Climbers trekking up to stare into the fabled crater rim of Mount St. Helens this spring were fully prepared for noxious gas venting. They just never expected it to come from the rear end of snowmobiles.
Tom Marx of Poulsbo, trudging his way up the south slope last month, was more than a little surprised to hear the telltale sound of "two-stroke noise" from a ridgeline nearby — from snowmobiles blasting their way to the summit.
Don't feel alone if you're stunned by the notion of snowmobiles roaring all the way up to St. Helens' 8,300-foot crater rim, making tracks where once only hardy hikers and climbers stood and stared with reverence into the gaping abyss. But it's become far from an oddity.
Felony? Not even a misdemeanor.
Marx and other climbers who check with officials at the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument are informed that the activity not only is legal, but completely in keeping with the Monument's Comprehensive Management Plan, adopted in 1985 with the requisite Environmental Impact Statement and full public hearings.
The consensus at that time was that certain areas — notably the volcano blast zone — would be off-limits for most recreation. But other areas would be open to multiple uses. And those uses, in the winter, include "over-snow" use by snowmobiles, skiers and snowshoers.
At the time, nobody probably gave much thought to the aesthetic oxymoron of snowmobiles on the crater rim — probably because back then, few if any snowmobiles were capable of such a feat.
That was also two years before the monument instituted a climbing-permit system, which levies a $15 fee on climbers after April 1 each year and limits their numbers to 100 a day after May 15.
Things change. Horsepower increases. Population grows. And with an unusually healthy snowpack lingering into spring on St. Helens' south shoulders this year, snowmobilers and climbers have begun to run into each other in significant numbers for the first time.
Is this a problem?
Well, yeah, say many climbers. Slopes at the top of the summit route are black-diamond steep. The notion of snowmobiles plowing up — or worse, down — the same paths as climbers is disconcerting. Especially if a sled gets out of control.
Marx reports seeing one careening about 500 feet down a slope — while its bucked-off rider chased from behind.
But he and other climbers are less rankled by safety concerns than by what they see as an inherent inequity: To climb to the crater rim, climbers heading up after April 1 must buy a permit. Snowmobilers don't need a permit, and don't pay a fee.
On the surface, it's unfair. But maybe less so if you go deeper, says Reed Gardner, deputy manager for the St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. Snowmobilers, he explains, license their vehicles and purchase state Sno-Park passes. Proceeds from both programs pay to keep the Marblemount Sno-Park, the departure point for spring St. Helens climbs, open and snow-free.
Most snowmobilers choose a different route to the summit than pedestrians, he said, adding that he's not aware of any mishaps.
Further, the potential time window for I-paid-and-you-didn't clashes is not great — essentially only for a month or so in years when a heavy snowpack exists on St. Helens.
Most years, snowmelt forces sled drivers off the upper mountain by April 1, when climbers begin paying their $15 fee. But this season's lingering snowpack has created a month-plus window of overlap.
"We've been getting complaints," Gardner acknowledges. Most seem to come from first-time climbers, who erroneously believe the mountain's "monument" label implies wilderness status and a conservation ethic on a par with the National Park Service. Aside from specific research areas, that's never been the case at St. Helens, which is governed by the infamous "multiple-use" theory of the Forest Service.
But climbers such as Marx, who describes himself as a "motorhead from way back," and Steve Firebaugh, climbing chairman for The Mountaineers, say they're not out to bash snowmobiles or keep them out of the monument. They merely question whether the permit system is fair. And in a larger sense, they wonder whether snowmobiles at the crater rim are really in keeping with the kind of National Volcanic Monument the public would like to see.
Gardner says the monument's comprehensive plan will be up for review a few years from now. In the meantime, he prefers to "let the users work it out" unless problems arise. But he acknowledged there's enough fuel to keep a debate burning.
Many climbers trekking to the crater rim consider it a special, ethereal experience — one they'd rather not have interrupted by a speedway roar and cloud of blue smoke.
"To those people who go up there and just don't want to see a snowmobiler, it's a real issue," Gardner says.
Hiking to St. Helens' summit is a lot of work — and a lot of fun. Riding a snowmobile is a lot of fun, too.
But you really have to wonder if the crater rim of an active volcano is the proper place to do it.