April 20-21, 2019
I have always been an avid day hiker and amateur photographer, but until recently I had not taken the plunge into overnight wilderness trips. Over the last year I have been gradually collecting the gear I would need, mainly with a focus on photography—with day hiking, it’s very difficult to be out when the light is perfect, since parks tend to open after sunrise and close before sunset. For the best shots, you really want to be out during the golden hours when the light is soft and colorful. During the day, the light is too bright and harsh, which gives your photos a plain snapshot quality. Backpacking to remote sites and spending the night gives you plenty of opportunities to be in the right place at the right time.
I had also never summited a “proper” mountain like Mount Saint Helens. I have done several smaller peaks like Tiger Mountain, Mount Si, and Mount Tenerrife, but while those are beautiful and satisfying hikes, they don’t really count. Last week I happened to notice a message on one of Amazon’s internal email lists from someone who had 4 extra permits to climb Mt St Helens. This was my chance to do an overnight camping trip to test out all my new gear, but also a chance to climb a piece of history.
I remember clearly when Mt St Helens erupted. I was just 7 years old at the time. It was the most deadly and destructive volcanic eruption in US history, exploding with a force of over 20 megatons. The entire north face of the mountain was vaporized in an instant, and it lost over 1,000 feet of elevation. Nearly 60 people list their lives.
On Saturday afternoon, I met my climbing team in downtown Seattle. Aside from a quick meeting at a bar the day before to do some planning, this was the first time we had ever spent any time together. We loaded up the back of a 4-wheel drive SUV and settled in for the drive down to the west side of Gifford Pinchot National Forest and the Mount Saint Helens National Monument. After an aborted run at the closed summer Climber’s Bivouac, which was completely blocked by snow, we parked at the winter Sno Park and scouted around for a place to pitch camp before it got dark.
This was my first opportunity to try out my backpacking kit, and my first time camping with nothing more than what I could fit on my back. I was completely unprepared for setting up a tent in snow, but luckily one of my new friends showed me how to secure stakes by scraping a line in the snow and then stomping the line down until it was stable. Once we had the camp set up, we found a spot at a picnic table in a shelter near the parking lot for dinner.
After dinner, we were settled in to sleep by 8 PM, hoping to get at least a few hours of rest before our alarms went off at 4 AM the next morning. Between a full belly, the early hour, the cold, and the excitement of anticipating the next day, I doubt any of us slept for more than a few hours. The temperature broke freezing during the night, but probably bottomed out at around 30 degrees Fahrenheit. I learned the true meaning of sleeping bag ratings that night. My bag was rated at 20 degrees, but the lower limit is the temperature where the bag keeps you alive, not necessarily where it keeps you comfortable. Despite using a quality air mattress, the cold bit into my hips savagely all night long.
We woke at 4 AM, quickly broke camp, and stashed all of our overnight gear in the truck. I wish I had anticipated the luxury of camping near the parking lot, because I was stuck with my heavy pack for the summit. The rest of my team brought relatively sleek summit packs, with a duffel bag for everything that wouldn’t be going with them on the climb. From the Sno Park, we had a few extra miles and more than 1,000 extra feet of elevation change to deal with, as compared to Climber’s Bivouac. But from what I have heard of the heat and volcanic ash that summer climbers suffer through, it was more than worth it.
The first few miles of the hike are through a forested and relatively level path, criss-crossed by back country skiing trails. We made a few quick stops to adjust gear and get out our micro-spikes, which made it much easier to get traction as the grade began to get steeper and steeper. When we started, a thick layer of fog blanketed the forest, but as the sun rose, the fog began to lift, revealing a beautiful landscape.
The climb was brutal. I can honestly say that it was one of the most physically demanding things I have ever done. I did Ok as far as cardio is concerned, but my thighs were pushed to their absolute limits. And I was not prepared for the combination of high altitude and bright reflective snow when it came to warding off the sun. It was both burning hot and freezing cold at the same time. The exertion was enough to raise my body temperature to the point where I wanted to strip off my shirt and climb bare-backed despite the frigid air, but the radiation from the sun was biting into any exposed skin. I doused myself with SPF 30 sun screen repeatedly throughout the day, but I still ended up with a wicked burn on my face and neck.
I was surprised at the number of skiers who were lugging boards and skis up the slope. Some of them were even walking with their skis on their feet, which seemed impossible until someone explained the skins they wrap around the skis to give them traction. It turns out this is one of the best ways to make upwards progress, and would have been an improvement over micro-spikes and crampons. The real reward was at the top, where they all got to ski down an immaculate mountain and cut hours off the trip back to camp.
The view from the summit, which is rimmed by a dangerous overhanging cornice, is simply breathtaking. I regretted not bringing a wider lens so that I could capture it all in one image. The crater is hard to fathom, and arcs up so dramatically on either side that it doesn’t even look real. Only when you stand there do you get a feeling for the sheer incredible force that was required to blow the mountain apart. The valley below is flattened and decimated, and a new dome swells ominously in the center, emitting wisps of hot, caustic fumes in a precursor to a future inevitable eruption.
After a nice long break at the top, glissading down the mountain was a definite highlight of the day. Without skis, you are forced to use your butt to slide down, but it’s still much better than walking the entire way. An ice pick is a critical piece of gear here, mostly used for steering, but also to slow you down and arrest your fall if you get out of control. I lost it more than once, especially when we braved cliff-sides that were probably way too steep to consider glissading a viable option.
According to my AllTrails app, we burned 3,500 calories after 11 hours of hiking, 8 hours up and 3 hours down. I can’t remember food ever tasting better than when we were halfway up, snacking on jerky and Sour Patch Kids candy, which I would normally avoid like the plague. And all of us were thirsty on the way down. 2 liters of water is normally enough to get me through a day, even in warmer weather, but it wasn’t nearly enough for this mountain. If you decide to climb it, take at least 4 liters per person.
I learned so much on this trip, and made some good fast friends. There’s nothing like shared hardship and success to bring strangers together in a hurry. I’m hoping we can all get out again to conquer another mountain some day.
What’s next for me now? In the short term, I’ll be taking advantage of the trailhead shuttle that runs from Seattle during the summer. Cougar Mountain, Squak Mountain, and Tiger Mountain are favorites of mine, and I will use them to prepare for my big summer adventure, the Wonderland Trail. I won a lottery for permits to hike the 95 miles around Mount Rainier, so I need to get myself into peak shape to be ready for 8 straight days of hiking. And after that, of course, is the main event, a summit of Mount Rainier itself, which I might attempt next summer.