Adventure Log: In Which I Invoke All Three Great Prayers—Help. Thanks. Wow.

May 17, 2022
South Coldwater Lake Trail, 8.2 miles
(25 / 70)

It’s been over two weeks since I’ve been on an adventure, and that was the beach, not a hike. The weather has been dismal. Monday evening I check the forecast, and see that Tuesday is merely grey, followed by more days of rain. Good enough. I immediately think of the Coldwater Lake trail at Mt. St. Helens. I check the area forecast on the Washington Trails site. SUN!!! There are no recent trip reports, but I’ve been there many times, so not a problem. It will be the eve of the 42nd anniversary of the eruption.

I’m on my way shortly after six, latte in the cup holder, under unpredicted clear skies. Although I have hiked the trail on the ridge above the lake several times, I’ve only done the whole loop once, otherwise opting to turn around when the trail starts down the other end, and return along the ridge, since it’s my favorite part, and avoids the two-mile walk on the road back to the car. As I drive, I decide to—what the heck—do the whole thing. I consider leaving my car at the boat launch and doing the road part first. It’s so boring and tiring after the hike. I decide against it. What if for some reason I turn back, then I will have to do the road part twice.

That I have that premonition might have been a warning.

There is dense fog across the prairie and through Toledo, then it’s back to blue skies.

There is a fair amount of snow along the road between the two view points on the way up. It occurs to me again, there might be snow on the trail. But then, the rest of the way, the snow is gone. I dismiss the thought.

I see no cars once I’m on the St. Helen’s highway. There are none at the boat launch where I stop for the bathroom, and none in the trailhead lot. There will be blessed solitude. (It is a weekday.)

Later I will find myself hoping there is someone behind me.

I’m on the trail a bit before 8:00. Well, I’m back on the trail a bit before 8:00. I remembered to charge my camera battery this time, but with the first photo op I discover I failed to put the memory card back in. Fortunately, I’m not far up the trail, and I return to the car to leave the camera. No sense carrying unusable equipment.

Was that another warning of an ill-fated hike?

I think about not taking photos this time, I’ve posted this hike here many times. Like that’s going to happen. But if I see a mountain goat in the distance, there will be no photo. I did not, but I didn’t get the grouse, nor later the nesting grey jays. And the flowers would have been in better focus. Ah well.

The trail is quiet, but for the thrumming grouse, the rush of Coldwater Creek and honking geese at the lake, both far below, the clacking of my poles, and my own labored breathing. The woodland wildflowers are just beginning.

The trail, I discover, has not been readied for the hiking season. On the way up to the ridge, I climb over and duck under the trunks of fallen trees. On the ridge there are some trickier trail blockages where the branches of fallen alder obscure the trail. There is also patchy snow, but not a big deal.

It all might have been a warning. But I was not listening.

The rusty logging equipment begs camera shots, like I’ve never taken pictures of them before. Same with the jet streams and the mountain—that is usually bare by the time I do this hike. I have observed—watching the mountain from my house—what seems like an unusual amount of late-season snow. What has been cold rain at home, has kept her in white. It’s also usually hot when I do this hike, but I’ve started early to avoid it, after the first time I hiked here, ten years ago, when I didn’t know better. It was 35º when I left the car, but it doesn’t feel cold.

(I got a new hat; this is its maiden run.)

I cross a few patches of snow that are not a big deal.

And then . . .

Uh oh. A very wide expanse of snow. On a very steep slope.

I decide I can do it. There are boot prints. I’ll just step in them. My used telescoping trekking poles, with which I replaced my folding poles that would no longer fold, have been malfunctioning. The bottom section of one, or both, won’t stay tight when it gets stuck in mud. Or snow. It’s a bit of a problem here. (Also, I lost both rubber tips on my past two hikes.) I quickly discover another issue.

The snow at 10am is still frozen. Where the boot prints are shallow, I can’t kick a toe or heel hold. I really and truly have no business doing this without spikes. I also can’t turn around and go back. I’m committed. And it’s a hella long way to terra firma. And a very long slide down. I am just short of terrified.

Halfway across, I start thinking about the possibility of coming on something worse later, or another like this, and having to turn around, and cross this again. But I can’t think about that now. Panicking will only make this more an issue. HELP. HELP. HELP.

I get across, one slow and cautious step, one pole plant, at a time. I have never been so relieved. THANKS. THANKS. THANKS.

A few yards farther along, I realize the top of the ridge is snow-free. Should I have to return, I can go overland. But mostly I’m feeling more committed to doing the whole loop, and looking forward to being way down there on the other side of the lake.

There is more snow, but it’s flat. There is evidence of a previous hiker post-holing; the snow is a bit softer here, but I’m grateful it’s still hard enough that I’m not sinking to knee or thigh. The stupid pole is becoming more of a problem.

