My body’s been a mess and my head even worse, but when my alarm goes off I’m up. The only thing that can get me out of bed after working late and only getting five-and-a-half hours of sleep is an all day hiking adventure. I wake up feeling different. Not as full of apprehension as I often am lately. Maybe, it’s just that I’m about to hang out with my very favorite mountain, Mount St. Helens.
I know the ride up there so well I tick off all of the sights as I drive, giant coffee steaming in one hand. Yale Park with it’s post-apocalyptic old tree stumps surrounded by lake. The little roadside teepee selling wooden flutes and moccasins. What adventures the many turnoffs lead to. I get so nostalgic for the best camping and hiking I’ve ever done and excited about how much still awaits me. I may never do it all in this life and there’s something marvelous about that. A mountain cannot be conquered, this is a good thing. Be more mountain-like, I think. The morning is much colder than I thought it would be. Dark, too. The weather report, which I check obsessively according to my girlfriend, calls for partial sun. Maybe, later? I can’t tell if it’s mist or light rain beginning to coat my windshield and I start to wonder if I’ll regret not packing gloves and a rain jacket. It’s early September! How are these allowed to be thoughts already?
I turn left on Road 83 passing the Ape Caves, the June Lake trailhead and eventually pull up at the Ape Canyon trailhead. I’m bummed to find so many cars there already and as even more pull up with mountain bikes strapped to their rears, I get that familiar mountain biker dread. I’m really trying to get past this immediate reaction, but far too often they don’t call out when they should, scaring the shit out of me; treat hikers like they’re in the way and generally act like what they’re doing is more important because they’re going faster and take up more space. Theoretically, I’m fine with them. In practice, I’m wary as fuck. I get out of my car, grab my polls, do a once over and take note of how many mountain bikers will soon be coming up behind me and hop on the trail.
The climbing begins immediately, but it’s a gentle amble. My body warms up to it with ease. A relief, lately I’m out of breath almost immediately and have to take tons of breaks, which kicks my mind games into gear before hitting a comfortable stride a few miles in. Not today. The trail veers toward the edge of a wide lahar to my left, a young forest to my right. I peel off my outer layer sooner than I thought I would, though the clouds remain thick and I realize not only have I not seen the mountain top once, I’m not exactly sure where it is. Finally, the first mountain biker rears up behind me, but on foot. He’s older, huffing and puffing and kind. We talk a little and he tells me he’s having a hard time getting going today. I say, “I think I’d like my legs to take me up and some wheels to take me down.” He laughs and agrees. I wish him luck and continue on. Shortly after, another biker comes up behind me, only he’s somehow actually on the bike. The trail isn’t incredibly steep, but I can’t even imagine being on a bike. He lets me know there’s one more behind him. The second guy rolls up and quickly apologizes like he’s in my way, the way women do when they take up any space at all. Huh? I told him he wasn’t in my way and we wish each other well. Who are these men disproving all of my anxieties about mountain bikers?!
The air is sweet and familiar. I try to place it, like the smell of palo santo before it’s burned. My lungs fill with it, delightfully, not desperately. I feel happy. After about a mile or so, giant old growth firs and hemlocks make their presence known. It’s pointless to take a picture of one without a hiking buddy for scale. I put my hands on many trunks and think about all they’ve grown through and around, how they’ve miraculously withstood multiple eruptions on one of the bossiest mountains. I am overwhelmed by their power, I ask that I may have some for myself and I think it works. As I continue to head up, I round a sharp bend and the trail becomes sandy with ash and chunks of white pumice. The big evergreens disappear and I’m surrounded only by very young alders. The clouds thin just enough for me to become aware I’m hiking on a ridge between Ape Canyon and the widening lahar.
