Saturday, March 18, 2006

Officials are considering expeditions to Mount St.Helens' crater!

There aren't many places on Earth where it's possible to climb an erupting volcano and peer over the crater's edge.

Soon, adventure-seekers may be able to do just that at Mount St. Helens. A year and a half after the volcano stirred to life in September of 2004, U.S. Forest Service officials are deciding whether to reopen the volcano to climbers.

"The public is interested," said Tom Mulder, manager of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. "It's a recreation niche, a learning opportunity, and we want to serve the public well."

Forest officials in February began accepting conditional climbing reservations, which would enable permit-holders to scale the mountain from the main staging route at Climber Bivouac. Mulder, in an interview Tuesday, cautioned that he and Gifford Pinchot National Forest Supervisor Claire Lavendel haven't yet decided whether to reopen the climbing route, but permit-seekers are being advised that the traditional starting date of the climbing season is May 15.

During the busy summer climbing season, the Forest Service has historically capped the number of permits at 100 per day; half by reservation and half available by lottery each evening at Jack's Restaurant and Store on state Highway 503 in Ariel.

Ominous tremor

Scientists detected the first of thousands of tiny earthquakes beginning in the early morning of Sept. 23, 2004. Three days later, with larger quakes signalling that magma was on the move, Forest Service officials closed hiking trails above 4,800 feet on the mountain because of the danger of sudden steam explosions blasting rock out of the crater. Officials said at the time that they didn't want climbers exposed to a sudden gas or steam explosion while peering over the crater rim.

A week later, when seismologists detected an ominous tremor lasting for nearly an hour beneath the volcano, forest officials hastily evacuated thousands of visitors from the Johnston Ridge Observatory five miles north of the mountain.

The volcano has been erupting continuously since then, pumping out the equivalent of a pickup truck load of lava every second.

Despite several spectacular steam and ash blasts, including one a year ago that expelled a towering cloud to an elevation of 36,000 feet, none of the blasts have expelled rocks beyond the crater itself. Aptly known as ballistics, these rocks present the most direct hazard from any unexpected volcanic outburst.

"Climbers will be taking on the responsibility for exposing themselves to any risk that they may encounter," Mulder said. "Temperature extremes, to slippery slopes, to things that may fall out of the sky."

Low hazard

Tom Pierson, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Vancouver, tentatively plans to lead a guided hike to the crater rim in August. The climb, offered through the nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute, will provide a radically different view from the pre-2004 landscape.

Massive mounds of fresh lava now cover the area where a smooth glacier had accumulated between the steep south crater wall and the 876-foot-tall lava dome that emerged in a series of eruptions during the 1980s.

"It will be great to see the new view and to take pictures to compare," Pierson said.
Scientists have watched carefully as the volcano has established a relatively placid pattern of dome-building over the past 18 months, and Pierson said it presents a fairly low hazard to the public. Because the volcano is part of the Gifford Pinchot National Forest, it's ultimately up to the Forest Service to decide whether to reopen the climbing route.

Capt. Chris Lynch, law enforcement officer at forest headquarters in Vancouver, said officers have cited only a handful of people who violated the closure zone around the volcano.

Mulder said that may be because the consequences of such violations are "painful," with a fine of up to $5,000 or six months in jail. Because interlopers above the timberline would be readily apparent to the many scientists and sight-seers flying around the volcano, law enforcement officers have ample opportunities to capture violators.

Lynch said officers easily collared one out-of-shape climber from the East Coast during the height of the volcano's international publicity in the fall of 2004.

"I hate to say it, but volcanoes do draw a certain level of people who wear aluminum foil on their heads," she said.

A little notoriety couldn't hurt, one local business booster said.

Stephanie Burhop, owner of Jack's Restaurant and the Cougar Store, said the area south of Mount St. Helens could use an economic boost from climbers converging on the area again.
"We're looking forward to it," she said. "Obviously, winters are very tough up here."

Erik Robinson covers the environment and energy for The Columbian. Reach him at 360-759-8014, or by e-mail at

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