TLDR; Hiking Mount St Helens was EPIC and should be on everyone’s bucket list. To match the epic hike, this is an epically long post.
Despite my generally unassuming nature, I’m someone who likes to push the boundaries and most of all, my own. Having grown up hating hiking most of my life, I learned to love hiking after moving to New Zealand and finding myself so stressed out that I was desperate for an outlet. Fast forward a few years, and now I hike regularly and enjoy mostly solo hiking across the Wasatch front. After moving to the Pacific Northwest (PNW) for half of the year last year and hiking and visiting some of it’s amazing mountains, I decided that I wanted to merge my passion for hiking with my new found love for the PNW, and look into hiking volcano peaks. The natural starting point would of course be Mount St. Helens.
I drove up to Oregon a few days early, taking advantage of the quiet time to hang out with some of our amazing friends and family, and also sneaking in a hike or two to keep my body and mind prepared. I had hiked Bair Canyon in Fruit Heights, Utah only a week before, and my body was still recovering from the 7 hour hike that would somewhat closely mimic Mount St Helens, or so I thought. The day before we would climb Mount St Helens, my buddy Phil flew up from Utah and after eating too much yummy food and trying to find things to do in a COVID-19 Portland (and failing), we decided to turn in around 9:00 PM. I unfortunately don’t do well sleeping away from home and it’s even worse when I know I have a critical timeline I have to wake up early for. This would not make for a good combination in preparation for what would be a challenging day, and at roughly 2:00 AM I finally fell into a fitful sleep.
After less than 2 hours of sleep, we got up at 4:00 AM and left from the noisy La Quinta in Vancouver, Washington and got on the road. An hour and a half later the adventure really began. We started seeing signs for the trailhead, Climbers Bivouac. There was however one minor problem. All of the signs said, CLOSED. Pfft, what do signs know anyway? We kept driving.
As we went to make a right turn onto the road up to Climbers Bivouac, we noticed another problem, this one a bit more pressing than the signs. It was a closed gate. We were still a couple of miles away from the trailhead and were starting to get the distinct impression that perhaps… the trailhead was closed? Hmm. We had driven and flown hundreds of miles to be here, had purchased the permits that gave us the right to be here, and had checked the website before hand to make sure we were good to go. Climbers Bivouac is the Summer hiking route and we were definitely in the time period where climbing this path should have been the primary route. Not to be deterred, Phil, rockstar that he is, got out of the car and began fiddling around under the steel lockbox and about 20 seconds later, grinned widely, and swung the gate open. It turned out that the pad lock had been left off of the lock pin, and with a bit of unscrewing of the lock pin, we were simply able to open the gate. Hypothesis: They must have meant CLOSED to people without a permit and the gate was there to scare away day use people who wanted to hike up to 4800 feet, which doesn’t require a permit.
After closing the gate and replacing the pin, we drove up the road feeling pretty good. Mostly. As we started mentally gearing up for the trek ahead and approached the final signs for Climbers Bivouac, (these ones didn’t say CLOSED), we again came to a grinding halt. There was snow covering the last several hundred feet to the trailhead and it created an impassible barrier that would high center us for sure if we tried to pass it. Not to be deterred again, we backed off the road onto a grassy pullout area and parked. Surely the other hikers had trucks large enough to get over the snow barrier and were parked at the trailhead. Silly of us to come unprepared.
Next came the mental gymnastics of trying to pack only what was needed, while also being prepared for any situation on the mountain. This included taking a full load of provisions, ranging from 3 liters of water each, protein and fruit bars, and snacks down to, in my case, questioning the need for a coat, gloves, pants (did I really need to take my pants or would my shorts be fine?), etc. We made some rational choices to leave a few of the goods behind and stuffed the rest of the items into our backpacks. Boy were the backpacks heavy! That hadn’t been a part of our plan, but with our inner Boy Scouts screaming at us about preparedness, we slung them onto our backs and began the short walk up the hill to the trailhead, just out of sight.
