Volcanic Victory: The Loowit TrailWe both saw the post on Facebook: Mt. St. Helen’s Circumnavigation Group Run 32 miles, 6700 feet of elevation gain, September 22, 2012. Hmmm, should I click “Like” or “Attending”? Turns out I clicked both and was now committed.
I had first learned of this trail when I was a backpacker in my early 30’s. I looked at that 14 mile no-camping area through the blast zone and saw it as road-block to a circumambulation of the volcano for me. I could not handle that kind of mileage, no way. But last October I completed my first 50k trail run after 6 months of training and the possibilities for what I could now accomplish had opened up a whole new world for me. I could now make it through the 14 mile blast zone, not to mention the entire trail, in one go. Since that first ultra, Baker Lake last fall, I had run three other 50k’s, the Yakima Skyline 25k, Echo Valley 50 miler in June, and encircled and climbed to the top of Bonaparte Mountain three times.
My husband Jason (widely known as Ras) and I had run the Wonderland Trail in September in 4 days with a great group of ladies, including Lori Moriarity, who I was very happy to learn would be running around Mt. St. Helens with the group also. Two weeks later I returned to Mt. Rainier to run a 32 mile loop starting at Chinook Pass with new friends Tim and Angel Mathis, Deby Kumusaka and Adam Gaston. Tim and Angel had organized the Mt. St. Helen’s run and after meeting the two of them I knew it would be a great adventure with good company. Two other new friends, Shumai and Brandon from the Chinook Pass trip, would also join the Mt. St. Helens loop run. I felt trained and ready to run this rugged trail.
We would camp at Cougar RV park the night before and begin the run at 7:30 the next morning. The group of runners was 26 strong and it was really cool to see everyone gather, gear-up and hit the trail in the dampness and cool air of the morning. My new friend Lisa Keith would join us for an out n’ back run, turning around when she had explored far enough. Ras had some more organizing to do and we had decided to offer to sweep the trail, knowing I would probably be the slowest in the group and that Ras was still recovering from an epic Double Wonderland Run earning him the Fastest Known Time for his effort just 2 weeks prior. I saw the last of the pack disappear around the corner, my last sighting of the group, as I waited patiently for my running and life partner to be ready. We left a full 40 minutes behind everyone but said to each other, we’ll just do our own thing and it will be challenging and fun. And it was!!!
We started at the June Lake trailhead which took us 1.4 miles through deliciously scented forest on our approach to the Loowit Trail which encircles the mountain. We got to the Loowit and turned left for a clockwise run of the trail. The autumn colors were vibrant and evocative. It was not long before I saw the first of the infamous boulder fields and it was almost breathtaking. I had not seen an environment like this before and I could not imagine what else might lie ahead. It took a while before Ras and I could spot the first of the posts that would be our trail markers for the rest of the way and we soon learned how to follow these through the boulders.
It was here that Lisa said good-bye, knowing that navigating through these areas alone might not be the best plan. These huge rocks were stable and grippy and it was slow going but not too difficult. I enjoyed the challenge and found it exciting to be moving through trail that was unique. Sometimes there were short sections of trail between boulders and we could step up the pace on these bits, only to be slowed again as we picked our way through the best routes across these deposits.
Soon we came to the first water source and I could see a lovely little waterfall and an inviting trail heading down-stream. We took off in this direction and wondered why the trail sign now indicated a winter ski trail name, but we looked at the map and decided we were on the right track. We glided down hill easily and I thought to myself “this is the section Kristen told me about—nice runnable trail in between the more technical sections”. This is awesome!!! Uh oh—more confusing cross-country ski trail signs, now I’m feeling like we are going the wrong way. We checked the map again and this time could clearly see where we had gone wrong. We retraced our steps and an hour later I could see the post at the top of the lovely little waterfall. We got some fresh water and went on our way, now on the correct trail. I hoped that the group would not worry about us and that enough of the runners knew that we had competent abilities in the back-country.
I was 14 years old when Mt. St. Helens blew her top. I grew up in a little town called Mossyrock, nestled in the foothills of Mt. Adams, Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens. For weeks, my family and I had watched the plumes of smoke belch up from the mountain and then spread across the sky. The morning the mountain erupted though, the plume was very different. It was huge and as it spread, I knew that ash would have to fall somewhere at sometime. My parents were out of town and my sister and I were spending the night at different neighbor’s homes. My sister’s host drove to pick me up so we could go home and put our horses, dogs, cats and rabbit into safe shelter. This mysterious ash plume began to create a darkness around us that was eerier than anything I had ever experienced, darker than night and the thickest of fog. The car’s headlights barely helped guide us along the empty country road. The power had gone out and when I went inside I must have tried to turn every light on in the house because my mom remembers getting home later to a well lit up home. The neighbor took us to her mother’s house where we spent the day in complete darkness, not knowing when it would get light again. Ash was falling everywhere and accumulating like snow outside. Breathing became difficult and the unknown made everyone quiet and nervous.
