Thursday, June 6, 2013

Skiing Up St. Helens

Ever since taking a ski mountaineering class three years ago, skiing up (and then down) Mt. St. Helens has been one of my goals.  The past couple of years presented chances to join other friends, but something always got in the way.  Then Katie invited me to join her group, who planned to climb St. Helens in early May.

The Forest Service requires everyone climbing MSH to obtain a permit.  Between May 14th and October 31st, numbers are restricted to 100 people per day.  The rest of the year, there is no limit on climbers.  To avoid the restrictions, Katie's group planned their climb before May 14th.

St. Helens emerges from the fog

The wee hours of May 8th found me at the trailhead for the Swift Creek route up MSH.  The weather for the past week had been unseasonably warm, so it was agreed we'd start our climb at the ungodly hour of 4 am to take advantage of cold morning temps.  When you're climbing up a mountain, one wants solid, firm snow.  Soft, melted snow can cause avalanches and rockfall.  And it isn't a lot of fun to slog through either.

Imagine our surprise when we emerged from our cars into warm air.  It was already at least 50 degrees outside.  This didn't bode well for snow conditions.

The mountain shows itself

Our group assembled at the trailhead.  Katie and I were the lone skiers.  Sue, our leader was joined by Marc, another Linda, and Lee.  These four planned to climb on foot.  Headlamps piercing the early morning darkness, we started out down the trail.  The warm temps had melted out a lot of the lower trail, so Katie and I had to walk for the first half mile before we were able to start skiing.

Thin ribbon of snow to ski on

The climber's trail began in a thick forest.  For approximately two miles, it wound through viewless woods.  Then abruptly the trees cleared to reveal the moonscape from an old lava flow.  The skies were nearly light by now, but everything was cloaked in a thick fog. 

Lee climbing through the fog

The past week's warm weather meant snow was disappearing fast.  Without tree cover to shield the sun, there were lots of bare spots in the lava flow.  Katie and I scouted ahead and aimed for a thin ribbon of slushy snow down a large gully.  Not wanting to remove and carry our skis unless absolutely necessary, we sought out the snowy spots.

Breaking out of the fog into sunshine

Our group slogged through the soft snow in the lava field.  The slopes got steeper, and the going tougher.  Looking up towards the mountain, our efforts got a brief reward when MSH made an appearance through a hole in the fog.

Trying to climb a steep slope in mushy snow

Then, suddenly, we emerged from the fog into blinding sunlight.  Although it was nice to see the sun (and the incredible mountain views) the already-balmy temps rose at least another five degrees.  Grabbing for my dark glasses, I also took the time to peel off another clothing layer.  Following Katie's tracks, I headed towards a dark rocky band between two gullies.

Mt. Adams peeps out

Our snow petered out into a rocky ridge.  With nothing to slide on, Katie and I ended up taking off our skis and attempting to carry them while rock climbing.  Not so easy!  There were several places we threw our poles ahead, and hefted skis up to each other.  It was hard work.  Somehow in the basalt labyrinth, we lost our other climbing companions.

The snow got too soft, so we carried our skis

Just Katie and I now, we finally ended up at the bottom of a steep, snowy slope.  Tired of rock climbing, I was thankful to finally have some snow to ski on.  But the going was anything but easy.  The snow was so soft, it would sluff beneath our ski edges.  It was one step forward, a half step back.  Progress was frustratingly slow.

Katie having a bite at our turn-around point

It was such hard work. I began to think this mountain climbing stuff was not for me.  Sweat was pouring off my body.  Every muscle in my legs and arms were in full protest.  But I couldn't quit yet.  I'd only climbed a little over 2000 feet (we'd started at 2700 feet and MSH summit was at 8366 feet).  There was still a long ways to go.

Watching other climbers come up the gully

Then, suddenly, the snow gave way under my skis.  The wet snow provided the perfect slick surface, and I began a full downhill body slide.  Panicked, I screamed and grabbed my poles (which I'd somehow managed to hang onto).  Luckily, my training kicked in, and I remembered to roll onto my stomach. Using the tip of my pole I dug into the snow with all my might and was able to stop.

Ski down through a rock-strewn gully

I came to rest about 3/4 of the way down the slope I'd worked so hard to climb.  Bitterly disappointed, I had a little meltdown.  Yelling a bunch of nasty words, I lay in the snow and felt sorry for myself.  I wished for a helicopter to take me off the mountain right now. 

Katie stood patiently at the top of the slope, waiting for me to finish my hissy fit.  Finally I realized the only way out was to go up, and picked myself up.  But I decided skiing was out.  I swapped skis for crampons, and lashed skis to the sides of my backpack.  Then, slowly I resumed my climb back up that cursed slope.

Skiing the snow between rocks

The crampons helped give me traction in the slippery snow.  Although still hard work, I seemed to make better progress than with skis.  Katie continued skiing for a short distance before she, too made the switch.  We continued our crawl up the mountain, kicking steps in the mushy snow.

