Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Mt St Helens - Loowit Trail Circumambulation -- Aka My Bday Adventure

Yesterday was full of raw emotion. For my birthday this year Kevin and I planned to run around Mt St Helens. There's a trail called the Loowit Trail that allows this. It has changed a bit over the years from washout's with mileage from different access points anywhere from 30 - 34-ish miles. It would be a long day because of the technical aspect and we also knew we'd be hiking a lot so we expected to be out there for 12 - 15 hours. I'd been sick over the weekend, but we picked the better weather day for our trek. In the first few miles I questioned whether I was physically strong and well enough for this hike/run, but with some encouragement from Kevin we carried on.

We started at June lake and headed up towards the Loowit trail. The first couple miles were in the woods and then we emerged onto a boulder field and navigated over the rough lava rock uphill for a bit. Though slow going, I didn't mind the technical nature because the rocks were stable footing and some of the formations were really beautiful. As a side note, I brought my camera but the SD card was locked for some reason, so most of the pictures are from Kevin's phone. I had mine too and took a couple, but not many.
We spotted an elk! (actually we spotted a few)

Afterwards we started navigating towards the gullies. After going over the first couple tiny dips I remarked, "these can't be the gullies that they're talking about, they're way too easy!" And they weren't.

We somehow lost the trail, scurried down/up the loose cliffside hands & feet for the two biggest gullies and it was pretty alarming. None of those rocks were stable. We were grabbing at dirt and partially stable rocks while piles were cascading towards the bottom of the gully. I didn't look down or up, I just focused on where I was and used my core muscles to keep my center of gravity as close to the dirt and rock wall as possible, and was thankful that I spent a couple years rock climbing. The lip of the gully never looked so sweet. Pulling myself back onto the solid ground felt like a huge accomplishment. After another sketchy descent we spotted a much more stable trail descending alongside the gully and it was pretty humbling. So that's how the smart and more skilled route finding people do it. Opps.

Heading into the bigger gullies. We encountered at least 5 decent sized gullies from June Lake to the Ape Cave trail, with two of them being quite large and scary. I think the one that really got us turned around was the Shoestring Creek Gully (below). We climbed almost straight up the steep far side after not spotting any flagging once we hit the bottom with the snow and falls. This picture was taken later on climbing out (I'm in the middle in the blue), still using both hands and feet but on trail.
Taking in the view before tackling another tough descent
Below: Climbing out of one of the last gullies, finally on the trail!
Trail fox was relieved he didn't get dirty
Fog was beginning to be a common theme of the day

Things went much better from there onwards to Loowit Falls. We passed a bunch of cairns on the Plains of Abraham and each added a rock to the piles to leave our mark. The landscape was incredible looking. Barren land with rocks and clumps of colorful wildflowers littered across the plains. The top of the mountain was encased in fog, so it was easy to forget it existed. We filled up with fresh cold mountain water around mile 9.

Quick shot of us on the Plains of Abraham. I'm sure you can see how useful my sunglasses were ;)
My legs were feeling pretty beat up though. As we passed over Windy pass (the highest point on the trail at 4800ft) and entered the blast zone it started to rain harder. I felt discouraged after running into a few people who were making much better time than us -- just a reminder that we were only about a third of the way in. I didn't want to turn around though and hoped the rain would lift, as we viewed Spirit Lake and saw it was beautiful and sunny near there.

We pressed onwards, turned and ended up at Loowit falls and at a raging river otherwise known as Loowit Creek. Up so close to the falls it was pretty darn intense. We went up and down the cliff for 20 minutes looking for a "safe" spot to cross, assuming once we did so we'd pick up the trail on the other side. I've never crossed something with such fast moving water and started to hyperventilate and cry at the prospect. At that point we didn't know we were off trail again, and I pulled my shit together, rock hopped and climbed up out of the riverbed to discover no trail.

Kevin took this picture after we had crossed over. Since the water was so close to the falls it was really swift. We didn't have our poles either, which at least for me, would have made me feel better.
We looked at my crude map and noticed the trail took a sharp turn north and down towards the blast zone then across a much more docile looking extension of Loowit Creek, not directly in front of the falls like we did. Kevin suggested we continue on down (north) because logically we'd intersect the trail at some point. I wasn't feeling too confident - I guess it was because neither of us had been here and I didn't feel very prepared in the first place.

