Sunday, May 15, 2011

Skinning up and skiing down Mount St. Helens

Mount St. Helens erupted 31 years ago almost to the day. I know this because I was born one month before she blew her top, sending ash hundreds of miles in all directions. Much of the Pacific Northwest corner of America watched the sky turn dark in the middle of the day on May 18, 1980.
I found myself in a car with a few fellow co-workers on Friday after work. The car was loaded with skis, tents and the goal of "skinning"to the top of Mount St. Helens. Skinning is a term used to describe alpine touring, the act of walking up hill on skis and then taking off the "skin", a strip of material that attaches to the bottom of the ski to grip the snow that is removed when one feels the urge to ski down.
The morning started out perfect. The sun was out and the guys and I were making good time up the mountain. Alpine touring is an art I am only starting to learn and appreciate. It takes tremendous cardio strength and strong leg muscles to hold a good pace while heading up hill.

The point when things became interesting started around the time we found ourselves in a dense fog some 700 feet from the summit. A complete white-out where you could see no more than 7-10 feet in front of you and the fog/cloud cover matched perfectly with the white snow giving the sense of vertigo.

Pushing up towards the summit we found ourselves along the ridge line. The only telling feature that allowed us to know we had made it to the crater's edge was the 50 foot long flat ridge line and the faintest white line that represented where the sky and the edge of the crater met.
Stripping our skins from the skis we started to slowly ski down through the fog. We had lost any clue as to where we were exactly, hoping after we skied through the fog we could find our sense of direction. However, not only had the fog moved further down the mountain we had inadvertently skied further west of the trail head that would lead us back to the car.
I will not bore you with the five hour unexpected traverse we did in order to find our way back down the mountain to the parking lot. It was a lesson for me on many levels. The most important being how disoriented one can get in a complete white-out. And a close second is to pay careful attention to maps, compass readings and land marks even on what is assumed to be the simplest of journeys.

Darkness and rain began to fall just as we happened upon the trail head. Making it back to the car felt better than it usually does. It was a great weekend spent with some great guys. I collected many beautiful moments from this weekend. Some I acknowledged as they happened and others only came to me in hindsight. But on this late Sunday night all of them are now filed neatly away in my mind as "that long day on top of an old volcano".

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