Climbers attracted to volcano that lost its top
Ah, Mount St. Helens. I’ve written hundreds of stories about it, explored the trails around it on foot, skis and mountain bike; and climbed it 10 times, if I can remember correctly.
But it had been five years since my last ascent, so when a Daily News co-worker scheduled an climb recently, I was happy to join the expedition.
Though there was no first-time thrill of discovery, the climb reminded me of the many cool things about the route.
For one thing, it’s really a long hike, with no technical climbing skill or particularly steep parts – except, of course, at the top of the crater rim.
The climb offers plenty of variety: deep woods, lush meadows around timberline, and snow fields higher up that are reminiscent of those on much bigger mountains. The gleaming white expanses of snow set off against the gritty exposed ridges provide the same ambiance as climbing higher peaks, without the effort or need for special climbing equipment.
It’s amazing to gaze down from the summit on the lava dome 500 feet below and realize that most of that huge chunk of rock and ash oozed up in just four years, from 2004 to 2008.
The bands of yellow, red and white rock on the crater wall’s paint a colorful palette against the ash.
Our climb was all the more rewarding because of near-perfect weather and remnants of heavy spring snow.
The sky was mostly blue, with enough big billowing cumulus clouds hovering overhead to block the sun’s direct rays.
So-so weather won’t necessarily cancel a climb. I once started climbing the peak in steady snow, only to walk out of the clouds into sun higher up. Another time, most members of the climbing party bailed because the forecast in the lowlands was 100 degrees. At 8,000 feet higher, it was tolerable.
Most years, the ideal time to climb Mount St. Helens is late May to June. By then, enough snow has melted so that you can drive to the Climbers Bivouac, where the approach trail starts, still leaving much of the climb over snow, which provides a smoother walking surface than rocks.
But in late July, most of the Ptarmigan Trail that leads to the climbing route was still snow-covered. Between boot tracks and blue plastic markers on trees, we could still follow the route, however.
Higher up, ridges are melted off, giving climbers a choice of walking on ash and rocks, or ascending snowfields.
And, of course, descending those snowfields. We slid down most of the top 3,000 feet of the volcano on already well-worn glissade paths.
I took an old pair of rain pants, which may or not actually repel moisture, for the glissade. It didn’t make much difference, because after sliding down snow on your butt for half an hour, sending up waves of snow, you’re soaked from the waist down.
This makes for a brisk hike down the 2-mile Ptarmigan trail to the parking lot.
Still, that glissade was the high point of the trip as far as having fun.
On this trip, it occurred to me that the Forest Service goes overboard on advising what climbers need, at least for this time of year.
Some people lugged ice axes all the way up and down, but in summer the snow is so soft they’re unneeded. These days, I hike with poles to slow the glissading descent, though feet are usually sufficient.
Neither are crampons needed in the mushy snow.
However, some climbers were underdressed in shorts and T-shirts – they shivered in the wind on top.
Quite a few climbers made it in low-cut hiking boots (guaranteeing wet tootsies) and one woman even wore running shoes.
Whatever you wear, the summit remains dangerous because most of the crater rim is still covered with cornices of snow that hang over the rim. Last year, a climber fell through a cornice to his death, a rare fatality on the peak since 1980.
A volunteer from the Mount St. Helens Institute was warning people to stay off the cornices, but after he left a few people got close to the lip.
The snow has melted down to the ash in one spot, offering climbers a great view of the lava dome and Spirit Lake.
The vistas reaching as far as Mount Jefferson to the south and the Olympics to the north weren’t the only things to observe – other climbers made for great people-watching.
At the summit, a family group from back East bickered over just whose idea the climb had been. “You dragged me all the way up here to see a bunch of rocks?”
Another multigenerational group included a woman who looked to be in her 60s. She gamely made it to the summit, but frequently shouted out alarmist warnings. “Look out! There’s a crevasse over there!” she hollered, pointing to a small melt hole in the snow next to a rock.
Sightseeing, glissading, tourist-watching. So many things to bring a smile when you climb Mount St. Helens.
If you’re a hiker in average condition, I recommend putting a volcano ascent on your list. Just prepare to soak your socks on the way down.