- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 15, 2006

MOUNT ST. HELENS, Wash. (AP) — For all the talks interpretive guide Nick Racine has given to visitors about this volcano, standing on the crater rim and watching as the mountain pumps out tons of rock in its own rebirth left him nearly speechless.

“Holy cow, it’s incredible,” said Mr. Racine, who is normally assigned to the Johnston Ridge Observatory on the other side of the volcano. “It’s hard to describe.”

He joined a group of rangers, scientists and journalists in a five-hour ascent of 8,363-foot Mount St. Helens on Thursday, about a week before the crater rim is scheduled to be opened to climbers for the first time since the mountain began quietly erupting in 2004.

Dust, steam and blue-tinted sulfurous gas rose from the horseshoe-shaped crater left by Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption, which killed 57 persons and blasted more than 1,300 feet off the peak. Near the crater’s center, the volcano is rebuilding itself, churning out a cubic yard of rock per second — a rate that could see the volcano return to its pre-1980 size in 100 years.

As the cooled lava reached the top of the bulging dome, it fractured and fell in rock avalanches that sounded like crashing glass. The region’s intact volcanoes — Mount Rainier, Mount Adams, Mount Hood — loomed above the distant clouds, serving as a reminder of Mount St. Helens’ once-impressive profile.

When climbing was reopened in 1987, Mount St. Helens became one of the most popular climbs in the country, attracting about 12,000 people a year.

But in September 2004, the volcano reawakened with a near-constant drumbeat of little earthquakes. Tourists flocked to the visitor centers to witness the billowing clouds of ash and steam as the U.S. Forest Service closed trails around the mountain.

Since then, the volcano has settled into a pattern of constantly extruding lava with a low gas content, said Tom Pierson of the U.S. Geological Survey. Dissolved gas in lava is what drives most explosive eruptions, so the chances of an eruption sending rock to the crater rim appear remote.

“It’s lost its fizz,” Mr. Pierson said. “It just doesn’t contain enough gas that would make climbing dangerous.”

Still, the Forest Service cautions anyone who makes the arduous, but not technical, five-mile hike to the crater rim beginning Friday.

In addition to basic backcountry necessities such as a compass, map and plenty of water, the service recommends that climbers bring an ice ax, sunglasses that seal around the eyes to keep dust out, a dust mask and a climbing helmet, just in case the volcano sends rocks soaring above the rim.

The entire south side of the mountain is being reopened to climbers, as are trails through the blast zone on the north side. The crater itself remains off-limits.

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