Tuesday, October 2, 2018

Mount St. Helens weekend, day 2: the climb

We were up early, got dressed, made a hearty breakfast, and were en route to the trailhead before 6:30. First thing to do? Sign the Climber Register with our names, our permit numbers, and our expected return time. A lot of folks had headed up just before us, and several others had gone up in the wee hours, I assume to see the sunrise from the crater. Very keen!

We would be following the Ptarmigan Trail for two miles through the forest until we crossed the Loowit trail and started up the Monitor Ridge Climbing Route. 

Only 4 miles to the rim? Easy, right?

We set off into the woods, trying to go at a relaxed pace.

We had timed thing perfectly -- and the sun was lighting up the ridge as we emerged from the forest. Well, those 2 miles went smoothly!

As we approached the edge of the treeline we caught our first good look at the lava on Monitor Ridge. Ummm, does that look high and steep to you, too?

We caught a few glimpses of some luxurious autumnal colors. Look at those ferns!

Then it was time to leave the forest and start the real climb. 

We had to make our way up this ridge, where there wasn't so much a "path" as a set of marker posts to give you a general idea of the direction you should be heading. 

This is an overstatement:

See the white poles in this picture? "Go thattaway." 

Except that no matter where we were, it seemed like there was a better, smoother, easier route off to our right or our left. But we didn't know whether we could really move too far from the posts, so for the most part we stuck to them.

Every so often I needed to look down to see how far we had come.

If only to avoid feeling depressed by views like this:

Or this:

I mean, at least we knew we were on the right track ... but were we on the BEST track? Doubtful. 

At one point, a man walking about 20 feet to our right called out to us to see how we were doing. He said that the climbing rangers always go the way he was going, and said we could cut over and follow him up. The rest of the day Wil and I wondered if he had detoured to "rescue" us from the boulders!

A word about this section -- it was steep, very irregular, and did I mention that's lava rock, guaranteed to scrape you to pieces? At the last minute we stopped off at Fred Meyer on our way out of town on Thursday to buy some inexpensive gardening gloves to protect our hands. These were essential -- seriously, drop $5.99 and get a cheap pair of cowhide gloves. You will thank me. 

Finally, we were past the boulders ... and into the scree. One tiny step forward, half a step back. Repeat. Wil went on ahead and I tried to get into a rhythm. At least I could see the rim, so it didn't feel hopeless. It just felt... frustrating? Not even so much HARD as ANNOYING. 

How annoying? The look on my face says it all:

Just. Keep. Going.

Finally, in painfully slow motion, I arrived at the crater rim. And, bam. WHAT A DAY!!!

View to the left:

View of the lava dome in the center of the crater... note the steam rising out of it!

View to the right, with Spirit Lake in the middle distance, and a surprisingly snowless Mount Rainier in the distance:

We took a seat well away from the edge of the rim, sat, relaxed, and whooped for and high-fived other climbers who arrived -- many of whom we had been leapfrogging all day. 

The whole time we kept thanking our lucky stars to have such a perfect day -- not too hot, not too windy, and nice clear skies with views of Rainier, Adams, and Hood!

But, of course, what went up must go down... first through the scree, which I really enjoyed. In this pano you can see Adams on the left and (very faintly) Hood in the middle. 

Then the scree became the lava rocks... 

... and then we stopped taking pictures on the way down as it got harder and harder. We reached a point -- on a different route than we came up, so nothing looked familiar -- where the "path" seemed to disappear. We could see a pole marker far below us, but had reached what felt like a drop-off. So we were milling about, wondering what we were missing, when a threesome we had been leapfrogging with all day arrived and said hello. We said we weren't quite sure whether we were on the right route ... or on a route at all. The leader -- a woman who has been up and down 10 or so times -- said we were on "a route" and said we were aiming for the right side of the big outcropping a couple of hundred yards below. And, then, as we watched, she led her little group straight down the drop-off. Slowly, with a lot of butt-sliding and arm strain, we followed her lead. 

During this part of the descent, at one point Wil dislodged a HUGE rock, which went slowly rolling down. We called ahead "BELOW!" and the threesome made sure they were out of the way, and then thanked us for the heads up. 

Eventually we got to a smoother stretch, but then we got intertwined with a family group -- a strong dad, a slightly struggling mom, and a devil-may-care teenager who kept sliding and dislodging rocks. Nothing huge, but it felt like a collision waiting to happen. So Wil and I stopped to get some space between us and the family, even though it meant we would lose touch with the trail angel. I tried to keep an eye on her, however, and when we passed the family group a little while later I was still able to see the way they went over another edge. 

But then we lost them, and got to a weird section with signage but no sensible route. In the end we decided to "choose our own adventure" and just make our way off the ridge to the treeline below. Once back on less rocky ground we checked ourselves on the map and were only a few yards from the Ptarmigan trail ... heaven!

As soon as we entered the forest we found the trail angel and her gang again... which made me wonder if they were waiting for us, or if they were just taking a break?  

Then down down down through the forest ... nothing memorable, except something amusing that I had read in a number of different trip reports: the way down feels longer than the way up. I have never experienced that -- I mean, the return trip of a hike ALWAYS feels shorter to me. You know where you are because you've been through there before, and even though you're tired you know the end is coming soon. But somehow the descent through the lava boulders and even the gentle trail through the forest felt painfully long. 

Eventually, however, we arrived at the trailhead, where we kissed, signed out of the Climber Register, high-fived our trail buddies, and headed out.

Back at the Lone Fir, we showered, made dinner (did I mention we were hungry?), and collapsed into bed around 8:30. It had been a good day! We felt proud of ourselves ... but of course, it's not as difficult as it used to be to climb MSH:


  1. Congratulations on your latest summit! I'm glad you had such amazing weather for your adventure.

  2. Thank you!!! We were SOOOOOOOOO lucky with the weather -- even the next day it was cloudy and hazy.