Picture it: You’ve just been denied a permit to a bucket list hike. Through your tears you see the words ‘YOU Can Climb Mount St. Helens.’ Feelings rush in–skepticism, fear, doubt–and then hope and excitement.
After losing out on a permit to hike to Havasupai, I was inconsolable. I literally spent all day crying at my desk at work. Despite heavy layers of pessimism, I am the type of person to get my hopes dashed to pieces when things don’t go to plan, so it was a tough loss. But a few days later, I saw my friend Jennie from Ordinary Adventures had a new post: YOU Can Climb Mount St Helens. I read it, moreso out of curiosity then anything. No I can’t, I thought as I clicked it. MSH is a peak (well, top? Summit?) you can see from an airplane, there’s no way someone like me could ever do it! Plus, I’m by no means a climber. But Jennie’s words made me realize that yes, I COULD do it, and this was the perfect thing to do to replace Havasupai.
Mount St. Helens (or MSH, as I called it) was the jewel of the Cascades. Also known as Loowit to the Klickitat tribe, this mountain once towered as the fifth-highest peak in Washington, and was renowned for a near perfectly symmetrical dome top. That all changed on May 18th, 1980 when the fire inside the mountain (the very active volcano of a mountain) blasted in an eruption, killing 57 and spreading ash to 11 states and two provinces. My parents felt the blast rattle their windows like a bomb all the way in Snohomish County, and ash lingered for years in areas. The tales of MSH are lore to anyone born and raised in the area. To climb to the top wouldn’t just be a cool physical accomplishment, but an awesome way to witness Washington history and the aftermath of the most disastrous volcanic eruption in US history.
PLANNING YOUR CLIMB
WHEN TO GO?
MSH is on a permit system from April 1-October 31st. Conditions for most of the year require strong technical skills for avalanches and snow, which is why those times aren’t under a limit. Early spring the quota is 500 climbers a day, peak times just 100 souls get to go to the edge of an active volcano. The permit lottery typically opens February 1st at recreation.gov and they go fast. Snow can stick around the summit deep into summer, with a ‘winter’ route and a ‘summer’ route depending on conditions. Lacking technical snow skills, selecting a date was a major gamble. You know your own skill level and comfort best, but take into account avalanche danger as well as weather preferences.
HOW TO GO
I made a game plan in advance to grab a decent chunk of permits in case interest was high (there is a maximum of 12 permits per reservation, easily refunded if you have dropouts). There is a non-refundable $6 fee for applying, and individual permits are $15 per person. I chose late August, praying wildfires would spare us this year. When the permit day came, my alarm went off and I raced to the computer. My planned Saturday was snapped in a flash, so I just moved one day earlier, in hopes of success (figuring the extra day to recover wouldn’t hurt either). And voila! Six permits were secured, and my obsessive over-planning self could take over.
PREPARING TO GO
While tons of hikes in the area are mountains, only some are mountain-mountains. MSH is a mountain-mountain. It is a tough hike, mentally and physically. While it doesn’t require climbing in the ‘harness’ sense, and has no dangerous crevices like Rainier, it also isn’t just a steep path up. If you have done some of the conditioning hikes I have mentioned previously, it does not mean MSH will still come easily. You need to be honest with yourself and your abilities, and be prepared–we saw two groups of people who were hiking in wool knit sweaters, tennis shoes, and with one shared bottle of water with no knowledge of length or difficulty and no poles (we’re guessing they undoubtedly had to turn back at some point). I had six months to prepare and get in tip-top shape, and I was still wholly beat by that mountain.
Ideally, you can snowshoe and do low-elevation hikes in parks all winter and spring long. I admit, that never goes as well as I plan, so I made ample use of other tools. At my gym, I focused hard on leg day, including squats and deadlifting as well as the stairclimber (I had been taught to squat and deadlift properly by a physical therapist and highly recommend consulting one for proper technique rather than mimicking busy instructors or videos online). For those in the Seattle area, I highly recommend Seattle Stairs, a map of all outdoor stairs in the city. At the time, I lived by the single-longest set of stairs (over 400 altogether), so I would frequently load up my pack with dumbbells and hit the stairs.
