By Michael Lanza
The afternoon sun smiles warmly on us as my two kids and my nephew, age 10 to 15, my 76-year-old mom, and I—three generations spanning almost seven decades—plod up the final, strenuous steps to the crater rim of Mount St. Helens. The view could steal the breath away from God.
Before us, crumbling cliffs send small landslides cracking and rumbling down into the vast hole—2,000 feet deep and nearly two miles across—created by the eruption that decapitated St. Helens almost a generation before any of these kids were born. Seventy-five-mile views on this idyllic, Pacific Northwest summer day reveal behemoth, ice-capped volcanoes dominating three horizons: Rainier, Adams, Hood, and Jefferson. We hug and high-five and click off pictures, grinning with awe and no small amount of disbelief that we all actually made it up here.
That was the heart-warming mental picture that I had formed just days ago, when I scored hard-to-get permits for this climb—one of America’s most awe-inspiring dayhikes. Unfortunately, right now, sitting on rocks more than five hours into our ascent of St. Helens, events are not transpiring quite as smoothly as I had envisioned. Not at all.
I visually assess my crew. The kids look good—remarkably fresh, actually, laughing and chattering away in their own conversation. My mom, however, looks like the idiot light on her internal gas gauge has been on for a while, and now she’s running on fumes. She’s muttering to me about her legs feeling rubbery and not having any more energy. But she tells me she intends to keep going up, anyway. I’m thinking about the fact that perhaps a thousand feet of climbing still looms above us, followed by a very long descent—which, when you’re tired, can feel like one nail after another hammered into your coffin.
At this moment, a long way from the top of the mountain and even farther from the bottom, a deeply disturbing thought hits me with a cold, hard slap: Oh, no. She’s not going to make it.
A Popular Hike
A week ago, I did not think we’d even be here.
Hiking Mount St. Helens is so enormously popular that you can’t spontaneously decide to attempt it on an upcoming summer weekend. Just getting permission to hike Monitor Ridge, the standard summer route up the mountain, requires planning in advance and applying online for a permit.
Nearly 14,000 people attempt St. Helens every year—and undoubtedly far more would if there were no permit system. You’d almost think it was an easy hike.
If, like me, you only got the idea weeks instead of months before the dates you have in mind, your last hope is to get on the waiting list at purmit.com and hope someone holding permits for your dates has to cancel plans and sell them. So I did—and got no response for weeks. Giving up on the crazy-anyway dream of getting us all up the mountain, I was planning to take my son, Nate, who’s 12, and daughter, Alex, 10, along with my mom, Joanne, and 15-year-old nephew, Marco Garofalo hiking some trails around the mountain—also very scenic and not nearly as strenuous as climbing St. Helens. (Note: The system for obtaining a permit to hike Mount St. Helens change in 2021 and is explained in the trip-planning details at the bottom of this story, which requires a paid subscription to read in full.)
Then, just days before our trip, I got an e-mail from a guy in Washington offering five permits for sale. That forced me to make a hard decision: Were my kids and my mom ready for such a huge day?
I talked to each of them in detail about the climb—which is 10 miles round-trip and 4,500 vertical feet up and down, most of it on pretty darn rugged terrain that varies from loose stones and dirt to volcanic ash that’s like hiking a giant sand dune. I told them it would probably take us at least eight hours to go up and down, and we’d have to wake up early to allow ourselves plenty of time. I also explained that we’d come down the same way we’d go up, so if we couldn’t make it for any reason, we could just turn around.
For an adventure this challenging, I believe in getting buy-in from everyone: I want them to know it’ll be hard. I want them to understand this is not a requirement, and if we agree to go for it, they each own that decision. Getting them invested in the decision usually heads off any complaining, partly, I think, because they feel they have control over what they’re doing.
I wasn’t worried about Marco. He’s an athlete and has been hiking, backpacking, and whitewater rafting with us—including two trips to Yosemite by the time he was 12, a claim that probably no one he knows back home in Massachusetts can make. I felt confident Nate would do fine, and only mildly worried about Alex; my kids have tackled hard days of hiking plenty of times without bonking or whining. Although this would be the hardest single day any of the three kids had ever attempted, I believed they were ready for it, especially if I just kept stuffing them with chocolate and snacks.
My mom, on the other hand, I wasn’t sure about. Since she first started hiking with me a quarter-century ago, she has racked up an impressive hiking resume, from the Presidential Range to Yosemite, the Columbia Gorge, and the Grand Canyon—and just a year ago, at 75, a weeklong, hut-to-hut trek with my family in the snowy, rugged mountains of Norway’s Jotunheimen National Park. [Note: After this story was first published, at age 80, my mom trekked the Tour du Mont Blanc with my family and a group of extended family and friends.]
My mom’s tough as nails. But Jotunheimen pushed her near her limits. Now, with the three kids burning with summit fever and my mom looking like someone with a nasty case of flu, I have a really bad feeling about how this is going to go down. Given how tired she is, I know the long descent will drag on agonizingly slowly. I form another mental picture of us finishing the hike by headlamps after dark, with everyone exhausted and starving, increasing the chance of someone falling and getting hurt and of me being arrested for child endangerment and elderly abuse.
I sit contemplating whether—after so many years of seeing my mom knock off some pretty hard hikes—I should tell her it’s a bad idea for her to continue up.
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St. Helens Eruption
On Sunday morning, May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens was rocked by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale. It triggered a massive landslide of rock and ice—the largest in recorded history—that bulldozed into Spirit Lake and crashed like a tsunami over a ridge 1,300 feet high. The debris roared down the Toutle River, tearing down highway bridges, killing motorists, and temporarily obstructing the shipping channel of the Columbia River 70 miles downstream.
