Washington volcanoes are an objective many mountaineers and skiers seek early spring and into the summer months. Mount St. Helens ranks in as the fifth highest Washington volcano. Mount St. Helens isn’t a technical route, but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taken seriously‒5,000+ feet is a long day especially if traveling over snow and/or rock.
The first time I climbed Helens, I never used crampons, not to mention it was one of the first times I used snowshoes. I had a panic attack during my winter climb in January when the conditions were icy and didn’t know I could trust my gear for traction on the way down. I didn’t summit the mountain but learned a bunch and even practiced using my ice axe after I calmed down.
Read about my first climb up Mount St. Helens here.
Below is a guide to climbing or skiing Mount St. Helens when snow is still present on the mountain. In the summer months, the climb can still be challenging but the Monitor Ridge trail is open.
Note: This post contains affiliate links. Meaning if you click and buy some of the products linked in this post, I may earn a small percentage at no extra cost to you.
Know before you go
Permits are required from April 1 – October 31. If you’re climbing before April 1, permits are available at the trailhead. Advanced purchase is necessary meaning no day-of walk-ins. If you didn’t plan ahead and still want to climb Mount St. Helens, check out the website Purmit. It allows people to sell or trade permits that aren’t being used.
From April 1 to May 15, 500 climbing permits are granted per day. After May 15 through October 31, climbing permits are limited to 100 climbers as the snow is melting and conserving the natural ecosystem will allow future recreation in the area.
Marble Mountain trailhead – Depending on the time of year you visit, you may need a Sno-Park permit to park your car at the trailhead. The Sno-Park permits are to cover the winter plowing costs. Two pit toilets are available for use and sleeping in cars or in tents is an option.
Climbers Bivouac trailhead – The trailhead opens in June and is 1,000 feet higher than the Marble Mountain trailhead making the climb shorter. The camping platforms are on a first-come-first-serve basis.
When to climb Mount St. Helens
Best time of year to ski Mount St. Helens is March to May. However, if you don’t plan on skiing, March to October work.
Be aware of snow conditions before you go and check NWAC.us to understand the risk of climbing. Carrying beacons, shovels, and probes and knowing how to use them can make the difference if a slope slides.
Weather in the alpine can change fast. Study the weather forecast days before the climb and know what’s coming after the climb as weather can shift. Don’t forget to look at the wind. Also, since most of the climb is in the alpine, you may not want to go when the cloud cover is low as it makes route finding hard and can also mess up your internal equilibrium.
When should I start climbing Helens
Depending on the outside temperatures, estimate how long it will take to climb up the mountain and descend the mountain. My scale used was 1 mph for the steep parts of the climb. I estimated it taking roughly 5 to 6 hours to go up with snack breaks and an hour (realistically 45 minutes) to descend on skis. If you don’t have skis, give yourself 3 to 4 hours to descend.
Know the snow. Skiers and snowshoers want firm morning snow. However, as the temperatures warm throughout the day, snow starts to melt making the climbing harder (think walking in sand). You want firm conditions that will soften throughout the day so the descent is more enjoyable. I left at 7:30 am and the snow remained firm for most of the climb. The snow was softening just enough at the top where I wasn’t skiing ice. Remember, the snow will be softer as you decrease elevation, so you won’t have perfect snow conditions the entire 5,000 feet down.
Climbing Mount St. Helens as a day trip from Seattle, Washington.
Leave no trace
Pack it in and pack it out. This means toilet paper, energy bar wrappers, and human waste (#2 only). Let’s leave nature plastic and garbage free.
PIN this image to a Pinterest board for future reference.
Distance: 4.96 miles
Elevation: 5228 ft
Estimated time: 8 to 9 hours
Actual time: 7 hours
Starting and ending point: Marble Mountain trailhead
Mount St. Helens Worm Flows route description
The Worm Flows is the most direct winter route up to Mount St. Helens crater. The route provides practice for basic mountaineering skills without crevasses to navigate.
Knowing how to travel on snow is a plus for climbing the mountain unless it is late in the season when the snow has melted. Every time I climb Helens, I notice climbers not knowing how to use their gear properly‒most specifically ice axes and crampons. Ice axes can be used as a crutch as you’re climbing up the mountain and used as a brake when glissading down.
With the increase of permits, finding the route isn’t too daunting. From the Marble Mountain trailhead, enter the trees to the start of the trail. Markers are on the trees where the trail starts. Continue through the trees for 1.25 hours, roughly 2.3 miles and 1,000 feet vertical along a gradual incline.
Cross Swift Creek above Chocolate Falls (a good place to break or camp) into the alpine following ridges and slopes up to the crater rim. The last 2.5 miles of the ascent is a constant uphill climb.
Most stop at the rim, but the true summit is a long walk around the rim and climbs another 200 feet. On a clear day views of Spirit Lake and Rainier appear on the northern horizon. To the south and east Mount Adams and Mount Hood can be seen throughout the climb.
Tempted at the rim to get a good look over, beware the snow cornices, or windblown snow lips, which can fall and break away with weight or warm weather.
For the ski descent, avoid crossing over the uphill skin tracks and bootpack when possible‒it will also mean less choppy skiing. Steer clear of the uphill travelers as they have the right-of-way. Only use the uphill track when visibility is low.
Aim for Chocolate Falls and avoid the valleys that will put you lower than the entrance to the narrow trail through the trees back to the parking lot. Make sure to communicate to the foot traffic as you approach to avoid slowing down your momentum on the gradual decline.
Trip date: April 21, 2018
Suggested gear list
With the exposure to snow, consider applying sunscreen often as you sweat and sunglasses to protect from the bright reflection of the sun on the snow. Bring enough water for a long day. Don’t forget the 10 essentials. I packed my 34L pack and was able to wear and store the gear listed below.
- Top base layer
- Bottom base layer
- Top mid layer
- Insulation layer like a down jacket
- Ski pants (or hiking pants)
- Hard shell jacket
- Ski socks (or wool socks)
- Sun hat or beanie
- Backcountry skis with touring bindings
- Ski boots
- Ski poles
- Climbing skins
- Ski packs and bags
- Ski crampons
- Beacon (avalanche transceiver)
- Snow shovel
- Ski goggles
- Boot crampons (optional depending on comfort on skins)