Mount Saint Helens

Basics: This is a challenging winter climb to the summit of an active volcano in the Cascade Range.  The weather is unpredictable, but on a clear day the views are well worth the effort.  The hike from this particular route is approximately 12 miles roundtrip with an elevation gain of over 5700 feet.  There is one other trail (with less elevation gain) to the summit, but it can only be accessed when the road to Climber’s Bivouac is free of snow.  Parking is free but permits are required anywhere above 4800 ft.

Trail Description: This is one of the hardest day hikes I have ever completed – not so much when it comes to distance but definitely in elevation gain.  There are two major routes up to the summit.  In the summer, one can begin at Climber’s Bivouac (elevation 3800) – a shorter hike.  If there is no snow on the mountain, the trail will climb through a mixture of slippery ash and sand.  Apparently this is rather unpleasant stuff to walk in.  Even though we got our permits for July 1, we had such a wet winter there was still a lot of snow.  The unpaved road to Climber’s Bivouac was still closed, so we had to begin our climb at Marble Mountain Sno Park (elevation 2650).  This route is called “Worm Flows” – I assume named after the landscape sculpted by old lava flows coming down the mountain.

We began hiking before 7:00 am.  The first mile or so ascended through thick forest at an easy grade.  The path was wide and well maintained.  Before long we started hitting patches of snow.  The trail is well marked (ski trail #224).  It eventually turns into the Worm Flow Climber’s Route.

Early morning at Marble Mountain Sno-Park.
Not quite above tree line yet...
I think this is a worm flow...

Soon we were out of the trees.  At this point we began a steep climb up a rocky ridge.  There were some people hiking up the snow on our left,  but the sandy rocky trail seemed easier.  We passed a marker at 4800′ signaling the area where permits are required.  Eventually the rocky rib we were ascending ended and we were on the snow.  We took a break to strap on snowshoes.  This made climbing very easy.  In a couple of places there were sandy/rocky patches in the snow.  Even though the ground was damp, these were good resting spots.  We climbed up to a large sand patch at around 6600′ where we ate some cheezits and granola bars.

From our rest stop the trail got visibly steeper.  Being relatively new to using the snowshoes, we kept them on until we reached the middle of the steep slope.  At this point, I began to slide backwards and thus began to panic (just a little).  We removed the snowshoes, strapped them to our packs, and began climbing by kicking footholds into the soft snow.  This part of the climb gave me vertigo and made me nervous about the inevitable descent.  At this point though, going up and not looking down seemed like the best option.  Rob of course handled all of this much better than I did.

Eventually the terrain got to be just a little bit less steep.  We made it to another sand patch at around 7600′ where a LOT of people were resting.  We sat.  I wanted to quit and be down off the mountain, but I was too nervous to try and get down without watching somebody else do it first.  So, begrudgingly, and because Rob said “we’ll make it” in a super confident manner, I slowly trudged up the last 700 vertical feet of mountain.

I sat down at the top.  Since there was nothing but snow, I sat on my pack effectively smashing everything inside including our sandwiches.  Eventually Rob made me sit on one of his snowshoes so that he could get a sandwich.  He ate while I sat and rested.  I was tired and maybe a little altitude sick (at a weak 8365′), so I just had gatorade.  There were a few people at the top who had skis or snowboards with them.  There were also some guys with beer.  At one point, a guy from their group straggled up to the top and the entire summit crowd cheered for him.  I guess nobody was sure if he’d make it.

Looking into the crater from the summit.

Soon we headed down.  I watched a few people walk down ahead of me and it looked manageable.  I was still nervous about the really steep section, but my fears ended up being unfounded.  The snow was so slushy and soft, even people glissading had trouble picking up enough speed to get anywhere.  I saw people using ice axes to push themselves along rather than for braking.  Gaiters would have been very useful – I was up to my knees in snow the entire way down and my legs were completely soaked.  I also sat down and slid in the snow a half dozen times (not on purpose).  Wool socks kept our wet feet warm.  The sunny weather didn’t hurt either but I did get the sunburn from hell despite applying copious amounts of sunscreen.  We really lucked out with the weather on this hike – it was raining with zero visibility the day before.

Rob with Mt Hood in the background.
Long way down...
Mt Adams to the East.
Almost back to tree line! I think I fell right after this photo was taken.

2 thoughts on “Mount Saint Helens”

  1. Wonderful pictures Christa. I didn’t know it was quite that snowy.
    BTW, your parents are here with me in Michigan right now.

  2. Thanks Gerry. Yeah- all the states here in the west had lots of snow late in the year. Still waiting for all of it to melt in the Sierras. Have a good weekend!

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