Almost instantly, the landslide also released pressurized gases inside the volcano, causing a lateral explosion that blew out the mountain’s north face. Reaching a speed of 650 mph, the blast flattened or left dead but standing millions of trees across nearly 150 square miles of forest. More than 500 million tons of gray ash rained over eastern Washington, turning daytime to night. Thirty-six people were confirmed dead from the eruption; another 21 were never found.
The mountain that only a day before had been a 9,600-foot-high, cone-shaped stratovolcano—so perfectly symmetrical it was often compared to Japan’s Mount Fuji—had transformed into a horseshoe-shaped crater cut down to just 8,363 feet above sea level, surrounded by a scene of unfathomable destruction.
More than three decades later, this active volcano has become one of the most sought-after summits in the country—for good reason. Hikers on Monitor Ridge, on the mountain’s south side, begin in shady, cool, temperate rainforest, but soon emerge onto a stark, gray and black moonscape of volcanic rocks, pumice, and ash, with little vegetation—and infinite views on the entire ascent, all the way to the crater rim, where you will rethink any notions you have of the natural world as a peaceful place.
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Hiking Monitor Ridge
The kids bubble with excitement as we start gaining elevation and get our first views; my mom, while not able to maintain their pace, keeps up just fine as the kids stop occasionally to wait. Below us, a sea of clouds pushing inland from the Pacific Ocean blankets the valleys. Three other Cascade Range volcanoes, 11,239-foot Mount Hood and 10,497-foot Mount Jefferson in Oregon, and 12,276-foot Mount Adams to the east, tower above the rows of blue, lower ridges.
We pass slower hikers, my mom overtaking people half her age—some of whom, judging by their facial expressions of mute shock and their torpid, staggering gait, are clearly not going to get anywhere near the top.
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I’ve seen this phenomenon innumerable times, from hikers obviously in way over their heads on physically challenging peaks like Mount Washington, to rock climbers in Yosemite and mountain bikers on Moab’s world-famous Slickrock Trail; I was even guilty (or a victim, depending on your perspective) of it on my first-ever day of backcountry skiing, in Wyoming’s Tetons, as a complete and pathetically incompetent neophyte: When a place grows so famous that its name becomes almost synonymous with an outdoor activity, its renown penetrates the general public. Consequently, people with little or no experience—or sense of what they’re getting into—hear about it and decide, “Hey, let’s try that!”
Out-of-shape drinking buddies attempt it. Husbands and boyfriends talk their wives and girlfriends into it (a remarkably effective way to figure out that this relationship isn’t working for you). Lunatic fathers drag their kids up it. I admire these people for the effort, but I hope aiming too high the first time doesn’t discourage them from pursuing a more realistic goal the next time. Beautiful places like the slopes of Mount St. Helens are strewn with the dashed hopes of countless, overambitious aspirants.
So, relative to the hikers we see who are conspicuously struggling—like the woman staring daggers through her husband as she tells him, “For the umpteenth time, I’m going as fast as I can”—our team looks strong. The kids are all but trotting uphill, and my mom keeps plodding along.
But the hours tick past. About halfway up, we slowly scramble on all fours through a stretch of sharp-edged boulders that go on for hundreds of feet. Beyond it, we stop for a break and a snack in a steady breeze—the spot where my mom tells me about her rubbery legs. But she doesn’t want to disappoint the kids by asking everyone to turn back after coming this far, and she doesn’t want to sit here and wait for us.
We reach an agreement: The kids and I will go ahead at their pace. She’ll follow at hers. The way is obvious and visible from here to the top; we’ll be able to see each other.
The kids will make it. She will make it if she can.
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St. Helens Crater Rim
Whether with my kids, my mom, or friends, there’s a sweet spot I like to hit in terms of mental and physical challenge on an outdoors adventure: Shoot for that place near the outer limits of their comfort zone—exploring personal limits without pushing them too far. Hit that small, moving target and you help someone feel like a dragon slayer, like she has accomplished the impossible. I’ve done it many times with others and have felt it myself. There aren’t many experiences in life more uplifting than that.
But hitting that target is like dropping a smart bomb on a crowded city: You’d better be precise or there’s going to be a lot of ugly, collateral damage. And I’ve missed the target before, too. This game is not without risk.
The final slog to the top of St. Helens consists of 1,000 vertical feet or more of steep ash and pumice where we slide down a half step with each step up. But around 3 p.m., some seven hours after we set out this morning, I walk the final steps up to the crater rim with my kids. Nate holds his smartphone in front of himself, narrating a video. Alex just grins and says, “Aaah, we’re there.” Marco arrives right behind us, wielding his own smartphone and saying, over and over, “That’s just unbelievable,” as we all spin in a slow 360 to take it all in.
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Deep inside the gaping maw of the crater, steam rises from a lava dome that has grown to several hundred feet tall over the years. On the other side of the crater, there’s no mountainside, just a huge gap. Beyond, Spirit Lake reflects the deep blue of the sky, except where trees mowed down by the eruption still float at the lake’s far end like a raft constructed of hundreds if not thousands of logs. Rainier—which you only first glimpse from the rim because it’s north of St. Helens—Adams, Hood and Jefferson form an arc of white-capped peaks stretching around half of our panorama.
Maybe 15 minutes behind us, my mom walks the last steps up to the rim, breathing hard, but wearing a big smile—and an expression of disbelief. I’m more than a little surprised, too.
Days from now, Marco will tell people, “I’ve never been so impressed with anyone as with Grammy.” Still, these kids cannot yet fully appreciate their grandmother’s effort, but someday they may not believe she did this at age 76. I love the many life lessons that today will give them for years to come.
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