Mr Wilson

After a night in a motel, Ben Collins fulfils a life long dream and hikes an active volcano

Mr Wilson was my geography school teacher and for perhaps half of my secondary education I was I am sure the bane of his teaching existence.

Since a very young age I have had a fascination with physical geography and in particular with meteorology (the weather), geology (the rocks) and natural hazards. In fact, this fascination was so much so that I for many years as a child operated my own weather station and taught myself the subject equivalent to what you might expect to read whilst studying at University...

...Now as you might expect, this enthusiasm was always encouraged and whilst Mr Wilson was an obvious supporter, he did too find it somewhat frustrating - for from the back of the class I sat there under the impression I knew everything and not therefore needing to listen, my attention was freed up to aid the distraction of those around me.

This unhelpful behaviour though was not limited to geography and come parents’ evening, Mum and Dad were often told of how:
“Ben is achieving very well and clearly a bright child. However, he rarely applies himself 100% and instead can be found distracting others around him. I am sure his behaviour is now having an adverse impact on other students’ performance and wish he would concentrate more fully in class.”
Anyway, I digress.

There are two things I remember about my time with Mr Wilson, both of which I remember well and wanted to share with you today.

So the first experience was following a lesson in which I had been particularly obstructive and as frustrated as ever Mr Wilson had made me stay behind. He explained to me what I had done and with no other students around to play up to I reverted to my more mature being and responded both sensibly and positively.

Having apologised, I remember asking Mr Wilson what he had done before becoming a teacher and he told me how in his early twenties he had gone backpacking to South America and up through the Andes. He told me many details of this trip that live with me to this very day and I remember for the first time recognising him not as a teacher but as a normal human being; something I feel few teachers rarely achieve with their students. Moreover, I remember thinking just how cool his adventure sounded and whilst it would not be for another ten years before I actually considered going anywhere myself, the recognition I made in that moment was I feel an important milestone.

Enter your email address to receive the latest journal entries the moment they're published:

Secondly, having always had this relentless interest in nature’s power to be destructive, my attitude swung quite favourably when in year 9 we finally got round to looking in detail at both earthquakes and volcanoes. Perhaps becoming my favourite lesson of secondary school, I remember how over two weeks we watched a documentary on Mount St Helens, a volcano up in the north west of the States.

Throughout I sat there captivated.

We heard the story of how in 1980 this previously quiet volcano had awoken and over the course of just a few months had led to an epic eruption. It began on the 20th March with an earthquake and days later steam began venting from the top of the crater. This though was just a sign of things to come and over the 12 weeks that followed the North side of the volcano bulged out an incredible 450ft (up to 6ft/day) as magma beneath the volcano grew in both volume and pressure.

Then, three months later on the 18th of May a second large earthquake triggered what would become the largest ever recorded landslide:

All in all, 23 square miles of the north face slid away, in the process burying 14 miles of North Fork Toutle river valley to an average depth of 150ft!

This though was just the very start of things to come for this landslide was like popping the cork on a heavily shaken bottle of champagne and with the underlying magma now exposed, the volcano erupted violently. Erupting sideways, this lateral blast produced a column of ash that rose more than 15 miles up in to atmosphere - all in just 15 minutes. An hour later and a second eruption took place before a third thereafter which produced avalanches (pyroclastic flows) of hot ash, pumice and gas which at around 65mph raced down the mountain, spreading volcanic debris 5 miles in to the surrounding valleys.
Over the course of the day, prevailing winds blew 50 million tonnes of ash eastward across the USA and caused complete darkness in Spokane, WA, 250 miles from the volcano
It was incredible. To this day I remain fascinated and in complete awe - so much so in fact that when I began plotting where I wanted to go on this big adventure, Mt St Helens was the very first pin to be put in the map and one of the few places I promised myself that I would visit.

So fast forward twelve months and I find myself heading down the Interstate-5 highway driving a rental car I had just picked up for this most special of occasions.
Driving down the highway with the Sun shining and window rolled down, I was happy
Given that I was already spending $150 on renting this vehicle, I had decided beforehand that to balance things out I would spend the night sleeping on the back seats, though upon rolling in to the nearby mountain town of Cougar, I spontaneously decided to change my mind.

