Climbing the US's most famous volcano. Ascent is arduous, view of nature's power, spectacular

Two steps forward and one step back. The slope is so steep, climbers can reach out at shoulder level and nearly touch it with their extended arms. The flour-fine ash makes the going even more arduous for climbers near Mt. St. Helens' jagged crater rim. The tough conditions make the mountain formidable for even those in the best shape. But the rigors of the climb haven't stopped thousands from journeying here to southwest Washington state to scale America's most famous volcano.

The United States Forest Service opened up Mt. St. Helens to the general public last year for the first time since the series of huge eruptions in 1980 leveled thousands of acres of timber and shaved 1,277 feet in elevation from the mountain itself.

The decision came after geologists concluded that the chances of another life-threatening eruption had declined to almost zero, according to Bernie Pineda, information officer at Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Forest officials knew an opportunity to climb the mountain would tickle the fancy of a few hardy hikers. But Mr. Pineda said nobody at the small park headquarters even imagined how many would want to sign up for the grueling climb. The telephones have rung almost non-stop, keeping employees busy.

Last year, Forest Service workers hurried to install rough bivouacs at two locations near the mountain so hikers could camp close to the start of the climb. The campsites amount to little more than a wide space in old logging access roads, several portable toilets, and solar-powered emergency two-way radios for use in case of trouble.

The Forest Service keeps a tight rein on access to the mountain, allowing only 100 people to climb each day during the summer. That use is regulated by permits, issued on a first-come, first-served basis.

The permits, therefore, are at a premium, and many summer weekends fill up while the snow is still melting off the volcano's slopes in the springtime.

All that remains for those who don't have a permit is to try getting one of the 30 permits held back for each day, said Renee Corso, who works for the Pinchot National Forest. Those go to the first in line at a kiosk near Cougar, Washington - a dozen miles from the volcano. Typically, the line forms the previous afternoon, with people camping overnight.

Hikers avoid the volcano's massive lava dome and crater. The approach is from the south. The 1980 eruption blew out the north side of Mt. St. Helens. On the south side, the blast deposited a deep layer of ash, but otherwise did very little.

There is no trail. Rangers have placed a number of knee-high flags to mark suggested routes. That doesn't mean the climb is easy, though. It takes hikers over nearly a one-mile elevation gain. All of that is either through boulders and rock falls from ancient eruptions, or over the flour-like ash that covers the upper flanks of the mountain. The climbers who make it to the summit do so only after hours of grueling hiking.

Tough, conditioned climbers make the trek in two to four hours. Others take longer. Eugene, Oregon television photographer Barry Johnson led a team of three people to the top with 60 lbs. of camera gear apiece. Their journey consumed over six hours. But Mr. Johnson said the pictures from the top made every step worthwhile.

It's that view that makes most agree with Johnson. From the top looking northward, the lava dome covers nearly the entire floor of the massive crater. From there, Spirit Lake spreads out over the basin that the 1980 eruption destroyed. Not a speck of green vegetation breaks the gray-brown landscape around the lake. Forty miles distant, another volcano, Mt. Rainier, glistens in the summer sunshine.

But it's not just the breathtaking view that grips those who reach the top. The sounds of the volcano slip up out of the crater and surround everyone near the rim. Inside, huge chunks of the mountain continuously break off and send avalanches of ash and rock roaring down to the crater floor. The rockfall rumbles like an earthquake. Most of the time, climbers can't even see what they hear; the crater is too immense. But the sound, like a phantom, haunts them.

Why make the climb? David Draper, a geologist at the University of Oregon, said it's an opportunity few of those in his profession have in their lifetimes. He made it last year and vowed to return as many times as he could.

Curt and Bonnie Knudsen of Seattle, Washington did it to celebrate their wedding anniversary. ``We couldn't think of anything more out-of-this world,'' Curt said.

Practical information

For additional information, contact the Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, Rt. 1, Box 369, Amboy, WA, 98601; tel: (206) 247-5473.

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