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Hiking Mount St. Helens

On Sunday, Matt, my brother Steve, some of my brother’s friends, and I all hiked Mount St. Helens in Washington State!

hiking mt st helens

When Matt and I told my brother we were planning to come out this weekend, he said that he was going to hike Mount St. Helens with some friends. Did we want to join? You guys know I’m not one to pass up an adventure, so even though I have the Marine Corps Marathon in a week, we said yes! My brother has gotten really into mountaineering since living in the Pacific Northwest and I’ve been jealous seeing all of his mountain summit pictures (so far he’s done Mount Rainier and Mount Adams). Matt and I were actually considering coming out to do Mount Adams with him over the summer but it didn’t work logistically, so we were excited to get the opportunity to do Mount St. Helens instead! (Probably for the best, anyway, since this would be our first try at mountaineering and Mount Adams is higher and more intense – and requires an overnight camping session on the mountain.)

When my brother started talking about ice axes and crampons for this hike I wondered if we were maybe in over our heads, but it’s good to do stuff outside of your comfort zone, right? :)

hiking mt st helens in october

Mount St. Helens is an active volcano about 100 miles south of Seattle; it’s known for its major eruption in 1980. The eruption literally blew the top off the mountain, reducing its summit elevation by over 1,000 feet and creating a huge mile wide crater at the top of the mountain. The edge of the crater lip is what hikers now hike to to summit the mountain; it’s over 8,600 feet.

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There are lots of hiking trails around Mount St. Helens, but if you want to hike over 4,800 feet you have to get a climbing permit (which we did ahead of time online – they sell out).

mount st helens winter hike

We were up super early on Sunday and out the door to meet Steve’s friends for a fuel-up breakfast at a random diner on the way to Mt St Helens. Omelette me! Plus a couple cups of coffee – needed that caffeine!

what to eat before mountaineering

The standard mountaineering route in the warmer (non-winter – through the end of October) months is the Monitor Ridge Route, which starts at the Climbers Bivouac. We arrived a little after 10 a.m. and got geared up and ready to go!

ready to hike mt st helens

For gear, Matt and I both wore standard hiking pants with long underwear underneath. I also wore a lightweight zip up (like this one) with a regular long sleeved shirt (this one) underneath and my Marmot raincoat over it. I also brought my warm North Face jacket but didn’t end up needing it with all the layers and all that hard, heart pumping work! As for my feet, I wore my durable and waterproof Merrell hiking boots with Smartwool hiking socks.

Since we knew I’d be the slowest person in the group, I just wore my trusty Nathan hydration vest (holds 2 liters of water) with my camera (Olympus Tough Waterproof Digital Camera), a head lamp, and some fuel tucked inside, and Matt and my brother carried larger hiking backpacks with more food and additional gear that we’d need later, like ice axes for Matt and my brother and ski poles for me (borrowed from my brother), super warm ski gloves, hats, neck warmers, and gaiters to keep our socks/shoes/pants dry in the snow.

mount st helens summit hike approach

The route we took is the most popular route to the summit in the spring/summer/fall (hikers take another route in winter) and gains about 4,600 feet in elevation in approximately 5 miles (one way) to reach the crater rim. Whoa – that’s some serious climbing! We read online that most climbers complete the round trip in anywhere from 7 to 12 hours. It’s strenuous with some scrambling but considered non-technical in that you don’t need ropes/expert mountaineering skills to make it to the summit, unlike some of the other mountains in the area.

The first part of the hike takes you through a pretty wooded area and some open meadows for about 2 miles. This section is relatively gentle and low key.

mount st helens climb

After that section is where things start to get challenging! Lots of rocks and uphill scrambling await.

mt st helens rock scramble

After about an hour of boulder fields the real adventure began: hello, snow. At this point we stopped and put on our gaiters to keep our legs/feet dry! The gloves and hats went on, too.

snow hiking mt st helens

You strap the gaiters around your legs and secure them to your shoes – cool! We bought these right before this trip and it was our first time using them – quite useful.

gaiters for snow hiking

If we went back and did this again we would definitely have also invested in a pair of crampons, which are spikes you attach to your boots to make hiking in snow much easier. Matt and I didn’t have any which made the hike much harder and scarier because we were constantly slipping all over the place and losing our footing. I wouldn’t have been able to make it up the mountain at all if I didn’t have ski poles – those helped a ton with keeping me from sliding down (my arms are sore – it was a workout!). Matt used my brother’s ice axe to help his climb!

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When the snowy section of the trail started, my brother went on ahead to catch up with his friends (who were all very speedy), and Matt and I hung back and took our time. Given that I was only a week out from Marine Corps Marathon (add mountaineering to the list of things not to do the weekend before a marathon… oops), I really wasn’t trying to twist an ankle or break a leg, so I was super cautious and went even slower than I might have normally.

