Mount Saint Helens

My friend and I climbed Saint Helens a month ago. We had bought our permits in February, hoped against hope that the weather would hold out, and began to despair as the government shut down and closed the national parks. Mt St Helens is a “national volcanic monument,” and while there was some disagreement as to its status (Washington Trails Association announced that the mountain was closed), we were able to collect our permits, drive to the trailhead, and head up. In fact, it wound up being a sunny day, and very crowded, in part because permits were not being enforced.

We camped at Climbers’ Bivouac and set out on the trail just as dawn broke.

Mount Saint Helens from the trailhead

Fading stars and morning light on the mountain

The trail gains altitude for two miles, and ends abruptly at 4,800 feet, where the trees stop growing.

End of the trail

The end of the trail; hiking stops and climbing begins here

Mount Adams stands in the distance

See the wooden post toward the bottom of the picture, just left of center? These begin at the trail’s end; you follow them up an endless gully until you attain Monitor Ridge. These are the Forest Service’s way of preventing climbers from getting lost.

The endless gully

Gully leading to Monitor Ridge

We met Saint Helens on October 5th, which turned out to be a warm, sunny autumn day. So much so that I got a slight burn. But we saw patches of snow here and there in the woods, and it only got deeper through the ascent.

The views were spectacular, both at the trailhead, and as the climbing route broke away from the timbered slopes. My friend and I live in Seattle, and spend much of our time in the central and northern Cascades, so we were treated to see unfamiliar peaks. My friend commented that he had never seen Rainier from this angle before, and didn’t believe me when I told him I thought it was Adams. We looked out to Mounts Hood and Jefferson in Oregon.

Hood and Jefferson

Hood from the snowy flanks of Saint Helens

Washington’s southern Cascades feel like a different range; longer but lower ridges, big lakes, and individual mountains piercing the sky. The North Cascades is a sea of peaks, the south Cascades are mountains that fight their own battles without allies.

I regret to say that I didn’t reach the summit. We had made a few mistakes, which caught up with me. I skipped dinner in response to delays from Friday’s awful traffic. I skipped breakfast, too; we woke up to find frost all around us, and got moving partly to stay warm. I carried too much weight (camera, more water than I needed, a lot of extra layers). Eventually I began to run out to steam and slow down. The days are short and we agreed it was vital to get off the upper portion of the mountain before dark. So, at about the 7,000 foot level, I told my friend to go on without me. It was still a great time, and I’ll make sure not to repeat these errors on my next climb.

Now, on to camp. As I said, we spent the night at Climbers’ Bivouac to get an early start; this is a little clearing in the woods at the base of the mountain. The clearing affords a view of the heavens above.

The night sky

Clouds lit up by Portland’s and Vancouver’s light

Driving up the lower section of the mountain in the dark, toward camp, we passed another clearing and saw Portland sprawled out below us. It was a brightly lit city in the dark. Its light reflected orange in the low clouds that hung around the mountain, and made for wonderful night photos.

The Milky Way

The Milky Way


11 thoughts on “Mount Saint Helens

    • There are a few differences. For the first two miles of this adventure, you can follow a trail; after that point, you have those wooden poles as clues for how to get to Monitor Ridge, but finding your way is your own responsibility. At the end of the trail, you start needing to use your hands while you make your way through a boulder field, which takes more energy than hiking. The difference is dramatic!

      But it wasn’t technical climbing with a rope, if that’s what you’re asking. This was third-class scrambling.

    • Thanks! 🙂

      I’m using a Canon 5D v3 and all of these came from a 24 mm f/1.4 v2 lens. It’s a pretty heavy thing to lug around, but I like the night shots I can pull out of it…

      • First of all I love the star pictures! They turned out great!!! I just don’t seem to get it right (or my camera might be not that good!) There are way less stars in my pictures. :O

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