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December 29, 2011

Mount Saint Helens: The Climb

Climbing Mt. St. Helens is just a walk in the forest down low.

Periodically the notion of climbing a mountain sparks through our synapses. Usually good sense prevails. The painful pounding reality of the effort required to reach the top of some remote mountain quickly tempers the overactive enthusiasm. This time we made an exception. Mt. St. Helens was just too interesting not to climb.

Why is Mt. St. Helens remarkable? Mt. St. Helens eruption in 1980 was the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States. In moments the May 18 lateral blast knocked down 230 square miles of forest. Ash emitted by the volcano covered 22,000 square miles. News of the eruption dominated the national news for days. Today the shattered mountain remains as a monument to the power this stratovolcano.

Climbing Mt. St. Helens is popular. During the peak summer climbing season, 100 permits are available per day. These passes, obtainable through the Mt St. Helens Institute, sell out months in advance. We purchased our permits three months ahead of our climb date. Even that far out, there were many of the days near our date that were sold out.

The Mt. St. Helens National Volcanic Monument website characterizes climb this way:

“Mount St. Helens is a popular climb for both beginning and experienced mountaineers. Although people are able to climb Mount St. Helens year-round, late spring through early fall is the most popular season. Most climbers use the Monitor Ridge Route from Climbers Bivouac. This route gains 4,500 feet in five miles to the crater rim at 8,365 feet elevation. Although strenuous, this non-technical climb is suitable for people in good physical condition who are comfortable scrambling on steep, rugged terrain. Most climbers complete the round trip in seven to twelve hours. While climbing to the crater rim is permitted, entry into the crater is strictly prohibited.”

That didn’t sound so difficult, did it? It certainly did not seem like a “real” mountain climb.

The truth is that while Mt. St. Helens might rank at the easier end of mountain climbs, it ranks as very difficult if it is viewed as a hike. And for some misguided reason we viewed this excursion as a hike. We found out later that many of the people attempting the climb do not make it to the top.

Of course we knew none of this when our permit day arrived and we reached the trailhead. Despite our attempt arrive “early” our boots hit the trail at 9:30 am. This time of year, the sun sets about 8:30 pm. We had 11 hours of daylight to complete the climb. We hoped it would not take that long.

The initial section of the climb is easy. From the Climber’s Bivouac, the first thousand feet or so of climbing is on Ptarmigan Trail #216A, an easy forest service path that winds through the fog-shrouded evergreens. The winter of 2010/2011 came with heavy snowfall. Even as low down at 3750 feet in the middle of August, the tread traversed many deep patches of snow.

Two and a quarter “Forest Service” miles from the trailhead the trees thin into steep slopes of volcanic debris. It is here that the Monitor Ridge climbing route begins. It had taken us about an hour of steady hiking to reach the edge of the forest. Ahead of us was 3,400 feet of climbing over 2 ¾ miles of volcanic rubble. Now the reported 7 to 12 hours for the climb seemed conservative. How could it take that long?

Crossing a snowfield we reached the bottom of the volcanic boulder slope and the minimally marked route to the top. Now the going was tough. For the coming miles we scrambled hand over foot between the sharp irregularly shaped rocks. The route consistently climbs, sometimes steeply in rock fall areas. While periodically placed stakes indicated the global direction to the top, the precise route was open to interpretation by each climber. Wear marks showed many options; climbers often start on dead end lines. We looked hard for an easy route to the top. It did not exist.

Staying in the boulders we climbed above the lingering fog. In the full sun the terrain is stark. Anything wanting to grow here faces a battle. Two nearby Cascadian volcanoes, Mt. Adams and Mt. Hood, broke the horizon line above the clouds in the distance. Also, unfortunately still in the distance, was Mt. St. Helens’ peak. The summit remained discouragingly far away and there was no end in sight to the boulder slope. If anything, the going had become more difficult. Now, without doubt, this was not a hike. It was a climb.

It took us about three hours to reach end of the volcanic rock fall. We were now over four hours into the climb and the top was still a good distance away. Some climbers were returning with discouraging news; it did not get easier further up. Other climbers had turned back without making the summit. If we figured that it would be another hour to get to the top and it would take as much time to get down as it took to get up, the climb would take us about 10 hours in total. That would return us back to the truck in the parking lot perilously close to sunset.

Tired, sore, and running low on food and water it was time to decide whether we were going to push on to the top. Of course the sensible thing to do was to turn back. I asked Becky, never the voice of sound reason, whether we should go on. Her answer was predictable; she wanted to go on. And the truth is I wanted to continue on also. In some twisted way, I hurt too much to go back now. Why torture yourself this much and not make it to the top. It was going to be all or nothing. Now was not the time to dwell on the meaning of “nothing.”

Where the boulders end a pumice slope begins. This stage of the climb was technically easier. At the same time it was excruciatingly frustrating. For every two steps up we slide one step back. The effort came as the air thinned near 8,000 feet. We had rented hiking poles, one each, at the Lone Fir Resort when we registered for the climb. It was an exceptionally good decision to rent the poles. They really came in handy. But now we wished we had two poles each for the volcanic ash pitch. It would have helped.

Emerging from the clouds... climb through the volcanic rock.

Nevertheless, we persevered, step after grinding sliding step, up through pumice slope. Nearly five hours after the soles of our boots first touched dirt at the Climber’s Bivouac, we gasped our way to the top and peered over the rim into Mt. St. Helen’s caldera. We had made it to the top! Hallelujah!

