I’ve always wanted to climb Mt St Helens. The utter transformation after its early 80s eruption fascinates me, and provides a great reminder that the earth is still alive. But I’m not exactly good at the technical parts of scaling mountains, so I’m not sure if it’s in my skill set. Fortunately, I ran across Danny on Twitter. He’d just climbed Mount St. Helens, and he was pretty excited. I offered him a spot on WanderingJustin.com to share his story. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!
It wasn’t easy for a noob. Looking back, I’m grateful that a layer of fog prevented us from seeing the peak on the way to Marble Mountain Sno-Park from Portland. A clear view of the task at hand mighta been the straw that broke the camel’s back of my nerves. The way I see it, I had the least amount of confidence among the three of us that I could make it all the way to the top; it was 2 miles longer and 4,000 ft taller than anything I had done in my life. I was nervous, and in my mind I was outta shape. Had any cog been out of place, I don’t know if I could have made it to the top.
I had always been a geology nerd. Having moved to the northwest from CA in 2016, I quickly became fascinated in the architecture and activity of the Cascade Range. Shortly after I met Keaton in 2017 and learned we had similar outdoorsy interests, we agreed that someday we would summit Mount St. Helens. Our perspectives of the mountain were lopsided, but together we had a well-rounded interest in the volcano. What I didn’t know was that Keaton meant business, so it was determined we were doing the summit in the spring!
We learned that unless we were hiking in the winter, we’d need a permit to hike anywhere above 4,800 ft on the mountain. When the permits first went on sale Feb 1, 2018, we weren’t able to obtain ours as the website experienced a 300% increase in demand from the year prior, and subsequently crashed. Permits went on sale again on Feb 28th, and we’d learned that the new permit distributor supposedly had the bandwidth to handle more traffic. At 9am on the 28th, Keaton and I were sitting by our computers, trigger happy to obtain our permits.
The website crashed, again … persistence paid off however and after about 20 minutes of screen refreshing we obtained 4 permits to cross the 4,800 ft mark of Mount St. Helens — on the weekend of the 38th anniversary of the eruption (May 18th, 1980).
In the months that led up to our late spring trip to the mountain, I really did nothing physically to prepare myself for the hike. Like… nothing. I had never hiked in snow, didn’t have any of the equipment that I needed, and my bicycle was still on winter vacation so I wasn’t even riding to maintain my conditioning.
I guess you could say I was unprepared.
Preparing for Mount St. Helens
In the weeks leading up to our hike, many desperate hours were spent researching the internet to familiarize myself with hiking up a snowy mountain, glissading down it, and what to expect. All things considered, I don’t think I spent a lot of money on equipment, and Youtube taught me how to self-arrest (more about that later). Micro spikes and trekking poles were sourced from a sketchy dude on Craigslist, hiking pants and boots came from the Columbia employee store at a FAT discount (work perks!), I had all my camping equipment already, boom. Lastly, I needed an “ice axe”. I had only ever heard of that term while watching adventure shows on weekend tv. I think hearing me speak of ice axes and crampons gave my girlfriend anxiety, but anyway…
Our date with the mountain was scheduled for Sunday, May 20th, and Keaton, Nate and I decided to camp out the night before. We literally could not find a 4th person to summit the mountain with us, IKR? We arrived at Marble Mountain Sno-Park midday Saturday in low clouds and fog. The park is situated in the foothills of the mountain amongst densely wooded forest.
We were surprised to find that, at 2,500 ft or so, spotty patches of snow were still on the ground. I don’t know what that’s called… it isn’t at all the powdery stuff as you might imagine, but it isn’t a sheet of ice either. If you’re like me and have minimal snow experience, it’s what happens when snow partially thaws, then refreezes, over and over and over again. It’s a sort of snow with an icy crust. It’s a slick, unstable hazard… and not fun at all to trek in. Anyway, we set up our tents and enjoyed an evening of laughs, food and alcohol.