You know how in the movies the stalwart adventurers walk into the village, looking forward to a bath and a hot meal, only to find that there are no people, the doors are hanging open and there is an eerie silence? This was worse. We hiked up the hill to the parking loop and trail head and found… nothing. No cars, no people, none of the expected hoards that should have been there. Ok, we did find one thing. We found SNOW, before we even made it onto the trail. That wasn’t what we had planned for. And, where were the people again? We’d read that many people start hiking as early as 3:30 AM, and surely we weren’t so cool as to be the first people on the mountain were we? Naw, people were probably on the trail ahead of us. The parking lot was slightly larger than we could see from our vantage point, so I looked for some (ir)rational explanation like maybe people parked out of eyesight, as far away from the trail head as possible, OR, maybe invisible cars… Yep, I’d buy that. Carry on soldier!
On a more encouraging note, there were nice looking bathrooms in the parking log and realizing this may be the last chance to use the facilities for a long time, we determined to use them before we started the grand adventure… that is, if they were open? “I’ll take door number 1! Crap. Door number 1 is locked. Door number 2 it is then! Sweet! Door number 2 is open and it smells like number 2, but hey, it’s the middle of nowhere and a toilet is a toilet.” Hypothesis: If the forest service REALLY didn’t want people here, they’d have locked BOTH toilets, right? Right. Carry on then.
We strapped on our awesome Kahootla MicroSpikes and Gaiters (both of them are game changing, and highly recommended!) and made other preparations. Pants are for sissies, so I was sporting my awesome short summertime hiking shorts, because it was June and that means Summer, right? “Man, that glistening white mountain is beautiful. Let’s pretend it’s not snow.” At roughly 6:30 AM, we donned our packs and started tromping along the thick snowy trail.
The beginning of the Mount St Helens climb is through forest and it’s awesome. Beautiful, green (minus that dang surprise snow which greeted us at step zero) and full of the sounds of melodic birds. Minus a few sheer places where we had to cut steps into steep snow, with long slides below them (where HAD the mysterious earlier hikers walked if there are no recent footprints here?), we had a fairly uneventful and energizing jaunt through the forest.
When you emerge from the forest, you are greeted with an amazing view of a snowy bowl (wait, MORE SNOW?!), and an incredible view up the mountain. Did I say incredible? Let’s replace that with DAUNTING. We couldn’t see the top and what we could see was steep, snowy and rocky at a perilous level. Still, this is how all great adventures start, so we got right to it and started hiking. As we started climbing the very base of the mountain, up a slope that already screamed “BE CAREFUL”, I took a step near the base of a rock I could see sticking out of the white landscape and fell straight through the snow with 1 leg all the way up to my hip! I had seen those shows where people fell over the edge of a deep icy crevasse, and I waited to hear the rocks hit the bottom of the cavern below… but wait! No, this wasn’t that movie, and my foot wound up briefly lodged between two rocks due to the sudden impact, and I was able to successfully wrench it free, climb back up to my feet, shake myself off, and AVOID ROCKS bases for the rest of the trip.
The trail up to the crater rim is marked by round wooden posts a bit longer than a meter and they dot the way up pretty much in a straight line up the rocky ridge heading to the top. The rocks themselves were challenging, and the elevation gains were very strong, but ultimately proved to be surmountable. What DID cause room for pause were the patches of snow that had to be traversed between the collections of volcanic boulders. We would find ourselves having to walk across distances of snow that were ever so slightly melted in some places and firm in others, which meant that you couldn’t ever be sure if your footing would hold and for many sections, slipping or falling here looked to be a slippery and quick slide to who knows where. And yes, at this point, it was blatantly clear, that NOBODY had been on this trail today.
