St Helens: Swift Gully West and Heartbreak Gully

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

St Helens: Swift Gully West and Heartbreak Gully

Post by Chip Down » October 28th, 2018, 3:15 pm

I got wordy on this one, so I'm adding headers to make it easier to follow, and to allow you to skip over parts you don't care about.

There's an obvious dark heart-shaped feature on the south slope of MSH, around 5600-5800'. I call it The Heart. It's split by a gully, which I like to call Heartbreak Gully. A few months ago I followed it above The Heart, but I wanted to go back and follow it below The Heart. It extends almost all the way to the Redrock Pass lava flow before it fans out, so I figured from Redrock there would be very little bushwhacking required to find it. A little to the west there's a similar gully that skirts the west edge of the Swift Creek lava flow. I'm calling it Swift Gully West (Swift Creek is on the east side of Swift lava flow). Like Heartbreak Gully, Swift West extends nearly to RD 8100 before fanning out. I decided to find the bottom of Swift West, follow it up past the Swift flow, cut over to Heartbreak, follow Heartbreak down to Redrock Pass. I remembered seeing Kalama Ski Trail heading east from Toutle Trail on previous trips, so I wondered if I could hike from Redrock up the Toutle Trail to Kalama Ski Trail, turn right/east, follow it to Heartbreak Gully, continue east to Swift West.

Storm coming. Saturday morning was expected to be a short break between waves. Sometime after 11:00, the mountain would get pummeled with heavy rain/snow. So naturally I decided an alcohol-fuelled solo offtrail outing in unfamilliar terrain was prudent. After a damp climb through a fog layer on the road to Redrock Pass, I started hiking under clear skies (6:30-ish?). It was curiously warm and calm (dew and leftover rain just beginning to freeze). By moonlight, I could see signs of recent snowfall on the mountain, a crisp snowline at about 7000'.

Hiking up Toutle Trail, the Kalama Ski Trail came later than I remembered, so I worried I may have missed it in the dark, but nope, it's really well marked. Turned east and followed it to a rocky/sandy crossing that I surmised was the fanned-out end of Heartbreak. Continued east, climbing more than expected, then started dropping for a considerable distance. I was getting nervous. What if the trail passed below the end of Swift West? I could hike for miles and never reach my goal. But finally I came to a rocky stretch where the trail was hard to follow. I saw a marker on a tree, and continued on the trail briefly, just to be sure, and to get a sense of the surrounding terrain. Hit a fork, turned and switchbacked up towards what I assumed was Swift West. It ended soon, but I knew I was close, so kept bushwhacking. Hit Swift West, and dropped into the gully. I was happy to get out of the damp brush.

My timing was perfect. I was confident this was Swift West, and I started up the gully at headlamp-off o'clock. I soon came to a dry waterfall (turned out to be the first of many) and scrambled up. At the top, the character of the creekbed was different. Instead of a gently sloped gully with steep sides, I was now on smooth tilted rock, just barely below the forest floor. The view dowstream was nice. I bet it's a beautiful spot when the creek is running with snowmelt. The smooth rock was a little slippery, especially in frosty spots. But soon it was back into a sandy bouldery gully. I encountered a number of steps, and finally one that was overhanging a bit, so it forced me out of the gully, to the west. Up at the rim, I was glad to be out, as I realized the forest was opening up, and I was able to double my speed. But I could also see the mountain was getting swallowed up in clouds already (I was never able to see it from down in the gully). I knew from my pre-hike research that Swift West would skirt the western edge of the west lobe of the Swift flow, and I could see that point above me soon after I exited the gully. I also knew there was a minor gully to the west, and soon I could see it on my left. It started to look like I might get trapped on a prow as I ascended, but no, the wedge just narrowed to a sharp crest for a few yards, pinched down into an hourglass shape where Swift West and its neighbor gully nearly merge. Above the hourglass, it was really starting to feel alpine, and I entertained myself pondering where the Loowit Trail was routed. I knew it passed through the Swift flow, but I wasn't sure how high (if you're hiking Loowit Trail CCW, it's the last lava flow you hike through before Ptarmigan Trail and Monitor Ridge). Wasn't as high as I thought it might be; hit it just past the hourglass.

