Mt. St. Helens is calling

The last time we climbed St. helens was in August 2003. We had a permit for climbing in 2004, but ended up moving to Whatcom County the same weekend we had planned to climb. Then the mountain got a bit too active for my climbing comfort, and life got rather busy at Seven Trees, so we haven’t thought about climbing again until now.
There were a lot of wildfires that summer, which made some of the pictures hazy. This is taken halfway up Helens, on Monitor Ridge. It’s not a technical climb, but it is fairly strenuous. I’ve made 7 attempts with 4 summits. The failed attempts were weather related. It doesn’t matter what time of year you climb or what the conditions are at base level. Sometimes you get part way up and encounter a blizzard, or soaking rain, and there isn’t much point in risking life & limb for a 50ft view of fog at the crater rim. One year a party had gotten lost, one of them seriously injured, and my party nearly met the same fate the day after. I was lucky to escape with mild frostbite & hypothermia, and definitely learned a lesson on when to turn back.

This shot is looking down the mountain, after coming off Monitor Ridge. As if the hellish scramble over oven-hot sunbaked jagged boulders wasn’t tough enough, this point is the start of the final third of the trek. Nearly a 45-degree slog up gritty ashy sand, 2 steps up, 1 slide back. You keep glancing up, seeing tiny little specks that are fellow climbers, already whooping it up on the crater rim, and you think you’ll never make it.
But eventually there are no more steps you can take, because you’re there!

When the weather cooperates, you can see 2000ft to the crater floor and watch the new dome steam and rumble. There are frequent rockfalls down the crater walls, and sometimes snow cornices on the edge which can be treacherous. You can see Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Spirit Lake (an amazing sight!) and some of the visitor centers from the top.
There are plenty of other things to do & see in the area if summiting isn’t your bag. Lava Canyon, Ape Cave, assorted visitor centers (Johnston Ridge is the best), the Miner’s Car, Spirit Lake, Lewis River Falls, Yale Lake, and much much more! This clickable map has some details of area sights – Mt. St. Helens points of interest. Lots more good stuff at the MSH National Volcanic Monument page.
Summer permits are first come, first served, with reservations opening February 1st, 2009. The National Forest Service has subcontracted the process out to the Mount St. Helens Institute, which is new to me. Usually we submit our top 3 choices for climbing dates, then wait to hear what we get. Once the date is confirmed, then we make reservations at the Lone Fir Resort, which I think is the only motel in Cougar. Last time we stayed in Cougar, there was one store, one motel and one restaurant. There was a local landmark called Jack’s a few miles west. A cafe, gift shop, convenience store all in one, and also the place where climber’s signed and picked up permits. It burnt down in 2007, and the climbing register is at Lone Fir Resort.
Another option for climbers is to camp at the Climber’s Bivouac at the 4800ft level on St. Helen’s south flank. It’s a fun experience, sitting around campfires with a hundred or so fellow climbers. But I’ve found I get a much better start after a comfortable sleep, hot shower, and warm breakfast. Climber’s Biv is very rustic, with no water source and outhouses for the only amenities. In any case, you’ll definitely want a room to return to after your climb. You’ll either be hot & sweaty or cold & sweaty, and completely exhausted. Nothing beats falling into the shower then traipsing across the road for dinner after a 7 to 12 hour climb.
Plan to spend a few extra days if you can. Once the post-climb agony subsides a bit, you’ll want to explore the other volcano-related fun before heading back home.
We’ll consult the calendar, and on February 1st, 2009, recommence the age-old ritual of submitting a permit app to climb the Old Lady. Maybe August or Labor Day Weekend, if we’re lucky. One downside of the permit system is that there is no do-overs if you get bad weather on your day. And the other tough part is getting in shape. But it is so worth it! On one of my climbs, a young woman was helping her even younger nephew gear up at the Biv. She mentioned it was her 7th time up, and I laughed, thinking you’d have to be crazy to climb the same mountain that many times. Now here I am, planning my 8th ascent…..

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5 thoughts on “Mt. St. Helens is calling”

  1. I really hope we can pull it off. The logistics of getting there (farm sitter, days off, etc) will be harder than the actual climb.

  2. When I was leetle, visiting the top of Kilauea was a torture of sulfurous thin air.How was it on the rim of St. Helen’s when you were there those years ago? Could you smell it?

  3. When clouds or fog are blowing up out of the crater, it smells like a wet fireplace. Even in the sun & heat, it smells like ashes. Not much of a sulfur smell though…

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