On Sunday, Matt, my brother Steve, some of my brother’s friends, and I all hiked Mount St. Helens in Washington State!
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? 🙂
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.
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).
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!
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!
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.
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.
After that section is where things start to get challenging! Lots of rocks and uphill scrambling await.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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!
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!
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!
Can you tell it’s FREEZING and crazy windy?! 🙂
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!
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! 🙂
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!
I decided to have a Seattle cider – seemed appropriate! Matt had an IPA called “the descender” – also appropriate!
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.
I was SO excited when we finally got back to the non-snowy portion of the trail – hooray for steady(ish) footing!
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.
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!
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!
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?
Please note there are affiliate links in this post.