Mt. Adams in the distance with the clouds now gone.

In the blast chill of the cold wind we searched to see the devastated crater through the wispy clouds that washed over the rim. When the clouds parted the scene inside the crater looked more like a huge gravel pit than the top of a mountain in the Cascades. In the middle of the caldera the large fuming lava dome appeared. Mt. St. Helens lava dome started forming soon after the 1980 blast as volcanic material was pushed out of the volcano’s vent. The smoldering lava dome is a reminder that Mt. St. Helens is indeed an active volcano.

For a moment we considered that the point where we stood on the rim of the volcano was 1,300 feet below Mt. St. Helens’ pre-blast summit. Prior to the eruption, Mt. St. Helens had a symmetrical cone shaped peak. It was considered the Mt. Fuji of America. Then at 8:32:17 am on May 18th 1980 a 5.1-magnitude earthquake triggered a massive landslide. The landside released a lateral volcanic blast that sheared off the side of the mountain. It has been estimated that the May 18th eruption released power equivalent to a 1,000 Hiroshima bombs.

(In another context, the Mt. St. Helens’ blast is also roughly equal in power to just one Cold War era B41 thermonuclear device. Standing in the devastation at the top of the mountain, it is the power of a single manmade bomb, a bomb that is capable of being carried by an aircraft, which seems truly frightening.)

Still in the rocks, Mt. St. Helens top is far away.

For a while we strolled along the pumice rim of the crater soaking up the power of the place and waiting for the moments when the clouds cleared so we could take pictures. The other climbers who had reached the summit were doing the same. They, just like us, were tired but elated to have made it to the top.

We spent 20 or 30 minutes at the crater rim. When we were too cold to stay much longer we headed down the hill.

As a rule it is faster to go down a mountain than up. In spots this truism holds at Mt. St. Helens. There are also places where descent is painfully slow.

Often our fastest way down from the top of Mt. St. Helens was on the snow. Indeed the decent was particularly fast where we slipped, fell, and slid on our butts down the snowfields.

Proof that Becky, at least, made it to the top!

Given our propensity to fall we made sure to walk only on gradual snow slopes. We’d descend only where we could check our slides. There are also many snowfields where we could have tripped into an uncontrolled slide. An uncontrolled slide would have initiated a very quick and exciting descent followed by an even quicker and highly undesirable end to a climb. Frequent signs and a search and rescue plane circling above served as a reminder of the consequences of sliding too fast on the snow.

Past the snow slopes we were forced back into the boulders. Climbing down through the lava boulder fields was slow. Here it is easier and faster to go up rather than down. Looking between the feet, footholds are hard to find. Often we had to backtrack to find a passable route. Constantly we adjusted our path and accessed our chances of surviving the next big step. We could find no easy way down. It took forever to scratch our way downhill through the sharp rocks.

The smoking lava dome inside of Mt. St. Helens summit crater

Much further down from the summit, still in the boulders, we saw stragglers continuing to work their way to the top of the mountain. We had passed some of these climbers on our way up. Now they were clearly too slow and way too far down the mountain top to have any chance of reaching the summit and returning in daylight. That conclusion would undoubtedly reach them soon.

Further down tens of volunteers and forest service personnel worked to bring a young climber who had strayed off the path and fallen hard during the last stage of the descent. With tired climbers and difficult terrain injuries are not uncommon. The rescue crews we passed on the trail told us that they were frequently, sometimes daily, summoned to retrieve injured climbers from the slopes. We could see why!

Fortunately we made it back to the smooth forest trail without issue. Now on the easy trail if we fell it would just be embarrassing; the climb was no longer life threatening. Tantalized by the end of the climb just two miles ahead we made fast progress. We reached the parking lot full of staging rescue workers at 6:30 pm. The climb had taken us 9 grueling hours. Our Camelbacks and water bottles were empty; we were out of food. It would be the better part of a month before our knees recovered from the effort and we could walk without pain.

So was climbing Mt. St. Helens worth it? If you asked me a week after the climb, I might have said no. Ask me month later, when the knees finally felt better and I could walk without pain, I’d say yes. The power of the mountains volcanic landscape has to be experienced to be appreciated.

If at the end of the climb you asked Becky if the climb was worth it, she’d say she was ready to fight through the pain and do the climb again the following day. But, as we know, Becky is never the voice of sound reason. Someday that might just be my end.

Still smiling on the way down

We cannot recommend this way down the mountain.

Back at the bottom, finally


  1. […] the south side of Mt. St. Helens we survived climbing the mountain and had an easy day mountain biking the Lewis River Trail.  The climb and the Lewis River ride […]

    Pingback by Mt. St. Helens: Lava Canyon and Ape Cave « Another Header — January 4, 2012 @ 6:55 pm

  2. […] Mt. St. Helens (United States, 2011) […]

    Pingback by The List « Another Header — March 14, 2012 @ 10:30 pm

  3. Fantastic post-thanks! Can’t wait to visit someday!

    Comment by paisstat — January 8, 2015 @ 3:07 am

  4. I loved reading about your adventure!! My husband and I are going in a few weeks to Portland for my birthday and plan on ending our trip hiking to the summit of Mount St Helens, our first ever mountain climb (we are Florida born and raised). Your post was encouraging and inspiring.

    Comment by Carsen — September 28, 2017 @ 7:04 am

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