Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Mount Mitchell and the Ape Caves

As you may already know from yesterday's "live blog" (hehe), we hit the road yesterday to do some hiking in the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument area. Mount Mitchell was our first stop, a 5 mile out-and-back trail gaining 2,050 feet in elevation.

Buckley is ready to go!

Our super awesome rental PT Cruiser at the trailhead

This was a really nice hike; most of the really hard work was in the first mile or so, making for a very pleasant rest of the way up. This was also Buckley's first totally off-leash hike. I can't even describe how nice it was to not have to worry about hanging on to him the whole time! He did great! Of course, he had to be in the lead the whole time, but he was always careful to not get out of sight and to wait for us if he got too far ahead. It was also nice to be pretty much the only ones on the mountain.

So proud of our big boy!

After what seemed like endless steep switchbacks, we caught our first glimpse of Mt. St. Helens through the trees.

Mt. St. Helens

The view from the trail once it opened up

After a while the trail started to open up a bit, offering some great views, and even more meadows of wildflowers. Man I love these wildflower meadows! The most prevalent on this trail is Xerophyllum tenax; better known as Bear Grass flowers. These flowers are very important to the fire ecology of the area. They are one of the few plants that can survive fires that would otherwise clear out an area, and is often the first plant to spring back up after a fire. They look like giant Q-tips, and they are everywhere.

Bear Grass

The rocky summit in the background - that's where we're headed!

We made it to the summit in no time! There is a bit of scrambling up some rocks to get all the way up, but you are then treated to a gorgeous 360 degree view.

Mt. St. Helens from the summit

Mt. St. Helens

There's Mt. Hood!

Mt. Adams. I love all the hills and layers of green/blue in the foreground.

Looking down the side of Mount Mitchell

Mt. St. Helens

Buckley negotiating the summit

He's got the mountains in his blood

Obligatory "Jenny in front of (insert Cascade range mountain here)" shot

Plenty of Bear Grass, even at the summit

It was a loooong way down

The summit is comprised of very large rocks, but with lots of flat surfaces that make it easy to sit down and have lunch to take it all in. Again, it was really nice to be the only ones there.

And while I know it won't truly capture how awesome the view was, I took a little 360 video from the summit. It starts on Mt. St. Helens, then you see Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, then back to St. Helens.

I could have stayed at the summit all day. Alas, we needed to hit the trail back down.

Buckley is always ready to pack it up and move forward

More Bear Grass meadows

Never runs out of energy - he ran almost the whole way down

We're back at the spot where we got our first trail glimpse of St. Helens, this time with no clouds!

It really was a great hike that I would recommend to anyone. While we were in the area, we decided to also hit Ape Cave, a lava tube located just south of Mt. St. Helens. At over 13,000 feet long, this is the longest continuous lava tube in the western hemisphere, formed by a lava flow about 2,000 years ago.

The entrance to the cave

Now, we knew we would need flashlights for this hike - after all, it's a cave. But, I think part of me was expecting it to be a kind of fluffy, touristy cave with lanterns along the way or something. Not so much. We are talking complete darkness. Not one single scrap of light getting in.

The first steps into the abyss

At this point, I literally said to Paul "nope, can't do this." The thought of venturing into complete inky black darkness was too much for me. It also didn't help that we were pretty much the only ones there - this time I actually wanted to see some other humans. Somehow I was persuaded to at least walk 40' down the metal stairs into the deep, dark abyss.

Coming down the stairs into the caves

I have no idea how it happened, but I kept on walking. Complete darkness, complete silence, damp 42 degree air, us and our $3 flashlights which weren't kicking out much light. Something about not being able to see where I'm going or where I've been @#$%ing freaked me out.

This shot was taken totally blind, and I'll be honest, I was afraid of what the flash might show me

That said, I still managed to flash my light around enough to check things out. The cave really is beautiful, and surreal. Unlike anything I've ever seen. For much of the way, the ceiling arches up to 40' above you. Very cool.

This section is called "the meatball." It's a ball of hardened lava that fell from the above cave ceiling at some point, and was carried along on top of the lava flow until it wedged itself in between the cave walls.

Interesting little orb in front of Paul here... cave ghosts?

We were on the easier lower cave trail, but there is also a more difficult upper cave trail you can take as well. We knew the lower cave trail was about .8 miles, and we were pretty sure there was an exit up to the surface at that point (since there is an exit at the end of the upper cave trail). We've been walking for what seems to me like miles, and gradually the cave is getting smaller, narrower, and shorter. Before I know it I am on my belly crawling through a tube barely wider than I... that goes straight to a dead end. WHAT?!? I am now convinced that we took a wrong turn and are in some part of the cave we are not supposed to be in, promptly wiggle my way back out of the tube, and proceed to have a mini freak out. It was mentally and emotionally exhausting for me to get to that point, and now we have to go BACK?!

I sucked it up... because hey, we're almost a mile into the earth with no other way out, what else can I do... and we headed back. My heart felt like it was in a vice grip the entire way, and I was holding my flashlight so tightly my arm cramped. When we made it back to the surface and the light - sweet, sweet, daylight - we decided to check out the trail maps and discovered we were indeed on the correct trail, and the easier trail is just an out-and-back. Perhaps we should have checked that before heading under, to save me from almost having a panic attack. I immediately proclaimed that I would never set foot in a cave again, buuuut... now that I've had some time to process the experience, I think that I would do it again. But with a much brighter light.


p.s. Everything you've just seen is within an hour drive from home. How cool is that?


Mom said...

Maybe the panic attack was a flashback from your childhood when, to my horror, your dad had you pose for a picture in front of that roadside 'bear infested' cave in the Colorado Rocky Mountains?

dad said...

these posts just keep getting more spectacular...I'm not sure which I'm more impressed with...the scenery or the writing!

Jenny Mayo said...

The scenery... no question. My writing doesn't even do it justice. :)