So off I went off to buy some beer and booking myself in to the cheapest motel I could find, I did just like they do in the movies… I drank beer, watched TV and listened to the couple next door screw each other’s brains out. Positively horrendous, yet wonderfully poetic.

The SUV I hired for this most special of occasions 
Anyway... I awoke at the crack of dawn and after packing my bag I drove the remaining 6 miles to the start of the trail where armed with 6 litres of water, a first aid kit, bagels and fruit, I began on my merry old way in to the woods.

Thinking back, I don’t know what I really expected from this hike and perhaps quite foolishly I never gave it much thought. Now don’t get me wrong, I didn't expect there to be a nicely paved route up to the summit, but what I came across was far more difficult than I envisaged and without doubt the most physically challenging thing I think I have ever taken on.
At 10.5 miles in length, this hike takes you up 4,450ft / 1,350m and takes the average hiker between 7-12hr to get up and back down
So the first hour was a pleasant and guided walk through the woods where with music playing I was passed by main hikers who apparently taking this more seriously than I, did so armed with thick gloves and walking poles.

The photo does not do the incline or difficulty justice but this
is what I faced for perhaps three miles of the hike
Then emerging from the tree line the incline began and guided now by wooden posts there was no longer a formal path to follow.

An hour more and it became even more difficult. Where it began with just small pumice rocks, I was now faced having to scramble and climb over large boulders that went onwards and upwards for as far as the eye could see.

Most difficult was knowing that just one bad footing could lead to a serious injury that would see me within days back in the UK; for up here where my travel insurance is void, the cost of getting me down and seen by a Doctor would be nothing short of bankrupting.

Failing to help too were the increasing number of fitter, more professional hikers that passed me on by, feeling the apparent need it seemed to constantly inform me of just how much harder it becomes.
Stopping for some water and a snack, I questioned whether it be more sensible to quit and head back
Hiking up this terrain was beautiful but damn difficult
Taking a break, I sat down to drink some water and looking down on the mountains below I pondered whether I perhaps had bitten off more than I could chew... and as much as I hated even asking myself this question I did begin to wonder whether it might be more sensible to turn back and make my way down.

But sat there all in a fickle, I was approached by another man who like me was hiking alone and he started by asking if this were my first time up the mountain. Standing up, I told him how it was indeed my first time and how it had long been a dream of mine to come here, though admitted it was much more difficult than I had expected. Responding merely with a sympathetic smile he said quite simply that this then was a "once in a lifetime chance!"

And this it most certainly was... so refuelled and remotivated I went onwards and with the summit now in sight there was no turning back. Best of all, the large blocky lava flows I had spent two hours climbing over were now behind me and instead the remaining distance was to be traversed across a sandy volcanic ash that with an ever growing incline had you often taking two steps forward, three steps back.
The last 300m or so was truly painful. My calves felt like they were alight and whilst it seemed so close, it felt so far
Reaching the summit was like nothing else.

Just as breathtaking as I had hoped the view was simply astonishing and with just a light warm wind I took off my backpack and tried to take it all in. At 2,550m you could see for many hundreds of square miles where out in the distance, Mt Hood and Mt Adams were clearly visible along with a vast array of other mountainous peaks.
Full panoramic from the summit of Mount St Helens, WA
The main attraction though was at my very feet and at this I was truly in awe. Stretching a mile and a half across, the crater was much bigger than I had envisaged and peering down, it was it seemed anything but a sleeping volcano. Demonstrating perhaps that this volcano is still active, steam could clearly be seen rising from the crater and it seemed every minute or so there would be a rockfall down the crater rim, kicking up ash and other rocks as it went.
Whilst the majority of us live in what appears to be a stationery environment, the World beneath our feet is very much alive and never for me at least has that felt more apparent from the top of a volcano
Most incredible though was thinking back to what happened at this exact spot 32 years ago and as I did so I felt that same level of awe and astonishment that had me fall in love with this place back when I was in school and I guess in many ways I owe this experience to Mr Wilson. Yes, I may have been an arsehole to teach, but I hope he would agree that it was well worth it.

Enter your email address to receive the latest journal entries the moment they're published:

"Happy Ben" at the summit of Mount St Helens, WA