Expedition is the subject of Thursday’s “Oregon Field Guide” telecast
By Tom Vogt, Columbian science, military & history reporter
On a clear day, Mount St. Helens is the dominant feature on Clark County’s northeast skyline.
But hidden in its crater is a secret landscape that has been viewed by only a dozen people who explored two glacier caves in June.
Ed Jahn likened the cave environment to a Middle-Earth setting in “Lord of the Rings.”
“You’re descending into a steamy pit and constantly aware of how active a volcano it is,” said Jahn, an Oregon Public Broadcasting producer. “All these rocks, warm and steaming; the smells and humidity: It’s like being in Mordor.”
Their expedition is the subject of Thursday’s “Oregon Field Guide” telecast. OPB’s outdoor show will kick off its 26th season with “Discovery on Mount St. Helens.”
The volcano literally is a forbidden landscape. People need permits to gain access. Ten experienced mountaineers, several affiliated with the National Speleological Society, had that access during a five-day stay in the volcano’s crater; Jahn and OPB videographer Todd Sonflieth were allowed to document the visit.
“We have lots of criteria for going in — and into the crater, in particular,” said Peter Frenzen, Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument scientist. “We look carefully at what the objectives are. Does it provide new knowledge?”
As far as officials knew, no one had mapped and documented these glacier caves, Frenzen said. “It’s an unseen feature, and to have Ed and ‘Oregon Field Guide’ along allows the public to see something that no one would otherwise be able to see. We do like to have folks see what is out there in nature.”
The mountaineers looked at two cave systems within the crater that are about a quarter-mile apart.
If the topic sounds vaguely familiar, that’s because Jahn produced a similar show for last season’s premiere, an exploration of the glacier caves on Mount Hood. Thursday’s episode is something of a spinoff.
Local climber key
Jared Smith, a Clark County mountaineer who was part of the 2013 Mount Hood glacier expedition, told his teammates about a similar opportunity on Mount St. Helens. Smith is a member of the Volcano Rescue Team based in Yacolt and lead climbing guide for the Mount St. Helens Institute.
“Jared first spotted the caves” on Mount St. Helens, Jahn said. After working with the cave explorers on the Mount Hood project, “he contacted the guys.”
But this summer’s Mount St. Helens expedition was not a remake of the 2013 Mount Hood episode — for several reasons.
“Seeing the caves on Mount Hood was dramatic enough; those caves were known to the public,” said Jahn (rhymes with “lon.”)
On Mount St. Helens, however, “These were completely unexplored, a complete unknown. It was an opportunity to go on the very first exploration.”
That wasn’t the only difference between the 2013 and 2014 outings. This summer’s trip turned into a meteorological horror story. At one point, Jahn feared that he had lost all the video for his OPB show.
Goodbye game plan
The trip into the caves started nicely enough. While the 10 mountaineers hiked up the volcano and then down into the crater — “It was miserable,” Jahn said — the OPB duo flew in on a helicopter that also delivered a big load of mountaineering gear. The helicopter also was going to be their ride home, while the other guys hiked out.
“Door-to-door service,” Jahn said. That was the game plan, anyway.
“Nature loves to destroy game plans,” Jahn has learned. The weather turned dramatically, with howling winds, rain, sleet and snow buffeting the tent Jahn and Sonflieth shared.
“We were camped right on the volcanic dome, on a little flat area. It was steaming all around us,” Jahn said. “Pretty dramatic.”
As the wind rippled their tent and it got colder, Jahn said he had time to reflect on the setting.
“It’s so foreign. You don’t find many places on the planet with that mixture” of elements, Jahn said. “I was staring at the top of my tent, thinking, ‘This could be Antarctica.’”
The plan was to hunker down in their tents.
“Things got so wet, and people were getting so cold. At that point, it could get dangerous, when you get into hypothermia territory. We decided it was wiser to get moving,” he said.
And it wasn’t just a matter of retracing their route.
“We had to find a new way out because the way in was so horrible,” Jahn said. “They actually sent a team to scout a new way out.”
They left much of their gear behind in their camp so they could travel quickly. Jahn left the disk with all their video footage.
“That is one of the things I question to this day,” Jahn said. “It only weighed a pound. For three days, I had to sit at home, wondering.”
A helicopter finally was able to fly back into the crater and retrieve all their belongings — including the OPB footage.
Terrible, terrible place
Looking back at the challenge, Jahn has some advice: “I hope nobody decides to replicate this trip.”
“It is terrible, terrible hiking. I have been in a lot of places,” Jahn said, and “this was not fun.”
But Tom McDowell, who directs the Volcano Rescue Team, understands that some people might give the crater caves a try.
“With the publicity, somebody will always want to go in for themselves,” McDowell said. “We are the responding agency. We have gone back in to determine how to get somebody out of there if they’re hurt. It’s pretty gnarly.”
Should a rescue by required, he hopes it will be flyable weather for a helicopter, McDowell said, because the hike to the crater floor is eight hours from the closest trail head.
The fine for going off the trail is “a minimum of $100 and up to $500,” Frenzen said.
And as the volcanic monument scientist pointed out: “Nature’s penalty is more severe than ours.”