I tried to climb Mt St Helens on Mother’s day last year after graduating from BCEP – but the weather had other plans (winter snowstorm + lightning!) and we had to cancel. This year it couldn’t have been more opposite. Temps were predicted to be warm. No, strike that, downright HOT. So warm in fact, that there was a wet-slab avalanche danger warning issued for the entire cascade range and they were even taking the unheard of step of offering refunds on climbing permits. This made me apprehensive, but our excellent climb leaders who’d had a lot of experience with these conditions and St Helens felt our particular route up Monitor Ridge should be very safe.
We started our 2-day adventure on Saturday afternoon from the Cougar Snopark located on the south side of Mt St Helens. After a couple thousand feet of gain and ~4 miles of sweaty snow hiking with full camping packs, we reached the tree line and set up camp for the night. It was blindingly sunny the whole time and getting roasted by the sun was a real danger. I was taking a bath of multi-spectrum SPF 50 every hour and still got plenty of sun. The heat made for interesting conditions. The warm air temp kept me sweaty hiking in a T-shirt and shorts; while the snow was soft and made for slower going. We brought snowshoes to keep from post-holing. But as the sun went down, the temps started dropping fast. After finding a beautiful spot to camp at the foot of Monitor ridge above the tree-line, we quickly melted snow for water and had dinner then I hit the sack early. (I am now in love with the MSR Reactor stove – I’m selling my old stove to buy one of these).
After a few hours of sleep, we awoke at 3:45am to get ready for our climb. We whipped together our gear, got some food in us, and checked conditions. The temps were cold but after gathering gear I was shedding layers like crazy. It was warm – still in the upper 30’s lower 40’s by my guess. I had hoped for freezing temps since that helps freeze the snow and make for safer climbing – but it was not to be. A little after 4:30am we switched on our headlamps and started up the Monitor ridge route. I know the warm temps and high avy danger warnings kept me apprehensive all morning as we started up the steep pitches. We climbed up, through, and around the rocks of Monitor ridge, taking short breaks every hour for a bite and drinking. The idea being that by staying on the ridge top and out of the snow fields – we would be much safer.
We made steady progress of about a 1,000 ft of elevation every hour; and the route was only moderately steep. I would certainly say it was easier than Mt Hood.The sun began to glow over the horizon and we feasted on a beautiful sunrise about half the way up. The snow was fairly well consolidated, and easy to walk on with crampons. As we reached to summit, however, the sun was full-on shining and the snow quickly softening. But by then, we had already reached our goal, the summit rim, at around 9:30am.
Upon reaching the summit, we posed for the obligatory summit shots and took a breather. This became more fun because a great number of people there were sporting all manner of ladies dresses, hats, etc. We posed for our shot and quickly re-clad. Even though it was already in the 50’s, the mild wind was enough to keep our jackets on. We had some lunch, took some photos, enjoyed the scenery and enjoyed the show. We were some of the first few groups there, and a huge line of people were steadily streaming to the summit. The costumes and goof-balls that showed up were certainly entertaining.
Then the best part – the return trip. About a third of the people coming up skied or snowboarded down. We did not have such accoutrements (but man – I would have LOVED to had my snowboard judging by the amazing carving folks were doing!), so we opted for glissading. The snow had softened dramatically by this point under the glaring sun, so we glissaded huge sections back to our campsite. Honestly, some of the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Absolutely amazing conditions. I did see some slab cracks forming at the tops of some ridges – and it certainly made me pause – but our leaders believed them benign and we skirted them. Still, I was keenly aware of those avy warnings that I’d been reading. The advantage of the glissading was actually that we spent much less time in the ‘danger zones’ by zipping around them instead of spending extra time hiking them. We reached camp in a blindingly fast 2 hours. We packed up then hiked back to our cars. We were all quite beat by the time we reached the vehicles – but it all went swimmingly. What a great experience!
I would have wished for far less avy danger and certainly wouldn’t have attempted this without 2 very experienced team leaders. I also escaped getting sunburned – but did get a really nice sun rash. Even two days after the trip, the second I get into the sun my skin starts to prickle. This after taking baths in SPF 50 every hour for two straight days. A testament to how bright it was. Good thing I work an inside desk job so I can give my skin a rest. 🙂