After about 2 hours of hiking, and given that we hadn’t eaten anything prior to starting our hike, it was time for breakfast. This wasn’t to be just any lame hiking breakfast however. NO. This would be a feast to be savored! Phil pulled out his Mountain House Jetboil kit and an intriguing bag of “Breakfast Skillet”. After adding water to the Breakfast Skillet bag and sealing it, adding some white tablets to a bottle of water, pouring it on an interesting dry pad thing, and placing it all of that into a single larger bag, we put it all back in his backpack and kept hiking. 20 minutes later, our imaginary kitchen timer went “DING!” and we sat down in a wind break of rocks and went to pull the meal out. Phil’s backpack was shooting steam out of the vents, like a pizza pocket oozes cheese when it’s cooked too long. Once we extricated the bag, we were treated with a delicious breakfast of eggs, potatoes, and bacon (or some rough approximation of each) that was both piping warm and delicious. What a treat! After a breakfast dessert of dried mango slices, which Phil and I both like a lot, we continued our climb.
It’s hard to describe the amazingness of the view and the scale as we continued to spend the next several hours climbing. Green forests, rivers, reservoirs, mountain lakes dotted the landscape below. Mt. Rainer loomed large in the near distance and Mt. Adams starkly jutted out from the horizon further way. All of this made for a breathtaking hike and awesome eye candy as we took periodic breaks to drink water, rest and try to ignore the feeling that we might not make it to the top.
As we hiked, we saw strange trails in the snow that were hard to comprehend. They looked too clean to be the path of boulders or snowballs and not straight enough to be natural or just gravity pulled. We later determined that they were both the trails of glissaders, as well as what we believe to be short skis, snowboards or something equivalent. Some insane people had braved crazy steep terrain to have amazing and rapid descents from the heights above. As we passed these steep snowy slopes on our narrow rocky ridge line, we shuddered to think of what it would be like to sled down these icy ravines.
When you climb to the top of a mountain, it’s challenging to gauge where you are on the journey to the top as you find that you crest many false summits that show even higher summits ahead. However, as we rose above one rocky ridge peak, we looked up above to see… PEOPLE! Yes, those small ants that looked like they were walking on their hind legs, they were really people! What a relief and what a motivation. We put our legs into high gear and made our way up to what would wind up being the last 1000 feet of elevation gain, which would also prove to be among the most unnerving.
Shortly before we reached the people, we noticed two of them descending a steep path parallel to our rocky trail, but walking in the snow. As we watched, they sat down, ice axes between their legs and began sliding down the mountain, toward a snowy edge that we couldn’t see beyond. They must be INSANE! Yet, there they went, cautiously sliding down, and breaking their speed with their ice axes. As we watched them slide over the edge of what we could see, we thought, “No way in H*$@ are we doing that!”.
We made our way to where the Winter route (Worm Flows) meets up with the Summer route (Monitor Ridge / Climbers Bivouac) at the same time that two ladies came up the other trail. We asked which route they had taken and quickly found out that everyone else we could see had come up the Winter path, though they admitted that they had considered taking the route we took but were turned away by the closed gate. After a brief chat and some rest, we all proceeded to head upward. At this point, we abandoned the extremely steep rocks, and made our way up the barely visible toe hold steps that were weakly cut into the hard and crusty ice that lead up to the summit. You know that piece of your brain you have to try and turn off when you eat food in a third world country where you KNOW they haven’t refrigerated that meat or washed their hands in a while? Or the unnerving feeling you feel when you have to walk through dark and unknown territory to get to where you are going? That is the piece of my brain that I had to turn off as I shoved to the periphery of my brain the awareness that I was climbing something I probably was not going to be able to climb down without falling while simultaneously noticing that visibility had disappeared to be replaced with cold clouds and wind. But what is there to do when you are 500 feet from the summit?! Press on my wayward son.
After 6 hours of grueling hiking with wet boots and tired legs, we finally made our way to the crater rim, where we stepped VERY cautiously, and with more than a little queasiness and trepidation, toward the cornice, hanging out over the edge of the rim. We briefly saw the crater dome below, before the clouds rolled in blocking our view further than about 50 feet. We took the obligatory photos and stepped back from the edge, taking pictures of the 2 ladies that came up behind us as well as two parents with their 11 year old boy who didn’t seem at all bothered by the climb. We briefly and almost unconsciously acknowledged our victory, all the while really just itching to get down from the stormy heights.
