Thursday, April 10, 2014

Summiting St. Helens

I leaned over my ski poles, gasping for air.  I'd just crested what I thought was the final summit ridge, only to discover yet another 200 feet of climbing.  Disappointment washed over me.  After skiing uphill for the past seven hours, my legs quivered with exhaustion.  I was sore, tired, hungry, and mourning the loss of my eyeglasses, now lying in a gully somewhere far below.  At this point I didn't care if I reached the top of Mt. St. Helens.  Was all this pain and effort really worth it?

Fresh and ready to go!

Last May, I attempted to summit Mt. St. Helens on skis (you can read about it here).  Unfortunately, due to very poor snow conditions, my group had to abort a couple thousand feet short of our goal.  Since then, I nursed a burning desire to finish what I'd started.  Thus, one of my winter 2014 bucket list items became reaching the summit of MSH.

Climbing through the first steep hill

One Sunday in late March, I got my wish.  The weatherman promised clear and sunny weather.  Seeing the forecast, my friends John and Young emailed a climbing invitation.  They didn't have to ask twice. 

Leaving Portland in the dark morning hours, my friends and I arrived at the Marble Mountain snow-park shortly after sunrise.  Our plan was to ascend the mountain's south side via the Swift Creek route.  Starting at an elevation of 2700 feet, this trail climbs a grand total of 5 miles and 5600 feet to the mountain's 8300 foot summit.  As I'd never before racked up so much elevation gain in one day, this would be a true challenge.

Hiking through a rocky ridge (photo by Young)

The climber's route began in a thick forest.  Discovering more dirt than snow on the trail, we ended up strapping skis on backpacks and spending the first two miles of our climb on foot.  The additional weight of skis on my backpack made for a heavy load.  My shoulders ached as I huffed and puffed uphill.

This part was no fun

As we climbed higher, the trail became less brown and more white.  Back and shoulders aching, I kept hoping we'd start skiing soon.  I was more than ready to shed my skis and put them on my feet.  Finally, John deemed the snowpack deep enough.  Gratefully, I strapped on my skis and climbing skins.  Young and I followed John up the snowy trail. 

Killer view of Mt. Adams

It was great to be on skis, even if I was slowly shuffling uphill.  Our path emerged from the forest into a huge gully.  In the summer, water from melting glaciers fueled a waterfall here named Chocolate Falls.  We had to take skis off and clamber up the steep gully wall.  But once on top, I was treated to my first grand view of our goal for today - MSH's summit.

The trees disappeared, and the landscape opened up to become a series of open ridges and deep gullies, punctuated by occasional bands of boulders.  The higher we ascended, the better the views became, both looking back down towards the forest, and up towards our goal.  A gorgeous, white-capped Mt. Adams emerged to the east.

Putting the skis back on

John and Young had climbed MSH previously, and knew it would take a large amount of time and effort to reach the top.  John set our turn-around time between 3 and 4 o'clock, and said we'd need to climb at a rate of 750 vertical feet per hour to reach our goal.  This meant limiting our breaks to one per hour, and keeping the photo stops to a minimum.  Although there were lots of interesting things to photograph, I didn't want to slow down the group.  So my camera stayed put in the backpack much of the first couple hours.

And yet more climbing....

The route took my party through an open plain.  Rocks littered an exposed ridge, with deep gullies on each side.  Approaching the ridge, John deemed the quickest path was walking up through it.  That meant another hike with heavy skis on our backs.  Ugh!  I wasn't super-thrilled about more hiking, but wanted to reach the summit.  So onto the backpack went my skis, and I followed Young and John through the rocky maze.

Lone man resting and taking in the view

This part was tough.  My shoulders protested under the heavy load.  The sun beat down, and I sweated buckets.  Progress was slow.  Not only did we pick our way through the rocks, we sometimes had to use both hands to pull ourselves over some the larger boulders.  Our ski boots occasionally slid on the rock's slippery surfaces.  I was never so happy when John finally pointed to an open slope and said that was where we'd put our skis back on.

The summit is in sight

Then it was a lot of uphill shuffling.  Slopes alternated from moderate to very steep.  But climbing skins are amazing devices.  They allow skiers to traverse some fairly extreme pitches.  However, when the hills got too steep, we ended up traversing the slope in a zig-zag pattern to keep from sliding backwards.  This took much more time and effort.

A sunny spring day brings out the mountain climbers to MSH, and we were by no means alone.   My party was passed by a couple dozen uphill skiers, all much faster than poor Young and I.  As the summit grew nearer, we began to see climbers and snowriders on their descent.  Plodding along on tired legs, I became envious of their effortless downhill turns.

We made it!

John kept calling out elevations from his gps.  First, we had 4000 feet to go, then 3000, 2000......the numbers slowly became smaller.  About a thousand feet from the summit, the wind kicked up, and the snow began to change.  What was smooth soft snow suddenly became rough, hard, and icy.  Young was having a difficult time getting any traction, and my hands and body became chilled from the wind.

