Distance: 9.2 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 8333'
Elevation Gain: 4930'
Elevation Gain (in Empire State Buildings): 3.94
Round trip time: 6 hours 30 minutes
Recommended water: 152 oz.
Parking/Fees: $22/person permit fee, includes Northwest Forest Parking Pass
My first stratovolcano and first active volcano. This mountain became famous by exploding May 18, 1980 losing about 1200' of elevation and the entire north face in the process. So much of the mountain slid into nearby Spirit Lake that it permanently raised the elevation of the lake by 200'. My family and I were vacationing about an hour away in Portland, but this day was set aside for volcano climbing. I had invited a few people along but for various reasons it ended up a solo adventure.
I had purchased the permit back in February when they went on sale. I left the hotel a little before 5 AM to pick up the permit and parking pass at the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar, WA, which is more of a general store and motel than what the term "resort" conjures. I attached the permit to my pack then drove to the trailhead at Climbers Bivouac. During the summer, only 100 permits a day are issued. It was 49F when I hit the Ptarmagin Trail around 6:45 AM and climbed the first couple of miles through the pine forest to the top of the tree line. Blue diamonds marked the trail, but unless it was buried in snow, the trail was wide and obvious. It was weird seeing the tree line end so cleanly, the terrain replaced with an ash and pumice boulder moonscape. Above the tree line, there were wooden poles that marked the monitor ridge route. After scrambling over the boulders to follow the poles, I spotted a trail in the gully left of the ridge going up. I dropped into the gully and made better time by avoiding a lot of needless boulder hopping. Unfortunately, after a mile or so I was forced back on to the ridge to avoid the remnants of a glacier. My progress slowed while I navigated the boulders, probably a mile or so of scrambling. I was expecting to see several major seismic monitoring stations, but only passed one.
When the boulders and wooden pole markers ended, the wind started howling and I put on my outer shell and face protection to stay warm. In front of me was about a 1000' wall of ash to climb to get to the crater rim. There was a use trail leading up, but it was not very helpful, generally a straight up slog. I ground out the last bit to find a few people at the crater rim taking in the views. No one I talked to had been to the true summit and did not seem interested when I pointed it out. After taking a few shots of the smoking lava dome, I headed up the rim on the left toward the true summit. No snow got in my way, but this was probably the crux of the hike. I had to drop about 100' down one section, go up and over a higher part of the rim, then traverse over boulders on another part with some exposure. Then, another 200' climb to the highest part of the rim and summit where a large cairn was built. I was alone at the summit. I took more photos of Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and Mt. Hood, and was fascinated by the obvious cornice melting in the summer sun. Rocks and snow were constantly crashing into the crater as the cornice melted, while steam rose from two or three spots in the lava dome. It was riveting to take in all the geology. Seeing how much mountain was blasted away, I got a better sense of how immensely powerful the explosion must have been. I started back and got below the wind on part of the rim before stopping to eat something.
Close up of the lava dome. The dome is over 300' tall and surrounded by the new Crater Glacier that started forming in 1980-81.
The way down was much faster, except for the boulder section which took about the same time going down as up. When I got back to the tree line, there was a USFS forest ranger checking permits of people going both ways. He turned two parties back and we had a short conversation about the rock slides into the crater. It was quite a bit warmer at the lower elevation so I stored my gloves and outer shell. I completed the round trip in 6.5 hours, a bit faster than my plan. Before driving away, I got a tree-obscured view of Mount St. Helens from the parking lot. I stopped by Lone Fir Resort again to sign out so no one would think I was missing. While not a record breaker, Mount St. Helens was challenging and fun with unique active volcano views.
USFS current conditions on Mount St. Helens
Washington Trails Association Mount St. Helens Monitor Ridge guide
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