger the reason for pursuing the summit of Mount St. Helens, in balance with preparation and physical ability, the greater chance you have of reaching the summit and, perhaps, providing measure for how much of the good stuff — will, determination and stamina — are contained within your battered body.
Lesson 4 — Extract joy from a volcanic accomplishment
“Oh my gosh, this is the most fun ever,” a woman screamed as I moved up the mountain like a sunburnt slug.
She was glissading down the southern flank after successfully reaching the summit, one of the many aspects and activities on the mountain I was unaware of and thus unprepared for. Glissading is the act of sliding down established chutes in the snow, whether seated on a trash bag or some other slick means of conveyance, and zooming down the mountainside like a backwoods bobsledder.
With the winter snowpack in place, the activity is largely safe, assuming participants can avoid rare rocky outcroppings. It’s also incredibly efficient. Ground that took two hours to cover on the way up is conquered in five or 10 minutes on the way down.
For me — the shivering bleeding and beaten amateur hiker in Jordans — it was a source of both inspiration and annoyance.
“It’ll be awesome to reach the top and have that waiting for me as a means for return,” I thought.
At the same time, I was not gleefully flying down the mountain having accomplished my goal. No, I had just reached one of several false summits, points on the mountain that appear to be the final destination from below but, once reached, prove to be nothing more than a reminder of how far you truly have to go.
Such instances represented jarring and immediate changes in perspective. The sight of a destination can speed travel and alleviate pains of the journey. Realizing you were wrong can slow progress and make the pain even worse.
“Ten steps and stop. Ten steps and stop.”
One icey step at a time, I pressed on, with joyful glissaders flying passed me on the right and left and weary hikers both in front of me and behind me.
Prayers rattled through my head as I repeated the phrase again and again, keeping my eyes fixed to the ground in front of me for fear of seeing how far I had to go. The lack of visual stimulation that decision created gave way to vivid memories of the mountain and my purpose for being there. I remembered hiking and having fun with my dad, with my wife, with my childhood friends and my college buddies. I thought of having to explain to my boss how I could write him a decent story about how I “almost” made it to the top of Mount St. Helens, perhaps sprinkling in some humor and self-deprecation to make up for the unaccomplished goal of the pursuit.
“Ten steps and stop. Ten steps and stop.”
I looked up.
When I did, I saw the summit about 50 yards away. I saw climbers collapsed at its edge, staring into the crater and soaking in the joy that comes with accomplishing a difficult goal. They were laughing, taking pictures, resting against their backpacks and enjoying celebratory beverages and meals.
In a way that’s difficult to describe, those last 50 yards were probably the most difficult. My body was so angry at me for my transgressions that my mind wouldn’t deliver any feelings of satisfaction for where I was at.
“This is going to take forever,” I lamented to myself.
I moved closer, my pace inexplicably slowing despite my proximity to the destination. I looked down in front of me and took 10 more steps.
“You freaking did it!” a voice shouted from the rim of the mountain. “Jordans and all!”
When I looked up, I had made it, and the man who was stunned by my choice of footwear was there to celebrate with me and others. I stumbled to the ground, quickly realizing that without my backpack, my stay at the summit would not include the comforts others enjoyed, such as fresh socks or food.
It didn’t matter.
The hair on my arms was elevated by the goosebumps that sprang to life when I looked at the crater, watching through squinted and tired eyes as steam rose in small wisps into a sky painted in deep blue. I marveled at my newfound views of Mount Adams, Mount Rainier and Mount Hood as they jutted out of the landscape in separate corners of my 360-degree vantage point of southwest Washington.
The ground at the summit is much flatter than the approach, so my view of the world around me had once again become a horizontal one.
I was battered, bloodied, sunburnt, freezing, wet and sore beyond description. In the same moment, I was happy and content with the results of the mountain’s measurement of the man.
Talk about a new perspective.