Climbing to 8,300 feet on Mt. St. Helens is something all Cascadian outdoor enthusiasts should experience at least once in their lifetime. The volcano is truly an accessible natural wonder. One can journey from a Portland couch to the crater rim in less than eight hours. Our team successfully emerged from the Mount St. Helens Institute's permit debacle with 11 passes for Wednesday, June 6th.
Click here to view more photos from the climb.
After a near-record dry May, we expected to climb the summer route from Climbers Bivouac. But the gate remained closed in early June and we went up the longer Worm Flows route from Marble Mountain Sno Park (11 miles roundtrip and close to 6,000 vertical feet).
The day started with perfect conditions at 8am - blue sky, a haze slightly muting the sun's ability to burn, and almost no wind. A slight chill forced us to keep on an outer layer at the parking lot that we quickly shed after ten minutes on the trail. Without encountering any snow, we rapidly covered the two miles to the treeline and crossed over a bone-dry Swift Creek and Chocolate Falls. As the trail continued upward, we scrambled through rocks up a ridge with snow in the gullies on either side.
After pausing for a long break at the USGS seismic station, we pushed onward into snow for the final hours. Our mantra for the day? "More." To manage expectations, it's helpful to think everything is a false summit and that there is always more to climb until you actually reach the top.
By 1pm, our path linked up with the summer route and we made our final push to the crater rim. One at a time, everyone in our group saw Mt. Rainier, Goat Rocks, Spirit Lake, and the steaming lava dome inside the volcanically-carved amphitheater.
Conditions remained near perfect. A slight breeze dropped the temperature while we snacked and celebrated, but not enough to hasten our descent. We stayed on top for a solid 45 minutes and enjoyed the spectacular scene.
And then we glissaded. Sadly there isn't any video footage showing the pure joy as we rapidly descended down an active volcano on our asses. We each put on a garbage bag diaper to reduce friction and rocketed down the mountain, using our boots and trekking poles to brake. After rallying at the seismic station, we eked out a final glissade for a few hundred feet and completed the descent down the rocky ridgeline. By 6:30pm, everyone safely returned to the parking lot.
After more than a dozen Mt. St. Helens climbs, I easily consider this day in my top three experiences on the mountain. A great group and perfect conditions are tough to beat. As with most things, there are lessons learned from what went well and what didn't. Here are my takeaways from the day:
- Always, always, ALWAYS check to make sure your GPS tracking device is charged. And bring a backup battery and cable just in case it's not (I failed at both).
- Climbing with your friends (and future friends you meet for the first time on the mountain) is always worth a vacation day.
- There's an opportunity for a mountaineering company to design lightweight glissade shorts to put on over your climbing clothes. A garbage bag gets the job done, but humanity can do better.
- Sunscreen works! I used way more than I normally do and didn't get burned.
- Be careful if you decide to fly a drone inside a volcano. A group we talked to at the rim was flying a drone and couldn't find it for a minute (although they could hear it beeping). Fortunately they got it back.