Climbing Mt. St. Helens
Over the summer, Brian and I and a few friends set out to climb to the top of Mt. St. Helens. For those of you unfamiliar with the 8,364 foot volcano, Mt. St. Helen’s famously blew her top in 1980 and she’s been rumbling ever since.
The climb to reach the mountain’s crater rim is non-technical, you don’t need fancy gear or years of experience to do it. What you do need is endurance, knees of steel, and a climbing permit. Permits are required year-round and are free November 1st through March 31st. From April 1st through October 31st, permits must be purchased through the Mt. St. Helen’s Institute. From May 15th until October 31st, only 100 permits are available each day. Make sure to buy your permits in advance. Permits go on sale February 1st each year. Permits for weekends and warmer weather months sell out in less than a few hours.
This was our second attempt to climb the mountain. The previous year, we’d purchased permits in October but were unable to climb due to heavy rain (this is the pacific northwet, after all). If you want a safe bet, I recommend climbing July through September when the weather is mild and the threat of rain (and gray skies which prevent seeing the views) is low.
After picking up our permit and signing the Climbers Register at the Lone Fir Resort , we set up camp at the Climbers Bivouac (read: campsite for climbers). The campsite can fill up on popular climbing days (summertime), so arrive by 4pm to ensure a spot. We built a fire, tried to drink only a few beers, and hit the hay early since we’d be rising before the sun.
The next morning, we awoke at 6 a.m. Assuming we’d be too tired to deal with breaking down camp once we were done with the climb, we packed everything up in the morning, and we were glad we did. We were on the trail by 7 a.m., just as the sun began to rise. We caught some amazing views of the sun creeping up behind Mt. Hood.
The round-trip climb to the Mt. St. Helens crater rim is ten miles, and the elevation gain is 4,500 feet. The climb essentially has three parts.
Part 1: The initial hike on a forest trail.
Part 2: A few miles of climbing and scrambling over boulders
Part 3: A final push to the top through scree and ash, an agonizing one-step-forward-two-steps-back experience that seems like it will never end.
But, it does eventually end, and the birds-eye view into the volcano’s crater is worth every step.
Looking into Mt. St. Helen’s crater.
We were back at our car by 2 in the afternoon, seven hours later (we spent about an hour resting and eating on the crater rim). Most people climb the mountain in six to twelve hours.
Tips and gear for an enjoyable climb up Mt. St. Helens
- Bring warm-weather clothing, even if you don’t think you’ll need it. We climbed on a warm day in August and it was cold at the top! Remember, conditions can change quickly on the mountain, so it’s a good idea to have warm clothing anyway.
- Bring trekking poles. We didn’t, but they would have been nice to have. You’ll do a lot of scrambling over boulders and the poles provide extra balance.
- Bring lots of water! If the sun is shining you’ll be baking. Even in cool weather, the sun it will parch you, especially at elevation.
- Gaiters are optional. Gaiters are those ankle covers that keep rocks and dirt from getting into your shoes. I brought mine, though opted not to wear them, and didn’t have a problem. Brian wore his and swore by them.
- If you don’t own trekking poles or gaiters, rent them! I’m an REI member, so that’s where I get my gear, though there are many other outdoor gear rental companies in the area.
- Wear the shoes/boots that keep you blister-free. It seems obvious, but blisters are the fastest way to ruin any fun outdoor activity. I’m not a fan of hiking boots, so I wore my running shoes and they worked just fine.
If you don’t want to climb, observe instead. For those not interested in climbing, I highly recommend a day trip to the Johnston Ridge Observatory. The drive alone is worth it, you’ll zoom past trees still felled by the blast and the landscape becomes so barren and rocky that you’ll feel like you’re driving on the moon. The view at the observatory is breathtaking and the short movie and interactive displays are educational and interesting.