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St Helens: Crescent Ridge above Loowit Trail

Posted: July 1st, 2018, 6:18 pm
by Chip Down
I've only been on the west side of St Helens once, many years ago, from the old Sheep Canyon TH, on a snowy November day after a white-knuckle drive. I've always wanted to get a closer look, in the summer.

The original plan: Blue Lake trailhead, Toutle Trail to Sheep Canyon Falls, to Crescent Ridge viewpoint either via the lower Toutle loop or the higher Sheep Canyon/Loowit route (I opted for the later), then from Crescent to Butte Camp Dome mostly parallel/above Loowit trail (ended up mostly using the trail).

Although most of my travel was on trail (boo!), it's all been reported on many times, so I'm going to focus on the more interesting part of my day.

At the top of the Sheep Canyon Trail, I turned left/north on the Loowit Trail. Great scenery, a bit better than expected. As I approached Crescent, I was intrigued by what appeared to be a smooth distinct butte on west slopes of MSH, with goats grazing on verdant parkland creeping high up to its bare rocky slopes. Rarely does one see such a vast expanse of vegetation between treeline and the rock/ice zone. As I continued north, I could see a snowfield or glacier running continuously up the northwest side, following a subtle ridge all the way up. Fascinating! Unless I found more interesting terrain around Crescent Ridge, I vowed to return here. Well, when I abruptly found myself at Crescent Rock, I realized my Plan B actually was my Plan A: That route was Crescent Ridge after all!

Okay, so I lingered a bit at the rock and headed up. With the canyon to my left, and parkland and snowfields to my right, I had fantastic scenery, and the satisfaction of a clear simple route (sometimes it's nice to take a break from routefinding challenges). As the ridge steepened and became more of a jagged boulder heap, I wished for crampons/axe so I could follow snow instead, but that was the only time all day when I wished for them, so mostly I was happy to not be burdened with them. Besides, staying on rock kept me a smidge higher for better views.

As I approached the top of my butte (at the end of my ridge) I was excited to see what was up there. I figured it was an illusion. I didn't really think it was a freestanding butte (i.e. I didn't really expect than one would have to drop before continuing up the mountain). But mountains hold surprises, and I knew whatever was up there, it would be interesting. At the top, my ridge nearly leveled off, and curved around towards the rest of the mountain, in sort of a crescent shape (aha!), terminating very abruptly. My snowfield also terminated here. (Crescent Glacier has a nice ring to it, but I question whether it's still creeping). Another fun surprise: an instrument station on ridgecrest, just barely below the end of the ridge.

I was tempted to continue to the rim. I was at 6900', and the remaining terrain appeared easy. But I know how I am: I'd want to follow the rim, tagging as many high points as possible, and then I'd end up running down the mountain at dusk, frantically trying to reach the trail by nightfall. Not fun. Besides, it looked like a dreadfully boring slog, and without crampons/axe, failure was a possibility. So instead I opted for some easy fun.

First, I traversed the mountain clockwise a bit through easy gentle slopes of snow and rock, to a view of maybe Talus Glacier? Surprised a goat out on the snow.

Then returned to the top of Crescent and plunged down easy sandy slopes southwestish to a nice long snowfield to glissade down, curving northwestish towards parkland where I could pick up the trail. But if I picked up the trail down there, I'd have to deal with crossing the Coldspring Gully. That looked like a lot of extra trouble. The gully (canyon, really) extended all the way up to my location, and was impossibly steep-walled, but I continued down the crumbly edge looking for a way across. Found exactly one spot where it was doable, and on the other side was gentle terrain leading towards Butte Camp Dome. Problem is, I couldn't be sure. There were too many depressions that could have been gentle and easy to cross, or just as ugly as Coldspring. I wasn't willing to chance it, so after all my work looking for a way across Coldspring, I aborted and curved around northwest to get to the parkland, where I meandered down until I ran into the trail just below treeline. I was slightly nervous about that, because I wasn't really sure how low it ran, so I was happy I didn't have to bushwhack far.

From there it was all trail hiking, so not much to say. The Coldspring crossing was actually so low, I wondered if I was still on Loowit! What a demoralizing detour. On both sides, I followed the old washed out trail stubs to the overlooks. I don't see why they couldn't build a bridge there.

Other parties: As I was ascending Crescent Ridge, there was a party of three on the other side of the canyon, at about the same elevation. We ascended at about the same pace, but I'm sure I was working a lot harder at it. They seemed pretty casual. I blame the fact that I only have two legs, and I work at a desk all day. Other than that, the first human hikers I saw were just a few minutes after I hit the trail after dropping from Crescent, and there were quite a few all the way to Butte Camp junction. Nobody on Butte Camp trail. As others have noted, this is a popular trail with runners.

Weather: Clear blue sky in the morning, with thick clouds below. I dropped from the top of Crescent at noon, and by 12:15 the crater rim was obscured in clouds! The clouds thickened on and off through the coming hours, wind picked up, and by the time I reached Butte Camp junction the sprinkles started. What luck! if I had arrived at the top of Crescent just a little later, it wouldn't have been as much fun. Or, if I had decided to go up to the rim, it might have been a waste of time, and likely very difficult to find my way down through the open featureless terrain between 7k-8k. By the time I reached the TH, I was damp but not soggy.

At home, I looked at the map to review my trip, and I was struck at how even on a map, Crescent Ridge, along with its canyon-divided parkland, is so distinct, standing out from the jumbled mess of terrain we generally expect on a Cascades volcano. Even with its longish approach, it would be a classic climbing route if not for the horrible final 1000' slog to the rim.

Re: St Helens: Crescent Ridge above Loowit Trail

Posted: July 1st, 2018, 7:25 pm
by Arturo
I though I saw footprints on snow today.
Somewhere near Crescent Ridge I think.
They were too big to be goats.

Re: St Helens: Crescent Ridge above Loowit Trail

Posted: July 2nd, 2018, 4:23 am
by Chip Down
Arturo wrote:
July 1st, 2018, 7:25 pm
I though I saw footprints on snow today.
Somewhere near Crescent Ridge I think.
They were too big to be goats.
Our member Webfoot has said I must be part mountain goat.
I'm not quite sure if that was intended as a compliment, or if he's accusing me of cheating.
Or maybe a commentary on how I smell when hiking. :|

Re: St Helens: Crescent Ridge above Loowit Trail

Posted: July 2nd, 2018, 6:33 am
by Webfoot
Entirely a compliment!

Re: St Helens: Crescent Ridge above Loowit Trail

Posted: July 2nd, 2018, 2:55 pm
by jeffstatt
Hey Chip,
Thanks for sharing this! As a MSH sycophant I'll definitely be earmarking this TR for future reference.