Of course it did become light out again and the power came back on the next day. My parents returned home and life went on. My classmate had lost her father in the eruption as he had been fishing on the Toutle River. Her grandparents had been camping somewhere near the mountain also and had a dramatic escape story. They lived to tell it, but both of them had burns from the exposure. It was a big deal for me in my childhood. My family and I had spent time camping at Spirit Lake and we have pictures of my sister and I with feathered hair, in cut-offs, tube socks, and halter tops sitting on a big log with our Husky dog near the lake, lush forest all around and the perfect mountain lake for swimming. I remember a high school cross-country running team was there camping also and it was fun to meet these older teenagers. In my youth, I was unathletic and felt dorky around these high school kids. Little did I know, I would return to the mountain 33 years later as a trail runner and see that barren landscape with Spirit Lake in the distance now looking completely different.
As Ras and I made our way around the mountain, the views finally began to open up and the mist lifted. The sky was now blue and I could see Mt. St. Helens for the first time. It was turning into a gorgeous day. As we ran along, Ras said “You don’t even want to know what I’m scheming on with the Loowit trail now!”. Being with the guy for as long as I have now, I already knew he was planning on at least a double… I wanted to remember to ask him about this in some later miles. I felt good moving along the trail, running in the mellow sections and carefully working my way down into these crazy rocky gullies and then back out the other side, over and over again. I had heard about these. I had heard you get tired of the rock by the end of the trail. I have been through challenging terrain before that seems endless, I’ve gotten tired of wildflowers even, after going through fields and fields of them! Their scent becomes intoxicating and overwhelming after a while. These gullies were relentless though and I longed for wildflowers and forest by the end.
The Toutle River gully was a force to be reckoned with. I side stepped and slid down to the river, wondering where “the rope” would be on the other side and not yet worried about the actual river crossing. Ras could have rock hopped across in minutes, but because of my shorter reach and some hesitation about where to cross, we wondered the bank seeming like forever before we found a place where I felt comfortable. The river was loud and rushing, silty and deep, yet not wide. With Ras’ strong grip on my hand and a careful couple of leaps, I was across. We didn’t see the rope yet, but made our way up the other side of the river bank until finally, there it was. It wasn’t so bad though and I must admit I felt like a bad ass holding on for the mere 15 feet or so that I used it to reach the trail above.
We came across a forest service ranger on the trail and visited for a good while, as he was really curious about our one day run around the mountain. Wanting to keep trail runners in a good light with the park rangers, we carefully worked our conversation, taking our time explaining to him how prepared we were for the adventure we were undertaking. I got the feeling that it’s only a matter of time before he will be out running around the mountain himself!!
I was really focusing on staying well hydrated and fueling myself with real food, along with the perpetuem and cliff blocks I was using to keep me going. I was aware that this is how I would stay physically and mentally strong during this endeavor and that bonking was not an option. Technical trail can wear on you and my fueling would help to keep me alert and positive. We stopped for a lunch break, sitting on large rocks, looking down to a nice butte below. After spending most of my trail time around Mt. Rainier, the Okanogan Highlands, and the North Cascades, I was really enjoying the views all around me of an ecosystem so different. Mt. St. Helens had some snow on it, but it looked desolate and rugged. I wondered if any climbers were up there.
Even though the Loowit trail just loops around the mountain, there were many times when we pulled out our map to make sure we wouldn’t accidentally take a spur trail or access trail, adding on more than the 3 plus miles we had already tacked on to our day. We became very careful after that initial mistake. We couldn’t waste anymore time or energy. I absolutely love spending time with Ras on the trails. He is confident, competent, relaxed and positive. He has been so supportive of me as I’ve gotten into running, helping me to believe that I could run that first 50k, that first 50 miler, crazy training runs and now this technical, self-supported route around a volcano. I feel blessed beyond belief to have him as my husband and trail running partner. He was hurting on this day. Deep inside his left hip, he was feeling discomfort still from his long run around Rainier. But half way around the mountain, it began to ease up for him and he could move much more efficiently and comfortably.
Much of the trail becomes a blur, as the day wore on. Above the Toutle River was a switchback climb along a steep ash slope. I could see signs at the top, and it was awesome to reach these and take a turn to reveal the crater and be inside the blast zone. The landscape was so cool and I kept thinking I was in the Plains of Abraham, singing an old church song in my head “Father Abraham, had seven sons, and seven sons had Father Abraham” . This little ditty kept going for what seemed like endless miles and I still don’t know exactly when we were in the Plains of Abraham. It didn’t really matter. We ran into two guys that asked about the Toutle crossing and camping down below. I assured them that if I made it across the river, they wouldn’t have any problem with it. They had left from June Lake that morning also and were travelling counter-clockwise. They couldn’t believe we were heading there now and figured we were about half way around the mountain. That was discouraging, but there’s no room for discouragement in ultra-running.
