Mount Saint Helens (3rd attempt) and Trout Lake Area Caving 2013-10-11
I attempted to summit Mount Saint Helens
twice this February, turning back the first time due to weather, and stopping at the crater rim the second time because of dangerous snow conditions. I was determined to make it this time and planned to bring rope, a picket and a harness if there was any chance of snow just to be sure. Ben and Colin were available to join me on one of the last few days left with permits available. Ben and I were both interested in revisiting some Trout Lake area caves and Colin was game so we left Tacoma on Thursday night ready for a long weekend of adventure.
Based on my past experience I suggested we bring snowshoes and start early to avoid the soft snow. We all felt surprisingly fresh when we pulled up to Climber's Bivouac at 11:30 and agreed that 3 hours of sleep wouldn't be worth much, so after a hour meal and gear check we were on the way up by 12:15 am. Just past the junction we excited the treeline and started up Monitor Ridge into a solid layer of clouds. Snow began to appear around 5000 feet and covered most of the rock after 6000. The seismic station and antenna were covered in several inches of rime. By 4 am we emerged above the clouds around 7000 feet, confident that we would reach the crater rim before sunrise. Even this high up patches of exposed earth, mostly in vertical strips (likely due to strong wind drifts). This was very helpful during the last few hundred feet where the snow surface turned solid and icy.
We did a good job of pacing ourselves to avoid getting sweaty, which payed off as we dug a trench on the false summit and huddled together awaiting the sun. An hour and a half later it finally rose almost directly behind Mount Adams. The true summit beckoned, but after 20 minutes of battling the stiff icy surface without crampons it became painfully obvious that I had led us up the mountain unprepared, without the proper tools to achieve the summit.
We headed down towards the rising cloud layer at 8:30. We had fun glissading for about 1000 feet of the descent before the snow faded away. We shared beta with about 50 people on their way up, most of whom were less prepared than us, without ice axes for self-arrest. We were back at the truck just after noon and quickly loaded up for a few more hours of driving to our planned camp near Trout Lake, stopping first in Cougar to sign out at the Lone Fir Resort.
We stopped at several potential cave entrances that we noticed along our route, hoping to find something worth exploring. We pulled up to camp with enough light to set up and get a fire going. The entrance to Dynamited was just a short walk from our campsite. We briefly discussed the possibility of a short exploration, but decided that after 40 hours with no sleep we would be best off getting a good nights rest and starting fresh in the morning.
We entered Dynomited at 11:45 am on Saturday. The same salamander that we had seen several months ago was hanging out on a rock near the entrance just like last time. We all down climbed the first 15 foot drop then stopped shortly at the small lava falls about 300 feet before the first big drop. This section had very little breakdown in a few isolated spots.
After the first rappel we rigged a second loop of paracord alongside the one that was left for us, spanning the Big Pit. Ben traversed the pit using both loops as a safety, then rigged our second rope across the gap and over the other side. Both anchors on the far side were loose, one was completely useless. These should be replaced by the next capable person on their way through. Above them is an impressive chandelier of metallic lava drippings. Colin and I crossed one at a time then rappelled using our rope while Ben down climbed to a makeshift ladder on climbers left built from a log and some huge nails.
We were all in new territory from there. We then climbed up a massive pile of breakdown at least 100 feet high and back down the other side well below the elevation we had started up from. When the floor leveled out we found a 30 foot squeeze on the right which turned back under the breakdown we had just descended. I crawled through into the tube below the one we had entered from, with 30-50 foot ceilings. Ten feet past the entrance was the open end of a distinct flow which covered the floor. The walls here were curvy with red stripes. I returned to report what I had found and we all decided to continue forward and possibly explore the red walled tube on the return trip.
500 feet later we down climbed 12 feet and then another 6. Next we came to another huge pile of climbing breakdown with a separate tube opening below it. We went down and quickly entered a room 10-20 feet wide with 50-80 foot ceilings and towering walls on either side, streaked with white, yellow, red, black and green mineral deposits. Near the end of this section there were several skylights into multi-leveled chambers at least 50 feet above. The ceiling lowered and we crossed a few more sections of breakdown before arriving at a huge pile blocking the way.
