Volcanoes seem to loom over everything in Washington. I remember the first time I saw Mount Baker and Mount Rainier at the same time. I was driving along Highway 2 just outside of Everett and as I crossed the valley Baker appeared to the north and Rainier popped up to the south. I was surprised, not realizing at the time that it was commonplace to see multiple volcanoes from one spot. Climbing volcanoes is a natural progression from the hiking I’ve been doing and the climbing that I was doing back in Montana. They make for bigger, more challenging objectives and (most anyway) require some level of technical knowledge. The Cascade volcanoes have been in the back of my mind as goals, but I hadn’t taken any action towards the completion of those goals besides getting into shape.
One of the other Mountaineers members on the Dickerman trip had climbed Mount Saint Helens the weekend before. He informed me that all weekend permits were taken through the rest of the season but it might still be possible to get a weekday permit. It sounded like a fun time and his stories combined with all the trip reports I read that night from previous climbers inspired me to make some moves. The following day, I’d purchased a permit for May 26, 2016. I was ready to jump into something I’d never experienced before. It would be the most elevation gain I’d experienced in a single day, close to the longest mileage I’d covered in a day, and my first climb of a Cascade volcano. And I was going to do it solo. How could a person not be excited about that?
The 26th of May was a Thursday. I didn’t want to take more than one day off work so I planned to drive down Wednesday night after work and sleep in my car. I would climb Thursday, sleep in my car again Thursday night, and make a 4 hour commute from the base of Mount Saint Helens on Friday morning. Whew!
I left work on Wednesday completely stoked. It was overcast and the weather didn’t look like it would change much. I had no problem bagging the trip if I sensed any sort of danger due to conditions, so I was pleased to get at least a few miles of blue skies on the way down. I arrived at the Marble Mountain Sno-Park around 8:30 and immediately took care of business: read everything posted on the board, fill out the climbers register, find the beginning of the trail, make sandwiches for the next day, cook dinner, drink beer. Bed time was around 10:30pm.
My alarm woke me up at around 4:15am. I’m usually terrible about eating enough food when I’m camping but I knew I had a long day ahead of me so I managed to choke down an entire Mountain House breakfast skillet. One last gear check, and off I went at 5:53am. It had gotten light by this point but it was totally foggy and visibility was about 100 yards or less. The first two miles of trail are extremely easy to follow so the lack of visibility wasn’t a problem. Soon the ski trail ends, though, and you’re left with pink markers in the trees and a trail that disappears when the trail gets rocky.
Route-finding should not have been a problem, but I was putting too much faith in the person in front of me. I could see her occasionally turn around and follow a different path, evidently realizing that she went down the wrong path and returning to the true trail after realizing her mistake. I followed the hiker into the fog and eventually lost sight of her. And the trail. I stubbornly proceeded along the same path, thinking to myself that a trail that has had hundreds of people on it this season should be much more obvious than what I was on. At one point I came across a cairn and was sure I was headed the right direction. Occasional footprints reinforced this thought. But the footprints would disappear and I would be left standing there, looking as far ahead and behind as I could trying to figure out where the hell I was. I referenced my map and compass every time I stopped, but with no visibility they didn’t help much. This made for pretty slow going for the first part of the route.
Eventually I said screw it and decided to head towards the voices I’d been hearing for the past hour. I knew the route cut over in the northwest direction at some point and that’s the direction I could hear voices from, so if nothing else I knew I’d be heading in approximately the correct direction. After some scrambling over a few of the “worm flows” ridges, I came up over the top of one and there it was. About a dozen people heading up the obvious trail through the fog. On the way back down later in the day I found my obvious mistake: a creek crossing that had the trail cutting left when I went right along something that looked like it could very well be a trail. I’m just glad I didn’t have to double all the way back to find my way!
Progress picked up after I found the trail. I passed a few folks before the hiker I had been following earlier came up from behind and passed me. I was happy to see she found her way as the last time I saw her was when she went right at the creek crossing as well. She was really booking it and summited long before I did.
Snow started just above the weather station. I sat down on some rocks and attached my crampons to my boots, which is one of the best feelings in the world. There’s just something about having crampons on your feet. I can’t really explain it. It just makes me feel good. Perhaps because crampons mean snow travel or ice climbing, both of which are (usually) extremely fun experiences.
Anyway, as I continued climbing up the snow my pace began to slow again. The climb gets steeper the higher you go and I was very happy that there was still snow and I didn’t have to negotiate the loose rock that lay beneath it.