I have at all times a Google Drive of wish list hikes (see: over-planner), so I combed through that and looked for hikes that had an average elevation gain of 300 feet per mile or more. I organized them by gain per mile (paying attention to max elevation and the current snow level) and made a calendar of hikes in order. Like all plans, I wasn’t able to stick to this very well due to lack of willing hiking partners, but I made do with a decent amount of training hikes.
In addition to physical preparation, you need to do some mental preparation. Jennie had warned me about some of her attempts that had to be aborted due to unsafe conditions or running out of water. The boyfriendo had a coworker who said a few dozen feet from the top, they had a companion who just could not make themselves do another step. You also need to be prepared for disappointment–the view could be socked in with clouds, as many of my training hikes were. I made it clear to my hiking buddies that we all had to turn around if conditions were unsafe. A once-in-a-lifetime hike shouldn’t end your lifetime!
Like many hikes, one person’s “must have” gear could be another person’s “not worth it.” Regardless of preference, I’d say you MUST have:
Hiking poles, preferably with snow baskets (better for ash than the normal baskets). You’ll be using them and putting them away a dozen times, so something that telescopes or collapses is best.
- Good hiking shoes/boots (I wore boots). Don’t use brand-new ones, or you’ll be in blister city.
- Layers (it gets cold at the top, and if you start early, it can be cold in the morning). I brought way too many layers. If starting in the morning, remember: be bold, start cold!
- Headlamp (part of the Ten Essentials for emergencies if you take longer than anticipated, and useful if you want an early jump)
- Food/water: As this is a longer than-normal dayhike, more food and water is needed than you’d typically bring. I used about 3L of water, but had 5L ready. I also brought way too much food, but better to have too much than not enough!
- Sun protection: This hike has no shade whatsoever for over half of it. We all shared bottles of sunscreen and reapplied frequently, along with SPF lipbalm and hats.
- First aid: You don’t want to have to miss the summit because of a blister, do you? This can be shared amongst your group.
- Gardening gloves: For the two-ish miles of scrambling over jagged boulders, you’ll be reaching and grabbing to hoist yourself all around. People have said before they were fine on this hike without them, but all of us couldn’t fathom the cuts we’d have had without them.
Other handy gear includes gaiters (some of us had them, but those who didn’t were fine), sunglasses with strap, extra socks, duct tape (don’t want a busted shoe), a real camera, a seat cushion of some sort, and of course, beer. I even sacrificed a few extra ounces for a Hydroflask can koozie–my beer was still cold at the top, so I’m a believer! The last gear to have on hand is any bathroom essentials. There’s a pit toilet just before the permit area begins, two miles in, but from there you can’t find much in the way of privacy or accommodations. Blue bags are required if you need to go #2, but there were some at the trailhead we grabbed just in case. I brought my P-style which made peeing without cover a breeze.
THE DAY BEFORE
What time you begin your hike is up to you, but I’ve heard from many people that its an all-day thing. For that reason, and to beat the heat, my group all agreed we wanted to start when it was EARLY. To drive from Snohomish, King, and Benton counties and get there before dawn would have been hell, so we stayed at Climber’s Bivouac. This ‘campground’ for climbers is right at the trailhead and only open in months the summer route is open. No water, no hook-ups, just a spots for hikers to sleep and wait in anticipation for their climb. We arrived in time to witness some people’s triumphant return down from their climb, but mostly caught up and tried to sleep. If you do want to pull an all-nighter or get a later start, this is also where you park and register. Either way, the anticipation will be crazy-high! After catching up with family, introductions, a few beers around the fire, and setting our alarms, we hit the hay, excited and nervous for what the morning would bring.
I’ll post next week about the hike itself, but I hope this is a good primer for those hoping for a 2020 climb!