Circumnavigating one of the Pacific Northwest’s most infamous volcanoes via the 32-mile Loowit Trail.

I spent most of 2017 moving slower than I’d like. Hiking, climbing, and backpacking left my body with a deep sore, lacking the sharp pain of a brutally long run, and I was itching to accelerate. In September, I found a crew as eager as I was to pick up the pace on an adventure that would take us around the full perimeter of Mt. St. Helens.

Photo: Gabe O'Leary

THE PLAN

Most people complete the 32-mile Loowit Trail throughout a three-day backpacking trip, but in recent years, the trail’s gained notice for its running potential. The Volcanic 50, the Bigfoot 40, and Backcountry Rise are all up-and-coming ultra races held around the mountain. Not only is Mt. St. Helens one of the most recognizable and reputable mountains for its eruptive history, but it boasts some of the most gradual, runnable single track in the state. After we saw the Loowit for ourselves, we had no doubt as to why it’s become such a popular trail running destination.

Gabe, Daniel, Andrew and I planned the trip together. Of the four of us, I was the only one who had been on my feet for more than 26.2 miles in a single day. It would be their first full marathon, first 50k, and first ultra run all in one adventure. There was no doubt that the three boys were stronger and faster than me in many ways, but this was still new. Hiking, boulder hopping, and trail running were familiar sports to each of us - it was just the distance that made the difference this time.

This was a test of endurance. Not of strength, or speed, but of pure grit. Being able to stay in motion for hours on end, enduring the excruciating pound that each joint and muscle feels with every step, and doing it all with a smile.


Photo: Gabe O'Leary

THE EXECUTION

We started at the June Lake Trailhead and headed clockwise for a few important reasons:

  1. This was the most direct route to gaining the Loowit, adding 3.2 miles round-trip to the trail.
  2. We got one of the most tedious boulder crossings out of the way first thing in the morning, avoiding this tricky navigation in our final few miles.
  3. Our day ended on a downhill, avoiding the significant elevation gain we’d encounter had we chosen the Climber’s Bivouac approach.
  4. June Lake is generally one of the quickest and easiest trailheads to reach by car, even driving in from the north as we were.

It was a cool, rainy morning as we shuffled in and out of Gabe’s car, stowing wet tents and shoving gear into our hydration vests. We all started out in shorts, gaiters, and long sleeves, which we kept on throughout the entire day. The weather couldn’t have been more perfect after weeks of sweltering heat - we were thankful for the wet soil and protective cloud cover.

After only 1.5 miles after leaving the trailhead, we hit June Lake and turned west on the Loowit. Cairns and tall wooden posts marked the way over the lava bed of sharp boulders, and we followed as best as we could in the murky morning fog. Let’s be clear on one thing: We’re not running the entire time during this adventure, we’re simply moving as quickly as we can over whatever terrain we encounter. On boulders this is slow and wearisome, on long, flat trail it can feel like flying. It’s all about pacing for the longevity and the landscape.

Roughly 10 miles, or a third of the way into our day, we hit the South Fork of the Toutle River where we refilled what little water we had consumed so far. This massive gorge boasted of a river that was now a hundredth of its original size, and its towering canyon walls were littered with the first colors of fall. The boys each took leaping jumps over the river here. I opted to wade through instead, with the water rising to my knees, holding onto a rope that had been left between both sides.



From the Toutle, we continued northeast, ascending a steep slope composed entirely of scree. We stared at the gaping valley below, and turned to the thick gray mass above, still unable to see the mountain from the morning’s lingering fog. We wondered if we’d actually go the entire day without seeing St. Helens itself.

The scree slope opened us up onto Pumice Plains, where our legs abruptly shifted from the slow burn of uphill walking to the sharp and stiff stretch of flat sand running. After a few more miles, the sky began to open up and we slowly saw Mt. St. Helens reveal itself. We made our way past where the Johnston Ridge Observatory would be off to the northwest, and continued along the desolate plains of the blast zone, where we stared straight into the massive crater left from the mountain’s explosion in 1980.

At around mile 20, we hit our second water source, where we spent about 20 minutes hydrating and refueling - our longest break of the day. From there we launched into an undulating couple of miles in and out of sandy drainages, chipping away towards Windy Pass.


Photo: Gabe O'Leary

We all remember this moment clearly: Coming up over Windy Pass and hurtling ourselves down and into the Plains of Abraham, which was by far the easiest, most pleasant running of the entire day. With 8 miles left, we were hooting, hollering, and cheering our way through the desolate landscape, sure that the sugary-carbo-loaded energy we’d just inhaled would last us all the way to the car. Needless to say, the trail (and our energy levels) didn’t stay so promising for too long.

By the time we were four miles out, finding ourselves on yet another undulating up-and-down path through scree-filled drainages, we’d grown quiet. Everyone was struggling with their own mental and muscular misgivings, but there was always at least one in the group to turn into a trot at the slightest downhill grade. We kept each other in check like that; always taking turns and switching leads, always checking the rest of the group for pace, and always offering encouragement, snacks, and high fives.

THE END

Eventually, the intersection for June Lake appeared and gravity took us downhill by storm. The boys flew ahead of me while I took my time picking my way over tree roots and steep sand. I could feel their energy, their excitement, the electricity of anticipation and exhilaration and relief of nearly having completed such a massive feat. I felt it myself, alongside the exhaustion, but it was even more rewarding seeing three people get so stoked on such a wildly new, exciting adventure.

It was within the final quarter mile to the car when I saw the three boys come into view… jogging towards me. They insisted that we all cross the trailhead, our finish line, together.

My heart swelled - not for their compassion in waiting for me, but because they’d saved that last bit of strength in reserve. They had a final push left in them, they had more miles to go.

Strength and speed aside, they’d exceeded their own expectations of endurance. And I knew that meant they’d be back for more.

Published: October 5, 2017

Rachel DavidsonExplorer

Mountain climbing, trail running, and writing all about it. New to Seattle! Hit me up to show me around or go on an adventure.

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