Sunday, July 16, 2006

Climbers now allowed on Mt. St.Helens

For the climbing public, the curtain up goes next week on the third act of America's most fascinatingly dysfunctional mountain.

Forest Service ranger Nick Racine leads reporters and photographers on a hike Thursday to the rim of Mount St. Helens. The climb has been closed to the public since 2004 because of volcanic activity.

It's anyone's guess how many more acts are to follow in the years to come, but the highlight of Mount St. Helens' latest configuration since its devastating eruption of May 18, 1980, will be the unveiling of a close-up view of its new, still-growing volcanic dome.

The dome is creeping slowly and dramatically upward and now is less than 700 feet below the 8,363-foot summit, which opens to climbing next Friday for the first time since volcanic activity prompted closure of the mountain in September 2004.

The 1,100-foot-high mass of rock isn't rising quietly from the mountain's hot depths.

During a preview climb the U.S. Forest Service arranged for the region's news media Thursday, the lava dome put on a noisy, spectacular show, sending automobile-sized boulders roaring down its unstable slopes as gases rose from fumaroles on the crater floor, mixing with wind-blown ash and clouds.

The living, growing mountain will present climbers with a "total sensory experience" -- breathtaking views, thunderous rockfall, birds singing, the occasional ash cloud and even whiffs of sulfur gas -- said Peter Frenzen, chief scientist of the Mount St. Helens Volcanic National Monument.

Climbers now must apply for permits on the Web from the Mount St. Helens Institute , a new, non-profit organization working with the Forest Service to provide educational programs and research support on the volcano.

The mountain's Act 1, at least of the modern era, began with a 57-year round of volcanic activity in the early 19th century that gave it its Fuji-like, nearly symmetrical, pre-1980 shape, with a summit crater reaching 9,677 feet. It ended spectacularly with the earthquake, landslide and massive eruption 26 years ago that killed 57 people and reshaped the landscape of hundreds of square miles.

For sightseeing climbers, that brought down the curtain, keeping St. Helens off limits until volcanic activity subsided enough to permit its reopening in January 1987. The centerpiece of this episode, Act 2, was a magma dome growing in the north-facing crater.

That massive lump, however, was eventually pushed aside by today's much larger, higher dome, never before seen at its current size by climbers to the wind-swept crater rim, often dusted by fine, silica ash with "the consistency of broken glass," Frenzen said. The Forest Service recommends that climbers, to protect their mouths and eyes, bring along dust masks and safety goggles or climbing glasses with side shields.

The magma is building the dome upward 4 to 5 feet per day, "coming out like a piston," said U.S. Geological Survey scientist Tom Pierson, and it is building the towering dome -- the crater's seventh since 1980, and its largest -- at the rate of a cubic yard per second. If that rate of dome building continues, Pierson said, in a century the mountain will have rebuilt itself to where it was before 1980.

The mountain is reopening too late for what many regard as the ideal climbing season, when snow still covers its southern slopes and the climb is less grueling than is the current trip up boulder-strewn Monitor Ridge.

Either way, though, while not a technical climb, "it is a long, arduous walk," Frenzen noted. The climb gains 4,565 feet in five miles.

The upside of the late opening of Act 3, though, is that wildflowers are just now coming into full bloom -- entire fields of cream-colored, globe-shaped bear grass near timberline, and scarlet heather, blue lupine and a palette of other floral colors higher up.

At the climbing route's 7,000-foot level, a desolate landscape of rock and pumice, a solitary speck of green -- a still-tiny elderberry bush -- testifies to nature's regenerative abilities. Scientists speculate wind or a bird dropped the seed that gave it life.

The Mount St. Helens Institute is stepping in as a private non-profit on a number of fronts to compensate for Forest Service budget and staffing cutbacks.

"The institute is stepping in to fill that gap," Pierson said. "We want to help people connect with the volcano," said Greg de Nevers, scientific coordinator for the Mount St. Helens Institute.

Beyond the stunning sight of watching an active, erupting volcano restore itself, de Nevers said, there is the opportunity to learn how nature itself recovers -- how plants find root on a moonscape and birds flourish in what appears to the naked eye as a devastated wasteland.

"It's an amazing place, and we want people to have the full experience," he said.

Looking down into the crater from the rim Thursday, the climbers at the top could barely make out two USGS scientists far below next to the bulging dome. Pierson radioed down and learned his colleagues were sampling rock created from one of last year's lava flows.

"We still need to better understand these eruptions," Pierson said.

This volcano, which first surprised scientists when it exploded in 1980 on a scale nobody had ever thought possible, continues to surprise.

For one thing, experts can't figure out what is pushing up this dome. Typically, such eruptions are accompanied by lots of emissions as magmatic gas forces lava up.

"But there's very little gas with St. Helens' current eruption," Pierson said. "The question is: What's pushing the lava out?"

Pierson and his colleagues at the Geological Survey's Cascades Volcano Observatory in Vancouver, Wash., had the opportunity Wednesday to ask newly appointed Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne for more money to expand volcano research.

De Nevers said if their organization could assist the public in gaining a better appreciation of just how unusual St. Helens is, perhaps support for research will grow.


Mount St. Helens, closed to climbers since the volcano grew active in September 2004, will be opened to climbers again July 21. For the latest information, go to:
Climbing permits are required year-round to climb above 4,800 feet elevation.

A climbing permit fee of $15 plus a service charge of $7 per person is charged for a one-day climbing permit from April 1 through Oct. 31. They will be sold on a first-come, first-served basis. From May 15 to Oct. 31, climbing is limited to 100 climbers a day, with a maximum party size of 12. From Nov. 1 to March 31, there is no fee.

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