A Winter Wonderland: Mount St. Helens Summit
I’m not a peak bagger, I don’t suffer from summit fever, and I have no burning desire to stand on top of the highest mountains. I actually prefer looking at mountains from below, staring up at their lofty peaks, being overwhelmed by their impossibly massive walls, and admiring their powerful presence. But, sometimes I make an exception and that is exactly what happened a few weeks ago when Alex and I set out with a group of friends with the goal of summiting Mount St. Helens and skiing off the summit.
The winter route up Mount St. Helens, called the Worm Flows Route, requires climbing 6 miles and 5,700’ up to the summit which sits at 8,366’,and then turning around and either hiking, glissading or, as was our case, skiing back down. It would be an all-day adventure so we would need to start early, like, really early. Alex and I woke up at 1am to make the 3.5 hour drive to the trailhead, where we met our friends Nate, Amber, and Calvin for our 5:30am start time.
We spent the first few miles hiking in the dark, with nothing more than our headlamp’s small halo of light to guide the way. There wasn’t any snow on the trail’s lower elevations, so we carried our skis and boots on our packs, but despite the extra weight we made great time and were able to hike 3 miles before the sun began to rise.
Our goal was to be above tree line for sunrise so we could witness the first light of day dawn in its full glory and, thankfully, our quick pace allowed for that. We transitioned to our skis as the glow of blue hour began to softly illuminate the landscape and continued on, only to discover after a few hundred yards that the snow was much too icy to ski, so we were forced to transition back out of our skis and switch to crampons.
We took an extra long break at this point, hoping that the rising sun would begin to melt the snow and allow for us to use our skis again but, unfortunately, that would never happen and we would have to carry our skis all the way to the summit. If only we had ski crampons, we would have been able to use our skins!
After a nice long break and a good breakfast we began to hike again. As we gained elevation the wind picked up until it culminated in violent gusts that threatened to knock me off my feet. Each time another strong gust accosted me I would drive my feet deep into the snow and lean into the wind until it passed. Ever so slowly we made progress this way. Thankfully, after climbing a few hundred vertical feet the wind died down and we were able to pick up the pace again.
By the time we took our second break at the USGS volcanic monitoring site, the sun was high in the sky and beginning to cook both us and the slope. Many hikers were wearing nothing but t-shirts and a few were wearing even less. It may have been January but it was feeling quite spring-like!
The rest of the hike to the summit sort of blurred together for me; it was a slow procession where I wasn’t focused on anything other than putting one foot in front of the other and hoisting myself incrementally upward. The scenery that surrounded us was spectacular though, and offered a brief reprieve on the plentiful small breaks I took along the way. We had sprawling views of Mt. Adams, Mt. Hood, Mt. Jefferson, and even the Sisters in Central Oregon.
After 7 hours of intense physical effort I finally had the pleasure of taking those final few steps to the crater rim. While we had enjoyed stunning views for the entire day, my jaw dropped when I finally peered over the summit and into the massive crater below. The jagged walls sloped precipitously into the crater, fumaroles spewed gases far below, and 85 miles to the north Mt. Rainier loomed over the landscape. We stayed at the summit for about half an hour, soaking in the views, snacking, and resting up before the ski down.
And then came the real fun: Skiing off the summit! On the way down we skied fun bowls, steep slopes, and gently graded tree runs before we finally transitioned back to walking just one mile from the trailhead. It was everything I had hoped it would be and so much more. We whizzed down slopes that took us an hour to arduously climb up, whooping along the way. We took breaks often, just as we did on the way up, but this time it was to plan our next line!
Finally, we arrived at the last bit of snow on the trail and skidded to a halt. We packed our skis back onto our packs and quickly made our way towards the trailhead, happily reliving the magic that had just unfolded on Mount St. Helens.
We made it back to the car exactly 11 hours after we began. We were exhausted and probably a little smelly but we were grinning from ear to ear. What a day!