What goes on beneath the surface of things has always been a powerful curiosity of mine, so I’ve naturally been fascinated with volcanoes since childhood.
Every month, I drooled over National Geographic, the science porno mag for budding geologists. There it was: Our planet with its outside stripped away in beautiful cross-section. You could see everything: the layers, the tunnels, the chambers full of molten rock that could liquefy your finger at a touch, the evacuation routes to the surface through vents and fissures and things, and the engine that drives it all where great tectonic plates force entire continents to play Twister. Magma was apparently pulsing beneath our feet at all hours of the day until it decided to erupt, then it became the glowing red stuff of cheesy sci fi movies that everyone ran from and screamed.
Oh, admit it, you KNOW you made one of these in school–but you only get points if you added red food coloring to the vinegar. The one at this link is hysterical; I thought the church in the middle of town was a particularly nice touch.
To this day, I’m dying to see real lava. Burning orange gooey masses of the stuff, you know, moving. I was unable to catch the action at Mt. St. Helens back in 1980, being 1500 miles away from the state of Washington at the time, six years away from a legal driver’s license, and not having any gas money, anyway. Or a car. So, a few decades later, I aimed for the second-youngest eruption I could find in the continental United States: Belknap Crater.Belknap burst its most recent gusset in the middle of Oregon about 1400 years ago, around the same time China started printing books, Indians invented the decimal system, and Arabs decided that 28 letters was just right. All by itself, Belknap regurgitated around 1.3 cubic miles of spanking new rock, formed a broad shield volcano 1700 feet thick and five miles wide, and snowed ash down up to 100 miles away. Not too shabby for a young ‘un. It featured all the excitement any volcano could aspire to: explosive pyrotechnics, dripping lava, sailing rocks, and congestive particulate clouds. But all that remained by the time we hiked across it on Saturday was cold, black rock as far as the eye could see–barren as the moon, sharp as steak knives.
Joe is approximately ten stories tall. Well, maybe it just felt that way after trying to keep up with his super-long legs for eight miles over uneven terrain. Like I said, the brief forested part was okay. But suddenly–and I do mean suddenly–the lava presented itself. It presented itself all over the entire trail….
There was no way to go but up and once you were up, it took all your concentration and ankle strength to stay there. Hiking on lava rock is a singular experience. Imagine trying to keep your footing across loosely piled, varying sizes of creosote-flavored Grape-Nuts. The endless crunching sound slowly drives you mad while the constant promise of a blood-letting keeps your senses sharp. You hike the razor’s edge of sanity this way for 2 to 4 hours, depending on your compulsion to explore (mine is intense), and then collapse in a heap of lunch at the crater summit.
Joe knew a little about the area, so I was whisked through the flashy tourist magnets first. Dee Wright Observatory is why most people get out of their cars, march up the tiny, groomed trail, and take off their lens caps. It’s pretty cool. Made completely out of lava rock like a child builds a snow igloo, it features an upper deck with a huge bronze compass of sorts pointing to many of the majestic peaks visible on a clear day. Below lurks a black room with windows that center each mountain in its frame. Kind of a cross between a Hobbit summer cottage and an Orc lair:
Getting your camera to play nice in the darkness requires a willingness that I do not possess to read the half-inch thick manual for an Olympus Stylus point and shoot. Those with patience, however, achieve a fine effect.
Okay, so back to the Grape-Nuts. My eternal goal is always to experience something new–like Mae West said: “Between two evils, I generally like to pick the one I never tried before”–and this was definitely a brand, spanking new evil. Never before had I spent so much time looking down at my boots rather than around at the view. Every single footstep needed to be gravely estimated and carefully placed. To fall was to bleed. Pumice can either lightly exfoliate your little heels or it can excoriate your entire foot, it all depends on how hard you push. Since Joe traveled on sturdy size 15 klodhoppers, he stood a better chance at survival than I and was able to forgo the trekking poles. By the end of the day, I swear my boots rode lower from loss of rubber.
All day long, I scurried along behind with quick steps and much-uttered epithets. Balls of pumice rolled under my feet, grey dust billowed up and blanketed my pants and the rims of my nostrils, and all around was a blank wasteland practically devoid of life. I was in heaven. After all, the harder the trail, the fewer annoying tourists you have to share it with. Plus, I adore giant swaths of space cradled by rock. There’s something about a vista scrubbed clean of visual distraction that lends itself to a hiker’s walking meditation. I immediately found a rhythm. I pulled my focus up and out of myself to reach around me into the delicate subtleties of the landscape.
