Wednesday, September 20, 2023

Mount St. Helens

Picture taken from Coldwater Ridge in July 2023, 
not taken during our Sept. '23 hike.

What a special mountain. It is unlike any other mountain in our nation, possibly in the world. The geology, the history, the beauty is fascinating. A mountain without a top and a mountain with side blown wide open. A volcano.

I've long been fascinated with learning about the story of Mt. St. Helens and what we have learned from it in the 43 years since. I can date myself with this mountain as it erupted the year I was born.

I couldn't possibly wait to see its summit and the view into the crater as well as the desolation of a landscape all around it. This would be my first adventure onto any volcano. What would the rocks be like? How would it differ from other mountains?

Trip Info:
Monitor Ridge route

Trailhead Elevation: 3,764 ft.
Distance: 10.14 mi. 
Elevation Gain: 4,979 ft.
Start Time: 6:12am
End Time: 1:05pm
Ascent: 3:48
At Summit: 0:05
Descent: 3:00

Trip Report:
The process to hike Mt. St. Helens begins with the permit. It is a very popular hike and a very accessible hike for mountain climbers of all experience levels. Thus the Forest Service keeps the climb permitted and limited in terms of the number of hikers each day. The permits are handled through and its a relatively simple process. For our September hike the permits opened up at 7am pacific time on the first day of August. We did a little early homework by watching how quickly slots filled up on July 1st so we would know what to expect when our month came up. The weekend slots filled in under a minute which was eye-opening. The weekday slots took an hour and more to fill. We also found that if you watched the calendar there would be slots that would re-open as people would bail out on finishing the permit process. We would be hiking on a September Wednesday and so we didn't have much worry. Sure enough, when our day came we obtained our permit and it looked like we had plenty of room to spare.

Junction with the Loowit Trail

The route starts at the Climbers Bivouac trailhead. We routed there from Seattle by leaving I-5 in Woodland on Washington 503. From there the GPS took us the rest of the way. At the trailhead is a nice campground with a dozen spots. There are no reservations and its just the $5 Northwest Forest Pass (self-issued) as a fee. There were pit toilets but no water at the camp. We arrived after dark and drove around the loop finding an open parking spot and a nice camp spot in the trees. There was already a designated tent pad.

Approaching Treeline
Sign requiring permits in sight

We had rain overnight with temps in the 40s. There were clouds in the morning but the precip had mostly stopped. We were each carrying our basic daypack gear with rain jacket and thermal jacket along. We left the water filter at the car understanding there would be nowhere to use it along the way. I carried 3 liters of water and ample food for the hike.

The first two miles of trail are through the beautiful forest. You get the flavor of Washington state here with beautiful and often mossy trees. I was also pointing out in here where the trail crossed the Loowit Trail and the course for the Bigfoot 200. (I'm a big fan of trail and ultra). These forest miles are not overly steep but they do continue to gain at a nice pace.

The treeline arrives at around 5,000 ft. Its here the route-finding begins. While there is "mostly" trail the whole way up it often gets braided or obscured. What makes all the difference are tall wooden poles which guide the general route. You navigate for the next pole using the best trail segments you can find.

As we made our way further up Mt. St. Helens we quickly learned that the climbing on volcanoes is consistently steep. It was relentless in taking us uphill. We figured this would be the case when the stats said 4.4 miles with 4900 feet gain.

One of the surprises to greet us on the ascent was the onset of snow on the ground. It must have been fresh from the storm overnight. We began to see little white spots on the ground. Eventually it became a complete ground cover of a half inch or so. It was fairly wet and so for the most part it wasn't a traction concern especially when dirt was under foot.

Earthscope Observatory Station
This station talks to the GPS system to track
the movements of the mountain side

The clouds continued to set in upon us and over the last couple thousand feet we moved in and out of white-out conditions. This was made the route-finding a bit more difficult. And worse, it made the views non-existent. We were hoping and praying by the time we hit the crater rim at least we would have some glimpses. At the very least, we hoped we could see down into the crater below the cloud deck.

Through the ascent we passed several groups and could see that despite the day's bad weather it wasn't going to turn too many people away. On the descent we found a steady stream of people and so it seemed the majority of permit holders were still coming up today even if there were no views. We even encountered a family with kids under 10 who were making their way up.

The real adventure started about 400 feet from the rim. We encountered a gentleman sitting by a rock. He had just been up to the rim and the winds turned him back. He said he was nearly knocked down and the chill was cutting through him. He was here debating what to do. He was clearly getting cold. I advised him not to sit too long and to get moving one way or another.

After talking with him a few minutes my brother and I decided to push on for the top. The last 200 feet looked to usually be a loose mess of volcanic dirt. But here the fresh snow and cold temps were consolidating things in place. We had good footsteps for the climbing. Upon making the rim we encountered everything the other hiker had mentioned. Blasting winds and freezing temps. My water line had frozen and we had little bits of ice and frost forming on our jackets and anything exposed. It was also heart-breaking that the views were basically non-existent. We could see no more than 50 feet or so. You could make out the rim but not see below it.

My brother David standing atop the true summit

All those hopes of taking in the grandeur of the Mt. St. Helens area were dashed. Our only consolation was hoping to go home and find other peoples summit shots and imagine what could have been. Without the views we debated whether it was worth it to push on to the summit. The conditions were rough. The rim was also exposed and with the wind this would make things a bit sketchy. We figured the second consolation would be to push on for the true summit one way or another.

"Best" views from the crater rim for the day

We had to hunch down at times and also using our trekking poles for support. We moved very carefully in the places where the rim narrowed and we stared down the near vertical steepness into the crater. There were some ups and downs and a false summit along the way to the true high point. With zero visibility we used the GPS to make sure we would finally make it to the high point. In hindsight, one has to admit that when traverse around a volcanic rim like Mt. St. Helens, the "summit" is a bit of a relative though with the many up and downs along the crater.

Descending from the crater rim

We spent less than five minutes atop with the winds beating down upon us and our bodies getting chilled. On our retreat back to the saddle where we gained the rim we found a spot out of the wind and waited the weather out another 5+ minutes hoping for the clouds to shift and give us a view, but no such fortune came to us.

As we began our descent off the rim eventually the wind settled and we began to thaw things out. I don't think my water hose thawed enough to drink until about halfway down. We wished everyone we encountered better luck than us for views up top. There was some reason to think that by mid afternoon the skies may improve but our schedule just didn't allowed us to wait around several hours to find out.

Its also worth noting descending this route in the white-out, as we did for the first half of it can be difficult in the route-finding. It was hard to see the navigation poles ahead of us in the fog and we had to rely on our GPS track to help guide.

I have a track and waypoints from the activity all contained in the embedded Google Map. Check it out and use at your own risk.

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