Mount Saint Helens, Washington

August 26, 2003

by Papa Bear

(Photo of Mount Saint Helens)
Mount Saint Helens
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M

ount Saint Helens is perhaps the most well know volcano in the United States. In 1980 there was a massive eruption which basically blew the north side of the mountain off and leveled more than 200 square miles of forest land to the north. Prior to the eruption it was nearly 9800' in elevation. Now the highest point on the rim is 8365', so it blew away over 1400' of the mountain. I remember it well in the news stories of the day, as I am sure most folks over about 30 years of age do likewise. For some years the whole area was off limits, and eventually the mountain was made into a National Monument. This status is close to a wilderness designation and as a result the mountain is slowly revivifying itself without help from the Forest Service. The mountain was opened for hiking in 1987 but the number of hikers per day is limited, currently to 100. So while hardly an experience in solitude, it is still an awesome experience in a very wild and inhospitable place. See this Mount Saint Helens link for information about the mountain, including trails and climbing advice.

Preparation

M

y story actually starts 5 days prior to the climb. On Friday August 22, I joined the other members of my running team and we started on the 197.8 mile Hood to Coast Relay. (See: Hood to Coast page.) This event consists of 36 legs of from 4 to 7 miles and takes our team about 26 hours to complete. The aggregate distance of the 3 legs I ran was just over 20 miles. The amount of sleep is close to nil over about a 36 hour period, and the pounding and stress on the legs, feet and generally the whole body is quite substantial. Sort of like running a marathon and getting no sleep the night before or after. Nevertheless it's great fun and this is the 7th consecutive year I have run it. So .. what better way to recover from this exhausting endeavor than to climb a volcano with close to 5000' of elevation gain a few days later! Sounded good to me!

I have had lots of experience over the last couple of years climbing mountains. But all of these have been in the northeast. Some of my climbs have had elevation gains of close to 5000' but generally that has occurred over several peaks, not one big one. Furthermore, the terrain I am used to is very rocky, typically rock slabs and crags of granite, and some instances of Felsenmeer, which are fields of rocks one has to scramble over (such as at the summits of Washington, Jefferson and Adams in the White Mountains). These can be quite challenging and exhausting, but they are quite different from a volcano with it's soft rock and ash. In addition, the Cascade volcanoes, especially Mount Saint Helens, are extremely dry, especially in late summer. That is almost the opposite of what you will find in the northeast. So I was prepared for a very different type of climbing experience, but I was not sure exactly what it would be like. One thing was certain, this climb would require a lot of work and a good fitness level, and I felt prepared for that.

Getting There

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was planning to do this climb with 2 others from my running team and we would meet 6 others from the Seattle area who were friends and friends-of-friends. Barry, from my group, had come up with the idea of doing the climb and had reserved the required permits several months in advance. These had to be picked up (and paid for) the night before at Jack's, a small general store and restaurant about 20 miles from the mountain. Very often climbers will pick up their permits and then camp out near the trailhead so as to get an early start the next day. We opted instead to meet the folks from Seattle in Woodland, just off Route I-5, about 30 miles north of Portland Oregon. We met up with the vanguard of the Seattle group and headed out to Jack's to pick up the permits around 6:00 PM. These cost $15 per person and the money is supposed to go to support facilities and services for climbers. We had dinner there (good burgers and local beer) and then headed back the 23 miles to Woodland. The rest of the group arrived about 10:00 PM and we agreed to meet in the lobby at 5:00 AM to drive back to the mountain and get an early start. It seems all told we would be driving back and forth to Jakes 3 times.

The next morning we were slightly delayed, but managed to get rolling about 5:40 AM. We got to Jack's about 6:10 AM and had to sign the register before proceding to the trailhead. This is supposed to be so they know who is on the mountain: you must sign out and sign in again when you return that night. I don't know if anyone checks this but the idea is a good one.

Next we got moving again and after 12 more miles on the highway we took a series of forest service roads and finally arrived at the parking lot about 6:45. There seemed less cars there than would carry 100 hikers (the maximum permits issued) but that was fine with us since we were hoping the trail would not be too crowded. The mountain stood there in the morning mist and luckily it was not cloud covered, but we knew anything could change rapidly as far as weather was concerned. It was a rather chilly 40 something degrees, but we would warm up as soon as we got going. I set my altimeter watch to 3700' which was the elevation of the trailhead according to the map. We would have about 4500' of absolute elevation to climb.