I reach the trail split: my way to the left, the spur to Boundary West to the right. A few yards farther though, there is lots of snow. And no sign of the trail. I follow boot prints to the left. It looks like one person went that way and then back, but which way did he go first? They seem to end though, so I turn around and go the other way. The snow has bent the alder over and there is no clear way around it. I duck through it once or twice, but I’m not sure of the tracks I’m following. Along with no micro-spikes, I also have no GPS. It’s time to call it done.

I slip once while returning to clear ground, and fall. I just stay down and slide a short way down the snow to more level ground. Walking in snow is difficult, and I’m getting tired.

When I get back out of the snow and brush and look back, I can see the trail beyond. I recognize it as where I wanted to be. I could have, maybe, gone down to bare ground and tried to get back up to it. But after it goes around that bend, there could be worse surprises. And, I realize now, the previously overgrown, steep trail down to the lake, is probably worse now with snow breakage, quite possibly impassable.

When I get close to the perilous traverse, I look up and pick a route to the ridge. I feel bad about eschewing best practices to stay off the fragile vegetation that has worked so hard to make a comeback. But I am not crossing that snow field again. The snow may be softer now, making it easier, but I’m not going to chance it.

It’s both harder and farther to go up than I anticipated. I realize I don’t have to go to the top, just above the snow line. I begin making my way across, and hope I don’t step in a pocket gopher hole. Those industrious creatures that carried seeds and replanted the devastated blast zone have made tunnels everywhere.

I can’t see it, but once I’m sure I’m past the snow field, I start looking for a way back down. It might, I think, be easiest to keep going across to where my route appears to gradually merge with the trail I can see ahead. I say appears. So far, nothing has been as it appears. When I see the trail below me, it’s a steep, though mostly bare, slope down. I keep going across, side-stepping gradually down until I’m closer. I pick my spot to cross a narrow bit of steep snow to the trail. This time I sit down intentionally and sled down on my butt.

I made it. I notice the cloud bank that has materialized on the horizon, all around really. Getting ready for tomorrow’s 100 percent chance of rain, and the next day’s snow. I’m ready for my car, and saying thank you again, this time that I won’t get caught in a weather change.

I meet one couple heading the direction I’ve come from. They are close to my age, but seem uninterested in my trail report. They are the only people I’ve seen all day.

I stand and admire the grey jays flying about and popping into and out of a heart-shaped nesting hole in a snag, and wish for my camera.

And then I notice it, a sun dog. WOW! WOW! WOW!

Olly olly in free. There will be ibuprofen tonight. This is way too many words, but I earned every one of them.

(Also new zip-off pants. Getting ready for my 70th birthday summer. Looks like I’ll be dropping some more money at REI for new poles.)

22 thoughts on “Adventure Log: In Which I Invoke All Three Great Prayers—Help. Thanks. Wow.

  1. I love how you invoked HELP, THANKS, WOW and Ann’s Deep Water Passage COURAGE. Your tenacity and adventurousness are inspiring. I am very glad you made it back safely. Thanks for sharing your story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Geez, Gretchen. Definitely an adventure. I think a younger, less-experienced hiker would have ended up on a helicopter ride to the ER. Consider it a shot across the bow, and then keep on truckin’ to the closest REI for new poles.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hah. Or zipped fearlessly across. The heli ride would have been dependent on being found. I did discover that if there was a deep enough previously made pole hole to put mine in the ice, if I slipped the pole might have held me. At least if it wasn’t over-extended and broke off. Yep, all’s well that ends well.


  3. Good lord. I did the whole loop once. With my niece. In summer. No snow. Sturdy poles. And pretty much vowed not to do it again. You are brave and determined and resourceful. You are also a little crazy when it comes to your exploits (one of my favorite things about you,). I’d be more worried if you didn’t have at least *some* misadventure on your path. All that said, I am so glad you made the choice you did to stay safe (one of my other favorite things about you). You are sooo going to rock seventy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Haha! Yep with the misadventures. The camera was a misadventure. Crossing that snowfield was a miscalculation. Maybe another hike, I will redo the lakeside part, skipping the tent caterpillar alder overgrowth part. Or not. I did notice (and hear its constant roar) a waterfall across the lake. I’m not sure what provisions the trail has for crossing it. Then there’s the talus field crossing.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. There’s a bridge. It’s a gorgeous spot, but it’s next to the really sketch part of the trail that “we heard strange sounds” in the brush. I like to think I’m intrepid, but I would never do this one again. At least never alone. I hope you do the Pumice Plain hike when the lupine is in bloom. No water across the plain but it is breathtakingly beautiful.

        Liked by 1 person

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