A Mountain Biking Odyssey
on Mt. St. Helens

The sign of a good ride is when you get up from a bad wreck and keep on going. The sign of a great ride is when you peel yourself off a mud splattered stump after a 30mph endo and come up smiling. You don't have to get hurt on a great ride, but somehow I always manage to anyway.

Sometimes a great ride happens by accident, like when I went looking for Bigfoot. I heard he was last seen near Mt. St. Helens in Washington just before it blew its top in 1980 so I figured that was as good a place as any to start. 1980 was also the first year I went out looking for Bigfoot on my mountain bike. I made it all of two miles before mechanical failure intervened on his behalf, but I'm certain I almost saw him.

With all the technological advances in bikes since then, I was sure to get him this time around and Mt. St. Helens seemed likely to provide the perfect surroundings to hide a furry, 1500 lb. brute.

The first time I searched I went with a bunch of hard core grinders.

[click to zoom]
We pounded up a four mile climb through the deep forest, raced across rugged canyons where much of the trail has been washed away by flash floods, flew across the barren pumice fields, raged down over a sea of baby-heads buried in sand, cruised to the end where a hundred Winnebago-bound tourists seemed totally confounded by our sudden appearance out of the wilderness onto their asphalt domain, then quickly turned around and retraced our route at an even faster pace. We were riding too fast for sightseeing; we could have ridden right by his nose and never noticed.

That's one of the unfortunate things about doing a truly unique and scenic ride with a group of really strong riders: you're torn between tearing along at a break-neck pace with your eyes glued 20 feet in front of you until your lungs give out, or stopping to smell the flowers every now and then, as well as look for Bigfoot.

"Five miles of twisting, turning, banked track with just enough adrenaline to keep you interested but not enough to make you throw up... "
I always do the great rides at least twice. When I went back for a second go-round at Bigfoot a couple weeks later, I enlisted a group of fun-hogs rather than strong-hogs with the goal being to explore the world, not conquer it. Instead of limiting myself to two water bottles and a Powerbar, I'd bring a full-sized camera, lots of film, and a gourmet lunch for me and Bigfoot when we met.

The south and east sides of Mt. St. Helens were only slightly obliterated during the 1980 eruption which "removed" several thousand feet of elevation and several billion tons of rock. In fact, unlike the north side where there is nothing but a giant void where the mountain used to be, there are actually a few narrow ribs of trees which somehow escaped the cataclysmic explosion that vaporized virtually everything else within 10 miles.

On one of these thin ridges, a narrow trail snakes its way up through gigantic old growth stands of Douglas and Noble firs, many over 30 feet in circumference. At times, just a few yards to either side, lay 10 square miles of total devastation, a mind numbing geographic juxtaposition of ancient vegetation versus sterilized rock.

Down low, the perfect needle-covered single track winds slowly up through a rich maple and alder forest, thick with sweet huckleberries and vibrant colors in the fall. Prime Bigfoot country. So you don't forget where you are, straight in front Mt. St. Helens looms into view every few minutes like a 5000 foot tidal wave. Steam rises from hidden vents near the summit. Bigfoot is watching as the mountain above snores.

The trail emerges suddenly at the top of the ridge when the ground turns suddenly from black earth and pine needles to white pumice and dust. It's as if you've come to the end of the first reel of Dances With Wolves and the projectionist puts on a reel of Star Wars by mistake. Just a few feet off the trail, a 20 foot wide vertical slot in the rock plunges several hundred feet into the canyon below. I lean over the edge and peer down, looking for a trace of that sneaky devil.

In the 1800s a bunch of miners saw Bigfoot right here. They chased him down the mountain and into the gorge where he disappeared and the miners couldn't follow. I can see why. The chasm continues down for a mile, 100 feet deep and a few feet wide. Lucky for Bigfoot he always seems to be in the right place at the right time. I keep my eyes peeled for a repeat performance.

"Having died several times in the past few years, I choose prudence over pride... "
Winding through the upper canyon, much of the trail has been washed away by the fierce spring run-off from the glaciers still hanging above. Complete concentration to riding is essential. If you stop to check out the spectacular scenery, you're flat on your face in an instant. This time through I walk as much as I ride; I'd hate to explain to the doctor how I broke my shoulder looking for Bigfoot.

Again the projectionist goofs, slapping Lawrence of Arabia onto the screen. We're up on the Plains of Abraham now, a wild, desolate section of pumice through which the trail winds for three miles, slipping through eroded stream beds and across a landscape so stark it makes the moon look lush. But the air is cool with a fresh mountain breeze and I'm in my middle chain ring as we fly across the Plains.

