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Author Topic: May 2, 2014, Mount St Helens via Blue Lake Mudflow  (Read 1613 times)
Amar Andalkar
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May 2, 2014, Mount St Helens via Blue Lake Mudflow
« on: 05/10/14, 01:01 AM »

May 2, 2014, Mount Saint Helens, West Slope via Blue Lake Mudflow

After skiing on Mount Rainier from Camp Muir to Nisqually Bridge via Cowlitz Glacier on May Day, Drew, Mike, and I headed down to the west side of Mount Saint Helens, hoping to ski an uncommon route starting from Blue Lake trailhead and squeeze the trip in on the last morning of a 4-day weather window before the next storm system rolled ashore by Friday evening. I had long wanted to ski this route, but had not found the right set of circumstances over the past decade to even make an attempt. This time, everything worked out great, with the road being open to the 3180 ft trailhead and thus offering the highest available access to the mountain, along with the route being in fine condition and offering much closer access to continuous snow than from Marble Mountain Sno-Park at this time. This western route is a nice option far from the madding crowd of the south side routes, with comparable ski terrain to the south side and a pleasantly different view of the amazing crater of Mount Saint Helens.


Twelve-shot vertical panorama from the west crater rim, with the true summit at right, Mount Adams at right center above the cleft of Shoestring Glacier,
and Mount Rainier in the distance at left center above Spirit Lake and the west lobe of Crater Glacier. (click for triple-size version)



Mount Saint Helens had been my first-ever volcano "summit" and ski descent in April 1997, via the standard winter route from Marble Mountain Sno-Park up Worm Flows to the 8200 ft crater rim, a memorable overnight trip with the twin-tailed Comet Hale-Bopp blazing in the western sky from our campsite near 4800 ft (sadly, I owned no camera at the time). By 2004, I had already skied the Worm Flows a couple more times plus two other routes on the mountain, the standard summer climbing route of Monitor Ridge from Climbers' Bivouac, along with much less-common SW slope / Dryer Glacier route from Cougar Sno-Park via Redrock Pass, which leads directly to the true summit (see these ancient TAY TRs from back when only a single photo was allowed: June 3, 2003, Monitor Ridge, February 12, 2004, Worm Flows, and April 29, 2004, Southwest Slope). I was in the mood to continue exploring and skiing other less-travelled routes on the youngest and most active volcano in the Cascade Range, including the west side from Blue Lake or Sheep Canyon trailheads, or the southeast side and the remnants of the Shoestring Glacier from Lahar Viewpoint, but circumstances would intervene for many years.

By late September 2004, just a month after I had circumambulated the mountain via the Loowit Trail, a swarm of earthquakes had signalled the start of a new eruptive cycle, and the USFS closed the mountain to all hiking, climbing, and skiing. The subsequent dome-building eruptions continued until early 2008, although eruptive activity had reduced enough by July 2006 that the mountain was once again reopened to hiking and climbing. However, November 2006 would bring perhaps the wettest Pineapple Express ever recorded in the Pacific Northwest, capped by an unprecedented 37" of rain in six days at Mount Saint Helens (!), causing massive flooding and wholesale destruction to numerous national forest and national park roads throughout the west slopes of the Washington and northern Oregon Cascades. Almost 8 years later in 2014, several of these roads have still not completed the required bureaucratic processes in order to be repaired and reopened, and many others will remain permanently closed due to financial and/or geotechnical reasons.

Among the casualties was Forest Road 8123 leading to the Blue Lake and Sheep Canyon trailheads, which was washed out in multiple places and partially buried by a large mudflow, along with FR 81 which leads to it in a loop from both the west (from SR 503 near the town of Cougar) and the east (from Cougar Sno-Park just off FR 83 on the way to Marble Mountain). The multiple washouts on FR 81 were eventually repaired by the summer of 2008, but for a long time it appeared that FR 8123 (and with it, easy access to the west side of Saint Helens) would remain permanently closed. Eventually, almost 3 years after the flood and mudflow, the first 1.5 miles of FR 8123 was repaired and reopened in October 2009, leading to a new Blue Lake trailhead and parking area a short distance downslope from the previous one buried by the 2006 mudflow. The remaining 3+ miles of FR 8123 to the Sheep Canyon trailhead would remain permanently closed.

For me personally, almost 5 years lapsed between ski trips to Saint Helens, as my next ski descent after the April 2004 trip would not come until the day after Obama's inauguration in January 2009. Over the years since, I've skied Saint Helens once or twice each year, but somehow all subsequent trips have ended up on Worm Flows or the SW route from Cougar Sno-Park (two great trips in 2013, no TRs written), and none made it over to the Blue Lake side.


