A reader's experience on "The Living Mountain"
The much anticipated day had arrived to climb the notorious Mount St. Helens.
It was a mountain that I’ve been fascinated with ever since its violent explosion on May 18, 1980. The eruption of this active stratovolcano in Skamania County, Washington was the deadliest and most economically destructive in U.S. history.
Fifty-seven people were killed, 250 homes, 47 bridges, 15 miles of railways, and 185 miles of highway were destroyed. A massive debris avalanche triggered by an earthquake measuring 5.1 on the Richter scale caused an eruption that reduced the elevation of the mountain’s summit from 9,677 feet to 8,363 feet, leaving a mile-wide horseshoe-shaped crater.
I had visited the volcano before, but only as a tourist to the visitor center over 30 miles away. The center provided a wealth of knowledge regarding the historical significance of the landscape before and during the eruption. In addition, visitors learned about the resulting effect on the region's nearby ecosystems. The observation area located on a nearby hill provided breathtaking views of the western slope showing the large gouge, or opening, revealing the dome crater.
The visit laid the foundation for my desire to become closely acquainted with the volcano as I bought a permit to climb the mountain this past July. Climbing permits are required year round. In an effort to reduce crowding and protect natural features, from April 1 to October 31 the number of climbers per day is subject to a quota.
- April 1 to May 14 – 500 climbers per day
- May 15 to October 31 – 100 climbers per day
Group size is limited to 12. From November 1 to March 31, there is no limit on the number of climbers per day. During this time, permits are free and self-issued at the trailhead.
The climb to the top of Mount St. Helens is non-technical, but it is by no means easy. The 4.7 mile journey to the crater rim from the climbers bivouac trailhead in Gifford Pinchot National Forest on the mountain’s south side, gains 4,500 feet, much of it done scrambling on challenging boulder fields.
After a 2.1 mile hike through a forest on the Ptarmigan Trail, that gains a modest 1,100 feet, the final 2.6 miles above tree line follow Monitor Ridge on a grinding, difficult ascent that doesn’t always follow a distinct trail.
There are large wooden poles situated along the boulder fields to provide guidance but I often found myself far off course trying to blaze my own trail through the massive lava rocks (not on purpose). It is in these boulder fields where many injuries occur, where sharp volcanic rocks scrape skin and twist ankles. The boulder fields were relentless and it seemed to be no end in sight, prompting my mind to play games with itself.
After the boulder fields, I then had to trudge up a steep dune-like slope of pumice and volcanic ash. This upper 1,300 foot section of the climb to the top of Mount St. Helens is often referred to as “The Vertical Beach.”
In summer it’s slow going, but in fall, it freezes and becomes easier to climb. My experience with the vertical beach consisted of moving two steps forward and one step backwards. It was frustrating to make any progress as it felt like trying to walk on a substance of loose fine powder on a steep slope. In fact, goggles and masks are sometimes advised because of blowing ash (especially in high winds). Wearing gaiters is a good idea to keep the ash from filling your boots as you slide back with each step. I learned the hard way on this as I wore large clumsy hiking shoes that became consumed by the ash.
Just above the vertical beach is the summit where I was awarded with stunning views of the lava dome and surrounding Cascade Mountains.
Standing atop the crater rim at 8,363 feet, I saw the remnants of a mountain that blew up in 1980, then built a new lava dome with eruptions from 2004 to 2008, and continues to rumble with earthquakes.
While enjoying my lunch on the rim I witnessed small rock avalanches rumbling in what looked like slow motion down 2,000 foot cliffs towards the large glaciated lava dome. On the horizon, the snow-capped peaks of Rainier and Adams in Washington state and Hood and South Sister in Oregon proudly permeate the clouds.
During my lunch I couldn’t help thinking about what it would be like to venture down into the volcano. Climbers aren’t allowed in the crater, but researchers regularly visit the lava dome, which is settling now from its peak height in 2008. Besides its settling lava dome, Mount St. Helens has a large active glacier in the crater that’s moving north.
Mount St. Helens is one of the most studied volcanoes in the world. It’s a world renowned laboratory and when you climb it, you get a glimpse inside the laboratory to see what’s being discovered.
The 11-hour round trip was one of the most grueling climbs I’ve ever made – certainly in a single day hike. Perhaps the most physical pain I’ve ever endured since climbing mountains. It was a battle of determination and will as I seriously thought about turning around to come back down. But the positive banter and encouragement from fellow climbers and the prize at the top was too much to pass up.
Climbing Mount St. Helens was an incredible adventure as I was able to be up close and in person with a living mountain. It’s as if Mount St. Helens is speaking to you when you hear the sounds of rocks and landslides tumbling down its steep crater walls. The mountain shows its breath as high pressure steam shoots high in the sky from its lava dome. It has a heart that beats with earthly rumbles.
The contrast of Mount St. Helens' present day beauty and its violent past are remarkable. A visit to this mountain is amazing and will offer a vivid picture to the visitor of how powerful Mother Nature can be.