"Leaving Ward, June, Wally, Eddie, Lumpy, Whitey and The Beav to ogle at the still smoking crater from the safety of their Minivan... "
Halfway across, the trail runs back out to the eastern edge overlooking another fork of the canyon. Mt. Adams (11,300') dominates the skyline to the east, Mt. Rainier (14,200') to the north. A few feet beyond the trail, the ravine drops 500 feet in one sheer plunge into the mud ravaged forest below. We continue for a couple more easy miles to the northern edge of the Plains where once again the route turns into more hike than bike. Sharp, sandy switchbacks end in steep, soft climbs where if you're an inch too far forward on your saddle you bog down instantly; if you're an inch too far back, your front wheel pops up and you're doing an unplanned wheelie with a 200 foot drop on one side. Fun!

Our route finally ends at the top of the "Steps", a series of logs cabled into the steep hillside by the National Park Service. You can either ride the steps (if you bail, you die), ride the soft edge on the right (if you bail, you still die), or shoulder your bike and hike-a-bike on down to the road. Having died several times in the past few years, I choose prudence over pride. Why have a light bike if you don't get to carry it now and then?

A couple miles of dirt road and we're at the tourist vista overlooking Spirit Lake, in reality ex-Spirit Lake since it was filled in with mud and rocks during the eruption and is now quite different than the serene, picturesque tarn it once was. Tourists gaggle at the still steaming hole, taking flash pictures with their yellow Fuji box cameras. Once again that damned projectionist has mixed up the film reels — now he's showing a lost episode of Leave It To Beaver. "Excuse me, have any of you seen Bigfoot around?" We scramble back to the trail, leaving Ward, June, Wally, Eddie, Lumpy, Whitey and The Beav to ogle at the still smoking crater from the safety of their Minivan.

A couple of hikers stare as we hike-a-bike back up the stairs, especially when we pass them with bikes held high in the air. Soon we're around the corner and back on the Plains, raging across the now familiar trail in big chain rings, flying across the rocky ditches and sweeping turns as if possessed. I keep one eye on the trail and one aimed towards the mountain: after all, Bigfoot might be watching and I don't want to miss my chance at 15 minutes of fame. The tabloids will pay big money for this story, you know: "Bigfoot Attacks Lunatic Bike Riders on Erupting Volcano!"

But wait... something looks different at our lunch spot... the dry, rocky stream bed where we sat just a couple hours ago is now filled with water. In fact, it is flowing swift and full. We stop for a breather and Trevor reaches into the stream for a cool splash of water. "Hey, it's warm. Hey... it's really warm!"

Sure enough, the water is at least 80 degrees and it is pouring over the trail into the abyss below us. I scramble to the edge and discover a perfect natural rock pool with a rounded, perfectly smooth wall shaped in a perfect lounge chair with the warm water cascading over the top. "Hey! It's a hot tub!!!"

I instantly strip, climb down the rock face and into the pool. "Unbelievable!" I scream. "Incredible!" "You guys won't be-leeeve this!" I sit mesmerized by the soft afternoon sun as it fades to alpenglow on Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood poking up to my right and Mt. Rainier to my left, sitting in my glacier polished granite Lazy-Boy, with warm water gushing over my head, down my body and legs, then flying off into space below me. I picture Bigfoot coming here every night to relax after being chased around all day by those pesky miners.

In fact, the old boy is probably just up the valley waiting his turn in the bath, having just turned on the water. I can picture him standing in the canyon up above us, with a towel around his neck, fiddling with the faucet, and not all too pleased that we snuck in the tub right before him.

"I'd rather be back on the mountain sitting in that little stream watching the sunset — with Bigfoot... "
One by one everyone gets their chance to sample paradise. The sweat and dust of the day are washed away like the bruises of so many endos. My mates don't believe that Bigfoot is waiting. They think that the afternoon heat has melted the glacier hanging on the mountain far above us, the water crept into some volcanic fissure in the ground where it was quickly warmed and rose to the surface again to become our private bath. I keep my eyes peeled anyway.

As we start back down the ridge, the projectionist slips Raiders of the Lost Ark onto the screen: a wild, rollicking ride back down the needle-covered trail as it spirals back down the wooded ridge we had chugged our way up earlier in the movie. It has to be the best single-track downhill I have ever ridden. Five miles of twisting, turning, banked track with just enough adrenaline to keep you interested but not enough to make you throw up. It's over in a half hour which is an hour too soon.

Usually beers at the car taste especially good after a hard ride. As I slowly sip a frosty Corona I knew I'd rather be back on the mountain sitting in that little stream watching the sunset — with Bigfoot. That's the difference between a good ride and a great ride.

Eric Sanford, Mountain Zone Contributor

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