Loowit Trail Backpack

July 8-9, 2012.

30 mi | 6000′ ele. gain | 17.5 hr over 2 days

I’m not a backpacker. I don’t know what inspired me to say “yes” to this trip.

Oh wait, it was Sue. My friends invited me to join them on a two-day circumnavigation of Mt. St. Helens on the Loowit Trail. It was not really my style, walking around a mountain instead of up to the top of it, but I thought I’d challenge myself and spend some time with my friends outside.

We began at the June Lake Trailhead. We walked through a lovely forest for what felt like a brief moment before busting out onto the lava flow. Here we scrambled on boulders, traversed steep hillsides and descended (and re-ascended) scree-filled canyons. We were exposed to the full brunt of the sun, which was out with a vengeance today.

The landscape was beautiful. Mt. St. Helens stood tall in all her glory, right in your face. Distant Mt. Adams vied for attention over the rolling hills between the two mountains.

I walked, uncomfortably, with the weight of a heavy pack on my back. My body never did like carrying much weight, no matter how strong and fit I felt. A strap rubbed, blisters formed, something was just never right.

Walking onto the Plains of Abraham, I realized that the exposure I had felt was nothing compared to what I was about to face. During the peak temperatures of the day, we walked for miles across a desolate lava flow with not a tree or shrub in sight. The sun was relentless. We’d have to find a campsite much beyond here, out of the blast zone, so there was no stopping now.

At about 1:30 pm we stopped at a rushing streamlet to sit and have lunch. Oh I could have stayed here forever. I took my pack off, washed my face and tried to enjoy the vistas in front of me. I had to psyche myself up to keep walking.

Onward we went, across the lava, across one river after the next. Later that afternoon, we got a short burst of entertainment as Scott spotted a herd of elk not too far from us. We stopped to watch them for a bit and then carried on. A group of five young elk began walking straight towards us. The others scattered in the other direction. We thought for a moment there would be a face-off, but eventually they went their own way.

Delirious from the heat, I counted steps and pulled out all the strategies I knew to keep my morale up. Now, just one more obstacle between us and camp: the South Fork Toutle River.

This crossing sucked big time! A steep descent on loose pumice led to the river crossing and then up again on the other side, taking one step forwards and two steps back! Slide, slide, slide on the gravel UGH. Are we there yet?

We found a passable flattish spot in some trees on the other side and dropped our packs. This is where we’d sleep for the night. We traveled about 18 miles in 10 hours of hiking today. Time for dinner and some much needed rest.

The next day, we got up and broke camp by 8:30 am. I was rearing to be done as soon as possible to get out of the heat. But my legs could only carry me so quickly.

I diverted myself by enjoying the wildflowers: beargrass, lupine, avalanche lilies, trillium, snow. SNOW? We crossed some massive snowfields as we made our way slowly towards June Lake. There were some hot and exposed sections on this side of the mountain, too. The day was a bit of a blur. Slow walking over varying terrain: wooded trail, loose gravel, lava blocks, snow, streams, everything was thrown at us. It took 7.5 hours to finish the last 10 or so miles out, a pathetic pace.

This may have put the nail in the coffin on backpacking for me. Too many miles in too short a time. Too much hiking in the heat. And no highpoint to show for it. I’ll endure misery for summits, but for doing a lap around a thing, I’m not sure that’s for me.

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