After my first week of starting my job in Seattle, we had a weather inversion. Inversion means that the more elevation gained, the warmer it was. Andy and I had originally planned on trying out our new snowshoes and my new mountaineering boots around Mt Rainier, but after an email to our friends, we tagged along with Julie and Thaddee to hike Mount Saint Helens. This was decided Thursday morning with a plan on leaving Friday after work, so we decided to pack to be ready Thursday night.
We were not able to do much research. However, due to the weather inversion, we were expecting early spring conditions on the mountain. This would also be my first mountaineering experience with a few veterans.
Sunset on Mt. St. Helens
Mount Saint Helens
We did our grocery shopping on our drive down to Cougar, WA. We stayed at Cougar Park Campground in a cabin type accommodation. There was one private room with beds, along with beds in the living area. It also had a kitchen to use and a table. It was very spacious with multiple bunk beds.
We woke up early and left the cabin around sunrise. We got to the trail head and walked around to find the trail having to walk on some snowmobile roads. We found the trail and started our climb through the trees. Click here for the hike details.
My feet were still getting used to my stiff, new mountaineering boots, which made parts unpleasant for me. I had to continue to adjust tension on the laces at times. We made it to the tree line and had amazing views of the area and our upcoming climb. After this section, I came to the realization that I was completely out of shape with being a couch bum the last few months of 2012. Andy stayed with me and the others would stop and wait at times. I started feeling bad I was keeping the group back. We continued to press onward.
The weather was amazing above the layer of fog. We had spring-like weather conditions. The snow was hard at times making it easy going minus the elevation gains. We saw views of Adams and Mt. Hood to the south.
View of Mt. Hood in the Distance
We climbed roughly 4,000 feet with only about 1,500 to go. The winds started to pick up and the ground was icy at times. This made me extremely nervous because I did not trust my snowshoes. I started to have a panic attack because I was worried I would not be able to get back down. We got in range of the others (Julie, Thaddee, and Erika) and told them we were not going to summit.
Andy and I found a place to rest to settle my nerves. He then had me put on his crampons for the descent and had me walk around to get used to them. We then headed down to find some protection from the wind to wait for the group. We ended up taking our time to get down. Andy was switch-backing down the mountain because of the snowshoes, while I followed. The crampons gave me more confidence and allowed me to calm down significantly. I finally took pictures on the way down (sometimes with Andy’s help).
Mt. St. Helens with a view of Mt. Adams
Since it was getting warmer, we did have to plunge step through the snow at times. Andy was getting tired of his snowshoes, so he took his off to carry them. We then got down to where a bunch of people were camping for the weekend and staked out an area to sit and wait. We had some snacks and tea, not having to wait to long. From summit, they were able to see Mt. Rainier and Baker to the north. We then completed the rest of the hike and put on our headlamps towards the very end. The hike took about 10 hours round trip.
We drove back to the cabin, and Erika headed back to Seattle. Julie and Thaddee made a delicious lamb apricot tajine for after our climb. I was so exhausted and sore that I ate and passed out.
We woke up and took our time getting around in the morning. I was extremely sore from the hike yesterday. Andy cooked everyone breakfast, and we decided to go to Ape Cave for the day. We packed our belongings and checked out of the cabin and drove to the cave. Outside it was roughly 60 degrees in January!
We got to the almost full snow park and had to walk down the road further because it was closed for winter. We decided not to take our snowshoes since there was already a decent boot pack. We got to Ape Cave to find that the stairs down were covered in snow and ice. There was a rope to use to help with the down climb. We put on our Yaktrax and slid down, which turned out to be fun. Thaddee took the below picture of the entrance. I did not bother with taking photos today because the lighting would be extremely difficult.
Winter Entrance to Ape Cave
Ape cave is a lava tube and the longest in the continental US. The stairs lower you down to an area where you can choose to enter the Lower Cave or the Upper Cave. The Lower Cave is advised for those people with small children and is a basic flat walk through the tube with high ceilings most the way. For more information, visit the route description. Also, make sure you have headlamps to navigate in the cave.
We explored the Lower Cave first with easy walking. The Lower Cave dead ends, so you must turnaround to exit and is roughly 3/4 of a mile one way, so roughly 1.5 miles round trip. We decided to continue to the Upper Cave. We interpreted the length to be roughly one mile in length from one of the maps, but this section ended up being a 3 mile loop. This part of the cave is very slow going with mounds of rocks covering the ground causing us to climb up and around most of them. The Upper Cave is not advised for children. A 6 to 8 foot wall must be climbed if traveling the direction we took. Fortunately, we all have climbing experience to boulder up the wall. There was a skylight that is not an exit. We continued on to find the exit with a ladder. We put on our Yaktrax for the hike back to the parking lot. This was much more enjoyable for me since I was in my mountaineering boots that were not flexible enough for doing the scrambling through the cave.
I am glad we did both sections of the cave even though I was hesitate during because of my boots and soreness. I am sure it is much more busy in the summertime, which is something to factor in if attempting the Upper Cave.