On we pushed and I began to run through the wind as if I had found some new strength within me, new energy, mostly mental. I felt this way for many miles. I soon heard the loud roar of a river. It had gotten incredibly windy and I could see Spirit Lake far below. We were now on Windy Ridge and I was ready to get around the mountain into some new territory. The sun was setting behind us and showing shades of red, pink and orange only nature can provide. We stopped at the river to get water. I felt that mental strength subside and I verged on panicky feelings as dusk was approaching. I was soaking wet with sweat and the wind brought on a chill very quickly upon stopping by the river. How should I put this into words to Ras? There were many miles ahead and I had to stay with it. There was no option and I knew it. I wasn’t looking for another option, just a way to relax my mind. I put on my merino wool arm sleeves and sweater, my light-weight yet effective rain/wind shell and zipped the hood tightly around my head. I put on my gloves and sorted through my perpetuem, nuun and water bottles so I could fill them for the last time on this journey, grateful for the fresh water being provided to us, so incredibly close to the source that we couldn’t even hear each other as we tried to speak. The wind was very loud also. I shook uncontrollably, but knew as soon as I began moving again that I would get warm. I finally said to Ras that I didn’t know how I was going to do it and he said “just like we’ve been doing it, we will just keep on going and I’m right here with you”. I put on my headlamp and attached a super bright light to the sternum strap on my running vest and we got up and began moving. We soon saw a trail sign and the mileage ahead was overwhelming, yet doable. Looking at the map, we could see that we had a 600 foot climb and I knew that would warm me up. Before I knew it, I felt cozy and comfortable with my lights and thought to myself, “this is great training for my first 100 miler” What the heck? Where do these thoughts even come from?
At the top of this climb, the trail became very runnable and we may even have now really been in the Plains of Abraham. The half- moon was bright and guided us as it sat just atop the mountain, one of the beauties of being on the trail at night. We cruised along, chatting, dreaming, laughing. Soon we came to two more river crossings that were sketchy in the dark and made our way through more of the rocky gullies again, the nice runnable trail behind us now. Looking for the cairns and posts in the dark became a whole different ball game. Far down below I saw a headlamp and a wondered if someone from our group was coming back towards us. I didn’t want anyone to—I wanted them to be warm and well-fed after their adventure and I didn’t want anyone worrying about us at all. I really hoped that was not what I was seeing and when I could tell the light wasn’t moving, I realized it was most likely a camp nestled in the trees. It was someone camping out, but not in a little wooded area. The guy was just sitting out in the rocky zone, reading, in his sleeping bag and he called out to us letting us know there was another campsite right next to his. We surprised him as we told him we were moving on to June Lake and he said “Go get It!” We moved on and Ras joked that he sounded hopeful that we might camp next to him, “I tidied up this site for you” ha, ha.
Finally we saw a sign- 5 ¾ miles to the June Lake trailhead and I just mentally dismissed the mileage along the June lake trail itself. Yes, I had it now!!! This section took forever! We were down to a crawl when we got in some more of the rocky gullies, eventually traversing the side of the final boulder field. I so wanted to be in the musky smelling forest again, out of the rock and barren landscape, into the comfort of soft wooded trail and then the lake, the car, hot food, coffee. . . . . When I finally saw that rustic, silvered sign for June Lake, I thrust my poles into the air with a silly victory cry and then took Ras up on his suggestion that we take advantage of an inviting trailside log. We most certainly had it now. I half trotted, half speed walked, I don’t even know what you might call the way I was moving. I recognized this area now and I was so happy to be in it. Moving through the flat, sandy lake shore, I suddenly saw many tents, all seeming to be exactly the same, yet very quiet and still. It was kind of creepy and I have no idea why some 20 tents were pitched here. Again, it didn’t matter.
On we went and then, ahead, was the big trailhead sign and we were back at the car. I climbed in, laid the seat back and only answered Ras with guttural sounds as my mind raced with what I had just completed. Firing up the stove for hot coffee and food would take way more energy than I could muster. Ras drove us back to Cougar RV Park and pulled up to the showers straight away. Shivering and cold, I climbed in the shower and washed the sweat, ash, mud, and everything else I had physically acquired along the trail, down the drain. But the mental strength, sense of achievement, new friends, new skills, will never be washed away. I will now carry this with me next time I set out on a trail adventure, and the next, and the next. . . . . .