In Riddlesdown High School, next to me on the wall in geography class was a news paper clipping. The black and white photograph was of ‘most’ of a volcano. ‘Most’ is a keyword, because on 18 May, 1980, Mt. St. Helens blew her top with a magnitude 5.1 eruption releasing the most material ever recorded through a debris avalanche. Following this, magma erupted creating a pyroclastic flow which flattened vegetation and buildings over 230 square miles (600 km2). That is roughly the area of the City of San Francisco or almost half of the City of London. The plume of ash and smoke reached an altitude of around 15 miles above sea level. This was a big boom! Being set in such a remote place, the human cost was fairly low, however, 57 people lost their lives.
Having to drive from Seattle, WA to Portland, OR, a detour was planned to summit this mountain. Once off Highway 5, the Autumn drive was a joy in itself. Bright yellow deciduous trees made a striking color difference to the dark green conifers. I stayed in Cougar (the closest town to Mt. St. Helens) at the Lone Fir Resort. My room (cabin) was reasonably priced, clean, and simple. Arriving late, I missed out on the small towns’ Deli/Bar but a nearby gas station was open and it had a better food selection than most gas stations and even stocked some camping/fishing supplies. At night, the silence was deafening…
The 12-ish mile drive to the trailhead was free of traffic and beautiful. From Cougar, start on the 530 (NF-90). Signs to Mt. St. Helens are not posted specifically, follow signs for Climbers Bivouac. Turn off after about 6 miles onto NF-83 heading north. After about 4 miles a right turn takes you onto a forest track up to the trailhead. My Toyota Yaris rental made it up no problem, but there are plenty of rocks and potholes to navigate. At the top a single car was parked near the (closed for winter) campsites. Check online for passes and permits, restrictions apply throughout the year. To climb above the tree line (beyond 4,800 feet) a summit permit is required year-round. At the bottom of the trail, a sign-in sheet should be filled in to indicate who is up there.
The first two miles are a slow steady climb through the forest and Mt. St. Helens hides bashfully behind the trees. A few switchbacks provide great views over the plains, back towards Seattle where Mount Rainer stands majestic. After about 1.5 miles the trail runs along the edge of the tree-line and it becomes possible to imagine the devastation that occurred here. Massive pumice boulders reaching steeply up the mountain – and absolutely nothing else. Several signs remind hikers that a permit is required to continue beyond 4,800 ft. Then the gradient triples.
Ascending Monitor Ridge, reminded me of Frodo’s climb of Mount Doom. Mt. St. Helens is a truly desolate place and the trail offers 3 terrains types. 1) Scrambling over razor sharp pumice boulders. 2) Clambering up sand dunes made of tiny pumice fragments. 3) Snow. None are pleasant and all are exhausting. At least I wasn’t carrying the ring to rule them all! Golum has been made redundant here, the trail is clearly marked with blue markers below the tree-line and by a series of wooden poles above it.
Climbing up Monitor Ridge and seeing seismic monitoring equipment, it’s clear where the name comes from. Later on a couple passed me in the other direction. Now I had the mountain all to myself. Seeing clouds forming ahead, I wish I’d started earlier.
At around 5,500 ft the wind really started to pick up. With tiny pumice fragments being so light, it was like getting hit by a mixture of ice crystals and pumice fragments or stepping into a sand blasting machine. Moving off the ridge but keeping the marker poles in sight through the clouds the wind speed dropped significantly. As time went on, the clouds rolled over and obscured the poles. It was time to get back to them. Upon reaching them the gusts were getting so strong there was I risk I’d get blown over. I decided to find shelter on the other side of the ridge and assess.
Squatting in some snow behind a particularly large boulder, I decided to make some hot food and see how the storm developed. Even on the other side of the ridge, and behind a boulder, the wind made it impossible to cook. I’d been carrying my Marmot down jacket, the ascent keeping me warm. It was also serving as light padding for my ultralight backpack. I was glad to have brought it, it had suddenly become crazy cold. The frozen water particles with the light rain and tiny pumice fragments were now flying horizontal.
Even if I made it up, I would have had no view; time to descend. I’d made it up to 6,150 ft (a 2,000 ft ascent), the remaining 2,000 ft will have to wait for another day. On the way up, hiking poles were at times a burden, because my hands were full and not ready to grab rocks. On the way down, they acted as great aids for stability on the fine pumice. At least the soft pumice powder is easier on the knees compared to granite.
One day I will return to Mt. St. Helens and complete this hike. Make no mistake, this is a hard climb almost 4,500 ft in ascent 5 miles makes it steep. In addition, beyond the tree line, climbers are completely exposed to the sun, wind and in my case, flying pumice. It is however, entirely do-able in a day (weather permitting).
Sleep / Shelter
- None – Day hike
- Esbit UltraLight 11.5g
- GSI Halulite 0.6l pot 18g
- Survival matches. Survival basics ~ 10g.
- 2x solid fuel tablets. Survival basics ~20g.
- Docooler windshield
- Sawyer Mini water filter – 100g
- 2x Smart water bottles – 100g
Other Kit (in ditty bag)
- InReach Satellite communicator. Mostly for this blog. ~200g
- 2x Wetfire tinder. Survival basics ~10g
- Black Diamond ION head torch. Survival basics – 55g
- Sea to Summit small towel. – 25g.
- Tyvek sit mat. Great for avoiding a wet backside during breaks ~ 10g.
- USB charger and cables. For my phone. ~ 150g
- Knife – none (aircraft carry-on luggage)
- First Aid – none (day-hike, close to services)
Total dry pack weight ~0.75Kg
(+ ~0.5Kg for spare clothing -waterproof+down jacket)
(+ ~0.5Kg food)
(+ ~1Kg water)
Total carried weight ~2.75Kg
Kit – Wear/Carry
- Suunto Clipper compass. Survival basics – 5g.
- Black Diamond Z-pole. Lots of ascent, no need to adjust length. ~350g
- OR Active Ice sun gloves. Habit – 20g
- OR Sparkplug gaiters. Keep any debris out of low-cut shoes -25g
- OR Sun runners hat. Sun forecast -79g
- Buff. Essential gear / habit.
- Camera phone
- Patagonia Houdini waterproof. Weather can change fast here – 100g.
- Marmot Quasar down jacket. Survival basics, what if I have to spend the night? – 238g
- REI polyester SPF50 shirt. Sun protection, fast wicking.
- Arc’teryx Motus crew T-shirt. Fabulous summer base layer.
- REI boxer briefs
- Kuhl Kontra trousers. My favorite – always.
- Smartwool socks. Comfort padding.
- DryMax sock liners. Avoid blisters.
- Altra Lone Peak 3.5 trail running shoes. Light, cushioned with good grip.
- Mountain House Scrambled eggs
- Trail mix
- Boiled sweets
- GU energy gels
- Fuel – none
- Water ~1Kg