A Non-Climber’s Guide To Climbing Mt. St. Helens

When someone famously asked George Mallory, one of the first to ever attempt to scale Mt. Everest, why he wanted to climb it, he simply stated, “Because it is there.”

Love that quote.

So, why did I climb Mt. St. Helens earlier this week? Good question.

By no stretch of the imagination can you consider me a climber. Yes, I love the outdoors and even climbed Mt. Rainier a few years back. But that was my very first climb, and St. Helens was my second. So, my mountaineering resume is quite small.

It’s not that I don’t like climbing; it’s just not something I seek out. I stay in shape and get outdoors as much as possible but would much rather play a round of golf than strap on boots and walk up hill for several hours.

However, when a good friend sent an email seeking climbing partners after he obtained a pass to scale St. Helens, I said, why not? I will admit I waited a bit to see who else raised their hands, but it turned out some of my favorite people decided to join in, so it made my decision easy.

“Let’s do it.”

What follows is a description of my experience;  one that might help other non-climbers make a decision about climbing one of our area’s most famous and active volcanoes.

In the Pacific Northwest, most everyone of age has a take on “Where were you when the mountain blew?” I was playing school baseball in Lakewood, Wash. and heard from my parents that the mountain had erupted. As an 8th grader, I greeted the news with little more than a “Cool.” Not much interest on my part, honestly.

Fast forward almost 40 years and I was about to embark on a journey to the top of a mountain I knew little about. So, I did a little research  and learned a couple of things.

1. You need a climbing permit. It can be obtained online sometime in February. They go fast. In 2018, user demand crashed the Mt St. Helens Institute’s website.

2. You need to train. Several people told me it was just a long walk. Nope. It is a grind. It is not technical but much more difficult than just hiking.

3. Get the right equipment. A good backpack, hiking boots and trekking poles are a must. I also recommend sturdy gloves for climbing over rocks.

4. Plan carefully and bring lots of water and snacks. You’ll be glad you did..

5. Bring layers of clothing. I was hot, then I was cold, then I got hot again. It was windy and freezing one minute and ten minutes later it was blazing hot. Temperatures can change at any second.

6. Bring a heavy-duty trash bag. Sliding down the snowfield on your descent not only saves you a ton of time, but is a lot of fun.

The night before the climb, we stayed in Woodland, Wash., got up at 4:00 am and were at the trailhead (Climber’s Bivouac) by 6:00 am. Staying close to the mountain the night before was crucial to limit drive time and getting stiff in the car before getting underway.

Once at the trailhead, we signed into the logbook and the fun began.

The first two-plus miles was a nice stroll through the trees with a bit of elevation gain but nothing serious. It gave us a chance to get caught up with our climbing group as we worked up our first sweat.

Things got interesting once the trees started to thin and we got closer to the tree line. This is where the boulder field starts and the work begins. Within minutes the climb went from a walk in the woods to a vigorous hike to an all-out scramble.

Once we were out of the trees, looking up toward the top of the mountain was daunting as there were rock fields as far as we could see. Not being able to see the summit to judge how far we had left to climb was a bit disheartening.

One saving grace (among many) was a GPS watch one of our team members brought along. Highly recommended. The watch enabled us to accurately see our location, how far we had come and how far we had to go. It also helped with navigation on the way down because we did not take the same route as we did on the way up.

Scrambling over and through the rocks was a big part of the climb. I would say about 75 percent of our time was spent navigating the rocks. They went on forever. Long walk, my butt.

We took breaks for water and snacks about every hour. Every climbing group is filled with members with widely different levels of fitness. It was never an issue for our team as everyone went at their own pace, but we made sure at each rest stop that everyone was on the same page. We took lots of photos during our breaks and the views were tremendous. It was helpful to be able to find someone to climb with and that is why I recommend as big a group as possible. This lets everyone spread their wings, or not, and just climb.

Once we were nearly through the rocks, the summit came  into sight. That view gave us a huge boost of confidence and energy. However, the last 500 to 800 feet are brutal.

With the rocks behind us it was all about making our way straight up through the ash. There was nothing to do but put our heads down, get in our happy place and put one foot in front of the other.

It was a big help to have people on the summit cheering you on the last few feet. Big smiles around as each climber made it to the top. It took about an hour from first to last, but we put our entire group on the summit. It felt great to accomplish our goal.

We spent about an hour or so on top. The views are amazing and getting to see the steam from the lava dome was thrilling.

My biggest reaction to the summit was the realization of just how much earth was moved during the eruption. The massive destruction is still quite evident, and knowing that the dome continues to grow is downright scary.

After rehydrating (with a ceremonial Rainier beer), a few more snacks and a change of socks, we were ready for our descent.

This is where the trash bags came in handy.

Sitting on the bags and using our trekking poles as a rudder, we slipped and slid our way down the mountain on snow that surrounded the rock fields. It was crazy. It was fast and you really had to dig your heels into the snow to avoid high-speed chaos. But the time it saved was well worth it.

We figured we descended the first two-thousand feet of elevation in about 15 minutes. From there we made our way over more rocks until we made it to more snow and more sliding. It was cold on the behind and on our hands dragging through the slush but very fun.

Once the snow was gone we stripped back down to our shorts and made our way back through the last of the rocks and into the woods again. When we hit flatter ground the pain in our feet really became evident. It made the last two miles tough, as our feet were burning. But the thought of the parking lot and taking off our boots was the saving grace.

We arrived to cheers all around and the celebratory beers never tasted better. It was a full day (just under 8 hours) and trying at times, but well worth it.

Whether you are a hiker, climber or experienced mountaineer, Mt. St. Helens has everything. It tested my endurance, mental fortitude and will, but it is an experience I will never forget.

Give it a try. But come prepared.

About John D. Hunter 55 Articles
John D. Hunter is Montana native but grew up in the Tacoma/Seattle area and proudly attended Washington State University. He is a former morning show producer on KJR SportsRadio in Seattle. For 7 years he produced ‘Knight in the Morning’ with Michael Knight and New York Vinnie. From there he moved to ESPN.com where he spent another 7 years as an Interactive Editor and Soccer reporter/writer. He has covered 3 Super Bowls, the NBA Finals, 1998 World Cup in France and many more sporting events.