Google Earth view from above Blue Lake trailhead looking towards Mount Saint Helens, with imagery as of August 2012 showing an undamaged parking lot. (click for double-size version)


Hybrid satellite / topo map centered on Blue Lake trailhead: http://caltopo.com/map.html#ll=46.167,-122.262&z=13&b=sat&o=t&n=0.5
(opacity of the topo overlay is adjustable using the drop-down menu at upper right)


Given the very unusual winter and spring this year, the snowpack along the standard Worm Flows route from Marble Mountain Sno-Park was far below normal for early May, with about a 2-mile hike to reach skiable snow (in a normal year, there would still be barely-continuous skiable snow down to the 2650 ft Sno-Park). The road to 3750 ft Climbers' Bivouac also remained gated and closed, so the highest available trailheads were 3100 ft Redrock Pass on FR 81 and 3180 ft Blue Lake trailhead on FR 8123. Although the Mount St. Helens NVM recreation webpage claimed that FR 8123 was still blocked by snow as of April 30, I figured that was old and erroneous information, and the road should be totally snow-free. However, the Sheep Canyon SNOTEL site at 3990 ft on the west side of Saint Helens (north of Blue Lake) still showed 58" of snowpack as of May 1, so we would clearly be able to skin on continuous snow well before that elevation. Almost an ideal situation to make this route preferable over any others at this time.

After a decent inexpensive dinner at the Fat Moose Bar & Grill in Woodland, we headed for the trailhead just after dark. Follow SR 503 east from Woodland as for the normal south side routes, but instead turn left about 27 miles after leaving I-5 onto the nicely paved FR 81 (8100) just after Yale Park and just before the town of Cougar. Continue past Kalama Horse Camp and the normal winter closure gate at 9 miles (2050 ft), past the end of the pavement at 11 miles and continue straight onto FR 8123 a half-mile later (past another gate at 2700 ft) where FR 81 turns right, and reach the trailhead after another 1.5 miles of gravel (13 miles from SR 503). Thankfully both gates were open, and the road was completely snow-free as expected.

However, the parking lot had a minor surprise in store: a more recent mudflow over the winter had buried the parking lot in 1-2 ft of mud and numerous basketball-size cobbles, something which I did not recall seeing the one previous time that I had ever driven here in June 2013, a cloudy day spent scouting out roads and hiking through the Ape Cave lava tube following a solo ski ascent and descent of Mount Adams via Mazama Glacier and Avalanche Glacier Headwall the previous beautiful day. There was still room to park a handful of cars right near the entrance, but clearly this new lower Blue Lake trailhead remains in danger of being destroyed again by future mudflows. The area obviously has a long history of such mudflows extending well back before 2006, with the feature even being labeled as "Blue Lake Mudflow" on the 1998 Geo-Graphics Mount St. Helens NVM Recreation Map.


Blue Lake trailhead partially buried by a recent mudflow, with Mount Saint Helens rising above.

We headed up in shoes with skis on our packs at 7am, following bits of the Toutle Trail #238 for a while, but since that trail continues north, eventually just heading directly uphill NE via the gentle open terrain of the mudflow deposit. Easy travel on the mudflow with no bushwhacking or other issues, but no maintained trail to follow either. We reached what looked like continuous skinnable snow just above 3500 ft and only 0.9 miles from the car, but after starting to skin for a while this turned out to be a false alarm within a short distance. So back to carrying the skis for a bit, until reaching definitely continuous snow in a shallow gully at 3800 ft and just under 1.5 miles from the car.


Skinning continuous snow from 3800 ft, with Mount Saint Helens and a 22° solar halo above.

We skinned up the snow-filled gully which had carved deeply into the soft terrain of the valley-filling mudflow, very reminiscent of the gully which provides access up the SW slope from just north of Redrock Pass.



Mostly clean and easy travel, but in several places the snow surface was liberally strewn with rocks which had rolled down the sides.



Still easily skinnable the whole way, but the gully itself is going fast as a viable route this year.



Hoping to avoid the chance of the gully being discontinuous, we skinned out of the gully into the open forest to its right, finding 4-5 ft of continuous snowpack by 4200 ft (roughly as expected from the SNOTEL). It turned out that both the gully and the forest would have been continuous snow the whole way at this time.





We reached timberline near 4800 ft by 9am and continued up the open west and WSW-facing slopes directly toward the crater rim. Ideal skinning conditions with grippy snow and about 1" of ski penetration, the snowpack having gotten a reasonable but not deep freeze overnight, and softening nicely on the sunnier sides of terrain features already.


Looking down towards Blue Lake Mudflow and trailhead from around 5400 ft.

Ski crampons were helpful above 6000 ft as the snow surface firmed up and ski penetration decreased to only a few millimeters, and both Mike and I used them, but Drew was managing fine without them. A southwest wind of 15-20 mph was also gaining in intensity as we ascended, while a thickening veil of high cirrus produced ever more intense solar halos overhead.



Drew and I both switched to booting at 7800 ft, but Mike made it all the way to the rim at 8200 ft on his splitboard with ski crampons. We topped out just after noon on the point marked 8192 ft on the current 1998 USGS topo map (8226 ft on the 1983 USGS topo map and 2002 Green Trails map 364S), about 1/4 mile northwest of the true summit (8333 ft on the current 1998 USGS topo map, but traditionally listed as 8365 ft since the 1980 eruption on the 1983 USGS topo map and the Green Trails map).


Fumarole about 30 ft below the crater rim.

