What better way to celebrate ten extraordinary years together than with one extraordinary day?
It wasn’t intentional. It was a moment of synchronicity. When I remembered – weeks after they first went on sale – that we’d intended to buy Mount St. Helens summit permits this summer, the earliest date there were any available was September 16th. Our tenth wedding anniversary. We didn’t even really need to have the conversation; there was never going to be a better way to celebrate than this.
For the whole week before, I’d been sweating over the weather forecast as it bounced back and forth for September 16th. On the two days when it mattered most in 2014, the weather gods had delivered in spades; all I needed was for them to smile on this one last day, the third time that counted for all. The alarm sounded early and when I looked out of our motel window, the sky was a clear blue and the sun was just cresting over the nearby hilltops. It was perfect.
We signed the register and then piled into the car and drove, almost deliriously, up the last of the paved road and on to Climber’s Bivouac. The morning air was cool and clear, and as we set out on a fairytale path through the moss-laden trees of the Gifford Pinchot national forest it still didn’t seem possible that we were on our way to the edge of the most catastrophic volcanic event ever to take place in North America. Unlike last year, when we’d driven through the blast zone to our start point and at least had some time to take in the scale of the ruined landscape around us, this hike began long before we saw the devastation.
The transition, when we reached it, was abrupt. Shady, beautiful trees one moment, and barren slopes of volcanic ash and rock the next. The middle section of the hike was by far the toughest. As we crested the first open slope, the scale of what lay ahead became apparent. The lava flow was a jumble of huge boulders, half rough pumice and half sharp, fractured basalt, all of them strewn across a series of steep ridges that led up, up, up toward ash-grey peaks an impossible distance away. It may not have required technical skills but most of it was a hands-and-feet scramble, intensely fun but slow and tiring. In spite of our slow progress the views behind us grew wider and wilder with every metre of altitude we gained, a staggering vista wrapped in surreal, smoky light from the wildfires burning in timber far below.
When we finally crested the last ridge and reached a relatively clear trail through the last few basalt blocks to the ash fields ahead, I could have cheered. To our left, a pocket glacier clung to the side of the mountain; to our right, the broad expanse of the Worm Flows made me dream of winter, of skis, of a different way of climbing and descending. Ahead, ruin. Rocks pulverized to dust and fragments that ghosted in little clouds around our feet. With every step forward we slid half a step back, but still we kept moving on. J hasn’t had much experience at altitude, so the thinner air threw her for a loop until I explained the trick of slowing to that perfect trudge where you can just keep going. Nothing but ash, ahead and behind. One step, two steps, slow and steady. Everyone’s moving just as slowly as you are. Knowing that it’s the home stretch, even though you have no conception of what that means in this strange and blasted world.
We took one final gasping step upwards, and bam! Suddenly we were two feet from the crater rim, and there in front of us was the wildest, most alien, most surreal landscape I’d ever seen. I lost the power of speech; the only thing I could say was “Holy fuck!” again and again. Beige and brown and red and orange and ochre, it looked like the surface of Mars. Huge, jagged peaks to our left and right, the remnants of a shattered mountain clawing at the sky. Smoking vents in the centre of the crater itself, fumes rising from somewhere deep inside the world. The immense breach in the side of the peak, a reminder of a force beyond imagining, canyons and badlands spread out before it. Harry’s Ridge, where we’d walked the summer before, impossibly far below.
We hung out on the summit for a while, taking it all in. It was hard to know which way to look, with the crater on one side and the beautiful blue haze of mountains behind us. When the time came to head downwards I almost couldn’t bear to leave.
Later there was champagne, and celebrating, and gratitude for the ten years we’ve shared, each other, and this amazing place we live in. There really couldn’t have been a better way to spend the day, or a better place to spend it. Ten years together called for something utterly unique, and this – well, this was it.