by Hank Leukart
April 25, 2006

Noble Knob’s bad luck and a volcanic disaster

Owning a car isn’t necessarily enough to get to Mt. St. Helens.

My car sits, terrified, in front of a snowdrift in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest

My car sits, terrified, in front of a snowdrift in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest

G

IFFORD PINCHOT NATIONAL FOREST, Wa. — In early April 2004, I decided to try to impress my then-girlfriend by taking her on a trip to the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest to tackle Noble Knob Trail, a hike described in 100 Classic Hikes in Washington. 100 Classic Hikes is the best $12.97 I’ve ever spent on a travel-related book; the authors give you the feeling that you have two in-the-know friends, experts on every glorious climb in Washington. The book even lets you know the best time of year to try a given hike, but my resistance to forward-planning and weakness for warm weather often causes me to disregard those suggestions, occasionally to my detriment. After the two hour drive to the Corral Pass road on the way to the trailhead, we discovered a gated and snowed-in road, making it impossible to get to the trail (my car isn’t the kind of car that enjoys off-road travel). She sure was impressed. We ended up enjoying the privacy of a beautiful tree-canopy covered hike on Deep Creek Trail, but Noble Knob was out of reach. We later broke up. Whether it was due to the Noble Knob incident, I’ll never know.

Later that spring, at the end of May, I decided to try to impress two friends by taking them to Noble Knob. I knew the Corral Pass road would finally be open because the weather had warmed and winter was gone, so I didn’t bother to call the nearby forest ranger station in advance. Thus it was to my complete surprise that the Corral Pass road was still gated and snowed-in when we arrived. They sure were impressed. We confronted nearby Clear West Peak as an alternative and enjoyed the challenge of the snow-covered paths, but Noble Knob still eluded me. One of those friends moved away soon after. Whether it was due to the Noble Knob incident, I’ll never know.

Noble Knob taught me a lesson: early in the hiking season, always check on road conditions before driving multiple hours to a trail.

As previously advertised on Without Baggage, I decided this past weekend to visit Mount St. Helens, the volcano responsible for the most deadly and economically destructive volcanic eruption in United States history and the largest debris avalanche in all of recorded history. One of the most active volcanoes in the United States, Mount St. Helens erupted as recently as March 8, 2005, when a 36,000-foot plume of steam and ash emerged from the volcanco. The US Forest Service has been monitoring the volcano continuously as a new lava dome continues to grow on the volcano’s top.

I learned by calling the Forest Service in advance (I learned my lesson!) that due to these recent volcanic events, they prohibit climbing to the top of Mount St. Helens and have closed most of the trails immediately adjacent to the volcano’s enormous horseshoe-shaped crater to keep hikers safe from lava, steam, and ash. On top of that, it’s still early in the hiking season, so many of the roads in the Volcanic Monument are closed due to snow; specifically, the road to Windy Ridge Viewpoint, considered one of the best (and hardest to get to) places to see the volcano, was inaccessible. Nevertheless, I knew a road near Windy Ridge that I could take to see great views of the mountain and eventually arrive at Ape Canyon, an underground cave network that is one of St. Helens’s most popular tourist attractions.

““I’ve seen worse,” he said. “Glad you called me. The other guys would have your car in pieces by now.” I was disappointed that my bumper had sustained some damaged, but surely that was better than my car being in pieces, I thought.”

So, I set out on the three-hour drive from Seattle to the east side of Mount St. Helens. On State Route 12, about one hour from Windy Ridge, a sign advertises a minor side trip to a viewpoint about a half mile up a mountain. Ready for a break, I shifted down into second gear and started making my way up the paved road; but when I reached the end, I was thoroughly disappointed. I could barely make out Mount St. Helens on the horizon through the underbrush. Whoever labeled the parking lot at the end of Short Road a “viewpoint” probably also thinks that the Olive Garden is the epitome of fine food and the Counting Crows is the best band ever.

Regardless, after reaching the top, I noticed a gravel road continuing up the mountain and guessed that maybe this “viewpoint” wasn’t the viewpoint at all. I drove another quarter-mile as the road quickly became steep enough that my car’s tires were starting to slip. Clearly, this gravel road was neither related to the promised viewpoint nor was it designed for rear-wheel drive, German coupes. Not wanting to slip down the mountain, I began driving in reverse back to the “viewpoint” — right off the side of a steep incline and into a ditch. A man who lived at the top of the gravel road came down the road curiously with his dog to see what I had done. He sure was impressed.

The man helpfully mentioned that a “guy lower down the mountain had a bulldozer,” but I wasn’t sure how that would help, and I certainly didn’t trust a farmer with a bulldozer to excavate my car from a mountain ditch. Near the edge of cell-phone coverage, I called trusty AAA and within a half hour, a tow truck arrived from a nearby town. Two hours later, after the most creative winch techniques and chain-tethering I have ever seen, the truck driver managed to correct my ridiculous mistake. “I’ve seen worse,” he said. “Glad you called me. The other guys would have your car in pieces by now.” I was disappointed that my bumper had sustained some damaged, but surely that was better than my car being in pieces, I thought. I tipped him and hoped to salvage the day by making my way toward Ape Canyon.

Thirty minutes later, I arrived in the beautiful Gifford Pinchot National Forest and was well on my way to seeing the volcano up-close — that is, until I reached the junction of State Routes 25 and 76, probably more accurately described as the junction of Huge Snow Drift and Impassable Snowed-In Route. I had sustained three hours of driving and two hours in a ditch and all I had to show for it was a snowdrift. I later learned that I should have paid more attention to the recorded message when I called the Forest Service: yes, they closed the road to Windy Ridge, but they also closed the southern segment of State Route 25 to Ape Canyon. I sure was impressed with myself.

Disappointed, I turned back and drove to nearby Randle, where the Big Bottom Bar & Grill consoled me with on-tap root beer, a big bacon and swiss burger, and an adorable waitress. Nevertheless, the trip provided the best lesson in car towing I have ever gotten and a beautiful drive through the Gifford Pinchot National Forest.

Late in the summer of 2004, a friend and I took a third attempt at Noble Knob, and I finally succeeded in completing the hike. We saw not only beautiful views of Mount Rainier but also dazzling flower meadows which can only be seen in summer. In retrospect, I’m skeptical that Noble Knob was solely responsible for the end of my relationship with my girlfriend and my friend moving away. Combined with the other two hikes I discovered through my three attempts at Noble Knob, the flower meadows made the whole debacle worthwhile.

Sometimes, even when you don’t arrive at your expected destination, it doesn’t matter much. Just try not to drive into a ditch while you’re on your way.

Don’t despair. Read about the following day, during which I returned to Mount St. Helens and succeeded in taking a stunning nine-mile hike near the volcano’s crater.

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