As we started our descent, we noticed the parents of the boy step off the icy toehold path and sit down in the ruts leading down from the top of the crater rim back down the way we had come. We watched in terror as they started sliding down the mountain, their boy, clearly lucid and sane, opting NOT to participate in the madness. We all watched as their shadowy forms disappeared into fog that veiled the perilous slide. We continued hiking down the path with the boy for another 100-200 feet and as the fog thinned out a little, we was the parents down below, clearly doing just fine and waiting for their son. At this point, Phil and I decided that if we’d traveled this far and climbed all this way, we may as well have the full experience. I pulled the black garbage bags out of my backpack and we each sat down on them in the glissading path (me in my short shorts, thighs fully exposed) and began sliding down the mountain.
At this point, the entire descent changed from a harrowing experience to a full on party. Sledding down the mountain on black garbage bags, snow entering my shorts and lodging itself in places snow should never go, we yelled with pure exhilaration and a bit of apprehension during our initial glissading run. What had appeared so terrifying before was now well in our control as we learned how to use our boots and our poles to control our speed and even a little of our direction. Should you choose to climb snowy peaks where glissading is a thing, we would HIGHLY encourage you to participate. The glissading was broken up by changes in terrain, including flat spots or areas where the slope of the hill pointed you directly at rocks at the end, which I soon experienced first hand.
Phil had chosen to go first on a particularly steep slope and as I watched him disappear over the edge, I felt determined to go faster than he had. Just another envelope to push, right? As I came over the edge and started rocketing toward the bottom, I saw Phil standing on rocks at the bottom and he started shouting at me to slow down. I slowed down to what I thought was a safe speed… but I thought wrong. As I hit the end, I tried to stop myself with my left leg, but was traveling to fast to be graceful and wound up crunching my leg up into the fetal position with the speed and pressure, causing immediate aching all through my left leg (my good leg). Thankfully, though I would hurt from it for days to come, I was able to stand up, stretch out a bit and mostly shake it off, though it definitely slowed my climbing descent. The only other glissading mishap happened when Phil went down another good stretch first, intending to film me as I came down after him. As I started speeding up down the run, I noticed something interesting in the path in front of me. Was it… a phone?! Sure enough, as I rapidly approached, I reached out and fumbled for the phone, successfully holding it while trying to control myself. At the bottom of the run was an anxious Phil who immediately asked me if I’d seen his phone. I smiled holding it up to him as relief flooded his face. It would have been an arduous process to get back up and try and find it.
Ultimately, we made our way down the treacherous landscape in only 3.5 hours, compared to the 6 hours up, thanks mostly to glissading, not only for speeding up the descent of a couple thousand feet, but also because the sheer joy of glissading picked up our energy to new levels for the rest of the journey. This was critical in a way that to me was unknown at the time. As I was using a new 3 liter water bladder, I hadn’t had a chance to use it prior to this hike. The suction on the bit piece was very hard, and so I wasn’t sure how much water I was getting, but also didn’t want to consume it too quickly. I would later find that out of the 3 liters I should have consumed in almost 10 hours, I only drank .5 liters. This was a dangerous level of dehydration that left me peeing dark orange for almost 2 days. Thankfully the energy generated by glissading helped me to push through successfully.
As we broke through the forest and into the parking lot again, we couldn’t help but smile widely and gratefully at each other for what we had accomplished. After 9.5 hours, we had successfully climbed to the summit of Mount St. Helens and returned to our car in safety! This hike was a true testament to the power of friendship and the power that comes from supporting each other in a feat that would have quite frankly turned either one of us away had we been alone in the journey. It felt amazing to have accomplished something so epic and felt even more amazing to be done with the journey, or so we hoped. We had one last hurdle to pass. We crested the rise from the parking lot down toward the car, anxiously looking to see if we’d gotten a ticket, and to our relief we hadn’t. As we unloaded our packs and stripped off our wet gear, we collapsed into the cool leather seats of the car. Sitting never felt so good! Still unable to claim victory just yet, we raced down the dirt road to the final obstacle; the gate. As we approached, we worried that the forest service might have come through and locked the gate, which would have stranded us with no other way off the mountain. Phil jumped out of the car, fiddling again inside the steel box and smiled more in relief than victory this time as he worked the gate pin loose and let me drive through before replacing it all as though nothing had ever happened.