Fabulous view into the crater (click to enlarge)

John decided to take a quick break so Young could put on some ski crampons.  I took the opportunity to throw on another layer, and find some warmer gloves.  While rooting around in my backpack for gloves, a hard-sided case containing my primary pair of eyeglasses popped out.  Before I could grab it, the case slid out of reach.  The icy snow caused it to accelerate, gaining speed as it traveled downhill.  John quickly trained his eyes on the case, hoping to pinpoint the final resting place for retrieval on our way down.  But unfortunately the case rocketed into a narrow gully, and sped out of sight.

Losing those glasses took the wind out of my sails.  Knowing things would get tough, that morning I prepared myself mentally to keep a positive attitude.  I'd been doing well keeping spirits up, but when that case slid away, all positivity went down the drain.  After watching my glasses disappear, all I wanted to do was turn around and ski back down. 

MSH rim

But John talked me off the ledge.  After promising to try and look for my glasses on the way down, and reminding me that we were really close to reaching the summit, my funk began to lift.  Reaffirming myself of the day's ultimate goal, I pulled on my big girl panties and continued to climb.

Lava dome, Spirit Lake and Mt. Rainier

The last thousand feet was brutal.  The snow was slick and icy, necessitating more effort digging in my ski edges to keep from sliding.  We'd been moving nearly nonstop since early morning, and by mid-afternoon my body was feeling the effects.  Although I'd taken in food and water on every break, my stomach grumbled for a proper lunch.  And the altitude was slowing me down.  The stops to catch my breath became more and more frequent.

Then up ahead, I saw the top of a ridge.  A couple of people were sitting there.  That must be the summit!  Excitedly, I shuffled my skis as quickly as my tired body would allow.  Yahoo!  Almost to the top!  Finally!

Don't get too close to that edge

Except that it wasn't the summit.....  I arrived on top of this ridge, only see another steep pitch looming before me.  This was only the false summit.  I still had another 200 feet of climbing to go.

I was so tired I wanted to quit right then and there.  Crouching over my skis, breathing hard, I didn't think I had the strength to climb that final distance.  My bad mood began to return.  But John came sliding up, and excitedly told me I was almost there.  He pointed to the jagged ridgetop and said that was the summit.  If it wasn't for his encouragement, I would have stopped short of my goal - foiled again.  Taking a deep breath, I willed my legs to complete this final stage of the journey.

True summit is 8300 feet - close enough!

Slide, slide, stop.....breathe.   Slide, turn, slide, stop.....gasp.  I don't think I've ever moved so slowly on skis in my life.  The final pitch was a very steep slope, necessitating more zig-zag traversing.  That ridge seemed to never get any closer.  One foot in front of the other.....But slowly, I could see progress was being made.  John whisked by me.  And then, I could see the sky was very close.  Another couple of turns and more sliding, and I pulled up even with John, who was now removing his skis.  "Hey, Linda." he smiled "You made it!" 

Skiing down the first steep pitch

At first, I was too tired to even comprehend what I'd just accomplished.  All I wanted to do was sit down and have lunch.  After downing part of a PB & J and drinking some of Young's tea (a hot beverage was so welcome!) I began to feel more like myself again.  A couple other skiers were standing on the summit, peering over crater's edge.  Hearing them marveling at the view, I grabbed my camera and trudged over to investigate.

Photo op with Mt. Adams

Oh my - the view into the crater took my breath away!  I could see the volcano's steaming lava dome, cloaked in creamy white snow and encircled by the steep crater walls.  Looking to the north, past the collapsed crater, were killer views of Spirit Lake, the Mt. Margaret Wilderness, and Mt. Rainier.  Jaw dropping!  All my hard work, the sore muscles, the suffering, the lost glasses, was forgotten.  It was all was totally worth it to witness this magnificent scene.

John leads the way

Our time of arrival on top was 3:30 pm.  John was very pleased with Young and I.  Not only did we get ourselves to the summit, we did so within the limits of our designated turn-around time.  After spending a good 45 minutes resting, eating, and taking copious photos, John reminded us that we still had a long ski back down.  Not wanting to return in the dark, we needed to begin our descent very soon.

Scouting our route

Now came the part I'd been looking forward to all day.  Time to remove those climbing skins and let gravity carry us back.  The top 1000 feet of descent was tough.  The first pitch was steep, through chunky, icy snow.  It took lots of effort from tired legs to control my skis.

But after braving the mountain's upper reaches, we descended to lower, sun-warmed snow that was soft as velvet.  An absolute dream to ski through!  Oh yeah - this was what we'd worked so hard for.

A tired, but happy skier (photo by Young)

The great thing about backcountry skiing on MSH is that it's slopes are never super-steep.  There are no crevasses to worry about.  On a sunny spring day, it's the most wonderful consistent long slope you could ever hope for.  John would ski ahead, scouting out the terrain, and then motion Young and I to follow.  As we traveled lower, he discovered a couple steeper pitches with very soft unstable snow.  After setting off a small avalanche on one such slope, John quickly directed us ladies down a safer path.  But that was the only mishap.  Otherwise, the ski down was sublime.  Late evening sun bathed the mountain in a lovely light.  The snow was terrific.  I was so happy, even the loss of my glasses didn't bother me anymore.

