I Climbed Mt. Saint Helens

And it was awesome! And five days later, I’m finally not sore anymore. Despite the soreness, the sweat, and the alpine start (I’m not a morning person), it was totally worth it.

I mean, check out this AMAZING view:

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View from Mt. Saint Helens Summit, with Spirit Lake + Mt. Rainier

As summiting cascade peaks go, this is one of the easier climbs one can do during the late summer/early fall (tell that to my quads and arms). Taking the Monitor Ridge route (the main summer climbing route), you don’t need any technical gear, or really any technical expertise. However, this trip definitely isn’t a “hike” as much as a semi-brutal 6 mile rock scramble with roughly 4 miles of really nice maintained trail (roughly 10 miles round trip). Once you leave the trail and reach the start of Monitor Ridge, it’s a really fun scramble over miles of uneven volcanic boulders (well, I think it’s great fun), followed by a section of steep, loose pumice before the summit. So, it was pretty much exactly what I love about a trip: difficult, varied, with a huge payoff at the end.

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Mt. Adams from the Monitor Ridge climbing route

For today, I thought I’d do a quick little write-up of my experience + itinerary, including a few tips I have to potential climbers. While clearly a well traveled and fairly straight forward trip, with 100 people allowed to climb per day with permits, I would say that it was still really challenging, especially for someone such as myself who is in solid moderate shape** (see bottom) AND completely new to climbing cascade peaks. So, while yes, it’s something lots of people do everyday day, I’m also REALLY proud of myself for doing this (which is to me, sometimes part of why I do all this, to be challenged).

With this is mind, here are a few tips/pointers:

  1. Permits: You need them. Get them here! However, a few things to be aware of. As far as I can tell, ALL permits for the summer climbing season go on sale starting on the same day (which for 2016 is February 1st). The summer climbing season can vary based on conditions, but generally goes from June through October. For this time period, you need to pre-reserve permits. From early November through late June, permits are self-register, and available from the Marble Mountain Sno-Park (though note, the winter climbing route is different, and will obviously require different gear + skills! See here for more information). Couldn’t get the day you wanted, or like me, just didn’t know you wanted to climb 6 months in advance? Never fear! You can use this site to buy permits from people who have permits, but for whatever reason can’t go (this is what we did).
  2. Camping: We started our climb at 6am, and instead of leaving Portland at around 4am, we opted to camp conveniently close to the trailhead at Climber’s Bivouac the night before. This is a first come campground right at the start of the summer climbing trailhead. I can’t recommend this option enough, it makes the alpine start a little easier, while also offering some great stargazing at night. According to the Mount Saint Helens Institute (found here): Screen Shot 2015-09-14 at 5.41.06 PM
  3. Don’t underestimate a 10 mile hike. When I first saw the mileage of the trip I thought to myself “10 miles? That’s easy.” However, after more research, and now having actually having done said 10 miles, I would caution you to not think of this trip as a “hike” as much as a “climb” up 5,000 feet of rock and pumice. Sure, you’re not carrying a lot of technical equipment, but for a good potion, you’ll be using your arms a lot. Luckily, I LOVE a good rock scramble with little to no actual trail, so this was really fun. It took us about 10 hours (with a really long 2 hour lunch, opps), which seems about normal (7-12 hours). There IS a reason you get a “climbing permit” and not a “hiking permit!”
  4. Bring gloves. This seemed to be helpful on some of the rough volcanic boulders during the scramble.
  5. Bring layers. You’ll be experiencing 5000 feet of elevation change (and thus, sometimes temperature change). It can be very toasty during the summer, especially while on monitor ridge, however, we found that we cooled down pretty quickly on the summit and were thankful to have extra layers. It also goes without saying: bring a hat and sunscreen. While you spend the first 2 miles of your day (and last 2 miles) in a lovely shaded forest, the rest is just you and the sun.

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    The first 2 miles of the trail

  6. Boots + gators are a plus. While we saw lots of people in trail runners, I would strongly urge you to leave them at home, if you have the option. The rough volcanic stones are abrasive, sometimes unstable, and pretty hard on your feet. I’m generally a huge fan of backpacking/hiking in trail runners, but for this trip, I was really happy to have something a bit more robust. Plus, with gators, I didn’t have to constantly stop to pour ash and very fine rocks from my shoes. Plus, those little rocks seriously up your chances of developing annoying blisters.

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    Heading towards the summit

  7. Once you get to the top, enjoy the AMAZING view (it’s surreal). Take a moment to look towards your left, see that trail going along the crater rim? You can follow that to another high point (during the summer you can see a small rock cairn at the point in the distance). It was a bit precarious at times, but for us, totally worth the extra side trip. We were able to have a quiet lunch away from the crowds, and enjoy another incredible vantage point. Use your own judgement, and of course never do anything that makes you feel unsafe.

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All in all, a really incredible day full of epic views, burning quads, and rock scrambling. In fact, so much fun, I’ve been eyeing some other big peaks in my near future…

** By moderate shape, I mean: Totally fine on 8-10 mile day hikes with ~2500 elevation gain, but with anything much more difficult it becomes a matter of how sore I’ll be the next day. This was definitely at the upper limits of my “moderate” fitness level.

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