By Stephanie Imig
Photos by Paul Nelson & Teri Smith
My love affair with the Cascades did not begin as that of a mountain runner, but rather as a parent with a toddler obsessed with volcanoes, and one volcano above all others: Mount St. Helens.
Once upon a Time
Even in my son’s earliest years, he responded to fear like a scientist. He wanted to learn everything about Mount St. Helens. As a family, we quickly became versed in volcanology, learning about cinder cones, lava domes, shield volcanoes, and stratovolcanoes. As we turned the pages of Mount St. Helens geological story, we conversed with the USGS volcanologists monitoring the mountain, several of whom had been working on Mount St. Helens since its 1980 eruption, and we were even invited to visit with one at his home on the mountain’s flanks. For my son, it was a day meeting a legend. At the same time, Mount St. Helens became a legend of its own, its stories beckoning to me to experience its topography with my entire body.
A four-year-old loves deeply. Everything is new and incredible and magical. It was in this child-like spirit that Mount St. Helens seeped into my soul.
Circumnavigation is the ultimate way to experience Mount St. Helen’s bizarre geological history—the ancient forests untouched by the 1980 blast, the expansive lava fields from eruptions thousands of years ago, the silty rivers and the scree-swept slopes, the young forests rebounding from annihilation, the logjam in Spirit Lake, the lava dome that emerged within the crater in more recent years, and of course, the blast zone—the still-desolate, moon-like expanse on the northwest flank, the remains of the horizontal 1980 explosion.
The Volcanic 50 is a 50k race circumnavigating Mount St. Helens I began participating in 2015, and I would have to say that “racing” definitely belongs in quotation marks.
This race is the definition of true mountain adventure.
Run-able terrain, with the exception of the blast zone, comes sporadically, and rarely. The scars of her history, etched so prominently on her surface, are testimonies to the challenge you will experience traveling on her flanks. To compensate for the inevitable suffering, she offers rugged, inexpressible mountain beauty; eruptions of childhood giddiness are certain.
Up, Up, and....UP!
At this point, the first of many lava boulder fields greets us. If the climb wasn’t enough to slow you down, the boulders will be more insistent. They wobble. The path is not always clear (there are wooden posts throughout the lava fields, charting our way through the field, as though we are navigating by stars). Basalt can be slick. And jagged. It is in this first field that much about this “race” becomes clear: we are on a volcano, and this is going to be one hell of a mountain adventure!
The Hills Are Alive with the Sound of (Mountain) Music
The lava fields are followed by alpine meadows, and shrubs. The sweet chirps of pika in the lava fields are replaced by the bluster of wind and the trill of juncos. I am always grateful for all the ways the mountain offers something to take me out of my body and remind me of my surroundings. Mount St. Helens is always equal parts sufferfest and incomparable beauty.
After traversing the gentle southwest side of the volcano, you get one of the true joys of the race—the screaming decent through old-growth forest, unscathed by the 1980 eruption—to the Toutle River. It is time to run. Fly. Enjoy. My legs will hate me later, but for now I am all present-moment-kid-flying-free where future consequences have no bearing on current actions.
Then comes the fun of descending and ascending the scree-laden slopes of the river. It’s single-file up and down ropes here. Some are lucky enough to cross the river without getting their feet wet. I have never been that person. The first year, the bank I was standing on collapsed, sending me suddenly into the silty water, so the second year I didn’t waste time trying to stay dry. There’s nothing like ropes, scree, and splashing in rivers to make you feel like a giddy child dancing in the glory of the world.
A Trip to the Moon
Arising from the Toutle River, we traverse through a landscape of match-stick trees. We are in the presence again of the 1980 eruption and I can’t help but reflect at how fickle the blast was, annihilating only one side of the mountain. Mount St. Helens’ beauty echoes with reminders of how arbitrary destruction can be.
The mountain opens at this point. We meander her scree-laden flanks, gaze into the gaping crater, listen to the rock fall hinting at the continued unsettling beneath the surface. Occasionally steam, soft and ethereal, wafts from the crater. It could be a low cloud, but I know it is not. Mount St. Helen’s is alive. There are more river crossings, phenomenal views of Spirit Lake with its logjam from the eruption. I think about Harry Truman, whose body, lodge, and innumerable cats were buried when the mountain exploded. I am in a race that demands determination and stubbornness, and I feel a disquieting kinship to the man entombed beneath the new surface of Spirit Lake.
The views continue to expand. The blast zone awaits. The north side of the mountain is still desolate. I can’t believe this desert sits on the same mountain as the dense fir forests. The barrenness is interrupted as I watch mountain goats scamper on the cliffs above. My legs are tired but life is good.
Of course, on tired legs, the blast zone is the easy part. The last 7 miles of the race take us in and out of several gullies, and over more lava fields, which at this point, feel endless. Somewhere in the midst of these final boulder fields, my legs like jelly, my will decimated, I am certain I am in hell. I have forgotten the magic of the landscape, my love of running and mountain adventures. Sleet pounds my skin and I want it to be over. I know there are hundreds of other runners on this mountain, and yet I see no one. I feel alone and desolate.
Luckily, nothing lasts forever. Mount St. Helens is a lesson in impermanence if nothing else. I find myself in the forest once again, bombing down the same trail I ran up so long ago. It is the same and yet so different. Gravity is in my favor, but my legs are shot. The day is no longer new, and neither am I. I can relax the mental focus that was required to stay upright in the last boulder field, and enjoy the ruminations instead. I can return to my roots, and the young child within me, who has--like magma--risen to the surface to play for the day. Gratitude washes over me—for the amazing community of runners brought together by Go Beyond Racing; for the opportunity to challenge myself so utterly and completely; and more than anything, for this beautiful mountain, who bears her scars so close to her surface, and yet whispers tales of her past and future in puffs of smoke. For me this has not just been a race, or even a mountain adventure. It has been an epic journey through geology—both the mountain’s and my own.