We earned these beers!

My friends and I were able to ski to within a mile of the parking lot.  Then, we hefted skis on our backs for one final trek.  Tromping through the woods as daylight waned, my heart was happy.  Success!  I'd accomplished my goal of skiing up to Mt. St. Helens summit.

It took us a grand total of 7 1/2 hours to climb, and two hours to descend.  We reached John's truck at 6:15 pm, not long before sunset.

Our journey ended with microbrews and kettle chips in the parking lot.  Young and I were so famished we nearly chowed down the entire bag.  Having only my prescription sunglasses to see with, I had to keep them on for the entire ride back to Young and John's house, and then drive home in the darkness wearing my shades.  (But luckily, I had an old pair of glasses at home that will do until a replacement is ordered)

Summit victory shot (Photo by Young)

The day before my MSH climb, I came across a great quote on Facebook.  So very inspirational, I repeated it often as I was struggling up the mountain. 

"You are stronger than you think you are.  Dream big and never stop trying."

Although the difficulty of this experience ranked right up there with running my three marathons, I'm thankful I pushed hard and stuck it out.  I hope this post inspires you to follow your dreams, however big or small.

Sharing with:  Weekly Top Shot.


  1. Great shots and what an amazing accomplishment that was!

  2. Awesome, you climbed a Volcano. Can't help thinking of the thing going bang a few years ago.Great acheavement and photos. Well done

  3. Awesome accomplishment! And awesome photos too! You made my day just thinking about it.

  4. Estupendas y refrescantes fotos... Un saludo desde Murcia.

  5. Wow, you must be in terrific shape to climb Mt St. Helens on skis!! The views are just incredible.. Amazing post and photos, thanks for sharing..
    Have a happy weekend!

  6. So inspirational Linda. I cannot imagine climbing like that for 7.5 hours.

    The views are gorgeous - thank you so much for sharing something that I will probably never get to see.

  7. So totally awesome! Congratulations on your marathon effort and as always brilliant blog of your phenomenal achievement.
    You may not have been able to stop often for pics, but you certainly made the most of the time you had. Such grand views.
    Have you climbed it in summer?

  8. Hi,Linda. The summit victory shot is perfect!
    Your scenery photos in Mt.St.Helen are very beautiful too. Thanks for sharing.

  9. What a glorious view of Mt. Adams!

  10. Wow, Linda! First - CONGRATS!
    You amaze me, and yes - I'm inspired. I needed this.

    I enjoyed every word - the anticipation, the strife - I felt that this was the most dramatic excursion you've shared yet!

    The views are incredible. Again - I'm amazed. Your hard work is so admired & awesome. Way to go, all three of you!!

  11. Great post! In the end you need to just keep putting one foot in front of the other.

    Easy for me to say - I drove to the top of MSH and saw nothing but fog!

    Cheers - Stewart M - Melbourne

  12. Congratulations Linda. It is easy to give up when it becomes as tough as you were experiencing but what a sense of achievement you must have felt when you were able to see those views from the very top. I hope that warm feeling stays with you for some time to come.

  13. So sorry you lost your glasses (UGH!) but you DID reach the summit and what a view!

  14. One of my favorite posts of yours! Loved the blue skies, the mountain (esp. the crater), the views, your story...Linda--you truly are one AMAZING lady :)
    Blessings, Aimee

  15. Congratulations on climbing Mount Saint Helen, Linda! What a great goal to accomplish and a beautiful view to enjoy.

  16. Wow! That looks awesome! Thanks for sharing this adventure. I think this is some of your best writing.

    If I were a better skier, I'd like to come hang with you guys. Chips and beer at the end? I think we'd get along great!

  17. What an amazing day you had! Beautiful.

  18. awesome awesome photos of your trip! Im so jealous!

  19. WOW, that shot of the crater and Spirit Lake is amazingly beautiful... Thank you for coming by sharing your creative photography on the Weekly Top Shot, #130!

  20. Linda you are definitely an inspiration !
    I also think you are related to the energizer bunny !

  21. What an amazing accomplishment, well done! And you got some fine photos too.

  22. Linda, this is one of my favorite posts. Your story captured me, and I liked feeling that stuggle you endured. The photos from the summit were amazing, especially seeing the dome and Rainier. The hard made it great. Congrats on your summit!

  23. Wow Linda!
    This is an incredible achievement!
    You are always so motivating and inspiring-
    Your words of encouragement are perfect for this Monday morning!
    My hat is off to you!!
    Have a splendid week!

  24. Oh my stars this is just amazing. I could never in my wildest dreams imagine doing what you did. Congratulations. Thank you so much for sharing your journey and the awesome photos.

  25. Linda - I'm so impressed. I know what it takes to backcountry ski, and the difficulty of your climb plus the downhill ski are heart pounding! You're my heroine! Sorry about the glasses but rather them than you!


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