As we continued up the mountain, the clouds started to lift a bit and we had some really nice views of the mountains in the distance. So beautiful!

mt st helens snow hike

view of mount adams from mt st helens

It looked pretty cloudy/hazy up at the top of the mountain as we were hiking, although the clouds seemed to keep lifting as we climbed which was a good sign. We passed a number of hikers coming back down and all but 2 of them said they hadn’t been able to make it to the summit due to either a) no crampons and too much sliding around, or b) whiteout/really low visibility conditions near the top. Yikes. Luckily Matt and I had the car keys so we figured we could always turn back if things got too crazy. In the meantime, we decided to just keep going as long as we could and reassess if we needed to.

mt st helens summit climb

hiking mt st helens snow

This was definitely a very challenging (hello, endless stairmaster) and scary at times (due to really steep areas with lots of ice and not great footing) climb. A huge thank you to Matt for being very patient with my slow progress – and for encouraging me and coming back down to help me figure out a way up when I got scared or stuck. This hike was no joke, especially without crampons to secure our feet!

mount st helens snow climb summit

mt st helens hike

We continued going up and up and up. In terms of food, we knew we wouldn’t have time or a good spot to stop for lunch so we snacked on bars all day – an assortment of Larabars, KIND bars, Clif bars (the new nut butter filled ones are yummy), Bobo’s Oat Bars (love their maple one), and Perfect Bars. It did the job!

After awhile, the clouds had lifted enough that we realized we could see the summit! Whoa – we might be able to do this after all!

final climb to mt st helens summit

The final climb to the crater edge is really steep, although there weren’t any rocks in this part and the snow was less icy and more fluffy, which helped a lot with keeping our footing. It was tough though!

WE MADE IT!! My brother saw us making the final climb and waited near the crater edge to greet us as we summited (the other guys came down as we were heading up since it was really cold and windy up there). Thanks for waiting for us, Steve!

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Can you tell it’s FREEZING and crazy windy?! :)

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Unfortunately the minute we got to the crater edge the clear view that the other guys had disappeared and we were engulfed in thick clouds – such a bummer to not get the view after all that hard work! We just got a tiny glimpse of the crater but after waiting a few minutes up there hoping the clouds would clear we decided to head back down – it was so cold and windy!

crater view mt st helens summit

Heading back down that first bit from the crater was intense – it was really steep and so cloudy that it was hard to see more than about 5 feet ahead of us. The wind and extreme cold didn’t help either! I was definitely scared trying to figure out how not to fall down the mountain on my slippery shoes, and ended up swapping my poles out for my brother’s ice axe to do a sort of controlled butt slide down instead. Luckily when we made it down about 1,000 feet we were below the clouds again and able to see where we were going – whew! I still did a lot of butt sliding though in areas where it was safe to do so and where there weren’t rocks. It was fun like sledding – and it saved my knees and legs from further beating so that was great too! :)

sliding down mt st helens snow

My brother and his mountaineering buddies have a tradition where they have a celebratory beer on the top (or near the top, depending on conditions) of the mountain after summiting; they waited for us a little ways down in an area sheltered from the wind by a big rock so we could celebrate together!

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I decided to have a Seattle cider – seemed appropriate! Matt had an IPA called “the descender” – also appropriate!

mt st helens celebratory drink

After the quick stop it was time to hurry back down the mountain – by this point it was already 4:30 and we were running out of daylight fast. Yikes! Steve stayed with me and Matt to help us get down safely and the other guys raced ahead.

descent mt st helens summit

I was SO excited when we finally got back to the non-snowy portion of the trail – hooray for steady(ish) footing!

mt st helens hike view

climbing down mt st helens

By the time we reached the lower portion of the rock scramble and neared the forest, the sun was starting to set. Gorgeous! This was one of my favorite parts of the hike because it was so beautiful.

sunset mt st helens

mt st helens sunset

mt st helens sunset

We arrived back down to the forest trail just as the daylight faded. I was really glad we weren’t trying to do a rock scramble in the dark! I was also glad that my brother had been smart and given us all headlamps – we had 2 miles to walk in the forest and those headlamps were key!

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We started the hike at 10:30 and we made it back to the cars just before 7:30, triumphant but totally exhausted! We said farewell to Steve’s friends (who were camping out overnight and exploring some cool caves the next day) and drove to the closest town (Cougar, about 30 minutes away) for a late dinner. A big bowl of chili sounded delicious – as did some salty potato chips. This hit the spot!

mt st helens refuel

We made it back to my brother’s place around 11 and crashed hard. What an adventure we had! I’m so proud of us for making it to the summit! :)

Have you done any mountaineering? Which mountains have you hiked?

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Comments

  1. 1

    Your pictures are fantastic! That is such a major accomplishment to hike St. Helens. I grew up in Vancouver, WA and know the tiny town of Cougar well! So random that you ended up stopping there! We spent almost every summer growing up on Swift reservoir just north of town. What a great adventure that you guys got to have! Thanks for sharing!

  2. 2

    Wow, this is awesome! Congrats on completing this…it sounds so tough! Bummer that there were no views when you got to the top but you guys should be proud. Hope you are loving it out there. I did some hikes there last summer and they were amazing.

