Climbing Mt. St. Helens

When my wife found out that she’d be attending a work conference in Portland, I immediately started looking for a local hike to occupy my time.  While there are many amazing hikes in the immediate vicinity of PDX, I thought: “Mt. St. Helens isn’t far from there, I wonder if it is safe/feasible/legal to hike it.”  After doing a little research, I found that not only is it possible to hike around it, it is possible to summit it with a special permit issued by the US Forest Service.

On the morning of the climb, I awoke at 4am local time and drove to the trailhead (stopping to register and pick up my climbing permit along the way). As I drove up the gravel forest service road, I began to become excited as I watched the sun peaking out over the endless spruce forests carpeting the landscape. At one point, I stopped the car to take several photos of the sun’s rays beginning to highlight distant Mt. Hood.

At the treeline; entering the “special permit area.” In the background is the volcanic boulderfield that the trail climbs for the next 2000 vertical feet

I arrived at the parking lot, got my things together and set out on the trail. For those who’ve never been to the South side of Mt. St. Helens, it’s completely untouched by the last eruption. In eerie contrast to the destruction of the North side, the forests grow as if nothing happened at all! The first part of the hike is through gorgeous spruce forests, climbing the 1,000 feet in 2 miles. I hustled along, then came around a switchback to be presented with a stunning scene of a meadow of ferns cloaked in autumn colors being highlighted by the sun. I reached for my camera, because I knew that this was a scene (and lighting) that I couldn’t pass up….At this point, I knew that today was going to be a good day, after all I’d just shot one of the best pictures that I’d ever taken.

Pressing on, I suddenly emerged from the forest and was immediately confronted with a giant pile of rocks…and not the smoothly weathered boulder types…the sharp volcanic type. For the next 2000 feet, the “path” climbed up and over this ginormous pile of rip rap. However, this wasn’t the hard part…after completing this part of the climb, the next 1500 feet to the top is on volcanic ash and pumice. Kind of like climbing a giant sand dune, 2 steps forward, 1 backward. This “sand dune” also happens to be at a 30 degree or greater slope. Plus, being at 7,000 feet +, you can begin to feel the decreased oxygen in the air.

After 30+ minutes of trudging up this mess, I could see the crest getting close. Reaching the crater rim, I let out a “HOLY S#%T!” – Yes, the view was that amazing. I was standing on top of a sheer 2000’ tall cliff, looking straight down into the steaming center of the volcano. The walls of the crater were all different shades: red, yellow brown, grey, black…a geology lesson on steroids. In the distance was Spirit Lake, still filled with the floating logs from the trees that were instantly knocked over during the May 1980 eruption. The scar of the eruption could be viewed fanning out for miles to the North on the now denuded hills. Further off, glacier covered Mt. Rainier stood silently over all of this, I’d hate to think what would happen if she blew her top.

I wanted to hang around up there all day, but the place gave me the creeps.  However, it wasn’t because of volcanic activity. Remember all of that loose pumice, scree, and loose rock that I had to climb up to get up there? – That 2000’ cliff that I was standing on top of was made up of it. You could hear rock slides occurring all around the crater. After hanging around for about an hour, it was time to head down, but not without thanking God for the opportunity and strength to make the journey. In addition to the spectacular images and the physical challenge, the mountain had given me a huge sense of accomplishment. It had turned out to be one of the best days of my life.

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