The next morning we got up at 4am. It was still dark but light was beginning to make its way through the trees. More light was coming from the headlamps of hikers who were already making their way through the campsite and up the mountain. Feeling like we were already behind, we broke down our campsite while Nate made breakfast. I changed into my game day uniform that I had put so much thought into, but didn’t execute nearly as well as I wanted. It consisted of a long-sleeve base layer with a t-shirt up top, textile hiking pants, long cotton socks and my brand-new hiking boots. A cap and sunglasses were critical. I started with a light jacket as well but that quickly came off and was stuffed into the backpack.
Gear for Tackling Mount St. Helens
While on the subject of the backpack, mine was an old Dimarini adult softball backpack that I dug out of the garage and used last-minute because couldn’t justify budgeting for a nice day bag. In it were my micro-spikes, a handful of Clif bars, lots of water, sunscreen, and gloves. My trekking poles and ice axe were fitted to the exterior.
And Back to the Action
We started out at 5:30am from the Swift Trail and hiked through dimly lit forest and patchy snow to connect with the Worm Flows trail about a mile and a half in. The Worm Flows trail would be our highway to the summit. I believe the trail got its name from the winding canyons that were cut from lava flows having some representation of a worm. At least that was the conclusion the three of us came up with while conversing on the trail. An hour in, I was already having a hard time. My new boots had given me immediate blisters and my heels were in pain. My confidence was equally bruised. Keaton had packed a first aid kit and miraculously had some tape available to wrap my heels. After repairing myself, my socks, boots, and spikes were refitted and we were off again. The pain never went away but it was all I could do. If I hadn’t mentioned it yet ima mention it again …
I had no confidence!
Not at the beginning, not after wrapping my heels, not after reaching the timberline, and not while getting passed by groups of snowboarders carrying more weight than me. I mean, it wasn’t until I couldn’t see any trees whatsoever that I figured I was in it for the long haul and the weight of my negativity subsided. Amongst few allies I did have was my determination to be able to say that I got to the top, and to see the sight of things like Spirit Lake and the rest of the Cascade mountains that I previously had only seen in Instagram pictures. At this point I developed a pace. I was making visible progress. We must have stopped 35 times for air, water or food on the way up. This was the only way I was going to succeed. Every time we resumed our trek, the blisters on my heels reminded me how discontent they were.
Natural markers, like rocks breaking through the melting snow atop ridges, made for checkpoints and rest stops for the 100 hikers who were allowed to purchase permits for the day. During our breaks we were able to turn around and really get an idea of how much progress we were making. It was a huge help because I had slowed to a snail’s pace and really didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere. Also, the fog seemed to follow us up the mountain. Like a pulse, it was advancing and receding throughout the morning, but the receding fog made for the perfect excuse to stop and take in the view of the forest below (or catch my breath). The crusty snow was the single most discouraging obstacle on the way up. I couldn’t tell you if I would have rather been hiking up sand… but might as well have. For every few steps I made forward, one step broke the crust of the snow and left me knee deep in it. It took even more energy to lift my leg outa the snow and take the next step forward. My legs were yelling at me to end their misery. Thankfully there were steps pressed into the snow from not only the hikers in front of me but hikers from days, or weeks prior. It was hard to tell the age of the imprints.
As we got closer to the summit of the mountain, glissade chutes became visible. These are pathways cut into the snow that allow for hikers to slide down instead of walking. I was really excited to partake in more of that. Also, we noticed people were beginning to snowboard around us. This gave us the impression that we were nearing the summit….
In Sight of the Mount St. Helens Summit
We reached a ridge that exposed the true summit, another 1,000 ft or so up. The pace was such that it didn’t really discourage me. I mean I was already exhausted; taking breaks to rest on my trekking poles and catch my breath, but also to rest my screaming legs. In a sort of trance from the repetition of rest steps and squinty eyes from the brightness of the snow, I knew we were closing in on the top because of the updraft of clouds that were visible from the crest of the crater. We were approaching the steepest part of the climb. It had to have been like a 40 – 45 degree gradient. I recalled recently reading another hiker’s experience and remembered his logic: something like “10 steps, then rest.” Until this point I hadn’t understood how 10 steps could justify a break, until I was stopping every 20 steps, then 10 steps, then 5 steps.