Scouting a snowy path down

After climbing another 1000 feet, Katie checked the time.  It was nearly 11:30, and we'd only made it to 6000 feet.  The snow was quickly deteriorating under the hot sun.  We both were afraid if we waited too long for our descent, we'd encounter sticky, unsafe conditions on the way down.  Climbing with the added weight of skis on my back, and having to kick steps in the snow had totally wore me out.  When Katie suggested we have lunch and turn around, I was all for it.

I break out the gummy bears

Katie and I sat at the top of a very windy gully and forced some food and water down.  Neither of us were very hungry, but knew we had to eat something.  During our lunch break, we watched a group of climbers trudging up the gully.  I noticed one of them looked familiar.  It was Lee - a lady from our party.  She'd lagged behind, but was in radio contact with the other group members.  She was determined to make it to the top and continued on past the spot where Katie and I sat.

Whee!  Katie slides down a slope

Finishing up our lunch, Katie and I packed up, peeled off climbing skins, and clicked into our bindings.  I was a little apprehensive about the trip down.  Afraid conditions would not be good, I started out tentatively.  But after two turns, I realized the snow was just fine.  As a matter of fact, it was perfect.  I let out a whoop and opened 'er up, swooshing down the gully.

Beautiful scenery to enjoy

The ski down more than made up for the morning's miserable climb.  I had a blast, zipping through the snow.  Small rocks were scattered in the gully's bottom, which made for a challenging "rock slalom" as I sped down.  Lots of fun!

It was easy to find our way back.  Between Katie and myself, we'd taken note of certain landmarks.  And I'd recorded our path on my gps.  The only challenge was picking a route that was totally on snow.  I didn't want any more walking than I had to!

Time to take the skis off and hike

When we hit the thick forest again, the shaded trail was an easy ski.  The shade kept the snow from getting too soft.  Usually the last mile or so of a hike is a slog.  But not when you're on skis.

Finally the bare spots began to get larger and farther apart, and we ended up carrying our skis for the last half mile of the trail.  Too lazy to lash them back on my pack, I perched the skis on my shoulder.  I discovered a half mile is a long ways to carry skis in this fashion!

Carrying our skis across a bare gully

Finally our vehicles came into view.  Such a wonderful sight!  Katie and I laid out our wet equipment to dry in the sun, changed clothes, and waited for our other group members.  While waiting, we chatted with a young man who'd made it to the summit.  He said it was very difficult climbing.  The snow was even softer near the summit and he wore himself out kicking steps.  After hearing this, I was so glad we decided to turn around when we did.  Katie later told me this was one of the hardest ski climbs she'd ever done.  That made me feel better.

Fun ski down through the woods to the trailhead

An hour and half later, our other party members emerged from the forest.  They had only made it to the 6700 foot level before turning around.  The day's conditions were just not conducive for reaching the summit without a lot of extremely hard work.

Was I disappointed to not summit?  Well, a little.  But I'd summitted MSH back in 1995 (you can read about it here.)  And I knew there would be more chances next year.  I was happy for the opportunity to climb this great mountain and ski back down it's slopes. 


  1. What a great day. I cannot imagine how grueling that climb must be. I applaud you. Do you sleep good after a day like that?

  2. You are the evet ready snow bunny lol

  3. Skiing up a mountain? I can't imagine.

  4. All I can say is wow! I have loved reading your ski posts this winter and as much as I look forward to the hikes,I will miss these!

  5. That sounds like such a hard climb up! I'm glad the ski down was better than you thought and made up for your disappointment on the way up. Kudos to you for what you accomplished! It's amazing!

  6. Wow, that's amazing, beautiful, and terrifying all at the same time. I can't even imagine. It was certainly a great accomplishment no matter what!

  7. Fantastic read, Linda.
    Kudos for your ever ready sense of adventure!

  8. I totally agree with everything already written. I had imagined you wearing cross country ski boots but in a later photo it appears that you have have ski boots. OMG how do you do it?!!!

  9. So glad you were OK after your downhill slide--I think I would have had a hissy fit too:( Love the snow against the lava field--so beautiful!
    Blessings, Aimee

  10. Being from IL, we really didn't understand the whole "bad snow" condition until at Great Basin...Now I Get It!

    That is a lot of vertical feet to cover in a good conditions! So, I think you should be proud of where you did make it.

    We were at Mt. St. Helens a number of years back. We didn't actually see it due to cloud cover! Anyhow, there were thousands of small frogs in the visitor center parking lot at the time (something about their migration), and I will always remember that!

  11. Hi,
    Thanks for your comments on my blog. I am following you. Even posted a shout out to you on my blog when you started following! You are awesome!


  12. Your lovely snow shots bring back memories of Perisher Valley and Mount Kosiosko, and Jenolan Caves when it snows.

  13. That looks like quite the adventure - very scenic photos too.

  14. Good job on the self arrest!

  15. Great post, Linda! I was on the edge of my seat when you fell and my heart went out to you during your hissy fit! I can relate to those moments. Climbing can be hard and you were on a doozy! Skiing and taking on that type of terrain is something out of my comfort zone, so I enjoyed seeing the trail through your eyes. nice post,Linda. one of my favorites!


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