A tough summit
Mount St. Helens is a popular climb despite the challenges
Reaching the summit of Mount St. Helens along the longer route follows this windswept ridge on this still active volcano. (William Sullivan/For The Register-Guard)
By William Sullivan
For The Register-Guard
Published: 12:00 a.m., Jan. 28
You’d think it would be easier to climb Mount St. Helens since the 1980 eruption lowered the summit 1,400 feet. I’m not so sure.
Before the big blast, climbers began at Harry Truman’s Spirit Lake Lodge. They struggled up the northern side of the mountain past a string of now-vanished landmarks.
Everyone knew there were more dramatic volcanoes nearby to climb. Mount Hood, South Sister — even Mount Adams — all seemed more interesting.
After 1980, everyone wanted to climb Mount St. Helens for a view of the gaping new crater.
Mount St. Helens is still an active volcano. If it continues with dome-building eruptions like the ones in 1984 and 2004, it’s on a pace to replace its entire missing summit within a few millennia.
Visitor numbers may be down at the national monument’s visitors centers, but the demand for climbing permits seems only to be going up.
It’s true, the summit experience is otherworldly. Below you, the crater gapes like the broken edge of a shattered planet. Rock avalanches rumble in slow motion down 2,000-foot cliffs to the giant, horseshoe-shaped glacier rimming the steaming lava domes. On the horizon, the snow-covered peaks of Washington and Oregon float above the clouds.
If you’re thinking of attempting the climb, you’ll face a decision: Should you try to get one of the few climbing permits issued each day in summer? Or should you can gamble on the iffy weather of winter, when limitless permits are available?
I’ve now tried both ways with mixed results.
Between May 15 and Oct. 31, only 100 people a day are allowed to hike to the rim, either by way of Butte Camp or up the shorter, more popular Monitor Ridge route, both on the mountain’s south slope. The climb requires no technical climbing skills — only the stamina to gain 4,500 feet of elevation in 4.7 miles.
Hikers start out on a well-graded forest path to timberline, then follow poles marking the way up a ridge of lava boulders, and finally trudge up a dune-like slope of ash. Goggles and face masks are advised because of blowing ash. Don’t wear contacts. Gaiters are good idea, to keep the ash from filling your boots as you slide back with each step. Maximum party size is 12. Don’t even think of taking a dog along.
Permits cost $22 per person in summer and should be reserved online at least one day in advance at mshinstitute.org. Summer weekends fill soon after the reservation system opens in February. Permits have to be picked up in person at the Lone Fir Resort in Cougar (16806 Lewis River Road) by presenting your online payment confirmation.
The most popular summer climbing route, on Monitor Ridge, begins at the Climbers Bivouac Trailhead. It’s at the end of a gravel road north of Cougar and Ape Cave. Climbers determined to get an early morning start sometimes pitch their tents at the trailhead or backpack to a small, crowded dale at timberline.
The climb starts with 2.1 easy miles along the Ptarmigan Trail. Then you cross the Loowit Trail at timberline and head straight up a steep climbers’ route. The tread ends atop a rugged lava flow near one of the two tripod monitors that gave Monitor Ridge its name.
After scrambling up the lava ridge to the second monitor tripod, you’ll have to slog up an ash slope the rest of the way. When you reach the rim, don’t venture too close to the unstable edge. Hiking is banned along the cliff to the right, but you can explore left as far as the Dryer Glacier headwall, which blocks safe access to what is technically the mountain’s highest point.
After I had made it to the summit in summer, I was eager to try a winter ascent. Just think: The gritty ash and jagged lava would all be smoothed over by a blanket of snow. The crowds would be gone. The permits would be limitless and free.
Well, almost. Permits are limitless in winter, and free between Nov. 1 and March 31, but the weather can be truly awful during that time. The mountain is just low enough, and far enough west of the main Cascade Range, that it’s hammered by rainstorms as often as by snow.
It was early April before the weather forecast and the schedules of my ski chums aligned. We arrived in a torrential rainstorm so severe that no one wanted to get out of the car. Suddenly we all agreed to drive back to Eugene and try again the following weekend.
It rained then too, but not quite as much. We skied up to timberline, carrying heavy packs with survival gear for a three-day expedition. At the edge of the Worm Flows — strange, snaking lava ridges — we dug a snow shelter in the lee of a lava crag. We cooked tea and freeze-dried glop before crawling into our down sleeping bags, rain thrumming on the orange nylon tents.
The next day, with the summit in rain clouds, we explored across the Worm Flows to June Lake and returned to camp. I read a book. One of our group built a snow cave.
The final morning, when sun miraculously sparkled on a fresh layer of snow, we were too wet to safely make a run for the summit. Wind whistled white plumes from the ridgecrest route above us. The hardest part of any mountain climb is knowing when to turn back.
There are few who succeed in climbing the new, shortened Mount St. Helens. And even fewer, I think, who manage it in winter.