Remember, every few of those steps ended in sinking snow. Ugh, it was hard. I couldn’t really tell if the exhaustion I was experiencing was due to the thinning air, or the incline, or both…
But, within 40 minutes or so of tackling the gradient, we cleared the hardest part and the summit was visible! We knew because we could see a group of 25 or so hikers hanging out at the top. It was closing in on noon and by now Mt. Hood and Mt. Adams were also visible. Bringing up the caboose of our 3-man party, I gave it all I could to push to the summit. Keaton and Nate stopped about 20 steps or so from the top to wait for me, then the 3 of us muscled to the crater together and were greeted by another couple of hikers once we reached the roughly 8300 ft summit.
We had done it, finally! After days of prep and months of hype, numerous Youtube videos and countless Google searches, we had finally made it to the summit of Mt. St, Helens. And she rewarded us greatly. By now the fog had burned off, exposing a beautiful sunny sky and picturesque views of the Cascade volcanoes, including Mt. Ranier, a clear view of Spirit Lake, and an actively steaming vent in the center of a ginormous crater spanning nearly my entire peripheral eyesight! It was huge! It was beautiful! And it was everything I expected it to be.
Climb Mount St. Helens, Then Lunch and IPA
We reached the summit 7 hours after our departure time of 5:30am, just in time for lunch. My girlfriend had made sandwiches for us. Keaton and Nate had literally hyped the sandwiches up so much that I was afraid they were going to be disappointed — they weren’t. Keaton and I paired our bologna sandwiches with a locally-sourced Widmer upheaval IPA that each of us had packed into our backpack. Felt as though it was appropriate, also made for a cool photo. I tell you, a cold beer never tasted so good. We stood and watched as others made it to the summit, including a 64-year-old gentlemen who had never summited St. Helens before. (I wasn’t surprised to hear that he made it an hour faster than I did…) Also, a dog! A freakin dog accompanied a couple to the summit! It was an Australian Shepherd or something like that. We later saw the dog glissading with its owner down the mountain, pure awesome. Speaking of glissading, after about 40 minutes of sight seeing and catching our breath, it was time to make our way back to the car…
I didn’t expect the descent to be as exciting as it was going to be…
We followed a couple of dudes with what seemed were Russian accents to a glissade chute. This was it! I was equally nervous as I was excited to slide down the mountain. I didn’t know what to expect and had never practiced any of it. We were to glissade (slide on our asses) down the mountain as far as we could go. It saves hours and energy, although it isn’t exactly a free ride. Glissading does require some effort and patience. Lastly, I was supposed to use my ice axe to slow myself down and stop. Remember that whole “Self Arrest” thing? The Russian dudes started and our group followed behind. The first few chutes were rather uneventful. I enjoyed my slide down at least 2,000 ft of snow, occasionally pushing myself to gain momentum then transitioning to another chute when it was necessary. What the 3 of us were worried about was that we were subject to following the path of the chute without really knowing if we were following the trail to the bottom, or where we were really going at all…
Our worries (or mine) were confirmed as we reached the end of a glissade chute and couldn’t find any more, or the trail. By this time we had reached the intermittent fog layer, which didn’t help anything. We did know that we were west of the trail, so the 3 of us and the two Russian dudes made our way across untouched snow back toward the trail.