I became aware by degrees, for instance, that I was not only seeing an absence of life, I was smelling it, too. All the familiar scents of a hike in the forest–moisture, oxygen, and the sweet rot of decaying plant matter–were gone. I only caught vague hints of them on the wind from many miles away. In their place were notes of ash, tar, chalk, and minerals that the warming sun drew from the lava. The place looked barren but to a mystic follower of sweet sensory deprivation, it also felt quite clean. This was a new kind of desert.
There are two ways a hiker can go at Belknap: the first is moderate and the second is memorable. Most hikers opt for moderate. They take the Sullivan guide’s word for it and march the 2.6 miles up a section of the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) to Little Belknap Crater, squint into the scary lava caves, compare and contrast their collective wounds over bottles of Snapple and soggy sandwiches, and then head home. This affords a little over 1000 feet of vertical gain, minor bragging rights–“Check out this scar!”–and one guilt-free beer when they get home. But Joe and I had sat through three hours of driving to get to the trailhead. Damned if we were going to spend less time on our boots than on our butts. We opted for the memorable trip, the big one, Belknap Crater, itself. We’re talking a six-pack of craft beer, here.
Belknap Crater. Looks close, don’t it? It’s farther than you think, mountains always are. From the crossroads between the two, where passing PCT thruhikers smirk at the sweat on your brow, it’s less than a mile to the summit. You can see the route options running pretty clearly up the east flank like so many Kardashian stretch marks but what you don’t see is the condition of those trails and what’s involved in surviving them.
First of all, it was windy. When I say windy, I don’t mean “Feel that nice breeze!”, I mean “Hold up for a sec, will ya? I have another chunk of pumice scraping my cornea!” Every contact lens wearer in the immediate vicinity was either tearing up from the airborne particulates or crying because they wished they’d brought along the ski goggles in their closets. No matter how you slice it, there was a lot of eye rubbing. And nose rubbing. It was just chilly enough to illicit cold-induced rhinorrhea, that nasal drainage that has you sniffing like a blow junkie in the wintertime. Lovely.
Secondly, this was the angle of our quarry:When your hiking buddy attempts to assuage you with platitudes like, “Hey, it’s not like it’s as steep as stairs,” your brain screams, “Yes. Yes, it is. It is worse than stairs. Because stairs do not slide away in a skittering cascade of loose stones under your feet with the slightest movement, and stairs are not so narrow that you have to hyperextend each step so that you walk a thin line like a nervous cat to prevent becoming like those loose stones, and stairs do not come equipped with a sand blaster accessory set to HIGH and aimed directly at your pupils, and stairs are not a third of a mile long. Plus, you know, railings.” So, Joe grinned when I said, “Bite me,” and then he lapped me like a track star and literally left me in the dust.And, after all that, after teetering over two and a half miles of dark grey razor blades, after taking water breaks standing up because there was no surface to sit upon that wouldn’t forcibly aerate my hiking pants, after peeing surreptitiously between boulders while the wind scoured my heinie, after all that, THIS was my reward: Belknap’s stunning summit.Actually, I was in heaven. This was my first real, honest-to-Hades look down into the gaping maw of creation–land creation. This was a volcano. Dormant, sure, but still. A little more than a thousand years ago, the solid matter I was standing on was way more than a thousand degrees Fahrenheit. It glowed with heat and energy unthinkable to hike across, much less sit down upon to have lunch. Shallow earthquakes would have made any sort of standing or sitting impossible, anyway. The wind would be an asphyxiating recipe of carbon and sulfur dioxides and sundry other poisons that would have dropped me like a canary in a rotten coal mine. The force of each blast would have sent a shock wave through the air that tossed my body like lint. The lava it belched up would be so hot, I would have been irretrievably burned and scarred before ever getting near enough to touch it. Every event this crater produced has been bewildering, terrifying, and fatal to any living thing unfortunate enough to be close by. And it was only a baby, just recently birthed. I was looking down Earth’s belly button. So cool.
We hunkered downwind from the summit where calmer air circulation eddies formed and there was less chance we would receive complimentary pumice Grape-Nuts in our lunch. Actually, we were quite grateful for the wind. It swept the skies clean. On such a clear day, we were able to see all the star players advertised on the map, former eruptions that have earned the name “mountain.”
To the north, Mount Washington (7795′) in the foreground, Three Fingered Jack (7844′) peeking on the left, the distant eastern slope of massive Mount Jefferson (10495′) on the right, and burnt swaths of recent forest fires strafing the woods below.