(Photo of group at trailhead)
The group at the trail head
After doing all those things you always do, and after a few pictures, we finally got hiking a few minutes after 7:00. The group consisted of me, Barry and John from New York, Barry's friend Lori from Seattle, her friend Gregg, and 4 other Seattle area hikers - Craig, Ed, Nina and Lisa - whom Lori had recruited via a hiking mailing list. We were off.

The Approach Trail

T

he route consist of 2 sections: the approach trail (The Ptarmigan Trail) which climbs rather gently through forests about vertical 1100' in about 2 miles, and the Monitor Route, not really a trail, that climbs over the
(Photo of trail)
An easy, well graded trail
lava flows and ash slopes to the rim - about 3400' in about 3 more miles.

I found the approach trail rather easy. They say it is graded for pack animals although I don't see what you would do with a pack animal up here. I suppose you could ride a horse up the trail, but since you couldn't get on to the mountain per se on a horse there wouldn't be much point to it. There were some nice views and tall, mature forests. I would not call it old growth, but hopefully the National Monument status will allow these trees to grow for many more years and eventually approach that status. If you didn't know you were climbing a mountain this would be a very easy walk, one you could easily do with young children.

After about 1.5 miles, the trail parallels an open lava flow to the left. This was the Swift Creek Lava Flow and actually becomes the monitor ridge further up where the trail ends. (This flow is about 2000 years old and is unrelated to the recent 1980 eruption.) After about 2 miles, the trees thin out and the ground becomes rather sandy - actually it's volcanic ash. At the end of the trail one faces the steep side of the Monitor Ridge to the left, and a thin line of trees that extended a few tenths of a mile further up between two ridges. There was no transition of smaller and smaller trees with an area of krumholtz near treeline, more of an abrupt change from trees to lava. I suspect the treeline here (at about 4800') is due to the lava flows rather than the Alpine conditions. It was rather unlike the treelines I had crossed numerous times in New Hampshire and Maine.

Monitor Ridge

(Photo of Monitor Ridge)
Monitor Ridge seen from treeline

F

rom a distance, the lower part of the mountain looks like a series of rocky ridges separated by narrow valleys heading up the slope. There are a few snow fields and the remnants of small glaciers visble on the upper slopes.
(Photo of the ridge)
Climbing up the ridge
Rocks and ash
I'm told the glaciers have been dying away since 1980, since without the snow from the top of the mountain (now gone) there is not enough input of snow moving down to sustain them.

Once we started up the ridge however, I realized these were not rocky ridges at all, but rather a very loose ash base with rocks (largely pumice) strewn about. The few rock scrambles we did were the easy part. The hard part was just walking in the loose ash. It seemed like for every step up, you would slide halfway back down. It was tough and tiring but rather easy from a technical standpoint. Imagine hiking up a very soft sand dune for several thousand feet. That's about it.

Besides the tiring footing, as we got higher the wind and the sun started to take their toll. We had been prepared for the sun with hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, etc, and lots of drinking water, but the wind also became daunting. I would estimate the wind speed at over 40 MPH near the top of the ridge, and even higher on the final ascent of the cone. We took several breaks on the way up. We would find a rock pinnacle which would shield us from the wind but let the sun hit us to keep us from getting a chill. At one spot there were some overfed ground squirrels who
(Photo of the ridge and cone)
The top of the ridge with the cone above
A few patches of snow are still present
came out and begged for food. Wild animals these were not! The route up the ridge was marked by a series of wooden poles. You could probably have ignored these and just gone straight up, but you would run the risk of getting on the wrong ridge line and not be able to find the approach trail on the way down. This would not be a good thing. With a cloudy or rainy day, the route finding would be much more difficult. We stuck to the marked route. Still there were infinite variations on which rocks to climb, which herd path to follow, etc.,etc. It was a route, not a trail.

There was a small amount of vegetation but it did not at all resemble the alpine vegetation one finds above treeline in the northeast. This was a very dry desert climate.

The ridge is named after two small metal towers, one near the base and one near the top, which are used to monitor the motion of the mountain by the use of mirrors and laser beams, so as to detect volcanic activity. Near the top monitor we took our last break before venturing up the ash cone which had no shelter from the wind and no route markings.