There was a moderately-large fumarole just before the crater rim which had melted a hole through the entire 8-10 ft deep snowpack, but fortunately this portion of the rim was not corniced at all, solidly supported on a thick buttress of rock which Drew had scouted out from the side before approaching. Extensive overhanging cornices existed to either side though, as expected on a westerly slope.


Three-shot panorama of the crater rim, with the true summit at right and Mount Adams at left center above the cleft of Shoestring Glacier. (click for double-size version)


Quite interesting to have a different view of the crater than the previous ones I had enjoyed from the south crater rim and atop the true summit. Looking directly across at Mount Adams centered above a large cleft in the southeast crater rim, the former bed of the Shoestring Glacier, one of the most unique glaciers in the world prior to the 1980 eruption with a length of 2 miles and a width of only 150-200 ft (Beckey, Cascade Alpine Guide, Vol. 1, 1st Ed., 1973). A small remnant of the Shoestring Glacier remains visible with active crevasses on recent satellite images, but with the majority of its accumulation zone decapitated, it will never regain its former length nor refill its former glacial trough.



And looking straight down into the crater along the west lobe of the Crater Glacier, with Spirit Lake far below its terminus and Mount Rainier rising directly above. This is one of the newest glaciers in the United States and among the most rapidly growing, formed entirely since the early 1980s as eruptive activity decreased and massive annual snowfalls rapidly accumulated, split in two by dome growth during the 2004 eruptive cycle, and now rejoined into a single large mass of ice, flowing north in two heavily crevassed lobes on both sides of the central lava dome.


Four-shot vertical panorama looking down from the rim onto the west lobe of Crater Glacier and Spirit Lake, with Mount Rainier in the distance.

We skied down just before 1pm, the uppermost couple hundred feet still somewhat frozen as the thickening high clouds limited the warming power of the sun, but quickly softening into very decent corn below 8000 ft.


Skiing from the west crater rim, with the Blue Lake Mudflow visible far below.

Smooth nice corn snow for the next 2000 vertical feet, we skied a slightly SW facing aspect into a large bowl to catch the most nicely-softened snow. Hard to get good skiing photos though in the very flat light.


Best turns of the day in nice corn down the SW-facing bowl, with Butte Camp Dome far below.

We were shocked to see another pair of skiers skinning up our ascent route as we skied down, did not expect to see anyone else at all on this uncommon route, but they were much too far away to communicate with due to our slightly different descent line. Below about 6000 ft, the snow got quite sticky and fairly mushy, with straightlining the most effective skiing tactic at times.


Three-shot panorama of ski tracks and the west slopes of Mount Saint Helens. (click for double-size version)


We traversed back north to our ascent route and then followed a forested ridge and valley just a few hundred feet left (south) of our ascent route, being careful not to get caught in the sizable wet sluffs running down the side of the ridge as we traversed along its northerly side which held the most continuous snow. This avoided having to ski down the rock-strewn sections of the gully we had skinned up, and was an easy descent down to about 4200 ft, then through just a short section of annoying tighter trees, until we broke out into the open gully we had ascended up the mudflow.



Skied all the way back down to 3800 ft by 2pm, a nice descent of about 4400 vert for just over 5000 ft of gain.



We decided not to try to ski the lower section of snow we had skinned in the morning. The GPS was very handy for finding our shoes on the way out, since those had been left at the start of the lower snow ribbon. Given the braided nature of the Blue Lake Mudflow with multiple open channels separated by several islands of dense forest, it would have been easy to walk far past them otherwise.



Back out to the parking lot by 3pm, and soon enjoying a fine early dinner at the North Fork Bar & Grill, located within the Lewis River Golf Course just east of Woodland and directly on the Lewis River, a very pretty spot and with excellent food too. The sun was still shining, but ominous dark clouds were building to the west, and the radar app showed numerous showers in the area. Then it was time for Mike to start heading back to Utah, and Drew and I back to Seattle, so we parted ways and hit the road. A few raindrops hitting the windshield on the drive home made it feel like we had timed the weather window just right. And it felt really good to have finally explored and skied another route on Mount Saint Helens, a decade after my last foray into new territory there.

« Last Edit: 05/10/14, 10:27 AM by Amar Andalkar » Logged

RossMac
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Re: May 2, 2014, Mount St Helens via Blue Lake Mudflow
« Reply #1 on: 05/10/14, 06:54 AM »

Great post and trip. Nice to know of a quieter alternative on St Helens.
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samski360
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Re: May 2, 2014, Mount St Helens via Blue Lake Mudflow
« Reply #2 on: 05/22/14, 10:20 PM »

Spectacular photos! Do you need a permit to climb/ski from this side of the mountain?
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mikerolfs
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Re: May 2, 2014, Mount St Helens via Blue Lake Mudflow
« Reply #3 on: 05/22/14, 10:36 PM »

Thanks Amar.  I enjoyed every word of this report!
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tabski
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Re: May 2, 2014, Mount St Helens via Blue Lake Mudflow
« Reply #4 on: 05/23/14, 11:21 AM »

Thanks for writing this up, Amar! Poor Shoestring Glacier accumulation zone.
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