The deadliest volcano in the continental US

Part of the famed Pacific Ring of Fire, Mount St Helens has been named the most likely of the contiguous US volcanoes to erupt. Scale it before it does.

Smoke flickered on the crater rim and sulphur fumes drifted through the ashy air. We couldn’t believe we’d summited an active volcano, let alone the deadliest one in the continental United States.

My sister Sherry and I were climbing the spine of Mount St Helens, a volcano in the glorious Cascade Range about 200 miles south of Seattle. It was like scaling the spikes of a Stegosaurus. We’d scrambled for hours over massive, bone-jarring boulders, sometimes crawling on hands and knees, to summit a peak so likely to erupt, it has a live VolcanoCam.  

But the view of the Cascades from 8,363ft is worth the climb; it’s a volcano lover’s dream. The snow cones of four active peaks – Mount Rainier, Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson and Mount Adams – shimmer in the blue like fantastical ice sculptures. They soar over the clouds on the famed Pacific Ring of Fire, a string of 452 volcanoes that rims the Pacific Ocean from South America’s southern tip to North America’s Bering Strait, with side trips into Asia and New Zealand.

Mount St Helens is the most lethal of the Cascade’s volcanoes; the US Geological Survey (USGS) calls it “the most likely of the contiguous US volcanoes to erupt”. Scientists worry about the peak’s explosive power, its high activity and its proximity to the cities of Seattle and Portland. The mountain is also famous for its unpredictability. After the colossal 1980 eruption that killed 57 people and devastated 230 square miles of land, the volcano continued to explode for six years, falling into a brief slumber before roaring back in 2004, shooting ash and steam thousands of feet skyward. Minor flare-ups continued until 2008.

Now, an ominous magma chamber five miles below the surface is rebuilding. This means Mt St Helens is getting ready to erupt again, an event that could happen within years or decades from now, the USGS reports.  

Sherry and I, mountaineers who grew up in the Cascades, wanted to stand atop that stratovolcano before it blew up again – and we weren’t alone. The Mount St Helens Institute requires permits year-round and allows only 100 climbers on the peak from 15 May through 31 October. Summer months are the most popular, because climbers enjoy 11 hours of sunlight and, hopefully, clear skies. Permits for 2015, the blast’s 35th anniversary, went on sale in February and sold out fast for July and August. Shutout climbers may find permits for resale on purmit.com.

Mount St Helens is the shortest and easiest to climb of the active Cascade volcanoes, but tackling it is no Sunday stroll. The mountain is not a technical climb, but “it is strenuous and hazardous due to ice, large boulders, loose pumice, fast-changing weather and volcanism,” warns the Institute Website. “Climbers should be in very good physical condition, well equipped, informed about volcanic hazards, and have plenty of water and food.” Most climbers ascend via the Monitor Ridge route which gains five miles in 4,500ft and takes seven to12 hours round trip. By contrast, total hiking time for 4,203ft-tall Mount Vesuvius, the Italian volcano that buried Pompeii, is about one hour.

­We showed up to climb Monitor Ridge at sunrise, with clear skies overhead. From the carpark at Climber’s Bivouac (3,700ft), we tromped two miles through gentle forest before battling several miles of razor-edged boulder hills, where the lava rocks were new and raw. “Satanic skyscrapers” we called them as we hauled ourselves along. They were difficult to go up and nasty to descend. Everything was steep, slanted and sharp. Some climbers wore gardening gloves to protect their hands.

Just when we thought the boulders would never end, we hit the final 1,300ft stretch, a pumice-and-ash corridor we’d heard was a slip and slide: for every two steps up, you slip down one. But the slick scree slopes were a welcome reprieve to the boulders, where we had to balance on our toes like awkward ballerinas. My hiking boots did little to protect my toenails, which eventually turned black and blue from the impact.

As the sun pounded down, exhaustion set in. Whenever a climber felt weak, others would offer encouragement, blueberries, sunscreen or water – whatever they thought might work. Finally after six hours, we reached the top, legs shaking. Sherry and I could finally see the blast zone on the north side: an avalanche of rocks that ends in a blue lake is rimmed with a slowly recovering evergreen forest. It was both beautiful and brutal.

The land fell sharply away beneath our feet. The crater walls, all silver and grey, pitch down to a 920ft-high lava dome, and for safety reasons, nobody is allowed to stand on the rim. As fans of Into Thin Air, The Breach and other alpine disaster books, we could easily imagine falling 2,000ft through rock and ice into the jagged crater. What would be worse, we wondered, to bottom out in the icy glacier or plunge into the fiery dome?

This question was not academic, we later learned. Two years ago, an alpinist plunged to his death after his 68th summit, when he posed for a photo too close to the rim. A few days after we left, rangers found the body of a Japanese climber who had been missing for nine months – a reminder that even non-technical routes can be perilous.

“When I started out, I thought, ‘What makes this one different?’” Sherry told me, after our 11-hour round trip. “I’ve climbed much bigger mountains. But getting over all that rock was so difficult. I couldn’t see the other side of the mountain, the part that got blown away, until I was up to the very tip-top, right on the rim. When I saw the smoke and the incredible devastation fanning out below the rim, it stunned me. Coming here is one of the best things I’ve ever done.”