By Michael Lanza

The afternoon sun smiles warmly on us as my two kids and my nephew, age 10 to 15, my 76-year-old mom, and I—three generations spanning almost seven decades—plod up the final, strenuous steps to the crater rim of Mount St. Helens. The view could steal the breath away from God.

Before us, crumbling cliffs send small landslides cracking and rumbling down into the vast hole—2,000 feet deep and nearly two miles across—created by the eruption that decapitated St. Helens almost a generation before any of these kids were born. Seventy-five-mile views on this idyllic, Pacific Northwest summer day reveal behemoth, ice-capped volcanoes dominating three horizons: Rainier, Adams, Hood, and Jefferson. We hug and high-five and click off pictures, grinning with awe and no small amount of disbelief that we all actually made it up here.

That was the heart-warming mental picture that I had formed just days ago, when I scored hard-to-get permits for this climb—one of America’s most awe-inspiring dayhikes. Unfortunately, right now, sitting on rocks more than five hours into our ascent of St. Helens, events are not transpiring quite as smoothly as I had envisioned. Not at all.

I visually assess my crew. The kids look good—remarkably fresh, actually, laughing and chattering away in their own conversation. My mom, however, looks like the idiot light on her internal gas gauge has been on for a while, and now she’s running on fumes. She’s muttering to me about her legs feeling rubbery and not having any more energy. But she tells me she intends to keep going up, anyway. I’m thinking about the fact that perhaps a thousand feet of climbing still looms above us, followed by a very long descent—which, when you’re tired, can feel like one nail after another hammered into your coffin.

At this moment, a long way from the top of the mountain and even farther from the bottom, a deeply disturbing thought hits me with a cold, hard slap: Oh, no. She’s not going to make it.


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Join The Big Outside to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Click here for my e-guides to classic backpacking trips. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip.

Displaying the permit to hike Monitor Ridge on Mount St. Helens.
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