Swift Creek Ski Trail TO Chocolate Falls
Mount Saint Helens National Monument
~4.5 miles, ~1000 feet elevation gain

I have been suffering from numerous hike fails lately. Lingering, low snow levels combined with poor planning and research on my part have led to many a thwarted hike attempt. As such, I was getting itchy: restless for movement, for solitude and especially for the feel of the high country, that indefinable, elusive quality of the high alpine where I settle into a true calm, a sense of expansiveness, the character and nature of the world beyond comprehension, fathomless and absolutely breathtaking in its power and beauty.

In a need to conquer my itch-to-get-outside, I had ambitiously been planning for Andy and me to backpack the Loowit Trail, a thirty-four mile circumnavigation around the base of Mount Saint Helens, over the July fourth holiday weekend. We procured climbing permits for the fifth, the ideal trip being to explore the base of our lovely local lady prior to making a summit push (weather permitting) at the end of the loop.

All the SNOTEL readings and Forest Service warnings of snow, snow, snow! could not convince me that this trip wasn’t possible. Clearly I have no faith in the government’s ability to accurately forecast actual conditions in the mountains. And yet, I kept smacking my head against the proverbial Hike FAIL Wall. So, due to all those thwarted hike attempts and in an attempt to see what we were up against with conditions, reconnaissance it was.

We weren’t planning a long day so after a relaxed morning we arrived at the Marble Mountain Sno-Park around 12:30pm. Several people were camping around the parking lot and a conglomeration of returning climbers, a blazing sun, warm temperatures and absolutely no snow to speak of greeted us. Still, the gate just beyond Marble Mountain remains closed with rumor of high snow drifts still on the road. Climber’s Bivouac, the summer climb jumping off point for the Monitor Ridge Trail up Helen’s south side, also remains closed, and, according to a nice ranger I met, is still under about seven feet of dense white stuff. Huh.

Starting up the Swift Creek Ski Trail, bare ground quickly disappeared. I was humbled by how soon we hit patches of snow, which rapidly progressed into several consolidated feet of continuous snow. My hopes for the Loowit Trail this weekend were getting squashed. I actually rather enjoy hiking in snow, and I especially love the high alpine during this brief melt-off period, but backpacking and breaking trail in 34 miles of slush just isn't appealing. The Loowit Trail has a reputation for some rough sections anyway- aggravating the situation with difficult route-finding is just being a glutton for punishment. Damn.

still lots and lots of snow

About two miles from the trailhead, the route abruptly breaks clear of the forest near Swift Creek and Chocolate Falls at approximately 3,700 feet. Old lava flows, known as the Worm Flows, loom off to the side, while Mount Saint Helens rears up in front of you, Mount Adams and Mount Hood flanking her in the distance. No matter where I am or how many times I wander into the high country, I love that moment where the high country suddenly opens up before you, where you break out of the trees into seemingly endless space. There is a sense of being anchored only by your feet, a feeling of vertigo and of being very, very small against the vastness of the world. It speaks to me in a way other places do not.

Due to the exposed nature of the area, the snow was spotty, but still deep. My decision to ix-nay the Loowit Trail was confirmed during the unique experience of post-holing up to my thigh while traversing a still buried boulder field and losing my trail runner in the process. Between the snow snakes and lava rocks, my shoe was suctioned right off my foot. It posed an interesting problem: if I couldn’t get my shoe out, I was going to have to return the way I came, barefoot runner style. Last time I checked extra shoes weren’t on the list of Ten Essentials.

Lucky for me, my husband is blessed with extra-long monkey arms. Through much hissing and teeth-gritting, flat on his stomach in the slush and up to his armpit in the hole my leg had left, he managed to retrieve my shoe and gaiter.

Lesson learned. Tighten laces.

We spent the remainder of our time at Chocolate Falls, eating my new found Luna Bar flavor delight and chatting with the steady stream of climbers making their way down from the summit. Several climbers had a rip-roaring good time skiing down the mountain, and we heard them yee-hawing their approval of the day from more than a mile away. 

oh my goodness yummers

will look cute for cookies

Although our recon trip axed the Loowit Trail plan for this weekend, I hope our climb is as epic as theirs. Fingers crossed for lovely weather. It is summer after all. And yet there is always that truth that we are here only on the mountain's terms, and to maintain respect for this high world in all things. We shall see what next week brings. 

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