Ape Caves at Mount St Helens
June 28th, 2008
As many of you may know, this was the day I was
supposed to go with a group to climb Mount St. Helens.
We've been watching the snow reports for weeks, hoping that the record snowfall would magically melt
before the date of our climb. No such luck. People were making it to the top by taking an alternate
climbing route but we just didn't feel prepared to add the additional mileage to our climb and trudge through
snow drifts for the entire trek up the mountain. Next summer we'll know to buy climbing permits for later in the season.
We tried to drive up to the trail head and made it within about 3 miles before being stopped by
deep snow on the roadway and fallen trees.
I wish I knew where the actual climbing route is up the south face of the mountain.
Regardless, there is still a lot of snow up there. More than I wanted to deal with anyway.
Isn't she beautiful? Someday soon I'll be up there on that crater rim.
Anyway, even though we couldn't climb the
mountain we still wanted to make a day of it and do
something on or near Mount St Helens. My friends Geoff, Carol and their 8 year old son, Duncan,
had made the trip through the Ape Caves several times in the past and suggested we do that instead.
I was game. I'd of course heard about the Ape Caves but had never been there to explore.
Typically hikers who are going to do the "Upper
Cave" (which is the longer and more difficult of the
two halves) start at the main entrance, hike the one and a half miles through the cave and return on a
surface trail back to the parking lot. We decided to make it a little more challenging and hike the surface
trail first and then do the cave essentially backwards and resurface at the main entrance.
So we headed off down the trail. The first little bit was well marked and snow free.
The second half we were slogging up and over snow drifts and following the little blue diamonds
on the trees that acted as trail markers. In some places there were bright pink ribbon tied on a
tree branch to mark the trail.
We finally arrived at this little hole in the ground and I was informed that this was the back entrance
to the cave. I believe my response was something like, "We're going in there? Are you kidding me?!?"
I suddenly realized I might be claustrophobic. Panic bubbled just below the surface. I really didn't want
to go down in to that hole but didn't have much of a choice at this point.
Just for some perspective, in the Ape Cave
Exploration Guide (which I picked up after we emerged back
into the blessed sunlight) it states that, "The 1 and 1/2 mile upper portion of the cave takes about
2 and 1/2 hours to complete. Cavers must climb over approximately 27 boulder piles (if you've ever
climbed the jetty at Westport, you'll get the idea- but do it 27 times!) and scale a 8-foot high lava fall."
(which we had to go down since we were hiking the cave backwards).
Carol took this picture of Geoff, Duncan and I just before we headed down in to the cave. Even though it was in the
mid 90's on the surface, the cave is a constant 42 degrees all year round so we layered on our sweatshirts.
I was laughing because she suggested I send this photo out in my Christmas card and see who would
be the first to notice my new family. We all ended up turning our hats around with the bills facing
backwards because we found the light from our headlamps wasn't reaching the ground in front of us where
we needed it most with the bills in the way.
Carol went in first. The entrance was tight enough that she was scraping her backpack along the
wall as she descended the ladder. At this point I really did contemplate hiking the surface
trail back and waiting for them at the car...
Geoff was the last one down the ladder. We were all a bit surprised by the amount of moisture
in the cave. With all of the snow melt going on up above, it was literally raining on us in the cave.
Between the sweat and the "rain" we were soaked by the time we got out.
Here are Carol and Geoff ahead of me in the cave. With our headlamps you could only see about 3 feet
in front of you which really messed with my depth perception. I was constantly second guessing
where to put my feet because a rock that looked only six inches down could have been much farther.
It probably wasn't as bad as it seemed but I was constantly fighting to keep it together. The more I moved
forward, the closer we were to the other end. By the end the palms of my hands were sore from grabbing
onto the rough rocks for stability. I did fall once, catching my foot between two boulders. I banged my knee
pretty good, chipped a fingernail (oh no!), and bruised my ego. I also managed to bang my head on one
of the spots where the ceiling was low. The cave varied quite a bit between the ceiling soaring 40 feet above
you to low enough that you had to duck through small openings to get by.
Finally, daylight at the main cave entrance. I have no idea how long it took us to do the hike
but it felt like all day. If there hadn't been so many strangers around, I would have cried.
I am so glad I did this (Thanks you guys!) but it is a hike I will definitely not be doing again.
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