What Now? Turn left/west and follow Loowit Trail? Go up a bit and explore to the west? I decided to go up, more or less following Swift West. Glad I did. Nice scenery. Continued higher than expected, lured by fun exploring. I knew if I kept going I'd end up in known terrain, gullies west of Monitor Ridge. I figured I'd spot something familiar, but never did. Reached a spot where I could see quite a ways up the mountain (9:30), and it was just blocky rubble as far as I could see, so that was a good place to turn west, up to a flat spot perched on a ridge (5400'). From there, I could see continuing west would require a PITA drop, and beyond that it wasn't all that interesting, just rolling grassy slopes. I paused to enjoy the upslope scenery, but didn't linger more than a couple minutes. This was where I had to break down and don gloves/hat/jacket. I backtracked east a bit, dropped and curved under my overlook, and wandered westbound. I've taken a similar route before on my way down the mountain, but higher, so this was a little new for me.

Although I knew I could find my gully, it added a bit of confidence that The Heart was just barely below cloudlevel, so I could be completely certain I was on route. I needed to cross the gully. I didn't want to get trapped between Swift and Heartbreak on my descent; better to be on the west side of Heartbreak, so I could escape to Butte Camp trail if things got ugly. I know where there's a good crossing around 5500-ish (ish) but I didn't want to go up. Dropped until I ran into Loowit trail (4700'), and was pleased to find the crossing is well placed, not a lot of down and up to get to the other side. At the west side, I looked for a spot that was both wind-sheltered and scenic, and took my first real break of the day (10:30-11:00ish). The clouds were breaking up a bit, and I was very confident I wouldn't arrive soggy and chilled when I reached my car. With my hard work and weather anxiety behind me, I started a leisurely descent alongside the gully. I figured it would be much like Swift West: As I worked my way lower, the gully would get easier to travel through, while its fringes would become increasingly brushy. There was a transition zone where I went in and out of the gully depending on whether the rocky drops or the tangled brush was easier, but soon the gully was the clear winner. When it flattened and fanned out, I knew I was close to where the ski trail had taken me across, but even knowing that I almost missed it. I decided to keep going though, following the rubble zone, and then the best clearings to Rd 8100, just east of Redrock Pass TH (12:50)

I didn't take an altimeter or GPS, took no notes, and apparently accidentally deleted all my pics up to my high point on Swift West, so I don't have anything but memories regarding times/locations on the ascent.

I don't recall hearing or seeing a single sign of animal life, including human (unless the trail counts).
Started at lava flow left of "Google". The yellow X at top center was my high point.
Oops, there's no getting up that! This is typical of what I encountered in Swift West.
Above the impediment shown in the previous pic. Notice the gully is a perfect V here, until the next impediment.
Almost immediately after leaving my grey volcanic gully, I ran into this. Beautiful! This ended up being my escape route after I turned back at my high point.
Looking up from my high point. So enticing. But it would only take me to places I've been, and it might get nasty up there.
Looking west from my high point. You can see a bit of Heartbreak, and a little past that is the lava flow that's just east of Butte Camp trail.
It's okay to start drinking at 10am if bad weather is coming, and you have cause to celebrate, and your beverage of choice is wholesome fruit. Off in the distance I marked Redrock lava flow, where I started. Left of my jar is the edge of a gully, presumably the one that runs west of Swift West. Maybe we could call it Swift Wester.
On the east side of Heartbreak Gully. Notice how The Heart and its gully demarcate the blocky rugged lava flow (west) from the rolling grassy slopes (east).
The Heart is still just below cloudline, but it's clearing to the west. At upper right you can see the crumbly ridge I balked at descending on my western wanderings. Could if I had to, but there was a fun easy workaround.

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