Mount St. Helens

Surviving Mount St. Helens

The real test of climbing Mount St. Helens is not the strength of your will or the level of your conditioning, but rather how much water you can shove into your pack before you feel like you’re carrying the water weight of a small pool. I went with the somewhat controversial 3L Platypus and backup dented leaking water bottle setup and it was sufficient, but half our hike was in the dark with relatively cool temperatures, so adjust your water stocks accordingly if you’re doing the hike during the day.

We decided to leave the trailhead at midnight to combat the 95-degree forecast. No one in our group is a huge fan of hiking on light sleep but no one is a fan of hiking in temperatures that melt your shoes either, so the trade off was worth it in the end. Hiking through the first two miles of forested trail lit by an almost full moon is ominous, especially on a few unsettling occasions when we mistook the reflection of eyes in the forest (owls, I hope?) for trail markers, but it does give you the proper motivation to blow through that stretch fairly quickly. Once the trail opens up though, hiking under the stars and watching the sunrise on the ascent of a volcano certainly makes for a memorable hike.

Heading up at midnight via headlamp. 

Heading up at midnight via headlamp. 

After you clear the tree line at the two-mile mark, you will be scrambling boulder fields and loose scree for the next three miles or so. I imagine heading up in darkness will be a popular plan this week with the forecasted heat, so I would encourage people to keep an eye on the reflective trail markers around this section. In the dark, it almost appears that the trail is angling you to scramble on the steep gulley just north of the forest, but you will want to continue west (there should be a few trail markers hidden in the trees) to loop around and start your northerly ascent along the spine of the ridge.

Reaction shots: Sunrise reveals the summit. 

Reaction shots: Sunrise reveals the summit. 

Gardening gloves are invaluable for the scramble (I would strongly encourage gardening gloves, trail poles and an overabundance of water be essentials in your pack this week for Helens). The boulder fields and volcanic rock will do their best to shred your clothes and hands, so let the gloves take the brunt of that abuse. Throughout the hike, the mountain will throw some pretty unique challenges at you: unforgiving fields of razor sharp rock, blistering temperatures, a discouraging collection of false summits, the highly unlikely but still possible chance of volcanic activity, the impending sense that maybe man wasn’t meant to climb this mountain and everyone’s favorite, summit bees. Despite all that, we finally made the summit around 6 am and it was beautiful. It’s such a stunning view from the crater rim. You can still track the path of destruction that razed through Spirit Lake and poor old stubborn Harry Truman and his lodge. A surreal panorama unlike any other. We were pretty exhausted, so we didn’t linger too long and by the time we were leaving, the summit was starting to get a bit crowded.

The glissade chutes are unfortunately in pretty bad shape and don’t seem very functional, so no shortcuts down at the moment. Your legs will do their best to check out on you right about the time you need them most when you are stumbling back down through the boulder fields, so conserve energy and water for the return trip.

As we got closer to the tree line, we encountered some people heading up in the early afternoon in jeans with no packs, only carrying small plastic bottles of water. I’m not one to criticize other people’s clothes or gear choices, but seeing people heading up the mountain in jeans when the temperatures were already rising through the 80s seems like a particularly cruel fate, like something that should be reserved for people who do something bad in Greek Mythology. Maybe these people are naïve and unprepared, but on the flip side, maybe they’re just the eccentric anomalous wanderers whom the laws of nature don’t apply to, the types that Werner Herzog makes movies about. So again, not my place to judge. You are free to wear what you want, just make sure to counter your clothing/style choices with an appropriate amount of water.

We made it back to the trailhead around 11am, rounding out what was a pretty long and grueling day on the trail. We took a lot of breaks (and even a few naps) on the way up, so we didn’t set any Helens ascent records (the average roundtrip times generally seem to range from 6-10 hours), but that’s fine by me. This is the first time I attempted this hike, so it was comforting to hear people who had done Helens before talk about how challenging the conditions made the climb this week. It would be nice to come back and do this hike in spring with more snow, cooler temperatures and less misery, just to compare the experience, but admittedly I’m not rushing to get back on this monster of a mountain anytime soon.

All and all, Mount St. Helens is a challenging, harsh, but unforgettable hike. If you have a permit this weekend, it should be an amazing trip up, but with the forecasted conditions don’t be too stubborn to turn around if need be. You’re going to get great views on the mountain regardless of where you stop and you can always come back next year and hike it when it doesn’t feel like hiking on the surface of Mars.

Now to sleep forever.


Recommended Reading for the hike: The Road

Soundtrack for the hike: Sicaro soundtrack

Original post on WTA