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Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument, WA
Ape Cave
Hollis, Loren
High 80s, breezy - Mid 50s in cave

Hollis and I left Tacoma around 7:00 am after a hearty power breakfast of pancakes and bacon. We took our time and got to the Ape Cave ranger station around 10:00 am. We rented a Coleman propane lantern ($3 for the day) and received some instructions from the park ranger. By the time we got our boots on and were ready to hit the cave it was 10:30.

I took the daypack with our Mexican pullovers, a flashlight (for backup), a canteen of water, and two small bottles of Gatorade. Hollis took the camera and I carried the lantern.

Ape Cave is a 2.5-mile lava tube with the entrance of a mile from the lower end. The ranger told us the lower end is easy and dead ends for a 1.5-mile underground stroll. The upper end is 1.75 miles in the cave and 1.75 back on the surface for a 3.5 mile round trip. The ranger described it as difficult and adventurous with an 8-foot lava fall. Being the brave explorers (i.e. idiots) we are, we chose the upper section for our hike.

The opening of the cave has steps and a sign showing the upper section from the lower. I lit the lantern and as soon as we hit the bottom of the steps we took off the backpack and put on our Mexican pullovers. It was cold at 55 degrees with a cold wind. We repacked and took off.

Within seconds we were out of sight of the entrance and, with the exception of our lantern, immersed in total darkness. It was a bit spooky to realize that this spelunking adventure was for real, not a commercial package. Hollis quickly requisitioned the flashlight to carry.

The cave had a ceiling about 25 to 30 feet high and was about as wide. The floor was smooth and sandy. After a few yards, we came to a large pile of huge rocks. We soon realized we had to climb the rockpile as there was no way around. We soon also realized this exercise was to be repeated for 1.75 miles. Some piles were 5 feet tall while others were 20 feet high. It was a chore to get over each pile - there were holes in the pile that had to be missed and handholds that had to be grabbed.

The 8-foot lava fall! One cannot appreciate the sight of an 8-foot vertical wall in a cave with no way around until one has experienced it. There was a foothold about 2 feet off the ground. I handed Hollis the lantern, stepped into the foothold, grabbed a knob in the rock at the top of the fall and pulled myself up. I took the lantern from Hollis and she stepped in the foothold but couldn't reach the knob very well. She wedged her right foot against the perpendicular wall and pushed herself up. Her eyes were as big as saucers but she made it!

After a few more rock piles we came to another wall, 6 or 7 feet high. Getting up it was not particularly difficult but it dropped off steeply on the other side. It was a bit tougher to negotiate. Once again we both made it with a bit of adrenalin.

We were cool from the lower temperature and wind but still sweating from the exertion of constantly climbing the rock piles. We came to a split in the cave and took the right path - only to find 2 people sitting in the darkness with the lantern out! I don't know what they were doing but they told us we had hit the dead end. We took the left fork and giggled about the vampires.

We came to a skylight, which opened up about 30 feet above us. A sign warned us not to climb and that the exit to the cave was 800 feet away. Of course during the remaining 800 feet we had to climb a few more rock piles.

At last we reached the exit about 1 hour and 40 minutes after we started. The exit had an extremely steep ladder that led to a small hole in the surface. We spent some time around the exit taking pictures of Mt. St. Helens and the surrounding area. The air temperature was around 90 degrees so we quickly shed our Mexican pullovers. Mine was soaked with sweat.

We took off from the cave exit and spent about 30 minutes getting back to the ranger station. The trail down to the station was covered with a fine ash powder from the 1980 eruption along with patches of ash sand. The destruction was still quite evident with down trees all around. It was beautiful in a weird kind of way.

Our first spelunking adventure was a huge success. Our adrenalin level was raised a few times and we walked away with nothing more than a few scrapes and bruises, a couple of sore muscles, some wonderful memories, and the desire to do it again!

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