100 Peaks #17: Loowit. Dust.

Loowit (Mt. St. Helens) is not made of beautiful rock spires. It is not (in the summer, at least) covered in snow with dramatically windblown icy slopes leading to the summit. Loowit is made of dust. For anyone (like me before moving here) that missed the memo, this is because it is a volcano that erupted in 1980, creating a crater thousands of feet deep and moving impressive amounts of dusty earth to backyards far away in Oregon and Washington.

Fine, soft dust that filled our mouths and eyes as soon as we left the part of the climbing route that took Westy and me to the Loowit Trail, a 30 mile trail that circles the base of the mountain. We half-jogged uphill through some misleadingly cool and pleasant forest, past some climbers with the sought-after permits required to summit.

“There’s some runners,” one of them said to cue her friends to let us by.

“Oh, lord.”

The Loowit itself was runnable forest for a half second before it turned into tricky volcano talus. And then it was sand. Sometimes it was flat and mostly easy to run on; sometimes we were slipping on disintegrating slopes in and out of gulleys. One thing was constant– no shade. Of course, I should have expected this given the eruption, but the barren air of destruction was still a bit of a surprise to me. Walking on the soft ground was subtly harder, like walking on a strange planet with thicker air. Usually it was all dust hills, but sometimes wrecked forests downhill of us still lay dead and preserved, all of the trees flattened in one direction.

The mountain itself was a weird apparition in the near distance, not behind any trees or slopes, just through a dry veneer of dust and heat. We saw dust blowing off the summit, or it could have been steam.

We settled into a rhythm, down the gulley, up the gulley, run some flats, get slightly off-trail on volcanic rocks (invariably at this point, Westy would say “running is hard.”), run a bit more, then I would complain about the heat. Something about this system prevented me from ever getting into my zero-thoughts running “zone,” so my legs, too, felt full of sand, heavy and viscous after every stop.

This only contributed to the feeling of this run as some sort of pleasant hellscape dream. There were so many gullies to remind us of the wreckage and slow our pace. The north side was less a recognizable cone-like volcano shape and more a pile of rocks and glacier spewing some combination of steam and dust.

Crater Glacier, on the opposite side of the mountain from the most common climbing routes, is a very young glacier which started forming after the eruption. For years after, it developed unknown to everyone as humanity avoided the newly-ruined and dangerous landscape.

I was here at Loowit not primarily for this run, but for the next day. I was asked to adopt the climbing permit originally intended for my friend Jeri’s former partner, repurposed after she escaped from the abusive relationship. Now the trip was just three women– me, her and Amanda– none of whom had ever climbed it before. I was excited for this fun and symbolic new beginning.

Westy and I finished our run and had tea in the van, and as he left in the morning my friends tumbled out of their car, organizing onesies, snacks, and whiskey to take to the top. I still felt sore. And I’m sure Jeri felt less strong than usual in some ways, her physical state having suffered as she reorganized her life. I’d not seen her much since the break, so she was like the glacier to me, building new things in the space left by catastrophe that I didn’t know anything about yet.

The opaqueness of her feelings didn’t last long, as we all talked, seriously as well as lightheartedly, about our lives while falling into Amanda’s consistent hiking rhythm. With the conversation, I barely noticed the resistance of the sandy slopes or the sludgey feeling inside my muscles (still pretty unused to running). We stopped for snacks, sang, meowed to call whenever we got too far apart.

Near the top, the sand formed a hilariously slow, monotonous slope toward the now-visible crater edge. Hikers in camo whooped while running down it, kicking up dust. Jeri stopped, cried, said she had considered turning around and hadn’t been sure she could do it. I hadn’t even realized she had serious doubts as she had been so upbeat. But it was wonderful to see that making it so close to the top was helping her regain her sense of agency. I wanted to somehow remind her that she was always capable of this and many far more difficult things, that what had happened to her had nothing to do with her own strength or any shortcomings. But I didn’t know how, so I sat at her feet and studied some rocks and listened.

At the top of the rim, I left the others to go to the “true” summit. It felt like a silly exercise to make the mildly sketchy sand traverse a short distance for the sake of peak-bagging. After all, what does the “summit” of a pile of debris even mean? But the angle of the light on the glacier was better from over there, and I met a meditative, solitary hiker from France.

Back at the top of the trail, we donned onesies and played in the sand, ate grape leaves from a tin. Some people from the St. Helens Institute took our photo for their climbing report, as did at least a dozen tourists. We headed home, sliding down sand and cackling. There’s a beauty to going around and up a mountain in the same trip, and it was wonderful to get the chance to experience it on a perfectly sunny autumn weekend, as I met a mountain for the first time.

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