Thanksgiving on Mt St Helens (Nov 21-23, 2019)

Thanksgiving Day (Thursday)

I’d cooked a Turkey the night before, yams and marshmellows the night before that, and strawberry jello nut salad (a family tradition) the night before. I spent the morning prepping and packing. Carve the turkey, cover everything in foil, nest bowls and plates so they won’t rattle or break in the car, find polar fleece leggings I haven’t used since last year, take my larger backpack down from where I’m using it as wall art, will titanium shephards hooks hold my tent up if there’s more than the inch or two of snow we expect? The list goes on. Almost forget to buy and print a Sno Park permit.

Lizi, Ella’s friend texts her as she crosses the border. Rendezvous a little before noon at Ella’s place. I park on a hill several blocks away. In this neighborhood, parking is notoriously difficult. After securing the lid of the borrowed fire pit against the incessant rattling it had made on the drive over, I walk past several open parking spots. I guess people get out of town for Thanksgiving. We sure are.

The faded walls of Ella’s apartment where we wait are decorated with photographs of friendship and adventure. Her coffee table has books on history, philosophy of science, and adventure. Soft christmas music plays and we verbally process our nerves about the cold by talking about gear and reliving misadventures. Lizi arrives and asks all the same questions and charges her phone. I ask if Ella still has my USB-car adapter from the Enchantments Through-Swim. She does and covets it. She also returns the fleece I’d left in her car when she dropped my off for the Issy Alps 100k, just as she’d left a shirt in my car when I’d dropped her party off for their Issy Alps 100k attempt. I’ve forgotten a ball cap and borrow one. We identify a budding tradition. At the end of the trip she almost leaves a pair of knickers in my car and I still have her ball cap.

Lizi and Ella are college friends (“uni” as the Brits call it) and have lots of catching up to do as we drive south. Lizi rides shotgun and passes around a bag of goldfish crackers which winds up being most of lunch. She’s been ski bumming in popular ski town but now works for a non-profit. This trip has just started and they’re already making plans plans for another.

The Forest Road to Marble Mountain Sno Park at the base of Mt St Helens winds up being dry an clear. We’d be worried about ice. This appears but we’re almost at the end. It’s past 4:30pm so night has fallen. We make two laps of the parking area looking for a place to camp. This is a parking area, not a camping area. It’s not looking good until the headlights of the car pick up a cleared, flat, level spot. I park. A small fire ring is visible so no need for the one taking up space in the trunk. I shut off the car and turn on the interior lights. Someone cracks a door open and the scramble to layer up begins.

The campsite has several flat areas. We set up tents in the furthest one back. There’s plenty of room. The snow was little more than a dusting and the titanium shepard’s hooks held just fine. Dinner time.

Ella puts a string of fairy lights around the rock fire pit. We unload plates from the car, unwrap aluminum foil, stuff crumpled newspaper and under logs. Then we light the newspaper, the logs catch, and we are warmed. The food is cold but hadn’t frozen. I load a bowl and eat, seated in a backpacking chair. The ladies wrap food in foil and tuck it into the fire, “hobo style”, and sit on their foam sleeping mats. Lizi cheats on her vegetarian diet. Champagne is consumed from back-country pots and cups.

And that’s how we ate Thanksgiving Dinner. Bundled up against the cold, drinking champagne from back country cups also used for food.

A car and a truck arrive, revving their engines and doing donuts. Huddled around the campfire, we talk about how people should have something better to do on Thanksgiving. The revving stops and a hood is popped. Some time later they drive off, ice crunching under the wheels.

I’m barely hungry after a first course. The fire throws embers and pine needs into the serving dishes so everything looks like it has cracked pepper and rosemary. I go for seconds anyways. We talk about how ridiculous we are, eating a Thanksgiving dinner in the woods bundled in every layer we have, in temperatures not cold enough to freeze our water bottles but not warm enough to melt the lose granular snow burdening the ferns. I get asked why I cooked so much food and respond that I want to be a father who makes pancakes on Saturday morning and turkey on Thanskgiving.