Glissading Down Mount St. Helens
The fog had become thicker as we approached a ridge accompanied by a relatively deep canyon. One of the Russians spotted a glissade chute — and did I mention these two dudes were crazy. Like the kind of people that would probably describe themselves as “extreme”. He took one look at the glissade chute with no visible course and quite literally jumped right in as if cannonballing into a pool. He let out a loud “whooo” as he disappeared right in front of me. His buddy turned to look at me, chanted, and followed suit. I watched as he disappeared, then a few seconds later I spotted a small black dot traveling at breakneck speed off in the distance. It was that moment I realized the distance and depth of the canyon, and what I had in front of me to deal with. Had I had any other option I might have taken it but this seemed to be the only way down. I don’t like roller coasters, I didn’t like what I just witnessed, but I did have my axe in hand and hell, I had come this far right? I took my seat on the chute and I was off. I IMMEDIATELY picked up a lot of speed as I seemingly free fell down the chute. It was so steep, it all happened so fast I remembered what I had seen online and dug my axe into the soft snow, desperately trying to slow down. Unsuccessful, I dug the axe deeper, until the snow ripped the axe out of my hands. What I didnt remember to do was secure the axe to my wrist with a tether.
I was helpless. Using split-second emergency decision making, I assessed the danger of trying to use my hands and feet to slow down, then determined it was what I was going to do. I dug my hands into the snow on both sides of me, only to displace snow into the air in a rooster tail fashion. I bounced off hard bumps of snow and the compression of each bump on my body made my chest hurt. About 500 ft later I finally slowed to a stop. Russian 1 and 2 cheered as I came to a stop but I wasn’t happy. My chest was aching and I lost my axe. I wasn’t about to make any attempt to retrieve it… I couldn’t even locate the chute looking back. Nate slid to a stop behind me and miraculously was able to retrieve my white water bottle that I didn’t even know I lost. I couldn’t believe that he spotted it, and grabbed it amongst the snow. I spotted Keaton sliding down and yelled to him to grab my axe! His only contact with the axe however was with the blade against his arm, and he reached the bottom of the chute bleeding. I apologized for his injury but I think his adrenaline was in such a state that he didn’t care. He was too excited about what he had just experienced.
We mingled at the bottom of the ridge for a while until I overheard Keaton and Nate asking about a noise coming from the chute. “What’s that sound?” I heard from Keaton. I knew exactly what it was though. It was the sound of sliding snow and ice. We had created an avalanche on our way down the glissade chute.
I couldn’t tell the size or distance of the small avalanche because of the dense fog. The sound it was producing was such that I wasn’t about to hang around and find out either. I proclaimed to the group that we needed to go! We moved eastward for about another 20 minutes before we found a park ranger, and the trail. Although distancing ourselves from the sliding snow, the sound didn’t seem to be getting any quieter. It didn’t matter though. We had escaped potential danger and were now far enough down the mountain that the rocky ridges we used to hike up the mountain were in abundance. I feel as though the park ranger, who was as useful at the time as a trail marker, had chosen his location on the mountain to post up knowing he would encounter people like us who had lost their way. He assured us that we had found the Worm Flows Trail, and just like that we were back on track. I don’t know how we got separated from the Russians but it was ok. I really just wanted to be off the mountain. We, tiresome, descended for what seemed like an eternity down the mountain, through intermittent snow and boulders,
through the rocks and dirt, all the way to the timberline. I was disappointed to see that after all the progress I felt like we made, we had only reached the 4,800 ft marker. The sky had cleared up for good at this point, it was warm, and I was too tired to take off my base layer.
Four hours after we started the first glissade chute at the summit of Mt. St. Helens, we returned to our vehicles at Marble Mountain Sno-park amidst warm sunny skies and beautiful lush forest. We were beat up, cut up, wet, tired, but also happy, accomplished and proud. Keaton and I celebrated with IPAs, and his favorite: gin and tonic. We changed out of our busted clothes and after a few minutes of reflecting, we were on out way out. I said my goodbyes to the mountain in my head as I connected to the local service road. It took us about half an hour or so to get out of the mountains and onto I5 South toward Portland. As soon as I had the opportunity, I glanced back at the mountain from the highway; this time I could see it clearly, standing out like a sore thumb amongst the greenery of southern Washington. I couldn’t believe that I had done it. I had left my mark on the mountain, as well as my axe. My axe left its mark on Keaton, and the three had a pretty cool story to tell.
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