St Helens: South Toutle Canyon rim

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Chip Down
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Joined: November 8th, 2014, 8:41 pm

St Helens: South Toutle Canyon rim

Post by Chip Down » September 11th, 2018, 6:44 pm

I've never been across South Toutle canyon. I'm running out of hiking ideas, so bracing myself for a long trail hike, I set off.

Knew I would need light for the notoriously treacherous canyon. Timed it pretty well; dawn arrived between Sheep and Toutle. Getting down to the creek was no problem. I didn't even bother with the courtesy ropes. The opposite side was absolutely impossible to ascend unassisted though. Even with the rope, it seemed crazy, but up I went. I was surprised at how far downstream the crossing is.

I hustled up the Loowit Trail. I had lost time from Sheep to Loowit (longer than I thought), I had lost time at the Toutle crossing (walked up and down looking for a dry crossing, but there was none), and now I was losing time hiking upstream to the bare canyon-wall switchbacks that are visible from a few vantage points on the south side of the canyon.

At the far edge of the canyon, I looked around and realized it wasn't all I expected. It was charming, but not as interesting as it had appeared from above (e.g. from Crescent Ridge). I poked around a bit, started following the Loowit Trail northbound where it leaves the canyon rim, but then decided to stick to the rim and see how high I could get. I knew there was a wedge up there, where another canyon meets Toutle, and the higher terrain between them forms a prow. That seemed a reasonable place to start. Following the canyon rim was very straightforward. It's well defined, with no challenges. Even so, it was fascinating. It's a great example of how alpine terrain can look radically different from slightly different perspectives. My eyes kept playing tricks on me in more ways than I can detail. In particular, I kept questioning the map, wondering if I was really on a narrowing wedge, headed for a prow. But quite suddenly, the other canyon to the north revealed itself, and soon thereafter I was at the top. I was hoping for a barrett-spuresque experience, but there was no drop, so I guess not technically a prow. Instead, a rubble ridge continued up. It started out easy enough, at least a foot wide at the crest, maybe two. But soon it narrowed to the point that a single unstable rock could send me tumbling. I retreated, as I had assumed I would. As "failures" go, it wasn't too bad. The prow was so abrupt, and so flat at its end, that it was a very satisfying place to stop. There was a definite sense of place, not like some routes that escalate in difficulty so gradually that you turn back arbitrarily, not feeling like anything was accomplished.

For my descent, I took the other side of the wedge, overlooking the other canyon. I wanted to cross over, but it was guarded by a lava strata half way down, which had eroded to maybe about 15' of vertical rock running the length of the canyon. Oh well, in a strange way it was comforting to hit a clear limit, just as I had at the prow. I could have dropped all the way to the trail and used it to cross over, but that would put me extremely low, practically down in the trees, so I took this as a sign it was time to head back.

I reached the Toutle crossing so fast that when I looked across the canyon and saw a man and a dog, I wondered what they were doing so high, but then realized I was at the crossing.

When I reached Huckleberry Saddle, I decided I had time to take the Blue Horse Trail down. As described in the field guide, it seems to be an abandoned road. More scenic than expected. I was frustrated when the trail left the road and switchbacked up. I was short on time, so was slightly tempted to stick to the road, but I knew the risks, so followed the trail. A few months ago, somebody here described the difficulty of following the trail through the flood/outwash plain. Indeed, it's almost impossible. I was relieved when I found the trail on the other side (considerably lower), but annoyed when I discovered that after a few yards of trail, it's back to rubble part two. Finally gave up and went over to the forest to the east and followed the edge of the debris field down and south, knowing I'd hit the trail eventually. It worked.

This was partly a scouting trip to see if there are any good routes to the crater rim on the Toutle Headwall. Nope. Quite steep and loose. In fact, a few spots reminded me of the interior crater walls. Maybe with snow it would be doable, but this would be a tough approach in early season. Anyway, this part of the mountain seems to lack all the fun hidden bowls and gullies that characterize the gentler slopes elsewhere on the mountain. From the lip of S. Toutle Canyon, up high, where the trail leaves the canyon and heads north, you can pretty much see all there is to see of the headwall. It looks like there might be some interesting terrain if you continue clockwise up high. Maybe someday.

A couple afterthoughts:

The S. Toutle splits into two forks a bit above the Loowit crossing, and then they both go dry! I wasn't expecting that. When you're crossing that creek, it's hard to imagine you could walk upstream to the source (unless the canyon walls pinch down to the water, in which case it would be an unpleasant hike).

Elk! Everywhere! Even on the trail! Dozens, maybe upward of a hundred spotted. Really skittish though, never got close.
I was lucky to arrive here as morning shadows were creeping across (retreating). Lovely.
The tip of Crescent Ridge barely making an appearance. I was disappointed to see how much snow had withered.
From here it looks like you can just stroll right up to the mountain, ala Plains of Abraham.
Lighting and clouds changed rapidly. A fun place to linger and watch it evolve. (Toutle Headwall, crater rim above)
Not a pretty picture, but I do love the way the glacier captures the light.
High up the Cold Spring Creek outwash. This is essentially the view you get from Blue Lake TH, but much closer/higher. The obvious canyon left of center is where the Loowit Trail washed out years ago. If you've hiked through there in recent years, you probably recall a long detour to a roped crossing.
...something borrowed, something blue.
The light green segments are moss, nearly flat, beautiful. Notice the switchback climbing up the bowl. Trail location seems odd. I saw so many better alignments. Maybe USFS knows something I don't. I could see many had avoided the trail, climbing up the edge of the bowl instead. Also, seemed like there were many better (higher) opportunities for Loowit to cross the creek.
X is where I popped out of the canyon and was surprised to find the trail along the rim. Y is my high point. As a very rough approximation, Loowit Trail follows the 4200 contour line.

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