March 16, 2006

Mount St. Helens Crater Trail May Reopen

VANCOUVER, Wash. (AP) - A trail to the rim of the Mount St. Helens crater, closed since a slow eruption began in 2004, may reopen this year even as molten rock continues to ooze from the mountain.

The National Forest Service began accepting conditional climbing reservations last month, though no official decision has been made, said Tom Mulder, manager of the Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument.

"The public is interested," Mulder said. "It's a recreation niche, a learning opportunity, and we want to serve the public well."

The mountain has spewed steam and ash since September 2004 but isn't throwing rocks beyond the crater rim. Inside, molten rock has been oozing at the rate of about a pickup truck load per second into the horseshoe-shaped crater that was created by a deadly 1980 eruption.

"Climbers will be taking on the responsibility for exposing themselves to any risk that they may encounter - temperature extremes to slippery slopes to things that may fall out of the sky," Mulder said.

The climbing season traditionally begins May 15, and the number of permits has been limited to 100 a day, half by reservation and half by lottery.