I was still brimming with clam digging excitement as I drove down a meandering forest road towards Mount St. Helens. Following the guidance of Google Maps, I was headed to meet my friend, Mandy, at the Sno-park of Marble Mountain. The plan was to camp one night and to summit Mt. Saint Helens the following morning. But in order to get to the Sno-park, I had three more hours to drive.
Three days before the clam digging shenanigans, I was working in the operating room with a bunch of podiatrists. Mandy, one of the senior residents, casually mentioned that she was going up to St. Helens because the weather was supposed to be perfect on Sunday. And St. Helens required no permits until April 1st, so it’s a free hike! I’ve wanted to summit St. Helens for a long time. Tricia was out of town, and I had no plans for Sunday. Why not? Well, there were some logistic hurdles. First, clam digging on Saturday was on the coast which was three hours away from Seattle. Michelle, who organized the clam digging, planned to gather the group in Tacoma and headed to the beach in one vehicle. Then we would come back to Tacoma to cook the clams. According to that agenda, I wouldn’t be able to get to St. Helens until midnight! Second, I was in the process of moving. All my hiking gear was packed up. I didn’t even know which box had my hiking boots. Should I open up the boxes that I had already packed? Should I drive out to the beach alone? It took about five minutes of internal debate to come to a decision: yes and yes; done and done!
I finally arrived to the Sno-Park parking lot a little after 630pm. There were a dozen of cars and a few tents set up. Mandy was sitting in her car to stay warm. I was excited to see a friendly face and was impressed that she was able to get her little Hyundai sedan up the snowy trail. While she set up a tent, I set up my sleeping bag in the back of my car. We quickly made dinner and bid each other goodnight before it turned pitch black around us. It’s the first time I’ve slept in my CRV, and it was not bad at all. I woke up once in the middle of the night by a bright moon that was almost full and a sky filled with stars. I pulled over the moonroof shade, rolled over, and fell back to sleep.
My alarm went off at 5 am. While I was getting dressed and getting packed, a few cars pulled into the lot. If these guys came down from Seattle, they must’ve left the city before 3 in the morning! That’s dedication. Mandy was already up by the time I got out of my car. I made myself a hot breakfast. By 610 am, I was almost ready except the line outside the bathroom was over ten people long! I waited impatiently for 10 or 15 mins and decided to pee on the trail instead. Mandy and I put our microspikes on our boots and headed for the trailhead. The trailhead sign-in had a line too! This was the last gorgeous weekend to summit St. Helens for free for a long while after all.
By the time we started on the trail, it was already 640 am. Mandy lead the way in a snow covered forest. We quickly passed a bunch of skiers and, in less than an hour, found ourselves above the treeline. The sun was on the brink of rising above the horizon. Mt Adams to our right casted a long shadow next to the rising sun while the pointy head of Mt Hood was coated in an orange hue. Looking up the glowing slopes of St. Helens, hikers in front of us dotted the trail all the way up to the peak. Some people started super early.
By the time the sun fully rose above the horizon, I noticed that we were surrounded by backcountry skiers and snowboarders. The skiers placed skins on the bottom of their skis, trudged strenuously up the snowy mountain. I was both impressed with their physical fitness and thankful that I wasn’t carrying the extra gear. Since this was my first hike of year and I’ve had a fairly sedentary winter, I didn’t want to over exert myself (that’s the excuse I told myself anyways.)
By 1030 am, I stood on the rim of the crater and marveled at the grandeur of nature in front of me. It had been almost exactly 39 years since Mt St. Helens blew its top off in 1980! St. Helens remained a live volcano that spewed smoke mushrooms sporadically in these years. I stood a respectful distance from the edge due to the dangerous snow cornices that formed around the rim. Craning my neck up, I could see a grey pond at the bottom of the crater while Mt Rainier stood majestically to the north.
The true peak of St. Helens was another half mile away from the rim. Turning left from the edge of the rim, I found my favorite view of this hike as the trail took a steep dip. It opened up the ground to allow a sneaky peek at the inside of the crater, the cornices hung on its edge and a clear panoramic view of the region all the way to the coast.
I didn’t linger at the true peak for long because the snow quality seemed unreliable. When I returned to the rim, Mandy had already taken up a spot enjoying her lunch. I sat down next to her and shared my victory oranges. Yes, I carried three of these bad boys up the mountain for this very moment.
Usually I would end the story at this point because descending a mountain is rarely a pleasurable experience for my old knees. However, descending St. Helens was pretty awesome as there were so many glissading opportunities. I went up the mountain with two hiking poles– no ice ax– so I held back my enthusiasm for safety, glissading only when I saw an ending to a slide. Mandy, however, went all out. She cheered and screamed down every slide she could find and slid every chance she could. It was both hilarious and infectious. Here’s the link to a video on youtube.
In the end, it took us about 4 hours to the top of St. Helens and a little over an hour to return to the parking lot. Thank you, Mount Saint Helens, for such a fantastic experience and for making my birthday weekend special. I am sure we will meet again!