Friday, July 21, 2006

St. Helens reopens to climbers

Climbing to the crater rim of Mount St. Helens opens today for the first time since it started erupting again in September 2004.

Journalists hiking earlier this week reported rock falls, steam plumes and a massive new lava dome. The mountain remains in an eruption phase, but national forest officials say it is safe to climb. “The eruptions are depleted of gas,” said Tom Pierson of the U.S. Geological Survey. “Like soda sitting out on a hot surface, it has lost its fizz. It doesn’t have enough oomph for an explosion that would be unsafe for climbing.”

Those who climb the 8,365-foot mountain will see a much more active crater than they saw before 2004. Iron chloride seeping from vents has painted swaths of yellow in the crater, according to The News Tribune in Tacoma. Thunderous rock falls can be heard and often seen as the new dome expands at a rate of a cubic yard per second. The new dome is taller and closer to the rim than the old dome.

Officials expect to sell out the 100 climbing permits available each day. Permits are $22 and available online from the Mount St. Helens Institute. Party sizes are limited to 12 climbers.

The climb up the south side of St. Helens is not especially difficult. According to monument workers, nobody has been killed on the mountain since the 1980 eruption.The only fatality came when a dog fell into the crater in 2003.

Entering the crater is prohibited and extremely dangerous. On the most popular route, Monitor Ridge, climbers start at a parking lot/campground called Climbers Bivouac at 3,700 feet and ascend more than 4,600 feet to the crater rim. The trip is about 10 miles round trip and usually takes climbers seven to 12 hours.

In addition to climbing gear, officials recommend a dust mask, goggles and, in the unlikely event of explosive eruption, a climbing helmet.

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