Mt. St. Helens

*Updated 8/25/2015*

I have attempted Mt. St. Helens three times. The first time I climbed it was in 2011. I did not make it in 2012. I also did not make it in 2015, but that was a whole different reason than one would think. But the main review is of the successful climb in 2011.

It is grueling. It will test your resolve. You will wonder “Why, in holy hell, did I submit myself to this?”

I have no answers for you. Growing up in Washington, I’m young enough to only remember Mt. St. Helens as it is today. I don’t remember the eruption. I vaguely remember news reports. However, I do remember taking a family trip to view the devastation a few years after the eruption.

But enough about me. This is about the hikes (or climbs). And Helens is worth the pain and suffering. Worth the cuts and bruises and scratches.

And before you jaunt on down to Cougar, WA, know that climbing Mt. St. Helens is restricted, hiking passes are required. The lottery for passes is in January or February (check Mt. St. Helens Institute). Passes are limited to 100 climbers, so it’s a mad dash online to buy your passes before the website crashes (as it is wont to do). It is possible to buy someone’s pass, either online or at the Cougar store (it’s the only one there), if someone has an extra or can’t climb. But that is kinda risky, if you’re travelling from a distance.

The Trail

Mt. St. Helens is a 10-mile climb. The elevation gain and distance makes for a long day. As a very long, and potentially dangerous climb this is, never go alone. I have done this twice, with large parties (10 people or more). That’s pretty substantial, considering the 100-people per day limit.

Departure time is anywhere between 5-6am. Leaving early makes walking on the snow a lot easier- if there is any! The first part of the climb is through the woods at the base of the mountain. It’s about 2 miles of well-worn and well-maintained trail. I’ve never thought there was much elevation gain, but according to WTA, it’s 1000′ gain. It’s a pretty easy hike, if you’re in any type of shape.

The lovely trail dumps out at the tree line. Mt. Adams is visible in the sunrise, and hopefully Mt. Hood to the south is. Weather is fickle, luckily I’ve climbed it with great weather. And if nature calls, there is a pit toilet off to the right when coming out of the tree line.

Back to the tree line. I saw in front of me some absolute “funness.” I wish I had a snowmobile. Out of the trees, I climbed a steep snow-covered ridge, inch-by-inch it seemed. The pitch is the steepest you will ever be on. It’s difficult, but extremely fun. It’s snow. In the summer. Once out of the snow, you start climbing on rocks. There’s a loose path here and there, but for the next couple of hours, you’re crawling over and around rocks. Gloves help here, as the rocks are from a volcano, and rough.

With all the rock climbing, I lose track of time. It seems like forever when you’re climbing them. Sometimes the wind picks up and you get blasted with fine rocks and dust. But looking up and down, I could see hikers progressing on the trail. Slowly, but surely, you make it out of the rocks.

And then the fun begins.

The first time I climbed, there was a lot of snow left on Helens. I would alternated between the snow and the ash path. Sometimes the ash path had a good base, but the higher up I went, the more it resembled a really steep sand dune. If at all possible, climb on the snow near the trail. Climbing up in the snow was so much better.

I’m affected by altitude; I’ve been this way since, well, forever. Riding snowmobiles, even at 3,500′-4,500′, I would get winded just walking. So here I am, at roughly 7,000′, panting. I can’t really see the top of the mountain. I know it’s there. I look around the horizon and can see Mt. Adams to my right, and it’s no longer rising above me- well, not all of it.

The snow, paired with trekking poles and gaiters, made the climb manageable. I made the summit, with exhaustion to spare. I sat down and had my lunch, and waited for the rest of our group. It was windy at the top, so I donned my Marmot PreCip jacket, since it was the only thing “warm” I had. I was at the top for 1.5 hours before the rest of the group arrived.

After taking some pictures, and getting everyone ready, it was glissading time. The snow still on the summit provided a quick trip down the hardest part of the mountain. It was soooooo much fun. Imagine a 2000′ vertical sled run. And it’s manageable, since it’s not very steep (as compared to Mt. Adams). Ice axes are highly recommended to help you stop.

When the glissade chute is done, we scrambled to the trail. It’s easy to get off-track coming down. We had to back-track a little to get on the correct ridge. I didn’t care. The glissade was still keeping me on a high note. Soon enough, we found ourselves at the tree line. I knew the way home now. And I high tailed it. Mainly because I was 2 miles from camp. Which meant fresh clothes and, more importantly, fresh water. I had run out. The 90 minutes at the summit was long enough for me to drink a lot of water.

It was about a 10 hour climb for me, including the 90 minutes at the top.

Other Attempts: In 2012, I made it about halfway, just before the main rock scramble. My calves were cramping bad, and I was already exhausted. I fell a few times coming down, luckily nothing serious. As for 2015, that was a whole bunch of bad luck. My wife dislocated her toe and was unable to climb. She was going to climb with her mother, but I took over the guiding duties. We made it up to just below the earthquake monitoring station when we saw my sister-in-law coming down. She was unable to climb higher, for some reason she was tired and lethargic. So instead of leaving them to climb by themselves down, I escorted them back to base camp.


I climbed in my Vasque boots (since it was my first time, I went with the safest alternative), REI Sahara convertible pants, Champion C9 t-shirt, gaiters, thick wool socks, and the maiden voyage of the Osprey Talon 22. Do NOT forget sunscreen. I ended up with 2nd degree burns on my upper arms when I wore my sleeveless T. Bad choice there.

I used my Black Diamond Spot headlamp at the start of the hike. The water bladders I used were from Camelbak, a 1-ltr and a .75-ltr bladder (one was frozen before the trip for cool water), and then a 1.5-ltr bottle.

Future trips: Salomon XA 3D Ultra (2012) and The North Face Ultra 109 (2015) for shoes.

Life finds a way...
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