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About Us > Adventures > Mt. St. Helens

Mt. Saint Helens, 5/10/03

Our annual trip to Mt. St. Helens happened to fall on the Saturday before Mother’s Day in 2003, May 10; though I have never climbed the mountain on Mother’s Day, rumor has it that there is a tradition of males and females, young and old, climbing in dresses. One skier jumped the gun and showed us his gaudy neon 70’s garb a day early.

We drove down the night before and stayed in the town of Woodland with family before heading over to Jack’s Grill (5 miles west of Cougar) to register our group of 5 climbers. [NOTE: Before May 15, the number of climbers allowed on the mountain is unlimited (but still requires a $15 per person fee); after May 15 only 100 climbers are allowed daily]. We’d intended to head up to Marblemount, but were pleasantly surprised to hear that the road to the Climber’s Bivouac was already cleared (unusual this early), saving perhaps 700’ of elevation or an extra hour round trip. When we signed in at Jack’s minutes before 6 a.m. we learned we were only the third party signed in that morning, but when we reached the trailhead there were numerous vehicles of car campers who had obtained climbing permits the night before. We managed to secure parking spots for our 3 vehicles not too far down the road.

As we headed up from the cars at 7:15 a.m. we joked about the clear blue skies and the ribbing we’d give our fellow climbers who decided to back out at the last minute. As we hiked through the forest, leap-frogging with a few other groups, we got into a nice fast but steady pace that soon took us to the clearing at the base of one of the long lava flows on the flanks of St.Helens, known as Monitor Ridge, I imagine for all the seismic or weather monitors placed at fairly even distances up the entire ridge. At flat spots climbers tended to congregate for rest breaks; we’d push on for a little more solace and get ahead of the larger groups of climbers. After an hour of hiking we were rewarded with a view of the bottom flank of Adams, though Hood never made an appearance.

On we pushed, racing to stay above and ahead of the clouds rising out of the valley. I absent-mindedly noted that there were only three dogs this trip--we’d opted to leave our Springer-Saint Bernard, Emily, behind thinking she would not get along too well with other unleashed dogs. Funny how much you can miss a furry four-legged creature.

This was my 6th successful trip up St. Helens and Doug’s fourth. Kevin Dornfeld, one of our students, had also been up before; he was toting skis and ski boots for the descent. For the other two Mountaineers Basic Climbing students, this was their very first ascent of the volcano. Cheryl Burwell kept trying to repack her small day bag so that it would sit comfortably on her shoulders; and Jeremy Dodsworth brought along delicious homemade chocolate chip cookies to share with the rest of us. We reached the crater rim by about 10:45. I’d managed the whole wind-free, sunny trip without requiring gloves, but as soon as we reached the top, the north winds blasted us squarely in the face, forcing us all to scramble into down coats or Goretex outer layers in preparation for the glissade back down.

After bundling up, I brought out my climbing food of choice, a Tupperware container filled with leftover chicken Phad Thai, and sat down on a Ridgerest pad to enjoy a delicious snack after snapping several great photos. We stayed at the summit long enough to let Kevin strap on his skis and have everyone grab some food, then EUREKA! Down on our butts for the real adventure, our favorite part of the day. What is the allure of climbing St. Helens year after year? Why, for the glissading, of course! 3500 feet of vertical on our butts – glissading is our own form of skiing. There’s no better glissading (in our opinion) in the state of Washington unless you drop down Adams’ south side late in the morning when the snow has softened considerably.

This year, we split into 3 groups: Kevin went solo on his skis; Cheryl and Courtenay descended along the climbers’ route; and Doug and Jeremy dropped into one of the fast skiers’ bowls. Cheryl and I thought the guys would speed on forward and meet us at the forest, so we took our time on the ridge, finally dropping into the bowl several hundred feet above the forest. I didn’t see any glissade tracks, however, which made me think that perhaps they were stopped up higher, waiting for us. We continued down Monitor Ridge to the top of the forest, and then spotted Kevin on his skis; he alerted us to the fact that Doug and Jeremy had indeed been waiting on us. Drat.

I pulled out the 2-way radio to see if I could reach them and ascertain where they were. NOTE TO SELF: coordinate the channel you want to use before departing from the car!! It was set on channel 1, but since we usually use channel 6, I decided to switch it in hopes that Doug would do the same. I tried both. Nothing. I was about ready to drop my pack and head back up the ridge to see if I could see them, when I spotted someone up on top, and by chance let out a loud “CAW!” What a surprise to hear a “CAW” in return – our primitive voice boxes saved the day when high-tech radios could not. A few minutes later, Doug and Jeremy slid down to our level and our three mentor students laughed at how effective our raven call was in the bowls of St. Helens’ base. It’s gotten us out of far worse messes than this!

Since the snow had softened considerably, everyone but Kevin put on snowshoes for the final traverse down to the woods. It’s actually possible to glissade in snowshoes, if you don’t put too much pressure on the shoes (i.e. don’t sit on the tails!) Once we reached the heavily wooded part of the climb, we took the snowshoes off and meandered around the tree wells, making note of the blue route markers on the trees that make the approach doable in winter. Three men were taking a group of boy scouts in for an overnight and climb the next day, and once we reached the trailhead around 1:30 p.m. there was a large group of what looked like twenty adults in shirt sleeves gathered around a leader, ready to head up to “base camp” somewhere on the flanks of the mountain. The line of cars beyond ours stretched as far as we could see – on into the next pull-out beyond the curve in the road. Doug and I topped off the day by exploring Ape Caves, a 2+ mile-long lava tube that I’d never been to before. Take your headlamp, as it’s completely black inside!


Kevin and Cheryl soak up the sun.


Jeremy in front of Monitor Ridge; sunscreen break


Doug and Court enjoying the day


Team 2003: Jeremy, Doug, Cheryl and Kevin (with skis, L to R)


Hazy Adams waaaay in the distance


Climbing up above unnamed peak elevation 5994'


Tiny figure Kevin approaches carrying skis, above sea of clouds


Corniced crater rim, a hazard to unleashed dogs and unsuspecting novice climbers who get too close


Jeremy takes a picture of me taking his picture of him taking...


Court and Cheryl rejoice at the crater rim


West Crater Rim


East portion of crater rim


Snuggled up in warm clothes, Court pauses on her Ridgerest for yummy Thai food, lunch of choice in the mountains


All bundled up and ready to glissade; Kevin puts on his ski boots


Hurry, before anyone else comes up here to spoil the solitude!! Cheryl poses like Rocky.


Doug entering Ape Caves



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