Posted by: Jack | April 23, 2007

Ape Cave

Last week Anna and I hiked a trail in the northern part of Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument. In my post about that excursion I ended by saying that I would like to get down to the southern areas of the monument and traverse the lengthy lava tube known as Ape Cave. When we woke up yesterday and saw that it was going to be a reasonably nice day, I made the suggestion and off we went. There really was no reason to take weather into consideration as the temperature in the cave is constant year round and once inside, the sky could be bright and clear or releasing a torrential storm and we wouldn’t be able to take notice.

On the trip down we had been hoping to catch NPR’s Sunday Puzzle show since I nailed nearly every question from the previous week’s, but it would seem we had left too late in the morning to do so. Although submitting the correct solution, I did not get called to be on the show this week. Last week’s puzzle and answer:

Q: Name something commonly found in an office. It is two words, with five letters in the first word and four letters in the last. Both words are the last names of famous singers.

A: Petty Cash. Tom Petty and Johnny Cash.

Anyways, we reached the cave and descended the not-so-adventurous stairs at the main entrance. After making a single turn, we were plunged into total darkness. Switching on our fairly dim LED headlamps, the cave took on an unexpected luminosity. The walls and ceiling were coated with a silvery substance as well as millions of tiny droplets of water and these features in combination acted much like a bicycle reflector. It seems that in this cave one can experience the illusion of a clear, starry night-sky all day, every day.

Again due to our modest lighting, it was a while before we noticed the surprisingly intense coloration of the floors.

We had decided to trek the upper and longer portion of the cave since the lower was advertised as being more suitable for young children. Given the nature/origin of the cave/lava tube, even this relatively difficult section was an easy traverse when compared to most caving experiences. Scrambles over occasional slippery and jagged rock piles offered the greatest impediment of progress but could be done by anyone in reasonable shape. There was only one “squeeze” for which we had to crawl/slide-on-our-bellies but it was hardly what one would call a tight-fit. I think the greatest obstacle that might cause some to turn back is a 8-foot solidified lava-fall which has to be scaled. Anna and I both popped up with ease but we do have a fair amount of rock climbing experience. Other than these few challenges, most of the tube has a rough but overall-flat floor and spelunker’s can walk upright with no problem.

Without some higher-end equipment and/or a lighting system, it proves very difficult to get good photos in a cave. Obviously the flash is required to pick up anything but the humidity and cold cause quick condensation of breath and this fog reflects the flash very well thus blinding the camera to any scene beyond. I still tried my best to get some interesting shots but when arriving home I found I had a long series of hardly-varying shades of black. Near the end of the cave I did get two chances for naturally-lit photos where the ceiling had collapsed to form skylights.

The 1.5 mile tube took about 1.5 hours from entrance to exit and we returned to my car via the 1.5 mile supraterranean trail only pausing to occasionally attack each other with snowballs. The unique and lengthy cave was fun to see but I doubt I will return. It was certainly more adventurous than I had expected but less adventurous than I had hoped for.

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