On the left was a bit of a squeeze into a 30 foot crawl with another squeeze at the other end under a human sized boulder. On the other side was a small room between two large sections of breakdown 30 feet across with 6-8 foot ceilings. Across this room was a 30 foot passage on the right with the tightest squeeze so far, which included two turns upward then turned down to exit. We then climbed over and around several hundred feet of breakdown to another short squeeze on the right. This last squeeze brought us to a small chamber sealed in by more ceiling collapse. A tiny passage near the floor on the left was to small to pass. At its entrance were 3 tow straps with hooks wedged into the first rock blocking the way. We celebrated reaching the end of one of the caves 4 main stacked tubes, then returned to the entrance of the painted room after building an "x" out of rocks below the skylights. Climbing above the painted room we found passages into two of the the ledges we had seen earlier from below. We crossed over the first skylight one at a time on the far left, being careful to keep our weight away from a 6-inch thick bridge. We traversed around the second hole on the right with solid handholds and a foot-wide ledge to a quick dead end. The lowest of the 3 skylight ledges could be seen below the others from this side. It could be reached by a sketchy climb below the traverse, and couldn't have gone far so we headed to the upper level. On the other side we climbed a pile of breakdown, passing a small hole and passing through a short squeeze on the left. Through the squeeze was a dead end with a shelf above it. I climbed up through a crack and found a small decorated chamber, and the end of the passage. On the way back Ben noticed a single bat roosting at the top of a small indent in the ceiling.
I dove into the striped hole to see if there was anything worth looking at, and easily coaxed Ben and Colin in. A four foot tall, 8 foot wide pristine flow stretched for about 50 feet before stopping. Near the end in the center of the floor was a man-sized hole. Less than 6 inches below the surface was a smaller flow frozen in the rock. We could just barely squeeze through, and found that the passage continued forward only 20 feet but I squeezed 30 feet back toward where we had come from and there was at least another 30 feet of 1-2 foot ceilings.
Back at the pit we all climbed up on the left using the makeshift ladder, then Colin and I crossed and we reversed the rope setup between the anchors on each side, so that Ben could cross with the rope as a safety, and we could then retrieve it on our way out. We had been in the cave for about 8 hours so we agreed to leave the ropes in place and cruise back to the surface for some hot food, then and return to visit the pit and the sand Castle galleries below the first 15 foot drop.
We returned to camp at 8:30 and were back to the pit by 10. After a short stay we returned up the ropes and left all the vertical gear below the drop near the entrance to the Sand Castle tube. Many of the impressive sand formations seemed to have been worn down since our last visit in early June. We headed back to camp satisfied in taking full advantage of the day.
The next morning we broke down camp and started towards Dead Horse Cave. We stopped at a cave entrance that was visible from the road a few miles from Dynamited. The closest entrance was tagged as Cave #27. We quickly explored as much as we could in the 10 minutes we had allotted. It was mostly crawling, with tons of junctions so we split up shortly and returned to share what we had seen. We all followed Ben back to the room with the tallest ceilings and an intriguing crawl down a pristine flow which turned a corner out of sight after about 40 feet. We decided that if there was a drop of any kind around that corner, we would stay a bit longer. Around the corner was just another 50 feet of crawling to the next turn, so we jammed out and high-tailed it to Dead Horse, hoping to have enough time left to make it from top to bottom before we had to get back on the road home.
Dead Horse is marked as Cave #2 at the lower of the two entrances. We drove up as far as we could, stopping when the road and overgrown vegetation got too rough. This turned out to be 50 feet before the best section of road, and only 200 feet from the parking area near the upper entrance. Just inside was a tight squeeze that wound downward for 15 feet, then a 10 foot down-climb with a fixed rope in place for assistance. We made it through in about 30 minutes, passing at least 2 dozen junctions and stopping only at the source of the underground creek. I was glad to experience a bit of Dead Horse, but can't wait to come back with a full day to explore the longest lava tube in the lower 48 states.
We took the scenic route home along NF Road 23 through Randle which provided decent views of Mount Adams and Rainier from a new perspective for me. I am still a little bummed to have missed the summit, but this was a very satisfying trip as a whole.
Ben and I expected mostly a repeat of our last visit to Dynamited, but thanks to whoever left a loop of paracord rigged over the Pit, we were able to double the area that we had previously explored. It's crazy to think we still haven't seen as much as 30% of it after nearly 20 hours inside.