“Oh. Sorry. You’re on the wrong side of the mountain.”
That was the response I got when I called the park ranger help line. The number was conveniently posted on a big “You Are Here” board which I got out of my car to examine because it happened to be right next to the “Dead End” sign that marked the end of the road.
This new information presented a problem because my wife and I were planning to climb Mt. St. Helens and we needed as much daylight as possible to do it.
It was 10 am and we were at the aforementioned dead end, staring at the familiar crater in the distance of the mountain that erupted in 1980 with the force of 21,000 atomic bombs. We spent the previous night at Paradise Inn on Mt. Rainier and got up early for the trip to St. Helens. It’s only 35 miles as the crow flies, but three hours for any non-bird transportation that needs to follow the winding roads. Unfortunately, my poor navigation skills would now add another hour and a half to that.
Oh well. Back in the car. If it sounds like we didn’t spend much time planning this excursion, it’s because we didn’t spend much time planning this excursion. We didn’t even know we’d be climbing it until the week prior. The park service only allows 100 people per day to climb the mountain and all of the required permits had sold out months earlier. I found a website where people sell or trade permits they can’t use and kept checking for sales that matched our dates. At the last minute, an engineer from Nike decided that climbing an active volcano with his kids might not be as fun as it sounds, so I bought his permits.
We made it to the other side of the mountain by about 11:30 and found Climbers Bivouac, which is the beginning of the Monitor Ridge Route that leads to the top. As I put our information into the book at the trailhead, I saw, not surprisingly, that everyone else on the mountain that day had left hours earlier. “We won’t make it to the top,” I told my wife. “We’re starting too late. Better that we get that through our heads now.”
But as we started through the forest, I kept checking my watch and realized that we were making great time. The hike is 10 miles round trip and the first two miles of that are fairly easy. Then you break through the tree line and come to a boulder field that slows things to a crawl. Literally. We spent much of the next several miles and 2,500 vertical feet on all fours crawling over boulders the size of Volkswagens. I quit checking my watch because it was too discouraging.
At one point, we crossed paths with a climber on his way down and I was bemoaning our late start. He assured me that we were almost to the ash field. That’s the last mile and 1,000 feet of vertical. As a veteran of the St. Helens climb, he said we were lucky today because recent snow melt had compressed the ash and we would only sink to our ankles with each step. “Lucky us,” I said. “How far do you normally sink?”
“Sometimes shins. Sometimes your knees,” he said. “It’s usually one step forward, sink, slide back a half step.”
I tried not to make eye contact with my wife. When the climber moved on, I suggested we stop for a snack. “This is usually the part of the trip where I apologize for getting people into this,” I said. I told her if we tried for the top, we’d be coming down in the dark and then we had a four hour drive back to home base in Sequim. Best case scenario, we get home really late. Worst case scenario, we spend the night sleeping in the boulder field.
“It would stink to get this far and not see the view from the top,” she said. On we went.
We made it through the boulders and, sure enough, the ash was only ankle deep. Normally, that would have been a discouraging development, but now that I knew how much worse it could be, we were happy. Perspective is a funny thing. Unfortunately, there were no switchbacks on the route so the climb was very steep and slow.
Going down looked much more fun. The trail was bracketed in by two snow fields and several people who had summited earlier were glissading down the snow pack, using ice axes to slow their descent.
We kept on and finally (FINALLY!), the terrain leveled off and we were at the summit. It was a clear day and the views were incredible. Mt. Hood was visible to the South and it felt like you could almost reach out and touch Mt. Rainier to the North. Inside the crater is a bulging dome that is growing every year as the volcano below churns.
After taking some photos and enjoying the view, we donned our packs and started down. The descent went much faster, but the sun had set and it was nearly dark by the time we reached our car. We made it home in the small hours of the morning and crawled into bed still covered in sweat and ash, but I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. Beautiful scenery. Time with my wife. A sense of accomplishment. A fun memory. Those are some of the things that make life great.
Want to climb St. Helens? Here are some of the details:
Distance: 10 miles round trip
Average completion time: 8-10 hours
Summit elevation: 8,363 feet. It was 1,300 feet higher before the blast.
Elevation gain from trailhead: 4,500 feet
Gear: Good boots, poles, food, water, layered clothing, sunscreen, etc.
Planning Info: Here
Permits: Get one here
If they’re sold out: Try here.