This was our second attempt to reach the summit of Mount St. Helens. On October 25th, 2019 my buddy Mark and I made it within approximately 1,000 ft. of the top. The weather that day started out great, but deteriorated fast. The winds began to howl and visibility significantly decreased. We decided it wasn’t worth the risk, plus we didn’t see the point of reaching the top without a view. We were disappointed, but said we’d return the following year to give it another go.
We put March, 18th 2020 on the calendar. This is the day permits are available for the April thru October climbing season. If you plan on going during this time, get your permit as soon as you can. The dates fill up fast. We actually got lucky and ended up getting the August 31st date we wanted. We were shooting for a day when there was a full moon and no snow. Our plan was to summit at sunrise.
On August 30th we left Portland around 5 pm and headed to the Mount St. Helens Climber’s Bivouac. The Climber’s Bivouac is basically a parking area with campsites and a couple of pit toilets. It was here that we’d spend the night. Mark and I got our rigs set-up for sleeping, ate some dinner, and had a few beers. Shortly after sunset, we hit the hay hoping that the forecasted rain would hold off.
I awoke in the back of my truck canopy that night around 1 am. I had to pee. I climbed off the tailgate and felt light sprinkles. Soon after getting back inside and into my sleeping bag full-on rain arrived. Ugh. We were planning to wake up at 3 am and start hiking towards the summit to hopefully catch the sunrise. However, Mother Nature was giving us a signal that she didn’t want us on the mountain. It was probably for the better. With the low clouds and fog, and no moonlight, it would’ve been a challenge to follow the trail through the boulder fields with only our headlamps. So, we waited out the rain in our rigs. Finally, a little before 6 am we hit the trail. We didn’t know what to expect with the weather, but we were going to give it a go. We began the hike in the dark with our headlamps, but it wasn’t long before the morning light started filtering in through the trees. As we recalled from 2019, the first 2 or so miles weren’t bad. You hike a well-established trail through the forest that has a gradual incline.
We reached the end of the forested area with plenty of daylight. We could see the boulder fields ahead. This is where the real work began. To our surprise there were just a few low clouds hanging around and the fog was about gone. It looked like it was going to be a great day.
When you reach the boulder fields, the trail becomes more difficult to follow. Actually, there really isn’t a defined trail. You have to look for the approximately 4-inch wide by 6-foot tall wooden poles that mark the general route. You basically choose your lines. This portion makes-up for about 2/3rds of the climb and accounts for about 2,500 ft. of elevation. There’s lots of rock hopping and rock grabbing to be had. Be careful, because the volcanic rock is sharp. A fall here could be bad. Gardening type gloves, which I didn’t bring, would’ve been good to have.
Once we passed through the boulder fields we were almost to the point where we turned around in 2019. We soon saw the GPS station where we hunkered down that day from the howling wind. It sure looked different without the snow. We decided this would be a good place to take a break.
While resting and having some snacks, we saw a person at the summit. The top looked so close. This inspired us to get our butts moving again. It only took a few minutes to realize the rest of the way was going to be a slow-going, approximately 1,000 ft., steep, laborious trudge through loose gravel and sand. As we inched our way up, we saw the person that was at the top coming down towards us. He was like, “You’re almost there.” I think we both said, “shut-up!” after he left. Actually, he was kind of right. The summit sneaked up on us. He warned us of the concave area as you approached the summit. He said it was extremely windy and that the sandy gravel would be pelting us. It did. The wind was so strong it almost blew us over. Once we successfully passed through the wind tunnel we were at the top. I don’t think either one of us believed it. We did it. It was a great feeling. We even had the summit to ourselves. We were the 2nd folks up there that morning. I’ve only seen the inside of the crater from the air when flying back from Seattle. It sure was neat to see it from a different perspective. The lava dome, the colorful rocks, and the surrounding view, which included, Rainier, Adams, and Hood were incredible. We stayed to take some photos and Mark consumed an 8,366 ft., PB and J. The wind was blowing pretty good and the temperature was nose running-red cheek chilly. We would’ve been delighted to stay a bit longer, but St. Helens was telling us it was time to head down.
Trekking down St. Helens was so much faster, but still a challenge, plus we were getting tired. Heading back through the boulder section was letting our knees know that we weren’t young lads anymore. Having hiking poles was a tremendous help both ways, but I found them the most valuable on the decent. The fog and low clouds greeted us as we made our way down, but never obscured the guide poles.
We finally reached the forested portion of the trail. The last 2+ miles seemed to go on forever. The little drops along the way were painful. Where was the end of the frickin’ trial? Finally, we saw the pavement of the road where the Climber’s Bivouac was. Oh, what a feeling. It was time for a well-deserved beer.
Stats via Gaia GPS
- Distance: 8.30 mi
- Accent: 4,444 ft.
- Average Speed: 1.1 mph
- Moving Speed: 1.3 mph
- Max Speed: 3.9 mph
- Pace: 53.10 min/mi
- Moving Time: 6:13
- Stopped Time: 1:07
Mount St. Helens Climbing Resources:
- Mount St. Helens Climbing Permit
- National Weather Sevice Forecast for Mount St. Helens
- Mount St. Helens Institute
- USDA Forest Service
- Washington Trails Association, Mount St. Helens - Monitor Ridge