Thankfully the rain and fog ceased, but with the light came the realization that we were high on the side of cliffs and it was way too risky to continue that way. The light also meant we finally spotted one of the Loowit trail posts in the distance and I yelped with joy. I probably teared up again. My priority at that moment was just to get there as safe as possible. We crossed the water again (this time thankfully on a much easier spot) and Kevin descended a cliff, I went up and over the long, safe way keeping the trail marker and Spirit Lake in my view

We made it to the trail marker, sat down and ate our sandwiches. I was elated to see the trail and sit alongside it. While the trail in the distance was clear and sunny, my emotions and legs were fried. We were already 6 hours in and only 14 miles, but had only made about 12 miles progress on trail. We decided to not let our egos get the best of us and turned around.

On the way back we started running and I was just so glad to be back on familiar terrain. Kevin remarked at how runnable and easy going clockwise was. I knew we were heading to summit Windy pass and the trail didn't seem as familiar anymore, but reminded myself it was so foggy and rainy before so I didn't really have a great reference point. We watched as a helicopter would pick up supplies on top of the mountain then deposit them over near the lake. Then we spotted a truck. Wait, a road? Oh no! We had taken the Windy Pass trail and added an extra 1.5 miles. I would have gladly accepted a helicopter ride.

Again, more defeat. My warm bed and snuggly kitties sounded so nice, but we still had 10 miles to go back to the car. When out in remote wilderness you have no choice but to keep going. It's how you handle that moment that shows your character. After another mile of feeling weak, tired, grumpy and wanting to never run again with Kevin, I realized I was being an ass. It wasn't helping anything by feeling sorry for myself or directing anger at someone who lives his life more fearlessly than I do. While pushing me past my walls, he still deeply cares about my well being and loves me. He beckoned me over and held me close a few times. I knew my being distant was affecting him, so I chose to snap out of it, asked him to lead us up over the pass and started to feel my spirits lift. I started to really appreciate us being in such an incredible place and being healthy enough to see a place that so many others will never experience. I even had positive thoughts about coming back, once I was stronger and not sick. Oh, and with a real map.

The rain that had picked up around the pass again let up, and we were back on the plains and moving fairly well. The mountain top became a little more visible and the vivid blues and greens from the sky and trees against the mostly tan landscape left me in awe. We laughed and I was able to lighten up about our intense adventurous off trail journey. I could acknowledge I had been terrified and realized I am still so new at these things and that's okay. I grew up hiking, camping, caving, and climbing mountains, but not to the extremes we were pushing yesterday. I'm positive being sick affected me a lot as well.

Our journey back was light. We seamlessly located all the trails through the gullies, and while the remainder of the technical trail meant we were moving roughly about 2.5 mph, I took comfort in knowing we were on familiar ground and on trail. The last two miles after the turn off from the Loowit trail back to the car was on pine needles which after pumice and boulder fields felt so amazing!

The entire trek took us about 12 hours, 9 hours moving time, 7,700ft gain via Garmin (which seems a bit high Strava pegs over 1k less). We covered almost 28 miles which seems like snail pace except for when you take in account what happened out there. Kevin was calm and collected, I lost my shit. It helped having him there, but I chose to internally deal with a lot of the emotions I was having. I don't necessarily know if I made the right decision to undertake the journey despite feeling so under the weather, but we both were looking forward to the adventure.

birds eye view of route and elevation profile. Though my watch was on my vest I accidentally paused it after the gullies and didn't notice for about a mile
I don't have regrets though. I learned some of my limits, and how I deal with challenges, but most importantly I learned that I can pull myself together and pull myself out of that space. I learned that even when terrified I can focus and execute a tough obstacle, such as steep gully climbing and river jumping. I felt the highs and lows, and all of this training will hopefully provide a bank to pull some strength from during The Bear in September. That race terrifies and excites me at the same time. I'm not ready, but I will be as ready as I can be come race day and give it my all.

I already have more plans to do things that scare me this summer: things that will continuously humble me. But I want to be emotionally raw. I want to stay acquainted with being slightly uncomfortable, reminded of my vulnerabilities, my smallness, and learn to persevere in my own way. Though, I admit, I desire to experience the sharpness on my own too. (preferably in a slightly more familiar setting though).

I look back on yesterday with gratitude. Sometimes in the moment we are distracted by our internal struggles. (Though of course, I am pretty elated to be home snuggled up with the kitties today, sleeping off this cold and watching a movie.)

I suppose it sounds cliche, but in those emotionally raw moments the normal life bullshit doesn't matter. When we are stripped down and drained we can choose to fill ourselves back up with love and gratitude, or fester in a negative space and shut down opportunities. I choose gratitude. I choose growth.

Finally, I don't really know if it's just selective memory, or sheer stubborn will, but I think I'd like to go back out there before September. I think I'd be okay alone too... which doesn't sound logical at all after everything that I went through. The wilderness reminds me that I am tiny. I am a mere speck. But I'm a speck that wants to finish what I started.