Mount Saint Helens
Tidbits: Active Volcano, Last erupted in 1991
Summitted, June 6, 2003
Time Zone: GMT -8 hours
When to go:
March through September.
The main route starts at the climber's bivouc located in Mount Saint Helens National Forest area.
Hotel and Climb Reservation:
Hotels are available in the nearby town of Woodland, Washington, less than an hour from the trail-head. I stayed at the Best Western, which is very ordinary, but fine for my needs.
A permit is absolutely required to climb and is available from the National Forest Service. They are almost impossible to get if you are climbing on a summer weekend. About 100 climbing permits are issued per day. Half can be reserved in advance, and half can be obtained by lottery the night before at "Jack's Store" (see the Forest Service Website for details). Jack's had a very good supply of last-minute practical items (from food, to film, to sunglasses). Their prices were reasonable. The climbing register is also located at Jack's. Don't forget to sign in AND out on your return.
I wrote for a reserved permit for a Friday climb and had no problem obtaining one a few weeks in advance. NOTE: At the time of writing this page, your climbing permit also entitles you to park at Climber's Bivouac, so there is no need to purchase a separate Northwest Forest Service daily parking pass. I picked up the permit at Jack's (you actually pay for it at time of pickup). The trail-head is under 1/2 hour from the store. There is ample parking and a lavatory in the parking area.
Conditions in the Cascades are unpredictable. You may need an ice-ax, crampons, and ropes one day, and only shorts and hiking boots the next. Pack adequate water, food, and sunscreen. Bring long nylon or Goretex snow pants if you are going to slide down the volcano (more on this later).
After parking the car at climber's bivouac (at about 4,000'), I proceeded for about 90 minutes through 3 miles of a well defined trail that goes through a forest. Even though it was June, the trail quickly became covered with snow. At tree line, you could better appreciate the size of the volcanic cone. It was covered with about 10 feet of snow. Through sheer luck, I picked the best day of the climbing season...a bright blue sky and about 75 degrees at the way up (although it was about 45 at the summit)! Because of the clarity of the sky, I was able to clearly see Mt. Hood in Oregon, as well as Mount Adams and Mount Rainier.
It took an additional 3 hours to reach the summit (about 7 miles and 4,000' from the starting point). The snow was the perfect consistency...if it had been a little colder it would have been a sheet of ice requiring mountaineering gear. If it was warmer, the snow would of been a soggy slush.
At the lip of the crater is a large mound of snow that extends beyond the rim. It is easy to misjudge where you are standing. If you are on the snow mound and it gives way, it's a few thousand feet straight down to the crater bottom and you wouldn't have a chance of surviving...stand back an adequate distance!
The center of the crater has a volcanic "plug" that is holding back the molten lava and preventing an explosion. The force from the lava is pushing the plug "up". When these photos were taken the plug extended 1,000 feet above the surface of the crater Eventually, the force will cause the plug to dislodge and an explosive eruption will devastate the area. The last eruption blew out the entire side of the mountain and about 1,000 feet off of the top.
When I reached the summit, I realized that EVERYONE had brought small "butt sleds" or long snow pants. What I didn't know was that the pitch of the volcano and consistency of the snow made for the world's best sledding experience. Fortunately, I had a pair of snow pants with me, however, my climbing partner did not. Out of the blue, some local folks saw our disappointment and handed us a $100 pair of Goretex pants! "Just leave them on the Blue Honda in the parking lot when you get down." This type of open generosity among climbers is one of the qualities that I find appealing in the sport.
It took about 20-30 minutes to slide down 4 miles and about 3,000 vertical feet (saving us about 3 hours of hiking). You had to be careful...if you don't control your speed it would be VERY easy to accelerate to dangerous speeds almost instantly.