I continued climbing through the dense fog for an undeterminable amount of time. I could hear voices behind me, but nobody was in sight. A warmth suddenly touched the back of my neck. I looked up and could see a bright spot in the fog. The sun was barely peaking through. A gust of wind kicked up and in a matter of seconds the clouds cleared and I was standing above a sea of floating water that people below were seeing as clouds. The blue sky went on forever. Giddy with excitement I continued the climb. After a few minutes I glanced off to the east and almost fell over with excitement. Mount Adams was peaking out of the clouds in the distance!
As I continued up the clouds seemed to follow me. For the next hour I could hear the voices of the folks behind me, but they remained in the clouds. A steady rhythm of rest-stepping kept me pushing along at a pretty decent pace, though it was still slow compared to a hike up Mount Si.
After a few quick stops for snacks and sun screen, I was nearing the final push to the crater rim. With about 1000 feet to go I passed some people that were on their way down. “You’re almost there! It’s literally right there!” they told me. The words of encouragement were amazing. After rest stepping for a long time, I knew I could exhaust my uphill energy reserves and I picked up my pace a little. Out of nowhere the slope eased, the ground directly in front of me dropped away, and I was looking at the crater that characterizes the center of Mount Saint Helens. Wow.
Looking straight ahead I could see Mount Rainier. Adams still loomed to my right. Down south I could barely make out the outline of Mount Hood. It was a great feeling. But I wasn’t finished yet.
I was still .4 miles away from the true summit. There were tracks heading in that direction, but the path was not nearly as stomped down the heard-of-elephant-like route leading to the crater rim. I stood at the crater rim alone, wondering if it was a good idea to make the traverse. It looked so far away. There was nobody else out there. But I was so close. I would never forgive myself if I didn’t at least make an attempt at it, so I started over with the intention of turning around if things got too dicey.
I had taken off my crampons 500 feet or so below the crater rim and as I made the traverse I could tell I would want them. Sitting down to attach the sharp spikes to my feet again, I pondered why the path to the true summit was so much less traveled. Did people not know they hadn’t reached the true summit yet? Did they not care? Was it unsafe? I kept the mindset that I could always turn around later, stood up, and kept traversing. I have no idea how much time passed as I walked along the rim before I got to the true summit but it seemed like the blink of an eye. I remember ascending a small uphill section and as I came over the top the footsteps terminated. I was there!
After taking some photos and celebrating quietly I quickly made my way back to the point where I initially met the crater rim to find a group of about a dozen people. It felt good to be back in sight of fellow climbers, even if I wasn’t in any real danger during the traverse. Admittedly, I don’t know as much about decision making in snow terrain as I would like to so my risk analysis is mostly based on intuition and little bits of information I’ve picked up over the past couple years. That’s not the best way to stay safe. I’m sure I was fine, but little hints of doubt aren’t the most pleasant feeling when you’re on the side of a volcano.
I spent a half hour at the crater rim eating my second sandwich, relaxing, donning my rain paints, and preparing for the long glissade down. And what a glissade it was. I’ve never experienced anything like it. I think it’s impossible to not have a gigantic grin on your face while glissading down a volcano. I tried. I couldn’t help it.
Eventually I entered the clouds again, but I was able to glissade all the way down to the weather station which made the descent fly by. After the glissade it was rather uneventful. A short hike along the ski trail and I was back in the parking lot. Dinner, beer, chatting with folks I had talked to on the mountain as they returned to the parking lot. It had been one of the best and most rewarding days of my life. Since the beginning of February I have been training constantly. I’d taken a course through the Mountaineers to learn snow travel, navigation, and first aid skills. I set goals and obsessed over trip reports. Mount Saint Helens was like the culmination of all of this work coming together. I probably could have completed the climb last year, but if something went wrong or I got off-route I wouldn’t have had the tools to deal with it. I would have suffered my way up the entire mountain, not knowing how to use an ice axe, what rest stepping was, or how to glissade safely on the way back down. Short of the navigation mishap at the very beginning, I was extremely satisfied with how smooth things went on my first volcano climb.
Shortly after I bought my permit (3 weeks before the climb), my uncle informed me that he and a buddy want to climb Mount Adams with me in August which puts volcano 2 on the list for this summer, though I will probably complete Adams well before August. At the end of this month (June), I will be starting a 6-day mountaineering course through the American Alpine Institute that will cover glacier travel topics and hopefully culminate in a climb of Mount Baker. That will be 3. A buddy I met through the Mountaineers scrambling course and I have chatted briefly about a late-season attempt of Mount Rainier. That would be 4 if I can make it happen. I don’t know if I can make Glacier Peak happen this year, but why not throw it up as a goal and see if it sticks. I’m so stoked to see what the future holds. Mountaineering is just a big problem solving process and I’m rapidly acquiring more and more tools to solve the problems. Let’s get into better shape, let’s get a little more technical, and let’s go climb some more volcanoes. I’m all in.