Monkeying Around the Ape Caves

Down the Tubes in the Shadow of Mount St. Helens
By Bart King
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Mount St. Helens looms over the Ape Caves.
Mount St. Helens looms over the Ape Caves.

When Mount St. Helens erupted with the force of a nuclear explosion on May 18, 1980, volcanic ash shot fourteen miles into the air and fell over the entire Pacific Northwest, from Eugene, Oregon, to Seattle and beyond.

Remarkably, you could have safely watched the cataclysm a mere four miles away, from the entrance to the Ape Caves at the Mount Saint Helens National Volcanic Monument. The top of the mountain would have simply disappeared from view as the force of the killer lateral blast and subsequent ash fall were sent in the opposite direction from the caves.

Later eruptions lightly dusted the cave's area with pumice, and then you might have sought refuge in the underground lava tube below. At nearly two-and-a-half half miles, this is the longest such intact tube in the Western Hemisphere.

Standing in that same location recently, I felt the wind whistling past me into the cool recesses of the cave. This wind never stops, reaching speeds of seven miles an hour as the cool cave air drains down-slope.Descending forty feet underground by stairs, the complete change of environment is striking—from warmth, greenery, and birdcalls above to cool silence below.

Sound seems to be swallowed up by the volcanic walls; there are no dramatic echoes to be heard here. The temperature drops to a humid and consistent 42 F. The darkness is so jet black that the beam of my flashlight seems entirely ineffectual in the all-encompassing inkiness.

Hearing a primate-like grunting nearby, I am unsure whether to attribute the sound to my spelunking companions or to one of the caves' simian namesakes.

Although the Ape Caves were formed about 2,000 years ago, they were not discovered until 1951. Early explorations of the cave were made by a local Boy Scout troop that named themselves the"Mount St. Helens Apes" in memory of a local incident from 1924 in which Sasquatch-like creatures threw rocks at miners. (The Sasquatches turned out to be local youths. This was discovered when one of them confessed to the prank in 1982, nearly sixty years after the event!)

I console myself with the fact that recent Sasquatch sightings have been scarce in the area and splash my light beam around the stairway's base.

Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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