  3. 3

    My husband has climbed all five WA volcanoes, but I’m really terrified of heights and exposed, steep snow, so I’ve only climbed St. Helens and Adams. I hope to climb Glacier Peak one day too…but luckily Washington is full of non-scary, gorgeous hikes I can do, so it’s not like I’m missing out. I think you would like Adams, you should come visit your brother again in the early summer and climb! Make sure you come while there’s still enough snow for an epic glissade back down (but remember to take your crampons off before glissading, people have to be rescued there all the time because they don’t realize that crampons + glissading = broken ankle)!

  4. 6

    Good for you guys hiking the mountain! What a hike with those ice axes – this would definitely push me out of my comfort zone (and sounds slightly terrifying). I couldn’t get over how many volcanoes were in Oregon when I was there! Who knew.

  5. 7

    Wow Anne that is an amazing summit, congrats! I definitely would’ve been terrified but what a great experience. (Good luck this weekend- I know you’ll crush it!)

  6. 8

    That’s awesome! Nice job! When I lived in Utah, I climbed some mountains but nothing that intense and not in the cold months! I also tried the new nut butter filled Clif bars at a race expo recently and they were good!

  7. 9

    Loved your recap, this is definitely going on my bucket list. I am working on climbing all the mountains in the Adirondacks, it’s so much fun but the conditions can be crazy in the Fall and Winter! If you plan to do more snowy/icy hiking I would definitely suggest getting a pair of microspikes! They fit right over your hiking boots and have small spikes-not as crazy as crampons-and they help immensely! They’re lightweight so just keep them in your pack until you need them, and take them off/on whenever. I bring them with me on any mountain hike from September-May because I hate being caught without them and slipping/sliding up the mountain! Kahtoola is a great brand. Cheers :)

    • 10

      Great tip thank you! Would be good to have spikes that are lighter and less intense than crampons but still helpful! Wish we’d had these on this hike!

  8. 11

    Way to go Anne! I understand your fear in some spots. I moved out here to WA 3 years ago from the Midwest and have gotten myself caught in a few instances like you described, not on such a big mountain though! Glad you made it safely! Regardless, a bit scary for sure! I have attempted Rainier but our group hit the worst weather in July so did not summit. Mt St. Helens and Adams are on my list for sure.

  9. 12
    Track Buddy says:

    WOW what an amazing adventure – I am so impressed!!!

  10. 13

    such a cool experience! I hiked Kilimanjaro years ago, and always like to hear about other’s hikes!
    Quick question – why didn’t you start your hike much earlier? I would have expected many people to start at sunrise, to avoid coming back down in the dark?

    • 14

      Mostly because it was a long drive! We were up and out the door by 5:50am as it was – stopped for breakfast to meet up with the other guys and then kept driving. So any earlier would have been a bit intense. 🙂

  11. 15
    Christina says:

    Haha I just did old rag this weekend and was feeling like a rockstar. This hike looks 1000x harder but so beautiful! great job Anne

  12. 17
    Roadrunner says:

    Wow! Impressively done! Big kudos! And another great adventure. Gonna add mountain climbing to your portfolio of activities now?

  13. 18

    Wow! Awesome job!! I love hiking and the most challenging hike I’ve done was Acadia national park in Maine and franconia notch in New Hampshire. Hiking in Oahu was amazing, as well!

  14. 20

    EPIC!!! :D Looks amazing!! Glad you guys decided to go for it in the end!

  15. 21

    Looks amazing! I love hiking and my husband and I do lots of overnight hikes but sometimes I get really nervous. Glad I’m not alone! Good job for pulling through and reaching the summit!

  16. 22

    Some blog posts make me jealous. (They usually contain pictures of food) This on the other hand makes me want to strap on my hiking boots! Loved the pictures and celebratory drinks at the top. Great blog

  17. 23

    Such a fun adventure, I want to go now!

  18. 24

    What an amazing adventure! I wish I was as adventurous as you Anne! I’ve never even seen the snow though, so maybe I just need to take that step first, and then I’ll be scrabbling up mountains too :) Thanks for sharing your gorgeous photos – now rest those legs up for the marathon!

  19. 26

    Congrats – sounds like an exhilarating experience! And best of luck this weekend. :-)

  20. 28

    wow this hike sounds INTENSE. congrats on making it to the top!!

  21. 29
    Ms. C and 3B students says:

    Hello! We live in Dallas, TX and we are in 3rd grade. This week we are reading about Mt. Saint Helens and the eruption that happened in 1980. My students were excited to find a blog like the one they will be reading in their books.

Trackbacks

  1. […] since living out west. He has already summited Mt. Rainier, Mt. Adams, and, you guys will remember, Mt. St. Helens (<- summit hike recap) back in October with me and Matt! :) Here we are at the top of Mt. St. […]

  2. […] about his other two big mountain summits (Mt. Rainier and Mt. Adams – you already read about his Mt. St. Helens ascent with me and Matt!), I’ll share those later this month! Stay tuned. […]

  3. […] note – here are a few more posts about previous mountaineering trips I’ve done: Hiking Mt. St. Helens with Anne and Matt, Summiting Mt. Rainier in summer, and Winter Ascent of Mt. […]

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