Few words can adequately describe my ascent of Mt. St. Helen’s this weekend. Grandeur? The missing north end of the mountain and growing dome in the crater convey the powerful destruction and renewal of nature. Gratefulness? The heart-pumping hours of effort it took to scale this mountain makes me grateful that I still have a body (and mind) that can do this sort of thing. Memorable? Having the privilege of climbing this mountain with my son and his friends made it an experience I will always carry.
I’ve been wanting to climb Mt. St. Helen’s again since I scaled it more than 25 years ago when I first visited the Pacific NW. Knowing that my son will be off to college in a couple of years, I thought it would be a great trip to do with him.
We did the Monitor Ridge route which is most commonly used by summer climbers. We camped the previous night at the designated campground, the Climbers Bivouac, located about an hour from the Woodland exit off of Interstate 5. There’s a nice fire pit at most of the dozen campsites and the toilets are passable. You’ll need to bring your own water.
Except for the relentless winds above treeline, we had perfect sunny weather. By the time we reached the summit, the winds were howling with freezing gusts of about 20-25 mph.
Waking up with only a few hours sleep at 430am, we were on the trail at 515am. The first 2 miles are mostly shaded, walking through forests and meadows with scattered wildflowers. Further up this section of the climb, Mt. Hood will be visible to the south. With an elevation gain of about 1,000 feet, this section is a good warm-up of what’s to come.
At treeline, the next section of climbing gets a lot more difficult. You’ll need to scramble up some 2,500 feet up a series of boulder fields. Wearing gloves helps keep your hands from getting scraped up by these sharp and abrasive rocks. The few flat areas are a welcomed spot for taking breaks. As you ascend, views of Mt. Adams will appear and you slowly realize how high up you are.
The last part of the climb, gaining about 1,000 feet to the summit, is somewhat easier than the boulder fields although the soft ground makes for for poor traction. By the time I was about 500 feet from the summit, my thighs were asking me why I decided climbing this mountain was such a good idea.
The summit views are spectacular. Mt. Rainer, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood are all floating in the distance as if these peaks are keeping a brotherly eye on each other. The cornices on the summit are unstable and they were too large to see much of the crater and building dome below them. We savored the summit for only about 30 minutes because of the freezing winds.
Some people glissade down part of the way from the summit. I should have known better to do it before checking to see how icy the glissade chute was. I gained speed pretty fast in my garbage bag and dug in my boots and arms into the snow in an effort to slow down. I finally stopped but felt a little sore. It was not until I later took off my jacket did I realize that the hard ice in the glissade chute had cut and made a bad abrasion on my forearm through my jacket!
The rest of the descent was fine although, for whatever reason, it seemed to be longer than our ascent. It was probably due to our exhaustion. A set of strong trekking poles is a must for the descent; they will save you from banging into rocks on the way down. It took us 4 hour to climb to the summit and 3 hours to get down.
Not surprisingly, my previous climb of St. Helen’s was relatively effortless but age has caught up with me; this climb challenged my body. In contrast, my son and his friends had no problems; they climbed fast and furious like mountain goats.
The climb of Mt. St. Helen’s is not technical and anyone in good physical condition can do it. Just pace yourself, bring plenty of liquids, and get your climbing permit ahead of time. You’ll be rewarded with one of the iconic experiences of the Pacific NW.