What an amazing adventure! For those of you wondering if this is worth doing, my answer would be a resounding YES! This was absolutely the most awesome hike I’ve done in my lifetime and would qualify in my book as a bucket list item. I think my recommendation would be to hike in the late summer, though our epic journey wouldn’t have been complete without the challenges provided by the unrelenting snowy path. Make sure glissading is on your radar and that you come prepared with black garbage bags, or you’ll miss a key piece of the adventure. Will I ever hike Mount St. Helens again? Probably not. There is a whole world of mountains to climb and having victoriously summited this prominent volcano, I will look for other summits to scale. Thanks to the recommendation from a friend, and my recent discussions with my father about taking a trip to Japan, I believe the next volcano to scale will be Mt. Fuji. I’m looking forward to the next adventure and encourage all: Live Adventurously!
Special thanks to Teton Sports, a Utah local outdoor gear manufacturer, for producing such amazing gear. I own 2 of their Oasis 1100 backpacks, which I use multiple times a week for biking and hiking. As I was looking for a larger backpack for this trip, I discovered that they were a local company and went down to their offices to look at all of their gear. Having discussed my plans to hike Mount St Helens, the guy who took the time to walk me through their gear recommended the Talus 2700, the backpack he himself uses for climbing. Their gear is awesomely designed and high quality and I appreciate their time taken to guide me to the backpack that was absolutely the right fit for the journey. Check them out at www.tetonsports.com. And no, I am not affiliated with them or compensated to say any of this. I just freaking love their gear!
As we drove back to Salt Lake City following our adventure, we picked up an old trailer from our house in The Dalles, Oregon and decided to take a more scenic route home. We passed through the White River and began to make a more scenic route toward home. We stopped off at White River Falls State Park, an amazing hidden gem in the middle of nowhere, which was home to the original power plant for the region and is now a beautiful recreation area consisting of an amazing set of cascading water falls, cliff jumping, lazy floating stream, and of course the derelict power plant.
After a brief and painful hike down and up from the river, we headed toward Bend. As we entered Bend, we tried to see what was open that we could do, but with COVID-19 fear still alive and strong in the PNW, we found that most recreational sites we could have visited were closed. After missing our turn, to head toward Boise, we backtracked through some dirt roads to get back on the road we needed. Finally making our way toward Boise, we got back into deep conversation. As we conversed, I happened to glance in the rear view mirror and looked out the back window to see black chunks flying out from underneath the trailer. I almost ignored it, but suddenly had a terrible dawning in my mind. I immediately pulled the car over, got out of the car, and discovered… that one of our already horribly bad tires had disintegrated to shreds and we were starting to roll on the rim. Crap. We were 20 miles outside of Bend on a late Saturday afternoon.
We pulled the trailer off of the hitch and wheeled it off the road a safe distance. We got the jack out of the car and began the process of taking both wheels off the trailer (both tires were really bad so if we were going to replace one, we might as well replace both). We had been off to the side of the road for no more than 3 minutes when someone pulled over to see if they could help. On a quiet stretch of highway, it was astounding that someone would offer to help so fast! By this point, Phil was well on his way of getting the tires off, so we thanked him for his offer but that we had things under control. We did ask him if there were tire places in town that would have trailer tires and after giving several possible suggestions, he left.