I’m about three miles in and haven’t taken a break yet. How is that even possible? It dawns on me just how much my strength and endurance are rebuilding. I’ve had a lot of Bad Body Days while recuperating from some injuries. When I’ve mustered the motivation to hike, I’ve felt so bad about where I’m at it’s felt hard to keep going, but here I was feeling so capable and strong again. I’ve been thinking a lot about skill and ability and how it’s positive, gratifying and fun to strive to improve upon, but how fucked up my mind gets when I lose any gains. I had much healthier concepts of skill and ability before I started crushing more difficult trails. My perception has gotten skewed. In order to be more loving and compassionate to myself, I’ve been revisiting my initial commitments to my blog and my intentions to always write as if I never assume someone’s skill level, regardless of whether they just started hiking or have been forever. We all have limitations, visible or not (body size is not a visible limitation), and good days and bad days in our bodies. Skill and ability are ever-changing, impermanent. They aren’t a body type or a number on a scale. Before I left the house this morning, I featured someone on Unlikely Hikers who went out hiking for the first time in part because of finding the community. I’m incredibly moved by this story and keep thinking about it. There isn’t anything more validating of how worthwhile all this has been.
I’m still not the most coordinated when it comes to breathing hard, walking and drinking water at the same time, so I take a little water break. This is a terribly boring anecdote, but I only recently discovered the joy and necessity of a water bladder and I’m very excited about it. Not having to take my pack off rules! I’m learning all of this shit on my own and, sometimes, seemingly obvious things escape me, so when I finally get clued in I feel like I’m in on some insider secret, like when I started using trekking poles. Looking around, I suddenly feel struck by everything. You know that feeling? When you’ve become somewhat resigned to the grayness of it all and likely won’t have much visibility, but it’s all worth it because-of-course-it-is and then the sun sort of comes out anyway and it’s like, BAM! New lease! I drink and watch the rapidly thinning clouds over the green-so-green, velvety ridged contours of Ape Canyon and what might be the base of Mt. Adams. And blue! Finally, some blue sky. Hope pumps my blood, propels my legs.
Aside from a few trail runners, I’m not seeing many people despite all of the cars at the trailhead. The older guy still hasn’t passed me, he must’ve turned around and, of course, I immediately project feelings. Just as I start to get tired, the trail swings out of the woods and the ridge thins to a cliff-edged strip of land between the canyon and what is becoming a blast zone. My body an ant between the two. My breathing mantra: blasting through the blast zone, blasting through the blast zone… The scenery swiftly changes, I’m out of the trees and walking on a faint, rocky trail etched only in sand and ash, the occasional rock cairn keeps me on track. Everything is brown and reddish and fading. Drying, Autumn-colored, dying. I love that feeling of miraculously having more energy when a trail changes. I turn right onto my beloved Loowit Trail. Only about a half mile further and it’s as if I’ve been beamed right onto the Plains of Abraham. At peak wildflower season, it’s supposed to be an unbelievable field of blue lupine, but the dry, barren, desert-like landscape is magic enough. I started my day in a lush, green forest and ended up in an otherworldly moonscape. And then I saw mountain goats! And they’re huge! And according to Nat Geo, not really goats! I test the limits of my fear of heights and take my break on a big, beautiful, creamy rock jutting out over Ape Canyon. I watch the clouds swirl and change on the top of Mount St. Helens and will them to break for even a moment. I’m so close it appears I can just walk right up and it dawns on me: that’s exactly how people do it. With the right equipment, of course, you just Go Right Up. Like, a trail can only take you so far. Metaphors abound! I sit for an hour, a summertime luxury as soon it will be so cold I won’t get away with more than a few minutes. The clouds keep teasing an occasional reveal, but never lift completely. I snap a few photos that translate so little of the magnitude of what is happening before me, more humbling reminders, and trot back down the mountain like a happy, surefooted mountain goat.
- Level: Difficult
- Length: 10.6 miles
- Elevation: 1,500+ ft. gain
- Type: out and back
- Open: all year
- Permit: Northwest Forest Pass
- Drive time from Portland: 1h30m
- Google map: “Ape Canyon Trailhead” (always screenshot directions, you will lose service)
From the trailhead:
The trail begins along a wide lahar (mud river) to the left and a youngish forest to right. A little after the first mile, you’ll begin to see some old growth trees. After about three miles, the trail will keep switching onto both sides of the ridge, and will become sandy. At the 4.5-mile mark, you’ll turn right onto the Loowit Trail for about 0.8 mile, walking through the Plains of Abraham until you reach a spring (if it’s dry, you’ll know you’re there by all of the green plants) on the south side of the mountain. This is a good turn around point for a 10.6 mile trail, but it’s so gorgeous you may find the extra energy to continue on. Return the way you came.