We let the fire start to die. Ella warms up pie, hobo style, for everyone. We move closer and the logs turn to coals. I’ve been avoiding drinking from my water bottle, intending it for tomorrow’s hike. We start collecting snow to melt, Ella and I in our cups placed beside the fire, Lizi in her stove which is much faster. This is my first time melting snow to drink. Initially, it’s easiest to brush clean snow off plants into my pot’s coozie for transport back to the fire but snow shrinks so much when melted that I end up scooping it off the ground. The water tastess like the pine needles I filter out by poking bandana into the top of my water bottle and slowly pouring the warm liquid through. This chore keeps us busy while the fire dies.

Despite the cold, we kill the fire completely dumping cups of snow on it. I intend to finish the job by peeing on the fire, a favorite benign ritual of masculinity, documented in the movie Boyhood. Ella informs me that this rite is not strictly limited to males and wants to go first, apparently unaided by a feminine urinary device. Neither of us quite quenches the fire so Lizi stirs the ashes around. All is quiet. We turn in before the cold can creep back in to our fingers and toes.

There’s no liquid water in the area so we made some.

 

Friday

Motor vehicles crunching the thin ice in the parking lot wake me up shortly after 2am. They keep coming, sometimes washing the tent walls with luminescence which makes it hard to sleep. I relax and lay conscious with my eyes closed until I hear rustling from Ella or Lizi’s tent. It’s 4:10am. Start time is 5:30am. I had planned on stirring at 4:30am. Ella points out that the target start time is 5:00am, 5:30am was the cut off for late comers. A dog barks which is probably Jolly, Emily’s tan, long haired dog. She’s bringing Ben who I haven’t met. Garrett was having Thanksgiving at his parents’, 5.5hrs away and not planning on leaving until after a particular guest but also said he’d make it one way or another. I drag myself through through packing up, deciding to keep on all my sleeping layers, and rueing the fact fact that my sleeping bag goes in the bottom the pack must be packed first. Toasty legs meet chilly air.

I’m greeted by a woofing and bounding Jolly half way across the parking lot. I return his woofs, match his bounds with jumping jacks, then finish crossing the slippery parking lot to find that Garrett has already connected with Emily and Ben. Turns out I’m the last one up.

We fill out self-issue climbing permits. Conversation flows and for a few minutes we don’t notice that everyone is ready. The trail starts wide, probably and old forest road, lightly covered in snow but not enough to interfere with walking. This is vaguely familiar from the Bigfoot 100k earlier this year. We’re taking the Worm Flows route which is a name I enjoy seeing on the trail signs which guide us guide us through the first few turns.

Pacing with a group of six was always going to be a bit interesting. Multiple people had expressed concern about being able to keep up and one was injured enough that they were skipping their run training. This started to play out a bit as a group of three pulled ahead, two fell behind. I wanted to listen to both conversations! I love eavesdropping while hiking. This was briefly remedied when I forced everyone to take a de-layering break.

The two groups re-formed and drifted apart again. I chose the rear group to better make the acquaintance of those with whom I was less familiar. The trail narrowed and began to get a little rocky as we passed the treeline and got onto the rocks. The lead group stopped now and again to let us catch up, and sometimes people would switch groups when this happened. Breaks dragged out as we admired the sunrise and layered up or down as the wind came and went. I learned a new term, “puffy envy” which is apparently when you see someone wearing a puffy jacket and it makes you want to put on your own. Ben had spent several years in Guatemala. Emily had completed a climbing project. Garret had hiked the Triple Crown. Everyone had a story to share. Each story inspired another.

At the base of the first ridge, a peach layer split the blue snow and blue sky.

The trees became smaller and sparser, then gave way to rock. The route follows ridges which don’t leave much room to get lost and it was clear where many feet had tread. We continued to stop regularly and informally, trade conversation partners, and whoever was least patient at the moment would eventually lead off. The only consistency is that Garrett was always second. Contrast against the last hike with Ella and Garrett which involved just as much elevation gain, but only two brief breaks.