The Cone

(Photo of the cone)
The climb up the cone

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he last 1200' of elevation was straight up the ash cone to the rim, passing between a snow field on the right and a pitifully small glacier on the left. The wind was really rather daunting and the slope was the steepest yet. It was very
(Photo of Adams from the cone)
Mount Adams from the cone
Cloud layer below us
hard going. You seemed to get nowhere fast. At this point I saw perhaps the most incongruous site of the day: a man coming down with two small kids in tow (perhaps 4 and 6) and a third child (about 1) in a pack on his back. The wind was howling and the dust was flying and the kids looked rather miserable. He had turned around before making it to the top. What was he thinking? I guess it's a free country but to me this was borderline child abuse. But what do I know?

I found a small rock to hide behind and put on my Frogg Toggs top as a wind breaker and pushed on up. The going was very slow and tiring. Not least because I haven't climbed above 6200' (Mt. Washington) before and I was now between 7000' and 8000'. As I looked up the peak remained cloud free, but looking back down behind me the ridge seemed to be covered with clouds. It was as if the clouds were following us up the ridge but never covering us. We were in sunlight all the way to the top, but there were always clouds behind us. Magic I guess?

The Rim

As I finally made it to the top and looked out there was a sea of clouds below us, perhaps at 6000' or 7000' in all directions. And there behind us was Mt. Hood peeking above the clouds and Mt. Adams off to the right and Mt. Rainier to the north over the Mount Saint Helens rim. It was eerie seeing these 3 sentinels while standing on the 4th. It was as if these Cascade volcanoes were up above the clouds conversing in their own celestial world while the rest of the world lay oblivious below the clouds. It was wonderful. The rest of our group made their way to the rim and there were lots of pictures taken all around. We had made the ascent in between 4:00 and 4:30 hours. A pretty good pace.

(Photo of the rim looking west)
The rim looking west
(Photo of the rim looking east)
The rim looking east
The view from the rim was awe inspiring. Just over the rim was a precipitous drop of about 2000' straight down to the 1980 crater floor. The sides of the crater were jagged cliffs of various colors - all shades of ash. At the bottom of the crater was a lava dome with mist swirling around it. The cloud layer seemed to be flowing in and out of the open north side of the crater. The wind seemed a bit less on the rim than on the route up the cone. We could not have asked for more perfect weather. Clear blue sky overhead and an awesome cloud undercast below. It was just us and the tops of the volcanoes who had this world to ourselves. Of course there were about 8 or 10 other hikers, but they had paid the price of admission with the effort to get here, so we were all now a band of brothers and sisters.

(Photo of the Flyers on the rim)
The Flyers on the rim

But the sun and wind were taking their toll and the ash was flying. Any time anyone took a step a cloud of dust would fly and cover those who happened to be down stream. After about 20 minutes it was time to get moving down.

The way down

(Photo of Ridge with clouds)
Moving down to the ridge and the clouds
M

oving down the cone was fast and furious. I almost ran down through the soft ash. I was covered from head to toe with the stuff. My feet would land a few inches below the surface as I almost ran down. Once I got to the ridge it was another story. Going down over rocks can often be just as hard and as slow as going up. In addition, my right foot started hurting - an old problem from the Bigelows in Maine from early July which I had exacerbated in running the Hood to Coast Relay (What was I thinking?)

The clouds were as illusive as ever. As we looked down the clouds seemed to cover the ridge and we expected a foggy gloomy descent. But when we got there, the clouds seemed to disappear. Maybe it was the angle or maybe it was magic. Look at the pictures, I'm not making this up.

We took a break at the upper monitor and again at treeline. Each part of the trip going down (except the cone) seemed longer and more tiring than going up. When we finally made our way along the easy approach trail back to the parking lot, it seemed to take forever. My foot hurt, my legs were tired and I was filthy. But I was as happy
(Photo of treeline)
Back down at treeline
as can be. What an awesome, exhilarating thing we had seen and done.

When we got back to the cars and looked back, there was the mountain with not a cloud in the sky! Wow, how does that work?

After

W

hen we got to the cars, we cleaned up a little bit and stashed our packs in the trunks and then we had to return to Jack's to sign out of the register. I was almost falling asleep during this drive down in the late afternoon.

We got to Jack's and signed the register but we couldn't just drive away. No, here was a place with the best local micro-brews from the area. So I had a nice cold Black Butte Porter. You know what? It woke me up for the drive back to Portland. Explain that one.


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