Photograph by Tegra Stone Nuess
One does not simply walk into a volcanic crater. Technically, access to the heart of Mount St. Helens is prohibited by the U.S. Forest Service for administrative and ecological reasons; the fragile zone is a living geology lab, with only scientists allowed in. But as our crew of a dozen gathers on a rocky trail in the treeless Pumice Plain that skirts the broken peak, red tape is beside the point. Our motley assemblage—a hiking guide, some geologists, Bill Nye the Science Guy—waits for a different kind of invitation.
Cowlitz tribal chairman Bill Iyall, as dusty as the rest of us from the hike up, issues that welcome. For millennia, he says, Cowlitz tribal youth ascended to high places for tamanawas, or guidance from the creator. “In isolation is when you were connecting with your guardian spirit,” he says. Few spots in the Cascades are loftier and lonelier than this mountain of rock once called Lawetlat'la (later Loowit)—"the smoker.”
The nonprofit Mount St. Helens Institute leads a handful of 10-mile guided hikes past this border every year; the $735 trip is the only way for civilians to see the crater. Today’s expedition is a sort of staff outing, made up of the institute’s volcano experts and board members. We enter the inner circle of St. Helens, not looking for tamanawas, exactly, but anxious to be moved by the volcano that shook the world 40 years ago.
“A freaking mountain exploded, people!” One never wants for enthusiasm when Bill Nye is in the caldera. Though the science-for-kids TV personality skied the peak years ago and has served on the Institute’s board for 15 years, this is his first trip into the forbidden zone.
Down on the Pumice Plain, a dusting of greenery coated the dirt and the ground held solid underfoot. Every step higher is a little softer, until we’re skidding down fins of ash and rock like it’s the world’s dirtiest sandcastle. Nye manages the awkward moves with considerably more style, given his self-altered knee-length knickers and Scottish sock garters. Up close, the volcanic crater looms ahead like a gaping maw, barnacle-shaped, its proportions more distorted with every step.
But four decades after it erupted, Mount St. Helens is no longer falling down; rather, the 21st century saw it falling up into a pyramid again. Dome formations in the crater center nose it back to the platonic mountain shape and eruptions tear it apart; for tens of thousands of years it’s cycled between perfect and lumpy. Some in our party, like USGS volcanologist Heather Wright, visit the crater every year, and it’s never the same between hikes. We hop streams that run electric orange with minerals, warm to the touch, reshaping the mountain as they flow.
We top out with the crater walls towering on either side of the group, before us the lava dome formed by smaller eruptions that burbled to the surface from 2004–8. We’re only just inside the off-balance bowl that tips to the north. Wright picks up a textured rock the size of a basketball, showing off how it cracks on its surface like good sourdough. Scientists call them breadcrust bombs, remnants of an eruption that serve as samples from inside the volcano, a report of how hot and dense the rock was below.
The living laboratory heaves around us. The country’s only growing glacier, formed in 1980, became a ring when the dome formed in its center; now it inches toward us like a donut sloooooowly sliding off a table, coated in a layer of gravel akin to sprinkles. We hear the pings of rocks that crumble off in the glacier’s meter-a-day descent.
The word “devastation” gets thrown around a lot at Mount St. Helens; the 1980 eruption is oft compared to an atom bomb. We humans see a perfect peak turned broken mountain, a clear before and after. But this volcano has never looked exactly the same for two days in a row. Northwest Native American tales have cast Mount St. Helens as the young, pretty creature among the older Rainier, Adams, and Hood, and that’s geologically accurate; this volcanic site endures makeover after makeover, barely adopting one look before ditching it for the opposite. An eternal, earthy teenager.
The tribal adolescents that flocked here for guidance sometimes built a stone wall or pile to prove they’d served their full time in the wilderness. We try not to leave any evidence of our visit, but the human touch remains; after we depart the antennae of seismic monitors still dot the amphitheater of rock behind us.
Chairman Iyall tells us how the Cowlitz tribe gained federal recognition only 20 years ago, establishing a reservation in 2015 and now using casino profits to fund education through the institute. As we hike back down to civilization, it’s clear that the mountain isn’t the only thing with a cyclical heartbeat.
“The name Cowlitz means ‘seeker of the medicine spirit,’” says Iyall. “And there’s no greater medicine spirit than Mount St. Helens.” And with an ever-morphing mountain, no end to the seeking.
The statewide Covid-19 response has affected planned Mount St. Helens anniversary events, temporarily closed businesses, and prohibited access to some roads, trailheads, visitor centers, and more. Be sure to check online or by phone for the latest updates before making plans.