Sun, Jul 16, 2006 - Page 7 News List

Popular Mount St. Helens to reopen to climbers this week

RUMBLING While the trek may be arduous, hikers may be rewarded with the sight near the crater's center of the volcano rebuilding itself as it churns out tonnes of rock


For all the talks interpretive guide Nick Racine has given to visitors about this volcano, standing on the crater rim and watching as the mountain pumps out tonnes of rock in its own rebirth left him nearly speechless.

"Holy cow, it's incredible," said Racine, who is normally assigned to the Johnston Ridge Observatory on the other side of the volcano. "It's hard to describe."

Racine joined a group of rangers, scientists and journalists in a five-hour ascent of 2,509m Mount St. Helens on Thursday, a week before the crater rim is scheduled to be opened to climbers for the first time since the mountain began erupting in 2004.

Dust, steam and blue-tinted sulfurous gas rose from the horseshoe-shaped crater left by St. Helens' 1980 eruption, which killed 57 people and blasted more than 390m off the peak. Near the crater's center, the volcano is rebuilding itself, churning out nearly a cubic meter of rock per second -- a rate that could see the volcano return to its pre-1980 size in 100 years.

As the cooled lava reached the top of the bulging dome, it fractured and fell in rock avalanches that sounded like crashing glass. The region's intact volcanoes -- Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Hood -- loomed above the distant clouds, serving as a reminder of St. Helens' once impressive profile.

When climbing was reopened in 1987, St. Helens became one of the country's most popular climbs, attracting about 12,000 people a year.

But in September 2004, the volcano reawakened with a near-constant drumbeat of little earthquakes. Tourists flocked to the visitor centers to witness the billowing clouds of ash and steam as the US Forest Service closed trails around the mountain.

Since then, the volcano has settled into a pattern of constantly extruding lava with a low gas content, said Tom Pierson of the US Geological Survey. Dissolved gas in lava is what drives most explosive eruptions, so the chances of an eruption sending rock to the crater rim appear remote.

"It's lost its fizz," Pierson said. "It just doesn't contain enough gas that would make climbing dangerous."

Still, the Forest Service cautions anyone who makes the arduous, but not technical, 8km hike to the crater rim beginning this Friday.

In addition to basic backcountry necessities such as a compass, map and plenty of water, the service recommends that climbers bring an ice ax, sunglasses that seal around the eyes to keep dust out, a dust mask and a climbing helmet, just in case the volcano sends rocks soaring above the rim.

The entire south side of the mountain is being reopened to climbers, as are trails through the blast zone on the north side. The crater itself remains off-limits.

Permits are required to hike above the tree line. The Forest Service will issue up to 100 permits a day, and reservations can be made on the Internet.

The most popular climbing route commences on the south side at Climber's Bivouac, elevation 1,140m. An easy trail through firs and huckleberries on an ancient lava flow leads to tree line at Monitor Ridge, at 1,440m.

That's where the scrambling starts, up broken rocks and pumice, through sparse patches of subalpine grasses and flowers, to 2,100m, where the trail soon becomes a thick field of ash -- like hiking up a steep, sandy dune.

When climbers reach the narrow rim and look into the nearly 2km wide crater, the ascent's difficulty is quickly forgotten -- especially when they consider that nearly everything they see on the floor 600m below has built up since 2004.

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