The originally stated goal for this adventure had been to climb Mt St Helens, then circumnavigate it on the Loowit Trail. By the time we reached a sensor array our pace meant this wasn’t likely to happen. No one cared. The day was clear and now windless. We could see for hundreds of miles. Some chose to leave their packs at the sensor array to finish the climb without camping gear. I finished the mashed yams I’d taken from the Thanksgiving leftovers. We ascended the last three ridges.

Several times we leap-frogged with strangers. Jolly would usually bark at them the first time and we’d have to call him back, but would warm up the the stranger on subsequent passes. Jolly was an excellent climber, bounding up rocks which the humans navigated using hands for balance. He would pace back and forth while we practiced the rest step, a mountain climbing technique to walk sustainably without sweating. Once at a distance I saw what appeared to be a hiker with light brown hair and a green shirt. It was Jolly partially obscured by rocks his long hair looking like a shaggy haircut and green side bags appearing as a shirt.

The hiking surface changed on the final ridge where the summer and winter routes overlap. In some places the snow, instead of being an inconsequential covering over grippy rock, was now a mortar between polished, pebble-sized ice balls making for beautiful and treacherous travel. There were fields where every disturbance in the dirt served as the nucleus of a wind loaded snow sculpture.

Which way do you think the wind blows?

The top was spectacular. You could see forever. The air was still. The direct sun let us me relax, even if I still had a puffy on. Jolly doesn’t have a particularly refined sense of safety and meandered close to the vertical drop into the crater. I teased Emily about being such a dog mom and she motioned over to the caldera’s edge for a surprise. Ben pointed out all the mountains he’d climbed and ones he still wanted to. We tried to identify obscure mountains in the North and South cascades. Ella and Garrett started planning a ridiculous trip to do an “Infinity Loop” (hike half way around a mountain, then over it, then the other half around, then over again to return to the start) of each and connect all the big mountains into a single hike.

Just one of several landscape dominating volcanoes.

Garrett and Emily put on flexible crampons which we hadn’t worn on the way up (I’d say Microspikes like everyone else but I significantly prefer a competitor) and walked over to the actual summit. Ben discovered he’d left his traction devices at the sensor site. We admired the view endlessly. Everyone but our group seemed dressed for a more intense adventure, many with crampons, snow shoes, ice axes, and ski goggles or glacier glasses.

What a good crew.

Ben lead the descent to get a head start since he had to cross the slippery ice pebbles without traction. Garrett tried to blaze a path in deeper snow where the footing would be less slippery but we doubled back to stay on the regular route for simpler route finding. Still, we missed the turn onto the winter route and were held up by a kind couple who asked us where the winter route was. I was adamant and vocal that we still on the portion where the winter and summer routes overlapped until someone spotted a hiker on the winter route above us. Half our group took off up hill and then overshot the turn off and had to come back down when Emily found the proper place to turn.

Back down at the sensor array we ate, not having had a proper lunch and it now being about 2:30pm. I’d brought and alcohol stove and spent an inordinate amount of time waiting for water to melt and then the fire to burn out. During this time I realized I’d brought one worse stoves from the batch of five that I’d made and tested that week.

Garrett and Ella, probably high off their inspirational and outlandish infinity loop scheme, proposed the idea of getting up at 2am to be able to hike almost the entire Loowit tomorrow. I nixed the idea as cleanly as I could. The trip had been too mellow and pleasurable to contemplate a committing and aggressive adventure tomorrow on low sleep. It was about 3:30pm when we left, an hour to sundown.

Garrett probably explaining a hairbrained and wonderful scheme.

The plan we ultimately agreed on was to get down to the Loowit and hike counter-clockwise towards June Lake then camp near there. The descent spread us out in pairs, each pair conversing as we picked our way down the rocks. We met up on the lowest ridge but Garrett and Emily were talking about climbing and we weren’t particularly hurried in our departure.

