Last week, I wrote about how to prepare for hiking Mount St. Helens. This week, my tale of the hike itself–the coolest and hardest thing I’ve ever accomplished.
We awoke at 4AM at Climber’s Bivouac, a word I struggled to pronounce the entire time. Coffee, breakfast, and griping of the early hour were shared. The intrepid others hiking with me were my friends Derek and Marissa (Marissa of Postcards to Seattle), on their first trip away from their adorable son, the boyfriendo, and my uncles Dave and Greg. I am close to my mom’s side of the family, and to say Greg, Dave (and at camp Mamma Boots and Dave’s wife my aunt Tammy) are some of my favorite people on the planet is no exaggeration.
Headlamps on, we set off, grabbing blue bags in case of a bathroom situation arising. There is no shelter to hide in, and no dirt for burying waste, so the blue bags serve a dual purpose. Luckily none of us needed them. As with snowshoeing, if you are getting an early start, be bold, start cold! I fretted immensely over what to wear and how many layers to bring, and definitely ended up bringing way too much with me. We all did, as just a few minutes into our early excursion we were all peeling off layers.
The first two miles, which are wooded and fairly flat in comparison, went very quickly, partially due to excitement I’m sure. I meant to get a decent look at the area once in daylight on the way down, but that was far out of reach of my mental capacity at that point. Anyone can participate in this part of the hike, no permit needed, and at the right time, say, daybreak, it can certainly be breathtaking.
On recommendation of other hikers, we all stashed extra water bottles in the trees right by the spit to the “last chance” pit toilet. It was time to leave the trees, and enter the permit-only area! The climbing was to begin. There ceases to be one clear trail here, just wooden poles painted white, spaced out every so often to give you an idea of where to go. A fellow hiker we had met told us to aim to the left of the poles here, but I don’t know if that’s really the best route or not.
The higher we climbed, the more breathtaking the views got every time we took a break or turned around–and the tougher the hike seemed to get. While immediately after the treeline we got out the poles for some steep hiking, it wasn’t long before it turned to a full boulder scramble. We donned our gardening gloves, stowed our poles (for the first of dozens of times) and began scrambling.
The scramble sucked. Greg, with a bum knee, and me, with my bum hip, immediately fell behind. Greg was a total beacon of positivity that I needed though, cheering me on as I grumbled. Thanks to being rear-ended by an idiot teenager, any sort of upward step can really cause me pain, and will forever. Stair and normal-sized hiking steps are usually okay, but the effort of heaving my carcass (and overstuffed pack) over boulders? Not so much.
My ages of stair-climbing and leg days felt betrayed, as suddenly I was using my arms, back, and non-existent abs far more than expected to twist, grab, and reach on the rough boulders. I also failed to take into account that my poles stuck out on either side a few inches more than my body, causing quite a few scrapes and scratches to happen. The sun also began blaring, causing another break for us all to bust out the SPF. Excitement began to wane, as fear took over. The boulders were killing me, and everything I had read said that the stretch after the two-ish miles of boulders, the ash field, was far worse mentally and physically.
Whether subconsciously or consciously, I began to baby my bum hip (which is on my dominant leg) by making my left leg lead every big step. This proceeded in a mile to backfire spectacularly, as both hips were pissed off and cranky. I was also annoyed, as I had done the most training out of everyone, but my broken body was making me feel like I was holding them all back. Everyone in the group was awesome though, and spirits managed to stay high.
A cool sight came to break up the doldrums of the boulders–a seismology center. MSH is still considered an active volcano, and there are several seismology measuring stations all around the area. Hiking access has closed several times since ‘the big one’ hit due to volcanic activity, and stations like this are vital to safety. Not long after the center, the end appeared to be in sight. Time for what every piece of advice had prepared me for–the worst part, the ash field. Positive thoughts, I told myself. I had a hopefully cold beer waiting for the top. It was a clear day and we’d have a fantastic view. The end was near. Then the boyfriendo dropped the can of specially-purchased Loowit Brewing Mount St. Helles lager and it burst. Doh!
The final push needed to happen. We started to see people at the top, which improved my spirits immensely. At this point, I became determined to push away the pain and get to the top! I think we all had that similar sense, as Dave bounded up the final stretch like he was part mountain goat, and proceeded to cheer us all on with exuberance. With every step, I wondered how the hell anyone thought the boulder field was better than this–this was nothing! In reality, it likely was still difficult–you do sink downward a bit every step, but I had been led to believe it was the most demoralizing, mentally anguishing dayhike one could possibly attempt.