Of the Three Sisters extreme climbing combo, North Sister (10085′) or “Faith” can be seen on the left and Middle Sister 10047′) or “Hope” on the right. The baby of the family, “Charity” or South Sister stands tallest at 10358′ behind them and out of sight. If you are a badass athlete, you have a story about climbing a Sister, and not in the Playboy Magazine kind of way. Their climbing names sum it up pretty well: Charity is Big Sister, Hope is Little Sister, and Faith is affectionately referred to as The Black Beast of the Cascades, or Ugly Sister for short. If you would like all the action of actually climbing the Beast without the muscle soreness, watch this. As an experienced peak bagger from Colorado, I can tell you that it’s a true video account of what a climber really experiences: lots of meticulous, slow-moving gymnastics punctuated by occasional pauses to actually take in the view. You’re just trying to have fun and not die.
Black Butte (6436′) to the northeast, of recent forest fire fame. Even back then in 2006, you can see fresh scorch marks. You take a place that dry, add lightning, and Presto! Instant charcoal.Once lunch was scrupulously removed from its Tupperware containers and safely stored in our stomachs, we headed back down to Little Belknap Crater to ogle some caves. Joe does pretty well with heights (when you’re that tall, you get used to looking down) but he balked at the depths. It was decided by a quick vote that if there was spelunking to be done, I would do it, and if there was sitting and uttering sarcastic commentary the whole time, he would take care of that. I shrugged off my heavy pack. [Note: Take every conceivable opportunity to do this when hiking. The sudden dropping of 20 – 30 pounds of dead weight makes you feel instantly hyper-awake, happy, and ten years younger. Unless you’re ten years old, in which case your parents are big meanies for making you carry a pack that heavy. Unless you have Oreos in there, in which case don’t share.] I sprang into the first hole like a crazed gopher and started feeling around while my pupils dilated to the limits of human night vision. Give me something mysterious and geological to explore and watch me take off, I’m ridiculously predictable that way. If it was cold outside, this cave was the deep freeze. You could tell light never touched the ground in there. A few cool lava formations decorated the walls but not enough to hold my interest for long. For that, you have to descend into Ape Cave below Mt. St. Helens, which we did two months ago. The best part of all the cavities was a 40-foot plunge straight down into the blackness, beyond all immediate rescue. It was so cold down there, there was a perpetual pile of snow at the bottom. Signs warned you not to get too close. I got close. I heard air moving around below and I heard my own heart pounding in my ears. A small rock helped over the side fell silently into the snow, giving the acoustical impression of a bottomless pit. I did not take a photograph (we discussed that earlier), but here is an artist’s rendering:
At this point, you’re probably asking yourself, “Where the $%@#! does Skippy the Wonder Squirrel fit into all this?” Skippy was our first adventure of the day but I thought I would save him for last because he really is that good. There is a turnout along the MacKenzie Highway (Oregon Route 242) where a grand view and a sexy pile of rock on the side beckons travelers to pull over and whip out the DSLRs. These travelers have snacks; the squirrels know this. Generations of breeding have evolved them into unbearably cute shakedown artists who waddle right up to unsuspecting families and end up talking them out of entire bags of Cheetos. I know better than to feed a wild animal for all sorts of reasons, especially processed junk food, but watching the antics was hysterical. One furball seemed to lead the pack. We’ll call him Skippy.
Skippy had no shame, no hesitation, and no fear when it came to panhandling. He ran up to everybody standing still. Sometimes, he ran right over shoes and partway up legs. Charmed humans obediently leaned down and fed him whatever they had on hand–some even ran back to their vehicles to find more treats to perpetuate the cuteness–he was like a plump, coin op plush toy. When there was a lull in the vehicles and Joe and I were the only ones left, Skippy set his sights on me. I was merely holding a camera but I was holding something and that’s all Skippy needed to know.
World’s biggest photobomb. I laughed for fifteen solid minutes. Joe thought I’d lost my mind. I used this picture as an avatar for many years afterward on various hiking and outdoor forums. To this day, I bust a gut every time I see it.
I know not what became of Skippy but I’m sure Belknap is still there, in all its gruesome glory. I wouldn’t mind going back, maybe to summit Mount Washington this time so I can look down on all that gorgeous lava and its violent redecorating. There have been a lot of fires in the area since then, so the view must be truly desolate by now, so colorless that you don’t need to shoot in black and white. Still, the Earth’s extremes will always call to me. The lack of people in attendance is nearly as enticing an inducement as the actual beauty of the place. Plus, you know, you have to have something to brag about over the six pack of microbrew.
September 23, 2006