Eventually we did get to the Loowit trail and take a left. It was easy to follow in the trees. Ben was in the lead as we went out onto the boulder fields and managed not to turn an ankle or break a leg despite there being just enough snow to make the rocks slippery and hide the holes between them. We were moving well but not fast enough to get to June Lake by sundown.  Eventually, I spotted a flat area below the trail, we all gave Ben, who was in front, different directions on how to get there but he hiked another hundred yards or so and found that the bank of a gully created an easy path down to it.

The first order of business was getting the tents up. We were spread out in the trees wherever we could find flat places. A common cooking area was set up but Emily had been excited to try her new sleeping bag. Apparently it was good enough that she decided to stay in her tent to eat the lasagna dinner she’d brought while describing it loud enough for the rest of us over in the kitchen area to hear. Ben stayed in the tent too and shouted his highs and lows out to us. On any trip with Ella you will be required to say highs and lows. There are rules too: go clockwise, lows first, nothing sappy, nothing about the current moment. I can’t remember what my stated low was but after dinner I had to used an improvised blue bag and that was definitely the low.

I had my alcohol stove back out and was trying to melt water which was taking a very long time. I had brought a normal backpacking stove but finished off a fuel canister and didn’t want to start on open another. The alcohol stove was difficult to light with a lighter and I tried matches. They didn’t light easily against the box so I took to lighting the matches with a lighter. This wasn’t as successful as it should have been and the others enjoyed watching me fail at simple tasks. When I finally got the stove lit and had melted water for dinner, I poured more alcohol directly onto the stove so I wouldn’t have to light it again. A little spilled out but the fire was surrounded by snow and had no place to go. We started warming our hands and wet feet over it. Steam rose from Lizi’s socks. With the fire slightly outside the stove, and us treating it like a campfire, we realized that some twigs over the the top would give us a campfire. Wood was gathered with great purpose and soon we had a much nicer fire to dry socks and feet. No major gear damage occurred in the process. It was sublime. We loudly proclaimed our joy so the tented folks would hear. They never responded, probably because they were catching up on sleep lost the night before.

Moments later, we realized that we could just build a campfire.

Saturday

Jolly was the first up the next morning. I heard someone calling him and the sounds of a dog running around. Eventually I heard people moving but that died off. Finally it was light and I decided to be a good teammate and not keep people waiting. All the tents were still up when I poked my head out. The tents were still up when I’d packed up and settled on to my foam pad in the kitchen area to eat breakfast. It turns out that Garrett and Ben had been up to see the sunrise but been nice and not woken anyone up. Jolly had been contained after he’d escaped. I was the first one willing to impose my wakefulness on others.

The few short miles back to the Sno Park and our cars were passed much as the rest of the trip had been, in conversation. The morning was clear, the snow brilliant, and our spirits bright. I might have sung if I’d have thought of something appropriate. Again, no one got hurt on the rock fields.

When we reached the parking lot, the traditional cries of mourning were sounded for the end of a wonderful trip (traditional at least on trips with Ella). We stood around talking in a circle for some time with our packs on. I managed to find my car key in the pocket of a jacket I wasn’t wearing (I’d lost it earlier) and at a lull in the conversation opened my mouth to end our gathering. Before I could finish a word, Ella cut in with “not yet”. Our circle shifted back into the sun which had moved enough since we’d finished that we were shaded. Conversation continued. At some point, many hugs and goodbyes were exchanged. It was like leaving your friends after a week of summer camp.

We signed out of the trail register and returned to our cars, only to form a caravan on the slow drive to get under the snow line. In time, the road separated us. Emily and Ben turned south to Oregon. Garrett pulled into the travel lane northbound for the long drive home. Lizi, Ella, and I pulled off onto a side road to lunch at a local diner. Some things could be drawn out just a little longer.

One thought on “Thanksgiving on Mt St Helens (Nov 21-23, 2019)

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