Monkeying Around the Ape Caves

Lava Land
By Bart King
  |  Gorp.com
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Ape Caves Main Entrance
Ape Caves Main Entrance
Ape Caves Practicalities
Getting There: From Interstate 5 in Washington, take exit 21 at Woodland. Drive east toward Cougar on Washington 503. Eight miles east of Cougar, make a left on Forest Service Road 8303. Drive two miles to the Ape Cave.

Contact: Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument administrative offices: 1-360-247-3900, 8 a.m.-5 p.m. weekdays, PST.

When to Go: Anytime local weather conditions allow. The elevation is not significant, but it does snow at times in the winter.

What to Bring: To safely explore Ape Cave, the Forest Service recommends wearing sturdy shoes and bringing "THREE sources of light." While that may seem like overkill, make sure at least one of your light sources is a strong flashlight or a lantern. (Lanterns can be rented for $3.50 at the ranger station.) In addition, as the cave is 42 F year-round, wear a jacket or sweater regardless of the weather above-ground.

Difficulty Level: The cave is divided into two portions at the main entrance. The Lower Cave is easily traveled, and can be explored by the most casual spelunker. You must re-trace your steps to return to the main entrance. The Upper Cave is much longer and more difficult and should only be attempted by well-equipped and stalwart explorers. Do not bring children into this section of the cave! For those willing to traverse the 7,000 foot course, it is possible to exit from the cave's upper entrance and return above-ground to the cave's main entrance.
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Flows of cooling lava have left a variety of markings as they passed here. Large gas bubbles popped at the surface of the molten flows, leaving circular rings. Frozen ripples and gutters of hardened lava show on the floor, making the walk an interesting endeavor. The ceiling rises to twenty feet high in places, and there are small stalactites pointing their mineral deposits down at us from above.

My hiking group chooses to traverse the lower part of Ape Cave first. Preferred by most casual visitors, this section has a downward slope with a sandy floor for much of its path. The highlight of this section is the"Meatball," a huge, round ball of lava wedged ten feet above the cave floor. Beyond that, the cave ends in a low series of crawlways. The guide book encourages me to dig out a bit more of the packed sand at the end of the tunnel if I am interested in finding a new section of the cave, but warns, "Be careful! It would be easy for a person to get stuck in the crawlway and die there of hypothermia."

Choosing not to test that theory, we start back. As the legions of armchair vulcanospeleologists (scientists of volcanic passages) know, underground passages look very different when seen from the opposite direction. To illustrate the truth of this, I had intended to get a picture of the "Meatball" on our return trip. Eerily, our group of four manage to walk all the way back to the original entry stairway without recognizing the cave's most dramatic feature from its backside.

Rumor has it that a local jogger has carefully paced out the Lower Cave and, in doing so, has developed a mental map which allows him to slowly run the route without the aid of lantern or flashlight. One can only imagine how disconcerting it would be to a cave-explorer to hear quickly advancing footsteps and then to see this jogger seemingly coalesce out of the dark, run past with a curt nod, and then disappear once more into the blackness.

After a short break, we elect to try the Upper Cave. Twice the length of the Lower Cave, it is also a much more arduous experience, not for the timid underground adventurer. After our initial conversing, the only sounds are the drips of seeping water and our deep breaths of exertion.

Our flashlights become a hindrance, as there are spots where we need to have both hands free for balance or to climb over increasingly large and difficult-to-negotiate rockfalls. Where is a miner's helmet when I need one?

We meet two groups that have turned back after encountering a nine-foot wall of stone in a narrow passageway. It is a daunting, smooth stone face rising before us. This was once a dramatic lava "waterfall." Initially stymied, we boost one person up to grab on to the stalagmites covering the floor. He gets to the next level and turns to assist the rest of us to the top. Dirty, scraped, but undaunted, we press on.

This is when my flashlight goes dead.

The guidebook suggested having three sources of light per person, but that seemed excessively alarmist to me. Now I find myself fervently wishing for a Coleman lantern, or even a book of matches. Our passage slows to a crawl as I pick my way carefully through the flickering gloom, relying on the solicitous beams of my companions, anxious not to suffer a fall or twisted ankle. Even the safest of caves are a little dangerous, and I find myself wondering how unforgiving the Upper Cave will be.

Fortunately, we are near the exit to the sunlit surface, close to the end of the Upper Cave, and our tired party readies itself to climb the ladder into the blinding light. I think I can hear shambling, ape-like footsteps rushing after us. Perhaps it is sensory deprivation or cave anxiety, but we all rush up the thirty feet of rungs quickly, in an orderly panic. Looking back down into dimness, we see a sweatsuit-clad man with a tiny flashlight walk past in measured strides, keeping track of something on his digital watch. Looking up, he gives us a curt nod and is swallowed by the dark.


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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