With everyone in my group done and cheering me on, I talked myself through every step. Just do ten steps on each side and rest. I powered through the steps, and told myself to repeat it. Nothing could have possibly stopped me when I was this close to victory! Ten steps and rest. And then, there it was, as clear as day: the caldera of Mount St. Helens, with a lava dome emerging from the cauldron within, Spirit Lake, a majestic Mt. Rainier towering in the distance, even the Johnston Ridge Observatory! All my clouded over, socked-in training hikes, my screaming hips, sunburnt cheeks, it was all so, so worth it. We were all at the top, high-fiving and hugging with exuberance–we had done it. Five hours of hiking later, I was on top of the world!
We were all elated. We couldn’t stop staring, gawking, and exclaiming. I didn’t know whether to get my camera out or just stare for ten uninterrupted minutes. Oh yeah, beer! Snacks! More sunscreen! Maybe it was the altitude, but my excitement was limitless, while my attention span and thought process decidedly less so. In some order, all of the above was done. Deep thoughts. Noshing. More exclamations of wonder. Drinking. Time felt like it stood still. We talked about how this was by far the coolest thing we had ever done. We spent an hour at the top, but I easily could have been there for tons of time longer. Besides the view of the caldera, 360* around us were other peaks, and getting to cheer on other finishers didn’t hurt either.
The trek down, however, would hurt. Unlike other hikes, this one took equally as long to get down than it did to summit. Sure, the ash field took what felt like mere seconds (according to my Runkeeper, I went from a 111-minute per mile pace to a 40-minute mile pace), but once we were back at the boulders, everything would become immensely harder. For starters, fatigue had set in, and the sun was out in full force. There was no more promise of beer and a thrill at the top (although no more beer did mean lighter packs). That alone was hard enough, but also, scrambling down a boulder field is so much harder than going up. Going up, we could map out our footing (and grabbing), but we were going down blind. Again, Dave charged ahead, but this turned out to be super helpful, as him and others ahead (leads changed at the blink of an eye besides him) could tell us the best path down from their better vantage point.
Again, the boulders sucked. I had dreams of summitting again, but the boulders on the way down just broke me. I kept loudly informing my fellow hikers that I was done and that I was over it. “This hike? It’s OVER!” in the manner of the Spike character from Portlandia. This made Greg laugh, as did a spontaneous duet he and I did of the Sex Pistol’s ‘God Save the Queen’ replete with more than necessary choruses of “NOOOOO FUTE-CHA!” (we were delirious, I tell you). However, all that couldn’t give me a physical boost, and when it came time to sort of swing downward, I couldn’t do anything but careen knee-first into a boulder, breaking the skin and leaving a bruise that lasted for weeks. Boulder fields? They’re OVER!
Mentally and psychically, I had had it. I think we all had. We finally saw the trees of the end of the permit area, and I know at least I was rejoicing (even as I cursed and whined down the mountainside). However, we were met by our own cheering section of Mama Boots and my Aunt Tammy! They had spent the day while we hiked exploring and decided to do the trail to the tree line in hopes of seeing us. I don’t know if they were ready for the battered, hangry, cranky crew they met, but we all chatted for a bit before beginning our final two miles.
I was far too tired to pay any notice to the trail, only to notice it felt twice as long in daylight as it did at night. Despite being battered, bruised, and mentally broken, my Runkeeper says my pace down was similar to the pace I had in this section going up! Mama Boots was full of questions, and I hope I did more than grunt in pain. I was torn between limping it out or jogging the last bit to make it end quicker. Finally, finally, we finished. I changed into fresh clothes and flip-flops, sank into the drivers seat, and cursed my body. Other than my eyes, which had given me such an astounding day of treats. My mouth got cut some slack too.
So there you have it–I could and I did climb Mount St. Helens, but it wasn’t pretty. Will I do it again? Maybe. I admit, doing it in winter with glissading through the boulders would be so much better, but would I have that same stunning view? Would I be able to see actual steam venting from the caldera like I had? Most importantly, would I ever convince my group to do it again? I couldn’t imagine it without them. It was the perfect group of people for the perfect conditions. We spitballed doing Adams or the Enchantments in future years, but there was nothing like the present in being on the rim of an active volcano, staring at the world around us. A truly unforgettable moment.
Water Brought: 5L (1L of which was stashed at the tree line)
Water Used: 3L
Hours Gone: Departed at 4:50 AM, returned just before 3PM.
Distance: 8.0 miles according to my Runkeeper, 10.0 according to WTA
Elevation Gained: 4500 feet
Highest Elevation: 8365 feet
Have you conquered MSH? Are you thinking of doing so? Sound off in the comments!