After successfully pulling the tires off the trailer, we headed into town, stopping first at Costco. As we waited in line, we got increasingly anxious as Saturday was winding down to closing time for many stores in Bend and it didn’t look like we were going to get helped any time soon. Mercifully, a guy eventually asked if we were there to pick up tires and we explained that we needed new tires for a trailer. He let us know that they didn’t carry tires that size and recommended we visit Les Schwab. We drove over to Les Schwab who did in fact have the tires and at a good price, and he asked if we needed the tires today. We explained that we did as we were in the middle of a long trip home. He told us that he would get them done for us. It was less than an hour until closing time (5 PM) and they had a long line of people ahead of us. We drove back to Costco to enjoy some rare retail therapy and berry smoothies, and then returned to Les Schwab an hour later to find the tires hadn’t even moved from the counter we’d placed them on. Grateful all the same that they were going to get things done for us, but anxious to get moving, we sat and killed the remainder of the time in the lobby. They turned off the lobby lights and were closing up for the day, but an hour after closing, they finally delivered to us awesome new tires and sent us on our way.
As we headed back from Les Schwab, grateful to have tires at the last possible moment, we passed through an intersection and then noticed blue and red lights flashing behind us. I pulled to the side to get out of the way and then realized that the police officer was pulling off behind me, signaling me to take a side street. I pulled over with a sinking feeling in my stomach yet again, and rolled down my windows. The officer asked me if I knew why I had been pulled over and I asked him if it was because of my glowing skin tone from the sun burn I got while hiking. Just kidding. I told him I didn’t know and he informed me that I was driving 38 in a 25 MPH zone. My jaw hit the floor. Now I’m a pretty solid, 4.5 miles over the speed limit kind of guy, but I NEVER speed intentionally in a residential zone. I was shocked and was well aware from friends with painful experience that fines for being that much over a speed limit in a residential zone come with high fines. As I gave him my drivers license, I tried to explain that we were just passing through, but had a tire blow out on our trailer, had just gotten new ones from Les Schwab, and were trying to find our way back to the middle of nowhere to find our trailer again. He took my license while I tried to pull up my insurance on my phone app and went back to his car. After a few LONG minutes, feeling sick at having broken the law so badly, he came back to look at my insurance. He asked which route we had taken through town and where we thought the trailer might be. After looking at the map for a while, and suggesting the path we should take back to the road to Boise, he wished us luck. I asked him if I would be getting a ticket as I had clearly broken the law, even if I wasn’t aware. He said with a smile, “It seems like you guys have had a rough enough day without a ticket”, wished us a good day and let us go with admonishment to pay a bit more attention. Relief flooded through the car as we both stared at each other in shock and awe at the kindness and understanding of the police officer and we slowly, nay paranoidly, made our way back to the trailer, where we successfully replaced both wheels and made our way toward home.
Our whole trip was filled with one major feeling: Gratitude. From the adventures of Mount St Helens to the tactical trailer challenges, we were grateful for the many good things that happened to us. If we had gone the normal way home rather than the scenic route through Bend, we’d have been stranded in the middle of nowhere with no tire shops open by the time we hit civilization. The timing was perfect, the location was perfect, and the adventures were, well, perfect. Life is a bumpy road, a storm tossed sea, but it’s exactly these challenges and adventures we should be grateful for as they are the punctuation marks that make life memorable.
Great writeup, Joseph! You should consider climbing Mt. Rainier. That’s a two day trip, hiking from 5400 feet to 10,000 feet the first day, attempting to sleep until midnight or so, then all of the way up 14,410 feet, and all of the way back to 5400 feet on the second day. I did it the summer after finishing high school. Strongly recommend going with the guide service. I went the year Mt. St. Helens blew.
Mate you need to come back to nz and hike (“tramp”as us kiwis call it) some more. We can take some dogs and knife and catch a wild boar. Theres heaps floating around after the COVID lock down. I think the pigs did what most of the people and rabbits did with being locked up. Nudge nudge wink wink.
Great write! What a cool experience!!
Blessings come in all shapes and sizes! Congratulations on the successful climb and on traversing all the difficulties thrown in your path, expected and unexpected. You are a great example of perseverance and friendship and what those can accomplish together!