On Saturday, June 11th, a group of 6 of us climbed to the top of Mt. St. Helens via the Monitor Ridge climbing route. We started bright and early at Climber’s Bivouac.
After the previous sweltering weekend, colder temperatures had swept in, and a thick layer of fresh powder was on the mountain. The forecast looked iffy, with temps in the 20s and wind. But permits are only good one day, so it’s worth it to at least check the conditions in person!
We left Climber’s Bivouac at 7am. The first part of the hike is a fairly easy, gentle uphill through the trees for about 2 miles. Unlike our last hike, this was a great warm-up.
There were already several groups starting about the same time as us. It seems climbing a mountain is something people prefer to do in groups of 4 or more, which is not what you usually see on other hikes.There’s a small restroom stop right before you leave the trees. Right around this very convenient composting toilet, we saw a deer strolling across the path.
It was a very cool start to the hike, and considering we were headed up a snowy mountain, we didn’t spot that much wildlife after that.
Just leaving the tree line, we did spot some rabbit tracks in the fresh snow.
Right after leaving the tree line, the trail comes to a boulder field. Suddenly trekking poles were a little less useful, but I was grateful for my thick work gloves. I found out on my last hike that I tend to use my hands a ton to get over scrambles.The rocks were also the start of the wooden posts that marked the trail up monitor ridge. And by trail, I mean a general indication to “go that way.” It started snowing thick flakes at this point. The heavy snow was very beautiful, but I’m glad it didn’t last. At some point, you get the choice to go up the snow or up the rocks. One group peeled off and we could see them hiking up the snow field. We chose the rockier path for most of the way up, picking our way along a trail. I did put on my yak tracks at some point, which really helped with traction on the snowier bits. We passed seismic station, and watched as two skiers pass us with skis on their back. Later, when we got closer to the summit, we watched the same pair on their way down and saw their tracks slaloming through the snow.
At some point, it just got steep. Steep enough that I just concentrated on one step after another. It seemed like we just reached false summit after false summit. The weather also became strange. Occasionally the sun would burst through the clouds and it was so bright and hot that I’d be trying to peel off layers as fast as I could.
The next minute, the wind and clouds would pick up, and the icy sting had me pulling on layers and cinching down my hood.The best view we got was about 400 feet below the summit, when the clouds parted and we could see the trees far below. It was a small taste of what it would be like to be on top of the mountain on a clear day. At this point, it was no longer a hike. I felt like I was on the snowy stairmaster of doom. It felt endless, even though I knew I was close, so I took a page from my marathon running and started an internal pep talk, a mantra chant. This certainly helped me get up to the last little bit. The way was so steep, and without trees or anything, it gave me slight vertigo to try to look behind and who was following me. I kept my eyes forward or below. I knew I was reaching the real summit when I saw the large group of people hanging out in the snow.
Reaching the real summit was a strange experience because we couldn’t see much. We were sitting inside a cloud. But it was strange after so much climbing to realize there was no more “up.” We were here, at the top. I could see the ledge, but sadly, not the caldera.
After a brief rest at the top, we headed back down. While some were glissading down, sliding very fast, some of us decided to hike, including me.
Hiking down through the fresh powder was actually quite easy. It wasn’t hard on my knees like other hikes and I got into a easy step-slide cadence. Of course, my lack of grace reared its head, once again, and I did end up flopping over or sitting down whenever I lost my balance. Of course, that led to some unintentional glissading in areas.The first time I started sliding, it was such a burst of adrenaline. Glissading is perhaps better when intentional. By the last time I slipped, I resigned myself to the glissade. I can see why people love this method of descending. It’s quite fast and exhilarating. However, I can also see how it could quickly become dangerous, especially as the temptation to glissade rather than walk becomes higher. The risk was lower on St. Helens because it isn’t as steep or treacherous, as other mountains. Faster than we realized, we were already back to the boulder field and I put on my work gloves again. Reaching the tree line was so strange. After so much slope, it felt weird to put my feet on solid, level ground. I started turning myself back into a hiker— ditching layers, gloves, sunglasses, yaktraks— and we headed into the trees again.
It had seemed a lot harder of a hike on the way in, but after summiting the mountain, the two mile hike back was actually quite pleasant. We sped along at a steady clip and soon enough we were back to our cars!
Climbing Mt. St. Helens was an approachable challenge with an epic payoff… and some consequences as well. I wasn’t as sore as I was after King’s Mountain/Elk Mountain, but I did get the worst sunburn of my life from the sun’s reflection off the snow. I spent a week blistering, peeling and flaking, so if I ever do it again, I will coat myself in zinc oxide paste (it’s the snowmonster look).
Despite that, it is still an awesome epic feeling, having completed the hike. I was on top of a mountain!
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