Top 100 Things I’ve Done – #26

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Glissade a volcano.

Glis?sade (gl-s?d’) n. A controlled slide, in either a standing or sitting position, used in descending a steep icy or snowy incline.

It was the summer of 2002 and we had hiked all day to reach the summit of Mt St Helens; a volcano that had erupted a mere twenty years ago. She was supposedly dormant, although this summer 2005 she?s been rumbling again and is closed to hiking. The hike was difficult. Lots of hand over foot even before the tree line, then loose granular for hours and more hand over foot as we scaled boulders to the top. The view from the summit was beautiful. At my toes was a sheer drop into the mouth of a volcano. It was as if the earth had opened up and I was looking straight into hell. In the distance mountains spotted the state of Washington and behind me descended miles of steep, hard packed snow.

There was no way one could climb to the peak over this snow without special gear. Since we had no such gear, we had scaled the natural stream of boulders that led like a man made path to the summit. The guides talked about the possibility of glissading down while others whined that this was not a definite plan. They said some things about safety being a concern, but I was paying more attention to the climb, for it was my first time on a mountain.

The ascent had taken us a long time and honestly, after reaching the summit, I wasn?t looking forward to a five hour hike back to camp. After we finished eating and packed our stuff, the guides gave the word that we would indeed be glissading down the mountain. Ok, now I was interested. Any alternative to more hours of hiking was something I?d like to try.

When they told me what I was to do, I couldn?t believe it. How can this be safe? Are they serious? As my friends got into position and started down the mountain, I couldn?t believe my eyes. We were actually to sit on our butts, lift our feet in the air, lean back and give ourselves a push into uncontrolled velocity. Just like sledding, but with no sled! And this hill wasn?t like the one down the street. Mt St Helens is over 8000? above sea level and miles long. I was given a rickety climbing stick as my break. ?Do NOT let this thing go?, said the guide before disappearing in a whoosh of air and ice.

There were plenty of people ahead of me already flying along, so I stopped thinking, sat myself down and just pushed myself off. I picked up speed quickly and soon it didn?t matter what position I was in, butt, back, stomach?I?d just keep sliding along. Once in awhile a foot would catch and spray ice in my face, spinning me around. I got pretty good at using my climbing stick as a break and rudder. The more confidence I got, the faster I went. Eventually we were all knocking into each other as we raced down the face of Mt St Helens.

The feeling was so great. We?d spent hours and hours hiking up, and now we were descending the same distance in only minutes. The scene was not something a mother would like to see. Human bodies sliding helplessly down the side of a volcano at the mercy of her incline. Luckily the guides new what they were doing, because eventually the steepness faded, and like rolling marbles finding a dip in the floor, we all collected into a basin of snow at the tree line. I wanted to do it again, but the only way was to hike back up and unfortunately there was not enough daylight or strength in my legs to make it back to the top.

I wouldn?t recommend glissading without a guide who seriously knows the terrain. There were points I was going so fast that any impact with a stationary object would have been pretty tragic. This was a pure field of snow with nothing to hit, and I could see that, but I still wouldn?t have done it without a professional ahead of me. I guess most sensible people wouldn?t just sit on their ass and slide down the side of the volcano anyway. Then again, our idea of sensible isn?t always right, nor is it always the most fun.

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