Was there reason to be terrified? I attempted Mt. St. Helens two months after moving to Washington. After sitting on the couch unemployed, I was off the couch for a weekend of weather inversion–the weather was warmer on the summit than at sea level. I was out of shape, inexperienced but ambitious.
My First Attempt Climbing Mt. St. Helens
Inexperienced? Yes, I was on brand new snowshoes without an elevation bar. I purchased new-to-me mountaineering boots at a second-hand outdoor store in the city. It was my first time wearing stiff, heavy boots that didn’t give at all as I tried to bend my ankles and climb up the mountain. I probably was carrying way too much weight and had a borrowed pair of crampons in my backpack and a shiny new ice axe–both I didn’t know how to use.
New friends joined us on the climb and were patient as I gasp for more oxygen in my lungs and took rest breaks too often for someone doing a relatively easy winter ascent of a volcano. I didn’t know what roughly 5,600 feet of elevation took.
Needless to say, I made it probably 800 to 1,000 feet short of the summit. It was icy. After asking Andy how we were going to get down, I had my first ever panic attack. I was losing traction with my snowshoes on the wind-swept surface and his response of walking down broke me. I hyperventilated gasping for even more air, was in tears, and wasn’t going to make it. I was embarrassed in front of people I never climbed with before.
Andy, being the patient person he is, told the others to continue on without us. He sat with me trying to calm my nerves while taking out gear from my backpack. He tried to convince me it was a good idea to see how crampons would help. Giving me a lesson 4,000 feet above the cars. How was this a good idea?
Andy coached, “Make sure all the points on touching the snow. Feel better?” No, I didn’t, but I had to get down one way or another. I took a couple steps. I was cold and emotionally exhausted but had to descend.
Slowly testing out my shaky legs, we headed down the mountain without waiting for our friends. They’d catch up. It was awkward trying not to stab myself with the crampons. I then learned how to plunge step, pressing my heels into the snow to create steps. I was becoming more comfortable but still didn’t know if this mountain climbing thing was for me.
I put on a brave face and made it up and down. Read my Mt. St. Helens trip report (January 2013). I still wasn’t sure if mountaineering was for me. I’d find out after a couple more volcano attempts and signing up for a local climbing class.
Climbing Mt. St. Helens: Take Two
Fast forward to March 2016. I can’t get enough of spending my weekends outside. I learned to ski and was close to getting my 40th ski day of the season (starting in November), not too bad for someone with a full-time job. Mt. St. Helens left a bad taste in my mouth and climbing career. It was time to return, this time on skis.
Mt. St. Helens stands at 8,366 feet and is the shortest of the five Washington volcanoes. Since my first attempt, I’ve climbed Mt. Adams and Glacier Peak and attempted Mt. Baker getting to the caldera before turning around. I also made a late-season attempt on Mt. Rainier’s Emmons route last year but was turned around by crevasses.
Ian joined Andy and I on a day trip objective. We wanted to ski it before the National Forest permits were limited at the end of the month. It was Ian’s first time backcountry skiing. We were happy to show him the ropes. I learned just last season, so I had tons of new learnings to share.
Departing Seattle at 4 a.m., we were adding skins to our skis to start the climb from the parking lot before 8 a.m. The weather forecast was iffy with periods of rain sprinkles hitting our windshield on the drive down. We were committed at this point.
It was a peaceful skin through the trees until reaching the vast volcano alpine. Seeing specs of ant-like figures climbing ahead of us, we scouted the route and continued. It was a straight shot with little switchbacks as Mt. St. Helens isn’t that steep. The slope provided perfect skinning conditions and the elements were on our side. Blue sky windows opened as the wind moved the clouds and rolled them over the peak.
I was in shape and prepared. It felt easy. The only steep section was on a ridge along the moraine where others who were skinning attempted to climb up a steep pitch. I passed a guy that was struggling. Don’t get me wrong, I still have those moments, but energy and confidence was on my side. I wasn’t nervous. I took breaks but unlike the first attempt I was snacking or taking pictures.
Taking roughly five hours to climb, we made it to the summit just before the clouds rolled in again. I enjoyed the views of the crater from the 1980 eruption and captured a few pictures to remember the day’s accomplishments.
The original plan was to take a lunch break on the summit, but the wind was frigid. I skied down the wind-swept snow as gracefully as possible in near whiteout conditions. The lower we skied, the more visibility we had.
After getting below the clouds, the fun started. We took turns going first and I took pictures of the guys skiing down. Spirits were high as we made it back to the rough bootpack through the trees. Climbers on snowshoes or in boots stepped off the trail as we continued to keep our momentum to the cars. It was a good day.
Thanks Mt. St. Helens for two very different experiences!
First attempt: January 21, 2013
Second attempt: March 19, 2016