Friday, August 8, 2014

Mount St. Helens

Hiked: 8/8/2014
Distance: 9.2 miles round trip on trail and cross country
Summit Elevation: 8333'
Prominence: 4573'
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
Difficulty: Strenuous

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.

Mount St. Helens Volcanic Monument

Ptarmigan Trail

End of the tree line

Mount Hood to the south

Looking back on Monitor Ridge and glacier remnants


Seismic monitoring station

Final slog up to the crater rim

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.

Mount St. Helens Crater and Lava Dome

Spirit Lake and Mount Rainier in the distance from Mount St. Helens

Mount Adams to the east

Traversing the rim toward the summit

Steam rising out of the lava dome

Close up of the lava dome. The dome is over 300' tall
and surrounded by the Crater Glacier that started forming in 1980-81.

Approaching the summit

Mount St. Helens summit

On the summit, crater and Mount Rainier in the background

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.

Traversing back toward Monitor Ridge

Close up of the melting cornice

People coming up, Mount Hood distant left

Mount St. Helens from Climbers Bivouac parking lot

Washington Trails Association Mount St. Helens Monitor Ridge guide

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  1. Great report...I've been eyeing this mountain for years...maybe I'll give it a go some time! Just got back from a 5 day ramble through the Absaroka Mountains in WY and a climb up Humphrey's Peak in I am little tired now... Again, what an experience and privilege you had to climb this legendary summit!

    1. Joseph,

      The Cascades are really cool, any of them worth the trip. I am hoping to climb Mt. Hood next summer. Good job on Humphreys Peak, that's a big mountain.

    2. St Helens is quite the experience to enjoy. Did the climb the very first weekend the mountain was officially opened to climbing back in 1987 if I remember correctly. We were up there to climb Rainier and lucked into St Helens reopening that very weekend we were there. A side note: Like a couple of idiots we were, we continued to the summit of St Helens after realizing my friend had forgotten his sunglasses back at the car. This ended up in him suffering a very bad case of snow blindness that evening that required my seeking out medical help for him at 2 o'clock in the morning. This ended up preventing us making an attempt on Rainier, but we did Hood a few days later instead.

    3. Hillbasher,

      That is a great story! I imagine the lava dome was much smaller back in 87. Mt. Hood must have been a great experience, too. Upon reflection, I think the views from St. Helens were best I've seen so far.