Mount Saint Helens

     Before May 18th 1980 I had never been to Mount Saint Helens. I never camped at Spirit Lake. I never hiked the trails around the mountain. I certainly never thought about climbing it. After the eruption I began to get more and more interested in hiking. Several years later the mountain was opened back up to hiking on a limited basis. AClimbers_Bivouac_Small maximum of 100 people per day would be allowed to venture above timberline. The number would be restricted by the need to get a permit. I was intrigued enough to apply for a permit as soon as they were offered. That first year the thought of climbing up a mountain which so recently was blown apart was very exciting. I submitted an application and received a permit for late summer. At the time I couldn't have imagined that the climb would become an annual event. Over the next 13 years I led parties of friends, friends of friends, strangers, and an acquaintance or two up the mountain. I missed one year and did it twice another. All totaled, I made 13 trips up in 13 years. During those trips we encountered stifling heat, dense fog, and about everything except hard rain. I guess I have become somewhat of an authority on hiking the mountain. If you go here is a summary of what to expect.

     The first thing to know is that the trailhead at the Climbers Bivouac is a long ways from Seattle. From my house in North Seattle it comes to exactly 200 miles one way. That's farther than driving to Portland. I have always gone down the night before the climb. If it's a Saturday climb then we go down after work and usually arrive after dark.Middle Tracks If the next day will be hot we leave very early. Getting caught on the south face of the mountain with no shade is brutal. It's much better to get up early and shiver in the cold morning air. The parking lot is usually full. I have had to drive around in the dark looking for any place to park and put down sleeping bags. When we do get going, the trail starts out very nicely. The trail is well maintained as it winds through the forest. As you near Monitor Ridge there are huge boulders near the trail. The way Becomes steeper and intersects the round the mountain trail. Soon after that the trail exits the forest and comes out in a flat rocky area near the base of the ridge. Beyond this point one must have a permit. Formal trail ends and the world of rock and sandy ash begins. The first step is to attain the top of Monitor ridge on your left. Their are posts marking the route but I don't think I have every taken the same route twice. Now that you are above the trees the views begin and the shade ends.

     The route from Monitor ridge on up is a combination of rocks and sand. At times you will take two steps up and slide one step down. Near the top this gets even worse. If it is past mid-summer of most years you may not encounter any snow at all. In early summer there will be snow but by staying well up on the ridge it is possible to make itAdams Small most of the way up encountering very little of it. With out snow you can expect a steep grinding descent. With the proper conditions you can glissade most of the way down to the lower trail. The trail portion represents about half the distance but only a fraction of the elevation gain. There are several places where it is necessary to scramble up through large boulder fields. This is a part I really enjoy. The rocks can be very sharp. It's a good idea to have gloves when going through here. I have cut myself on the rocks many times. On a clear day Mount Adams and Mount Hood loom to the east and southeast. On one cloudy day we broke through into the sun at about 7000' and only Adams and Hook were visible, like two islands in the sea of clouds.

     Once you are past the last of the rocks the summit is clearly visible up one last sandy slope. The frustrating thing is that while you can see people sitting on the crater rim (unless you are the first ones up) that last 1000 feet may take 30 minutes to an hour more. If you are caught in the midday sun you may not make it at all. Now the slip and Middle Descent slide fun begins. With snow you have fairly solid steps to follow. Without it, two steps up can lead ot 1 1/2 steps down. It's like being on sand dunes at the coast only you are over 7000' up a mountain. All you can do is slowly grind out the last of the elevation. When you do arrive at the top Mount Rainier bursts into view to the north. Spirit Lake is below to the north. Most impressive is the crater and the lava dome straight down below. If there is still a cornice on the edge it's harder to see down. By late summer it's easy to look straight down. If the wind is howling like it often does, the dust can sand blast you enough to suggested dropping down to avoid it. A short drop will often be enough to avoid the wind. If you left early and have reached the top before noon you have lots of time to enjoy the summit. I'm sure I have taken at least 100 photos from the top over the years. After a nice long break it's time to head on down.

     The first steep section coming down is my favorite. When there is snow you can glissade the first 1000' in a few minutes. What may have taken an hour to climb you may be able to slide down in less than 10 minutes. When there is no snow I love to run down this stretch. Each step covers what seems like 10 feet as I run down the mountain. The soft sandy ash takes much of the pounding away from my knees. I have run down that 1000' in less than 8 minutes while watching hikers slowly moving up the mountain. The rest of the way down the ridge is either a fun slide on the snow or a knee pounding descent through the rock and ash. On a really hot day all I can think of  is getting back to the trees and finding a little shade. Once off Monitor Ridge the last forest walk is an enjoyable way to finish up a great trip. Best of all, when you get backMount Hood to the cars it's only another four hours to drive back to Seattle.

     If you have the time I recommend stopping at the Ape Cave on the way back. It is only a short detour from the road back. Bring a flashlight or lantern. The cave is interesting in it's own right and it is very cool. On a hot day the temperature can go from 90 to 50 just dropping down into the cave. I have explored some of the cave but would still like to go back to see more in the future.

     Another idea is to explore the north side of the mountain. On two occasions I have done the summit on one day and the north side on the next. After summiting we drove around the east side of the mountain, camping in a makeshift spot off a logging road. The next morning, we drove over to the Norway Pass trailhead. The first time I tried this in the mid 80s the devastation was unbelievable. When I hiked up to Norway Pass there was no vegetation above my knees. It could have passed for the face of the moon. The last time I went, in the mid 90s there was much more vegetation. It's starting to look like it's alive once again. The most amazing thing I saw the first time was hillsides of trees knocked down like dominos. Not a branch was left. There was also a distinct line where the devastation ended. Miles of downed trees then suddenly healthyMiddle Bob green trees. A line of separation ran right up a hillside. I'm glad I have photos to look back on as much has changed in the 22 years since the eruption. From Norway Pass you can look down on Spirit Lake. When I was last there the north end of the lake was still covered with floating logs. The lake is hundreds of feet higher now than before the eruption. Beyond Norway Pass the trail continues to Mount Margaret. A short scramble from the trail takes you to the top. This is a great place to view the aftermath of that day back in May of 1980.

     That concludes my report on Mount Saint Hellions. It is "only" an 8 mile hike with about 4500' of elevation gain. After the snow is gone anyone with enough conditioning and will power can climb it. It's been about 4 years since I last went up. Somehow I expect I'll get back up there before much longer.

Near Top
Near the top

Mount Rainier
Mount Rainier

Lava Dome
Lava Dome

Summit 1
Bob, Val, and Bill
Summit 2
Bob, Val, and me

Summit 3
Bob, Val, and me

Everyone survived

Before The Hike
Before the hike

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